“Inquisitor, your armor!” Josephine exclaimed as Meryell rushed past her into the ballroom, not even bothering to slow down to fully acknowledge her advisor.
“Fuck my armor. It’s Florianne!” she called back. She could see the woman standing on the other side of the dance floor, on the landing below Celene where she had faced the Empress upon their arrival. Her back was to them, so she definitely hadn’t noticed their arrival – even if the nobles around them were twittering softly about her bloodstained armor, tied up skirts, and the general disheveled state of her.
It had taken too damned long for them to put down the demons from the rift, the archers, and deal with the mercenary captain. What was it about the Inquisition that seemed to be attracting them? First her and the Fangs, then the Chargers, and now this Ferelden captain of Gaspard’s who she would gladly steal if only for shits and giggles. If he didn’t know incriminating shit on the man, anyway.
Shaking her head sharply, Meryell worked to focus. After the dancing, investigating, and fighting that had taken up the rest of the night after she’d gotten her arm healed, she was nearly at her limit. Dealing with the rift hadn’t made anything easier either as closing them always sapped energy out of her.
That and her hand and arm still stung like a bitch.
She flicked her eyes around at the crowd and found both Cullen and Arnald in near the railing of the upper level. Stepping onto the top of the stairs where they could see her, Meryell flashed them two quick hand signals. Two of the ones they’d devised for the Inquisition as a whole to learn between them.
Panic flickered over Cullen’s face for a moment before he swiftly shut it down, professionalism overruling anything else. He then disappeared from the railing and when she looked for Arnald, he was already gone.
“Inquisitor!” she heard Josephine hiss but Meryell ignored her. Instead she turned to Cassandra at her side and hissed three words.
“Get to Celene.”
The Seeker nodded sharply and was gone, pushing through the crowd with the same battering ram force she used on the field. Meryell then reached out blindly and felt Cole’s thin fingers curl around hers.
“Fear, fluttering and flickering like flame,” intoned the boy in a bare whisper. “Will I make it?”
“The fuck I won’t,” growled Meryell. She then took a breath and asked, “Guard my back, Cole?”
She could practically feel his smile before he breathed, “Always,” and then his fingers disappeared from hers like mist.
With that she brushed off anything else, shrugging her shoulders to feel the pull of her armor and harness in reassurance. Then Meryell straightened her back and stepped down to the ballroom floor. The twittering of crowd increased as more saw her, many subtly pointing and whispering to their neighbors at the rail.
Yet when she hit the middle of the floor, the only sound left was the clicking of her boot heels on the polished floor. For Celene had seen her and tilted her chin up, no longer paying attention those before her. And Florianne had not turned but she had noticed that something was wrong.
Gaspard and Briala, both standing where they could see the ballroom, noticed her and each took a step back.
“Duchess Florianne,” Meryell called out, her tone like steel. In the silence of the ballroom, it boomed despite the fact that she was not speaking much more loudly than her normal volume. She smiled as she watched Florianne’s spine stiffen beneath her fine dress and sketched an elaborate bow. “I believe we owe the court another show, Your Grace.”
The woman did turn then and her tone was icy as she said only, “Inquisitor.”
Caution, Meryell heard her oldest teacher say in her head – the boy Hob who’d been barely a few years older than her in the gang, who had taught her how to pick pockets and how to watch for the right time to strike. Let them come to you, yeah, runt? Makes your job easier…and occasionally them look like the fool.
Tilting her head to the side, she smiled before saying, “Have a care, Duchess. The eyes of every noble here are on us. Do remember to smile.”
Meryell then let her smile go edged and hard as she moved forward, up the steps towards the woman. “After all,” she went on, “we wouldn’t want anyone to think you’d lost control.”
Florianne tilted her chin up and sniffed delicately. “It does not appear that I am the one without control, Inquisitor.”
“Oh this?” Meryell asked, gesturing vaguely at her raised skirts and bloodied leathers. “This is nothing for me to be embarrassed about, Your Grace. I know full well that I’m really a graceless heathen with few manners and fewer niceties. All of this shite was for show. We both know how to hide our true nature, however, don’t we?”
“I…I do not know what you mean.”
Unless you see weakness, hissed Hob’s voice in her ear from years past. She could practically feel his phantom arm around her shoulders, smell the dog-wood-smoke-food smell of the South Reach market, feel the wood of the roof they had perched on digging splinters into her skin. You know what you do then, runt?
The memory of her, ten and three years and riding on rage and pain, smiled and replied, Strike.
Ha, we’ll make a thief of you yet.
Tilting her head to the side in a curious gesture, Meryell mused, “What was it you said? ‘All I needed was to keep you out of the ballroom long enough to strike’?”
When Florianne merely looked at her but said nothing, she pressed on.
Smiling, Meryell stalked forward a step. “Honestly I thought that when your archers failed to kill me that you would forget to save me this last dance. We did, after all, dance so prettily earlier.”
Without waiting for a reply, she glanced up at Celene – who merely tilted her head and regarded then both with well hidden curiosity – then plowed on, “But it’s so easy to ruin a reputation, isn’t it, Duchess? As you tried to ruin your brother’s by murdering a Council emissary with a Chalon dagger.” Meryell then stepped in close, hissing in a low but still audible tone to those close, “I know enough about Orlais to know that there are few of those daggers ever made. Not of that fine a make and certainly not with the Chalons crest. And I know that your brother carries his with him tonight.”
There was a startled gasp from somewhere but Meryell ignored it, never turning her attention from Florianne. She was wounded, limping, but a lame beast was still a beast.
She had to take its teeth.
“It was an ambitious plan,” she went on, glancing out of the corner of one eye towards Gaspard. The man was shaking his head at the whole debacle but she could see that he’d drawn his dagger from somewhere and it was now thrust through his belt. He was still a heel for the shit he had done but she wasn’t about to let him go down for a murder he hadn’t committed. “All of your enemies under one roof: Gaspard, Celene, the Council of Heralds…who could resist trying to take such a prize? Such a gift?”
And she could see fear in Florianne’s eyes as the woman took a step back.
“This is all very entertaining,” the woman primly noted but anyone paying attention could hear the strain in her voice, “But who do you think is truly going to believe your wild stories?”
“That,” Celene intoned imperiously from above them, “will be best decided by a judge, cousin.”
Meryell just smiled as Gaspard also stepped forward with a frown. “I did not wish to believe such,” he said sternly as he glanced towards her, “but it seems I must.”
Florianne’s shock in response to that statement was almost…honest. She turned towards him, distress on her features below her mask and true sounding sorrow in her voice as she exclaimed, “Gaspard, you cannot believe this! I would never…”
And he turned away.
Even Meryell sucked in a breath alongside the soft gasps from the ballroom because that gesture had as much disgrace in it as any decommission she’d seen in the company.
“Gaspard?” breathed Florianne, sounding small and lost. Then she began backing away as Imperial Guards replaced the retreating figures of her brother and Briala. She glanced behind her, frightened and beaten, at the ones who had come down the other stairs and then her eyes locked with Meryell’s.
Her own replied No in return.
She had no sympathy for the woman who had orchestrated children losing their parents for no reason but power. Not. One. Whit.
Taking a step forward, Meryell hissed in a low voice, “I’m afraid, Your Grace, that this is the end of our dance. Pity you weren’t skilled enough for another turn.” As she turned away, locking eyes with another Guard as he mounted the steps from the main floor, she heard the woman sob before her knees hit the floor with a sound muffled by the fabric of her dress.
She looked back across the ballroom, seeing Josephine and several of the others standing at the stairs. Cullen and Arnald’s location wasn’t certain but she knew they would be nearby, waiting for if they needed to send Inquisition or Fangs into combat. Now, of course, they weren’t needed.
As she listened to the Guards behind her dragging Florianne up to her feet and away, Meryell lifted her left hand up with her forearm and fingers pointing towards the ceiling. The Mark sparked briefly, making her palm jump, and she closed her hand into a fist in a sharp gesture as the ballroom gasped in response to the flash of green light. Instantly those at the other end of the room scattered, moving to spread the word of the signal to those who hadn’t been able to see it.
The ballroom at large might think she was just showing off the Mark but the Inquisition knew the gesture as stand down.
Turning back towards Celene, she inclined her head politely before saying, “I believe we should speak, Your Imperial Majesty. In private.”
“I believe you are correct, Inquisitor,” the Empress replied, gesturing to her right. Meryell nodded and moved up the steps until she came even with the other woman, noting that Cassandra and Leliana were standing distantly behind her at the edges of the crowd. Then she snapped her attention back to Celene as the woman said, “Perhaps you would like a moment to…freshen up?”
Blinking, Meryell glanced down at herself then chuckled, shaking her head. She then looked back up at the Empress and asked, “May I be bluntly honest, Your Majesty?”
Celene made a vague gesture in response as she nodded.
“If I stop moving right now, I’m liable to not fucking get back up until late tomorrow. Best to finish what we have to finish while I’m still on my feet.”
The other woman arched a pale eyebrow and said, “You were being quite serious about being blunt, Inquisitor.”
Shrugging, she replied, “Like I said, the polite niceties are an act. I don’t hide what I am if I don’t have to and I think the time for ploys like that are over.” Then Meryell paused and added, “Speaking of being blunt, your cousin the Duchess was working for Tevinter. Essentially.”
“Essentially,” Celene commented with a slightly arched brow.
“Let’s just say it’s a damned long, convoluted story,” Meryell answered with a sigh. Lifting a hand to run her fingers through her hair, she went on. “There are bodies of Venatori – Tevinter – agents in several parts of the Palace, most of which my men know the location of. And your servants who survived their attempted purge of their quarters can confirm that they were attacked by them.”
The Empress tilted her head slightly at that then frowned darkly, saying, “I see. Come then, Inquisitor.”
Meryell followed in the wake of the woman, mildly amused as the people parted before them like the sea before a boat’s prow. She could hear slightly raised voices from somewhere, her ears twitching at the noise, and then she placed them. As they stepped out onto a balcony off the main ballroom, Imperial Guards falling into place behind them at the open doorway, she saw Gaspard and Briala were already there.
“Your sister was plotting to commit regicide, Gaspard! In front of the entire court!”
“And yet you, the spymaster, did not see this coming,” Gaspard returned, his chin tilted high. “If anyone knew this…atrocity…was coming, it would have been you.”
“Yet you don’t deny your own involvement,” Briala shot back. Meryell could see her eyes were slightly narrowed beneath her mask.
Gaspard took a step forward at that, making a sharp slashing gesture through the air as he half shouted, “I do deny it! I knew nothing of Florianne’s plans! You knew everything and did nothing.”
Now Briala smirked and Meryell marked a mental tally in her favor. She’d won that round, no doubt. That was the look of a woman who was triumphant.
“I’m not certain what’s more amusing, Gaspard: the fact that you think I’m all-seeing or that you’re trying so hard to fob off your own involvement and failing.”
Meryell snorted then, breaking the verbal spar between the two and causing all three of them to look at her. Shrugging a shoulder, she said, “As entertaining as it is to watch you fucking tear him a new one, Briala, you are all at fault.”
That made the elven ambassador jerk backwards in shock before she exclaimed, “I am not…” She then cut herself off mid sentence as Celene abruptly raised a hand.
“Enough!” snapped the Empress. “We will not bicker amongst ourselves while Tevinter plots against our nation!” She then turned her head towards Meryell and she met the older woman’s eye unflinchingly. “For the safety of the Empire, I will have answers.”
“Tevinter?” repeated Gaspard, sounding stunned. His eyes turned from his cousin to Meryell and back again before he bowed his head. As he lifted a hand to touch his forehead, he murmured, “Sister, you fool.”
Celene held up a hand towards him then turned to look at Meryell. “You make a bold claim stating we are all at fault, Inquisitor,” she said quietly but there was steel behind her tone. “I trust you are prepared to defend it?”
“Defend and prove,” she replied sharply, lifting her chin high as she stood up straight. She was shorter than all of them, even Briala, but Meryell wasn’t about to let any of them intimidate her.
She had fought far worse than Orlesians.
“You, for example, Your Majesty,” Meryell began, gesturing towards the Empress, “allowed Gaspard the chance to sneak his men into the Palace. You left an opening in your defenses, hoping he’d do something colossally fucking stupid and he waltzed right into the trap.”
“Now see here,” began Gaspard but she whipped up a hand as her head snapped around towards him. Meryell bared her teeth and flicked her ears back sharply, daring him to keep going despite her threatening pose. His head arched back in response and he held up his hands in a gesture of open defense.
She let silence hang for a long moment before hissing, “No, you, all of you, will listen to me. While you were plotting against each other, fighting like a bunch of dogs for fucking scraps, I was protecting your asses.”
Meryell turned to stare hard at Briala as she added, “I was protecting your people. Protecting our kin.”
Then she turned back to Celene and finished, “And I was protecting your subjects and investigating their murders when you and yours knew none the wiser until my people told you that something had happened. You gave me reign to put my people into their place, to discover who had taken their lives.” Meryell narrowed her eyes at the other woman. “You fucking owe me, Your Majesty. And listening is part of the payment I request.”
“Now,” she went on, looking back at Gaspard as she lowered her arm and relaxed her stance, “comment on what she did and not what I said if you will, dear Duke.”
Gaspard huffed out a breath and crossed his arms before he said, “Allowing me to hang myself, Celene? That was duplicitous, even for you.”
Before the Empress could reply, Meryell wheeled on him. “And you fell for it.”
Smiling, she explained, “I met your mercenary captain as well, Gaspard. He had quite a great deal to say before I sent him off to inquire about safe lodging for himself and his men from my Commander. Including, Your Grace, that you were ready to attack. Tonight.”
“Clever move,” scoffed Briala. “If you were trying to get hanged for treason.”
Now Meryell turned on her fellow elf, raising a finger to thrust in her face. “Do not pretend like you weren’t involved in this Maker damned sham, Ambassador.”
“You speak of what Gaspard did and did not know,” she growled onward, “when you had their own ambassadors murdered and sent them each forged letters.”
Briala blinked in obvious surprise and Meryell smirked. “Oh, yes, I know a forgery when I see one. Especially after I spent weeks staring at letters from Gaspard alongside my own ambassador. Getting bored enough to study the lines of his handwriting was quite useful to me.”
There was silence for a moment then the elf lifted her chin and said proudly, “Even if I did, you can’t touch me.”
“I don’t need to touch you, Briala,” she replied coldly. “All I need to do is reveal to them that you and Celene were lovers when she burned Halamshiral’s alienage.”
Meryell had been furious when she had learned that. Furious at Celene and Briala as well as the loss of life. She knew too well what elves of an alienage faced in life and if she hadn’t managed to get out, that could have been her if South Reach had gone the same way. Or if she hadn’t been born in Ferelden at all.
“And that,” she finished sharply, “is only a part of the secrets the Inquisition has found while here.”
There was a deafening silence that spanned several breaths then Celene said, “You have made your point, Inquisitor. What is it you want?”
“The rest of my payment,” she replied.
Stepping away from them, Meryell faced outward towards the edge of the balcony and sighed, musing her words for a moment. For how to get them to do what they needed to do. Then she turned back towards them and began, “You three are some of the best minds in the Empire. Imagine for a moment what the three of you working together could do for the Empire. Instead of fighting over it like a lot of starving dogs.”
“You are…remarkably optimistic, Inquisitor,” Celene said, her head tilted curiously back. “Do you truly believe that we could set aside our differences?”
“It wouldn’t be easy,” Meryell replied. “But…a hodgepodge lot of misfits stopped the Blight in Ferelden. I’ve got someone from every race, religion, and class in the Inquisition, from commoner to royal and mage to templar. Working together to fight the Breach, to fight this outcropping of Tevinter assholes who want to take what’s ours.”
She stared at all of them in turned before saying harshly, “If mages and templars can forgive and move on together from the bloody fucking mess of their war, I think the three of you could stop trying to cut each other’s throats and do something Maker damned useful.”
They just looked at her in return for a moment before looking at each other. Briala frowned, shaking her head, before she said, “If we can agree to listen to each other…”
Gaspard scoffed, stroking his chin, saying, “Such is perhaps a stretch.” Then Meryell felt his gaze on her as he added, “The good of Orlais is worth the attempt, however difficult it may be. Do you not agree, cousin?”
“I concur,” Celene replied, her eyes sharp behind her mask. “We require…an explanation, however.”
“A position in your cabinet,” offered Briala with a vague gesture. “It solves why he would be nearby and gives him a place of power. Part of your accord to cease the fighting.”
The Empress nodded slightly then looked at the ambassador. And Meryell realized she knew that look in the older woman’s eyes. Celene still loved Briala.
“And for you, Ambassador?” she asked.
Briala pursed her lips then inclined her head slightly. “I will remain where I am, in the shadows,” she replied. Her eyes then flicked to Meryell as she added, “There are few who would accept my holding power as an equal to you. Thus we shall keep it quiet.”
And Meryell nodded slightly, knowing as well as Briala did that elves didn’t hold power.
“Wise,” commented Gaspard. “And we will no doubt stand with the Inquisition in its mission to remove the Breach from our skies.”
“We shall,” agreed Celene, folding her hands in front of her. “Will you stand with us, Inquisitor?”
Meryell glanced between each of them, more than a little shocked that it had worked (but it truly working would take time to tell), before she nodded. “The Inquisition’s mission is to protect everyone as much as it is to seal the Breach,” she answered. “If Orlais stands with us, then we will stand with Orlais.”
That brought a nod from the Empress before she said, “Then come. The people need to heard that we have come to an accord.”
Fuck, thought Meryell as she followed Celene and Gaspard, barely listening to Briala’s mild protest of a speech happening right then.
I just want to fucking sleep.
She drifted, feeling like she was floating through the air. It wasn’t warm but it wasn’t cold. Pleasant more than anything.
Distantly she thought she could hear voices but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Something moved her and she made a noise deep in her throat, turning deeper into the presence at her side. She heard a laugh, soft and quiet, in her ear and then a voice in her head.
Cullen has come to take you to bed. He thinks of sweat and skin but then pushes it aside, knows that you are too tired. Now he only thinks of comfort, of carrying you away to where you will be safe. With him.
Meryell blinked, startled out of her sleep by the voice in her head, and moaned, “Cole…” She tried to burrow deeper into his shoulder, to go back to sleep since the exhaustion was dragging her down, but felt his hands pushing her away.
“She is half there, adrift like a boat without oars,” she vaguely registered him saying. There was a deep chuckle in response and then warmer, broader hands were gently grasping her shoulders. She shivered a little and there was some sort of movement beyond her limited perception.
Then warm fabric fell over her shoulders, so much of it that it encompassed her, enclosing her in delicious heat and a familiar masculine smell that put her at deeper ease than she already was. Because Cole had her back. He would protect her.
And the man with warm hands and the deep chuckle…
“Cullen,” she whispered, clarity flickering in her head.
“Yes, dear thief,” he replied. Then his arms were around her and she was lifted up, held snugly against his chest. She curled into him, burying her face in his shirt despite the slight dampness of it from being under his coat all night. “I’m taking you to bed.”
She made some kind of noise in acknowledgment of that and then everything else faded away but the fact that she was safe. As safe as she had been with Cole.
Safe as when she was with Folke.
Safe like the home of her childhood, comforted by the circle of her mother’s arms.