“But Cullen, see here-“
“Did I stutter?”
“Anyone would think you didn’t want to share them.”
“Not with the nobility of Orlais, I do not.”
“I think you are being rash. This is an excellent reason for a peaceful, joyful gathering, as well as winning ourselves some influence with the nobility. Recently, things have been tricky to say the least. An evening reception could be the turning point for this.”
“They are not bargaining chips.”
“But they attract much attention-”
“The children of the Herald of Andraste and the Commander of the Inquisition. Surely you understand the interest that garners; the people are curious.”
“They can stay curious, and preferably several miles away from Skyhold.”
Josephine let out an indignant huff, pointing her quill at him from across the war table. “You are being insufferable, and pig-headedly stubborn about this.”
“Cullen, it will be a fine evening!”
“They are children! One of them barely an infant, three months old!” Cullen’s lip curled as he snarled his response. “They will have no idea what is happening, other than being peered at and patted and prodded, on display for your politicking. I won’t agree to it.” He folded his arms firmly, glowering across the room at her, fully intending that the conversation be over.
“That’s a pity, because the Inquisitor already has.”
“I’d like to voice, once again, that I am entirely against this entire idea. Maker knows why you ever agreed to it.” Cullen’s scowl was fixed as the procession of caravans and trailers made their way into the courtyard of Skyhold, mingling with the welcoming party, the sounds of laughter and conversation rising in the air. Their daughter sat in his arms, young eyes watching the arriving banners and colours with fascination from the safety of the parapets.
“Is that why we have more guard on duty than the entirety of Val Royeaux?”
The displeasure on his face was evident. “Inviting half of Orlais in to our home, even just for the evening, is asking for trouble. Andraste preserve me, I will have lost my patience by the time the end of this debacle comes around.”
Elicia rolled her eyes, moving to stand at his side, gently leaning into him. The infant tucked in the crook of her arm squeaked at the movement, but continued to slumber on. “Cullen, love. You are overthinking this.”
She felt the soft scratch of stubble as he kissed the side of her head, free arm linking around her waist, pulling her in close, chest heaving with a sigh. “It makes me nervous.” The stark confession came as his previous stoicism slipped. “It is too easy, too open and exposed. It is bad enough having to agree to place you on a pedestal for all to see, to leave you so exposed, that I cannot control. But for them too…I know I cannot hide them here forever, but…To wish for some normality for them, to be safe in this uneasy world…”
“I cannot think of any way they will ever be safer. Skyhold is their home.” She let the silence hang for a moment before continuing. “We need to appease these families and win some favour for ourselves. I know you understand it well enough, and I know that underneath you distain for our ambassador’s posturing, you recognise the reality we face. This is difficult, but our duty to the Inquisition must also be a consideration. It is one evening.”
The sigh that began his reply told her he understood fine well. “They will be safe, because I have stationed guards at every possible problematic area within Skyhold, and will have all on high alert for any issues. I will not allow anything other than a trouble-free evening.”
“They will be safe,” Elicia countered, turning her gaze upwards to meet his, “because their father will be less than a breath away at all times. No would-be trouble maker would dare to do anything with that particular threat hanging over them.”
She allowed herself a coy grin as she felt his chest rise and fill with pride, the low chuckle that fell from his lips more relaxed. “At least we are in agreement about something.”
Any further response he had was interrupted by an excited cry from the toddler in his arms.
“Daddy, look! Flags!”
As it happened, the reception was undisturbed and typically boring. The nobles fawned over the new arrival (yes, he repeatedly answered, he had taken his eyes and hair from his father), whispered hushed remarks about the blessed second infant of the Herald (Connor, he did have a name, sweet Maker!) and marvelled at how alike their young girl was to her mother (Maker’s breath, was that really a surprise?). Frankly, the events of the day did little to change his opinion on the uselessness of pomp and circumstance of nobility, and only further served to reinforce his belief that a few good soldiers was better than any damn party. He was polite, however, Josephine’s warning eyes often finding him, and he spent the early evening fielding questions with ease, and sheltering a shy Imogen in his arms from the squealing noble women attempting to pinch her cheeks.
But when she began to whine, and rub at her eyes, and the baby grew restless, even with a full stomach, Cullen merrily volunteered to commandeer the bed time effort. Elicia had thanked him as she had passed the boy, the look they shared telling him there would be an admittance later on that perhaps he had been right about inviting so many people at once. But it was gone in a flash, and she was drawn into another conversation with another masked noble. Cullen slipped from the Great Hall with ease, leaving instructions with the guard should his presence be required, before disappearing into the quiet of Skyhold and the safety of their personal quarters, the warmth of the embers from the fire glowing in the dark of the evening.
As the door closed, he felt the invisible burden slip from him. Complete. He could relax, now that privacy was once more theirs, that the peering eyes and sickly-sweet voices had disappeared. Elicia was capable, more than capable, of handling an evening reception full of finery and indulgence. She was, after all, noble blooded, born into that world, far more attune with it and less noticeably irritated; Cullen, despite valiant attempt, had yet to ever find the patience, and often fought to control the sarcasm that awaited on his tongue. For all that the Inquisition was, and had, the Ferelden farm boy at his core still yearned for the most peaceful life he could muster.
He kicked off the leather boots that so pained his feet, setting the baby down amongst the covers on the bed before shedding the heavy dress jacket and waistcoat, and loosing the collar of his shirt. He set about changing Imogen from the ridiculously ruffled dress she had been subjected to, cladding her in fresh nightclothes and freeing her ever-growing hair from the confines of the plait Elicia had so carefully put in place.
“Come now, how about some peace from all that madness, hm? You have done a fine job as our newest ambassador. You look a little more like yourself now though, little one, and I fear I shall always prefer you to do so.” The soft giggle from her as he tickled under her chin made his heart swell, and he planted several kisses on her cheeks, peals of light laughter ringing out in response. Bundling both her and her brother back into his arms, he settled amongst the pillows on the bed, Imogen curling under one arm, the baby, with his golden tufts and rosy fat cheeks, nuzzling into his chest, breathing settling as calm descended. Cullen’s eyes closed almost automatically, the peaceful bliss addictive, and the content feeling of having both close, safe and quiet.
“So little, so new here, but so loved. Endless possibility, wrapped with hopes and dreams. Must protect, too innocent, too much evil in this world for them. How such little people have such hold over a heart.”
The sudden voice made him jump, eyes snapping open; even now, the Hedge mage could catch him by surprise. “Cole.” It was a rather obvious statement, and the boy, perched on the chair opposite, tilted his head.
“I was not aware you were sleeping. Did I frighten you?”
“I wasn’t, I…never mind.” He sighed, raising an eyebrow. “What do you want?”
“The Inquisitor asked me to check you had escaped in safety. She is trapped within conversation, mask after mask, words, words, words. It is so busy, but nobody notices Cole. I slipped up here very easily for her. She was worried it was too much.”
“Did she now?” He relaxed, returning to gently patting his son’s back, lulling him into a peaceful slumber with the quietest of sniffles. “Well, you can tell her that all is well, and she is free to continue with her evening. Although, I doubt I will be rejoining her, so please pass on my apologies.”
“Warm arms, broad chest, hands that guide, eyes that adore. Safe from all here, with my father, my favourite place in his embrace.”
Cullen’s eyes snapped up once more, following Cole’s gaze to his sleeping daughter, a dainty hand curled amongst his shirt, dark curls splayed as she found sleep, peace on her face, cheek resting at the arch of his shoulder. The creeping familiarity of fierce love wove into his chest as he watched her sleep, Cole’s words ringing in his ear, and a soft chuckle escaped him as he closed his eyes, knowing the spirit would be gone, leaving them in blissful peace once more.