His head was throbbing—a sick, staccato pulse that he couldn’t quite shake no matter how hard he tried to focus past the pain. It was all Cullen could do not to reach up and rub the bridge of his nose. It had been a pitched battle to concentrate for the last half-hour—
(more, if he were willing to be honest with himself)
—and the pain was beginning to take on a life of its own. Standing in full gear with the glare of guttering candles tricking the eye wasn’t doing him any favors, either; what he needed was just a few minutes alone, in the quiet dark of his room. Maker’s breath, was there to be no end to today?
Steady, he thought, and drew in a breath. Cullen forced himself to straighten, keeping his hands carefully still. The Inquisitor was quick to worry if he gave so much as a hint that he was facing discomfort, and Leliana had eyes like a bloody hawk. There was no keeping anything from her.
“And with that accomplished,” the spymaster said as she scanned the war map. She ticked her gaze up to him, one red brow lifting in a knowing quirk. “I believe we’re finally finished for the evening. Thank the Maker. There’s a copper tub and scented salts calling my name.”
No, of course she knew. A holy sister could sneeze in Denerim and Leliana would sense the breeze. Cullen gave a faint shake of his head, trying to deny her concern, but she just arched her brow higher before deliberately turning the full weight of her attention away.
The subtext was clear: I will let you get away with it. For now.
Well, he supposed that was all he could hope for.
The Inquisitor moved away from the war table with an exhausted sway to her step. Her hair had started to come down from its messy bun, a few wheat-colored curls springing free. She brushed at one absently as she turned a warm smile on the three of them, kind even in the face of what had to be crippling exhaustion. “A fire and one of Varric’s manuscripts for me,” she said. “And Andraste willing, six full hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
“Six? How decadent!”
The Inquisitor glanced over at him and Cullen quickly feigned interest in the already-tidy line of metal pieces ringing his corner of the table. I am fine, he told himself—tried to project it like an aura, a shroud settling over the squared breadth of his shoulders. I am fine, I am fine, I am fine. There’s no need to worry about me. Go.
The last thing he needed was to face the Inquisitor’s concern—she wasn’t so willing to be put off by stoicism. Like their very own spirit of compassion, the Inquisitor had a habit of digging in her heels at the first sign of distress and refusing to budge until every hurt had been healed.
Between the Herald of Andraste and Cole, Cullen thought with a wry wince, listening to the soft rasp of her slippers across the cold flagstones, is it any wonder Skyhold is filled to the brim with the lost, the needy, and the broken?
The fact that he often counted himself amongst those numbers did not escape him.
Leliana pushed open the big war room doors. They were almost past the threshold—and he almost ready to make his own escape—when Josephine politely cleared her throat.
Damn. Cullen shot her an incredulous look. Three hours of haggling over the table, and she still had business for them? Damn and blast.
“Actually,” Josephine said, the apologetic note clear in her voice. She shifted her ever-present tablet and began riffling through a stack of papers.
Leliana pushed the door shut with a tart little sigh. For her part, the Inquisitor seemed content enough to return, her lips twisted into a faint smile—even though, out of all of them, she was the one with the clearest reason to be disgruntled. She, Solas, Cassandra and Cole had been trekking through the Emerald Graves for over a week. She’d barely had time to step through the gates before Leliana was calling the four of them to meet.
She hadn’t even had time to change. There was a rip in her robe and a vivid green stain along one sleeve. Where none of them ever to be given a moment of peace?
But the Inquisitor didn’t seem to share his growing agitation. “How can we help?” she asked, low contralto steady and sweet. All this after three hours of tedious bickering on the heels of a week’s march: there were days when Cullen couldn’t help but think Elayne Trevelyan really was a bloody saint. He would have been snarling and pacing by now.
He almost was; he had to force himself not to curl back his lip in annoyance. Maker, his head was killing him.
Josephine, as usual, was all too willing to politely ignore his foul mood. “If only I can locate—Ah!” She tugged free three folded and sealed letters, handing them over. “Here we are.”
Cullen barely glanced at his name written in a flourish of calligraphy before turning it over and breaking the seal. His stomach was already sinking, even before he’d spread out the fine parchment and scanned the careful words. They seemed to swim before him, darting like minnows in a stream, but oh, their meaning was quite clear. He looked up with an affronted noise, staring Josephine down, because Maker forbid they keep all this nonsense cordoned off in Halamshiral where it belonged.
Leliana groaned. “Josie you didn’t.”
“It would be a great benefit to the Inquisition if the nobles were to see us as their cultural equals,” Josephine countered immediately; she had been waiting for their protests. “There are still some who consider us as little more than barbarian upstarts.”
“But a ball? Here? Is it really wise to open our doors to so many at once?”
Our home, he could have added. Is it wise to open the doors to our home; to invite the Game into our very halls?
“A what?” The Inquisitor looked up from her own (unopened) letter, eyes going round.
“No,” Cullen said.
Josephine cut in quickly. “An Orlesian masked ball,” she said. “I’ve been working with Vivienne on the details. You needn’t worry: I have everything under control, and security won’t be—”
“No,” Cullen said. He would say it all day if he had to. Happily.
“—won’t be an issue.” Josephine shot him a pointed look. Cullen simply stared back, letting a little of his foul temper push through. The idea of opening the doors of their home to, to, to the lying tongues and grasping hands of the Orlesian court was enough to turn the throb of his headache into a piercing stab just behind his eyes. There were few places in this world where he felt perfectly at ease; the last thing he wanted was to lose this last haven. But Josephine sailed on blithely. “I’ve already combed through the guest list for any potential…malcontents. There will be no troubles letting such a number come to Skyhold.”
She hesitated and looked between Leliana and Cullen. She cleared her throat. “…most likely.”
Cullen opened his mouth to protest, but the Inquisitor beat him to it. “But I barely muddled through The Winter Palace,” she murmured, sounding all at once so fragile, so young, that he bristled again, this time in an instinctive urge to protect her.
No matter that she was the Herald of Andraste and had already proven time and time again that she was more than strong enough to take down any threat with or without his help.
Still. The instinct was rooted deep and hard to deny. “I barely survived The Winter Palace,” he muttered, if only to see her smile. Then, briskly: “I say we call a halt to this nonsense and settle our alliances the good old-fashioned way.” Preferably heavily armored and without a single bloody mask in sight.
Leliana tapped a finger to her lips as if she were seriously considering his suggestion. “Well, if you insist, there were several interesting offers for your hand in the wake of Halamshiral. You as well, Inquisitor.”
“This is true,” Josephine added, always quick to press the advantage. “If you do insist on doing things the old-fashioned way.”
He was very tempted to play the brute and tell the both of them exactly what they could do with all those interesting offers…but then the Inquisitor slapped her hands against the war table and leaned forward, effectively ending the brewing argument.
“How about we compromise?” she suggested. “Our doors will gladly open to whomever Josephine thinks we should invite, after both Leliana and Cullen have had a chance to vet the list. None of us will be required to attend,” the Inquisitor added with a quick glance his way; he shut his mouth and swallowed back the rising protest. “And all guests will be politely urged to shove off after no more than two days.”
Josephine made a strained face.
“…three. Four only if they’re willing to line our pockets with enough gold to make it worth the headache.”
This time he gave in to the impulse to pinch the bridge of his nose, rubbing at the incessant ache that seemed intent on painting the world in shades of red. He could try to press the matter, he knew. He could claim it would be too great a strain on their resources, that the security risk would be too high, that something was certain to go wrong. That it didn’t matter if all of Orlais thought them backwards yokels so long as they remained true to course and defeated Corypheus.
He could say that the court didn’t belong here. That inviting them in was akin to pressing a viper to their breasts and trusting it wouldn’t strike. That there were people here who had spent too many years being rattled about, feeling uncomfortable in their own skin; people who needed to trust that this one place would always be safe for them.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. It didn’t take a tactician to know when the battle was lost, and there were some hard truths best kept hidden even now. “And we are not required to attend?” he asked instead, dropping his hand and forcing a smile into the words. Josephine and Leliana were doing their best. Maker knew the Inquisitor was. There was nothing to be gained by lashing out like an injured mabari.
Leliana waved a hand airily. “You are free to be as much a hermit as you wish,” she said. “I agree to those terms, Inquisitor.”
“As do I. It will be splendid; you will see.” Josephine beamed, already waving her quill in understated triumph. “We will be the toast of Orlais.”
The Inquisitor gave a short nod. “Good,” she said. “Ser Cullen—are you content?”
There were so many things he could—and would never—say to that. “No,” he said instead with a hint of a smile, letting her know he was teasing. “But I know when to surrender. I’ll be in the tower for the next week if anyone needs me.”
The Inquisitor smiled back, so broad and unexpectedly, dazzlingly bright he could actually feel his thoughts skid off-course; it took him a moment to process what she was saying. “All right. I’ll be sure to send Sera with any messages.”
“Yes, fine,” Cullen said by rote—then suddenly snapped his head up, eyes going wide. “Wait!” he sputtered. Dear Maker, he was still trying to put to rights all the maddening little “adjustments” she’d made the last time she’d wormed her way inside his office.
Sudden dimples flashed at the Inquisitor’s rounded cheeks, Josephine and Leliana joining in for a good laugh at his expense. Cullen looked between the three women with the feeling of a hunted fennec, then threw up his hands in surrender, beginning to laugh with them. For just a moment then—sweet and blissful, if all too fleeting—the pain faded to a dull throb as the Inquisitor grinned so very sweetly up at him…
…and finally called the blasted meeting to an end.
“Run along and hide now,” Leliana teased as she moved to throw open the heavy doors. “Perhaps if you are very lucky, you will manage to avoid the fuss altogether.” She dropped a hand to Josephine’s golden sleeve and tilted her head in question; the two women moved toward Josephine’s office together, instantly falling in step as they spoke in a low murmur.
“From your lips to the Maker’s ears,” Cullen muttered, sotto.
The Inquisitor muffled a laugh behind her hand. She stood in the doorway, framed by twin wings of ornate wood; the stoop of her shoulder spoke of that wavering thread of exhaustion he understood only too well. In the gathering twilight, he could clearly see the soft violet shadows collecting beneath her eyes, the way she swayed just a little as she stood waiting for him. Human. Fragile. So incongruously small.
He really shouldn’t be thinking of her that way.
“Inquisitor,” Cullen said, moving carefully around the table. He could feel a renewed tremor beginning to spread through his limbs like a dammed-up river, but the brief brush of her fingertips against his forearm—the earnest look in her eyes as she tipped her face up to his—was enough to steady him, to hold it back for now. It was uncanny, the way her undivided attention could make the troubles of the day sluice away.
“Please, Cullen, we’re off-duty now,” she reminded him. “Well,” she added with a wry, slow-blooming smile, “as much as either of us will ever be.”
“Yes,” he said. “Of course.” Then, because she seemed to be waiting for something: “Elayne.”
Her smile grew and he found himself beginning to smile back, awkward and a little uncertain, but no less real for all that. Cullen tipped his head and she fell into step beside him. Neither felt the need to speak—a mercy, since he never knew what to say to her when they weren’t the Inquisitor and her Commander—but instead walked in surprisingly comfortable silence toward the Great Hall.
He snuck a quick glance as he stepped aside to hold the door open for her. It was strange, he mused, how she could go from Herald of Andraste to Elayne so suddenly, bridging the gap between the human and the divine in a way that should not have been possible. Before he met her, he would have said it could not be possible.
But he had seen her in battle, and he had seen her standing alight with exalted fury, and he had cradled her frozen and broken body against his chest and prayed (and prayed, and prayed) she had strength enough to open her eyes one last time. He had listened to her passionate speeches and advised her decisions and confessed his failings and watched as she crouched in the mud to play with untrained mabari pups—turning her face with a bright laugh as they bounded around her, licking at her cheeks, her chin, the petal-pink slash of her mouth.
He’d seen her face down darkspawn magisters and he’d seen her swathed in magic so powerful that by all rights he should have been struck dumb with memories of terrible fear. He’d seen so much.
And he saw this, now: her tired smile as she slipped past him. Her comfortable robe torn, its hem discolored by mud, her feet shockingly bare…toes curling against the cold stone floor. The sway of her hips when she turned to face him again. Another long curl was coming loose from its messy bun. It uncoiled delicately as Cullen watched, spilling across Elayne’s shoulder to brush the generous swell of her breast.
He snapped his gaze up immediately and did not meet her eyes even when she bid him goodnight.
“We should both try to get some rest,” Elayne said, brushing back that long coil of hair with a crooked smile, as if she had not caught him watching her. “Before the Orlesian invasion begins.”
“Yes,” Cullen said. He hesitated, then gave her a brusque nod before turning away; he strode briskly across the wide stone floor, feeling like a thousand kinds of fool. Where had he let his addled mind wander? There was a world of difference between the Inquisitor encouraging him to think of her as Elayne and her wanting him to see her as…well, as a woman. It wasn’t right for him to think of her like that, even by accident, for a moment. Even for…
He hurried his pace.
“Something troubling you, Curly?” Varric called as he passed, but Cullen didn’t slow, not even at the rasp of the damn dwarf’s laugh. Solas didn’t look up from his books as Cullen slipped through his solar, but high above their heads, Leliana’s ravens added their own raucous calls—as if they could see as easily into his thoughts as the spymaster, and spread him open like a book to read within him the sparks of awareness, of frustrated longing, he refused to fully admit. Even to himself.
And that, ultimately, was enough to finally fully recall the stifled pain. He stormed out onto the ramparts with gritted teeth, pulse throbbing at his temples. He still had that damned invitation tucked into the waist of his belt, and the thought of that—the thought of all those people set to descend upon Skyhold like a swarm of locusts; the thought of Elayne transforming effortlessly back into the shining Herald, the Inquisitor, the symbol of hope for all of Thedas in a place that should have been safe for her to be nothing more than herself—made his stomach churn.
He couldn’t say why; he wouldn’t let himself examine it close enough to know for sure. He just knew he found the idea intolerable, and he hated how helpless he was to stop it.
“Out!” Cullen snapped as he stormed into his office. His lieutenants straightened immediately and saluted before scurrying for the open door. It clicked shut quietly behind them, but he heard it louder than a canon’s fire, reverberating in his skull the way sound sometimes did on the worst of days. The ring of candles in their valences burned all at once far too bright, dark spots eating his vision for one horrible moment.
It was all coming rushing back—everything he’d held at bay for hours now. Tonight was not going to be easy.
Cullen hissed in a breath and pinched the bridge of his nose hard, moving in a controlled stumble to the safe island of his desk. He reached out to brace a hand against its edge, and it wobbled ever-so-slightly. Just enough to make him grit his teeth.
“Enough,” he murmured, head bowed, eyes closed, breathing through the worst of it. It would fade to something manageable again soon. It all would. He just needed patience. “Enough. Enough.”