“You wish for me to what?” asked Cassandra, looking almost personally taken aback. Cullen involuntarily ducked his head a little because he was the only one who knew why Meryell was springing this on the other woman. He did, however, stop himself from rubbing the back of his neck.
Not that it helped apparently. Leliana, who was standing at the end of the table while he and Josephine took up more of the center, was watching him with a slightly arched eyebrow. The sort of eyebrow that said I know what’s going on here. For a moment he thought she was going to speak up since she and Cassandra were fairly close, but instead she winked at him and looked back down at her work.
He was suddenly certain he’d gone crazy from the renewed lyrium in his body. Merely on the fact that he had never seen the spymaster wink before.
Cullen’s attention was abruptly dragged back to the other side of the table as Meryell said in a somewhat soothing tone, “I want you to stay here in Skyhold, Cass. Just for a little while.”
Cassandra looked confused and asked, “Have I…” She then paused, straightening up before she finished, “Have I done something to offend, Inquisitor?”
“What? Offend? No! Maker’s bleeding crotch, Cass, that’s not what this is about at all.”
“Then what is it?” demanded the warrior.
“I admit,” piped up Josephine, “that I am also intrigued by what is going on.”
Meryell flashed him a helpless look, obviously not wanting to talk about it because he wasn’t comfortable with the subject. He knew Cassandra though and she would keep bull-headedly rushing on until she found out what was going on. It was what made her such a good Seeker of Truth.
Smiling slightly, he closed his still shaking hands around the hilt of his sword, which he refused to part with even if he left his armor off at Gil’s insistence of not stressing his body. “They know a general idea of what happened,” he said softly as he caught her eyes.
She exhaled as he saw a triumphant, knowing smile flashed briefly across Leliana’s mouth, her hunch proved right. Then Meryell turned to Cassandra while gesturing towards him as she explained, “I want you to stay for Cullen. You’re…fuck, you know you’re one of the people he trusts, that he can…talk to. I can’t be here so…”
For a moment she trailed off, looking at a loss for words, then their eyes caught again. She smiled at him as she finished, “I’m asking you to be here for him instead.”
There was silence for a long moment until Josephine whispered a broken little Oh and Cullen turned his head to see the ambassador wiping tears from her eyes. She smiled when she caught him and he flushed before turning his attention back to Cassandra, more curious as to her response to everything. The woman was silent for a long moment, just looking at Meryell, then she cut her eyes over to his.
They had known each other for long enough that he had a fairly decent read on her expressions. The one she was currently wearing was a mix of Is this true? and Do you really want me to hand her safety off to another?
When he nodded, she narrowed her eyes and tilted her head slightly forward in obvious consideration of his answer. Then she turned back to Meryell and said, “I will do so. Though perhaps next time it would be wiser to have this discussion before the meeting rather than during.”
“Didn’t think you’d be so fucking pushy to go back out into the muck with me,” grumbled Meryell good naturedly.
“I do not mind doing so but…I admit a break may be nice. Until you return from Val Royeaux, at least.”
He noticed Meryell flinch at that and began, “Actually, I believe the plan is now to deal with matters in the Storm Coast after she leaves from meeting with Enchanter Vivienne.” When Cassandra looked slightly appalled, he lightly joked, “I believe you have a few books to catch up on, don’t you?”
As soon as the warrior blushed, Meryell grinned brightly at him before she leaned forward onto the war table. That motion drew everyone’s attention to it and back to the business at hand.
“So,” she drawled, “since we’re back at Skyhold, Jader’s probably the easier route to get back to Val Royeaux. Sorry about moving those soldiers to Highever.”
Cullen just shook his head as he replied, “We didn’t have a presence there anyway and we should have. I’ll just pull my men back to join back up with those in the Storm Coast and Leliana can send in some more…subtle resources.”
He didn’t state the silent thought that the only reason she hadn’t used the resources he’d pushed into Highever was because of him. She had enough on her shoulders without him piling unnecessary guilt on top of everything and he was willing to admit that he’d needed her with him.
The spymaster laughed, bright and bell-like, and said, “I will gladly step in, Commander. And that is a fair point that we should have some sort of presence in the cities, particularly given the rising word of these Venatori of Corypheus’.”
Meryell stiffened across the table and asked, “The cultists?”
“One and the same.”
“Right. What’d I say about them not just disappearing all nice and fucking quiet like.” She grumbled the full sentence to herself in an undertone and he frowned before she let out a huff of breath. “So…Jader. Josie, you think we could arrange for the same ship to take us?”
Next to him the ambassador straightened up and picked up a quill from the war table, dipping it briefly into a pot of ink before she wrote a note upon the papers stacked on her board. “I will not know for certain until I reach out, Inquis- Meryell. We shall see.” Josephine then frowned and asked, “Would your Captain allow me to borrow his second again? She actually knew quite a few reputable ship captains and we may be able to find something swifter working through both of us.”
Meryell shrugged and Cullen chose to reply instead, “I believe he is going to aid Rylen today in the training yard, Josephine. You can either catch him then or I can inquire for you.” He noticed Cassandra twitch in obvious surprise at his comment and smiled tensely in response, already guessing what she was thinking. “I’m not having anything to do with the training myself right now. Merely observing to keep an extra eye on things.”
“Because you get bored,” chided Meryell with a fond smile. She was rather well versed by now in how restless he could get sometimes when he didn’t have a focus. He snorted at her reply and answered before thinking about what he was saying.
“Only when you aren’t around to distract me, vhen’an.”
“Is that Elven?” gasped Josephine, sounding far more delighted about it than he really thought she should be. He felt the back of his neck heat up as soon as she asked the question and this time he couldn’t stop himself from lifting a hand to rub there awkwardly. Then the ambassador made it all the more embarrassing when she practically squealed, “That’s absolutely adorable.”
Part of him wanted to sink into the floor in embarrassment as Leliana said lightly, “Josie, dear, you’re making him blush.”
“Wasn’t that a goal of yours at one point?” asked the Antivan woman slyly in reply.
The spymaster just laughed before replying, “That was before he blushed so easily at the mere mention of the Herald’s name.”
Meryell blinked at him across the table and Cullen just shrugged, smiling sheepishly. He’d never related to her that during the slow growth of their relationship from friend to something more, he had been teased mercilessly by his two fellow advisors. Josephine had just been decidedly more kind – and subtle – about it than the spymaster. Of course, Leliana’s teasing hadn’t begun until after her scolding by the ambassador, but she’d taken to it easily once she’d seen it happening. He’d been a little confused but one quiet inquiry with Josephine one day as to the sudden change reminded him of their spymaster’s depths.
She was, honestly, a bit of a romantic behind all of that shadowy steel she wrapped herself in. Not to mention, as Josephine had reminded him in a low voice, she had loved Warden Amell during the Blight.
After Haven, he’d worried a little about how she would look at him, given that the person he loved had come back from certain death and hers had lost his life in the sacrifice to save Thedas. He’d asked her to stay behind once in one of those early meetings of the first two months at Skyhold to ask that very question and she’d just smiled before telling him, “I will not spit on another’s happiness, Commander. No matter how I feel about a person, I could never hope that they might lose that which keeps them moving forward.”
He hadn’t honestly known how to respond to that; an apology for what she’d lost didn’t seem like it was half enough. Not when the thought of losing Meryell made his breath catch and his heart feel like it was seized up in a vise, made bile rise in the back of his throat as his stomach roiled with a sensation that was utterly different from how withdrawal made him feel sometimes. To actually go through it…Maker, he hoped to never know that sensation. At least not until they were both old and gray. Instead he’d merely nodded, certain she could tell he’d been rendered speechless, and quietly bid her a good day.
Cassandra made a disgusted noise before saying, “Enough. There is work to be done.”
“Yes,” Josephine said quickly, picking up from where the Seeker’s voice trailed off. “We must discuss Halamshiral.”
Meryell’s ears twitched several times at that and Cullen stared at them, fascinated as always by their movements, before he asked, “We’ve secured a way in?”
The ambassador smiled as she replied, “We are to be the guests of Grand Duke Gaspard.” She lowered her board to rest it on the table, hands flat against its surface, as she added, “He has offered his support to us if we back his claim to the throne.”
Cullen arched an eyebrow at that before saying, “Despite this civil war he’s been waging seeming like a damned fool move, that could be to our advantage. He’s an accomplished tactician and the chevalier are behind him.”
Meryell just snorted on the other side of the table, growling, “Assassination attempt first, possibly disorganizing the whole of Orlais later.” She flashed a smile at him as she added, “I know we’re Ferelden, love, but that’s no reason to be mean to the poor Orlesians.”
He quirked his lips into a smile at that, arching an eyebrow at her as if to ask Really? She then added, “Not to mention, you’re talking about toppling an Empress. While that might be fucking fun – I’ve certainly never pulled off a job that big – there’s more important shit at stake.”
“No matter what we do,” Leliana began suddenly, “we shall inevitably get drawn into the Game as well as the peace talks. Our influence has grown a great deal thanks to Josie’s work. While Ferelden has taken notice of us the most, the other countries have certainly heard of us and wonder what it is we seek.”
“Good notice?” asked Meryell. “‘Cause Queen Anora didn’t seem all too happy to see me when we met her in Redcliffe months back.”
“Ah, but you have aided her people and uncovered an injustice that was done during the Blight since then,” pointed out Josephine. She looked down for a moment before adding, “She has allowed us as well to judge the Mayor of Crestwood as we see fit since we discovered his crimes as well. That is for another time, of course.”
“Right,” Meryell said, her voice slightly disgusted. As Cullen looked over at her, he noticed that her nose was wrinkled in distaste as she stared at the small castle marker placed over where Halamshiral was located on the war table map. “We need to focus on this fucking party. Did I mention that I hate fucking parties?”
Cassandra outright snorted at her comment and Cullen smiled before asking, “You hate parties?” with mild disbelief. She immediately rolled her eyes in response and turned her head to glare at both of them in return.
“You two know what I’m fucking talking about. I can murder for a party that’s just you lot and people I like hanging around; talking shit, drinking, and telling tall tales into the wee hours of the morning. This kind of shit that we’re going to face? I don’t like dealing with this sort of nugshit.”
Next to him, Josephine tilted her head to the side and asked, “You have dealt with such parties before? For a…” She paused, as if pondering how to more delicately phrase the question and finished with a curious, “job?”
The look on Meryell’s face in immediate response was so utterly amused by the ambassador’s question that he nearly laughed out loud himself.
Meryell chuckled as she replied, “Josephine, you have known what I am for over a year now and you still haven’t quite come to terms with it?”
“It is merely my fear of that fact being known and what it could do to the Inquisition,” replied the ambassador. “While there are many who are aware and accept that you were a member of a mercenary company…”
“Are,” interrupted Meryell sternly, to correct her. “Are a member of a mercenary company.”
Cullen immediately turned his head to look at Josephine at that and found her smiling fondly instead of the expression of reprimand that he had anticipated seeing. “Yes, of course,” she replied. “It is well known to those of us within the Inquisition that you are still a member of the company. But there are many who will assume that you have broken ties with them, not understanding the relationship that you have.”
“Well those sods can go fuck themselves,” snapped Meryell in reply.
Now Josephine did give her a look of reprimand and he was a little surprised as he watched the elven woman on the other side of the table wilt slightly in the face of it. Not because Josephine’s expression lacked power – he’d been on the end of her scolding a time or two himself and knew how threatening she could be in her own way – but because he’d never seen Meryell do such a thing. Not unless it was Folke scolding her.
Sighing, Meryell said, “I know enough to not tell them that to their faces, Josie. Not while I’m actually working at Halamshiral, anyway.”
“We shall see how well exactly you do know that,” noted the ambassador in the same sort of no-nonsense tone that he could recall a Chantry Sister or two speaking in during his training years. And, to think of it, his mother. “We will use these last months to finish going over everything that we need to know to face the Winter Palace. I have, of course, already been doing so but it has been rather hard to get some of the things I need done.”
Josephine paused before adding lightly with a smile, “Such as your fitting.”
Cullen managed to lift a hand in time to cover the smile threatening to split his face in half as Meryell’s outrage was too amusing. Having never left Skyhold except to go down into the camps, he’d already been put through much of what she was now experiencing. He had also been asked his opinion of some of the sketches that Josephine’s hired tailor had put together after the man had gathered information about Meryell. Knowing her and not knowing anything about fashion at all, he’d gone for the most practical…not to mention the most simple given that he knew her to be a woman of simpler means. He only hoped that Josephine was sticking to something similar.
“You cannot show up at the Winter Palace in leathers and patched tunics,” Leliana pointed out lightly with a smile. When Meryell turned to glare at her, the spymaster’s smile merely widened. “I believe you will be pleased with Josephine’s choices. She has a good eye and chose her tailor well in order to match our dress to both ourselves and each other.”
“So long as I am not in a dress,” commented Cassandra and Meryell nodded vigorously in agreement. Then the pair of them noticed him covering his mouth and the younger woman pointed a finger at him while the older just glared.
“You know something,” grumbled Meryell.
Nodding, Cassandra said firmly, “He does. He would not be hiding his smile so if he did not.”
With a shake of his head, Cullen somehow managed to control himself and returned his hand to rest on his sword. “I know nothing,” he insisted. Neither of them looked particularly convinced of this and he could only smile as Meryell turned to hiss I’ll fucking find out, don’t you worry to Cassandra.
He was either decidedly screwed or her attempts were going to be very…interesting. Alternatively, it was going to be a mix of both.
Even with the lingering headache and the near constant ache in his bones lately, Cullen was abruptly greatly looking forward to the rest of his day. Particularly the possibilities of his night if he ended up with the alternate option.
Josephine coughed politely, drawing all of their attention to her before she asked, “May we continue?” When silence answered the question, she nodded to herself and began, “Given that we will be in Halamshiral for several nights and taking advantage of Duke Gaspard’s generosity, it is likely that we shall need to decide who is going with us.”
“Everyone,” replied Meryell without giving it a moment’s thought. When he arched an eyebrow at her and saw Josephine just staring out of the corner of his eye, she sighed. “Assassination attempts are no fucking joke, so don’t have one fucking doubt that I’m not taking this seriously. Taking everyone gets us more eyes on things, which is always good.”
“And by everyone we are referring to the inner circle, yes?” asked Leliana.
“Throw in a couple of the Fangs too.”
Cullen just smiled and asked, “Folke?”
Meryell grinned in reply as Josephine sighed before she said, “Baba loves a good party where he can rub elbows. Oh, don’t look like that, Josie, he knows how to not be himself just as much as I do.”
The ambassador looked decidedly dubious at the prospect then sighed wearily before asking, “And besides your father?”
“Well, Arnald. He knows how to play the Game, not to mention that he still knows more than a few people that’ll probably be there.” He watched her as she tapped her fingers against her lips, probably not even noticing herself that the tip of one ear flicked just slightly as she stood there thinking. “There’s bound to be servants there, particularly Elven since it’s Halamshiral. We could probably sneak in Sera and a few of the Fangs. Hart doesn’t have a vallaslin so she’s a definite. Evune’s are noticeable but Pod’s might pass close observation.”
“Felie’s Orlesian and from a small noble house,” she went on, “but we’re not sure how much of the story of her supposed fraternization got out before Ghislain fell.”
“Supposed fraternization?” questioned Leliana.
Meryell just shrugged. “She was accused of having a relationship with one of the Senior Enchanters in her Circle. Her friend, for what little mages and templars are allowed to be friends. Just so happened that the revolt hit them right fucking when she was about to get officially booted from the Order and the mage was on schedule to get the brand.”
He flinched at the mention of the brand involved in the Rite of Tranquility – how many had he stood over? How many had been there because they’d merely told a templar no or had been falsely accused? How many mages had the Chantry put so much fear of themselves into that they begged to have their connection to the Fade cut?
And to think that once upon a time he’d thought the Rite to be a mercy.
“What happened?” asked Josephine with a gasp, drawing him back to the present. Cullen turned his attention to Meryell just as she nonchalantly shrugged before answering the question.
“Felie got them out and they ran like the damned Void was at their heels. She deliberately split from them when her lyrium supply ran out, not wanting to inadvertently hurt one of them, and that’s how we found her. Laying in a ditch in the backwoods of Orlais, babbling off her head from some asshole braining her with a tree limb on top of the withdrawals. Stole everything she had, including her kit.”
“And the mage?” asked Cassandra with a slightly arched eyebrow.
The elf smiled brightly as she replied, “He actually ended up amongst the Redcliffe lot. Last I heard, they’d rekindled their friendship and he was talking about joining the ranks. He’s apparently a fucking damned good force mage and is actually one of those sneaky little shits in the Circles that managed to learn shapeshifting. We don’t actually have one of those right now and I think Arnald’s having pups at the idea of being able to work him into the field.”
Cullen merely arched his eyebrows at the news that there were apparently mages in the Circles that went against common convention to learn one of the forbidden sets of spells. Though, if he were entirely honest, it really wasn’t that surprising. Learning shapeshifting was less about power and control like blood magic was and more about freedom and the ability to change. Even being able to only turn into a cat could be a little bit of freedom for a mage.
Not that that particular school of magic made him comfortable – it was actually one of the ones he was more wary of, simply because of how badly it could go. So far as he’d been taught about it, a mage learning the art had a very small chance of not being able to control of some of their shifts. That was one of the main reasons that it wasn’t taught within the Circle with the next being that it gave too much of a chance of escape being possible through a mage slipping past a templar patrol in an easy to miss form with no one being the wiser.
But you aren’t a templar anymore, he reminded himself. It had been hard enough to remind himself before, to remember to not unduly scold or press a mage when he saw something that wouldn’t have been allowed within a Circle. Within lyrium singing softly in his veins again at times, it was harder to recall sometimes.
That disconnect with time and place was one of the things he hated, that he could so easily slip backwards. He didn’t want to be that man anymore.
“I can look quietly into her family’s situation and see if her presence would aid us or merely be a hindrance,” Cullen heard Josephine say then, drawing his attention squarely back to the situation at hand. He then noticed Meryell watching him with a slight wrinkle between her brows, worry clear in her eyes. Apparently he’d been woolgathering rather hard.
Smiling at her, he mouthed I’m fine before asking, “Have we found anything on who might be Corypheus’ agent at the Winter Palace?”
Leliana smiled at him in clear amusement before she replied, “There are many, Commander, who would like to see the Empress dethroned or dead. She has made a great deal of enemies, including Duke Gaspard.”
Frowning at her, he said, “I’ll take that answer is a no then.”
“I have many possibilities. In three months, I will narrow them down to a more…manageable number.” The spymaster’s smile then thinned and turned a hair towards sinister. “I will find them.”
Meryell narrowed her eyes at the older woman from her side of the table but said nothing in reply, merely stared. Leliana met her gaze evenly and he watched something unspoken pass between them before the spymaster inclined her head slightly. Meryell nodded in response then turned her attention back to Josephine to ask, “Anything else we need to go over right now?”
“I would like to spend a few hours going over court protocol with you today and perhaps dancing tomorrow and the next since you plan to leave in a few days,” replied the ambassador as she lifted her board back up into her arms. Her eyes then flicked briefly between Meryell and him, lingering more towards him than her, as she added, “Unless something more pressing occurs.”
Cullen wanted to bristle a little at the slight implication that he was going to abruptly descend back into the state he’d just clawed his way out of but stilled himself. Josephine was giving preference to him over a thing that absolutely needed to be done for their larger mission. Part of him didn’t like it at all because he was but one man and the fate of the whole of Thedas was more important than one lyrium addict. Yet another was just a little bit pleased by the idea that he was that important, speaking as someone who hadn’t thought he was particularly important for some years.
He caught Meryell’s eye then and shook his head subtly to indicate that no, he didn’t need her. His head might still hurt and his hands still shook but he was a little more sure now than he had been. Her support and faith was a thing that buoyed him upwards and kept his head just that little bit more afloat above the rough waters his life had descended into. Even more so than that of all the others who had told him that he could make it – which had included a rather lot of Fangs lately, who had found one excuse or another to come to his office or pass through it. Someone had also been hiding little notes all around his tower, each with something encouraging on it or repetition of words that others had said. He wondered at their source a great deal and had asked his runners and soldiers to keep an eye out for who might be leaving them but so far no one had been caught.
Which was a pity. He rather wanted to thank his mysterious note leaver before asking them to kindly not put down so obvious ones that alluded to parts of his past he’d rather leave behind. They were still kind but he burned those instead of keeping them like the others.
He remembered the things they spoke of well enough to not need them as a reminder. And he wasn’t quite certain he was ready to forgive himself of some of them just yet.
She smiled in reply, a smile that was just south of the one she’d flashed him what seemed ages ago – the bright and brilliant one that he had sworn to drawn out more instances of. Then she turned to Josephine and said, “I believe I’m free. Although someone had better fucking send a runner after me if he needs me.”
Normally he would have been annoyed by her so directly calling him out – as the only male in the room, the reference was obviously pointed at him – but this instance was different. She’d been terribly worried about him according to Cassandra, Varric, and Dorian, who had all managed to come and see him after they’d gotten back when he was either alone or Meryell was otherwise distracted. That hadn’t lessened despite her seeing that he was recovering, particularly not after he’d confessed that he didn’t know if he could make it through withdrawal again.
He couldn’t be annoyed with her for caring about him.
So Cullen smiled at her, utterly ignoring whatever looks they were getting from the other women in the room, and replied as if they weren’t there, “I will not leave you in the dark, vhen’an.” Josephine’s immediate sniffle – Maker, that woman! – had him blushing furiously again but that bright smile that took over Meryell’s face made up for any sort of embarrassment he was feeling. He would do almost anything for that one smile.
“Enough,” groaned Cassandra, though her annoyance was belied by the fact that she was smiling fondly at the both of them. “We are done, yes?”
“Yes,” replied Josephine firmly. She then said, “I will see you in my office, Inquisitor,” as she began to move around the war table towards the door.
The ambassador’s laugh was bright as she exited the room and called back over her shoulder, “I am merely getting you prepared for me calling you that inside my office. Inquisitor.”
Meryell growled as she disappeared, a smiling Leliana at her heels as well as an amused Cassandra, before hissing under her breath, “I knew I should have made that an outside the war room order as well.”
Chuckling, Cullen noted, “You know Josephine would have ignored it. Particularly on the chance that someone might overhear her calling you something so familiar.”
“It doesn’t bother you. Or Cass.”
“Despite the fact that we have stood a great deal on protocol in our lives,” he replied, “neither of us are in a particular position to require us to have issue with your request on a daily basis.”
Meryell turned around from where she’d been facing the door to frown at him across table. “You’re the Commander of what’s supposed to be my army.”
He merely smirked before saying, “It’s also common knowledge that we share a bed whenever you’re in Skyhold.” As her eyebrows went up, Cullen laughed before adding, “It surprised me as well when I heard it. Apparently we’re a love story for the ages.”
“That’s Varric. I know that’s fucking Varric.”
Laughing, he noted, “I cannot say for certain but, yes, that was my assumption as well.” Cullen then glanced towards the war room door, which hadn’t been entirely closed but was shut enough to give some level of privacy, before he moved around the table towards her. He reached out as soon as he was close enough to, palming his hand over her hip as he leaned his own against the edge of the table. “Can I guess that I won’t see you until sometime tonight then? If you’re to be tangled up with Josephine all day?”
She smiled in reply and moved in closer, pressing herself up against his chest as she drawled a reply. “Well, I’m hoping that I can convince her to cut this shit down to less time.”
Arching his eyebrows, he asked, “You think you can? I think that would be a feat indeed, dear thief.” Then he tilted his head to the side before adding, “Is this a part of what you were saying earlier about not liking this sort of party?”
Meryell immediately beamed at him in reply, her smile a hair towards sly, and he laughed.
“Appearance is everything, vhen’an,” she answered brightly. Then she arched up onto her toes, sliding her arms up to wrap them around his neck. He let his arms fall around her, lacing his fingers together at the small of her back, as she tacked on, “And I’ve got lots of practice at hiding my fucking appearance behind a wall of this or that.”
Cullen merely hummed in acknowledgement, enjoying the feel of her body pressed against his without a layer of metal and padding between them. “I’ve never known you to hide a part of yourself. Your past, yes, but you’ve always been honest about exactly who and what sort of person you are.”
Meryell merely smiled in a sad sort of way, brushing her fingers over the short curled hairs at the back of his neck that absolutely refused to go along with what he wanted the rest of his hair to do. “You also haven’t seen me on a job,” she commented softly. “This’ll…shit, this’ll be sort of like that.”
“What do you mean?”
She looked down at that, turning her face away from him, and Cullen wasn’t going to have that. Turning to his left, he unlaced his fingers and lifted her up onto the edge of the war table. Planting one hand on the table, he lifted the other to lightly touch her cheek but didn’t push her to turn back towards him. Instead he waited, just watching her face as she sat there chewing on her bottom lip until she was ready to give him an answer.
“I mean that I can’t just go out on that floor and tell them to fuck off and where exactly they can fuck off to, Cullen. I’ve got to curb my tongue and my temper just that little bit because we can’t let Corypheus have what he wants. We can’t let him have the possible chaos that Celene’s death might cause. I won’t.” Meryell let out a heavy breath then and closed her eyes. “I refuse to let that bastard destroy the world.”
“So,” he began slowly, rubbing his fingertips gently against the curve of her cheek, “you’re not going to be your normal foul-mouthed self for a few nights.” When she just shrugged and tilted her head more into his hand, Cullen softly asked, “Is there something more than that?”
Meryell sighed at that and abruptly straightened up, opening her eyes to look up at him for a moment before she looked away towards the floor. She gnawed on her bottom lip for another moment – a habit he found rather adorable – before she mumbled something that he couldn’t hear.
“It’s a lie,” she said flatly, cutting him off. “I don’t…I don’t like lying to the people I love. And it’s a lie to feed to fuckers that I don’t give two shits about what they think of me.”
Shaking his head, Cullen carefully took her face in his hands and gently tilted it up so he could actually look at her. Before he spoke, he leaned across the space between them and pressed a brief, featherlight kiss against her lips before he whispered, “If you think that I’m going to believe you’re anything other than you, you’re out of your damned mind. As for the rest…you lied when you were working a job, right?”
Slowly she nodded in reply and he smiled.
“This is just another job, dear thief.”
“Ahh!” he said, interrupting her. As she pursed her lips and flashed a little glare at him, he went on, “We’re merely taking a piece from Corypheus’ board.”
That made her snort and Meryell grumbled, “You would manage to somehow turn this into a chess analogy.”
“It’s not inaccurate.”
“No,” she agreed. “It’s not.” She sat there for a long moment before she sighed and blinked up at him, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. “So,” she said, “just a job?”
“Just a job, love,” he assured. He then brushed his thumb lightly across her cheekbones before he let his hands slide away from her face, down over her shoulders and the light but long-sleeved shirt she wore in the slightly chilly weather that Skyhold seemed to almost constantly have, even in high summer. Cullen slipped his hands then down to her thighs, curling his fingers around to grip them before he tugged her forward across the slight space that had somehow opened up between them. As she gasped and reached out to grab his own shirt, her fingers curling into the fabric, he said, “And it’s not like you have to pretend you don’t know any of us. We will know it’s a show.”
“Maker’s balls, I’m being fucking stupid, aren’t I?” she asked then, the question sounding more rhetorical than anything, closing her eyes as she let out a heavy breath. Meryell then leaned forward, pressing her head into his chest, and groaned, “Of course you’d know. Fuck.”
Bending his head, Cullen kissed the top of hers and murmured into her hair, “I think we’re both allowed to be a little stupid lately. This…I…I know it’s been stressful on both of us.”
She let out a slightly hollow sounding laugh in response before nodding her head. The sensation of the pressure against his chest changing as she did so was a weird one but not nearly enough for him to move away. “You and Cassandra are going to have a war on understatements this year, I see,” she commented a moment later.
“We’ll have ourselves a bout over who gets to win while you’re away.” When her head snapped up, he quickly added, “So long as Gil clears me, yes. I’m not…” He paused to take a breath before finishing, “I’m not fucking this up, vhen’an.”
Meryell just nodded slowly then leaned forward again, this time laying her cheek against his chest and wrapping her arms around him. He shifted his grip on her in turn, curling his hands once more around the small of her back, as she said, “Fucking better. Gil’d murder you otherwise.”
While Cullen smiled at the idea of the healer in a right rage (Gil still didn’t seem the sort to lose her temper, despite having to raise her voice to him a time or two in the past), he quickly lost it as he bent his head back over hers. “The thought of disappointing you is far better incentive than Gil being that angry,” he murmured.
She abruptly sniffed in reply and shifted one arm just enough to lightly thump him in the side with a closed fist. “Stop it,” she insisted. “You’re gonna make me fucking cry.”
“Well. Obviously I should since I’ve been working to not make you cry.”
“No tears, so we won’t count it that time.” Meryell then pushed herself away from him and he wanted to crush her back against him at the loss. “I should probably get to this fucking shit with Josie. Before she comes in here looking for me.”
Nodding slightly, Cullen stepped back away from her so she could simply slide down from the table. As soon as her feet were on the ground, he pulled her close once again and carefully tilted her chin up with his thumb as he leaned down across the gap between their heights. “Just a job, dear thief,” he reminded softly. “No matter how you have to act at Halamshiral, you will still be Inquisitor, still be a Fang, and I will still be yours.”
Now she was blinking actual tears out of her eyes and he finished crossing the space between them to claim her mouth. Meryell arched up into him at the contact as her hands gripped his hips and he clutched hers in return as he held her there. When he finally pulled away, Cullen lifted one hand to wipe away the tear tracks across her cheeks with his thumb as he murmured, “Sorry.”
“Happy tears, Cullen,” insisted Meryell brightly, raising her own hand to wipe at her face. Then she rose up to kiss him very briefly, just a tiny peck of a kiss in the breath of a moment, and whispered, “Thank you, vhen’an.”
Shaking his head, Cullen said, “After what you and the Fangs have done for me…Maker, I owe you and them so much. But, yes, you need to go.” Taking a moment to just look down at her – this tiny, whirlwind of a woman – he smiled broadly before kissing her forehead with a murmured, “Go prove you know your shit, love.”
That made her laugh, bright and clear, and the sound of it in turn made him able to smile easily as they left the war room together but he kept walking on forward back out into the main hall without her. Cullen took a long breath as he stood outside the main door into that particular section of the keep after closing it before nodding to himself and heading back towards his office.
He had an appointment with Gil and Folke to keep.
“How much can you still feel magic being cast?” asked Folke as he sat down backwards on one of Cullen’s office chairs, folding his arms across its back.
Sighing, Cullen leaned back in his desk chair, resting his arms along the sides as he answered, “More than I could before all this but far less than when I was still taking lyrium regularly.”
“What was your dosage at the end?” asked Gil, who had his other chair. She also had a writing board propped across her knees and was ready with ink and quill to take notes. “I need to know to fully flesh out our plan other than the daily doses we’re currently doing.”
“That shouldn’t be relevant, should it?” he asked, his brow furrowing. He’d been under the impression that all they would have to worry about was meeting the amount they had given him to quell the attack. That things weren’t going that way made him feel…uneasy.
And he’d already felt uneasy enough about having to have this discussion. Having…support was something almost utterly foreign for him. Particularly support that went beyond emotional.
Sighing, the female mage folded her hands on top of the papers stacked on her board and replied, “Alas, it is. Despite the fact that you were no longer able to use it, there is no doubt still a great deal of lyrium in your body. As I stated when we first spoke upon you waking up, it lingers in the body long after a templar ceases to take it.”
“Like an infection gone foul,” grumbled Folke. When Gil flashed him an annoyed look, the hedge mage just grunted. “Don’t fucking give me that stink eye, Gil. You know it’s true.”
She rolled her eyes towards the ceiling before taking a deep breath and turning her attention back to Cullen. “You’ve served how long?”
Shifting slightly, he replied, “Eleven years. I…” He paused and lifted a hand to rub at his forehead, feeling a stronger headache than the one he already had pecking at his temples since waking coming on. “One year at the Tower before…before. S-seven months at G-Greenfell.”
Cullen paused, suddenly breathing hard as he stuttered over the words and closed his eyes tight as he thought of the Chantry there. Of the templars who’d lost themselves. He’d been such a young fool at the time, too blinded by fear and rage to really see that that was his future then. And he was terrified of the idea of ending up like that.
It suddenly felt like his head was spinning, like his mind was trying to whirl too fast, and he felt light-headed. He was aware distantly of how tight his chest abruptly was, how it heaved like a cresting wave. There were voices in his ears as well, saying things quick and frantic…though that could very well be his own perception. Everything was fast and slow at the same time and he squeezed his eyes shut even more and clutched at the arms of his chair in desperation while everything spun out of control. He lost track of everything around him in the wake of it as he tried to focus on something solid, on anything firm and unmoving, but he couldn’t find the thread of it.
“Maker’s shriveled cock,” growled Folke abruptly in his ear, making him start. “Breathe for fuck’s sake, isha’len.” He instantly sucked in a breath, feeling like he was coming up for air from deep waters. A moment later Cullen realized that he was shaking almost violently and Folke was behind him with one arm wrapped around his shoulders. The hedge mage’s other hand had his right hand pinned down to the side of the chair, a fact he realized before making note a moment later that his own left hand was clenched in a vise-like grip around Folke’s forearm. And he knew from the clenched muscles in his own forearm that he was holding on tight enough to bruise.
Shame and fear flared through him but Cullen couldn’t get his body to relax despite telling it to. He worked to breathe through the panic, his brain whirling for something – anything – to focus on still. To cling to. Abruptly his chest seized up again as all of that panic just swelled inside of him and all he wanted to do was run.
“Breathe,” snapped Folke, his voice commanding. “Breathe with me, son. In. And out. Come on.”
It took a moment but he somehow managed to focus on the older man’s voice. He felt him nod as Folke continued, “That’s it. That’s it, Cullen. Breathe in. Breathe out.” And Cullen did. They did it together – he was able to hear the mage’s inhales and exhales easily by him being so close to his ear – and slowly that terrible knot inside his chest started to uncurl.
When he was finally able to loosen his grip, Cullen breathed, “Maker, Folke, I’m sorry. I…”
“Telahna,” rumbled Folke, his voice low and rough. “This isn’t my first panic, isha’len. I’m fine. Bruises heal, don’t worry your head.” The hedge mage then straightened, releasing the pressure on Cullen’s arm and lifting that same hand to ruffle his hair with obvious affection. “Just take a moment. Gil’ll be back in a few.”
With that he opened his eyes and realized that she was gone, her board the only thing left to occupy her chair, and asked softly, “What?” It hadn’t been a moment ago that he’d panicked, had it? Surely it hadn’t been long enough for her to make it out of the room. Right?
“She went to lay into that mean old bat of a head cook one of you lot hired for the kitchens and confiscate some means to make tea. Made use of one of your runners to go drag some of my supply out of my tent in camp. Hope you don’t mind.”
Cullen closed his eyes as his voice stammered again beyond his control and just tried to breathe. Maker and his Bride, he hadn’t had a panic in years. Not since his first year and a half in Kirkwall (and Greenfell before that) before Commander Meredith had ordered his dosage increased to counteract his nightmares because of noise complaints.
He’d been so fucking high he had barely remembered he had reasons to panic.
“Fuck,” hissed Cullen, squeezing his eyes together again, so tightly that the delicate muscles around them hurt. He’d thought he was already getting better but if this was flaring back up…
“Cullen,” Folke said firmly. The hedge mage’s voice somehow had him opening his eyes to look at the man, who was now to his right leaning against the desk and frowning down at him. He flicked his gray eyes over him before saying gently, “This is not Greenfell. You will not end up in Greenfell or anywhere of its like.”
After his voice broke off, Cullen shook his head and leaned forward to brace his arms against the surface of the desk. He hung his head as he took a moment to try and regather whatever was left of his nerves. Taking a deep breath, he slowly nodded and said, “I know. I just…I’m not good at this. Talking.”
A hand touched his shoulder then, cautious for a moment before it came to fully rest and gripped firmly. The pressure was oddly soothing and somewhat reminiscent of when he’d be dragged out of a nightmare by Samson, back before the lyrium high and dismissals, back when they’d been friends and he hadn’t looked at the begging shadow of the man with a distant sort of sadness and fear. He swiftly banished all thought of the man because he was now the enemy and, Maker, that hurt more than he’d let anyone know. More than he’d let himself know, really.
“It takes time,” assured Folke, his voice low and gentle. He paused before asking, “Do you think you could talk about it? Greenfell?”
Cullen shook his head because he did not want to think about who he’d been then. He did, however, whisper, “I don’t want to lose everything, Folke.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to stop that, isha’len. Alright then…Kirkwall. Tell me about Kirkwall.” Folke eased himself into a sitting position on the desk, crossing his arms as he went on, “You were there from 9:31 on, right? Up until our dear Cassandra recruited you?”
Kirkwall was barely a safer topic but he took a deep breath and nodded. “Until 9:40,” he answered. “Almost a decade.”
“Long time. Was the Blooming Rose still doing good business while you were there? I haven’t visited that damned city in what feels like a fucking Age but…well…the Rose always took care of its patrons.”
Immediately Cullen found himself hot in the cheeks, certain he was blushing brightly, and jerked his head up to glare at the man. Folke grinned down at him in response and he realized after a moment that he’d been played in order to look up.
“Bastard,” he hissed under his breath.
“My parents were married, thank you,” replied the hedge mage snidely as he smirked. “Albeit it was the Chasind version of marriage but that didn’t matter to them. Still counts.” He then cocked his head to the side and asked, “So…the Rose?”
“Never visited. Not for that,” replied Cullen quickly. “Last I saw of it the roof was still badly damaged by the destruction of the Chantry. They didn’t have too many patrons immediately after not surprisingly and fell short of all the coin they needed to fix it. Shortage of workers to do the repairs as well, since they were working on things deemed more important. Madame Lusine set up shop elsewhere in Hightown while it was undergoing repairs.”
Folke nodded with a smile before asking, “That chap Ewald still Captain of the Guard? We used to bribe him to look the other way when were working there.”
Frowning, Cullen was certain that was true but Meryell had told him several stories of jobs that she’d been on for the company with Folke included. One of which had been an instance when they’d been hired by a Kirkwall noble to be muscle for one of his parties since his political rival had bribed all of his own men to betray him. And that had been in 9:34, a good while after Ewald had been replaced twice over.
“Jeven was Captain of the Guard when I got to Kirkwall in 9:31,” he said with narrowed eyes. “What are you playing at, Folke?”
“Only making sure your head’s in the right decade or so, darling.” The hedge mage might be smiling at him but his gray eyes were starkly serious. “Like I said, not my first panic. A lot of the one’s I’ve been witness to from templars didn’t leave them in the right place. Not up top.”
“Well,” Cullen drawled a little uneasily, “I, ah, hope I passed.”
Folke nodded before he shrugged one shoulder. “Not to mention talking about random shit to distract you.”
Nodding slightly, Cullen noted that he felt less tense, his shoulders not feeling like they were knotted up to his ears. It was still there, of course, but the embarrassment from talking about the Blooming Rose and the distraction of the Guard Captain question had definitely lessened it some.
“We’ll wait for Gil and then we’ll make a second go at this, all right?” he then heard the man say, drawing his attention back to the mage. “Unless you want to talk to just one of us alone. Or, fuck, someone that you don’t know altogether if that would make you more comfortable.”
Shuddering a little at the thought of trying to tell these things to an utter stranger, Cullen vigorously shook his head as he let it hang again. “No,” he replied firmly. “I don’t…I don’t think I could with someone I didn’t know. You…you and Gil know. Maker, you know so much more than I do really. It’s just…hard.”
“I would tell you it gets easier, isha’len,” intoned Folke softly, “but it’s different for everyone.” Cullen then felt the man’s hand come to rest on top of his head again, fingers gently ruffling his hair before they stilled. “You absolutely don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about but there are things we need to know. We might have to ask painful questions.”
The thought of having to possibly reveal some of the things he’d done or the things he’d let happen sent a sharp lance of panic up Cullen’s spine. Folke’s hand was oddly…comforting…thought and counteracted that feeling, despite the fact that it seemed like it should be awkward. It was…
Maker, it was the sort of thing his father had done when he and the rest were little.
Opening his mouth, Cullen began, “Folke, isha’len…”
“Son,” the hedge mage said abruptly, his voice low and a little…wary? He lifted his head just enough that he could see the man and found his expression a little strained and tight. “It means son.”
The realization hit like a thunderclap that the man had been calling him son for nearly the better part of a year. Before he and Meryell had confirmed what was between them, when it had only been wild desperation and need after he’d thought he’d lost her. Yet Folke had known. Or at least guessed correctly as to where things were going.
“Folke,” he began again, sitting up and leaning back in his chair. The man let his hand fall away as he made the move and just sat there on the desk, crossing his arms over his chest again. Cullen frowned as he considered what to say for what felt like a long moment before he simply said, “Thank you.”
“I don’t need thanks, isha’len. Not for this.” Smiling, Folke went on, “You make my girl happy. Fuck, happier than I’ve seen her in years. That’s enough. It’s more than enough.”
Cullen started to open his mouth to argue because it didn’t feel like it was half enough when there was an abrupt noise at the door and Gil’s voice snapping, “Folke, get off your ass and come open this door for me and the lad who hauled your tea all the way up from the end of the damned world!”
The mage laughed, tipping his head back in that way that reminded Cullen of Meryell, before he dropped down off of the desk. Folke clapped him on the shoulder and smiled before he headed towards the door, calling out, “Fine, fine, keep your fucking skirt on, Gil.”
“I’ll pitch my skirt wherever I like,” replied Gil, looking decidedly grumpy as she carefully held a tray that bore three mugs, a heavy looking pot that had its sides nearly looking frosted over from the temperature difference between it and the outside, and several other small pots and other things that were apparently requirements for having tea. She weaved around Folke with the runner in her wake – one of his younger lads, who barely looked like he could carry the heavy looking chest he cradled in his arms – and moved towards the desk with an intent look in her eyes.
Cullen guessed her intention before she was even halfway across the room and she smiled brightly at him as he pushed himself up to clear off a section of his desk. “Thank you, Cullen,” she said brightly. Gil then turned and plucked the chest out of the runner’s arms with what looked like very little effort – apparently it wasn’t as heavy as it looked and was just ungainly for such a small youth – and sat it down on one corner of the desk on top of a pile of papers. She then reached out to ruffle his short dark hair and pulled a gold coin out from a pouch on her belt to press into his hand. “Thank you as well, lad.”
The boy looked half terrified at being handed that much at one time and turned to look at Cullen, his face pale. Smiling at him, Cullen murmured, “You’re fine, Gerrick. Go home and give that coin to your mother. She’ll appreciate it for your little sister.”
At that statement all of the panic bled out of the boy and Gerrick nodded firmly as he tucked the coin into his tunic. He then bowed and quickly stammered out, “Th-thank you, L-Lady Gil.” Turning, he saluted to Cullen – sharp and shockingly on point for a lad of his age, a feat he had apparently accomplished through hours of practice according to his mother – and practically chirped a Thank you, ser, as he bolted past Folke out the door.
As the mage closed it behind him, he arched an eyebrow and said, “Sister?”
Nodding, Cullen sat back down because Gil was giving him a pointed look as she opened the chest and began sifting around inside of it. Then he answered, “Born only a few months ago. His mother’s one of the kitchen staff and has been since the early days. Her husband served under me before we reached Skyhold.”
He knew instantly by the looks on their faces that both of them realized that Gerrick’s father had been one of the many who hadn’t made it out of Haven. Gesturing towards the closed door, Cullen went on, “The lad wanted to fight but…he’s barely eleven and small even for that age. I sat him down and had a talk about choosing the right course of action. Made a comment that he could run and learn things underneath me that he wouldn’t learn as just another sword on the field and he’s been running for me since. One of the fastest I have, in fact.”
As soon as he finished, he looked down at where his hands were clasped together in his lap in a failed attempt to keep them somewhat still and said, “But we aren’t here to talk about my runners.”
“No,” replied Gil softly. He then heard the sound of water being poured into the cups she’d brought with her and glanced up to meet her eyes. “But first,” she continued with a smile, “tea. I do hope I picked the right one for you, Folke.”
The hedge mage made a dismissive sound, waving a hand before he retook the chair he’d abandoned earlier – though this time he turned it around to sit in it properly. “I’ve drunk them all while I was making them. Only way to know a thing’s good is to try it yourself, as my father once said.”
Gil merely made a noise of agreement in response before she handed the mage a mug and then she turned to extend another toward Cullen. “I put a little honey in yours,” she intoned softly. When he blinked at her, wondering how exactly she knew that he preferred his slightly sweetened, she added, “This particular version of Folke’s headache tea can be…bitter.”
Ah. That explained that.
“Mmm, it’s the damned embrium,” commented Folke. “It smells lovely and works wonders for healing but it lends just bitterness flavor wise. I’ve tried to mask it before but that tends to shift how everything works and it sometimes makes the embrium less potent and…well…”
Cullen blinked at the two of them for a long moment before he took the mug Gil held out to him and blew across the surface of the hot liquid. Cautiously he lifted it to his lips and took a sip, grimacing as he immediately tasted the bitterness. “Maker,” he muttered with a grunt. “That’s…”
“You can say it’s terrible. Won’t hurt my feelings.”
Letting out a breath, he muttered, “Only if it doesn’t do anything,” before he took another sip. Grimacing again, Cullen asked, “More honey wouldn’t cause issues, would it?”
Folke frowned before he replied, “No, no, sweetening only interferes with a particular blend of blightcap and deathroot with a touch of felandaris that some of us know how to make. Though that’s not really for casual drinking.”
“What does it do?” asked Cullen curiously as he shifted forward in his seat before he frowned. “Where is the honey?”
“Here,” replied Gil as she picked up the little pot and put it into his hand. She then picked up her own mug and reseated herself, shifting her writing board to her lap as she said, “It causes a miscarriage in the early days. Sugar or honey, however, tends to react badly with the blightcap and cause terrible sickness and nausea. Far more so than the drink does itself on its own.”
Folke flashed Cullen a very pointed look and said, “Hopefully not a concoction I ever need to make for you or anyone close to you, Commander.”
He was so flummoxed at the idea of Meryell with child – his child – that he just gaped at the man for a moment. Then he flushed bright red, heat flaring through his cheeks, and lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck. Maker.
“N-no,” he managed to stammer out in reply. “I-I should h-hope not.”
Why did the man always make him feel like an awkward youth again when he made some sort of comment about him and Meryell?
Cullen then coughed pointedly and flashed a desperate look at Gil, who was smiling at him over the rim of her cup. “Can we, ah, get back to our meeting?”
“You’re certain you’re ready?” she asked, her tone gentle. “I don’t want to inadvertently send you into a panic again.”
“No, no, I think…” He trailed off, taking a deep breath before he finished, “I think I’m all right. And I…I want to be done with this.”
For the Inquisition, was the first thought that came to mind but no. He didn’t want this for the Inquisition. Maker, he didn’t even want it for Meryell. He’d started this journey before he’d even known her, before he’d even agreed to Cassandra’s offer of a position.
“I want to be free,” breathed Cullen, his voice abruptly dropped to a whisper.
There was silence for a moment after he finished, the sort of silence that followed something that shattered the soul and disturbed the normal order. Then Gil nodded sagely and said, “We will help you get there, Cullen. It will be hard, as we have both said, and there will be things in it that you won’t want to face. I believe you can do it.”
“As do I, isha’len,” murmured Folke.
Feeling his throat go tight with emotion, Cullen just nodded before he coughed hard, trying to clear it before he spoke. His voice was still strained when he finally did but it was clear and certain.
“Then where do we start?”