“I despise these events,” muttered Cassandra.
It came as no surprise to me, as she muttered the same thing every time Her Holiness hosted a gathering such as the one going on tonight. She was the Divine’s right hand, the captain of her personal guard, and was hence obligated to attend such events. I sympathized with her, but it was not in my nature to complain about the situations my duties landed me in.
Besides, I could surely think of worse things than standing on the outskirts of a ball, watching the people breeze past in this or that intricate dance.
“You’re just jealous,” said Leliana with a smile. “You are wishing you could don one of those pretty dresses and dance the night away like the Countess de Montague or Lady Sauvignon.”
“Bullshit,” muttered Cassandra. “We do not all have your ridiculous romantic notions.”
Leliana only smiled. She enjoyed riling up what amounted to her rival—for as much as Cassandra Pentaghast was Her Holiness’s right hand, Leliana was said to be her left: her beautiful assassin who struck in the dead of night when more straightforward oafs such as myself had tried and failed.
“What do you think, Ser Cullen?” she asked. “Do you not also long to dance tonight?”
I blinked, surprised at being addressed.
“I… it is not my place to wonder…”
“Or are you too preoccupied to think of dancing?” she continued. Her eyes sparkled, reflecting the myriad candles and magelights that currently lit up the Great Hall. “You cannot seem to take your eyes off a certain individual.”
“What nonsense are you talking now?” Cassandra asked. Despite the fierceness of the question, she looked suddenly interested.
I felt my face begin to warm—as any man’s would, were he being stared down by two powerful, handsome women.
“I’m sure I don’t know to whom you’re referring,” I said. I heard the stammer in my voice and frowned. “There is no such individual.”
“But of course there is!” exclaimed Leliana. “It is our new ambassador from the Dales. Her Majesty is going to make him her new inquisitor.” She sighed. “Is he not handsome?”
Cassandra looked startled. “The new inquisitor? An outsider?”
I stared across the room at the man in question. The elven ambassador—he looked as sour and displeased by these proceedings as did Cassandra. I could not say I blamed him. He stood alone, hovering in the shadows, a glass of wine in his left hand. His right hand remained free, his fingers curled ever so slightly—that hand missed a weapon, I could tell. Again, I sympathized with him.
Despite any attempts to dress as an Orlesian, his ears and build still marked him as an outsider. Aside from a few polite smiles, the others were ignoring him. Shame on behalf of my newly adopted countrymen rose up within me, though I begged the Maker to forgive me for it. Surely it wasn’t my place to pass judgment on the actions of others.
“You should go and talk to him,” Leliana said. “Ask him to dance.”
“What? And make a fool of himself?” asked Cassandra.
I cleared my throat and took a deep breath, my left hand resting on the pommel of my sword. I’m not a proud man, but I confess I didn’t think her comment entirely necessary.
“He will not make a fool of himself,” Leliana said. “He is only asking him to dance. No man is a fool when he asks a beautiful man or woman to dance.”
“I will go and speak with him,” I said—anything to quiet the pair of them. I gave Leliana a firm look. “Not to ask him to dance, but to welcome him properly. It is shameful how the others are ignoring him. As Her Holiness’s representatives, is it not our duty to make any guest of hers feel welcome?”
“Oh, indeed!” said Leliana.
Cassandra only hmphed and crossed her arms. Were I of a more sarcastic disposition, I’d have thanked her for her encouragement.
I took a deep breath then before nodding at both women and taking my leave. I had to take the long way, skirting the dance floor. One of the more lively dances was just finishing up, and crossing the dance floor would have been impossible at that point.
He noticed my approach almost instantly, his eyes narrowing slightly. Ambassador or inquisitor—whatever handsome title they bestowed upon him did not belie the fact that he was a warrior like myself. Still, he looked well in his pretty clothes, which was more than I could say for myself. The mail I wore under my clothes made my movements clumsy and unwieldy—though I don’t doubt the atmosphere of the place contributed to my awkwardness.
His eyes widened as I drew nearer, and I realized I was once again clutching the pommel of my sword. I released it instantly, inwardly berating myself for a fool. Perhaps Cassandra was right after all, I thought grimly.
I paused before him, nodding politely.
“Ambassador Levallan,” I said. I hoped I’d remembered his name correctly.
He looked at me.
“Knight-Captain,” he said.
Did he offer me some slight by using that old title and refusing to call me by name? Or did he simply not know it? I was not Orlesian by birth and still found the intricacies of court life difficult to navigate; Dalish culture would no doubt prove even more alien to my understanding.
Like all Dalish, his face was a canvas for a beautiful, intricate tattoo. Unlike many of the other guests present, his wore no mask, leaving the tattoo uncovered. The markings were a faint silver color and seemed to only enhance the shape of his nose and the size and color of his eyes. It occurs to me now that he was the first non city-born elf I had ever seen up close—and I’d encountered few enough of them, as well.
“Is my face so queer and disgusting to you that you would stare?” he asked.
“Forgive me,” I said. I could feel myself warming again. “Certainly, you are ….” I cleared my throat. “…I came over here, in fact, to ask you to dance.”
I’m not sure which of us was more surprised—me, or him.
No man is a fool when he asks a beautiful man or woman to dance. Leliana’s words rang in my ears. I prayed that they might be true.
He looked out at the dance floor, the fingers of his right hand rubbing absently together.
“I don’t know these dances,” he said. He had a rougher, deeper voice than I would have expected. He was my age, at least, but his features were too fine for such a voice.
“I am hardly an expert myself,” I heard myself saying. “But I might show you… if you would allow it, of course.”
He looked at me, then down at the glass of wine in his other hand.
“I-If you would like to finish your wine…” I began, but he shook his head and even made a face.
“I don’t like it,” he said. He set it down. “Each sip bites my tongue.” He looked at me and nodded. “I will dance with you. I am eager to learn the ways of this culture.”
He looked as if he were eager for anything but, but I could hardly back down at this point.
I gestured towards the dance floor. “Shall we, then?”
I rarely danced with other men. I rarely danced period. I was a fool around women and had been since my youth. Though I desired women as much as the next man, I found myself easier around men. Consequently, since arriving in Orlais, I had come to have more experience in… that department… with men than with women, for in my old country, such relationships were less common. And my foolishness around women had kept me virtually celibate.
For all Leliana’s playful scheming, however, this was not a romantic gesture on my part. I sensed several pairs of masked eyes upon us and told myself I was doing this out of service and devotion to the Divine. I nodded at my partner as we joined the others on the dance floor.
“Take my hand, like this,” I said, taking his left hand in my right. “Your other hand goes here.” I placed it on my shoulder, where it rested lightly. “So you would place your partner’s hand were you to be the one to lead.” His eyes remained focused on mine—he was approaching this lesson of sorts with all the intensity of a battle.
The music began.
“Ready?” I asked. Maker guide my steps, I thought. I was not a great dancer.
I placed my hand on his waist and began to move us both. I can only assume we blended well with the other dancers, as thus far no one had paused to laugh and point. Of course, it was not strange for two men to dance at such an event, but it was noticeable when those two men were the elven ambassador-turned-inquisitor and a bumbling former knight-captain with two left feet. Fortunately, the dance was a popular one, and the floor was even more crowded than before. Nevertheless, I could almost swear I saw Leliana’s smug face smiling back at me through the surrounding crowd.
I looked at my partner. His gaze had dropped to our feet, a furrow of concentration on his brow. I wasn’t overly surprised to discover he was very light on his feet. Every misstep was instantly corrected. After half a minute, he was probably already the visibly better dancer.
“You’re doing well,” I said. Perhaps a little encouragement would help him to relax more, I thought.
“Thank you,” he said. “We have similar dances back home.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” I said politely. When he only raised his eyebrows at me, I continued, “You seem a natural. You are already better at it than I am.”
He frowned. I was naturally taller than he, but it felt as if he were glowering down at me from above.
“Why do you say that?” he asked. “You are handsome, intelligent, and kind. I have met few shemlen like you. Yet you degrade yourself at the first opportunity. Why?”
Shemlen was their word for “human.” It was… not a polite word.
“I apologize,” I returned feebly. “I was merely offering you a compliment.”
“So it was a lie,” he countered. “You do not think me a better dancer than yourself.”
“No,” I said, “I do.” The comparison between us was already absurd. I had nearly stepped on his feet three times already; he had deftly moved aside each time.
“So to pay me compliment, you must degrade yourself,” he said. It was not a question.
I hesitated, unsure how to respond. “That is… it’s how things here are done, I suppose. It is the Orlesian way.”
He was silent then, as if he needed to contemplate this new piece of information regarding Orlesian culture.
“You are a templar,” he said after a moment, “Tell me more about these templars.”
The abrupt topic change took me by surprise, and I faltered slightly. He once again deftly avoided my accidental attempts to crush his feet with my own.
“It’s a sort of knight,” I said. “We follow the teachings of the prophet Andraste.” I hesitated before adding, “Surely you know of the teachings of Andraste.”
I heard the note of faint disapproval in my own voice and immediately regretted it. But he did not appear to take any offense.
“No,” he said. “Before coming here, I had no need to study the religions of other peoples and cultures.” He looked at me. “You think this bad?”
I pursed my lips. Maker, stop my tongue from saying anything that would dishonor You, I thought—Or that would make me a bumbling fool in front of this strange man.
“I cannot say it is a good thing,” I said at last. “Though it would be my honor to teach you.”
He nodded. “I would like that. I was told to educate myself as much as possible when I was assigned this post.”
“Your queen does not fear your indoctrination into a foreign religion,” I said. It pleased me for perhaps the wrong reasons that he would allow me to share the word of the Maker with him.
He gave me a look.
“She is not our ‘queen’,” he said. “Perhaps you would do well to learn more about other cultures yourself, Knight-Captain.”
His words would have stung more had I not caught him smiling as he said them. I swallowed. The music had stopped, and so had we. The dance had finished.
I forced myself to step away—yet I couldn’t. I could not stop gazing down at his face, at the intricate tattoos that tickled his features, his long, narrow nose, the fullness of his lips. I don’t usually notice a man’s lips. I hadn’t noticed them when he was talking. But they were well-formed, expressive, and soft—
Abruptly, he pulled back, his hand flying over his mouth. He looked up at me with wide eyes. The other dancers around us had finally paused to whisper and stare.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I swallowed my heart in my throat.
I had kissed him.
“—I’m sorry,” I stammered. I tried to say more, but I couldn’t quite get the words out. My whole face felt as if I were bathing it in the fires of Andraste’s own pyre.
He lowered his hand, his eyes never leaving my face. Finally, he stepped back and offered me a very formal bow.
“Thank you for the dance. I look forward to my lessons, Ser Cullen.” Then he bowed again and turned away. Within seconds, I had lost him in the sea of scandalized dancers.
Ignoring them, I turned and went the opposite direction, back to where Leliana and Cassandra were still standing.
Cassandra was staring at me with huge eyes.
Leliana was bouncing on her feet and giggling.
“That was marvelous!” she said. “It was just like a scene from a book! Oh, I knew you would be perfect for each other!”
“It was only a dance,” I said.
I glanced at Cassandra, who was still goggling at me. No help from that quarter, then. I turned to face the crowd again, folding my arms over my chest. The crunch of mail beneath my clothes felt comforting. Comforting, too, was the thought of a pair of rough but slender hands deftly removing clothes and mail alike, my skin heating to the touch.
I breathed in deeply. “Maker, preserve me!” I muttered.
Leliana only giggled again. It was going to be a long evening.