Mounted combat, Cassandra decided, was something she would never truly be comfortable with. The plate-mail armour was familiar in its weight but the method and the mechanics were not. Her strengths lent themselves poorly to jousting, and her around the high-spirited and large-toothed beasts upon which the combat was had only added to her unease.
Still, it would not do for the Inquisition’s own warriors to sit on the sidelines in the inaugural Skyhold Grand Tourney, and so she tamped down her discomfort at the ridiculousness of it all.
The Tourney was more than a celebration of Corypheus’ defeat, and far bigger than an opportunity to carouse and wreck merriment upon Skyhold’s stone halls—it was to be a show of the Inquisition’s strength and solidarity, and underneath the fluttering banners, of its relatability to the people it claimed to protect. Theirs was a delicate path to walk now that the immediate threat was, the line between having enough power and influence, and too much of it.
But alcohol—copious amounts of it—and a good clean fight could do much to help where strongly-worded letters and the threat of knives could not.
It would not be quite so bad if she was not so wary of her steed throwing her at an inopportune time. She pushed back her helm’s visor, attempting to soothe Tempest’s irritable mood with an apple. So engrossed in the creature was the Seeker, that she failed to notice the Ambassador’s approach until she turned and nearly startled herself off the saddle and into the dung heap a short fall away.
“Oh, hello.” Cassandra blinked, her own irritation fraying at the edges ever so slightly when she saw who it was. There was a softness to the colours of Josephine’s presence that soothed ragged nerves and calmed stormy tempers. The mark of a good diplomat, she oft told herself but today, Cassandra was simply glad for the balm of her smile. “Today’s matches will be starting soon, Josephine. Should you be back here?”
“Technically?” There was an impish curve to Josephine’s smile, and the particular flash of teeth that meant she was in good spirits. “No. But I could hardly sit in the crowd and wait with all the others when I could show my support for my fellow advisor in person.”
Cassandra’s brow arched. “So you snuck in.”
She raised a finger, quick to correct. “Technically, no. I walked normally.”
The Seeker let out an amused huff, Tempest following suit with a toss of his mane and a snort of his own. It felt a hundred times hotter under the steel plates and padding when Josephine stepped closer to lace her hands through the horse’s mane, fingertips brushing against Cassandra’s gloved hands.
“There, there. Easy does it, boy.” She patted the side of the horse’s neck, uncaring of the tremors and sweat on her hands.
The crowd beyond the gated enclosure and stables cheered rousingly and both jouster and mount stiffened. “I do hope you’re not as nervous as your horse, Seeker Cassandra. One of you has to be in charge and it should be you.” Her smile took on an amused air as she glanced towards the other for a confirmation or denial.
“I am not nervous. I have faced dragons and a darkspawn Magister who sought to remake the world, and overcome it all. Why would I be nervous?”
Cassandra’s staunch rejection of her fear lasted only a moment before she relented to the similarly-arch raise of Josephine’s brows. The Commander and the Seeker had drawn straws, and hers had been the one to come up short. For the Inquisition then, would she make a valiant attempt at something she was not particularly good at, to fake it until her lance shattered or someone more skilled bested her.
“Your nervousness, lady seeker,” Josephine said, hand still petting the horse’s mane reassuringly, “Could be because the world is watching you in a way that you are not accustomed to. You command attention and authority as a Seeker and a warrior but for these few hours, you are a spectacle.”
A spectacle, as the Seeker’s younger self had been, thrust suddenly into the bright light cast by the Divine. Everywhere she’d gone in Val Royeaux, there had been stares and whispers a-plenty alongside the voiced sea of questions about who, what, where and why. Even now, grown from awkward gangly teenaged youth to awkward tall adulthood, she knew not how to navigate those waters.
Time, it seemed, did not make all things easier.
Cassandra nodded regardless, returning from thoughts spiraling past-ward to worrying her lower lip with her teeth. “One would think that I would have gotten used to the attention by now. But I see your point. I am merely concerned. Tempest makes it very clear who is in charge, and most of the time it is not me. I’ve never liked horses, for all the riding over Thedas I’ve had to do.”
Her mount was high-spirited and inclined to rushing headlong into the fray, and she was inclined to simply let him do as he would. Only the Maker would know how far that strategy would get them today.
But they would manage, somehow. If anything, she was particularly proficient at enduring discomforts, physical or otherwise.
Josephine lifted an eyebrow, amused. “‘Tempest’? Is that really its name?”
She turned her attention back to the horse. It had quieted somewhat, but the agitation was still palpable, though the strokes of her hand were helping to chase it away. ”A fitting one. I don’t think I’ve seen a horse so spirited.”
“Someone, somewhere, thought they were being clever.” Varric, probably. But he didn’t seem to particularly enjoy riding horses either, so perhaps Sera. Or if those failed to strike true, the stable hands had it out for her though she’d always been careful to treat them politely. “He likes you better, though it can be hard to tell.”
Cassandra’s tone took on a teasing edge, counterpart to the Antivan’s amused smile though her own smile was wan, the depth of her uncertainties bleeding into the expression. How hard could it be to gallop very quickly at someone doing the same, and break the tip of a lance in a spectacular manner? A nigh-insurmountable task, it seemed to the Seeker, though she would not say so in front of someone who believed her capable of it.
“Are you certain you wouldn’t like to show your support by getting in the saddle, Josephine?”
Josephine laughed and shook her head. “Only if I wish to embarrass myself by getting thrown off my own horse in front of everyone. Besides, I already have you to fight on my behalf, do I not?”
The Seeker’s heart ratcheted up several beats at the diplomat’s question, and she cleared her throat, willing the heat in her cheeks to recede.
“—Oh. Me? Am I to be your champion for the joust, Lady Montilyet? I would not decline the honour if that is truly your intention, but I fear I will be unable to…ah, do you much justice. I know Blackwall would leap at the chance, and he stands a better chance at advancing than I, and—careful. You would do well to mind your hands. Tempest has a fire in him to equal his name, and takes great pleasure in snapping things between his teeth.”
As if on cue, the horse turned its head towards Josephine with a harrumph as if it wanted to snap at her, and she abruptly withdrew her hand. She stared, eyes round with the brief injection of fear as she watched the ill-named and ill-tempered horse its mane a brief shake and whinny softly before lowering its head again.
“I see your point.”
“Behave, Tempest,” chided the Seeker under her breath, gauntleted hand tapping disapproval into the drumbeat of her fingers against the pommel of the saddle. “ Act more like a charger of noble pedigree, and less like an ill-tempered plow horse of uncertain breeding. If you were not a horse and incapable of apologizing, I would have you make amends.”
She had to admire the diplomat’s courage. Had the horse snapped at her so, she would not have ventured near anything with teeth so large and eager to bite for a good long while, but yet here was a reminder that bravery was not merely standing down a winged assault with blade and shield in hand. It sprang forth from all sources great and small, in pen-calloused hands wary but replaced in the thick fall of the charger’s mane.
With trepidatation, Cassandra watched as the soft-spoken Antivan worked her fingers—free of ink splotches, now that the brunt of the paperwork required for an event of this scale—through the horse’s mane. With each stroke of her hand along steel-grey withers and each word of her tale, rider and horse relaxed, nerves unwinding and unspooling from the tight ball of tension that had been there minutes before Josephine’s timely arrival.
If only those fingers could work their soothing presence on the rider, the spots of crimson in Cassandra’s cheeks giving away her agitation.
“You could both ride in my name,” Josephine said, resuming their severed branch of conversation.
There was mischief in the diplomat’s smile, a lingering playfulness that was oft-buried by paperwork and duty. Humour coloured Cassandra’s next words, even as her knuckles paled under steel gauntlets from the grip of reins in her fist.
“Would you have us engage in pitched battle with lances for your honour, Lady Josephine? It would be a poor showing, and I can think of several venues both Blackwall and myself would be better suited to. A pas d'armes or the melee, perhaps.”
“It is not uncommon for two knights to joust for the same lady. And I…”
Josephine lowered her head, an unexpected shyness that left her not quite daring enough to meet the Seeker’s eyes—now it was her turn to be bashful as she reached into her pocket. “It’s not much, Lady Pentaghast, but it is all that I can part with for the moment.”
She reached up to stand on her toes—Tempest was a big horse—and tucked a small yellow square of a handkerchief into Cassandra’s breastplate, heart hammering in her chest even as her bated breath worked to still its frenetic beat.
It must have taken the diplomat a great deal of courage for her to complete something so decidedly romantic, but the uncharacteristically-shy smile on her face seemed to say it had been a glad, rather than bad thing.
Cassandra leaned down at the lift of Josephine’s heels, her own breath hitching momentarily in her throat at the seconds of closeness. If the Seeker cut an intimidating picture before, all dark steel and fiery-tempered steed, the splash of yellow silk tucked into her breastplate and the deepening red of her cheeks was certainly working to counter it. At least the latter would be hidden beneath the visor of a helm.
“This…is more than I could have ever asked from you, Lady Josephine.” Words faltered, fluttering by the wayside as she sought to pin them down.
Shaking her head as if to clear the butterflies that seemed to take residence in the pit of her stomach, Cassandra began anew, “I will treasure your favour, and pray that it brings me good luck and victory.”
“Promise me one thing, Cassandra—”
Josephine’s voice was oddly quiet, “—that you will not risk your life by doing anything rash. Anything can happen in such a sport and show of brute strength and—” here her voice creaked with a tremor, the memories of grisly sights unshared weighing down her normally-buoyant tone. “—just be careful.”
“I cannot say for certain what the Maker has set out for us, but I swear I shall return to you unharmed. I will be careful.” For you, Cassandra almost said, but no less gravely for she meant every word.
The Ambassador nodded. “Good. I will hold you to your word, my lady champion. Don’t think I won’t.” A playful threat, but she fully meant it.
A flicker of a smile crossed Cassandra’s lips, dry humility countering the momentary lapse in her defences. Not a promise, but close enough to one. “If not in pride, then in body. I did say that I was not particularly skilled at jousting.”
Soft, but unabashed laughter bubbled from the Ambassador’s lips. It would be flattering—the thought of two skilled warriors, both incredibly worthy of the title ‘champion’, fighting for the future head of House Montilyet’s honor. There was just enough romance in the idea to make anyone’s heart skip a beat.
“I have every faith in you.”
The horns outside the tent sounded, followed quickly by a rousing tune that was meant to stir the audience’s excitement and usher in the participants of the joust. Cassandra felt the skip-beat of her pulse in his chest, and the sudden rise of a tightness in her throat kept her from tripping over the words that wanted to burst from her lips.
It was only a tourney. This was merely Skyhold. They were among friends and people who counted themselves their allies. Perhaps Josephine was overplaying the chivalrous charade, the dance of gestures and words, and she the role of the brave knight but they would both drink deeply from its cup while it lasted.
There was no telling if the feeling or the romance of the moment would last beyond this day. When the pennants were tucked away and the casks of ale rolled away, only the Maker would know what the future had in store for them, for the Inquisition, and for Thedas. But hope springs anew and eternal, the radiance of the warmest of places growing to spread from the yellow silk tucked into her armour.
Josephine placed her hand one last time on Tempest’s mane, as if in a sign of encouragement to both horse and rider before giving Cassandra one last, almost adoring smile.
“May Andraste smile over you today, my lady.”