Work Header

High in the Clean Blue Air

Work Text:

When it was done, when the hard ground of Caer Oswin was covered in blood and there was no one left alive within its walls save the Inquisitor and her companions, Cassandra felt—nothing.

It was, she knew, very much like the sensation when one touched something very hot or very cold: a shock so severe that you could at first not feel it at all, and could only anticipate that the pain, when it came, would be intense. She would rage, she knew, and she would grieve, with ferocity; but for now, she could not feel it.

"Are you all right?" the Inquisitor asked, and Cassandra knew from the little wince she made the instant after she said it that she knew it was a foolish question. Cassandra wanted to say No, but in this moment she could say nothing at all, so she simply nodded. Then she knelt, and began the careful work of cleaning her sword. She could feel the others watching her, feel it as tangibly as the cold stone beneath her knees.

When the sword was clean, she rose to her feet and found her tongue. "I would like to burn the bodies," she said. "I would like to put them to rest. They were betrayers and betrayed, but I would still like to do it."

"Of course," said the Inquisitor.

When the Order of the Seekers of Truth was intact, each body would have been burned separately, and the ashes interred in separate urns and kept in the Order's columbarium. She herself had found solace in this fact, that the Order would not permit her Mortalitasi kin to return her to the Necropolis and subject her body to a spirit. But there was no time to do the proper rites now, and at any rate the Order's columbarium was long since destroyed along with the rest of it. It was all they could do to gather as many bodies as they could find and burn them together on a great pyre.

Still, at the end, she gathered some of Daniel's ashes, to scatter somewhere far from this place where he had been tormented.

The ride back to Skyhold was long and cold. In one saddlebag was the Book of Secrets; in the other, the pot containing Daniel's ashes. Next to the weight of her gear and her armor and her supplies, they weighed almost nothing; and yet they lay heavy on her heart.

The hollowness lasted until they returned to Skyhold, for which she was grateful, and then the anger and the grief came down over her with all the fury of dragonfire.

Control was a good thing, Cassandra knew, and careful reflection, and temperance. But her temper was her besetting vice, and her anger sometimes rose up in her so strong that she must vent it or be choked by it. She broke a chair, hacked a training dummy to pieces, stalked the grounds of Skyhold so fiercely that everyone—servants and soldiers, dignitaries and merchants—scattered before her. She raged. (She did not weep. It was said, sometimes, that tears could bring relief, even comfort, but she had never found it so. Crying did not ease her pain; it only left her red-eyed, embarrassed, with a headache.)

She was aware, dully, that even her friends were giving her a wide berth. She could not blame them. There was no guarantee that she would not sharpen her tongue on them, now in the depths of her black mood. It was unfair, she knew this. It was not their fault that she had lost another home, just as she had lost the place she had once had with Justinia, just as she had lost her family. It was not their fault—but she was not entirely sure that she would be able to keep her temper in check even so. So they stayed away from her, and she from them. Even the Iron Bull, who generally seemed to enjoy pushing his luck with her—they all stayed away, waiting, she supposed, for the thunderstorm of her emotions to pass over.

With one exception.

She was in the library, ostensibly researching more of the history of the Seekers; in truth, staring at the same page for five minutes at a time and brooding. Her presence had cleared out that particular chamber in the library, and so she was immediately aware when someone did join her.

Josephine looked as composed and polished as ever, although it still never failed to surprise Cassandra how much smaller she seemed without her writing-board in her hand or the great space of her desk before her. "Lady Cassandra," she said. "I will not pretend to have any idea what you are feeling, but I wanted to offer you my sincerest condolences personally."

As pretty a statement as anyone could wish. Cassandra could not find it in herself to do more than grunt a reply. She knew it was unfair—she had come to know Josephine well enough to know that her sympathy, though polished in its presentation, was genuinely felt; her instinct was to mistrust politicians on principle, but even so she tentatively counted Josephine among her friends—but she could not find it in herself to do anything else.

"I realize that there is not much that I can do," Josephine continued, "but if there is anything—"

"No," Cassandra said curtly.

Josephine hesitated, then nodded. She made to turn away.

"Wait," Cassandra said. "Actually... there is perhaps something."

It would have certainly been within Josephine's rights to demur, now that Cassandra had been so uncivil in response to her initial offer, but she simply turned back and said, "Yes?"

"A vigil. For my apprentice—former apprentice, who died at Caer Oswin." Died by her own hand. She did not regret that, it was the most merciful thing she could have done, but she would not forget that moment; it burned behind her eyes when she closed them at night.

Josephine blinked, but if she was surprised she did not show it any other way. "Of course," she said, "but I am no Sister of the Chantry—perhaps Leliana would be better suited—?"

"Leliana," Cassandra said, "is relentlessly curious. She will not be able to stop herself from asking questions. I wish this done with as few questions as possible." The thought of discussing Daniel's life and death, or worse, discussing how she felt, seemed abominable.

"Ah," Josephine said. "Yes. What do you require, then?"

Cassandra paused to consider. "Candles," she said. "Incense—cedarwood would be best if it can be got. An urn of good quality. The merchants... make themselves scarce from me these days." Was that the faintest ghost of a smile around Josephine's eyes? No, no doubt she was imagining things. "But what I require your aid for specifically is a period of time, from dusk until dawn, somewhere that I will be wholly uninterrupted. And without having to discuss it."

"I believe I can manage that," Josephine said.

It was four days later that Josephine revealed that she had managed, through some negotiation and no doubt calling in of favors with Mother Giselle, for Cassandra not only to have an uninterrupted space but that the space should be Skyhold's chapel. It was not something Cassandra had expected—certainly she would not have dreamed to monopolize the chapel for an entire night—but she would not turn it down once offered.

It was not the first time Cassandra had performed the Seekers' mourning vigil; she had done this for Ser Byron once, long ago, and then a few times since. The steps were familiar to her: the lighting of candles and of incense, the singing of certain sections of the Chant, the meditation. But it occurred to her, as she went through the steps with the ease of memory, that it was possible this was the last time she would ever perform these rites, or any other Seeker rites. If she chose not to rebuild the Seekers, then she would be the last, and there would be no one for her to perform them for again, and indeed no one to perform them for her.

She put the thought aside, settling into prayer until the light of dawn spread beneath the door, and rose feeling calm for the first time in days.

It was not easy even after that, of course. But it was better.

Cassandra knew that her temper was her primary sin, and yet she consoled herself that at least her rages passed over and through her and then were spent. She rarely held a grudge, and she did not brood; she preferred to move forward. But the loss of her Order was an empty space in her chest. She had not spent as much time with them as another Seeker would have, bound as she had been by duties to two Divines, but they had been... her base, her center, for many years. It was perhaps not too melodramatic to say that they had been her family. Ser Byron, long ago, the closest thing to a father she could remember (her memories of her blood parents were muddled and dim, and sometimes she was unsure whether she truly remembered them or had invented them from Anthony's stories and her own longing). Daniel, if not perhaps like a son then like a much-loved nephew: a bit brash, a bit prideful, but also endearingly—and annoyingly—inclined to follow her about like a puppy, always wanting another lesson, wanting to push himself past what was merely acceptable for a Seeker, pushing himself towards excellence.

She remembered how confidence in his readiness had sat uneasily alongside fear for him when he went on his Vigil. Most of those who failed the Vigil simply failed, and were sent, depending on their inclinations, either to the Templars or to the Chantry, but it was said that sometimes a failed Vigil resulted in an apprentice losing their sanity—or losing their mind entirely. And Cassandra, remembering the sheer intensity of the Vigil's climactic moments, could easily believe it. But Daniel had returned triumphant, as she knew in her heart that he would. And she had clasped his hand not as his mentor but as his friend, and saw in his eyes the knowledge that all Seekers shared—the knowledge of a moment of perfect faith and ecstatic communion with the Maker, brief and transitory by nature but as real and shining and crystal-clear as a cut diamond—and that was impossible to explain to anyone who had not experienced it.

(And now, of course, she knew that that moment had been—had been a sham, not a moment of divine transcendence but the interference of a spirit from beyond the Veil, knew that the tie that bound all Seekers in their shared initiation into mystery was based on a lie. Perhaps it was no wonder that at the end she must learn that the Order was committed to secrets and manipulation rather than the fiery clarity of truth, when the very basis for their faith and their powers was itself a masquerade. She wished, sometimes, that she had never received the book and found the truth—and then hated herself for those moments of weakness, for truth was meant to be her guiding principle.)

And it was not only Byron and Daniel. There was Alsia, two years younger than her and yet far more advanced in theology than Cassandra when they had both been trainees, as she had been given to the Seekers when she was all of six years old. And though Cassandra had not always been the most patient student—eager, ever, for a far more physical kind of training—Alsia had helped her study, and then as adults they had become friends as well. Alsia, fair-blonde and rosy and with a sweet face that hid a vivid and occasionally outright inappropriate sense of humor, whose letters, rare though they were, had brought Cassandra moments of brightness and even of laughter. There was Janek, so tall and thin that he looked like a mummer's jointed puppet—so tall and thin that it seemed impossible that he could wield the weight of a waraxe, and yet he did. Janek, who unlike Alsia had as far as anyone could tell no sense of humor whatsoever but whose kindness was legendary within the walls of the Seeker strongholds. There was Dasher—which wasn't his real name, but his nickname was so ingrained that most of the Seekers had forgotten what his birth name in fact was—whose passion for good food bordered on the gluttonous, but who was beloved for his ability to turn half a pound of salt beef and a brick of hardtack and a few wild onions, mysteriously, into an excellent meal.

All dead, most likely. At best, scattered and in hiding. But most likely dead. Another family killed; another home broken. The Rivaini, whose seers believed in such things, would no doubt see her as cursed, a woman of ill omen, untouched by destruction but bearing it with her wherever she went. And she had heard a story—though it was most likely merely rumor—that among the Avvar, if a child was orphaned once, they were given to another member of the clan to be raised; and if a child was orphaned again then they would be given a third home, and none may say anything against the child for it; but if a child lost their third home, they were abandoned to the woods, that their misfortune might not spread further. One home lost with her brother's death, another when Justinia died and the Chantry fractured, and now... perhaps she should walk away from Skyhold into the cold mountains and keep her infection from killing yet a fourth family.

No. Self-pitying foolishness, superstition; even blood mages and necromancers, though they might control your body and possess your mind, could not change your fate. Fate was in the Maker's hands.

Cassandra did not rage again. The heat of her anger had passed through her, and the icy depths of her despair had as well. But she spent more time in prayer and in meditation, emptying herself again and again, as though she was a cloth that could be made white again if only it was washed enough times.

Her friends no longer kept a wide berth from her. Cullen and Bull sparred with her again, Sera teased her and stole things from her pockets. Varric needled her again. But it seemed that Josephine was paying special attention to her, and Cassandra could not figure why. They had been on friendly terms before, but this was new.

"If you are not busy," Josephine said one evening—an evening when Cassandra was in the library again seeking answers that did not seem to exist—"Dorian and I would greatly enjoy your company over coffee."

Cassandra was momentarily diverted from her fruitless search. "I thought you favored tea at your interludes?" she said.

"Tea," Josephine said, with an air of great certainty, "is for afternoons and early evenings. Coffee is meant to be had very strong in small cups at the beginning of night-time, to aid the digestion of the evening meal. Dorian is the only other one who understands this, although he insists on making his coffee in the Tevinter fashion, with the grounds left in the cup like mud."

"All right," Cassandra said, after a moment. "Yes."

Coffee once turned into coffee again—and then again. Josephine made Antivan coffee, strong as a kick from a mule and served in tiny cups. (They were not, thankfully, thin china, but glazed pottery.) She drank it black; Cassandra laced hers with honey and cream, which in the already-velvety texture of the coffee felt an almost indecent luxury. A few times, Dorian joined them and made the coffee. Cassandra found herself agreeing with Josephine that the silk-smooth texture of Antivan coffee was preferable to the thicker texture of Tevinter coffee, though both were to be preferred to the coffee served in Orlais, which was thin and sour by comparison. But for the most part it was only the two of them.

Each time, Cassandra thought that this would be the last time. There was much to do; she was busy—and so was Josephine; they did not have the luxury of frivolous conversation. She did not even like purposeless conversation much. And yet even so, each time she gave in and agreed. Why she was not sure, except—

—except that Josephine's presence was somehow deeply soothing. She wondered if that was why Josephine was doing this, to soothe her, and if perhaps someone—the Inquisitor? Leliana?—had put her up to it in the fashion of the old Orlesian tale of the dreadful beast who could only be tamed and made safe by a beautiful maiden. If that was the case, she supposed perhaps she should be offended, and would have been except of course that it seemed to work.

At first, Josephine carried the conversations. It was at once a relief—because Cassandra knew herself to be stilted and awkward in conversation—and a source of guilt; surely if she was going to take up the Ambassador's time, she should at least do her part. But Josephine did not seem to mind; she told anecdotes about the various dignitaries she was hosting, complained in a mild fashion about the difficulties of doing her job at Skyhold (the repairs on the main keep were even yet still unfinished, causing problems for housing of visiting nobles; the nobles themselves were often demanding and eccentric; and Sera could not be persuaded to stop pranking them no matter what bribes or threats Josephine levied), and asked not-too-prying questions about Cassandra's adventures. After a time, she began to speak more personally, about her family.

"I received a letter from Laurien yesterday," she said this time, setting down her cup. "He is doing wonderful work in the shipyard, but I worry; he has a propensity to overwork himself."

"I cannot think that you of all people should have any ground to complain about that," Cassandra said.

Josephine sighed and smiled. "Yes, well. One cannot say that the Montilyets are not hard workers. Even Yvette, if I am being fair; or at least she spends an enormous quantity of time with her tutor—although given the handsomeness of her tutor and the curious scarcity of her finished paintings, I am not entirely sure that work ethic is her motive. Then again, some days I suspect that Yvette's motive is nothing more than to annoy me as much as she can possibly manage."

"You may have put your finger on it," Cassandra said. "When I was small and I wanted Anthony's attention, I would—"

—and then she froze, breath stopped in her lungs. It was not even that the mention of Anthony itself was so hard. No, what shocked her to silence was the opposite. It was not difficult; it had come out as naturally as any other anecdote, as naturally as if the memory of Anthony was not still like her heart plucked from her chest.

She was silent for a long enough time to be awkward, and Josephine smiled, and set down her cup. "You don't need to say anything else," she said, "if you don't want to."

Cassandra's fingers flexed around her cup, which suddenly felt ridiculously small in her hand, like a toy. After a long time, she said, "No, it's all right. I was just going to say, when I was small and wanted Anthony's attention, which... was essentially always, I idolized him—if I could get his attention no other way, I would irritate him deliberately."

"Ahh. And the truth of a younger sibling's motives comes out at last." Josephine smiled, and something in the smile loosed a knot in Cassandra's chest. Josephine was, she realized with a start, a very beautiful woman. Of course Cassandra had known that, intellectually, but it was infrequent that she noticed viscerally the attractiveness of men, and vanishingly rare that she should do so with a woman. And yet this smile, bright as sunlight, unbound something in her chest.

"Once," Cassandra said, "when I was around six or seven, he was very busy with his studies. In truth he was still generous with his time, with me, but not—as I thought then—generous enough. So... I stole all his books and papers and hid them under my bed, and told him that I would not return them unless he promised to spend the next afternoon with me."

"But surely he was not much of a good playmate when he was angry with you?"

"You would think," Cassandra said. "But no, that wasn't Anthony's temperament. He was good-natured almost to a fault." She set her cup down on the table. "Not a common trait among Pentaghasts. Maker knows I did not inherit his likability."

"I don't know as I would agree with that," Josephine said, with that smile again, sunlight-warm, and something in Cassandra softened and lifted.

The urn with Daniel's ashes remained in Cassandra's room. It was a lovely thing, subdued and tasteful, glazed in the shade of deep blue that was often called 'Andraste's mantle;' Josephine had arranged for it, and Josephine's taste was impeccable. Cassandra had not, in truth, meant to keep it so long, but she had not yet found a suitable place to scatter Daniel's ashes.

It occurred to her, after an inexcusably long time, that perhaps she should try to find Daniel's family and return it to them. But she knew almost nothing about them; Daniel, given to the Seekers very young, had almost never spoken of them, and Seeker records had been scattered, and with war tearing apart the countryside there was every probability that his parents had moved, or been displaced, anyway. She soothed her conscience by telling herself that she would keep Daniel's sword, and if she found them, would give it to them.

But no place to scatter them seemed right. Or—if she was being more honest with herself, she thought, perhaps it was simply that she was not ready to let go yet.

Josephine was telling an anecdote about the wealthy heiress Lady Marcielle and her mysterious ability to turn any conversation into a stultifying discussion of dog breeding when Cassandra blurted, "I would like to tell you something."

Josephine stopped, smoothed her skirts, and smiled. (She was wearing, not the formal dinner gowns she had worn for their first few evening coffee meetings, but a soft dress of the type that an Antivan lady might have worn at home. Josephine was always beautiful—Cassandra had come to terms with the fact that she found Josephine beautiful—but in the gently billowing dress and in the golden light of the fire, she was radiant.) "Of course."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you." Josephine waved her hand, a gesture of dismissal. Cassandra swallowed. "I... it has been months since Daniel's death, my apprentice Daniel, and I have not spoken about him. To anyone. I... would like to. If that is all right."

"Of course," Josephine said. "I would be honored."

Cassandra opened her mouth, but the words didn't come. It was too much, too much to try to sum up a life—where to begin? How to begin? With Daniel's confidence, or the humbling focus of his attention, or his impressive generosity? Some anecdote that revealed the depth of his sense of humor, or perhaps another anecdote that showed why she had been so proud to call him her one apprentice? Begin at the beginning, or at the end? —no, not at the end, not there, if Josephine was to know Daniel from Cassandra's words she would not have that horrible ending be her first impression. Cassandra flushed, irritated with herself that she had interrupted Josephine when it turned out that she could not speak after all. She looked away, set her jaw, willed the red to leave her cheeks.

Josephine reached out, gently, and touched her wrist. It was the first time they had every touched in any way but incidentally; Josephine and Leliana touched each other all the time, casual brushes of a hand on an arm, the comfort of friendship, but Josephine was anything but forward with Cassandra—and though Cassandra was not shy of touch her touches were coarse, a firm grip of hands or a bracing clap on the shoulder of a comrade, and it had never seemed quite right to touch Josephine so. Josephine's touch was soft, as though she was touching something fragile, for all that Cassandra was anything but. In one of Cassandra's books, it might have been electrifying; here, in the real world, it was not. It did not shock her, did not make her blood simmer. It soothed her, like the aroma of roses, like the touch of muslin, like the warmth of a fire—and not any fire, not a searing bonfire or a blazing forge or the punishing heat of a funeral pyre, but the warm golden light of a hearth.

My lady, Cassandra thought, and the thought, unformed as it was, frightened her.

But Josephine's touch soothed; her presence soothed. Had always soothed.

Josephine said, "How did you meet him?"

It was a lifeline and Cassandra, grateful, seized it. "I was at Montsimmard—one of the Seeker fortresses, where I myself apprenticed. Daniel was perhaps twelve. Seekers are trained from younger than that, but they do not have individual mentors until they are twelve or perhaps thirteen, most of the time. I was by then the Right Hand, and I had never taken an apprentice; my duties to the Divine took up so much of my time that I did not think I could do the task justice. But Daniel... watched me. Followed me about. It was clear to me at that time that he wanted me as a mentor regardless."

"If you were by then the Right Hand and the Hero of Orlais," Josephine said, "I have to think that there were more trainees than one who wanted to be your apprentice."

Cassandra smiled, despite herself. "Not as many as you might think. My... ah... my temper was known by then, my lack of... patience. That is the other reason I had taken no apprentices; a good mentor must be patient. My own mentor, Ser Byron, was very patient indeed—as I suspect was necessary with such an apprentice as myself. But yes, there were always a few. I had always turned them down."

"What changed your mind, about Daniel?"

"It was not uncommon for young hopefuls to offer to do things for me. Tend to my horse, clean my weapons or my armor, things like that. I always preferred to do those things myself, though, and did not want to encourage them—so I always said no. Daniel offered to bring me buttered potatoes."

"I'm... not sure I understand."

"Buttered potatoes were my favorite food. Are, I suppose. Small new potatoes, either boiled or roasted in the ashes of a fire, with plenty of good butter and generous amounts of salt. And pepper and parsley if you have it, or in Nevarra we would have them with smoked paprika... I'm getting distracted. But for Daniel to know this, he must have done some... research, I suppose you would say, speaking to people who knew me, to my peers. So he must have heard about me."

"And so he would have heard about you as a person, presumably, and not just a figure." Josephine's fingers had shifted, or perhaps Cassandra's had; she couldn't say. But what she knew, now, was that Josephine was now holding her hand. It was not an inappropriate touch. It asked for nothing. It was light and warm and undemanding as dawn sunlight on one's face upon waking.

"Precisely. And those who knew me well enough to know that I would prefer a bowl of buttered potatoes above all delicacies would, hah, would not give him a romanticized picture of me. But beyond that... to offer to clean my armor or sharpen my sword has a certain romance to it. But to arrange to have the evening meal's menu changed would mean negotiating with the cook, who would require some favor in return—some deeply unromantic favor. Scrubbing pots, perhaps. Chopping onions. Taking scraps to the midden. I was... impressed by that. But not enough to make him my apprentice, not yet."

"What changed your mind?"

"I saw him sparring with one of his age-mates." Cassandra leaned back, remembering, that day some dozen years ago. "He was very talented, but that was not what impressed me...."

It was some three days later that Cassandra went to the chapel before dawn, alone, to pray.

She prayed as she had been taught, the words and silences of her meditations, and she sang the Chant, hearing her own unremarkable voice echoing against the stone walls, and she lost herself in worship until sunlight slid under the door and the Sisters came in, moving quietly around her so as not to disturb her, to light the incense for their own morning worship.

She rose to her feet, then, and went into the main keep, to the office where Josephine sat, dressed in her day clothes—shining, cinched, ruffled, as much armor as Cassandra's own.

Josephine looked up and smiled. "Cassandra."

"Lady Josephine," Cassandra said. "I have one more favor to ask you."

They did not have to go far. An hour's ride by horse, and they were there, at a peak Cassandra had seen once. The sky was cool, and blue, and bright above, and Daniel's ashes in her saddlebag did not weigh her as they once had.

It didn't matter, she realized, where she scattered them. She was glad for her own sake that she had rescued them from Caer Oswin. But Daniel was at the Maker's side now, safe in the edge of Andraste's mantle, and it did not matter at all where his earthly remains went, except to those who he had left behind.

"Is this a Seeker ritual?" Josephine asked, as they dismounted and made their way to the peak. Cassandra picked out the safest way up, stopped and turned to give Josephine her hand to steady her on the slipping pebbles and steep rocks. "To scatter the ashes?"

"No. We had columbariums, at Montsimmard and elsewhere. But I suspect they are destroyed, now." Cassandra stopped, then, and looked out into the cold clear wind. "This is for me. I wanted to leave him somewhere beautiful, and peaceful, and free."

"You chose a perfect place, then," Josephine said.

When it was done, and the wind had taken what remained of Daniel away, as his soul and spirit and heart and courage and kindness and humor had already been taken away to the Maker's side, Josephine put her hand in Cassandra's, and even through Josephine's kid gloves and Cassandra's own thicker leather gloves she fancied she could feel her warmth.

"Josephine," she said, and then hesitated.


"You have been... very kind to me, these past months. Not that the others have not been kind, but you especially. I... I wanted to ask you why."

Josephine was quiet a moment, and then she said, "After what happened, at Caer Oswin, I realized that I had no idea what you were feeling. Truly, no idea. I—it is not that I have never faced loss, I am an adult woman, but... I have never faced a great grief, not yet. My parents have not yet passed, even. And you have faced grief over and over and over again, and I wanted to—ease it."

Cassandra felt her stomach drop. "You pitied me," she said, more roughly than she meant.

"No!" Josephine's other hand came around to clasp Cassandra's, holding Cassandra's one hand between two of hers, cradled like something precious. "No, not that. But your life has been hard. And you have had to be hard with it. I wanted—oh, it is foolish." Her voice lowered. "I wanted to give you something soft. I wanted to ease your burden. And if I could not carry it for you, if I could perhaps not even understand it, then at least I could... could...."

It was a remarkable thing, here on this mountain peak, beneath the brilliant sun and with the wind as bright and cold and bracing as truth, to see Josephine Montilyet at a loss for words.

Cassandra brought up her free hand, and cupped Josephine's cheek, and felt the moment when she smiled that smile that outshined even the mountain sun. "Thank you," she said.