Maker, he’d never thought that he’d ever have to stand so long at attention again once he’d left the Order. Halamshiral was rapidly showing him that he was absolutely wrong on that.
Especially the herald who was supposed to be bleeding announcing them by now.
Instead Cullen was left standing at the end of a line on the landing of one of the sets of the ballroom floor stairs with Leliana and Josephine. With the collar of the damned coat pinching at his throat, the edge of a headache flickering at his temples, and the utter distraction of Meryell standing in front of them with Duke Gaspard as they waited.
The long folds of the skirt of her dress hid her legs (which was already a crime in his opinion) from sight but that wasn’t what distracted him. No, that was taken up by the way the green fabric of the dress hugged at the curve of her spine. How the sheer copper fabric curled around her arms, showing off her lean muscles and every faded scar that etched their surface. The back of her neck, exposed not only by the short haircut Dorian had given her while they were in Crestwood but some sort of careful styling that had swept her hair in a curve away from her neck.
If the herald didn’t hurry up he was liable to embarrass himself if he kept on.
Hissing out a low breath through his teeth, Cullen instead turned his eyes towards Gaspard. The older man seemed relaxed yet still wary (probably a good tactic in the Orlesian Court) but he kept looking at her. And even if he couldn’t see the man’s eyes, he knew what was there.
It made him see red.
He’d never thought himself to be a jealous man. Even in Kirkwall when he’d seen Claudia with another man after he’d ended their relationship, he hadn’t been jealous. In fact he’d been happy that she had found someone who could care for her since he hadn’t been able to. Not as he was.
The Duke, however, brought out a possessive streak in him that was a little frightening. Likely because he got the distinct impression that the man only wanted her for the power she wielded as Inquisitor. To want someone only for that…he couldn’t quite comprehend it.
Meryell was so much more than a piece to wield on a chessboard.
“And now, presenting: Grand Duke Gaspard de Chalons.”
As the herald went on speaking, Cullen froze because that was decidedly not what the man was meant to be saying. It certainly wasn’t what Josephine would have given him.
“And accompanying him…Lady Inquisitor Meryell Verlen! Vanquisher of the rebel mages of Ferelden, crusher of the vile apostates of the Mage Underground!”
From behind him on the main floor above the landing they stood on, he heard Varric say, “This guy writes better fiction than I do.”
“You at least are changing things to protect people,” Dorian commented back. “This is just…preposterous.”
“Shepherd and leash of the wayward Order of Templars, purger of the heretics from the ranks of the faithful!”
Fighting against a snarl at that line, Cullen dimly heard Sera protest vehemently, “He is so full of it! That’s not how it went at all! Cully, Beardy, and me, we went there and got the ones who’d listen out.”
“It’s all a show, my dear,” Madame Vivienne commented primly. “One doesn’t need to tell the real story.”
“Truth’s better than this shite, Vivvy!”
Vivienne laughed mockingly at that. “Oh, darling, how little you know.”
“Champion of the blessed Andraste herself!”
“Did you see their faces?” he heard Gaspard hiss distantly as they bowed and began to step down to walk across the main floor. “Priceless.” Cullen’s eyes were on the tips of Meryell’s ears, which were flicking in annoyance.
Maker give her strength to not murder someone before this is over.
The herald then called out, “Accompanying the Inquisitor: Lady Leliana, Nightingale of the Imperial Court. Veteran of the Fifth Blight. Seneschal of the Inquisition and Left Hand of the Divine.”
Their spymaster was smiling as she stepped forward, the first to follow Meryell and Gaspard across the floor. And it was an honest smile.
He did not understand how she could be so happy here but, knowing what little he did about Leliana, he wasn’t about to stain whatever small brightness she might take for herself.
“Madame Vivienne, First Enchanter of the Circle of Magi, Enchanter of the Imperial Court, Mistress of the Duke of Ghislain.”
“Oooh, so they announce mistresses here? How fascinating,” Dorian murmured.
“If one is out, darling, why not embrace it?”
“In Tevinter, darling, it’s considered a scandal if everyone knows who you’re fucking.”
“The Iron Bull, leader of the famed mercenary company Bull’s Chargers. As the name might imply,” called out the herald and Cullen heard a whole line of loud chuckles from behind them that had Josephine turning her head to hiss a vehement shush.
The herald (who was also behind them with their tittering companions) didn’t miss a beat from going into the next. “Warden Blackwall of Val Chevin, Constable of the Grey. Bearer of the Silverite Wings of Valor.”
“Beardy!” hissed Sera. “You got some kind of shiny award?”
“It’s not exactly a physical award,” came the man’s gruff reply and Cullen frowned. Blackwall sounded almost…ashamed…of his award? Given the name, it didn’t seem the sort of thing one would be ashamed of having earned.
“Ser Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Honnleath.”
His name announced like that took a moment to catch in his head. It wasn’t even like most people knew where Honnleath was…or had been. He still didn’t know if it had recovered after the Blight.
“Commander of the forces of the Inquisition. Former Knight-Commander of Kirkwall.”
Just as he was about to step forward, he froze and hissed between his teeth, “Josephine.” The very last thing he wanted was to be known for the part he’d played in what had happened in Kirkwall.
“Walk,” she hissed back. “We can argue semantics later, Commander.”
Growling softly under his breath, Cullen straightened up and began making his way down the steps. His boots – shiny and new and just barely broken in enough to be comfortable – clicked loudly against the ballroom floor and he suddenly felt the focus of everyone there like a hammer blow. It made his shoulders tighten up as he felt overly exposed.
Maker, he hadn’t been this tense even on that first fumbling night with Claudia. And here there wasn’t a moment of awkward giggling at each other to make him feel more comfortable.
Behind him, the herald droned on.
“Seeker Cassandra Allegra Portia Calogera Filomena -”
“Get on with it!”
Cassandra’s comment was probably louder than she’d intended but it took the edge off of his own nervousness to hear the long pause made by the herald before he hurried on.
“- Pentaghast. Fourteenth cousin to the King of Nevarra, nine times removed. Hero of Orlais. Right Hand of the Divine.”
“Arnald Seraine, Captain of the acclaimed mercenary company the Fangs of Vimmark. Second son of the late Baron Jehan Seraine and brother of Baron Remon Seraine.”
Cullen heard a distinct murmur go up from the crowd in the ballroom and resisted a smile. Arnald had warned them that announcing him as accompanying them would raise some eyebrows. Though he’d also said that the herald would probably state some sort of reminder of his disgrace.
The herald then coughed before calling out in a slightly annoyed tone, “Her Ladyship Mai Bhalsych of Korse.”
Sera’s cackling little snicker echoed through the ballroom and Cullen smiled as he came to a stop at the base of the other stairs. Good on her for getting such a little thing on over the whole Court. Though he was really surprised that Josephine had let it pass with as stressed as she’d been about all of this.
“Lady Josephine Cherette Montilyet of Antiva City, Ambassador of the Inquisition.”
That was the last advisor, Cullen noted. Josephine had arranged for the herald to announce each of them first and follow it with three of their companions since it was enough speaking to cover their walk across the ballroom to the base of the stairs.
They were this close to getting off the Maker damned floor.
“Renowned author Varric Tethras. Head of noble House Tethras. Deshyr of Kirkwall to the Dwarven Merchants Guild.”
There was some commentary from someone in their group but he couldn’t hear it clearly on the other side of the large room.
“Lord Dorian Pavus, member of the Circle of Vyrantium, son of Lord Magister Halward Pavus of Asariel.”
The last thing the herald called out was, “The Lady Inquisitor’s elven serving man, Solas.” And Cullen watched Meryell’s hands curl momentarily into fists at the implication that she, an elf from an alienage, would have an elven serving man. Let alone a serving man at all.
She hated to be served half the time by the staff that Josephine had hired to service the everyday needs of the keep. It was why she ran her own errands most of the time. To imply that one of the inner circle was a mere servant…well, that might just be someone’s head.
“Cousin,” he then heard Gaspard say. “Sister.”
Cullen turned his eyes upward to regard the Empress of Orlais. She was undoubtedly a beautiful woman and held herself with a straight-backed poise that would put some of his most staunch recruits to shame. There was a presence about her that drew one’s eye…and he wasn’t referring to the almost sunburst type attachment to the back of her dress. It was the sort of presence that Greagoir had had, that Meredith had had around her once, that Hawke had woven around herself by the end of everything in Kirkwall: an invisible cloak of power that was unmistakable.
We do not want her for our enemy, he recalled Leliana saying firmly before they’d left Skyhold. Suddenly he had an inkling at why.
“Grand Duke,” Celene said with the smallest of smiles as she picked up the hand resting on the railing in front of her. “We are always honored when your presence graces our court.”
Gaspard made a vague noise in response before saying gruffly, “Don’t waste my time with pleasantries, Celene. We have business to conclude.”
He distinctly heard Leliana let out a little exasperated sigh and flicked his eyes over to see Josephine’s jaw in a tense line that said she was holding onto something. Ahead and above him, Meryell’s right ear flicked in annoyance.
And Cullen could instantly feel the disappointment at the man’s brusque demand coming from the Empress. Maker, he was beginning to think Gaspard was utter shit at this Game that the Orlesians liked to play. It was either that or the man just didn’t care a whit for it tonight.
“We will meet for the negotiations after we have seen to our other guests.”
Celene’s response sounded polite but even he knew that the Grand Duke had made some misstep.
It didn’t seem to bother the man himself as he bowed and made some sort of dramatic gesture with his arms (was that common in Orlais?). As he straightened, he uttered a quiet, “Inquisitor,” before turning to climb the steps to their left. Cullen watched him go and caught the eye of Pod as the elf walked by in the servant’s garb they’d arranged for tonight. Watch him, he signalled, flicking his fingers in a brief gesture along his leg.
Pod nodded and disappeared into the crowd, moving with the liquid ease he’d noticed all of the company’s Dalish elves had.
He then turned his attention back to the proceedings as the Empress said, “Lady Inquisitor, we welcome you to the Winter Palace. Allow us to present our cousin, the Grand Duchess of Lydes, without whom this gathering would have not been possible.” She gestured to the woman standing next to her in brown and gold, whose short hair seemed at odds with the style of most of the noble ladies present.
“What an unexpected pleasure,” she said lightly, though there was something…off…about her tone. He couldn’t put his finger on what though. “I was not aware the Inquisition would be part of our festivities.”
The oddness ratcheted a notch higher when she smiled and turned to walk away with a parting, “We must certainly speak later, Inquisitor.”
He didn’t recall the title Duchess of Lydes (there had been many Duchesses, just not that particular one) from their frequent briefings and discussions on what could, should, and would go on while they were here. As soon as they got off of the floor, he would inquire with Josephine and Leliana as to who she was. And put one of their other people undercover as servants on watching her.
Or…wait. Gaspard had said Sister in greeting. His sister? Now her he remembered being mentioned but never by a title beyond Duchess.
“Your arrival at court is like a cool wind on a summer’s day,” he heard the Empress say then, drawing him back out of his thoughts.
Meryell folded her hands in front of her and he could see the edge of her polite smile as she replied vaguely, “Let’s hope the breeze doesn’t herald an oncoming storm.”
“Even the wisest mistake fair winds for foul. We are at the mercy of the skies, Inquisitor.” Celene briefly paused then asked, “How do you find Halamshiral?”
“There are no words sufficient to describe it. Halamshiral has many beautiful things and I have never seen their like in all my travels.” He wanted to laugh a little at that comment because he knew a few of the places she’d been hired to steal things from. Meryell had never been shy about telling him stories of jobs she’d taken, not after that first conversation they’d had what seemed so many ages ago now.
“Your modesty does you credit,” the Empress’ comment very nearly made him snort, “and speaks well for the Inquisition. Feel free to enjoy the pleasures of the ballroom, Inquisitor. We look forward to watching you dance.”
As Meryell dipped into a bow and the three of them followed since they were all still before the Empress, Cullen wondered if the word dance didn’t mean quite a lot of things tonight. Given that this was Orlais, it no doubt did.
Then they were all up the stairs and Cullen plucked at the sleeve of Josephine’s dress. As she turned her head towards him in acknowledgement, he hissed quietly, “The Duchess with Celene, she’s Gaspard’s sister?”
“Yes,” she replied as they moved out of the way of the staircase up from the ballroom floor, stopping at the railing that surrounded the upper level. “I am certain we went over this before we left Skyhold, Commander.”
“Only by name,” Cullen replied shortly as his eyes focused briefly on Meryell where she continued walking away from them with Leliana, seemingly deep in some conversation. “I don’t recall her ever being mentioned by her title. Not that one anyway.”
Josephine frowned as if in thought before saying, “My apologies, Commander. But…why do you ask?”
“Making sure I’m putting eyes on the right people.”
Ignoring her scandalized tone, Cullen said sharply, “There’s something about her that feels wrong, Josephine. Maybe it’s just me being overly protective but…”
“You don’t believe it is,” she finished for him with a frown.
Shaking his head, Cullen watched her sigh and fold her arms as she considered that for a moment. Then Josephine nodded and said, “It is better to be safe than sorry. But do try to have someone subtly keep an eye on her. No doubt you already have someone watching Gaspard.”
“Pod. I’ll grab the next I see and set them on the Duchess.”
Rolling his eyes a little, he replied, “Maker’s breath, I’m not an idiot, Josephine. I wouldn’t set Sera on anyone unless I wanted them strung up in some kind of trap before the night was over. Or covered in bees. Or both, to think on it.”
“Hopefully we won’t have to resort to such measures even if she has been given permission to cause mayhem tonight.
“Controlled mayhem,” reminded Cullen with a smile.
Josephine shook her head at that and replied, “I’m not certain she knows the meaning of the word.” Then she frowned, turning her head as if hearing something, before her eyes went wide. “Excuse me, Commander. I have…there’s something I must deal with.”
Cullen just blinked after her for a moment, a little confused at the abrupt farewell, but shook it off. He needed to find a reliable person amongst their people to set on the Duchess and get to the position in the ballroom that was supposed to be his.
There was work to be done.
Despite the fact that he had settled into his spot in the ballroom – which gave him a fine view of much of it, including both of the main doors that were being used for the night – Cullen didn’t feel like he was getting anything done.
Not long after he’d caught the wrist of one of Leliana’s spies amongst the servant’s, hissing an order in her ear to find and watch the Duchess, he’d been set upon by nobles. Each one clamoring and chattering at him like the birds that had taken to nesting in his rafters in the winter. Though he hadn’t had the heart to kick out the birds and he’d rather like to pitch every one of the nobles over the closest railing if he could.
They were a fucking horrible distraction and he was getting more and more frustrated at the fact that as soon as he thought he’d fielded the entirety of questions from one enough that they would leave, they would quickly be replaced by another. It was enough to make him scream.
“Excusez-moi. Oui, pardonnez-moi.”
That voice, thankfully, sounded blessedly familiar and Cullen let out a breath that he wasn’t about to be bombarded by yet another stranger. He also noticed very quickly as Arnald not so subtly pushed his way through his little crowd of followers that many of them curled their noses up and left. In fact, moments later they were alone, and he managed to relax for a mere moment after what had felt like several tense hours. Arnald stood next to him quietly, relaxed in that Orlesian parade rest stance that he still had even after so long out of their army.
“Thank you,” he said quietly as he worked to regather his bearings. He hadn’t quite realized just how tense he’d become from the constant bombardment of their questions and attentions.
Arnald merely hummed and flipped a hand at him in response, replying, “It was nothing, Commander. I’ve been finding so far tonight that my presence is very good at clearing out areas of the ballroom.”
Cullen caught a hint of uncomfortableness in the man’s voice and noted, “I was under the impression that you expected that from what you told us of what would likely happen when you were announced along with everyone else.”
“Mmm. Expecting it and experiencing it, I’m afraid, are two quite different things.” The older man then turned his head slightly and smiled. “I will be glad to be of service on the occasion that you need a break from the vultures, however. Maker, I do so remember my own days of being chased by all of the eligible and, hmm, not so eligible members of the court. It was very rarely a pleasureable experience.”
To hear that an Orlesian who’d grown up in the very society he’d been thrust into (if on the lesser side from what he recalled of their noble hierarchy) had been just as uncomfortable as he was made Cullen feel a little better. Finally straightening back up into a normal stance from his moment of relaxing his tense shoulders and back, he asked, “What did you do about them then?”
Chuckling, Arnald replied, “Many things that you would not do, Cullen. Often I would give one lady my attention for the night and that would throw off the vultures until the next soirée. That is, however, not a strategy that would work for you.”
“Indeed. I have heard some things of note whilst I’ve been wandering the floor and scandalizing the nobility with my presence.”
“And?” asked Cullen.
Smirking, Arnald focused his gaze across the ballroom to the doorway that led to another part of the palace and very subtly tilted his chin in that direction. “There is a young man,” he began, dropping his voice, “who is wandering around in there complaining about how his fellow serving-man, Philippe, has been off dallying with a servant girl for hours.”
Arching an eyebrow, he asked, “How is that relevant to finding our assassin, Captain?”
“Ah, because our dear serving-men serve our ever so dashing host.” Arnald made a brief gagging noise and shook his head before muttering, “Ugh, even saying such things jokingly after Gaspard appalls me. He may be a fine military mind but he’s a shit of a person. Even my father agreed on that and he stood behind him during the first outrage after Celene convinced the Council of Heralds to give her the throne.”
Before Cullen could start to speak to ask what was the point, the other man went on, “Apparently our complaining friend has been facing Gaspard’s vitriol on his own. Mostly due to the fact that there is only one of them to convey his death threats to the Council.”
It took a moment for his words to actually register and then Cullen hissed through suddenly clenched teeth, “Are you telling me that Gaspard is sending death threats to the six Council members that are here?” Josephine had been very firm in that they know how many of the Council were to be attending the talks at Halamshiral, so he was fully aware in how many there were.
Arnald just laughed and replied, “Oh, Commander, it’s not a party in Orlais without at least one threat to one’s person. At least that’s what my cousin Perrin used to say.”
He turned to stare at the older man for a moment in shock at that statement – he’d been taught to take death threats seriously – before saying, “Used to?”
“Poor Perrin got involved with the wrong players at court and ended up with a dagger in his throat one night.” Arnald turned his head to look back at him, dark eyes stark behind the brighter colors of his mask. “Gaspard may be brash but I don’t think him fool enough to actually think he can take out one of the Council. Despite how it may have seemed on the floor tonight, he’s actually quite good at the Game.”
“So we shouldn’t worry about the fact that he’s threatening people?”
“Oh no,” replied the Captain sternly. “We should worry a great deal that he actually might have something to hold over them but I believe it would only be in regards to his feud with Celene. For all of his fouler nature, I don’t believe he is our assassin.”
Cullen let out a huff of breath before asking, “Does Meryell know this yet?”
“I believe she’s poking her nose into the Guest Wing at the moment after finding some sort of blood trail.”
Arnald just laughed and clapped him on the shoulder warmly before giving him a parting, “Welcome to Orlais, Cullen,” before he walked off. Instantly Cullen could feel eyes zero back in on him and the stiffness in his back and shoulders returned in full force.
Maker’s breath, and he had to deal with two more nights of this.
Excusez-moi – excuse me
Oui, pardonnez-moi – yes, pardon me
Soirée – evening