VIII. Pride, pt 5
Cullen had been trained to face down the most horrifying of evils without batting an eye. To hone his willpower into energy that could thwart the most powerful of spellcasters. He had even been good in his studies. And yet, he was nervous, standing here, waiting for none other than—a mage.
He was off duty, off the night shift this month, and he wasn't even wearing his armor as he waited. He picked at the skin around his fingernails, studying them closely, between glances down the dark, yawning stone hallway. She would be here any moment now.
This was their meeting spot. It wasn't normal for a mage and a templar to have long conversations out in the open, so they had taken to meeting in quieter locations. Only at times when he was off duty, and she done with her studies. Only to talk. Sometimes, he would take her hand in his if their conversation turned serious, or she would touch his shoulder as they laughed and joked—but that was all. Never anything untoward.
Of course he had dreamed, literally and during the idle hours of his long watches, of just leaning in, feeling her soft red hair in his hands, and kissing her. Just the thought filled him with just as many nerves, like little butterflies fluttering inside of him, as he had now—waiting to do the opposite.
He should have known he wasn't the only one falling in love.
Templars were used to the idea that their existence would be solitary, removed, often so much so that they would remain unmarried their entire lives. He had known this for as long as he had been in training—that is, most of his life. He didn't mind the pain of knowing his love could never be returned… he was used to it. It was enough just to have her company.
But Sibyl—she had other options. She was beautiful, well liked, and loyal. She had a real chance to find someone, another mage, anyone, who could really love her, openly, in a way he never could. He didn't want her to give that up for him.
Templars were taught sacrifice. It had been drummed into him for years.
So he waited, in their usual spot, for what would be the last time.
Sibyl found him in the same place she always did: an out of the way sunroom with a beautiful view of the stars out the window on nights such as this one. He was waiting, dressed down in his cotton breeches and tunic, waiting for her.
She couldn't help her smile.
"How was your day?" she asked, sitting down on a stone bench under the window. She frowned when he remained standing, all uncertainty and confusion. He looked like a little boy heading to the Chantry to confess his wrongdoings. "Is something wrong?"
She patted the open space next to her. He sighed and averted his gaze.
"Sibyl… we need to talk."
"That's what I'm here to do," Sibyl agreed. "Tell me everything."
"I… I think perhaps this—this, ah, friendship between us…" He looked pained, and her heart squeezed in her chest. "Perhaps it isn't the best for you."
She took a deep breath and drew back. "I don't understand."
"I think we should stop meeting like this. You should focus on your other friendships with the other mages," Cullen said softly.
She shook her head, dazed. It was as if he had begun spouting in ancient Tevinter.
"But—Cullen, this doesn't make any sense. Why would you think such a thing? Has someone… accused you of anything? We're not doing anything wrong!" Sibyl stood quickly and moved towards him. He stiffened as she drew near, feeling her heat.
"No. Nothing of the sort. But I—I love you, Sibyl," Cullen said, mustering the courage to look at her as he said it. Her expression softened, she smiled. "But we both know it's useless. You're wasting your time on me."
"Cullen, don't be ridiculous—"
"No, Sibyl, this is ridiculous. Ridiculous of me to entertain for so long. I want you to be happy, and I'm only hurting you by staying so close. We have to get over this, us, whatever it is. The Maker forbids us—"
"No, you're wrong," Sibyl interrupted, reaching out and taking his face in her hands. He flinched but did not move away. "You're hurting me, if you go."
"I'm so sorry I let it come to this. But we were fools to think it would end well."
Sibyl shook her head. "I don't believe that. I don't believe we have to be unhappy forever, because you're a templar. Because I'm a mage. Would the Maker want that?"
Cullen only continued staring into her eyes, sad, unmoving. She bit her lip, hard. She should have known—honestly, probably didknow—that it would come to this at some point. He was right about that. As time has passed and their friendship grew deeper and deeper, they both knew it had crossed over into something else. Into something… forbidden, at least by the Chantry. But she was Irving's best student, and Cullen one of Greagoir's most promising soldiers. They had both lived their entire lives by the Chantry's book. They were both good people.
She couldn't believe the Maker would let them find each other, love each other, if He didn't approve of those feelings. And no one would tell her otherwise.
"We can be together, Cullen. We are together already, aren't we? It would be easy. No one would have to know."
Cullen didn't seem to understand. His eyes were so sad—she saw so much loneliness in him, so much innocence and goodness. That was one thing she knew for certain: Cullen was good, innately, in a way that almost made her ashamed of herself. She worked so hard for her goodness, to do what was right, what was expected of her. For Cullen, it was just what he was.
"I love you, too, Cullen," she said finally, leaning into him, her eyes falling closed.
She kissed him.
Soft. Gentle. For a moment, he didn't respond—shocked, she guessed, but with her lead, he began to give in, to get a feel for the rhythm of it. She ran her fingers through his hair and his hands settled comfortably around her waist, pulling her in close, their bodies pressed together.
It felt good. It felt so right.
And she was so wrapped up in it—in him, his lips, his scent, everything about him—that for a moment, she lost sight of the rest of the world. She wanted to forget everything outside of just them two and what they shared: forget the Circle, forget the templars, forget her Harrowing and her worries and everyone else, even her friends.
"Are you in there?"
The voice was muffled, unclear, and she tuned it out. No one came to this out of the way sitting room at this hour—perhaps to pass down the hall, but never come in. It was their spot, a place where they could be alone. There was no reason to worry, so she didn't.
When she heard the creak of the door hinges, the clang of armored boots entering the room, it was already too late.
And then the shouting started.
She sat in the First Enchanter's office, alone, except for Irving—looking so disappointed, so gravely upset—and the Knight-Commander, livid.
Cullen was waiting in the Knight-Commander's office, she supposed. They would deal with him next. The look on his face as they'd been caught was burned into her memory. Nothing but… apologies.
She swallowed and stared at her knees.
"Maker, Sibyl," Irving began. "I don't believe it."
The Knight-Commander stepped towards her, his expression more severe. "Nor can I. But at least we have answers, now. All those rumors about apprentices seducing templars have been plaguing me for weeks—"
"Sibyl, how did it come to this?" Irving continued. "This isn't like you. If you know anything, I beg you to tell us what's going on."
She looked up, meeting her teacher's eyes, and took a deep breath.
"It was all me."
They must have been about eleven years old at the time. Twelve, at most. She still remembered it so vividly.
"I'm so sorry, Dorian," Sibyl had begun, sitting next to Jowan across the classroom table from their friend. They were meant to be studying the incantations for a few simple spells, but this was the first time they'd seen him since early that morning at breakfast, when a very angry enchanter had yanked him out of the Great Hall practically by the ear. Sibyl and Jowan had sat and watched in ashamed horror as she accused him of sneaking into the templar quarters supply area a few nights previously and knocking over a very expensive suit of Knight-Commander plate, leaving it scuffed and damaged.
For once, it hadn't been his fault. It might have been Dorian's idea to sneak into the templar quarters, just to see what was up there—but it had been Sibyl who had opened the door to the supply rooms, and Jowan who had pushed her into the giant suit of armor while arguing.
But of course, no one suspected them. It was Dorian who was always trying to come up with pranks to play on the templars, and Dorian who was blamed for this latest small catastrophe.
She sat in silence.
"Come, Sibyl," he said reasonably. "Everyone here knows that this doesn't make sense. Just tell us the truth, and I'm sure the Knight-Commander will be forgiving."
"It was me," Sibyl said repeated, softly, but with conviction. "I don't know about any other rumors than mine."
The Knight-Commander slammed his fist on the table and turned away in frustration. Behind him, Irving sighed deeply.
"I've been flirting with Cullen for months, and spreading rumors about us that I wanted to be true," she went on, her voice low and mechanical. "That's all I know."
Her passive expression was infuriating. Both the First Enchanter and the Knight-Commander were staring at her in equal disbelief. This was Sibyl Amell sitting before them, after all—the brightest student, the most promising mage the Circle had seen in years.
She had never gotten in any trouble that Dorian Surana hadn't facilitated, and everyone in the First Enchanter's small office knew it.
She had thought for sure that he would tell the enchanter who had really damaged the armor, but instead it seemed their friend had quietly accepted full responsibility and the consequent punishment.
"I can't believe she's going to make you help the guardsmen polish their armor by hand," Jowan said in sympathetic indignation. "That's cruel! I thought she'd just give you lines!"
Dorian shrugged. "It won't be so bad. Templar Bran hates me. He won't actually let me touch any of their armor for a second. I'll probably just have to hold the wax barrel or something."
Sibyl looked appalled.
"No, this isn't right. I'm going to tell Enchanter Deidre the truth," she said, hands on her hips, with a severe look to Jowan. The boy sitting at her side stared glumly down at his hands, but nodded in dejected agreement. "We have to take responsibility for our actions."
"Don't bother," Dorian responded with a brave grin. "You and Jowan have better things to do than polish armor. I'm used to being punished anyhow."
"Stop protecting him!" the Knight-Commander finally yelled. "We know all of the rumors just as well as you do. Just give us his name, tell us it's true, and Maker—I'll let you off completely!"
"There are always rumors about him," she said with a tiny, ironic smile, refusing even then to speak the name she knew he so desperately wanted to hear. "I heard one that he was even having relations with you, Knight-Commander. Unless you'd like me to confirm that for the whole Tower to hear? I told you, I am the only one behaving inappropriately with templars. You know how he is. I think it just made him jealous, so he made up a few stories. He likes to rile up templars."
She let out a bitter laugh, almost involuntarily. "I guess it worked."
"Irving, I am sick of the mockery these apprentices are making of the order," the Knight-Commander said, turning to him hotly. "If she refuses to stop blatantly lying to our faces—"
"Forgive me, Knight-Commander," she interrupted evenly, and he turned back to her. She met his angry gaze with a deep calmness that surprised even her. As she spoke the words, for a moment, she almost believed them herself: "But I do not lie."
Usually, that was the truth. But sometimes it came so naturally. Dorian was right; she was just as talented a liar as he—she just had different methods.
"That doesn't make it fair," Sibyl argued. "Jowan and I knocked over the suit of armor. It's not right for you to be blamed for something that was our fault."
"It's not about being fair," Dorian told her sensibly. "It's just practical. It's not like I won't get punished for being out of bed, anyway. If you tell, you'll just have to be in trouble with me. That's stupid. Don't say anything."
"He has a point, Sib," Jowan said. "If we tell, then it's just all three of us waxing armor all afternoon."
Sibyl frowned at Jowan. "It still doesn't seem right."
Dorian raised a finger and grinned brightly, struck by an idea.
"It's like this," he said cheerfully. "The templars are like the Tevinter Imperium. I'm Shartan, and I'm used to being punished and told what to do all the time, because I'm a slave. But you're Andraste. Everyone thinks you're perfect and looks up to you. You can't get in trouble."
"Andraste wouldn't let Shartan take the blame for her mistakes," Sibyl said. Dorian waved a hand dismissively.
"She's not. We're friends, and we can't go ratting each other out," he explained. "Someday, I'll get myself in terrible trouble and then I'll know I can trust you to protect me. Andraste and Shartan couldn't have taken down the Imperium if they didn't stick up for each other."
"Andraste also got betrayed and burned at the stake. It's not really the best metaphor," Jowan pointed out. "Don't you ever pay any attention when the Revered Mother speaks?"
Dorian's grin was wider, now. "No."
Irving let out another deep sigh. "She has been completely forthright with us, Greagoir," he said. "Sibyl, you have always shown the highest integrity and honesty to us before. However grave your recent missteps have been, if you say the other rumors are not true, I believe it."
Greagoir let out a bitter laugh. "You, too, then? So be it. Apprentice Amell, you are hereby confined to the lowest levels of the Tower—the dormitories, libraries, and Great Hall. All of your privileges, including grounds privileges, have been revoked until further notice. I expect to see you in the chapel for both morning and evening services until the Reverend Mother decides you have been properly penitent. And if I hear that you have so much as breathed in the vicinity of Templar Cullen again, the consequences will be far more severe."
She glanced down at her hands and nodded. "Yes, Knight-Commander."
"In addition, your current Harrowing date has officially been cancelled," he added. "In fact, it has been postponed indefinitely."
Her mouth fell open, words of protest bubbling up in her throat. But the Knight-Commander continued to glare at her severely across the table, and when she glanced to the First Enchanter she found nothing more than resigned sympathy there. She thought better of any further insubordination. Recanting her story and turning Dorian in now was out of the question. It was a matter of practicality, after all. "I understand, Knight-Commander."
"Then get out of my sight."
End of "What Pride Wrought" next time... nothing gets better. I really will finish this one day! Thanks to everyone who continues to read & review, you're the best!