There was someone in the room just above the lattice work running up from the garden and they had opened what looked like a secret doorway between it and the main library. Meryell could hear them moving around, her ears twitching irritably at the fact that they weren’t speaking. Which meant that she couldn’t tell who they were or if they were possibly friend or foe.
By all the rules she ran by on a job, assume enemy first.
Frowning, she slowly slid a hand beneath her skirts and tugged open the buckle that held her stiletto in its sheath. Carefully drawing it out, she kept it in a backhanded grip with the blade along her forearm to keep it out of sight then slid forward and around the corner.
The instant she saw the back of her intruder, the tenseness in her shoulders relaxed and she hissed, “Baba! What the shit are you doing up here?”
Folke turned to grin at her before he straightened the heavy coat he’d donned for his ‘act’ for the Palace. He was wearing the same dress as any of the other Inquisition runners, allowing him to basically go wherever he wanted to go (within reason). Someone, she could see, had taken some sort of powder to his face in an attempt to hide his scar and it threw her off for a moment. It softened the rough edges and made it less obvious but, to her eyes, that just made the wound worse.
It had always been a reminder for her to do better. To not get them caught or put him into danger he didn’t have to be in. Having that reminder, which was still as fierce looking as it had been since he’d gained it thanks to the properties of magebane resisting healing of any kind, lessened felt like it was brushing aside that warning.
She got that it needed to be done because his scar was distinctive. But Meryell wanted nothing more than to wipe that shit off his face just so she could see the damned thing again.
“Investigating some whispered things I overheard while lurking about. Some of the elven servants were talking about a package being delivered to this room so I thought I’d look into it myself.”
“And how did you get up here?” asked Meryell, hoping his answer wasn’t the lattice work. He, however, confirmed it was by tipping his head in that direction and she groaned. “Baba, the garden…”
Folke flapped a hand to interrupt her, quickly saying, “Oh, don’t you worry, ara’vherain. No one in the garden saw me climb up with the little scene that Dorian and the Iron Bull put on as a distraction. There was a lot of very tasteful groping and a plethora of appalled gasps from the guests, not to mention a few interested looks.” He then paused to smile as if in memory before musing wistfully, “It looked like quite a lot of fun…”
Snorting, Meryell said, “You know we had to leave Rylen back at Skyhold, baba. He’s Cullen’s best captain, so he was the obvious one to leave in charge.”
“That doesn’t mean that I can’t complain about my bed being cold, Poppet,” he replied, waggling two fingers at her. She blinked a little at the comment – being in a relationship had rarely meant that Folke couldn’t find comfort in someone else besides his current partner – then shrugged it off. She’d have to talk about what was going on between him and the Knight-Captain later.
Particularly since she knew that Cullen was considering sending Rylen and a small company of soldiers to the Western Approach with Alistair and Hawke after they cleared out the mess in the Exalted Plains.
Shaking her head, she lifted her skirts to replace the stiletto and asked, “So, did you find anything?”
“You could say that. There’s a dead man in the little room off the outside balcony and he had this letter with him.”
Looking back up at him, Meryell frowned at the folded piece of paper he was extending towards her. She then flicked her eyes up to his. “I’m guessing he’s where all of the blood trails are coming from.”
Folke just shrugged one shoulder, replying, “One of many knowing this lot.”
“You read the letter?”
“Skimmed what I could read. I left my glasses in my room back at that over decorated thing Gaspard calls a house.”
Nodding, she straightened up as she finished smoothing the skirt of the dress back down then reached for the letter. As soon as she flipped it open and saw Celene’s name in Gaspard’s hand (recognized easily from staring at it so often with Josephine), she hissed out a breath between clenched teeth. Then she read the rest of it and growled, “The three of them are just playing with each other. Like a game of cat and mouse for fuck’s sake.”
“Which ones the cat?” queried Folke with a smile.
Grimly, Meryell met her father’s eyes again and replied, “Corypheus. He’s playing a game that the rest of them don’t even know they’re involved in.”
He nodded then tilted his head to the side curiously.
“And other than trickery and backstabbing being a national pastime in Orlais, how do you know that they’re all playing each other?”
Wordlessly, she reached into the top of her dress and pulled out the letter she’d found while searching the library. She’d gotten about halfway through it before she’d heard the sounds of his footsteps and came to investigate.
“A letter that Celene wrote to a Lady M,” she replied. “Talking about a male cousin provoking another infestation.”
Folke tipped his head forward and sighed. “Gaspard.”
“I’m really not sure how the Orlesians got it together long enough to conquer Ferelden,” he then commented with a wry shake of his head. “I’m actually surprised there are enough of them left to make up a country, to be honest.”
Snorting, Meryell suggested, “Maybe they just breed like rabbits. They did announce the Iron Bitch as a mistress to the whole court, after all.”
“Point.” Folke then frowned and asked, “Is there something strange about these statues?”
Blinking, she turned to look at what he was talking about, considering the six statues for a long moment before she turned to grin at him. “Trap? Or secret passage?”
“Both?” he suggested with a laugh before echoing her grin. “Want to find out?”
Laughing, Meryell replied, “Avoid dealing with these bleeding stuck up pricks for another few minutes and spend that time with the possibility of maiming ourselves or finding treasure with you? Why, baba, do you really have to ask?”
Folke’s grin only widened in reply as he reached out to gently touch her cheek, murmuring, “That’s my girl,” before they set off to opposite ends of the room to try and figure out what made the secret passage (or trap) work.
The remainder of the night at the Winter Palace went by without much else happening other than a strange four way conversation with three of Celene’s ladies-in-waiting when she happened to wander into the garden near the end of the evening. Of course, the message they delivered – an offer of allegiance from the Empress if they aided in getting Gaspard out of the way – wasn’t at all surprising. Just another piece of the puzzle and one more example of the Orlesian national sport.
In the end, the night was officially called by a peal of three bells and Celene wished the court a good night. Which was apparently (according to Josephine) the sign that they could leave.
It was after they’d regathered their main people – those who’d slipped into the servant ranks or other places would either remain in place or find their own ways back – and were sorting out something wrong with their riding arrangements that the night took another turn.
As she was standing next to Cullen, waiting calmly for Josephine and Leliana to finish their quiet argument, she heard Gaspard call out from behind her, “Inquisitor, please, ride with me. There is no need for you to wait out in the weather while these things are sorted.”
Meryell stiffened, her shoulders snapping into a line, and she felt Cullen’s hand still against her back where he’d been idly stroking his fingers in nonsense patterns.
She caught Leliana’s eye then before turning to look up at Cullen. His expression was thunderous and his eyes were focused hard ahead of them as his jaw clenched in a fierce line.
“Vhen’an,” she began but he shook his head fiercely.
“I trust you, love,” he said in a mostly growled whisper. “And I will find you as soon as we get there ourselves.”
Meryell frowned before she lifted a hand to touch his chest, gently brushing her fingertips over the rows of brassy buttons on his coat that she fully fucking intended of getting him out of later, then turned with a smile on her face. “My dear Duke,” she intoned warmly, “I couldn’t dare impose myself upon you in such a way.” Cullen let his hand fall away as she did so and she silently damned politics and everything that came with it into the darkest pits of the Void.
“Impose?” repeated Gaspard with a laugh. “Inquisitor, there is no way a beautiful woman such as yourself could be an imposition to anyone.”
She heard what sounded like Dorian’s laugh followed by a dull thump that could have been someone hitting him in the ribs as she forced her smile to stay on her face. “Well,” Meryell drawled, “however could I turn down such an invitation?” Extending her hand, she added, “Shall we then, dear Duke?”
He took her hand with all of the delicate grace of a man of his particular breeding, holding on with just the barest bit of pressure. It would have been the perfect embrace for a lady of equal breeding who actually cared about the rote and score of nobility and all that came with that life.
She just found the soft touch annoying.
Looking back at Cullen, she met his eyes for a brief moment before she turned to catch Josephine’s as she said, “I’ll see you all there.”
“Of course, Inquisitor,” she replied and her tone was even but her eyes held a multitude of warnings. Meryell nodded in acknowledgment of those things then followed when she felt that gentle pressure on her hand pulling her away.
The distance to Gaspard’s carriage was a short one and the door was already being held open by…a footman, she seemed to recall the word was. It was a point in his favor that Gaspard actually helped her up into the carriage after she’d lifted her skirts just enough to find the first step with her foot. As Meryell settled down on the front side of the carriage (better to see anyone riding up from behind them out of the large window across the back, since she knew that was a common tactic of carriage assaults), he stepped inside. He seemed to accept her seating and sat down on the other side as the footman closed the door, the driver already clucking to the horses and snapping the reins.
When the carriage finally lurched forward into a roll, he smiled at her and said, “I am…pleased…that you agreed to ride with me, Inquisitor. There is a dire matter that I was hoping to speak with you about before you vanished again off to that dreadfully remote keep in the Frostbacks.”
“Oh?” she queried simply in reply while thinking that practically insulting what had been her home for most of a year since she’d nearly died perhaps wasn’t the best way to start out this conversation he wanted to have. Putting on a fake smile, Meryell folded her hands in her lap and looked right at him. “The Inquisition will do whatever it can to aid a potential ally, Duke Gaspard.”
“Ah,” he said with a seemingly sad smile, “but you see it is not the Inquisition I seek this evening but it’s the Inquisitor alone.”
This is it, Meryell thought dully even as she kept the fake smile plastered on her face. This is where he brings up his grand fucking marriage proposal.
How many ways can I politely tell him to go pitch himself off a cliff?
“And what,” she asked, “can the Inquisitor do for you?”
Gaspard chuckled then said, “Or perhaps I have phrased it wrong.” Leaning forward, he pressed on, “I seek the woman behind the facade, the one who is said to unflinchingly stare down her enemies until they turn away. Who commands an army despite what are said to be the most humble of beginnings. Such a woman…oh, Inquisitor, such a woman would be a great boon for any man to have. To be able to call such a woman his own would no doubt give him the greatest of pleasures.”
For a moment she just stared at him, more than a little dumbstruck. Did that shit actually work on some women? Were there some that actually fell for the bullshit spilling from his lips?
And did he actually believe that she was going to fall for it?
No, she thought to herself as she smiled serenely. He doesn’t. The sort of woman he speaks of wouldn’t be wooed by pretty words alone. So maybe he’s not so useless at this shit after all.
“Pretty words,” she commented mildly. Then Meryell smiled thinly and added, “The sort of woman you speak of, however, wouldn’t be much of an Inquisitor if she let simple honeyed words commit her to a cause. You could take that sort of person anywhere.”
Take it as comment and warning, Gaspard. I won’t be drug around by my fucking nose.
“She would not,” he agreed, his tone soft. “Yet perhaps such a woman would be open to a man attempting to win her favor? To prove to her that he is worthy of her attention?”
“Perhaps,” replied Meryell vaguely, thinking more of rough hands, amber-brown eyes, and nights spent shoulder-to-shoulder with a drink in hand.
He smiled beneath his mask then commented, “And if such a woman were to give her favor, it would be impolite for the man she gave it to to not allow her her…frivolities.”
She ground her teeth together at that, blood boiling at the gall. He did not even know Cullen, did not know what they’d been through, what they’d tenuously built between each other over long nights and mostly letters at the best of times. What they had was not frivolous.
Almost every other relationship she’d had had been frivolous minus Camden and the first few others. She’d learned after that, to keep her heart close, to not trust pretty words and how to read the emptiness in a gesture.
Her vhen’an had never done that. She’d doubted how much he cared for her once (and still did on the darkest of nights when her mind wandered and took her places she didn’t want to go) but that was her failing, not his.
She controlled her face, features schooling into a serene calm behind the open lines of her mask. Smiling, she mused, “That is a generous offer, dear Duke. If such a woman were to give her favor to such a man.”
Gaspard smiled almost warmly at that and leaned back into his seat. “I am very glad we could have this talk, Inquisitor. Very glad indeed.”
“As am I,” she agreed with a smile she didn’t feel and was grateful when the rest of the ride to his manor was taken in silence.
When Cullen finally came in, Meryell was slumped in the overly large tub that was situated in a corner of their room. She’d felt bad at asking for the bath right after her arrival but the conversation with Gaspard on the ride had left her feeling slimy in a way that she couldn’t shake. At the least she’d apologized to the staff for the extra work but the three women who had brought in the steaming hot water just smiled at her and murmured in soft voices, “It’s our pleasure, Inquisitor.”
She barely moved from where she laid, feet up on one end of the tub and her head braced against the other sloped side, when he entered. His footsteps were familiar now, the heavy footfalls of a man little used to stealth but light enough to be quick on his feet, so she didn’t do anything but flick an ear at the noise.
That and they’d left a mixed group of Chargers, Fangs, and Inquisition soldiery guarding the whole wing they’d been allowed the use of. She’d had Rhiryd standing at her door ever since she’d entered her room and Dragos had stepped into place next to her as soon as she’d stepped out of the carriage to escort her there. Few would think twice about going up against the big former Tevinter templar and fewer still would think once about taking on Rhiryd.
So no one that wasn’t allowed was getting into her room.
“Vhen’an?” Meryell heard him ask, his voice soft as if he thought her asleep. She opened her eyes in response and found Cullen crouched next to the tub, one arm resting along the rim as he reached out with the other to rest his hand on her exposed shin. His expression was a mix of worry and curiosity as he asked, “Are you alright?”
Sighing, she closed her eyes again and replied wearily, “I’m already so fucking tired of politics.”
“Oh, Maker’s rotted left nut, did he ask. Bunch of pretty words and shitting vagueness all wrapped up into a request of something more out of me. He even gave me the ole I don’t mind if you keep your fuck toy bit.”
There was silence for a moment, in which Cullen’s grip on her leg shook a little before steadying. Then he asked, “Fuck toy?”
“Bed mate, mistress…though you’re not that because neither of us is married and you definitely aren’t a woman. Paramour, maybe?” She frowned and blinked her eyes open, muttering, “There’s a word for it in Rivaini I think. Zarru called baba it once when he played the distraction with the wife of a target and actually went through with the sleeping with her part.”
Snorting, he commented, “That’s because your father has no shame.” Then she felt his fingers tap lightly against her leg in a nonsense, nervous pattern before he asked, “And?”
“I was just as vague back but enough to let him think I might actually be fucking considering it.” Meryell shuddered at the memory then lifted her hand out of the water, folding her hand tightly over his. “I hated it,” she whispered.
She took in a shaking breath before she rambled on, “I hated it. I hate these fucking people. I hate this shitting country. Can we just…” Her voice trailed off as she tilted her head forward to meet his eyes clearly and asked, “Can we just say fuck this lot and go home?”
Cullen smiled in response, moving his arm resting on the tub so he could cup her cheek. “I wish it were that easy, dear thief,” he murmured.
Sighing, Meryell nodded and lifted her left hand out of the water, the green glow of the mark winking at her from the gash-not-gash that slashed across her palm. It went dormant again just as quickly but the glow was enough of a reminder: she was the main thing standing between Corypheus and his goals. All thanks to the thing that she didn’t want and sure as shit didn’t understand.
“Me too,” she whispered.
They stayed there in silence for a moment before Cullen’s right hand squeezed her leg and said, “Come on, love. That water’s half freezing now and there’s still two more days of this to deal with.”
Despite groaning in immediate response, she nodded and pulled her legs down as soon as he removed his hand, yelping slightly as her mostly dry legs hit the chill water. Cullen laughed as she practically bolted up and out of the tub and continued doing so even as she stood glaring at him while he wrapped a sheet around her.
“Fucker,” she hissed as he rubbed his hands up and down her arms, absorbing the water clinging to her with the fabric between their skin. When he leaned forward a moment later to press a kiss against her hair before continuing to gently brush the sheet over her skin, Meryell hummed softly in pleasure. “Fine. Maybe not a fucker.”
He snorted before he moved behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and letting the sheet fall over his arms to reveal her upper half. His lips brushed over the tip of her ear softly and then he whispered, “Or maybe I misheard what you said and considered it a request rather than a comment.”
Meryell let out a surprised squeak at that and Cullen laughed against her ear as he asked, “No? My mistake.”
Hissing out a breath, she spun in his arms and brought her arms up to wrap around his neck, hauling herself up so she could lock her knees around his hips to kiss him. His hands found her thighs as she moved and drew her up higher as he grunted and kissed her back with equal fervor. Meryell was vaguely aware of them moving and then Cullen sat down abruptly on the edge of the bed, settling her in his lap where she could feel the distinct bulge of his cock through his trousers. She whined in response into his mouth and tried to pull away to speak but he chased her, one hand curled around her back to hold her up and the other finding the back of her neck to keep her pulled in close. His kisses seemed all the more hungrier than usual and part of her couldn’t help but think that part of it was the crowd that had been flocking around him the entire night.
Knowing Orlesians, they hadn’t been talking to him about the fucking weather.
Giving up getting away, Meryell just spoke as she could, saying the words between kisses that were turning more and more frantic and hungry.
Cullen just snarled in response before he wrapped both arms around her, flipping them around so she was pressed to the bed and he was on top of her. He kissed her soundly, one hand groping at her bare breast, before he seemingly dragged himself away and started working at the buttons at the top of his coat. Meryell immediately sat up and started undoing the buttons at the bottom, tugging at them one handed moments later when she got enough undone to start tugging at the laces of his trousers. When they finally got all of them open a moment later, Cullen tossed the coat away from him with a growled, “Damned thing,” before he tugged the long-sleeved shirt he had been wearing underneath over his head. The move immediately upset what was left of the careful coif of his hair, which had already been revealing his natural unruly curls.
“Boots,” she commented mildly while she plucked her fingers at his smallclothes. He hitched a breath in response before he toed them off in quick turn and immediately shucked his pants, smallclothes, and socks after. Then he was pushing her back down onto the bed and stretching out over her, keeping most of his weight off of her by bracing on his elbows and forearms. When he then just sat there, looking down at her, she lifted a hand to cup his cheek and asked, “What are you thinking, vhen’an?”
“That there’s a sheet in the way,” he replied before he reached down between them, trying to tug the material out from around her but not managing it at all. When Cullen finally groaned and rolled over, seemingly given up on getting her loose, Meryell laughed and kicked her legs free of the sheet after some minor struggling before tossing it off the side of the bed.
She then moved to lie the proper way on the bed instead of across it, slowly inching her way up towards the pillows, and called down to him, “Vhen’an.” As his head turned towards her, she smiled and slowly slid a hand down across her belly before teasingly letting her fingers delve into the dark curls between her legs. Expelling a breathy little sigh, Meryell added, “I guess I’ll just have to take care of myself all on my lonesome since you seem so tired of a sudden.”
Cullen was abruptly up at that, practically launching himself up the bed to land next to her with a growl as he closed his hand over hers. His fingers joined her as he kissed her before he pulled away to hiss, “You are an evil woman.”
“Mmm,” she hummed in response, seeking out his lips again. “You should punish me for being so cruel.”
“I’m not sure what I intend to do to you is punishment,” he replied.
Meryell smiled against his mouth before she kissed his scar and whispered, “Let’s find out.” He laughed in reply before following when she dragged him down on top of her and after that there were no thoughts of Orlais or handsy nobles or fucking proposals of marriages of convenience or even Corypheus.
There was only her and him, just the way it should be.
“They’re dying, they’re dying. All plans torn asunder, fluttering down like the flower petals in the garden. Dying. All dying.”
Meryell jerked awake, every sense screaming intruder, and she reached for the knife she always kept under her pillow whenever or wherever she was. Next to her she felt Cullen stir as well, his body and mind as keyed to sensing danger as hers was. As she twisted around to sit up from where she’d been laying on her belly, knife in hand, she realized just who their intruder was.
“Cole,” she hissed, confused and angry, “what the fuck?”
“Cole?” repeated Cullen as she turned her head to look at him, finding him already upright with a short sword in his hand. “Maker’s breath.”
The boy lifted his head from where he crouched in the dark at the end of the bed, Meryell only able to see him by the blessing of elven night vision. His face seemed paler than usual as he gasped, “The elves went into the wing one by one. To do their job. To seek. To find. To ferret out the secrets and the lies and every little thing to be used and bring them all back, safe and sound. They never came back. They never will come back.”
He held out something then – a piece of paper – and Meryell reached out to take it. His pale eyes were so round in the dark as he said, “Asa’ma’lin, the wolf is in the halla pen,” and then he was gone.
And she forced herself to breathe because that was Pod. Pod, who was supposed to have made his way in amongst the servants in the Winter Palace. Who was, at this very moment, supposed to be investigating to see what he could find amongst them alongside Sera in what was meant to be the most safe time to do so.
“Light,” she managed to croak and, bless him, Cullen didn’t ask. He just rose from the bed and walked across the room to where she knew the table was that he was using currently as his desk, lighting a candle before he came back to settle on the edge of the bed. She scooted over to fold herself against his side as he held up the candle and they read the parchment that Cole had given her together.
“Elves disappearing,” he murmured, wrapping his arm around her. “Them calling for help. Shit.”
Meryell felt her hand shake and breathed, “Sera’s there, Cullen. And Pod. I can’t…I can’t let anything happen to them because I put them there.”
He let out a breath then pressed a kiss to her forehead before he whispered, “Go, love. I’ll rouse Leliana and Josephine. You just get Folke and go. I’ll send someone else after you.”
She didn’t say thank you. Didn’t have to.
Meryell merely tilted her chin up to kiss him and then bolted across the room for her armor.