Essa woke from the most recent in a long line of leisurely naps. She was developing a certain fondness for her quarters. They were large enough and spacious enough that—now that Cari had taken that monstrous canopied bad to her own suite and Josie had replaced it with something lacking a blighted roof—if Essa left the balcony doors open, she could pretend she was outdoors. The sheets were nice too. Linen at least as fine as the dresses upon which she and Josie and Cari had managed to compromise. And by compromise, she meant, gotten her way completely while letting them think she was utterly suffering on their behalf.
There were too many pillows, of course, but Fin had removed the stuffing from one over-embroidered thing and replaced it with sweet hay and dried alfalfa. Essa had slept clutching it until a small horse-shaped doll mysteriously appeared on her bed, knitted from brown cotton and filled with the same stuffing. She was not remotely ashamed to admit that she slept with it tucked against her cheek and, true or not, she looked at the toy as the first in a long line of steps back to the stable.
But she wasn’t ready yet. She couldn’t think about her friends without seeing Smoke’s body at her feet. Without feeling as if she had failed all of them. She knew, in what Cassandra referred to as the scant measure of her mind reserved for reasonable judgment, that Smoke’s death was not her fault, but she couldn’t feel that truth. It lay tangled up in her own loss and helplessness, and her selfish relief that it had been Smoke and not Geri to accompany her to the shrine. The Courser’s speed had cost her life, and Essa had made certain those responsible paid.
But she blamed herself.
“Good morning.” Cari’s greeting dragged bleary eyes open. Essa blinked up through the late morning sun to find her sister standing by her bed. “You fell asleep reading? Or did you manage to finish your book?”
“I finished it,” Essa croaked, voice rough with sleep. “Barely.”
She sat up amid the sheets, fighting a yawn as shed dug around beneath the pillows.
“I think I must have read it wrong,” she said frowning as she handed Cari the leather-bound book. “Because I did not see anything remotely attractive about that king.”
Cari laughed. “I can’t imagine why not,” she said drily. Before Essa could launch into what she felt was a very thoughtful character analysis, Cari held one hand up to stop her. “Save it for the meeting.”
“Fine…” Essa groused, climbing out of bed and weaving an almost steady path to the washroom.
“You know,” she called out as she began her morning toilette. “I don’t require constant company or entertainment. I’m almost back to normal. I haven’t fallen asleep mid-meal for a whole day now.”
Essa understood that she had frightened all of them, but she was fine. She had told them she was fine. Cole had told them she was fine. Solas had confirmed that she was not trapped in the Fade at the mercy of her demons…and that she. Was. Fine.
“You are,” Cari agreed. “And certainly not an invalid. Seeker Cassandra is fond of reminding us.”
“Precisely,” Essa nearly shouted.
“Have you noticed the effect that your resting has had on everyone else though?”
Essa paused, toothbrush in mouth, comb stuck in the nest of her hair.
“No?” she mumbled loudly enough to heard in the next room.
“They need the rest too,” Cari appeared in the doorway and met Essa’s gaze in the mirror above her wash bowl. “There isn’t a person here who would take that rest for their own. The stakes are too high. But your exhaustion?”
Essa lifted a brow in askance.
“Your exhaustion,” Cari continued. “won’t last. You’ve only been resting a handful of days, and soon you’ll be back to your usual madness. This brief convalescence won’t matter much in the long run, but…it may be exactly what everyone here needs before…”
She turned away and Essa didn’t call her back. She knew that Cari was struggling with Essa’s brushes with death.
“Before we go fight the good fight and figure out how to kill Coryphytits,” she said brightly, clomping back out in one of her favorite dresses. The undyed linen shift made her sister and Josie weep. Or so Cari had told her. Repeatedly.
“Not the burlap sack, Ester Donya.”
Essa smirked. If Cari was busting out her full name, she was serious. Not that it mattered.
“It isn’t a burlap sack, Carilyna Rose,” Essa replied in a reasonable mimic. “It’s much softer than that. Look, I’m wearing the silk leggings, so there’s color.”
“But no style,” Cari complained. “And those boots…”
Essa pointed one finger at her sister. “Mock everything else if you like, but not the boots. They’re perfect and wonderful—“
“And were a gift from Commander Cullen,” Cari finished for her with a dramatic sigh. “Yes, yes, I know. Everyone knows.”
Essa snorted. “They’re good boots,” she insisted, lifting her nose.
“They are good boots,” Cari muttered.
She had slept through breakfast, but brunch was becoming an entirely too civilized affair in Essa’s opinion. Dorian had organized a late morning book club with an offhand joke one evening when he delivered a stack of reading materials to Essa’s quarters to “keep her mind from rotting in idleness.” The next day Essa had been shocked to find him, Cassandra, and Vivienne waiting to discuss the latest of Varric’s novels. Three mornings had passed in that same fashion, and their circle had grown along with the artfully arrayed seating and the trays of elaborate sweets that Ola sent with their tea. Essa sat on the floor, stuffed horse in her lap, trying not to grin at what had to be the best caricature of a ladies book club that Thedas had ever seen.
“Everyone has had a chance to finish the book?” Cassandra asked, taking point on the discussion as everyone settled in their seats. She was perched on a small stool, book clasped almost reverently in her hands.
There were various answers to the affirmative. Essa watched as the Iron Bull loaded a tiny porcelain plate with tinier brightly iced tea cakes. He leaned back in the not-quite-large-enough chair beside her with a satisfied sigh. Essa bumped his foot when his gaze lingered too long on Dorian.
“I finished it sometime last night,” Essa told them when Cassandra glanced her way. She had been the last to read the work. An old fantasy novel that most had read in late adolescence, when Essa had been chin-deep in Andrastian theology.
“And what did you think, my dear?” Vivienne asked. The grand enchanter sat on one end of the long sofa Josie had only recently replaced in the room. Her legs were crossed at the ankles and she sipped from a delicate floral teacup. It was,perhaps, the closest to relaxed Essa had ever seen her.
“Honestly?” Essa fidgeted with the stuffed horse that she held in her lap. “I didn’t really like it.”
“Oh, why not?” Josie’s placed her cup down in dismay, shifting in her seat beside Vivienne.
“I found it…unreasonable.” Essa attempted to be charitable, knew the moment that her face betrayed her inadequate choice of words.
“Oh, this I have to hear.” Varric looked up from his spot at Essa’s desk, a knowing smirk on his face, quill poised above parchment. He didn’t join in on their discussions often, claiming he just wanted to write and occasionally observe, but from the glint in his eye this morning, Essa was pretty sure they had his full attention.
“It was stupid,” she declared baldly. “The main character was a brat, that king was a jerk, and can we just say manipulation?! I would have—“
“Punched him in the throat,” Cari finished for her, making them all laugh.
Essa grinned. “Exactly.”
“Oh, but don’t you think it’s even a little romantic?” Josie asked.
“A creepy old mage stalking some half-wit damsel and kidnapping her baby brother?” Essa’s mouth gaped. Had they read the same book?
Cassandra’s lips twitched and Essa badly wanted to know what she thought.
“He manipulated time for her,” Dorian offered. “And even you have to admit that the man knew how to make an entrance.”
She had to admit no such thing. Essa felt her ire rising. She swiped a cake from Bull’s plate, popped it in her mouth and reached for the copy of the book that Dorian had loaned her.
“Let me find it,” she mumbled around her mouthful, thumbing through the book. Bull anticipated her next move, obligingly passed her his cup of tea to wash the sweet down. “Thank you.”
“Ah, here it is.” Essa sat up straight so that they could hear her properly as she read. “‘I ask for so little.’ The king entreated. ‘Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave’.”
She closed the book with a snap.“First, uh, bullshit.” She declared. “No thanks, creepy king. You’re asking for total obedience from someone who doesn’t even know her own mind and—”
She did not get to her second point before everyone was jostling to speak. Essa slouched against the side of Bull’s chair, fingers toying with the mane of her stuffed horse.
“’Slave is probably not the best term,” Dorian admitted. He knew that it was not a word she liked. “But I do believe the intent is one of mutual submission.”
“A leash pulls both ways my dear,” Vivienne reminded her, tone as cultured as ring velvet. Her lips curved into the briefest of smiles.
Essa’s eyes narrowed. “I know that,” she tried again, only to be interrupted by the Iron Bull.
“Boss, the submissive is the one with the power. It’s granted, which means it can be taken away at any time.”
“Yes, I know,” Essa huffed. She was getting impatient to make her point. Josie coughed just once, and later Essa would remember the warning, but not then. No, she didn’t catch it then.
“Look,” she barreled into her lecture before anyone else could stop her. “Cullen and I have had this conversation a dozen times. Believe me, I understand that the one on their knees is the one with the power. But–”
Silence. Utter. Dooming. Silence.
By the time Essa’s brain caught up with her tongue, she knew her entire body was crimson.
“I am talking about prayer!” she hissed desperately, glaring at the floor. “Brother Macgrori wrote extensively during the Black Age about the arrogance of religious petitioners and how kneeling in supplication was just a public spectacle of submission—“
No one was listening, they were too busy laughing. All except for Cari and Vivienne at least, who were too refined to join in the unapologetic guffaws filling the morning like sunlight. Even Josie was giggling into the ruffles at her wrist, cheeks dusky rose and dark eyes shining. Essa dropped her head, buried her face in soft knit and wondered if she could will herself through the floor. I’m so sorry, Cullen, she thought furiously. She could handle the teasing, well…if it didn’t currently kill her, but she could not imagine that he would appreciate the same.
“Oh, boss, don’t cry,” Bull teased, one broad hand patting her back. “We all know you two aren’t near that stage. You’re both too damn prickly.”
His feigned attempt at reassurance didn’t make things better. Of course, he knew that. Essa lifted her head to glare at him, but it was hard to blame anyone else for her self-inflicted humiliation. And Maker, she realized, looking around the small circle, it was good to see so many months of worry lift from the faces of her friends, even for a moment.
“Enough,” Cassandra was the first to take pity on Essa’s still-flaming cheeks. A few stern looks at Dorian and Varric soon quieted the group. “You said first, I assume that means you have at least one more issue with the book?”
“The dialogue,” Essa groaned. “Just the whole way he spoke! Like all conversation had to be some carefully composed melodrama. No one talks that way, Jareth!”
She yelled this last at the book and this time everyone laughed with her rather than at her.
“Who writes this stuff?” she called over to Varric, knowing that she would soon be in for at least an hour of the book’s defense.
Varric shrugged. “A good writer draws truth from what he sees,” he offered helpfully. “Take for instance one of my more recent favorite quotes ‘what is the point in having a heart full of love if you’re too afraid to give it away?’”
Cassandra sighed, the sentiment having obviously wormed past her armor for a direct strike to her heart.
Essa made a face. “Tell me you didn’t write that overly romantic swill.”
“I did,” Varric paused to jot something down before him. “But you said it.”
“I did not!” Essa glared at the ceiling.
“You did, Blackwall ratted you out. He seemed rather taken with your wisdom.”
Essa snorted. “Who writes this stuff?” she muttered again.