“I should have a report on my desk in three days. Two, if I ask them to march through the night.” Cullen quirked a brow even as he slid the iron pieces across the map. She could read the silent question there as easily as the script of one of his most painstakingly formal reports: Your call, Inquisitor.
“Three should be fine,” Elayne said. “There’s no need to rush.”
He gave a curt nod. “As you say.”
“And with that accomplished,” Leliana added, leaning against the lip of the table to study the war map with a critical eye, “I believe we’re finally finished for the evening. Thank the Maker. There’s a copper tub and scented salts calling my name.”
“A fire and one of Varric’s manuscripts for me,” Elayne said with a half smile, tucking back a loose strand of hair. It drifted from its tight coif, springing into an unruly curl. Some days, the moisture of Skyhold defied even her most determined attempts to keep the long, thick mass contained. “And Andraste willing, six full hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
“Six? How decadent!”
They began to drift toward the heavy War Room doors, only to be pulled up short by Josephine’s polite cough. “Actually,” Josephine said, shifting her tablet to riffle through a stack of papers.
Elayne bit back a groan. They had been debating (arguing) over the war table for nearly three hours, all on the heels of a week-long march through the Graves. She was sore, exhausted, and still stinking of rashvine. The last thing she wanted was more work. But she forced herself to drift back toward the table with a ghost of a smile. Leliana looked less pleased, Elayne noticed; Cullen was…well. She wasn’t always very good at reading the former Templar, even after all this time. “How can we help?” Elayne asked, refusing to allow herself to sound half as tired as she was.
“If only I can locate—Ah! Here we are.” Josephine tugged three folded parchments from the stack of official documents and handed them over, one for each of them. Elayne took hers with knitted brows, turning it over in her hands. It was thick, creamy stock, her formal title written in careful calligraphy across the front. The back was sealed with gold-colored wax and the ambassador’s official stamp.
“What is this?” Elayne asked, only to be interrupted by Leliana’s low groan.
“Josie you didn’t,” she protested.
Josephine lifted her chin. “It would be a great benefit to the Inquisition if the nobles were to see us as their cultural equals. There are still some who consider us as little more than barbarian upstarts.”
“But a ball? Here? Is it really wise to open our doors to so many at once?”
Elayne looked up from the half-opened invitation with a start. “A what?”
“No,” Cullen said.
“An Orlesian masked ball,” Josephine explained. “I’ve been working with Vivienne on the details. You needn’t worry: I have everything under control, and security won’t be—”
“No,” Cullen said.
“—won’t be an issue,” she plowed on, casting him a narrowed look. “I’ve already combed through the guest list for any potential…malcontents. There will be no troubles letting such a number come to Skyhold.” Then, because she was nothing if not honest: “…most likely.”
Elayne blew out a breath. A ball. A masked Orlesian ball, here at Skyhold. “But I barely muddled through The Winter Palace,” she murmured as she scanned the ornate invitation. She’d been terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing the entire time, holding herself as still as a statue of blessed Andraste herself. Even though she technically came from noble stock—if the Orlesians considered the Free Marchers anything but baffling distant cousins—years in the Circle had stripped away all but the most basic of early lessons on etiquette. She’d somehow managed to bungle through well enough to win the court’s support, but the idea of trying to do it again… And in her own home…
“I barely survived The Winter Palace,” Cullen muttered. “I say we call a halt to this nonsense and settle our alliances the good old-fashioned way.”
Leliana tapped a finger to her lips, pretending to consider. “Well,” she drawled, “if you insist, there were several interesting offers for your hand in the wake of Halamshiral. You as well, Inquisitor.”
“This is true,” Josephine interrupted smoothly. She arched a brow at Cullen’s snort. “If you do insist on doing things the old-fashioned way.”
“How about we compromise,” Elayne cut in smoothly before her advisors could shift from playful to bickering. She’d learned from experience when to step in and try to wrest back control—and blast it all, she really wanted to finish the serial Varric had promised to leave on her desk. He’d claimed he’d make it salacious enough so that mucking through the Graves would almost feel worthwhile. “Our doors will gladly open to whomever Josephine thinks we should invite, after both Leliana and Cullen have had a chance to vet the list. None of us will be required to attend,” though that was more for Cullen, Cassandra, and the others; she was under no illusions that her presence would be very much required, “and all guests will be politely urged to shove off after no more than two days.”
Josephine made a strained face.
“…three. Four only if they’re willing to line our pockets with enough gold to make it worth the headache.”
“And we are not required to attend?” Cullen confirmed, zeroing in on the most important point.
Leliana waved a hand. “You are free to be as much a hermit as you wish,” she said. “I agree to those terms, Inquisitor.”
“As do I. It will be splendid; you will see,” Josephine assured her with a broad smile. Despite her exhaustion and the sinking feeling that she was going to have to wear that heavy red velvet coat she’d done her best to shove to the very back of her wardrobe—and possibly, because this was her luck, fight a demon or six while wearing it—Elayne smiled back. “We will be the toast of Orlais.”
For all the right reasons, I hope. “Good. Ser Cullen,” she added, glancing at her master of arms. “Are you content?”
“No,” he said, but there was a faint smile toying at the corners of his mouth. “But I know when to surrender. I’ll be in the tower for the next week if anyone needs me.”
“I’ll be sure to send Sera with any messages,” Elayne promised with her widest, sweetest smile.
The Templar’s splutter, underscored by the laughter of her ambassador and spymaster, did much to soothe her tired, heavy heart. This, she reminded herself as she officially called an end to their council, is the true beating heart of the Inquisition. She could suffer through another ball if that’s what it took to keep them going.
…though Maker save her if another Grand Duchess asked for a dance.