“The fuck’s this?” asked Meryell as Leliana held out a rolled up piece of parchment towards her across the war table. She’d stolen enough documents (and helped forge a few) to know that the paper was expensiveand it wafted faintly of the sort of perfume rich ladies in Orlais tended to wallow in.
“An invitation that we sadly missed,” replied the spymaster as she folded her arms. “Apparently Madame de Fer has taken some interest in the Inquisition and attempted to invite the Herald of Andraste to her latest salon.”
Meryell snorted at the fancy words. “So, a party.”
“In short, yes, Inquis – Meryell,” Josephine said, correcting herself with a smile. “Though it might be worth our time to explore just what she can bring to the Inquisition. Another ally – particularly of such a powerful mage – could be indispensable.”
“I’ll bite,” Meryell returned as she settled one hip atop one of war rooms tall stools. Gesturing at the ambassador and spymaster with one hand, she continued, “Enlighten me. I know fuck and shit about Orlesian mages, let alone one who managed to finagle a title out of someone. What’d she do to earn it?”
The two women on the other side of the table looked at her askance and Cullen laughed outright at their affronted expressions.
There was still laughter in his voice as he said, “The title is far from official to my knowledge. Even without it Enchanter Vivienne is one of the more formidable mages of this Age. She was the court enchanter to Empress Celene up until recently and was voted into power as the First Enchanter at Montsimmard at a young age. I remember the news being a scandal.”
“I did not think our stern Commander paid attention to gossip,” jibed Leliana, her tone light enough that Meryell could tell it was a joking jab and not a rude one.
Cullen just smiled as he rested his hands on the hilt of his sword. “The templars aren’t that different from any other military and soldiers love gossip. We paid special attention when it was mages, even those not in our Circle.”
Leliana made a scoffing sort of noise that wasn’t far from one of Cassandra’s usual while Josephine smiled and added, “She is also, at the moment, the defacto leader of the loyalist mages.”
“Loyalist mages?” repeated Meryell.
“Those who did not revolt,” stated Cullen. “She has apparently rallied those who didn’t take up arms or leave when the Circles fell. Given that the vast majority did go with the rebels they probably don’t amount to much but…” He paused to let out a breath and lifted one hand to rub at the back of his neck. “Since we have already sought cooperation from the mages, we should explore efforts in allying with all factions of them that are seeking peace.”
Meryell’s eyebrows went up at his words and she fought then failed to stop the brilliant smile she gave him. For anyone else to have said it would have been normal. To have Cullen , who was still deeply uncomfortable with magic but was trying to quell his fear, do so was a completely different mabari.
“So,” she said slowly, “she’d bring mages and be good to have on our side for skills. And I’m gonna guess political savvy? You don’t become court enchanter and earn even a fake title without some kind of skill at navigating the rat’s nest.”
“Indeed,” agreed Josephine. “If there is in fact something in Corypheus’ plans involving the Empress as you saw in that foul future, as well, her insight would also be useful.”
Meryell held up a hand then and said, “Alright, alright, I’m sold. Send a letter expressing our interest or whatever and see what she says.” She paused, sighing, before adding, “I’ll even take a trip back into Orlais to see her myself if that’s what it takes to get her here.”
Leliana and Josephine looked at each other then over at Cullen, who just shrugged at their inquisitive looks.
“We will see it done, Meryell,” the spymaster said with a smile. “And perhaps you should visit her anyway. You were travelling next with Serah Hawke to Crestwood, yes?”
“In about a week to find this Warden friend of hers,” answered Meryell with a nod. She then leaned forward to prop herself up against the table with one hand and looked at the map where one of the simple pin markers had been pushed into the cloth. “I suppose we could do that then head north through the Storm Coast and take ship at Highever. It’ll be a longer trip for us than Jader was but the horses will get a nice break.”
She then hummed to herself and added, “I can ask Zarru if she still knows any reliable ship captains who’d be around there this time of year. She’s always kept her resources fresh for when the company needs a ship.”
“Pirate captains?” queried Josephine. Meryell could practically feel the woman stressing out over what the Inquisitor on a pirate ship might do to their still recovering reputation.
“Mostly but she knows some merchants as well.” Winking at the ambassador, she jibed, “I’ll be sure to tell her to stay away from pirates to keep you from having a heart attack, Josephine. Bets are off if that’s all she can find though.”
The other woman sighed heavily before saying, “If it is the only option to get you to Val Royeaux, so be it.”
“I’ll go ahead and start planning to send some of our forces out towards Highever so they’ll be in the city whenever you arrive there,” Cullen noted with a smile. “Perhaps Zarru will have a Fang or two who could travel with them who would know whatever ship she finds?”
Smiling at him, Meryell said, “I’ll include that in my asking. Anything else?”
“We should begin discussing what needs to be done in the Storm Coast,” answered Cullen, tapping his fingers on the region below the small brass marker that signified the city of Highever. “There are several reports coming from our scouts there that are rather worrisome.”
Folding her arms, she asked, “What sort of reports, Cullen?” This was the first she was hearing if this but that was mostly because they had a rule now about no talk about work when they were alone. At least not at night anyway.
His eyes flashed up to meet hers and his mouth set into a grim line as he replied, “Red Templars.” There was a definite hint of a growl in his voice as he said the word and why not? They had betrayed his old Order utterly, had swung down upon Haven in a hammer-blow meant to wipe them out, and would have been partly responsible for her death if she hadn’t gotten seriously fucking lucky. She imagined he had pity for them because he knew the price lyrium took from a body but not enough to resist striking them down. After Haven and Redcliffe, she didn’t judge him for that at all either as she’d rather see them dead herself.
And he definitely probably did not like that she would be the one by-and-large going out after them.
“Our scouts have not been attacked by them, correct?” asked Josephine as she lowered her board to look at the map.
Shaking his head, he answered, “No but…” Cullen trailed off and turned to pick up one of the rolled up pieces of parchment on the end of the table, planting a heavy unused marker on one end before he unrolled it and weighed down the end with another. Meryell leaned forward to see what it was and found the beginnings of a map of the Storm Coast, very much like the ones kept by their scouts in the Hinterlands and Fallow Mire. This one was, of course, not as filled out as the others but there were two Inquisition camps marked with the eye that she could see.
“This is what they’ve explored so far,” he explained as he gestured over the drawing. “I’m told that there are more scouts in the field up towards this left side who haven’t yet reported back with their findings. However, the worry is here, along the shore.” As he gave the map a heavy tap in two different locations, Cullen growled, “We have definite reports of Red Templars and red lyrium. They seem to be mostly staying to the areas they’ve claimed, however, so it possible they’re working on increasing their forces before they do anything major.”
Meryell looked down at the map then up at him and asked, “Does this need to come before Val Royeaux?”
“My dislike of them would have me say yes ,” replied Cullen. He then heaved a sigh and looked at Leliana over Josephine’s head, the spymaster shaking her own head subtly in response to an obviously silent question. “As of now, however, we still have too little information for us to make an official call.”
“We are hoping,” Leliana said, “to get an impression of their numbers before we send anyone in against them.”
Josephine nodded and added, “Thankfully, much of the region is still unoccupied since the Blight. Highever has been slow to recover these ten years despite Teyrn Fergus’ best efforts and I do not believe West Hill has fared any better. So there is little to worry about in the way of loss except with our own forces.”
Nodding, Meryell stared at the map for a long moment before she looked up to catch the eyes of Cullen and Leliana. “Find the answers,” she said firmly, “but let’s not sacrifice anyone for this. Not unless there is absolutely no other fucking option.” She trusted that Cullen wouldn’t needlessly sacrifice a soldier but Leliana…well, it wouldn’t surprise her if the el’u’verelan was willing to do such.
“As you will,” intoned Cullen seriously as he lifted his fist to press it over his heart. Leliana nodded firmly in turn and Meryell took it as the agreement it was.
“Anything else then?” she asked.
Josephine looked down at the papers on her board and replied, “I believe that is all for today, Meryell. Tomorrow will be our long day of planning for your trip to Crestwood.”
“Make sure Hawke’s here then,” commented Meryell as she tucked her arm into Cullen’s as he came around the table with his elbow extended. “Not only to plan for Crestwood but her son since he’s remaining here.”
“I was under the impression that our Master Tethras would be taking care of him,” commented Leliana.
“You’re half right,” answered Cullen and all three of them turned to look at him. Meryell arched her eyebrows in a silent you know something we don’t know and he just grinned down at her. “Trust me,” he said, “it’s taken care of.”
Meryell flashed a look back at the two women, who looked just as confused as she did, before Cullen pressed her forward out of the war room. As they passed through Josephine’s office into the hall she asked, “Fine. How are you so knowledgeable of our new guest’s doings?”
He laughed and replied, “You think I don’t have my own sources to what goes on in Skyhold?”
“Oh I know you do,” she replied. “I’ve been in your office when one of your soldiers has come in with those sheets of juicy gossip from the barracks. But who do you have to tell you about Hawke?”
“It’s a secret.”
“ Cullen ,” she whined playfully. “I know how to keep a secret!”
“Not my secret to tell, vhen’an’ara .”
Sighing heavily as they passed out the open doors of the hall and started down the steps, Meryell said, “Fine.”
He arched his eyebrows in surprise. “That’s it?”
“It’s you , vhen’an’ara ,” pointed out Meryell with a smile. “The only other person that can match your level of stubborn is Cassandra, so I have no hope of working it out of you.”
Cullen snorted and replied, “I think you underestimate the levels of persuasion you could reach with me.”
“ Oh? ” she asked, stopping him at the bottom of the stairs. Turning to face him, she slid her hands up over his breastplate and mantle to lock her fingers around the back of his neck. As his hands fell to an almost chaste position on her waist – not too high and not too low – she smiled up at him. “Are you admitting, ser, that I have an unfair advantage and can weasel Inquisition secrets out of you?”
“Unfair advantage, yes,” he replied with a smile. “And you are our Inquisitor; Inquisition secrets are your secrets, so why would I hide those from you?”
“So not an Inquisition secret. From before?”
Cullen just smiled and was silent, which had Meryell stepping closer to him so she was pressed against his breastplate. It wasn’t like she’d molded herself to him but…well…it didn’t leave much to the imagination since her shirt choice of the day was rather low cut. And he looked , which made her feel considerably better about that fact that she had little to offer in the way of breasts.
“Shall I seduce you here in the courtyard to find the answer?” she purred.
He growled in response and she felt his fingers flex against her sides. “I would prefer,” he rumbled darkly, “you to do so in private if you insist upon the attempt.”
“Afraid someone will get jealous of you being with the Inquisitor?”
“No,” he replied succinctly. “I would simply prefer to have all of that part of you to myself. It may surprise you but I don’t like to share.”
As Meryell flushed in response to that, there was a shout from somewhere behind her in the general direction of the door that led through to the garden and a child’s exuberant giggle. Cullen let out one of those bray’s of laughter of his and she turned to see little Mathis Hawke sprinting his way across the upper courtyard with one of the Sisters who’d taken to working in the garden at his heels. The four-year-old wascovered from head to toe in dirt and mud with what looked like the remnants of an elfroot plant tangled in his hair and had the brightest, most mischievous grin on his face.
“Come back here this instant!” scolded the Sister, who was also covered in mud all down the front of her robes. There were also muddy child sized handprints on her cheeks and a messy smear that looked like it might have been caused by a mud-coated kiss.
Tiny legs merely pumped faster in response to the shout as the boy sped towards the tavern. He never made it there, though, as a fully armored templar came out of seemingly nowhere and swept the boy up in one swift move to toss over his shoulder. Meryell blinked as she recognized him as the one from outside the mage’s tower before her trip to the Fallow Mire. Ser Cutter had been what Dem had called him, she thought.
“Oh, Ser Cutter, thank you!” exclaimed the Sister. “This little menace… ”
“Has done what now?” interrupted the templar as he rested a heavy hand on top of the squirming boy on his shoulder.
Meryell couldn’t see the Sister’s face from their vantage point by the stairs but judging by how violently red the back of her neck turned, she was one step away from a full-on apoplectic fucking rage.
“He has ruined a section of the garden! Dug up all of the elfroot there! He dug holes ! Turned it into a mud puddle!”
“Is a pond! ” defended the culprit in a tone that said she’d insulted him to the core and Meryell laughed along with Cullen as Ser Cutter swatted Mathis lightly on the rear with his other hand. “But, Un’ca , the p’ants needed water! They have water at home!”
“ Un’ca ?” repeated Meryell, turning to look up at Cullen with a confused expression. “Is he…is he trying to say Uncle ?” Judging by the immediate desolate look on the man’s face, the boy was. “Maker’s holy ball sack, Cullen,” she breathed in a hushed whisper. “Does Cassandra know that Carver bloody Hawke has been serving in the Inquisition under an assumed name?”
“We had managed to keep it a secret up until now,” he replied through slightly clenched teeth. Then Cullen sighed and shook himself. “No helping it now. The mabari was probably out of the pen anyway on that one from the moment Hawke set foot in Skyhold.”
“She’s going to murder you.”
“I more fear Leliana murdering me than Cassandra,” he grumbled in reply.
“ Ooh ,” squealed Meryell delightfully. “I would love to be there when she finds out that you pulled a fast one over on her too.”
Cullen just sighed wearily. “You would find some delight in this, wouldn’t you?”
“I like annoying the e’lu’verelan , what can I say?”
He snorted and then they both turned to look as they heard an exasperated noise of frustration from the Sister before watching her storm off. Meryell saw Ser Cutter – or Ser Carver , as she now knew his real name to be – heave a sigh and tilt his head back towards the sky in a gesture that was very likely him asking for strength. Then he started walking towards them with Mathis still over his shoulder, though the boy was now merely kicking his heels idly and not attempting to escape.
“Commander, Inquisitor,” greeted the man as he stopped in front of them. Meryell looked at him again now that she knew he was the younger of the surviving Hawke’s and could see some of the family resemblance. They were dissimilar enough that unless one knew they were related, it couldn’t be seen. Carver had a completely different facial structure – his was the more sturdy seeming Ferelden while Treva looked more of a Marcher as a whole – but it looked like they shared the same nose (though his hadn’t been broken), blue eyes, and brown hair. “Sorry you had to witness the antics of this scamp.”
“Not a scamp!” chirped Mathis, pushing himself up against his uncle’s back so he could see them. “Hi, Mer-ree!” he said brightly upon seeing her, reminding her that he had trouble with his ‘l’ sounds and she’d made a point to stare at Varric while giving the boy permission to call her Merry. “Hi, Cu’en!”
“Hello, Mathis,” replied Cullen in a gentle tone that was normally reserved for her or a recruit having a hard time. He then turned to Carver and said, “I believe our secret may be out soon.”
The other man flicked his eyes to Meryell and she grinned while nodding, which just made him sigh.
“Well,” Carver noted a little grimly, “we knew me coming with you had that risk but like I told you in Kirkwall, I sure as shit wasn’t staying behind. Plus with Treva coming here it was bound to come out. The scamp here doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body.”
“Nope!” chirped the boy. Then Mathis frowned and asked, “Un’ca, what’s su…sut…sut-el?”
Patting the boy lightly on the back, Carver replied, “Nothing you need to worry your tow-headed little self about. What you need to be worrying about, scamp, is how your mother is going to react to you tearing up the Inquisitor’s garden.”
Meryell just shrugged because she didn’t really care as torn up earth could be fixed easily enough but the templar shook his head at her. She realized a moment later that this was to be a lesson in something and smiled at him, moving her hand up and over her lips in a gesture of locking them with a key. Carver just grinned at her in response.
“Anyway,” he said lightly, “I need to get this menace cleaned up then go hand him off for punishment. We still training the new lot in shieldwork this afternoon, Commander?”
“Provided you get free of Hawke when she finds out you weren’t watching the boy,” jibed Cullen with a smile. Carver huffed in mock offense as he made to move around them, Mathis falling back down against his shoulder, as he made his way towards the stairs underneath the arch that led down into the lower courtyard.
“I’m not the one who was responsible for him this morning. Until afternoon, Commander. And a pleasure to finally meet you, Inquisitor.”
“I have a name, Ser!” she called after him.
“As do I!” he called back and Meryell laughed, shaking her head before turning her attention back to Cullen.
“I like him.”
Snorting, Cullen replied, “You’re lucky to meet him now and not when he joined up. Maker, was that an experience I don’t want to relive again.”
“Well,” she drawled, “I hope none of your new recruits remind you of such things.”
“Only if they have obviously apostate sister’s who are drawing attention to themselves under my commanding officer’s nose. Though…” He paused and smiled down at her before finishing, “I seem to recall my current commanding officer doesn’t have a problem with mages.”
Meryell laughed a little uncomfortably at the reminder that that was what she technically was before saying, “Sounds like you’re a far luckier man now than you were when dealing with a younger him.” That comment brought a bright smile to the man’s face – the sort that twisted his scar and made him seem younger – and she couldn’t help but smile in return.
Cullen moved one hand up to cup her jaw as he softly said, “A lucky man, indeed.” Her breath caught just a little at the tone and reminded herself that they were standing in the middle of Skyhold.
Instead she asked, “I’ll see you at dinner tonight?”
“I may need a reminder of the time but, yes, dinner tonight.”
Chuckling, Meryell said, “I’ll be sure to grab a runner to come remind you. Or just come get you myself.”
“I’d prefer the latter,” he replied as he started to step away and head to wherever he needed to be next since the days were ever busy for the Inquisition’s Commander. “You have a far prettier face.”
“I’ll remember to tell your runners that you appreciate me more than them!” called Meryell after him, which just made the man turn and grin at her.
“I think that is evident to everyone in Skyhold, vhen’an’ara ,” Cullen replied. Then he was gone, disappearing down the same way that Carver had just went and Meryell stood at the base of the stairs for a long moment with what was probably the most ridiculous smile on her face.
Sometimes she still doubted that anyone could want her but comments like that …oh, comments like that soothed every single ruffled feather.
Still smiling, she turned and headed off on her own way because she too had her own things to do. And possibly some chaos to try to rush over and watch later when Ser Cutter’s real identity finally made it through the rounds of the Inquisition grapevine.