Seven

Note: Thanks should be given to Catherine Millet and her book The Sexual Life of Catherine M for the inspiration for some of the rather French bits below. Please review if you're enjoying the story, which I sincerely hope you are…

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Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love.

-Charles Schulz

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Once, when Cullen was just a boy - before his mother died - a wealthy merchant moved to their village. The merchant was taken with Cullen's mother right away and for a while Cullen believed he would have a new father, a father to replace the one he had never met. He remembered the way his mother smiled, and how at night before bed, she would tell him about all the new toys he would have and the big, beautiful house they would build. For those few days, Cullen thought life was going to start being really good. They would take him to a physician and find a way to make him talk right. Mum would keep smiling. But the merchant stopped coming around. His mother stopped smiling and Cullen never got those new toys or that big house, and they could never afford to take him to a physician…

But for those few short days, his little world was filled with light and sound and endless possibilities.

Which was exactly how he felt with Lisette's lips pressed against his. His senses were suddenly sharp, overwhelming, and his focus was reduced to the intense pleasure of her warm, soft lips and the wet little tongue that was sneaking into his mouth. He tasted something bitter and intriguing on her tongue, chocolate maybe? Was that what it tasted like? Cullen didn't care. He could only think how feather-light and hot his chest felt. How he had never in his life experienced a sensation like the one bubbling in his brain? He was a cauldron, too full, overheating. He tipped his head to the side, seeking more, seeking everything. And her tongue. Maker's light, her tongue. Lisette was teasing his own tongue into action, and Cullen had to twist his fists into the fabric of his kilt to keep from grabbing her shoulders. Two velvety, delicate hands were cupping his jaw, just a ghost of a touch, but more than enough to knock the wind out of his lungs.

It took a long time, too long, for reality to shoulder its way back into his mind. This was wrong, inappropriate… forbidden. And she was an Orlesian and the Orlesians were trying to rip the Tower apart and Greagoir needed him and Wynne needed him and Irving needed him. Everyone needed him to be strong. And he was failing. Failing his superiors. Failing the Maker. Cullen reeled back, breathing hard, putting up a hand to keep her from kissing him again.

Cullen blinked at her, feeling wild and undone, and saw that her lips were slightly darker than before. Had he done that? Cullen stammered his way through, "W-what was that?"

Lisette touched her bottom lip with her forefinger and shrugged. "A beetroot? Wait! No. A kiss?"

"Y-You're making fun of me."

"You asked." She laughed, and then noticed he wasn't exactly hopping up and down with excitement and her jubilant smile faltered.

"W-why did you do that?" Cullen whispered. He could feel the blood streaming out of his face. His hands were shaking as if he had just dived into an ice water bath and the headache building behind his eyes was going to blind him any second…

"You were flirting with me," Lisette replied. Her humor was failing. He could see the worry beginning to crease her brow. This was not the reaction she had hoped for.

"I was not… I would never…"

"Flirt? Because you were. Shamelessly, in fact."

Well that wasn't possible. Cullen never did anything shamelessly. He glanced at her face, her hands, her feet… He wasn't even sure he knew where he was. Something terrible had just happened. He had crossed a line. This had all started with that one little book of hers and a few harmless words and ultimately resulted in this… this… this complete moral bankruptcy. The time to go back was now, before things got out of hand, before he managed to further disgrace his vows. It was just a kiss. A kiss was not the end of the world. If he prayed hard enough, if he swore to be better, no – stronger - then perhaps it could just be forgotten. Now was the time to go back and never waver.

"We can't ever do that again," he said hoarsely. Lisette flinched as if punctured by an invisible arrow. Her blue eyes were sparkling more than usual, filling with tears.

"But, Cullen…"

"No. Never again."

Cullen watched her face fall, watched her scramble to keep her emotions in check. He thought perhaps she might cry, but then she rallied and picked up the book she had dropped in her haste to kiss him. This had to be some sort of record. From kissing to hatred in twenty seconds flat. Lisette hugged the book to her chest and took two slow, tentative steps back, still facing him. She was being generous, giving him a chance to apologize. But Cullen couldn't find the words… He couldn't find anything at all. He was slipping, drowning… And his chest was burning.

Then at last she turned, and Cullen spoke too late. She was already out the door when he marshaled his voice.

"Lisette… Wait."

It was then that he realized that was probably her first kiss. It was her first kiss and he had, he had…

Ruined it?

Cullen winced, cold all over. He had done the right thing, said the right things, so why did he feel so hopelessly unhappy? The righteous path ought to fill him with joy and peace, but his heart was trying to claw its way out of his mouth. He felt mean. Monstrous. Who did he think he was fooling? He wasn't flirting with her? Of course he had been flirting with her. This was entirely his fault. He had followed her to the training hall, helped her reach that book, tempted her. She was so young, and under no oaths… She couldn't be expected to choose the high road, walk the exalted path. He was supposed to take the high road. He was a Templar, unshakeable in faith and will, and he had laid the trail of crumbs and devoured her when she followed, punished her for simply following his lead. And why was he trembling? Why did he want to slam his head against the wall until the doubts stopped rushing in every direction and his brains leaked out of his ears? There shouldn't be doubts. Kissing bad. Temptation bad. All of it – bad. And yet this moment felt far worse than when they were kissing. The kiss had been… transcendent, sweet, simple. This was like being torn in six different directions at once...

Chapel. Now.

Somebody, Bryce probably, tried to stop him as he dashed to the Maker's shrine. But Cullen wasn't stopping for anyone or anything. Unless the Tower was literally falling down around him, he would spend the next hour on his knees. And he did, secretly pleased when the pain in his joints became almost too sharp to bear. He deserved punishment. He deserved to suffer.

The candles warmed his face and Cullen nearly broke again, the faint heat reminding him of Lisette's lips. But he resisted the urge to dwell on such things. The smell of the familiar beeswax candles reminded him of the holy peace of the chapel, the radiance of the divine. Here, every stone and crack was well-known. Here he had prayed day in and day out. Cullen had been celibate all his life, pure of thought since early adolescence… He would not now throw away that magnificent achievement by letting a pretty young girl dissolve his self-control. A mere handful of physical pleasures were not worth the destruction of a lifetime of piety.

"Blessed are they who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter," Cullen whispered frantically, "Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just."

Champions of the just. Yes. That was what he wanted to be. That's what he had been. Perhaps this was a natural turning point in his life. He was getting older. The life of the Templar couldn't possibly be a perfectly straight road. No, there would be obstacles, obstructions, and it was his duty to overcome them. It was natural to want things, to be curious about women, family, freedom… But these were facets of another life altogether. A mundane man was rewarded with a faithful, loving wife and healthy children; a Templar received far greater gifts – the promise of an afterlife more sweet and gratifying than all the wives and children in the world combined. Secular joys must never, never take the place of spiritual clarity.

He had been weak, it was true, but weakness was not permanent. On his knees, the chapel humming with its habitual warm silence, Cullen forced himself to remember the screams of his brothers, their undoing at the hands of demons and temptresses. Mental fortitude was the only sure guard against such wicked abominations. Behind his closed eyes, Cullen saw again the blood running across the stones, diverting into rivulets in the mortar like a thousand coursing rivers. He heard Mallory shout to him, pleading, as she was overwhelmed, her magical powers too great a lure, her body becoming nothing but a tool of evil. And he remembered the tremendous noise of it all, how his head rang inside his helmet as bursts of fire erupted in every corner, lightning streaked across the ceiling, and mages fell one after another, transforming, twisting… Coming for him.

Lisette. It's for your own good.

At least he would be safe for the time being. His frosty response to her kiss would probably mean she never spoke to him again. And so he would not be tempted and she would be protected from corruption and the wandering eyes of demons.

Cullen stood at last an hour later, refreshed, recharged. His spiritual compass was pointing confidently in the right direction again. Balance was restored. The kiss would be forgotten.

* * *

The heat wave struck the Tower the following week.

Unseasonably warm spring weather coupled with the no open-window policy of the Circle of Magi meant living conditions plummeted, brutal and trying. Students fainted during class. The older enchanters stayed abed until evening came and cooled the rooms, too frail to chance a tumble down the stairs if a dizzy spell hit. Everyone else endured as best they could. The Templars suffered the brunt of the discomfort. The Knight-Commander relaxed the rule on helmets to keep the sentries from passing out, but armor and swords were still to be worn at all times. The inclement weather seemed to dampen any plans the Orlesians intended to carry out. Lisette had this firsthand from Didier, who didn't have the patience for lessons while the heat soared. Their duels were infrequent and sloppy when they occurred. Lisette could hardly cast a single spell without panting and weaving.

She spent her days seeking out the coolest corners in the Tower. They were few and far between. Fortunately, there was no chance of running into Cullen. She had barely glimpsed him since their… encounter. He was never at meals, making Lisette assume he had adjusted his schedule to guarantee they never crossed paths. Lisette already knew his watch schedule from infiltrating his room, so she easily avoided him by planning her visits to the library and laboratory. In six days, she only saw him twice. Once, when he walked by an empty classroom she had commandeered to practice a shield spell, the other when she trooped down to breakfast earlier than usual and caught him on the way out. Both glimpses were equally uncomfortable. No matter how many times she explained to her heart that wanting him was preposterous, her yearning dreams persevered unchecked. Seeing him made her heart race and her palms sweat furiously. This was troublesome, since more than one Templar had curly blondish hair, and from behind they tended to look the same. She had mistaken others for Cullen several times, giving herself unwelcome jolts of pain and elation at the most inconvenient times.

Her focus suffered. The heat didn't help, but she knew the real culprit was Cullen. His reaction had stung. And her inability to let it go smarted even deeper. Well what did you expect, Lisette? He's a Templar, for the Maker's sake! He can't sweep you out of the Tower and carry you off into the sunset. He behaved exactly the way a Templar should.

It didn't matter. She hated him. She burned for him. She couldn't have him.

There was nothing to do but get on with life and hope that the balm of time would heal her aching heart. They would be doomed to tenaciously avoid each other for the rest of their lives.

Day five of the Great Immolation found Lisette bustling from darkened room to darkened room, desperate for a cooling breeze. Instead of tapering off, the heat wave only became worse. Tempers ran hot, but nobody had the energy to do anything about their short fuses. Mages and Templars alike slumped against the tables at meals and plodded, sapped and sweaty, down the stuffy, still corridors. Classes were cancelled completely when the youngest apprentices began to tumble out of their seats with alarming frequency. Lisette woke every morning to soaking wet bed sheets and sticky, sluggish limbs.

Finding a cross-breeze in the Tower was like stumbling across a waterfall in the desert; you had a better chance of finding a virgin in a whorehouse.

Lisette couldn't endure another day of it. In Orlais they called spells like this le Souffle, the Breath, as if the whole sky held in a gasp and there would be no relief until that breath was expelled, which usually meant a cathartic storm and plenty of rain. She had never experienced un Souffle this extreme. She could only hope it would abate soon and the Tower would be returned to its usual dizzying industriousness. But until then, Lisette would spend every waking minute chasing an elusive breeze. She felt it sometimes at night. A tiny, trickling airstream would wind through her quarters, teasing her in sleep, vanishing in the morning. The windows were locked tight and shuttered, but perhaps there was a cracked hinge somewhere that could be prodded to let in a little fresh air.

There was still one empty room where no mages currently lived. Instead of spreading out the mages between the empty quarters, Irving encouraged the residents to share living spaces and get to know each other. Lisette had to disagree, but her roommate, Tilly, was quiet and unassuming and almost never about. This suited Lisette just fine. The empty mage quarters felt a bit fresher than the library and the training hall, and Lisette thought perhaps she had at last found the solace she sought. She padded to the southwest alcove, where an empty bed waited, made up and ready for whoever should need it. Creepy, she thought, that it was just sitting there. There was a desk, too with candles and blown glass lantern. Above that, there was a darkened window, long ago boarded over with an elaborately painted barricade. In the darkened, cavernous room it was easy to see the little dusty spike of outside light that drifted down beneath a loose edge of the barricade.

Lisette grinned and tugged on the wooden slat. It wiggled and creaked and with another stiff yank it peeled up. She snaked her arm up under the gap and blindly groped for the window's latching mechanism. The damn thing had been shut for Maker only knows how long, so it took some serious prodding to switch the hammer forward. Lisette sighed with almost primal pleasure at the click of the lock. Gasping in anticipation, she pressed her knuckles against the window until it gave a shuddering squeal and inched open.

At once, the air around her shimmered, the dust of ages unsettled by the sudden presence of swirling, fresh air. It wasn't exactly a tornado, in fact it was just a pitiful little puff of a breeze, but it was so much better than the alternative. Lisette made space on the desk, tossing the unlit candle and lantern onto the bed before hoisting herself onto the table beside the window. Smirking, she pulled up the hem of her robes, letting the tiny spark of a breeze play across her bare, damp thighs. It was heaven.

While the crack of light and glimpse of fresh air offered Lisette just enough reading light, it did nothing to address the sweat slicked down her neck and back and chest. Even the Templars were too bedraggled in their armor to take much notice of the increasingly scanty fashion statements wandering the halls. Lisette had hemmed her lightest summer robe by hand, raising the bottom hem to just below the knee and removing the sleeves altogether. She added a scooping neckline and generous vent in the back. Even so, the breezy, crinkled silk garment felt like a fur-lined coat. And moisture had a way of collecting in the middle of her breasts, which was unbelievably uncomfortable and embarrassing. Luckily, no one was lucid enough to notice or stare. Even so, it was miserable to walk about in a perpetual state of damp.

Lisette kicked off her slippers, letting her feet dangle down over the desk and thump quietly against the drawers. She took up a book, settling in for a languorous, quiet read. Lisette sighed from the air that flowed in uneven spurts over her scorching skin. Balancing the book in her lap, she adjusted her ponytail, raising it higher on her head to keep the hair from settling against her slick neck. Then she searched for her place. Didier had recommended the book. It was from his private collection. Lisette wondered if the enchanters vetted his belongings or if he, being older and wiser, was immune to the indignities of being searched like a criminal.

The book was something called Le Voyage d'Esprit, and Lisette had reached chapter two after slogging through forty immeasurably boring pages of some Orlesian mage's ancestry. She still hadn't actually determined whether the book was a novel or historical account, it was that bloody impenetrable. Lisette stifled a yawn, embarking on chapter two with a decidedly blasé attitude toward the text. If it didn't pick up soon, she would have to forgo reading in favor of a nap.

Lisette noticed that whoever had set the letters for Le Voyage d'Esprit had made a stylistic choice to change the shape and size of the words. Frowning, she flipped back a few pages. The letters definitely looked… different, as if from another book altogether. And Lisette looked at the heading for chapter two, which was not numbered at all, it simply said Et Puis… - And then… Shrugging, she decided to find out just what in the world was going on with this bizarre book.

Lisette wished she hadn't.

And Then…

And then he parted her. Her legs fell away, her body opening to him. There was, between them, a singular moment of shared understanding, the Love World unfolding and enfolding, inviting them to enter into the brotherhood-sisterhood of Those Who Had, as opposed to Those Who Had Not.

Lisette stared at the book as if it had sprouted horns and a tail. Her breath hitching, she checked the page before.

The conflict between the two lasted many years, and the Libertarians won several notable victories, in spite of the favor shown to their opponents by the Orlesian administration—until finally the reconciliation of the two points of view was seen to be impossible, and the orders went their separate ways permanently.

UhOkay?

The orders went their separate ways and then legs began parting? Lisette wondered if this was perhaps part of some movement in Orlesian literature she had never heard of. That, or the change in the appearance of the text indicated that they were not, in fact, from the same body of work. Someone had squeezed (ugh) naughty things into an historical text that was itself about as racy as a piece of toast. At once, Lisette wondered if this was Didier's doing or the work of some incredibly crafty bookmaker. The spine was flawless, untouched, which made her think someone had done this at an early stage in the binding process. Didier, it would seem, had connections.

She wasn't sure whether she was flattered or appalled.

Prude.

This was the worst kind of reading for a hot day. Lisette actually preferred the idea of bone dry historical facts. At least those didn't increase the temperature of her blood. But how could she not read on? This was the most interesting thing to happen to her since… since… that Gargantuan Mistake That Never Happened. Feeling wicked beyond words, Lisette peeled the book open, picking up where she had left off. She was doing perfectly fine until she reached a phrase that made the hairs on the back of her next stand on end.

Having spoken the solicitous language of sensation before and with other women, he knew when to depress the flexible furrow between her arsehole and the beginnings of her cunt – as he expected, she was instantly subjugated. He laughed deeply to hear her nourishing moan of shock.

Lisette had never considered herself a prig, but something about the detached, almost clinical wording of the passage made her want to slam the book shut and hurl it out the window along with a big helping of projectile vomit. She wasn't sure if she wanted to plunge into a steamy fantasy or take a scouring bath. This wasn't romance. It wasn't even sex. It was… dissection.

Panicky, her eyes flickered down the page, just to make sure it wasn't actually about dissection – which, thankfully, it was not – and her gaze accidentally caught on one singular word.

Hunger.

Oh Maker, please tell me this is a horrific coincidence.

Her mind wandered the snaking mental path that always and inevitably led to Cullen.

Stop torturing yourself. You'll pop a blood vessel.

But it was too late, the image of him was there. Lisette closed the offending book and tossed it away onto the empty bed. She didn't want to hold it. It felt like a pile of searing coals in her hands. Her warm breath fanned out around her face as she leaned against the wall. Why did every tiny pleasure in life have to be ruined? Her favorite books? Confiscated. Her first kiss? Disastrous. Her tiny breeze? Soured. She wanted to scream in frustration. Her flesh didn't feel right. It was too sticky, too dreadfully hot, and she was sick and tired of being wet all day long. And now she was wet in another way, which only made things markedly shittier, and there was no way she was going to continue reading that ugly, excessive book, but the damage had already been done because when she closed her eyes she felt Cullen's lips pressing against hers…

The world spun. It was the heat, she decided, and not the memory of his firm, dexterous tongue sliding into her mouth that was making her lightheaded. She could feel the tickling rasp of his whiskers on her palms and press the steel tendons of his jaw. She held the luminous heat of his skin in the cradle of her hands. And with her eyes closed, it was easy to imagine that the kiss never ended, that his strong arms came around her and trapped her against his chest. She felt the unbending metal of his breastplate under her fingernails. Her hands wound into his hair, threading through the soft, sweat-slicked curls…

Lisette pulled one foot up onto the desk beside her bottom and reached beneath the hoisted hem of her robes. She rubbed two fingers against the increasing hum of her sex. She couldn't resist the urge. She couldn't resist him. In her imagination, Cullen's hand replaced hers and it was his large, calloused fingers that sought and teased, and it was his low, rumbling breath filling her ears. Sweat poured down her neck and into to the valley between her breasts. The heat was rising around her like a sweltering tide. It was embarrassing how quickly she found climax, banging her head back against the wall and forcing out a breathless, "Oh. Cullen."

Pained from hitting her head too hard and seeing stars, Lisette blinked into the murky, dusk-dim space of the room. There was a tall, broad shape where no tall, broad shape ought to be. Lisette lurched forward, too surprised to fix her hiked robe or collect her tumbling thoughts. She pitched forward off of the desk in fright, bashing her bare knee on the unforgiving stones waiting below. Lisette swore, reaching for her leg, which was already beginning to shine with blood. And as if that weren't bad enough, the tall, broad ought-not-to-be-there shape shot forward at her moan of pain. It was no use pretending he didn't know exactly what she was up to, so she didn't bother trying to force out any half-assed denials.

"You're late," Lisette muttered with a dark laugh. She glanced up in time to see a bead of sweat drop down his chin and ping against his armor. That uniquely forlorn expression of his had deepened to all-out despair. Carefully, he tilted her ankle forward until he could get a clear look at her scraped knee. He didn't smell much like a forest at that point. It was just sweat and all his, and it was no help at all to her pleasure-addled wits.

"How much did you see?" Lisette asked quietly. He stared at her wound, a muscle jumping by his temple. She was just glad it was too shadowy for her to see his initial stricken expression at finding her so… intimately employed.

"A… A lot, I guess. This room is s-supposed to be empty… I heard noises, it's… my job, you know, to check these things…" Is it also your job to stare silently until I make a complete fool of myself? He wetted his lips nervously. "Can you walk?"

"It's a scrape. I'm fine. But will you please stay and talk with me?"

"I shouldn't."

"But you want to?" She stared at him, hoping something would shatter between them again. That infuriating, pious wall of his was back in place, diamond-hard and unwavering.

"I… shouldn't."

Lisette sighed. "Then please go."

Cullen hesitated, his gauntlet shaking as he tore his hand away from her leg. She instantly missed the cool relief of the steel. She was miserably tired of this pointless back and forth… It was impossible to make ground and keep it. A hundred different innuendos rushed through her mind, but she was too sick at heart to even flirt. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted his intoxicating presence gone. Cullen stood, his eyes drifting to the book abandoned on the bed. Take it, I definitely don't want it. But he let it be, his kilt rustling softly as he departed at a brisk trot. As Cullen rounded the corner of the alcove, Lisette glanced up through her eyelashes and saw him look back at her. He winced.

Lisette pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her hands. Before the tears came, a bitter laugh escaped her throat. Ha, I guess that makes us even.