“First there will be the mingling in the outer hall and the gardens while we wait to be announced. There will be some here that you should speak to but very few, save it for the main ballroom for the most part. Once we’re announced…Inquisitor, are you listening to me?”
“Hmm?” asked Meryell as she tilted her head at her reflection in the mirror that Josephine had brought into her room at Gaspard’s manor. Dresses weren’t her style but even she had to admit that this one was gorgeous and every other dress designed for the talks was designed from the same base. This particular one was a solid sheet of forest green that ran from her breasts to feet with a wide skirt that billowed out from her hips. From her breasts up was made out of some sort of sheer material with a soft coppery tone and was laced with thick interwoven cords of green that resembled tree branches, flowing down her arms until its end at the fitted cuffs of the sleeves. Though the best part was that someone had recommended fashioning the skirts of every dress so she could easily gather the fabric up in order to get her legs free for a fight. They’d even included carefully hidden ties to hold the gathered material. All she would have to do was wear hose and her boots underneath (if she could manage to get away with the latter).
She then turned her attention away to face the Antivan woman, who was primly perched on the edge of one of the very fancy looking chairs in the room, and nodded. “I was listening, Josie. Fucking honest.”
Thankfully the woman that was helping her into one of the damned dresses that had been designed for her to wear at this stupid fucking party was a part of the Inquisition and not a stranger that had been brought in last minute. So she could curse however she damned well pleased around her despite the fact that Josephine sighed at her every time she did.
The woman, Salain (she was pretty sure that was her name), at least had the good humor to chuckle every time she cursed.
“What did I just say then?” asked Josephine with one eyebrow arched.
Rolling her eyes, Meryell replied, “Mingle in the outer hall but not too much. Linger in the gardens outside a little bit longer than that but not overly long as we don’t want to show up last to the fucking party. Particularly not since Gaspard should be inside before we are and we’ll be introduced with him like we’re some kind of damned party trick.”
Salain let out a little snort at that and Meryell grinned, pointing down at the woman while mouthing at Josephine I like her! The ambassador let out a soft sigh before she lifted a hand to her nose to pinch the bridge.
“Please, Inquisitor…Meryell…be serious. We have only a few hours before the ball begins and then…”
“Relax, Josie,” she drawled. “I’m going to put my serious face on, don’t you worry. Just…” Gnawing for a moment on her lip, she added, “I’d just like to not have to do it until I have to. It’s going to be bad enough to have to put on the fucking front for those royal shits out there. I don’t want to have to put it on for you lot.”
“I…” Josephine dropped her hand and looked up with mixed concern and surprise in her eyes. “I apologize, Inquisitor. I forget that this is very different for you than it is for the rest of us.”
“It’ll be a first actually playing the Game,” Meryell reminded. “Elves don’t usually get invited to court functions.”
“If you act as you did in my office, they will be eating out of your hand before the first night of the ball is done,” commented the other woman warmly. The confidence and surety in that statement made Meryell blush a little and she smiled at Josephine in return.
“Thanks for the compliment,” she noted warmly, “but it’s all for shit if we can’t figure out who’s aiming to off the Empress. That’s not Cullen and I, of course, being Ferelden and all.”
That made Salain look up in surprise until Josephine dryly drawled, “Please stop putting forth the idea that you and the Commander are going to single handedly take down the Empress and supposedly keep Orlais from ever trying to take over Ferelden again.”
Laughing – which seemed to make the woman still working on the dress despite her obvious concern relax and return fully to work – Meryell pointed out, “He’s the one that started it!”
“Oh, don’t be childish!”
“Fine, fine,” she grumbled, shaking her head. She then stuck out her tongue at the woman and added, “Can’t have any fun with you around, Josie.”
The ambassador let out a stern huff of breath before she said, “Were I not around, Inquisitor, I fear that somehow the whole of the Inquisition would have come undone at the seams. Or you would be running it as your company is run, which would be an utter disaster.”
“Hey, we work!”
“The Fangs are vastly smaller than the Inquisition,” pointed out Josephine with a stern gaze. She then tapped her knuckles on her writing board that was resting on her lap and changed the subject. “We have more to go over, of course, Inquisitor, so we must get back to it. But, first…do you like the dress?”
Meryell tilted her head to the side to look at herself in the mirror again and said, “Never liked ‘em but…this one might could grow on me. It’s simple.”
“The Commander helped in picking which design we should go with. He was uncertain about much but very sure that simple was the way to go. Of course, Salain is brilliant at taking a simple thing and making it shine.”
And suggested the colors for this one as well, I’d guess, thought Meryell with a smile. He’d idly commented a few times on how he liked the color of her eyes.
“That is what you pay me for, Lady Montilyet,” commented the woman, her Rivaini accent at odds with her fair skin. Unlike Zarru, she wasn’t a native of Rivain by blood, or if she was, it was very distant. “Please turn now, Inquisitor.”
Meryell obeyed the command and turned in the indicated direction before looking back towards Josephine.
“So?” she asked, “what’s next?”
“Oh!” replied the Antivan. “Who to avoid in the ballroom…”
“All the nobles,” commented Meryell snidely, earning an affronted Inquisitor! in immediate response. She just laughed and waved Josephine to keep on going, muttering for her to ignore her as Salain let out a soft chuckle.
Inside she was screaming a little because the first night hadn’t even started yet and she already wanted out.
The shit had she gotten herself into?
Just as they were stepping out of the carriages that had carried them from Gaspard’s manor to the Winter Palace, Leliana was suddenly at Meryell’s elbow with a dark look on her face. “Inquisitor,” she intoned sternly. “A moment?”
Meryell glanced over at Cullen, who had been helping her down the carriage steps since skirts weren’t her forte, but he just shrugged. She then turned to the spymaster and nodded before letting the older woman pull her aside away from everyone else.
“What is it?” asked Meryell, more than a little concerned. Leliana knew the score of the Game far better than any of them and she wouldn’t have pulled her aside if it wasn’t serious.
The other woman frowned before asking, “How well do you wear that mask?”
She knew enough sideways talk to know that Leliana wasn’t referring to the simple rift green mask that Arnald had presented her with, done in the style of many intersecting branches in an echo Mythal’s vallaslin that she usually chose to copy when she needed to. She’d questioned his reasons for it since no one else but him was wearing a mask (and he always wore his because old habits), to which he’d replied To let them think you’re one of them, my girl. So she immediately frowned and replied, “Well enough. What the fuck’s going on?”
And she did make sure to keep her voice low as she said the curse word.
Leliana was silent for a moment, almost seeming like she was drawing it out for the ultimate dramatic effect. Then she said sternly, “There have been many rumors that my scouts have learned while slipping into the Palace staff and Gaspard’s or merely eavesdropping upon them. This one I have held close to make certain that it was truthful before I shared it.”
Meryell merely arched an eyebrow expectantly and the spymaster scowled.
“It would seem,” she intoned dryly, “that the Grand Duke has his eye upon you, Inquisitor.”
“That’s to be expected,” replied Meryell, a little confused as to why this was an issue. “I bet every assnut in this place looking to score points is going to be sniffing my ass tonight. And every other night.”
Leliana shook her head sternly and hissed, “As a potential alliance, Inquisitor. Through marriage.”
The silence in the next moment after those words were spoken was thunderous. Before Meryell broke it by snarling under her breath, “Do fucking what?”
“Such is the way of nobles, Inquisitor.”
“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a noble. People don’t elevate elves to nobility,” sneered Meryell. “Not to mention that there’s only one man that I would even remotely consider marrying. I’m not getting dragged into any political marriage and anyone that fucking thinks I am can go suck the Maker’s dick.”
Leliana just smiled coldly at that and tilted her head to the side before asking, “Shall I quash all of his attempts then?”
Frowning, Meryell turned her head to look up at the looming bulk of the Winter Palace. They needed every advantage they could get over the next few nights…and Gaspard possibly falling over himself attempting to impress her might be a good thing. She’d hate it and Cullen would no doubt want to murder the man but it could be done.
Gaspard would probably even offer to let her continue her dalliance with her Commander at some point in the potential conversation. Assuming that people outside the Inquisition were as aware of their relationship as those within (very likely, given how people talked).
“No,” she replied sternly before turning back to the spymaster. Flashing her teeth in a wolfish smile, Meryell noted, “Why throw away what we might be able to use?”
That brought a low laugh out of Leliana and she nodded before saying, “Cullen will hate this.”
“I’m going to fucking hate this,” Meryell hissed. “He’s apt to half get ready to challenge Gaspard to a duel.”
“Fuck no. I’ll talk to him. As he kept reminding me, I’ll remind him that it’s just a job. And the company always does whatever it can to see a job get done.” When Leliana arched an eyebrow, she added with a smile, “Within reason.”
That made the spymaster laugh before she said, “I believe that we shall have a marvelous time together, Inquisitor. If I am to believe Josie’s tales of your eloquence.”
“Wait and see, e’lu’verelan. Wait and see.”
“As you kept reminding me,” Meryell hissed in an undertone as they walked through the gate to the front gardens of Halamshiral, “this is just another job.”
Cullen was shit at hiding his murderous expression as he hissed back, “I didn’t mean for that to include you…you…Maker, seducing someone!”
“Voices!” whispered Leliana from behind them.
Meryell rolled her eyes (making sure she turned her head back towards the spymaster so it was mostly hidden) before whispering to Cullen, “Sometimes that’s what a job entails, vhen’an. I’ve done it before when I fucking had to and only once have I ever actually gone through with anything.” When his expression only darkened, she added, “Because I wanted to and the job was over.”
That didn’t seem to placate him at all and he growled, “If I have to watch you on his arm this whole time…”
“No, no, no,” scolded Leliana from behind them. “The Inquisitor will be on no one’s arm, Commander. The Inquisition answers to no one, after all. She will merely…accept…his advances.”
“And I’m supposed to just accept that?”
That made the spymaster smile and pat him on the arm. “Actually,” she said brightly, “You being murderously jealous might be just the thing. Look ahead at our dear host.”
Meryell turned her head and saw Gaspard standing at the fountain in the center of the garden ahead of them. He was in a classic chevalier stance but it was obvious that he was angry. Angry at her on Cullen’s arm, even though they hadn’t hidden their affection with each other in his home any more than they did at Skyhold. Hadn’t seen one damned reason to except to never hint to Varric (or anyone else) that someone had finally conceivably won his betting pool about where they were going to have sex the first time.
Cullen growled, the sound rumbling somewhere deep in his chest, and Meryell wanted nothing more than to take him aside right then. To tear off that fancy coat that Josephine’s tailors had fitted in close to show off his broad shoulders and trim waist and remind him that she was his with fingers and lips.
Instead she straightened her back, lifted her chin, and brought her free right hand up from hanging at her side. She clasped it over Cullen’s hand where he held it high against his side since her left arm was tucked through his and stared unapologetically at Gaspard.
This is mine, she said silently and by the soft twitters of voices as they kept going, the message was heard. Probably wouldn’t keep any of the shits away, of course.
“Inquisitor,” greeted Gaspard with a bow as they finally came within speaking distance. He then flicked his eyes towards Cullen and tilted his head slightly as he intoned, “Commander,” before nodding his greetings towards Leliana and Josephine who had held back a little.
Job, Meryell reminded herself as she smiled at the man. She squeezed Cullen’s arm before she pulled away from him, dipping into the briefest of curtsy’s before the older man. “Grand Duke Gaspard,” she intoned warmly, “My apologies if we’re a bit late.”
“Nonsense, Inquisitor, nonsense,” he waved off with a flippant hand. He then smiled and said in an overly friendly tone, “The night was surely not to begin in earnest until a jewel such as you arrived to grace us with your radiance.”
Good try but I don’t swoon over compliments.
Smiling politely, Meryell replied in a very clipped version of her normal voice, “My dear Duke, this is Orlais. The festivities will go on even if the whole of the attendees are dead. To do otherwise would simply be bad form.” She caught Cullen’s slight jump out of the corner of her eye and inwardly cursed. While she may have warned him about how she physically would descend into the role she had to play, she hadn’t mentioned doing the same vocally.
Soften her natural Ferelden tones, bring out a little bit more Marcher, and copy a touch of Arnald’s noble born Orlesian accent. It was just enough to make her tolerable for the rich shits according to the Captain.
That made him chuckle and he inclined his head slightly before saying, “You are correct in that, Inquisitor. Still…I hate to play the Game but it unfortunately is a thing we must participate in. To do so with the Inquisition at my side will surely do much to give credence to my cause.”
“And I can only imagine the things the Inquisition could do with Orlais’ rightful emperor at its side,” replied Meryell with a small smile, repeating a phrase he’d said when they’d arrived at his manor two days previous.
“There are many ways for us to help each other I am certain, Inquisitor Verlen.” Gaspard smiled at her before he made a vague gesture at the gardens, saying, “We still have some time before we will be announced. Take a moment to see what Orlais can offer to you.”
He then reached out for her hand and she let him take it, not flinching an inch when he pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. And, thankfully, Cullen didn’t make a noise despite the fact that she could see him giving Gaspard that hard, assessing stare of his.
The one he gave men who’d fucked up royally while debating what punishment they were going to serve.
“Until I see your lovely visage again, Inquisitor,” intoned Gaspard, his breath warm against her skin but it still made her want to shudder. He wasn’t what she wanted and he could never convince her otherwise. Not even for all of the gold in Orlais.
As the Duke walked off, leaving them standing in the middle of the garden by the fountain, Cullen growled under his breath to Josephine, “I have to put up with this for how long?”
“Three nights, Commander,” replied the ambassador primly as she tugged slightly at the ends of her dress sleeves in a nervous gesture. “Do try not challenge him to a duel or bring down what little allegiance we might gain while we’re here.”
“I’m not a lovesick fool, Josephine,” hissed Cullen. He then turned his eyes to Meryell and his hard gaze softened a little as she gave him an apologetic smile. Then he sighed and said, “I can’t guarantee stopping myself from glaring but I won’t retaliate. After all, I know where my lady’s heart lies.”
Josephine made a little noise at that, like she was holding back a squeal of delight. Then she coughed lightly before saying, “I will go inside to make sure that the herald has all of our names right. If you have not made it inside by the time I am done, Inquisitor, I will come retrieve you. Is that suitable?”
“Perfectly suitable,” replied Meryell with a smile. She then looked around at the three of them before asking, “Am I to be left alone to my own devices?”
Cullen growled between his teeth as Leliana smothered a smile in its waking. “We each have things we must prepare for inside,” noted the spymaster, “as the Commander well knows. There are, of course, the honor guard still present and I have my own eyes at the ready. You will be safe to explore the garden.”
“I’ll trust your eyes then, e’lu’verelan.”
“One day I will ask what that means.”
“And perhaps one day I’ll tell you,” replied Meryell with a contrary little laugh. As Leliana nodded, the other woman’s smile in her eyes now, she turned to Cullen. Gently placing her hand on his arm, she softly said, “I’ll be fine, vhen’an. It’s not the first time I’ve navigated Orlais.”
“No,” he replied in a low growl, “but it’s the first time you’ve navigated the Court. And I have enough nervousness for both of us in facing that.”
Shaking her head, she pointed out, “I impressed Josie.”
Sighing, Cullen said, “That really doesn’t reassure me on what they might do.”
Laughing, Meryell reached for his hand, lifting it up to press a light kiss against his knuckles. His fingers unfolded briefly, stroking her cheek before he pulled away as they’d been told to keep their contact brief, and she heard the twittering start back up from the nobles around them.
“Din telsilen,” she whispered and watched him frown as he attempted to remember what the words meant.
“No…strangle?” he asked, confused. “Are you warning me not to choke out the Duke because I am seriously considering it if he kisses you again…”
Bursting out into a laugh that drew the eyes of everyone – and fuck caring about that because it made Cullen smile when she laughed so brightly – she replied, “No, no, no. You’re thinking of tel-syl-ah. It’s tel-sil-ah.”
His eyes looked like they were trying to cross for a moment before he said, “Worry. Maker.”
“Yes, don’t worry.”
Cullen just smiled at that and murmured, “I always worry about you, vhen’an.” He then swept her marked hand up in his, bowing over it with far less grace than Gaspard had. However, he had all of the military precision of the templars ingrained deeply into him, which made the move graceful in its own way.
And she was more appreciative of the grace of a well wielded blade than that of well wielded words.
Then Cullen flipped her hand over with a smirk and kissed her palm right on top of the faded scar that was currently the only visible feature of the Mark. Meryell felt her face flushing brightly as he gave her a little smirk, his eyes half-lidded and molten gold as he looked up at her, and she felt weak kneed. Andraste’s dripping cunt, this man was too much sometimes. When he was confident and sure of his actions with next to no wavering or uneasiness in him.
He was probably going to get a scolding from Josephine but that look said that he didn’t care one whit.
“Be safe, love,” he murmured into her skin before he straightened up, gently releasing her hand a moment later. He then nodded to Josephine and Leliana before asking, “To work?”
“To work indeed, Commander,” commented the spymaster as they started to walk off. “You’ve likely set the whole garden into a tizzy after that display.”
“Let them,” Meryell caught him saying before they got out of their earshot. “As someone noted recently, I should protect what’s mine. And I won’t let someone with a fancy title think that he can just snatch away the woman I love with empty gestures and pretty words.”
The grin she wore in response to that took several minutes to get under control before she could even think of starting to roam the garden.