The White Spire had been visible in the distance long before the shoreline had, the light of the beacon like a low lying star as Farrah stood by the railing before dawn. The pitch of the deck was not something she was accustomed to yet, even after two weeks at sea, nor was the constant noise of the voyage. She’d always thought the sea to be quite placid and soothing- sadly based entirely on her experiences with Lake Calenhad, where apart from the occasional storm, the lake was entirely flat- but the noises of the ocean never ceased, it seemed. The waves slapping at the hull, even on gentle days; the creak of the ropes and groan of the timbers; the unceasing movement of the crew- all of it threw her off, far more than she’d expected it to.
She swore that even in the quieter moments she could hear the rats chatting to one another down in the hold.
And now here she was, at some ungodly hour, clutching at the railing in what would politely be described as a death-grip, and staring at the golden pinprick in the distance that the lookout had called attention to about ten minutes earlier. The shout itself was what had roused her from her lacklustre attempts at sleep anyway, so she’d thrown a shawl on over her night clothes, tugged on her boots, and stumbled up the stairs to the deck to see what all the fuss was about. She shivered and rubbed at her arms through the shawl, careful not to let go as the boat pitched into the curve of another wave. It didn’t stop the spray from reaching her, and she flinched backwards as another cold bluster rose up and soaked the front of her quite thoroughly.
Muttering vilely to herself, she stumbled back from the railing and patted ineffectively at the sodden cloth, trying to keep her balance in the dim half light cast by the single lantern up by the helmsman. It wasn’t even bad weather, not so far as she could tell- they’d gone through a real storm half a week ago, and even that hadn’t fazed the crew- but Maker what she wouldn’t give for earth between her toes and nothing more threatening than a mud puddle to worry about.
There was a pile of crates stacked haphazardly around the mast, lashed together with a web of ropes- the captain had apparently taken on more cargo than was sensible- and she staggered across the deck towards them, trying to time her steps to the rolling of the deck. “Should be used to this by now, Farrah old girl,” she muttered to herself, mistiming the last step and basically hurling herself onto the crates. She bit off a curse as she grazed her shin, wincing and rubbing it as she settled back onto the boxes, shivering and wondering why in the Void she’d thought it was a good idea to come above deck in the first place.
Glancing around surreptitiously to make sure the handful of sailors awake at this hour were nowhere nearby, she cupped her hands together and called up a tiny flame, sighing in relief at the gentle warmth it put out.
She didn’t hear the footsteps over the creaking of the ship, and didn’t realise there was someone practically on top of her in the dark until he spoke. “I believe the captain asked you to desist from using magic whilst onboard,” Justice said with a hint of reproach in his voice. Farrah started in alarm, the flame vanishing instantly. “His reasoning was flawed, but that is no reason to disrespect his request.”
Farrah scowled at him, glad the dark hid the guilty blush on her cheeks. “Superstitious nonsense,” she said, shuffling over on the crate and gesturing for him to join her. “Makes about as much sense as them being afraid of having a cat onboard. Or having to wait an extra day to leave port because the omens weren’t in our favour.” She just resisted rolling her eyes. “Anyway. That’s hardly the point. What are you doing up and about at this hour?”
“I was not sleeping in the first place,” he said, in that grave fashion of his, taking the seat that was offered. He sat ramrod straight, as always, but there was an air about him that he had not had when he’d first entered the mortal realm so many months ago now. She hesitated to say he was relaxed, but there was definitely something casual about him, something comfortable and quiet about the way he held himself, the way he spoke. It brought a half smile to her face as he continued. “You should be aware by now that I have no need for sleep.”
“Yeah, but I hardly expect to see you lurking on a dark, wet ship deck in the middle of the night, either. I assumed you’d be below deck with the others.” She’d been lucky enough to be given her own cabin- if the tiny cupboard she inhabited could be called a cabin. She had to kneel on the bed in order to get the door open- as had Sigrun, but Justice and Anders were sharing for the sake of practicality. Meaning, Woolsey had pitched a fit when she’d realised how much the trip to Orlais was costing in the first place, and had demanded that she be allowed to overlook the itinerary for the purpose of cost cutting. They’d gone from a passenger ship to a cargo runner with a few rooms to spare, and the boys had been given the short straw.
“Anders has been commenting unceasingly about how my inability to sleep unnerves him.” If Justice were human, she would have said he sounded wryly amused in that moment. “I suggested that if he were perhaps to stop talking about finding me unnerving, he might be able to sleep with a little more ease.”
Farrah bit her lip to hold back on a chuckle. “You told Anders to shut up and go to sleep?”
“I believe I included stop whining as well. He did not take kindly to either of those suggestions.”
She couldn’t help it- she laughed. The sound was quickly swallowed up by the wind, and sounded sort of eerie in the dark, but she told herself that the sailor’s superstitions were nonsense. “Justice, I can’t believe you told someone to shut up and stop whining. I’m so proud of you! Look at how far you’ve come in the last few weeks.”
“And further still, apparently,” he said quietly, eyes turned towards the horizon. “They say we will make land in Orlais today. Is that correct?”
He would of course have overheard it through idle gossip amongst the crew, because none of them had dared to speak to him directly. Most of them muttered prayers to the Maker whenever he drew near, and a few of them were openly hostile. Only the admonitions of the captain, and Farrah’s steely glare whenever they got too aggravated, kept them from going too far with their distrust. “Apparently so,” she said, hugging the shawl further around her shoulders and hunching into it in the vain hope for warmth. “The light over by the horizon isn’t a star, it’s the beacon on top of the White Spire. When the sun comes up we should be able to see the coastline. I think we’ll make port in the early afternoon.”
He turned his head in the direction she indicated, looking for the pinprick of light in the darkness. His silence should have given her ample warning before he said “The White Spire? That is the home of the Templar order, those who would oppress the mages. Perhaps there will be some benefit to our-”
“Oh, no no no, stop that thinking,” she said hastily. “We’re here for the sake of diplomacy, and hopefully to find some rich, bored sponsors who want to throw money at the embattled Ferelden order and the glorious Hero of the Blight.” She said the last with a tinge of sarcasm, her mouth twisting unhappily at the overblown acclamation. “We’re not here to protest at the Divine herself about the plight of mages.”
“No matter how much you or I might want to, this is not the time or the place,” she said pointedly, speaking over the top of his objection. “We can enquire quietly and politely, but if I turn around to find you storming the steps of the Grand Cathedral I will not be happy. They won’t take kindly to that, and I’m worried they’ll have a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach to the sight of a corpse charging towards them. Understood?”
He looked just as unhappy as he sounded. “Understood, Commander.”
Ouch. He only resorted back to Commander when he was most displeased with her decisions. Well, she wasn’t here to coddle tempestuous spirits when they threw a tantrum, no matter how much she adored him. “Alright then,” she said, suddenly weary. This journey, and the lack of sleep, had been more draining than she’d expected, and sitting in wet clothes arguing with Justice in the small hours of the morning was never the best way to finish it off. “I’m going to head back to bed, see if I can’t get a few more hours rest before we dock. You should think about resting too.”
“I am quite content here,” he said, and for all intents and purposes he did look like he was fine. “I believe, since I am out of the way of the crew, I shall sit here and observe the sunrise. That shall amuse me for some time.”
She shrugged. “Okay, just don’t go pitching over the side while I’m gone,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “I can’t swim to jump in after you.”
“I have no need to breath, Commander, so I would not drown. You need not fear.”
“No, but I’m betting it’s a long walk along the seabed to Val Royeaux,” she quipped, “and I’m pretty sure you don’t speak fish to ask for directions.”
“What need would I have for directions?” he asked, and it took her a moment to spot the sparkle in his eyes against the dark of the morning.
“Argh!” she said, swatting at his arm, “typical male!” But she couldn’t help the smile as she ducked back below deck to pretend she was sleeping for a few more hours.
They docked a little after midday, pulling into the magnificent harbour of Val Royeaux with thankfully little fanfare. Farrah had half dreaded seeing the piers packed with curious well-wishers, in a scene reminiscent of the parades through Denerim in the aftermath of the battle with the Archdemon. To her great relief, there was only a single carriage waiting for them, and a young man in an elaborately stylish rendition of the sturdy blue armour they wore back home in Amaranthine.
The four Wardens lined the railing, watching in awe of the grand city as the slipped easily into berth, and Sigrun was the first to notice the blond Warden strolling down the stone causeway towards them.
“That can’t possibly be Warden armour,” she said, pointing towards the fellow in question. “No, he waved, he’s definitely a Warden. By the Stone, those are some shiny boots!”
“You must resist the urge to steal them,” Justice said instantly, rousing a chuckle from Farrah and Sigrun.
“What a fop!” Anders said, leaning heavily on the railing and watching the Warden approach. “Look at his hair, he must spend hours curling it for it to look like that.”
“And how long did it take you to pack for this trip, you preening popinjay you?” Sigrun elbowed him, which of course was at the wrong height for it to have the desired effect, but her point was made. “Prissier than a Marcher girl at her debut, you are.”
“The only thing you know about Marcher girls is from those ridiculous romance novels you read,” Anders said loftily, “which is to say, not very much.”
“It’s still not a compliment, Anders,” Farrah said, shaking her head in mock disbelief as she laughed.
He sniffed haughtily at the pair of them. “You are both savages with no taste in clothing, or literature, and I will not take such slander lying down.”
“Oooh, watch out Commander, he’s gonna put frogs in our beds.”
“I will turn you both into frogs, you miscreants,” he muttered.
The crew had lowered the gangplank, and the ship was securely tied to the wharf with ropes nearly as thick around as Farrah’s torso. Watching the newcomer with interest as she moved towards the ramp, she raised her hand in greeting to match his. “Ho there, Warden,” she called, unsure what to make of a greeting party of one. It was what she’d hoped for, certainly, but not what she’d expected. “Good day to you.”
“And to you, messere,” he called in a pleasant alto, his accent surprisingly minimal. He dropped into a practised bow as Farrah descended onto the wharf, the little flourish with his hand eliciting a giggle from Sigrun behind her. “I can scarce believe I have the opportunity to greet the Hero of Ferelden herself! You are just as lovely as the tales tell!”
Behind her, both Sigrun and Anders made choking noises that could have been laughter. “Flattery isn’t necessary,” she said irritably, feeling her cheeks burning. She felt her legs wobble as she settled on solid ground, and it was all she could do not to reach out for the pylons that lined the wharf for balance. “Hello is fine.”
“Ah, but how can I pass up the opportunity to lavish praise on such a wondrous woman?” he replied, taking her reluctant hand in his and bowing low over it. Behind her Sigrun kept giggling and she gritted her teeth. “A hero we expected, but such a beautiful one as well?” His hair was as immaculately styled as Anders had accused him of, perfectly coiled ringlets hanging around his ears and bouncing as he moved. She couldn’t decide if it made him look more rakish or more childish.
She smiled thinly at him. “Messere, I assure you, I have no need for empty adulation-”
“Nonsense!” he decreed, tucking her arm through his before she could protest. “You are deserving of the highest praise, as is only fitting of the woman who-”
There was a sudden looming presence, and Justice was very abruptly pressing up behind them, his face set to a very severe frown. “If you are out to woo Farrah, it is a poor use of your time. Hollow compliments and flippant smiles are best saved for another individual.”
She could have quite happily sunk into the ground at that moment; to have another Warden castigated on her behalf before they’d even been properly introduced… and by a damned spirit, of all things. As much as she adored Justice, she could quite happily have strangled him in that moment. Sigrun had given up her attempts to keep her laughter contained and had both her hands over her mouth in an effort to appear not quite so loud as she all but screeched with merriment, and Anders wasn’t that far behind her.
The Warden on her arm blinked several times. “I appear to have missed something,” he said slowly, glancing from Farrah to Justice and back again.
Before Justice could interject and make the situation even more uncomfortable than it already was, Farrah said from between gritted teeth “I’m not really the wooing type.”
Her companion blinked once or twice more, before realisation dawned in his eyes- followed closely by what looked like quickly masked relief. “You don’t say?” he said, casting one last look behind them at Justice, still looming inappropriately close- she’d have to have another talk with him about personal space, it seemed- before leading her down the wharf towards the waiting carriage. “That is most fortunate for the both of us, for I’m not entirely adroit when it comes to wooing the fairer sex.”
She raised her eyebrows and he winked at her. “Now, your dashing friend in the robes? He is much more to my… persuasion.”
Farrah couldn’t help but laugh. “Is this customary in Orlais? To exchange sexual preferences before exchanging names?”
He had the good grace to look abashed. “You must forgive me, Commander,” he said, dropping his voice so that the Wardens following behind them were less likely to hear, “but I was given fairly explicit instructions as to how to greet and entertain you upon arrival.”
She raised her eyebrows at that. The Wardens had sent one of their own in the capacity of- what? Doxy? Was he supposed to seduce her to better understand her and report back to his superiors? Did they just assume that she’d need or want sexual attention the moment she arrived? “How nice for you,” she said dryly. “Was there a name on those instructions at the very least? Something I can call you other than ‘you there, the blond one’?”
They came to a stop beside the carriage and he graced her with another rakish smile- for the benefit of the others, she was certain. “But of course, where are my manners?” he said, offering her a hand up into the dim interior of the cab. “I am Remy Fareaux, of the Orlesian order of Grey Wardens, most recently of Montsimmard.” Behind him, she saw Anders’ eyebrows dart up towards his hairline at the mention of the city that housed the Orlesian Circle. “You may of course refer to me as Remy, or Captain Fareaux, if you are inclined to be more formal, but Remy is fine, I assure you. And you of course are Commander Farrah.”
“I am,” she said blandly, climbing up into the carriage without his help and settling herself onto the seat. Sigrun was next, introducing herself as politely as possible given that she’d been chortling hysterically at the poor fellow not two minutes earlier. She accepted his hand up graciously, winking at Farrah as she took the seat opposite. Justice introduced himself loudly and abruptly- she could almost hear his inner struggle as to whether or not he should warn him off further, and she bit her lip in amusement, sharing a look with Sigrun- and he very pointedly took the seat beside Farrah when he climbed into the little cabin.
Anders was last, of course, and he smirked a little with his introduction, part suspicious, part amusement at the fellow having misjudged them so badly so far. Farrah rolled her eyes as the two men exchanged flowery, veiled greetings, trying not to grin as Anders finally climbed into the cab and took the last seat. Remy closed the door and appeared in the window frame.
“Your belongings will be transferred from the docks separately,” he said, with what was evidently meant to be a winning smile. “My duty is to see you safely to your lodgings with as much haste as possible, because you must be tired after your journey.” He tsked in an almost matronly manner, looking over their salt stained clothes. “And we will see to it that you are fed and refreshed as well.”
The moment he was out of sight- presumably to sit with the driver and guide them through the city- Anders opened his mouth and said “Well if that wasn’t-”
Farrah put a finger to her lips immediately, indicating silence. “Not now,” she said calmly, smiling broadly. She gestured to the view out the window. “Let’s just enjoy the ride, and the city, and save the talking for later.”
Because she wasn’t entirely certain that their conversation would be private.
She was expecting the barracks, or some rough military style accommodation; they didn’t exactly live the high life in Amaranthine. So she was slightly taken aback when the carriage pulled up into the courtyard of what appeared to be a private villa, only a stone’s throw from the palace district. A fountain bubbled merrily in the centre of the round, and climbing roses adorned the far wall of the yard.
Sigrun was nearly beside herself, having stared in slack jawed wonder at the towers and minarets of one of the oldest cities in Thedas. The noise of the city was impressive too, endless bustle and fuss, the colours and movement just as irritating as the sounds and the shouting; Farrah was quite certain she could feel a headache brewing at the back of her skull by the time the carriage stopped.
Anders and Justice followed at a somewhat more sedate pace as Farrah and Sigrun trailed politely after Remy, listening to him wax lyrical about the extravagant luxuries of their villa for the two weeks they were in Orlais.
“And here we have the parlour, with the most marvellous view back down to the sea,” he said, gesturing expansively towards the open balcony on the far wall. Farrah had to grudgingly admit that the view was fairly spectacular, but she was more interested in the smells wafting from the kitchen at the back of the villa. They had skipped lunch in their haste to reach port, and now her stomach was rumbling pitifully. “You’ll of course have time to relax, and your bags will be brought through shortly, and we will prepare for the gala tonight.”
“The what now?” Farrah said, momentarily surprised enough to let her shock show.
“A proper Orlesian ball?” Sigrun said, almost gleefully giddy.
“Indeed,” Remy said, smiling indulgently at her. “Now, if you will excuse me, I will hasten to the kitchen and see that everything is in order for you to break your fast.”
He left them to settle in, promising to return soon with food, and to hunt down servants to acquire hot bath water. The moment he was gone, Farrah’s smile dropped and she rubbed wearily at the back of her neck. “Well, that was… interesting.”
“He as quite a character, wasn’t he?” Sigrun said, flopping down onto the luxurious divan by the window. She looked content as a cat, lounging in the sunbeam as if it were the most decadent delight. “He’s just as bad as I imagined they’d be. He even looks sort of like the hero from The Rake of Jader.”
“Oh Maker, not more of those terrible books,” Anders moaned, slumped with his head on his arms at the only table in the suite.
“Am I the only one who saw it?” Farrah said, glancing about at the three of them. “Nobody else noticed?”
“He attempted to woo you,” Justice said gravely, still frowning. “That was most inappropriate of him. He should have more concern for your wellbeing than simply copulation.”
As always, Justice’s complete and utter lack of tact both appalled and amused her, and she choked on her words for a moment as both Sigrun and Anders spluttered helplessly with laughter. “Justice, no, that’s not…” She trailed off awkwardly. It wasn’t the first time she’d have to talk to him about discretion and being considerate of other’s feelings, and it wouldn’t be the last time either. She sighed instead. “Moving on. None of you noticed what he was doing? You didn’t perhaps read about anything in particular that Orlesians are fond of doing that befuddles and ensnares most foreigners?”
The silence was painful, with Justice frowning and Anders and Sigrun exchanging confused glances. Farrah sighed in frustration and settled herself down onto the divan, gesturing to Anders and then to her temples. He thankfully got the message and came to stand behind her, placing two fingers on either side of her head and letting his magic flow. As he dispersed her headache, she continued. “It’s The Game. Captain Fareaux was almost certainly playing us. I’d say it was a test, really, to see how susceptible we are.”
“To what end?” Sigrun asked, frowning as well.
Farrah shrugged. “It could be the Wardens, checking to see that we won’t be an embarrassment and a liability. It could be so ingrained that the Captain just couldn’t help himself and wanted to toy with the uninitiated newcomers. Or it could be very deliberate, and we are going to have to be very careful with what we say and do over the next few weeks, at all costs.”
Anders scoffed as he finished off the healing. “Or, perhaps, maybe you’re just being a little paranoid? Remy was a decent enough sort, if a little over friendly-”
“He showered me with compliments to test our comfort levels,” she said, ticking it off on her fingers, “and when Justice derailed that approach, he instead tried to curry sympathy with me by implying he was being used by higher powers as nothing more than a whore, even though his preferences tend elsewhere.” She looked quite pointedly at Anders, glaring up at him over her shoulder. “He then made subtle hints as to where his preferences might lie, as if encouraging me to assist in any romantic advances he might choose to make to certain people.”
Anders went bright red, and spluttered “You certainly don’t mean-”
“Don’t act the prude, Anders, neither of us believes it,” she said wryly. She caught his hand with hers before he pulled away though, giving them a quick squeeze. “He then makes special mention of the fact that he is recently of Montsimmard, an unusual thing to announce in the presence of two free mages. It’s certainly not the kind of thing one simply blurts out as a conversation starter- ‘oh don’t mind me; I’ve just gotten back from one of the oldest Circle Towers in all of Thedas’. That was a deliberate play, to unnerve us, to make us question his loyalty just when he’s gone out of his way to treat us as trusted confidantes and colleagues.
“And this,” she said, gesturing to their rather sumptuous surroundings, “all this extravagance, but it was too much for our food, or our baths, to be waiting for us? We quite clearly took the long way through the city, to show off the sites and the power of the mighty Orlesian Empire, but even with that extra time the Captain has to go and find what’s taking so long with our amenities?” She sank back, leaning against Anders’ legs as he politely stayed in place for her. “The whole thing was a play, right from the start. And I don’t know whether we passed or not.”
Her words were met with stunned silence, and Justice was the first to break it. “So this Captain Remy is to be treated as a foe,” he said simply, with what would have passed as glee were he human.
Farrah shook her head. “No Justice, that’s the wrong way to approach this. It’s not as simple as black and white here, friend and foe. Remy is either a dangerous friend, or a friendly enemy. Either way, we cannot let our guard down for even a moment.”
“You mean to tell me that, not only are we going to an Orlesian ball,” Sigrun said breathlessly, “but we’re also embroiled in The Game and we’ve not even been here for a day?”
“Oh Maker, Sigrun,” Farrah said, though she couldn’t help but smile. “Contrary to what the name suggests, The Game is not in fact any sort of game we want to be playing. These people spend their whole lives doing this, and if the Captain is any sort of example, I don’t think anyone is going to go easy on us just because I’m unfortunately famous.”
“Still, it could come in useful for everyone to think we’re bumbling Ferelden turnip farmers,” Anders said, rubbing at his jaw with a conniving look in his eyes. “Double play them, as it were.”
“I’m fairly certain we can expect such tactics from everyone else,” Farrah said, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if they are in fact expecting such a play from us.”
Sigrun flopped backwards onto the couch, head hanging off the edge and into the sunbeam. “Oh Ancestors,” she muttered, “it always seemed a bit less complex than that in the stories. Or, you know, there was always a dashing hero who was able to deflect all the suspicion and win the court over anyway with his brilliance and charm. Like in The Duke’s Secret Mistress, or Orlesian Concubine, Orlesian Treasure.”
Farrah groaned. “Sigrun, every time I think you’ve shown me the worst book possible, you pull out another one. How can you even read those?”
Before Sigrun could respond, Anders cleared his throat in that very self-satisfied manner she knew so well. “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to brag, but we do have someone on hand possessing both charm and brilliance,” he said with feigned modesty.
She snorted. “Nuh uh, you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way at all.” At his pointed look, she sighed. “Alright, no more than normal.”
“Normal around you is such a bizarre concept, Farrah. It usually involves ancient tombs and dragons and talking darkspawn. What’s a little court intrigue when compared to that?”
“Well, the likelihood of us waking up on the floor after having drunk something strange is just as likely,” Sigrun said eagerly.
The comment was ridiculous enough to have them all in fits of laughter, and even Justice seemed bemused enough by their outburst to smile that half smile of his as he watched the three of them loll all over the couch.
Wiping her eyes, Farrah said “Okay, enough. Captain Tease will be back any minute now, if he’s not already listening outside the door. Just remember to stay on your toes, and be suspicious of everything he-”
“Here we are,” Remy sang cheerfully, far too buoyant for someone simply announcing the arrival of lunch. Farrah smiled to herself, unsure whether Remy was being ridiculously obvious because he didn’t know any better and had underestimated them, or because he knew precisely what he was at, and wanted to throw them off the trail. A handful of elves crept in after him, bearing platters of food enough to feed five times their number. “Eat! Drink! Sustain yourselves, dear friends. We have much to discuss, and much to plan! The masquerade is in but a few short hours, and I am sure you will have many questions before now.”
Sigrun set upon the food with apparent glee, but Anders was much more subdued in his responses, and watched Remy so carefully that Farrah could have groaned. Justice was even worse, standing vigil in the corner, never taking his eyes off the Orlesian Warden.
So much for subtlety.
Resigning herself to being obvious, for now, Farrah settled in at the table with the others and piled her plate with food- she wasn’t sure what, all food was nourishing after all, so it didn’t matter what she grabbed.
“So, Remy,” she said, adopting a friendly smile. “What can you tell me about this masquerade we’ll be attending?”