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By Sabrina Zbasnik

Romance / Fantasy

Moment of Study

Five candles sputtered in between the massive wall of papers I was not supposed to stack up like little siege towers. I stared at one candle, the top pitching to the left like it flared in hurricane winds. If it just leaned a bit more an ember could dance free and spark up this ancient and mind rotting parchment, freeing me forever from this curse.

The door to my prison blew open, and instinctively I reached over to catch the candle - my honed dexterity dooming me for eternity. After blowing it out, I looked up to find a human filling the doorway. It was one of them, the important ones, but the foreign name rolled around in my brain, struggling to find purchase. Creators, I was going to have get better at this.

He twisted back, glancing down the quiet halls of the chantry, then to me. "Herald? I didn't expect anyone in the...what are you doing in here?"

I shoved aside the books with my hands, providing a clean path so I could stare up at him. "Paying my penance." His eyes narrowed at my whining and the name snapped into place. Cullen. Right. So far he was the only one who didn't try to lock me in place, though the chains were preferable to the ambassador's current machinations.

Cullen worked his jaw, as if terrified to walk into the room I was sentenced to die in. Instead, he maintained a vigil in the doorway. "Your penance?"

Working a crick out of my neck, I said, "Seems it's rather bad form for the Herald of Andraste to not know a damn thing about her flameproofness, so I was banished to this dungeon with a stack of these," I slammed the books back into the table, rattling another half staff candle, "until I could come out reciting the Chant of Right."

"Light, it's the Chant of Light."

"Oh for..." my hands rolled over my face, burrowing it deep into my feeble notes. "I tried, I really have, but all I get through the thees, and thous, and begettings is Andraste got set on fire, there's a Mafarath - who I think was her dog - that let her down, she had a sword named Hessarian."

"That, um..." Cullen finally stepped into the room, his fingers breaking from his sword to rifle through the books coating the massive table running the length of the room.

"What?" I pleaded, sitting up off the bed. After an hour sitting primly in that chair, I needed to move and took to rolling across the third bed in the room. More books in a language I couldn't read swarmed around me, a few accidentally shoved to the floor. I only kept them around because they came with pictures - nearly all of them of a pretty lady bathed in flames. For being their god, they sure liked showing her in pain.

Cullen shook his head, "Your understanding is...I'm afraid it's not right. Mafarath was Andraste's husband and Hessarian was the Magister that put her to the flame."

I jumped up on my knees, bouncing on the bed, my hands smacking against my thighs, "Why do they keep going on about his merciful sword? If he killed her, how is he a good guy?"

"That's a difficult one to..." Cullen glanced back, "Who put you in here? Cassandra?"

"No," I shook my head, then cast a long finger out the door and across the hall. The distance was enough she wasn't visible to me, but I knew she was watching. Always watching. "That demon you call an ambassador. Sweet as pie she calls out, 'Oh, Lady Lavellan, could I have a moment of your time?' Next thing I know, I'm chained to the desk with all of the chantry history dropped on my head and told I needed to digest it all. 'It wouldn't look well for the Herald of Andraste to be shown up by the remaining clerics, now would it?'" My scowl ended on a growl as I recounted the story. "She's had me trapped in here ever since."

"But the door was unlocked," Cullen said, gesturing back to his breaking into my dungeon.

"Check the inside." He tried to lift the latch but found it stuck fast. "I could have picked it in two minutes, but she put me in here specifically to keep an eye from across the hall. My only hope was digging through the floor to drop into the dungeon, but I broke all the spoons."

Finally, he surveyed the mess I made of the room. When my eyes watered from the scratch of the quill that was supposed to be words, I'd break away to do something, anything with my muscles. Tea cups hung suspended off the candelabras bracketed to the wall. Tipping one would drop liquid into another until it tipped enough to drain, then another, until it all collected in the pot at the bottom. I didn't risk the books that seemed more ancient than my clan, but Josephine left me with enough parchment and ink for notes I took to doodling. At first it was small things - trees, rivers, anywhere I could be that wasn't here - then I tried my hand at people. Varric's nose filled his face, my hand unable to get the perspective, and Cassandra's glaring eyes followed one around the room. I was so proud of that one, I tacked it to the wall.

"Maker's breath, how long have you been in here?" Cullen said, his fingers picking at my portrait of Josephine with horns growing out of every pore on her face.

"See that hour glass," I pointed to one stashed on top of the end table just beside the door. "Every hour, that horror in culottes would pop in and flip it over. She did it three times so far."

"Three hours!" Cullen exclaimed, shaking his head. "And in all that time you've only figured out how Andraste died."

Shame curled around my toes as I looked around at the disaster I built up in the room. They were only trying to help. I repeated that to myself often, especially when the talk of shoes rose once again. I understood their stance, the Herald of the burning Lady should know about the Chantry, and Orlais, and the Templars, and mages, and every other damn thing wrong in the world. But I couldn't tamp down the resentment growing in my belly every time I sat down with one of the books, trying to understand what was the point of someone spouting "And Lo when the sun doth set upon the fragrant incense of time, shall the Maker guide our light into the darkest of day." Unless there was a canticle on how to close the damn sky, I wasn't going to find much help in the books.

Sliding my toes out from under me, I perched upon the bed, staring at the floor. "I knew of Andraste before. The Dalish hear things, despite being savage barbarians living in the woods."

Cullen stuttered at my choice of words, "I would never..."

I interrupted him, not meaning to put him out, "She did help to free us from Tevinter. We don't forget that. And Shartan! We know him. Not that it does me any good," I grumbled. Despite the massive history surrounding me, any mention of the elven general was wiped as clean as they could get it. The chantry didn't like being reminded it wasn't just humans that brought down the mighty Tevinter Imperium.

My knees knocked into each other as I continued to apologize for myself, "And I'm trying, but...sweet Creators this is so dry!"

The commander renewed his search through the piles, picking up scrolls and flipping through the pages of books. Cullen snorted, tossing a book down, "I don't know many Templars that could make it through the Blessed's Canticles of Configuration. That seemed to be the era of anything written must be coded through metaphor lest they put you in the stocks for not being colorful enough."

My vigil on the floor broke as I flipped around on the bed to meet his eyes. I never noticed how warm they glowed in candle light. He smiled softly at me, then flipped through more of the books, shaking his head at the inanity of them. "This would be so much easier if I was Elgar'non's Herald," I muttered.

Cullen snickered at that, "That'd please the chantry for certain. The upstart Inquisition is in league with the elven gods. Heretics all around."

I twisted around on the bed and began to gather up the books. He was right, they all were. If I wanted to help I had to play the part, which meant becoming something I never asked to be. No matter how much my brain revolted, I'd have to learn about these foreign names and their importance at some point. But did it have to be now when my hand still throbbed and if I closed my eyes tight I saw the old forests of my clan? Homesickness didn't figure in to saving the world. I picked up the last book, its binding fresher than the others, and added it to the stack.

Cullen reached out to yank it away. "That one's mine, actually," he said, a pinkness tinting his cheeks.

"Oh?" I asked, watching him carefully place it upon the nightstand. Then I looked down at the twisted and wadded blanket below my knees. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I, uh," I hopped off the bed, then tried to reach over to smooth out the evidence I'd spent almost all afternoon rolling on it. "I thought it was Josephine's."

He smiled wanly, then glanced back at my drawing, "It's not trapped in anyway, is it?"

"No, no," I shook my head. "Nothing like that. I may have, um, taken a small nap though. Sorry."

"That's preferable to finding a dead rat in the pillow," he said. For a moment his soft smile caused my stomach to flip. Even my toes, shoeless to spite the ambassador, curled up from the way he looked at me. My cheeks rose in an idiotic grin.

"Nothing like that...and I already said that. I, uh, shit! You probably wanted to sleep, or change, or something..." How had I not realized he slept here too? The commander was always out with the troops running drills, or observing, sometimes just staring off into the horizon as if challenging the breach with his willpower. "I'll just gather all this up and..." I sighed, the weight of my task threatening to crush me, "Maybe if I sit right in front of Josephine trying to re-read the same sentence, she'll realize how fruitless this is."

"I was thinking," Cullen said, "there is a verse that you could use."


"If any clerics or other Orlesians," he managed to sneer the name only the way a Ferelden could, "give you trouble, recite Canticles 4:35. 'A helping hand, no matter how unlearned the owner, is more useful than all the greatest minds sitting upon theirs.'"

I jumped up and ran towards him. Before he could react, I pinned my arms around Cullen in a hug, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! That will work, right? Just Canticles 4:35." I repeated the verse a few times to myself while still holding tight to the commander. His light blush was into a full on fever burn at this point, but I couldn't bury my exuberance, my legs jumping slightly at the promise of freedom.

"It should get you through Val Royeaux, at least," he said, glancing towards the ceiling.

Shame finally bullied its way through my joy and I released my hold. He reached behind his neck, trying to rub away the burn while I beat my hands together, "Thank you," I repeated, unable to believe the curse was truly broken with just a few words and numbers, "Ma serannas. Creators bless you. Or Andraste, or your Maker, or whomever."

"You're welcome, and if you ever wish to learn more, I would...have time to be willing to teach you. It'd have to be better than reading the annotated version of the Chant."

My smile stretched wider from his offer and I bowed my head. Hearing about all the human gods didn't seem so mind numbing and painful coming from his lips. "And if you ever need to learn about the elven gods, I'm your Dalish savage."

He chuckled, "Perhaps they'll offer guidance to you in Val Royeaux."

I shook my head, "Our gods are all gone. Well, except for Fen'Harel. But you really wouldn't want him around for this." Turning out of the door, I shouted to a passing soldier, "Gather Solas and Varric. I'll tell Cassandra we march for Val Royeaux by morning."

The soldier nodded, but glanced back at the commander. He tipped his head softly enough I probably wasn't supposed to notice. It was a kind gesture from him in a long string of them. Rubbing my legs, I glared through Josephine's open door, but the ambassador didn't come running out. Either she overheard my chanting of the verse that would free me, or wasn't about to challenge the commander.

"I believe I deserve a good run through the woods searching for all the damn elf root I can carry," I declared.

Cullen smiled, "And I wouldn't mind giving the bed a go myself. No dead rats?"

I shook my head, "No fish sewn into the blanket either."

He blinked and reared back, "Maker! If I promise to never trap you in a room for study, will you swear to turn your devious brain upon someone else."

Winking, I said, "For you, anything." Before he had time to recover, I ran out of the chantry savoring the feel of freedom in my muscles, 'Canticles 4:35' chanted under my breath.

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