“About time you were awake, Poppet.”
Meryell frowned, blinking several times at the voice that she was fairly certain wasn’t supposed to be in their room, and wrinkled her nose up for a moment. Then she slowly tilted her head to peer over the blankets towards the end of the bed where her father sat in one of the chairs with his stockinged feet up on the footboard. He had a book propped on his knee and his spectacles perched on the end of his nose, looking for all the world like he was just having a relaxing time.
Other than the fact that she immediately noticed that he had his fucking sword laid across his lap. When he normally had it on his belt or hidden away unless he absolutely had to use it.
“You’re armed?” she asked blearily, closing her eyes for a moment. The exhaustion was still heavy upon her, though more in an aftereffect of the spellwork from the night before and less anything else. That and her left wrist and arm ached, same as it always did the day after closing a rift.
Just as it had done since it had been sliced open during those first days in the Hinterlands.
“Just in case your Nightingale missed a Venatori or two,” Folke replied with a shrug. He moved one hand to rest on the hilt of his sword as he went on, “Isha’len asked me to sit in here with you while he handled some things. Said I was the one he trusted most with you and everything.”
It took more than a bit for his words to cycle through her head and fully register. When they finally did, she asked, “Have they found any lingering assholes?”
“Not that I’ve heard,” he replied, “but you know as well as I do that just because you haven’t heard a thing, doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist.”
Folke pursed his lips and replied, “Because Cullen not only has a responsibility to keep you safe as your Commander but also as your lover. With you unable to defend yourself, he took adequate precautions.”
“And adequate precautions included you sitting in here with me armed?”
“Kevan and Rebecca are at the door.”
Meryell just blinked. Kevan was a former member of the Denerim City Guard who’d had his knee shattered only a few years after the Fifth Blight. He’d healed well enough from the injury thanks to a mage but the Captain of the Guard had considered him out of commission and dismissed him. Kevan had bounced through merc companies after that until he’d ended up with them and stuck. And Rebecca was the youngest daughter of Bann Trevelyan of Ostwick as well as a rebellious former templar trainee. She’d fled before she could take the vows and fell in with the company, impressing some of their lot in a bar brawl. Meryell still remembered when the Bann’s men came hunting for her and Arnald told them in the most incredibly polite manner how far they could fuck off.
Kevan was mean with a pair of dual swords, practically a whirlwind on the field despite his still somewhat gimpy knee. Rebecca was six years of fury from templar training in one short form and wielded a glaive like it was an extension of herself.
If anyone happened to get through that door right then, they practically deserved to kill her for making it the through those two alive.
“Did…did the Captain think there was a serious threat to my life to give us Kevan and Rebecca?” she finally asked. It was the only reason she could think of that two of their fiercest would get assigned to the door.
“You know that Captain takes the Game seriously,” replied her father as he leaned back into his chair. “For all we knew, some noble idiot might get it into his head to try and take you out in order to garner favor with Corypheus. So no one was willing to take chances.”
“Gods save us from idiots,” grumbled Meryell. She then shifted and asked, “So am I allowed to get out of bed? Leave the room?”
“So long as we’re with you and we don’t wander off the property.” Folke then grinned and asked, “Got to piss?”
Snorting, she replied, “Like a fucking bitch.”
He burst out laughing at that and set his book on the end of the bed, standing up to slide his sword through the frog clasp hanging from his belt and then reached out to take her hands. It took a minute for her legs to recall how to coordinate but after that she was able to stand on her own.
“How about after you take care of business we get something to eat?”
As her belly growled immediately at the mention of food, Meryell grinned at him.
“That sounds like a damned good idea, baba.”
“Then hop to, Poppet. We’ve only got a few hours until you have to be back here to get ready.”
She groaned at the reminder that there was another night of the party that she was expected to attend then started shuffling towards the folding screen that hid the room’s chamber pot.
Piss. Clothes. Food. In that order.
Then she might actually start getting her head together to deal with fucking ass-kissing nobles again.
“My dear, it is utterly appalling that you should be standing here looking so still and boring.”
Meryell stiffened at the sound of Vivienne’s voice coming from behind her. She always felt like the tone of the woman’s voice was grating against her spine, dragging and scraping like a blade against bone. Likely because most of the First Enchanter’s comments were usually scathing and dryly cutting when she happened to hear them.
She took a deep breath then forced her shoulders to relax. Smiling grimly, she turned her head to look up at the taller woman as Vivienne came to stand next to her at the railing and replied, “I don’t get the kind of rush you and Leliana or even Josephine get by being here at court, Iron Lady.”
Vivienne just smiled in return, though hers was as elegant and poised as the rest of her. Fake, screamed every one of Meryell’s instincts. That was perhaps what bothered her most about being in the middle of everything at court instead of outside the bounds of it. The fakery was even more apparent from the inside than without.
“That is a rather surprising thing for you to say, Inquisitor.”
The mage tilted her head slightly, a curious gesture more than anything. “Why by your attitude over these past two night’s, darling. I dare say that I was most impressed with how you handled yourself.” She then sniffed as she added, “Before you made such a scene last night before the Empress.”
Was that…almost a compliment?
Meryell turned her smile into a hard-edged grin as she shot back, “I like causing scenes, Madame.”
“So I am aware,” Vivienne replied delicately. “And yet you were quite adept at navigating the court. You were and are still the talk amongst many, though it has taken a turn for the…uncouth.”
Snorting, she said, “Obviously you missed some of the remarks I caught then.” Meryell fixed the other woman with a fierce gaze as she growled, “Humans, especially noble ones, very rarely respect an elf. An elf with power? Well, that’s a fucking thing that they’d rather not have around if they can help it.”
“I am honestly surprised you allowed them to get away with such things.”
“Not the first time or the last I’ll hear ‘em. Not to mention that it would have looked bad for me to murder half the court when we were trying to save Orlais from falling apart.”
Vivienne made a hum of acknowledgement before asking, “Did you at least take note of their masks, my dear?”
Frowning, Meryell fully turned towards the woman, leaning on the railing looking over the main floor of the ballroom. “I wasn’t under the impression that you cared for my health and wellbeing. Color me fucking surprised.”
The mage laughed in return – another fake, another show for the crowd – before she replied, “It is less care for your wellbeing, darling, than that of the Inquisition. To lose you in any fashion would be a blow to the organization, not only because of your Mark but because they believe in you.” Vivienne then smiled tightly then. “And perhaps I see why if you were able to fool them all well as you did the court.”
“I didn’t fool our men,” snapped Meryell, bristling at the implication that she’d pulled one over on their fighting forces. You didn’t fuck with the morale or backbone of fighting men and women. You didn’t tear away whatever they believed in. Not unless you wanted them to collapse. “They saw my actions and judged me for that. Found me worthy of following for some fucking reason beyond the Herald bullshit.”
Vivienne arched an elegant brow at that.
“I can perhaps see how they would find your…inelegant…nature charming in its own way, darling,” she said lightly. Then her expression hardened as she went on, “An insult to you as Inquisitor should not be allowed to stand, of course. I am certain your advisors might agree with me.”
Meryell just narrowed her eyes at Vivienne and hissed, “I will not be some fucking errant child playing at being a tyrant, lashing out at whoever or whatever draws my ire on every hour. I’m not some Dalish who never met a shemlen in my life, Iron Lady.” She paused for a moment, her hands curling into fists, then plowed on, “I’m a filthy fucking alienage brat. I’ve had slurs thrown at me since I was still a babe in arms, before I’d even thought of snitching my first pretty bauble. I can handle a few Orlesian gasbags blowing smoke at me. The second they draw steel or harm one of mine, that’s when I’ll retaliate.”
There was silence for a long moment after she finished then Vivienne chuckled. An honest, amused chuckle.
“You have fire, Inquisitor, I will give you that,” said the Enchanter. Then she flashed a brief, chilly smile. “But you will need more than fire to beard lions in their den.”
First a compliment in the vaguest of senses and then an insult. Par for the course with Vivienne.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Iron Lady,” she replied with a smirk, relaxing her hands. “I’ve fought lions, remember? You don’t beard a lion in his den.”
Meryell leaned forward, tilting her chin up to meet the Enchanter eye to eye, and finished, “You draw them out and you take them on your terms.”
“And what are your terms, my dear?”
“Now, now, Madame de Fer,” she purred in reply, dropping into the accent she’d kept up through the first two nights of the ball to just give it a ‘proper’ ring for shits. “That would be giving up the game before we’ve even started playing with the ball.” Meryell winked at the taller woman then before turning away, completely done with the conversation.
She didn’t make it far before two arms tucked themselves through hers and she was very nearly swept off her feet by Leliana and Josephine. Hissing out a surprised breath, Meryell hissed, “Are we in a rush to get fucking somewhere?”
Josephine flashed an annoyed look at the curse but her voice was calm as she replied, “You still have a meeting with the Empress, if you recall, Inquisitor.”
She really, quite honestly didn’t want to talk to Celene at all. Mostly because how she’d talked to them the night before probably hadn’t actually gone over all that well. She couldn’t imagine they had many people who’d tell them straight up that they’d fucked up.
But she really had to do it.
“Can we just…not?”
“No,” replied Leliana sternly.
Sighing instead of groaning like she really wanted to, Meryell squared her shoulders and growled, “Fine. Sure. Let’s got talk to an Empress.”
“Do try not to embarrass the whole Inquisition,” commented Leliana sternly.
“What if I only embarrass half of the Inquisition?”
Josephine sighed, lifting a hand to press her fingers briefly against the bridge of her nose, then hissed, “Inquisitor, please.”
Chuckling, Meryell patted her two female advisors on the arms where she could reach and dropped her voice to not be overheard as she said, “Maker’s sodden cock, take a breath you two. I’m not going to embarrass us or do anything that will make Celene declare war on us or anything.”
Both of them audibly breathed a sigh of relief at that.
“Though I may or may not call her an idiot again for this shit,” she commented slyly.
“For the love of the Maker, don’t,” replied Leliana sharply before she and Josephine pulled away. As they dropped back behind her, Meryell looked forward to the door ahead of them, a private room guarded by the Imperial Guard.
Heading into the jaws of the lion alone. Thankfully she wasn’t trying to beard this particular one.
The thought made her smile and straighten up, shoulders straight and chin high. It wasn’t the first time she’d faced something alone. Probably wasn’t going to be the last either.
So she smiled at one of the men standing at the door, who knocked on it before returning to his post. As it opened, Meryell stepped inside and found Celene standing across the room, back towards her as she faced a low-burning fire on the room’s hearth. She nodded to the guard who had opened the door then moved forward towards the middle of the room.
Stopping there, she performed a perfect curtsey (mercilessly taught to her by Dana, a now retired Fang who had been a professional at playing as something she wasn’t) and said quietly, “Your Imperial Majesty.”
And then Celene turned towards her and her heart dropped.
The Empress of Orlais stood before her with no mask on.
Without the mask she could clearly tell Celene’s age, fine lines around her eyes giving it away despite the efforts of powders and whatever else the nobility used. And she could also tell that this was a woman who had no fear of her just as she had no fear of Celene.
“Inquisitor, please, sit,” she said as she gestured at the two long couches before the fire. Between them was a low table and it was on that that Celene’s mask sat, the metallic surface of it gleaming and reflecting the light of the fire. “Let us set masks aside. I would wish us to speak as equals.”
“Equals?” she repeated even as she moved forward, reaching both hands up to her face. One held the delicate frame of the mask while the other tugged at the ties and then it was in her hand. As she came around the edge of the couch, Meryell sat it gently down on the table before lowering herself down to sit. “I don’t believe that Inquisitor equates in any way to Empress. I certainly don’t have a whole country at my beck and call. Or one depending on me for that matter.”
Celene just smiled at that as she folded her hands in her lap.
“Yet you do have the entirety of a growing organization depending upon you,” she pointed out. “Do you not?”
“True.” Frowning, Meryell began, “If I can be blunt again, Your Majesty…”
The Empress merely nodded with a slight shift of her shoulders that read as go on and Meryell hissed, “Why the fuck are we meeting alone for?”
“Because I wished to speak to you,” she replied. “Privately, without protocol between us. To, perhaps, learn something of the woman who saved my country. Since it seems that I learned nothing from our first introduction.”
Celene smiled then, a small quiet thing but that hid infinite amusement in the tilt of her lips.
“And perhaps inquire of how much of an embarrassment my poor cousin made of himself in foolishly pursuing you. A wrongly made gamble when anyone can see that you and your Commander are so deeply in love.”
Flushing and unable to stop it, Meryell grinned through it at the other woman. “So,” she began slowly, “you brought me here for a gossip?”
“If you will indulge me, Inquisitor.”
“Oh, Your Majesty, have I got some embarrassing shit I will gladly share with you.”
Hours later, with a slightly surreal conversation with Empress Celene behind her as well as being informed that Morrigan would be joining them at Skyhold, Meryell sat on one of the balcony railings and stared up at the stars. She idly traced their patterns with her fingers, murmuring both the Tevene names under her breath as well as those her father had taught her that the Dalish had patterned across the sky. A few were the same, remnants of a crossover or taking over of elven culture that was so far in the past no one recalled it’s exact origins.
As usual, she lingered on the shape of Fervenial or Fervanis, the Oak. It had been her father’s favorite and he had told her it’s true name was Shiva’dahl or the Tree of Duty. A reminder to do what was right by his own mind and by his family before all else, that had been what he’d proclaimed his duty.
She’d always tried to follow that, doing what was best for herself and her new family first. Hadn’t always succeeded but trying was the important part.
Turning her head, she found her favorite low on the horizon, almost to the point of slipping beyond it. Tenebrium, Shadow, the owl that flew the night skies. The giver and seeker of knowledge and understanding, she remembered her father whispering in her ear as they sat on an alienage roof. He is Eolas the Wise. A good choice to follow, ara dharlin. Trust him and he will never guide you wrong.
He’s been right on the last at least. Every time she had followed the constellation in the night sky or pointed in its direction when it was beyond her sight, she had always ended up somewhere she needed to go. It wasn’t always her original destination but it always mattered.
And right now, if she recalled her maps correctly, Eolas flew towards Skyhold.
She smiled at the thought of following him back home, back to where she was supposed to be (because fuck knew when she’d come to that feeling but that was how she now felt). Then the balcony door opened behind her and she turned sharply, one hand falling to where her stiletto was still strapped underneath her skirts. Thanks to her night vision, she saw instantly that it was Cullen and relaxed.
“Vhen’an,” she greeted softly. “What are you doing out here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” he replied as he moved towards her. As soon as he came level with her, resting a hand on the railing behind her and the other on her knee, he leaned in for a kiss. Meryell obliged willingly and smiled when he drew away to add, “I came out here looking for you.”
“Worried?” she asked as she laid her hand over his on her knee.
“Not with the amount of men I have guarding rooftops and shadowy places.” She arched an eyebrow at that statement because she knew better than to think he was that easily reassured and he sighed. “Alright, maybe still a little worried but that’s a given any day with you,” he grumbled. Then Cullen shifted his hand, turning it over so he could curl his fingers around hers, and added, “I merely haven’t seen you all day and wanted some time for myself before someone stole you away again.”
She smiled at that, saying, “However can I argue with that?”
He smiled back and replied, “Well I certainly hope you can’t.” Then he tilted his head to the side and asked, “How was the meeting with the Empress?”
Shaking her head, Meryell squeezed his hand as she replied, “Very strange. She just fucking wanted to gossip with me, Cullen. That and talk. It was basically just a sort of getting to know me type meeting and it was weird.”
“Well,” he mused, “at least it wasn’t anything serious.”
Silence fell between them after that, only the distant sounds of the garden fountains below and the chatter of the ball inside breaking it. Yet it wasn’t an uncomfortable sort of silence. It was a pleasant sort, the kind of languid content silence that she often shared with Folke. The only noise between them, in fact, was the rustle of the fabric of skirts when she shifted from her seat sideways on the railing to one more firmly on it. Cullen stepped forward as she spread her knees wide, which was difficult with the skirts, and pulled her forward so her chest was flush against his.
As he wrapped his arms loosely around her, she noted, “You’re blushing.”
“Dozens of people at any one time no doubt directly behind me watching us through the glass,” he replied. “And here I am standing between your legs.”
Meryell hummed and leaned heavily forward against him, sliding one hand around his side and then down underneath the hem of his jacket. He yelped in a very unmanly fashion as she gave a brief squeeze to his arse before hissing, “Meryell. You’re going to encourage them!”
Narrowing her eyes, she snarled, “Not if they don’t want to get punched in the throat. I’m not letting some Orlesian noble who’s really no better a lay than a two-bit whore put their hands on you again.”
Cullen arched his eyebrows as his entire face went bright red before he repeated. “Two-bit whore?”
“One you barely pay two coppers for?”
She laughed at his expression then brought her hand back around to lay it and the other against his chest. After a moment or two, she batted her eyelashes coyly and purred, “Vhen’an.”
“Yes?” he replied, his voice slightly muffled as he rested his chin atop her head, mouth hidden slightly by the threads of her hair.
“How badly do you want to say fuck those watching and take me right here? Over this balcony rail? Press me against it and ruck up my skirts and just fuck me silly?”
There was a distinct twitch of interest from the front of his pants and Cullen himself groaned her name. His curled his hands into fists from where they’d gently rested at the small of her back and growled, “Love.”
Meryell just smiled and slowly ran her hands up over his chest, letting them slide across the fabric. When she reached the high, stiff collar, she brushed her fingernails against the soft skin and stubble just under his chin. “Garas, aman na’mis,” she breathed and could have cackled when his breathing fucking stuttered.
“Did you…did I translate that right?” he asked as he leaned back to blink down at her.
“Did you?” she replied teasingly.
“Something about you…sheathing…my blade?”
Grinning up at him, she nodded before asking, “Want to leave early?”
“Maker’s breath, yes,” he replied, in a tone that was half desire and half exasperation (likely from his continued followers). Then he sighed and took a step back, just enough to put distance between them. “Though I’m going to need a moment to be able to walk properly.”
Chuckling, she just nodded and tilted her head back, content to return to her star gazing while sitting in the warm circle of his arms. After a moment she felt his breath on her throat before he planted a brief, soft kiss there and asked, “What were you doing out here anyway?”
“Seeing how many of the elven constellations I remembered,” replied Meryell. “Babae taught them to me alongside the common names and shapes of them. Then I found our favorites.”
She felt his arm move then, fingers finding hers and sliding along them until his hand engulfed her own fully. Then he slowly raised both of their hands up towards the sky, fingers pointed upward. “Show me?” he asked softly.
Smiling, she stretched her arm out past his and he gently braced her elbow as she pointed out the constellations. She repeated the descriptions her father had given her of the pair after saying their Tevene names since those were the ones he would know. When she’d traced the last of Eolas, fingers curving around invisible tail feathers, he smiled and kissed her softly.
There was no scene as they left nor was there anyone who stepped up to try and talk to them or get in their way. They simply moved through the crowd arm-in-arm without pausing or let anyone take their attention away from their goal and the crowd parted like a heated blade through butter. She briefly tweaked Leliana’s elbow as they passed her and the spymaster merely smiled, nodding at them, before she turned back to a conversation she was having with what was obviously one of her spy’s.
Then they were out in the courtyard and strode straight away to the stable. The Inquisition members who were staying with their horses and carriage to keep an eye on them instantly straightened up, asking if they needed the latter, but Cullen merely gestured at his horse. In a most impressive flurry of movement that had Meryell rather impressed and amused at the same time (because it was obvious they were showing off), the lot of them had three horses saddled including Cullen’s.
“We’ll escort you back to the estate, Inquisitor, Commander,” one of them who was wearing heavy armor declared with a sharp salute. The woman then flicked her eyes between them and stammered, “N-not that you aren’t both capable but…”
Cullen just nodded in reply and smiled as he said, “The Ambassador would no doubt kill you if you let us leave without a guard.”
“Not to mention what the Nightingale would do, Commander!” exclaimed the other who was accompanying them. He grinned and saluted before saying, “Rathe Chadwyn, at your service, Inquisitor. This lovely lady is Anice Vagyl.”
Meryell chuckled and said, “Good to meet you, Rathe, Anice.” She then lifted her skirts, bundling them up into one hand as she reached for the saddle of Cullen’s beast of a horse. It was far taller than her own but it wasn’t the first time that she’d had to get into the saddle of a horse that outsized her. Before she could pull herself up and hook her foot into the stirrup, however, Cullen’s hands came to rest on her waist.
“May I, dear thief?” he asked softly in her ear.
“Only on one condition,” she replied, turning to smirk at him. When he just blinked at her, Meryell’s smirk turned into a full on grin as she said, “Us. Wall. Your blade.”
He went bright red in response but his eyes were bright with a different emotion as he breathed, “Whatever the lady wishes.” She beamed at him in return and then squeaked in surprise as he practically launched her up into the saddle. Scooting forward to make room for him, Meryell gathered her skirts around her legs until he seated himself then leaned back against his chest. Cullen gathered up the reins as he kissed the top of her head before he nodded to Rathe and Anice that they were ready.
Halfway through their ride, she laughed abruptly and tilted her head back to look up at him. “You know what’s better than the fact that we fucked off early from that shit to do some fucking of our own?”
Rathe made a choking noise from where he rode behind them out of her line of sight as he overheard her comment and Cullen’s neck was red as he replied softly, “No, love, but do enlighten me.”
Grinning, Meryell said, “Tomorrow we get to leave fucking Orlais.”
From somewhere Anice snorted a laugh as Cullen shook his head and wrapped his arm more securely around her waist. He then nodded and bent to kiss her as he breathed, “But then we have to go back to work. You to the Exalted Plains and I back to Skyhold with everyone else. It’s going to be a lonely trip back.
“Then I guess we’re just going to have to be extra thorough,” she replied with a laugh. “One of us isn’t walking right tomorrow and it’s not going to be me,” Meryell then hissed, keeping her voice low but still challenging.
“Is it not?” he asked and there was that confidence, that surety that was firmly set into him when dealing with his men but less present between them. Cullen’s arm tightened around her briefly and then he whispered in her ear in a low growl, “We’ll just see about that, vhen’an.”
Oh, she was so not walking right in the morning.
garas, aman na’mis – come to me, I shall sheathe your blade