And let there be dancing
The teyrn was true to his word. No sooner did Sir Henri return with her than Fergus reappeared with some other notable in tow. He introduced one dance partner after another to Surana, never allowing her time to do more than glance longingly at Timur and the familiar knot of officers, most of whom were familiar to her from congenial evenings drinking in the tavern with Rylen.
For once, Cullen himself felt fairly comfortable at one of Josephine's diplomatic affairs, although he had looked forward to at least enjoying Surana's presence again. A few of the officers wandered away, but they were quickly replaced by others. Surprisingly, Ser Henri lingered and proved to be an amiable addition to their group. The Orlesian even joined those who offered Timur small bits of the snacks being served, which the old warrior accepted with all the dignity of a grand duke receiving the tribute of his subjects.
Finally, Fergus arrived alone just as an ambassador from Oswick returned Surana at the end of a song, a fair, sleek man who put Cullen's back up for no reason he could identify. Unless it was the glitter in Surana's eye and the biting edge to her voice when she greeted Fergus. This time Fergus allowed Surana enough time to at least greet Timur and stroke his head briefly before he whisked her off into the crowd of dancers himself, commenting lightly that he needed her to protect him from a certain comtesse.
A minute or two later, Ser Henri finished telling a rather funny story about a trip to Markham as an escort to an Orlesian envoy. As the gathered officers laughed, Cullen glanced around to offer Timur another tidbit, but the mabari was nowhere to be seen. Rylen and the Ferelden officer had vanished earlier, something about the armory, and Cullen felt a surge of alarm. Timur had obviously been a very deadly mabari…in his prime. Surana had enemies in the crowded room, people who might see her elderly guardian as a means to strike at her, especially Orlesians who despised mabari and Fereldans equally. Maker's breath! Why didn't it occur to me, to any of us, that he might be a target? As slow as he moves now…
He excused himself to the group and was about to charge through the knots of elegantly dressed nobles searching for Timur when the chevalier stopped him. "Are you looking for the Warden's mabari, Timur was it not?"
"Yes, um, he's never wandered off before."
Henri smiled winningly, "Just after the teyrn began dancing with the Warden Commander, I saw him walking in that direction." He pointed gracefully in the general direction of the door that connected the main hall to the rotunda. "He seemed to know exactly where he was going."
Cullen thanked the chevalier politely but absently, too distracted to notice how closely the man watched him as he moved away. Moving briskly and trying not to let anyone catch his eye and delay him—or worse—Cullen wove through the crowd to reach the open door. Pausing to turn in a full circle, he couldn't catch sight of the mabari anywhere among the forest of legs and skirts.
Sweet Andraste, if anything's happened to him…! Cullen was about to plunge into the crowded dance floor to search for Timur when a familiar voice halted him.
"Commander, you look concerned, is everything alright?" Teyrn Fergus smiled at him genially, the very model of a courtier expressing polite interest.
"No, I mean…I'm not sure. Timur wandered off, and I thought he went this direction." By now, Cullen was thoroughly shaken. Aside from failing Surana, he'd grown very fond of the old warrior for his own sake.
"Ah. Well, mabaris can sometimes decide that something needs their attention. Or he needed a handy tree and didn't want to disturb anyone." The Fereldan raised an eyebrow at the stairway just inside the doorway. "However, I do believe, Commander, that you should personally inspect the loft. For security reasons, of course."
Cullen just stared, unable to organize his thoughts for a moment. Why would he…unless he spotted someone luring Timur into the loft! And he wants me to handle it discretely. "Of course, your lordship, thank you."
Thankful that the steps weren't prone to creaking, he went up the steps as quietly and slowly as he could, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, ready to draw. But when his head cleared the edge of the floor and he could survey the softly lit loft, no Orlesian bard or other spy stood gloating over a drugged mabari or any of the other wild scenarios his imagination had whipped up in the seconds since Fergus had urged him up the stairs. Instead, he was surprised to see a slender figure outlined in the diffused light from below, leaning against the railing near a large pot planted with fragrant daisies that lent a fresh perfume to the air. The shape of a mabari pressed against her left leg identified the woman as Surana.
Cullen barely had time to guess that Teryn Fergus had known she was hiding in Vivienne's old loft before something alerted her, perhaps the rush of held breath he had suddenly released in his relief. She spun, the blue skirt flaring out around her, hand resting on the hilt of the sword that the Warden Commander had refused to be parted with. Not that Cullen blamed her; the Warden mage had lived too many years ready for an alarm at any instant to feel safe without it. Maybe especially in a crowd of nobles.
Surana was tense until she identified him, then smiled wryly, and perhaps a little conspiratorially. "Commander? Are you looking for a place to hide as well?"
"I thought Most Holy planned to keep you busy dancing all night. How did you escape notice?" The commander took the last step or two into the loft.
Her chin stuck out in that mulish look that meant they had probably pushed her too hard, and Timur sneezed with laughter. "I was dancing with Teryn Fergus, and...we might have finished the dance a little early. Coincidentally just when Nightingale happened to be distracted and conveniently while we were next to a door to the loft."
"I see." Cullen grinned, almost giddy with relief that he'd just let his imagination run away with him, and he responded in the same light vein. "And Timur just happened to be waiting at that same door purely by accident?"
Her cocky grin was her silent answer before turning back to lean against the balcony railing. "I danced with enough bloody sycophants and lechers for a while. I'm not a sodding ornament to be put on display just to suit them. Did you need to escape too?"
Cullen leaned against the railing next to her. "No, a little bird told me there was something in the loft that needed my personal attention."
Surana exhaled an irritated sigh. "I'd guess it was a Ferelden bird who just happened to know where I was hiding. I'm sorry, Commander. Fergus can be singleminded." She spoke with a distracted smile, her attention on someone among the dancers instead, and Cullen followed her line of sight to see the crowned heads of Alistair and Anora revolving slowly in a bit of a clear space in the crowd. The queen was smiling at something her king said, her eyes a little brighter and with a bit of softness Cullen didn't remember seeing before. And Alistair was turning that charming smile, so notable during his visit, on his queen, accented by a certain possessive tenderness in the way he held her as they danced.
"They look happy, don't they?"
"Yes, and about fu…, er, time. Must be scandalizing the Orlesians." Her hand rested lightly on Timur's head.
Cullen glanced over his shoulder at the nearly empty loft and abruptly made a decision. He straightened, then held out his hand in a half bow. "Well, that same bird told me that you actually do enjoy dancing when you can do it without being a spectacle, and as you should be enjoying yourself…may I have the pleasure of this dance, Warden Commander?"
She turned from the railing, raising a surprised eyebrow as she stared at his hand, but before she could respond, a sudden shove pushed her off balance. Cullen reached out to steady her, feeling the warmth of her thin, calloused hands as he caught them. Surana rolled her eyes, "Kaffas, Timur!" The elf mock-glared at the old mabari whose lower jaw dropped in amusement. "Next time at least give me a chance to answer first?" Her friend sneezed in laughter, then Surana turned back to Cullen with just the faintest trace of red in her cheeks. "Yes, I would love to dance, Commander, thank you. Even if I am beginning to feel outnumbered."
Cullen rested one careful hand on the curve of her waist, relishing the softness of the piled velvet, as she settled one hand tentatively on his shoulder. Then he gently adjusted his other around her free hand as he grinned into her eyes. "Timur is a mabari of uncommon good sense, naturally. Though I admit if I'd planned ahead, I would have bribed him." As they began to move slowly in time to the music, he was a little surprised to realize how tall she really was, her eyes only inches below his.
"Hmm, our little bird may have beaten you to it?" Grey-blue eyes met his, both embarrassed and amused. "However, another little bird told me that you didn't dance, Commander…apparently a little bird who was poorly informed?"
"I don't dance for an audience or with a partner I don't chose for myself." He spoke firmly. "Those courtiers would notice a single step that was a fraction out of place or a half-second out of time, and I really don't want to know what they'd say when I stepped on my partner's foot."
"When, not if?" Humor glinted in her eyes now, no longer embarrassed, and for just a moment he held a mischievous, laughing apprentice in his arms. Then his vision cleared and it was the woman, face etched by experience into someone much more…solid than old memories and hopes.
"Sadly, yes. I never said I danced well. At least I can be certain that my partner for this dance won't hold any missteps against me." He smirked at her in answer to her amusement.
"So sure of me, are you?" He felt more than heard a rumble of almost-silent amusement through her as she grinned back into his eyes.
"The best dance partner is one you trust completely, Warden Commander. It would be in poor taste for me to have less faith in you than you do in me." Cullen surprised himself at how glibly the words he'd been thinking slipped out, and her eyes widened, the smile fading as the hidden meaning of his words sunk in. Her hand in his twitched briefly, but she didn't tense, just stared back in silence. Finally, she glanced around as if trying to find some other less uncomfortable topic, her eyes finally resting on their joined hands, her slender, long fingers enfolded in his much heavier ones.
"It may sound odd, but sometimes I forget about the differences between humans and elves." Her scarred fingers wiggled slightly in his as she stared at them. "My hand looks so small next to yours, doesn't it?"
Cullen's thoughts raced and he tried not to tighten his hand on hers in a panic. Sweet Andraste, what if…no, most of her friends are humans, and Alistair,…surely she's not saying… "Does that…does the difference bother you?"
They continued revolving in time to the music, surprisingly effortlessly. "Only when people think in words like 'rabbit' and 'knife-ear.'" Calm, cool eyes met his measuringly. "Somehow I don't think your friendship has anything to do with the shape of my ears or the things some people assume go with those."
Cullen forced himself to relax, reminding himself that Fergus and Timur surely wouldn't have encouraged him if they thought she had any hesitations. Instead, he cocked his head slightly to look at the ear with the sapphire drop swaying hypnotically, one side of his mouth twisting up into a smile. "I do like your ears, actually, but that's because they're attached to you."
She chuckled then returned the appraisal. "It really isn't fair for me to use you as a standard of comparison; you're rather…better grown than most people, human or elf. You know, I'm not certain I've ever seen you wear anything that wasn't mostly armor, Commander. I need to remember to congratulate Josephine and Leliana on the Inquisition's formal uniform. I could almost believe they designed it with you in mind."
"I feel much more…charitable about it, hearing you say that." He let himself admire the way the dress warmed her appearance, though he also relished how she dropped the sternly controlled façade when they were not being observed. The velvet and silk brocade were inviting, and the colors, especially the rich blue in the high collar framing her face, the tiny sapphires and pearls studding the coronet of her braid… "I need to remember to congratulate them as well on a dress that does you justice, Surana."
"I wouldn't have let them do it if they hadn't surprised me with it already made; who knows when I'll find a reason to wear it again after this, but it is lovely, isn't it?" She glanced at her arm, admiring the rich blue velvet turned back from the silver-and-blue silk brocade of the under sleeve.
"It is lovely, but I admit, I don't believe I'd have noticed that dress if you weren't the one wearing it." Cullen wondered if he might have undone the shift in their relationship and almost held his breath for a moment, but surely she wouldn't take offense at a simple compliment. She'd mentioned his appearance first after all, an unexpected gift he'd already tucked away to take out and savor later in private. I knew she wasn't repulsed by me, but that's a long way from being attracted to me, after all. Maker, I'm not sure I could say things like this without stuttering if it was anyone else though. He felt her fingers twitch slightly again, and she kept her eyes on the sleeve for a few moments longer, biting her lip, before turning her face back toward him.
She was composed, though he was relieved that the cool remoteness hadn't returned. But he could read Surana's expressions well enough to guess that, while she had a small smile, she was also engaged in some sort of internal struggle. I should just enjoy dancing with her and not push any further tonight. Maker's breath, how many times have I thought of what it would feel like to hold her in my arms and now…here she is. Alone…except for a silent chaperone who apparently approves.
They revolved slowly around the loft in silence, Templars and mages, Wardens and Inquisitions forgotten, losing themselves in the music and the movements, eyes locked. As the song wound down into the last few measures, he realized he'd slowly drawn her closer as they danced, and their torsos were almost molded together, his hand now resting lightly on the small of her muscular back where he could just sense the swell of her hips starting. As the warm shape of her against him began to sink in, he saw in her eyes that she was also very aware of just how close they were…and wasn't tensing, just watching his face curiously. They drifted to a wordless stop with the last notes of the music, arms still outstretched as if simply paused in their dance surrounded by the gentle scent of daisies and just a faint whiff of sweet embrium from Surana's hair.
Both remained perfectly still, and Cullen could feel her chest rising and falling slowly against his with each breath, then wondered if he was breathing himself. Her face is so close; we're almost of a height and her lips are right there, I could… He realized his eyes had dropped to her lips, and when their eyes met again, he saw that she'd watched and knew what had passed through his mind. She hadn't tensed under his hand. But at the same time, he saw that trace of doubt and resolutely pushed the thought away.
Not yet. I think she'd let me now just because of the moment, but tomorrow she might push me away again. I don't want to win a battle; I want to win a war. He again remembered Fergus's advice to be patient, and instead his lips twisted into a crooked smile and were answered by one tinged by pleased surprise. At that moment, Timur, who'd remained remarkably quiet and motionless while they dance, rumbled something not quite a growl. They glanced toward the stairs to see a sheepish Dorian paused mid-step near the top.
"Oh, Commander, I'm, uh, sorry to interrupt, but Lady Josephine needs you, something military, I assume, and she asked me to find you."
Cullen nodded silently, putting just enough space between himself and Surana to hold both her hands in his and impulsively raised them to his lips to kiss them one at a time with the lightest and briefest of pressures. "Thank you for the dance, Warden Commander, I can't think of anything that could have brightened my evening more."
He felt her squeeze his hands back just slightly before releasing them, then she cocked her head to the side with just a bit of mischief to her expression. "It was lovely, Commander. My feet are untrodden, and if there was a step out of place or time, I missed it. You are a far better dance partner than you think." Cullen inhaled sharply, sensing the double meaning to her own words, then let go of her hands, striding quickly past Dorian to vanish down the stairs.
Dorian watched the Commander leave curiously, then crossed to the railing where Surana was again watching the dancers with Timur. She didn't turn to look at him as he leaned on the railing on the other side of Timur, but she didn't seem unwelcoming either. The Tevinter's curiosity had been burning since she'd first claimed friendship with an ex-Templar who'd once been charged with striking her down.
"So, um, Surana, you and the Commander…?"
"Were dancing? Obviously." Nothing in her answer invited further questions, but he couldn't resist taking advantage of the privacy of the moment.
"Well, you've known each other for a long time, I mean before you were the Warden Commander."
"Yes? You've known that since the day I arrived at Skyhold and I had to explain what his role at my Harrowing was." She kept her eyes fixed on the dance floor, her tone that of someone being remarkably patient with unwelcome questions.
"It's just, well, he was a Templar and you're a mage."
"Dorian, you don't usually waste words restating the obvious. Just what are you asking?"
"I'm…not entirely sure what I'm trying to ask, especially since my ideas about your Circles are probably as accurate as your notions on Tevinter mages. I admire the Commander, you know, more than I'd ever let on, because as a devout ex-Templar, he's the last person I'd have expected to trust me, and yet, he went out of his way to befriend me here. And I know despite the rules, er, things sometimes happened…"
"Vashedan!" She seemed to sag. "Shit. If I don't tell you at least some of it, you'll be imagining all sorts of things and getting it mixed up talking to someone without meaning to. But Dorian, you have to swear to me on anything you hold sacred that you won't breathe a word of it and will never let on to Cullen that you know about this."
"I'm sorry, of course I promise, but you don't need to tell me anything. It was rude of me to imply anything inappropriate."
Surana shrugged, her hand moving on Timur's head slowly. "Well, let me put that to rest immediately. You have to have realized how strong his sense of honor is; can you really imagine Cullen doing anything inappropriate even now?"
"No, that's why my normal silver tongue seems to be eluding me."
"Something does bind us together, but it isn't some, oh, some mad passion we held onto for a dozen years. It's more…unfinished business, I guess? Shared memories of a past no one else has survived to remember, maybe? You have to understand, the southern Circles were mostly closed worlds, and in the background, you were aware of Templar eyes on you every minute of every day as a mage. You always knew exactly which Templars were in sight and precisely where they were and just how hostile each individual Templar was.
"Kinloch wasn't the worst Circle—Kirkwall's Gallows, for instance, had a reputation even then—but Greagoir was particularly reluctant to allow even senior mages to go outside the Circle. Well, other than old Wynne. But every year, they'd rotate in a few new Templars, replacing those who were being 'retired.' Even those who'd just finished training usually acted as if we weren't people, and a few clearly thought we were no more than dangerous animals. But even Templars who seemed kind and thoughtful at first would quickly change under the influence of the others, so when Cullen first came to Kinloch, full of idealism, I assumed he'd be one of them.
"But he didn't change. Oh, he wasn't overly friendly with us, but he was willing to answer questions without being rude, which was damned unusual on its own." Surana chuckled reminiscently. "My friends and I often cautiously tested newer Templars to judge the limits of their tolerance, or rather I did it because I didn't mind if Irving sent me to assist Owain for a month or two if I misjudged. I'd play small jokes on someone within their sight, never anything using magic and always trivial. How they reacted told us a lot about who to be most cautious around. They generally would ignore harmless jokes—like they were watching dogs bark at each other—but some would scowl at us, and the worst…well, we usually had already spotted those and didn't bother.
"Cullen, though? I swear his cough was covering a laugh, which may have been the second or third time that ever happened. What really surprised us was that he never started ignoring us. Oh, he pretended to, but one corner of his mouth would curl up just a bit in a hint of a smile he couldn't control."
Dorian chuckled. "He still does that."
"I…may have noticed." Surana was silent for a few seconds, looking down into Timur's eyes. "I doubt he ever guessed that I continued playing jokes near him just to see it. But believe me, I understood the lessons of the Circle very, very well, and any…attachment would have been dangerous, much less one with a Templar. Whatever he may have thought of me, we never did more than exchange pleasant words and occasionally he'd ask about my studies. Innocent enough, not that it went unnoticed. I still don't know if Cullen understood that he was assigned to my Harrowing as a reminder to us both.
"Within a day after that, I was gone to the Wardens." She shrugged again. "Why isn't important; both Irving and Greagoir are long dead now. But I ended up back at Kinloch within a few months with the Grey Warden treaties, trying to get the help of both mages and Templars. I hoped."
Dorian eyed her shrewdly. "And Templars? Especially one strapping young Templar?"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Do you really think Greagoir would have let us leave together, after already delivering a warning? I admit, while we were on the trip there, a part of me that wondered what might happen if he did. Technically, I was no longer a Circle mage so there would have been no official consequences, though now I realize Cullen would never have seen it that way."
"The stories don't mention any Templars at the Battle of Denerim. So what happened when you got there?"
Timur looked up at her intently, then took her hand gently in his mouth while she hesitated. "We'd heard some rumors on the trip, so I was certain there was something wrong when I got there even before our old boatman recognized and warned me. When we walked in, I found the doors to the tower sealed with only a handful of Templars outside, and most of those were injured. I knew seeing Greagoir again would be…unpleasant, but I never in my wildest dreams expected to find part of the circle had rebelled, and the tower overrun with demons and abominations. Greagoir was just waiting for reinforcements from Denerim before invoking the Rite of Annulment."
"Kaffas! I'm…sorry. Obviously that didn't happen?"
"Dorian, inside those doors, that had been my entire world, the only world I remembered until I left with Duncan. Everyone I knew, everyone I had ever cared about was inside those doors; I couldn't just walk away and not try to save them. All of Fereldan and the Blight weren't as important to me as they were. So I convinced Greagoir to let me through, but he made the condition that once we entered, they would lock the doors behind us and not let us out until we had the First Enchanter with us."
"That was…quite a risk. If Irving had already been dead…"
"I had to try to save what I could." She was silent for a few moments, then continued in a quiet voice devoid of emotion. "I…can't describe what I saw, but…most of the mages were dead or abominations, almost all of the Templars were dead or possessed. All of my friends, the only family I'd ever had…I found their bodies, one by one. All of them." Timur held her eyes as she hesitated. "I still feel like half my heart had been cut away."
"I notice you haven't mentioned Cullen. Obviously he wasn't dead or possessed, was he holding the outer doors?" From his tone, clearly Dorian was not really very hopeful that that was the case.
"No." She dropped the single word into the silence created between the end of one song and the beginning of another. By now, her hand was scratching Timur's ears again while she stared at him, and for the first time, Dorian recognized how much strength she was drawing from that habitual contact. "In all that tower, we found one Templar who was alive but not possessed. Vashedan, it's…harder to talk about than I realized it would be, now that I've seen him again, alive and whole. Or mostly so.
"He was being held in some sort of mage prison, surrounded by the bodies of Templars who hadn't survived. But they hadn't broken him." She paused again, clearly reliving that moment in her memories, before continuing. "Obviously we found Irving alive and broke the rebellion after that. But I've never been able to forget what I saw in the tower."
"It sounds dreadful; I'm sure any sane person would have nightmares after that."
"I've reminded myself over and over of how Cullen had been tortured, denied food, water, lyrium, and still held out, and if he could do that, well, shouldn't I try to be as strong? Finding and freeing him, that's the only thing that's made the horrors in that tower bearable. I've clung to that memory, and that binds us together, I think, or at least for me. He's my only anchor to a past when Arisha Surana wasn't a warden."
"Now that I've heard the story, I think perhaps it's the same for him, but from the way you two were lost in each other when I so boorishly interrupted, I'd have to say there's much more than that now."
"Yes. I thought he'd never want to see me again, to be reminded of what was done to him..." Her voice trailed off, and Dorian spoke gently.
"You're in love with him, aren't you?"
"What do I know about love?" Her words were almost angry. "It isn't exactly something that was encouraged growing up, you know, and the one time I listened to my heart instead of my head…well, that not only didn't end well, I'm still living with the repercussions."
"Hmm, yes, court gossip, delightfully vicious in every land, I've noticed. I'm certain they've had you in bed with half the court, all evidence to the contrary too. Still, that was a long time ago, and from all appearances, cheerfully in the past for everyone except the gossips. You could do much worse than someone like Cullen, you know."
Surana was silent for a moment, then spoke softly. "Maybe the question is, doesn't Cullen deserve better?"
"My dear Warden Commander, surely you aren't serious? Do better than the Hero of the Fifth Blight? A woman who brought down an archdemon and wears a sword over her dress, and armor under it when she can get away with it? A woman he looks at like a drowning man does at a hand stretched out to save him? Surely this isn't because you're a mage, is it?"
"No." Her hand stilled on Timur's head, and the old warrior shifted to take her hand back into his mouth. "Dorian, I know you were with the Inquisitor at Adamant. You know Grey Wardens aren't Andraste's holy knights out of legend."
"Yes, but somehow I'm not sure you'd make Clarel's mistakes even under Corypheus's influence."
She shrugged a thin shoulder. "We'll never know, though I'm just as glad not to put it to the test. But I have made other choices, and some of them may yet turn out to be disastrous, and others might have but didn't. And I think Cullen…"
Surana gave Timur a last pat, then rested her head on her hands, watching the dancers. "You know, Alistair really wasn't suited to make the harsh choices that the Wardens have to, it would have changed him even more than becoming king did. I could, and have, made those choices. But I hated having to explain those choices to him, to look him in the face when I made them."
"Cullen's made his own hard choices, from everything I've heard, so I'm not sure I understand what that has to do with Cullen deserving better?"
"Because Cullen might be one of those choices." Dorian followed her gaze and saw that she was watching a small group near the head of the room, and he could make out Cullen's fair hair from the back. "After realizing how close I came to seeing Alistair killed at the Battle of Denerim, I decided that I would never risk getting involved with one of my Wardens again. But when I first went to Vigil's Keep, I didn't even have Timur with me. So I became close friends with one of the first wardens I recruited without really thinking about whether or not I should."
"One day, I had to make a choice between risking a few wardens or saving the people of Amaranthine. She was one of those wardens, and I knew she would die, that she wanted to die. And I gave the orders knowing I was killing one of my best friends." Her voice was quietly calm, and he couldn't quite see her face, turned away into the shadows. "And even now, I'd give the same orders again. An old mentor of mine once warned me that I might have to make a choice like that one day; she was talking about love instead of friendship at the time, but I suppose she'd be proud that I put my duty ahead of anything else."
"You said she wanted to die?"
"Legion of the dead, so she joined the wardens already sworn to fight darkspawn, and with more reason than most."
"So she made that choice herself, and you chose to save an entire city instead. I'm not seeing why this makes you unworthy of Cullen's affections in your mind." Dorian spoke lightly, but gently.
Her eyes followed that fair head as Cullen moved from the small knot of people to the thrones where the Inquisitor and the Divine Elect were seated. "Because there is no one I wouldn't risk or sacrifice to protect people, Dorian. Even him. Doesn't Cullen deserve someone who isn't so consumed they might sacrifice everything and everyone, including him?"