The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen, Chapter 49

“Well, well, well. What have we here?”

Meryell turned at the unfamiliar voice, the accent a strange one that reminded her a bit of Folke’s – like the sort you heard from those who lived beyond the normal bounds of society. The woman striding towards her was…out of place. Like she did not belong in the fine dress or encased inside the elaborate corset. Did not belong within gilded walls and elaborately decorated corridors.

She belonged in the wild.

“Leader of the new Inquisition, fabled Herald of the faith,” continued the woman with a sly, knowing smile. “Delivered from the grasp of the Fade by the blessed Andraste herself. What could bring such an exalted creature here to the Imperial Court, I wonder? Do you even know?”

Smoothing her hands over her skirts to still the need for her mouth to snap bullshit in immediate response (because Maker fucking forbid she offend the delicate sensibilities of the noble pricks within earshot), Meryell replied, “The Inquisition is here for many reasons, my lady. Though, given courtly intrigue, we may never know which are the true ones. And I believe I’m at a disadvantage as I don’t know who you are.”

That reply at least made the woman chuckle and their eyes met as she said, “Such intrigues obscure much but not all, Inquisitor.” They eyed each other for a long moment, in which Meryell noted that the woman’s eyes were yellow like a wolf or lion’s eyes, before she smiled and inclined her head forward. “I am Morrigan. There are many who call me advisor to Empress Celene on matters of the arcane.”

There surely was only one apostate advisor to the Empress, which meant that this woman was the one that Leliana had spoken to her about the night before. She could fully understand now why the e’lu’verelan found her dangerous. Meryell had met enough dangerous people in her life to recognize them.

“And what do you call yourself, Lady Morrigan?” she asked, keeping her tone level.

“I call myself many things, Inquisitor,” replied the woman slyly. “And what of yourself? You have, after all, been quite busy since your arrival here at Halamshiral. Hunting in every dark corner for something. For what, I wonder?”

Oh this one. This was a good one. She knew how to ask just enough to attempt to coax an answer out.

Meryell, though, had grown up in a gang full of youths and adults who talked out of both sides of their mouths and then had spent her adulthood largely amongst whip smart mercenaries. People who knew how to bribe and cheat their way around, as well as weedle out secrets with nearly the same grace as Josephine. She knew this game.

Smiling, she answered, “My name depends upon who I speak to, of course. As well as who they are to me.” Meryell then tilted her head, folding her hands over each other, and went on, “And hunting, my lady? Whatever reason would I have to be hunting anything?”

Morrigan smiled – though the expression didn’t quite meet her eyes – and said quietly, “Perhaps I am mistaken then, Inquisitor. Or…” She trailed off as she moved to walk by, heading towards the rail that overlooked the ballroom floor, and finished after she passed, “Or perhaps we hunt the same prey?”

“Do we?” asked Meryell as she turned to follow, falling easily into step with the other woman.

Laughing, Morrigan noted, “You are being quite coy, Inquisitor. Do you fear letting your hand get out of play or is there perhaps something more?”

Smiling thinly, Meryell lifted a hand to ‘adjust’ her mask – the same that Arnald had gifted her when they’d arrived, which now contrasted it’s rift green against the golden color of her dress for tonight – and replied in a low undertone, “I’m being fucking careful.”

The other woman smiled widely before saying, “Aaah. There is the woman who hides behind the mask. Or perhaps merely a fragment of her.” She then dismissively waved a hand before folding them on top of the railing. “Very well, I will speak first then.”

Those yellow eyes turned to regard Meryell fully as Morrigan dropped her volume to say, “I have recently found and killed an unwelcome guest within these halls. An agent of Tevinter. Thus, I offer you this, Inquisitor: a key from the Tevinter’s body.”

The key itself didn’t look familiar but as soon as she folded her fingers around it, Meryell recognized it. It was a copy of the servant’s quarters key, almost exactly like the crude copies that Pod had handed out just in case before he and Sera had gone on their mission the night before. She could feel the grooves digging into her palm, all too familiar after spending most of the run from Gaspard’s home with her own copy clutched tight.

She didn’t let her surprise show on her face and nodded when Morrigan continued, “I know not where it leads, yet if Celene is in danger I cannot leave her side to search.”

“I can,” Meryell noted. Then she frowned and asked, “You left her alone?”

“She is in no danger…for the moment,” replied the other woman. “After all, ‘twould be a great fool who struck at her in public, before all of her court and the Imperial Guard.”

“Or,” mused Meryell, “the wisest tactic for someone attempting to sow discord amongst her allies and enemies alike.” If she had been hired to cause panic and disorder, to turn ally and enemy upon each other so as to keep them occupied while the queen moved to take the king, it was the move she would make. Strike and disappear, leave no trace behind.

She realized a breath after she’d spoken that Cullen and his penchant for chess analogies at the oddest occasion was apparently influencing her own speech now.

Morrigan narrowed her eyes, her gaze turning a little bit sharper and more assessing, before she softly agreed, “‘Twould be an option if that is what one wished. Such action would still require the perfect timing and I do not believe such time has come. Don’t you agree, Inquisitor?”

Smiling thinly, Meryell replied, “Not quite yet, Lady Morrigan. Such time hasn’t come yet.” She then frowned and asked, “Why kill the man, by the way? You don’t seem the type to blindly lash out at those who stand against you.”

“So forward, Inquisitor, to think you know me so. What makes you believe I would have kept him alive?”

“Hunch,” she answered with a casual shrug.

Morrigan laughed before saying, “So very coy, Inquisitor.” Then her laughter faded as she went on, “I would not have slain him if he had not chosen to attack me first. I did not, as well, realize who he was until the battle was over and he had breathed his last.”

A small smile twitched at the corner of her mouth as she inclined her head forward and said, “You are correct in your assessment, Inquisitor. I would have rather kept him alive to answer all our questions.”

“Alas,” commented Meryell lightly.

“Alas indeed. I would proceed with caution, Inquisitor. Enemies abound here and not all of them aligned with Tevinter.”

Meryell let out a low, unladylike snort – Josephine would be appalled but Morrigan was no court lady to be impressed by proper form and manners – and smirked as she shot back, “I came here with little fucking illusion of any allies beyond my own, Lady Morrigan.”

That made the woman laugh before she turned to walk away, smiling over her shoulder as she said, “I look forward to seeing where your hunt leads you next, Inquisitor. What comes next will no doubt be most exciting.”

Staying at the railing, Meryell watched the woman walk away until she disappeared into the throngs of nobles that filled the ballroom. She slipped as easily between them as any Dalish hunter through a crowd, just further clarifying her wild origin.

Meryell sure as shit didn’t trust her (the only reason she’d taken the key was because she knew something was going on in the servant’s quarters) but she felt like she could like the woman. In the same wary sort of respect-from-a-distance way she liked the e’lu’verelan.

And, speaking of her spymaster, she needed to find her.

They had a job to finish.

ornament

“They…they were like ghosts, Inquisitor,” gasped the soldier, a burly man dressed in the simple garb and apron of a chef, as he pressed a cloth to his bleeding forehead. They’d found him and several others of their men who had been put into place as servants fighting with with Venatori as soon as they entered the servant’s quarters. “Those masked ones, they gutted Horace before we even knew they were here. Then the Venatori were on us in a flash. That mage from your company, though, she immediately shielded the rest of us. Likely the only thing that kept us alive.”

“Well,” Meryell noted grimly, “Bel’s gotten lots of practice over the years.” She then ducked her head, leaning over where she could peer around the cloth to get a look at his wound before saying, “You’re bleeding like a stuck pig but I think you’re gonna be fine, Sergeant Olyver.”

The man chuckled at that before saying dryly, “Y’know how to make a man feel confident in his abilities, Inquisitor. Head wounds always bleed like a bitch.”

“Sergeant!” exclaimed one of the others, a young man with the darker skin of a native Antivan but only a hint of the accent, looking pale. He flicked his gaze between the older man and Meryell before hissing, “You can’t talk like that to the Inquisitor.

“Pff, our Inquisitor here’s been a merc for a good ten years if I remember what I’ve heard ‘round the barracks.” The sergeant grinned up at her before adding, “I bet she’s heard far worse than what I can throw out.”

Meryell grinned brightly in return at the man, always delighted when one of the soldiers or scouts spoke to her like a person and not a figurehead. “You’d be right,” she agreed. “I’ve heard a shitting good amount of cursing over the years. Half of it fucking mine.”

That comment made the young man only paler (like he was about to faint) and the sergeant laugh.

“Now,” she went on, falling back into a more professional demeanor, “you lot stay here and hold down this area. I don’t expect they’ll circle back but given that we know they like to cut all their losses, better safe than sorry. Who else of ours got assigned down here?”

Olyver nodded sharply in response before saying, “One of my corporals, Edine d’Arlesans. She’s got the rest of our company that the Commander assigned mingled in with the other servants doing menial shite and keeping an eye out. That lot’ll get a surprise when they get to them. Edine’s mighty mean with a blade in her hand and every man with her is the same way.”

Good, thought Meryell, that means they have weapons hidden either on them or nearby. We might manage to get some of the innocents out of this shithole.

“We’ll get them out,” she promised before rising from her crouch in front of the man. Looking at the younger man, Meryell ordered, “Find your healing kit and make sure that wound won’t be a problem. I’d hate for blood in his eyes to rob us of a good sergeant.”

“Aye, ma’am!” he replied with a sharp but obviously nervous salute. Then he seemed to realize what he’d said and stammered out, “S-sorry. Inquisitor!”

Waving a hand, Meryell stepped over and patted his shoulder as she said, “Don’t fret too much about it, lad. No skin off my tits if you don’t get the right title. Now hop to on that kit, yeah?” When he just went pale, nodding vigorously before he bolted away, she sighed and rolled her eyes as she grumbled, “What is it with the young ones tripping over themselves around me with nervousness?”

“They like to please and they don’t want those above them to see them stumble,” replied the sergeant with a smile. “You weren’t like that as a young lass?”

“Didn’t get much of a sodding opportunity to be a normal lass, Sergeant. And most anyone above me was someone to cut the purse of and run when I was around his age.” Smiling thinly, Meryell brushed on through the conversation to avoid any chance of pity, saying, “Keep ‘em safe, Sergeant. I don’t want to come back to anymore fucking bodies.”

Olyver nodded sharply in reply, saluting with the hand not holding the cloth to his wound. “Aye, Inquisitor. I’ll see it done.”

She clapped him on the shoulder at that then moved on, weaving through the crowd of her people before she reached the side of Bel and Pod. Bel was wearing a simple woolen dress that was terribly foreign to the fine robes the Antivan tended to wear and Pod was dressed down into the neat but cheap garb of a common elven servant. It was at such odds with their normal appearance (especially since Bel wasn’t wearing her hair in her normal braid, instead piling it messily on top of her head) that she had to check for their carefully displayed company badges before she started talking.

“Same lot from last night?” she asked Pod in a low voice. When he frowned, Meryell pointed out, “They were gone by the time we got here, remember? Scared off by that door you and Sera left open like someone had escaped?”

Pod’s expression cleared then and he nodded. “Same masks and methods so I can only assume the same ones as before come back to finish their work. We were lucky to have Bel here.”

“Shields are everyone’s best friend,” noted the mage with a smile. Then she sobered and asked, “You’re certain you want to go on ahead with just the four of you?”

Snorting, Meryell replied, “Four? Cass alone is worth three warriors. Not to mention that Dorian can bring the fucking dead to our side too.”

“Still creepy as fuck, that is,” muttered Pod. He then shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well get going, asa’ma’lin. They’ve got the advantage of time on you and you need it more than the rest of us since you’re dealing with the sots upstairs.

“Ugh, don’t remind me, isa’ma’lin.” Meryell then looked hard at her fellow Fangs and said, “Keep ‘em safe, yeah?”

Pod snorted and Bel smiled as she said, “We’ll keep this lot alive, don’t you worry. Now go kill the shit out of the bastards that tried to off us.”

Grinning, she didn’t even bother to reply. Instead Meryell just turned and called out, “Cass!”

“Inquisitor?” queried the woman, a serious look on her face as she stood guard at one of the doorways alongside a soldier with a hastily bandaged arm. She then narrowed her eyes, seeming to realize what was up, and stated firmly, “We are ready.”

Maker fucking bless the surety of the Seeker.

“Yes, we fucking are,” she answered with a savage smile as she drew her daggers from their sheaths. “Let’s go kill some bastards.”

ornament

“What happened?” exclaimed Josephine as Meryell stepped back out of the servant’s quarters with Cassandra and Dorian right on her heels. The warrior had her shield at the ready to cover them (not that it was needed with allies at their backs but she wasn’t about to tell Cass no) as the mage did what he could to heal a cut on her arm that had torn straight through one of the delicate sleeves. “Your dress!

“Masked asshole is what happened,” snarled Meryell in response as she began immediately tugging at the buckles that held her dagger harness in place. “Little shithead pounced on me from behind while we were fighting Venatori fuckers, trying to stab me in the back. Thank fuck I noticed he was there and tried to dodge, elsewise we wouldn’t be having this conversation, Josie.”

The ambassador just stared at her for a moment, blinking several times, before she took in a deep breath then let it out a moment later. “It is fine, just fine,” she intoned softly. “We can fix this. Now don’t. Move.

Snorting, Meryell muttered, “Trust me, I’m not going anywhere,” as Josephine bustled away, grabbing the passing arm of what she knew was an Inquisition scout in disguise as a servant and hissing Salain’s name to them. Then the ambassador disappeared and Dorian made an amused noise in the back of his throat.

“One would think with her scolding that you had burned down the whole Palace around our ears instead of avoided dying,” he mused, shifting his hands slightly along her arm. Then she watched his lips purse beneath his moustache as the mage added, “Though you have done a dreadful thing to this dress, darling. These sleeves were a true work of art.”

“Didn’t get any blood on the skirts or bodice, though, did I?” asked Meryell, tilting her chin up proudly.

Dorian laughed outright at that and nodded, replying, “Yes, yes, be proud of yourself for that one. Usually you can’t manage to keep blood off of your armor.”

“This time is because she was being careful to not,” Cassandra noted sternly as she paced back towards them after firmly shutting the door. She frowned at them for a moment before she continued, “Sergeant Olyver and those with him are guarding this passage from within. Corporal Edine has apparently made it her personal mission that one of those masked bitches will not make it near you again. And Sera has apparently disappeared entirely.”

Chuckling, Meryell smiled as she said, “I think Corporal Edine might be a woman after my own heart. You know Sera will turn up again, probably after putting something nasty into someone’s drink.” She then glanced towards Dorian and asked, “We good?”

“As well as I can manage, darling,” he replied, patting her arm along the mostly healed but still red gash along her arm. “If Josephine could be delightful enough to bring a real healer back with her, you could go back out there with nothing to show from that little scuffle.”

Cassandra snorted and tipped her head towards where the ambassador had disappeared, saying, “It would seem she had the same thought.” Then her voice lowered as she added, “Cullen is accompanying her as well.”

Meryell turned to look at the approaching party and saw over their shoulders as they came down the stairs that their actual in Inquisition garb soldiery were barring entrance to the Hall of Heroes briefly to allow them some privacy. Then she blinked at the sight of Gil walking with them. As she opened her mouth to note that the woman was supposed to be back at Gaspard’s mansion and not in the middle of the mission because you didn’t throw pure healers into a fucking fight, the woman sternly held up a finger.

“Not one fucking word,” she hissed. “They called me out here to take care of those who got wounded and you know I sure as shit don’t leave anyone dying on a field if I can help it. Now let me see that arm.”

She’d been around the woman for enough years to know when Gil was in full on Healer Mode and fighting against it was about as useless as getting between herself and Folke. A body was liable to feel just as runover by Gil as someone was to be actually run over by her or her father. Though anyone Gil ran over was less likely to get set on fire as an afterthought.

So Meryell just held out her arm as Dorian took a quick step back and replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

Gil narrowed her eyes at her, glanced towards Josephine, then drew the knife that she wore at her belt. Despite the ambassador’s choked gasp of breath, she cut the thin fabric of the sleeves away with the same surgical precision she used on the very rare occasion she had to actually get into a body, sheathed it, and examined the healed wound with sharp eyes. Gil then placed a hand around Meryell’s arm at either end of the wound. Their eyes met and the mage said sharply, “Deep breath.”

Meryell knew what that meant. Quick burst healing, the sort that they kept relegated to the battlefield or rush cases who were in danger of dying from wounds. Every healer in the company learned how to push magic out in a burst that was rapid healing in an instant and not the slow pull of usual.

Upside, the wound usually didn’t kill the person who’d taken it. Usually. Even with magical healing wounds could go foul and poisonous to the body.

Downside, the person being healed got a rush to the head that their former templars compared to feeling the first taste of lyrium (power and the ability to do anything) that lead to a heavy crash in a few hours. Dependant upon how hale their body was besides the wound, of course.

She didn’t question the necessity. She knew how many of theirs and the remaining actual servants had been wounded. Knew that she didn’t need the distraction of a great big gash on her arm with the noble pricks. No, Meryell just took a deep breath, locked eyes with Gil, and let the familiar magic rock through her.

It was like being kicked in the crotch but backwards.

For a brief moment her breath caught as her entire body tensed up, limbs stiffening as her body attempted to process what was going on. The sensation had panicked her the first time one of the healers had to pull this on her and she’d spent the moments after breathing hard. Now she took it in stride and did her best to relax through the tensing and the rush of energy that followed, setting her limbs to tingling madly and her heart pounding wildly in her ears. Like when she ran every step in the keep, breathing hard with exhilaration when she came to her stop on one of the tall towers with nothing but the Free Marches lying before her far below.

She felt Gil’s hands on her face, prodding and poking for a moment, holding her eyes open, before she nodded sharply and punched her lightly on the shoulder. “Climb, girl,” the mage intoned sharply.

Meryell just grinned a little dazedly at the older woman and asked, “How high?”

“High as you have to to punch bastards in the face,” replied Gil with a wink and a smile. Then she was gone, nodding to Cassandra as she moved past the warrior and disappeared into the servant’s quarters.

“Climb?” repeated Dorian. “Is this some sort of cryptic communication you and your little family have?”

Smiling at his calling them correctly her family, Meryell turned her head towards him and replied, “Climb the Vimmarks high, is part of one of our sayings.”

“For punching bastards in the face?”

“For getting shit done.”

“Well, shit needs to get done quickly,” Cullen intoned as he moved forward finally. He then frowned and asked, “Are you alright? Your…” His frown deepened, lines that she usually didn’t notice unless he was in deep thought marring his face, and leaned down. “Maker’s breath, your eyes are wrong.”

For a moment she didn’t realize what he was talking about before remembering that the burst of healing made the black centers of the eyes huge, nearly blacking out the whole eye. Then she registered why he had that off tone in his voice when he said the word wrong.

That offness had her reaching up to touch his arm reassuringly. “I’m me, vhen’an. This is no dream. Ar ame ara’lan,” she whispered, knowing that that word usually meant demons and nightmares to her lover. Cullen’s face relaxed a little but the worry didn’t disappear until she explained, “It’s the way Gil did the healing. Fast and quick makes the wound go away easy because she pushes so much magic into it but it accelerates the healing in the body. Sends shit haywire doing it like that, so folks that have it done to them get a rush for a good bit before they crash. My eyes should even out in a moment, it’s just my body being stressed about the quick healing making them huge.”

“Was that what she did?” asked Dorian, frowning as he tapped his fingers against his lips. “I swear, your company mages are full of surprises.”

“It’s usually only a battlefield or in danger of dying necessity,” Meryell further explained. She then bounced on her toes, already feeling the rush of energy kicking off the need to move, and turned to Josephine. “How long until Salain gets here?”

The ambassador pursed her lips as she trailed her eyes over the further torn sleeve and then over the rest of the dress before she replied. “Not soon enough,” she said with a frown. “You all should go ahead and get that armor off before someone sees you. Especially you, Inquisitor.”

Snorting, Meryell asked, “Because I’ve got my skirts up and showing my ankles?” Josephine just shook her head in response, her expression something between amused and exasperated. Meryell then turned her attention back to Cullen as she felt the backs of his fingers brush lightly over her upper arm where the mostly healed wound had been. She watched him touch the now unblemished (if a bit tight) skin that had now replaced it as if she’d never been hit by the masked assassin then turned her face up towards his.

His smile was tight and thin and she asked, “Are you alright?”

Cullen sighed softly and replied, “It’s foolish.”

Vhen’an, after most of two years knowing me, I’d like to think you’d fucking know that I like foolish sometimes.”

He gave a fraction of a more real smile and she glanced over at the others before stepping away to the other side of the lower area of the Hall. Cullen followed with a vague frown and Meryell just shrugged before replying, “I’d like to have a few fucking minutes to have a private conversation with you that’s not had before we either go to bed or I get terrified out of bed by our resident spirit.” That had his face immediately clearing up and he chuckled softly before nodding.

“I wouldn’t mind that myself,” he said softly. Then he moved his hand, running his fingers over the lower part of the carefully padded leathers that she was wearing over most of the bodice of the dress. “We should get you out of this too.”

Meryell nodded then fluttered her eyelashes coyly up at him, teasing, “Too bad we can’t just chuck the whole piss pot mess to the floor, eh? Leathers…the dress…everything…”

Cullen hissed out a breath in response before saying in a dark undertone, “You are deliberately trying my patience, aren’t you?”

“Am I? Would you have me up against this wall? Imagine the scandal, vhen’an, of them having the bare flesh of an elf staining their precious walls as she was pinned to it by her very Ferelden lover.” Meryell smiled, tipping her head back slightly as she imagined the horrified looks, and purred, “Maker’s festering dick, I’m almost tempted to do it just to say we did it.”

To his credit, Cullen’s face wasn’t red. His ears, however, were distinctly pink.

She also noticed that while the pull of his mouth downward said disapproval, the look in his eyes said interest just a little bit.

He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other then before he smiled down at her, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. “You are terrible,” he murmured, lips lingering on her skin. “A complete and utter terror.”

“Careful now,” she teased back, “that’s a compliment according to Fang standards.”

Cullen snorted at that, muttering under his breath that he wasn’t surprised, then he purposefully used both hands to turn her sideways so he could start working at the buckles of her armor along her left side. With a sigh, Meryell began working at loosening the buckles of her harness and then maneuvered around him in order to get it off. After letting it gently down to the floor, she began working on the buckles on the other side of her armor.

As she was finishing, Meryell felt Cullen’s lips lightly touch her ear – the same featherlight touch he’d done since learning why she flinched at them being touched. She pursed her lips, fingers stilling on the last buckle, and asked softly, “Cullen?”

“Is it foolish of me to want to be the one protecting you?” he asked, voice pitched low so as not to be overheard. She frowned at that and turned towards him, letting one hand rise to rest on his chest on the overlap of his coat. His eyes were dark with thought as he looked down at her then he abruptly jerked his head away, looking embarrassed. “Not that Cassandra isn’t able to protect you fully at all.”

“But you’d rather it was your shield,” she said. “While I wouldn’t fucking mind at all seeing you in action, there’s a problem with lovers in the field.”

He nodded, sighing, before saying under his breath, “They usually can’t disconnect and if one gets hurt, the other will usually ignore all orders and run to them.” When she just tilted her head to the side curiously, Cullen added,  “I saw it in other templars, particularly when I was serving in Kirkwall. That city…what we were asked to do there left a bitter taste in our mouths. Even when I thought what we were doing was right. So some found comfort in each other and that proved fatal too often.”

“No one stopped fraternization?” she asked, surprised. Most of the Fangs had served in one army or another and one or the main rules they all brought with them was that you didn’t put lovers on the same mission together. It was why now Hart and Pod were never assigned together.

Even Folke and Evune were never put together, just in case their feelings compromised the job. It was the same way with family, though she and Folke had their own bad habit of breaking that tentative rule.

“I suspect now,” Cullen replied darkly, “that Commander Meredith was thinking that it culled weaklings out of the ranks. Every time I tried to bring it up then, she merely brushed my concerns off and reminded me that templars were disciplined enough to not let anything happen.”

“You’re really only reminding me that I wish I’d been around to gut that crazy bitch a long time ago.”

He snorted at that then slipped his hand around her side, deftly undoing the last buckle and separating the two pieces of the armor to lift it carefully over her head. Bending slightly, he let it drop to the floor at their feet then knelt on one knee to begin working at the knots that held up the skirts of her dress on the right side.

“I might have a far different opinion of you if you’d been around to do that,” he noted quietly. Cullen then canted his eyes up at her as he added, “Probably not a very good one.”

Meryell smiled down at him and reached out her right land to rest on his shoulder as her left moved to the ties on that side. “Guess it’s good then that I wasn’t around for that after all.”

Cullen chuckled in reply and shrugged the shoulder her hand rested on before he said, “I’d rather have a good opinion of you than a bad.” He then gave a deft tug to the ties on her dress and the skirts billowed back down over her legs on that side, hiding her sturdy boots and leggings from sight. Without asking, he slid his hand between hers to get at the other ties and swiftly freed those, which made her smile and lean forward into him as he stood up.

“How is it that you know my dresses better than I do?” she asked coyly.

Smiling, he leaned down and his breath tickled her ear as he smoothly replied, “A warrior has to know every field that he fights on. Even if that field is a dress.”

Heat bloomed in her cheeks in response to that, at the idea that her dress was something to be fought to get to the prize underneath, and Meryell started to open her mouth to reply to the comment. Then there was a distinctly Rivaini curse from the top of the stairs behind Cullen (one she knew well from Zarru using it frequently and it was incredibly impolite) and she sighed as she caught sight of a horrified looking Salain. As Josephine approached the woman, Meryell frowned and leaned her forehead against Cullen’s chest, the buttons pressing a little harshly into her skin.

“Damn it to the fucking Void,” she cursed under her breath, feeling tired despite the energy Gil’s healing had infused her with.

Cullen chuckled in response and let his hands rest on her hips as he softly said, “It would seem the Maker is not in favor of our having too long a moment of peace while we’re here. Unsurprising, I suppose, since it’s Orlais and we are both Ferelden.”

Snorting, Meryell grumbled, “The Maker can go suck a cock.”

“I’m fairly certain that he doesn’t do that,” he murmured before he lifted a hand to tilt her chin up. Cullen kissed her softly before he said in a quiet tone, “Back to work, love.”

“Work can also go suck a cock,” she spat, wrinkling her nose. Then she sighed and nodded before lightly kissing him back. “Don’t let the assholes out there get to you, vhen’an.”

He laughed at that and said, “You’ve actually given me quite the idea of a distraction.”

Meryell arched an eyebrow and smiled broadly up at him. “Have I now?” she asked. Then she caught movement out of the corner of one eye and sighed as Josephine waved frantically at her. Rising up on her toes, she leaned into Cullen and kissed him soundly before whispering, “You think on that then, vhen’an. And I want to hear what you came up with before we leave Orlais.”

His mouth pressed eagerly back into hers, hands curling around her waist, then he asked softly, “Not tonight?”

“Tonight I’ll be unfortunately dead of exhaustion,” Meryell replied glumly. She then cupped his cheek in her hand and murmured, “Ar lath ma.”

Ar lath ma,” Cullen returned softly. Then his gaze hardened as he sternly said, “Now…what was it…climb high?”

Him saying the company words made her smile brightly and she nodded before finally pulling herself away from him. Salain made a particularly mournful noise as she saw the ruin of the dress’ sleeve and then Josephine was pulling them away, saying she knew somewhere private to work in.

Meryell let them drag her away, taking her mask back from Josephine as they went. Then she stood there, musing over all the things they had found out while she let Salain work to salvage the dress. She frowned down at the rift green branches of the mask in her hand and smiled grimly.

Climb had been invoked twice tonight, once by company and once by another just as dear to her heart. She had no choice but to respond in the only way she knew.

By being the wardog she was and taking shit from no one.

Not even an Empress.

ornament
Translations
Ar ame ara’lan – I am myself

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