“Shit. Shit shit shit shit.”
Charade’s face was pressed hard against the wall and with every word ivy and stone dust and probably dried bird shit gritted against her lips. In a month she had gone from Val Royeaux all the way to the sultry streets of Antiva, the tantalizing possibility of her finally finding her fortune keeping her feet moving as she ran, skulked, and spied her way from the city to the estates of the county. And climbed. And hid. And now hung onto the side of the third story of one of the Antivan’s massive manors.
“What is this little bird perched on my sill, hm?” The voice that drifted through the window was amused instead of angry, which Charade hoped meant her discoverer was sympathetic and not sadistic.
“I’m just some swamp gas,” Charade said in a voice that wobbled as much as her knees. She knew she’d be spotted sooner or later, but she had figured it’d be from a guard and not a bored houseguest. At least a battle with the guards would be an epic death. As quickly as she dared, she looked around for a place to jump or climb to get away from the window. Trying - and failing - to come up with a suitable lie to explain her situation, she added pathetically, “Don’t mind me.”
“Are you here to sing me a song, l'alouette?”
“Maybe later.” Charade mumbled and moved tentatively to the left.
“Oh? So you did not scale this wall for me? How disappointing.” There was a pause and Charade waited for the call of the guards, but then the woman inside spoke again, “Come inside; perhaps you’ll be more willing with a solid floor under your feet.”
The window opened with a welcoming creak and Charade slid inside - no matter what awaited her inside, it had to be better than falling to her death and leaving a human-sized stain on the pavement for the world to remember her by. The room was warm but surprisingly stark: a thick carpet and a bed, but no chairs or tables, and nothing on the walls, not a single tapestry or painting. It was almost more like a cell than a bedroom.
The woman on the bed though was resplendent, dressed like a queen at a cost that certainly only royalty could afford. There were jewels and feathers in her graying hair and more tiny gems pasted around her eyes. She had a headpiece that wasn’t quite a crown but certainly looked like it wanted to be and rows of necklaces that spilled down from her throat to her bosom. As Charade watched, the woman toyed with them, her long fingers curling around the chains and occasionally stroking the tight fabric of her bodice.
The velvet and silk and whatever else expensive fabrics she was wearing wear in soft grays and stark blacks with occasional ribbons of color winding snake-like through the lace. A queen, Charade thought again. Or a witch.
“Ah, a familiar face, if not a friendly one,” the queen said. “Do you recognize me as well?”
It was question that they both knew the answer to. Even as just a runner, Charade had heard the snatches of the woman’s song. Not that there had ever been any accusations of her involvement in the various intrigues that moved the Game forward in Orlias, but the tales about her were still shared; her reputation was crouched in the relative safety of history.
“Marjolaine,” Charade named her.
There was a pause, a silence full of only Marjolaine’s smile.
“I do not think you have worked for me, but for my friends, perhaps? You make discreet deliveries?”
“I used to.” Mara had hated it, but once the two of them had settled in Val Royeaux, Charade had made extra coin running errands for neighbors, then merchants, then eventually the nobles. Her mother had worried that it’d be the first step in a life of crime, but while Charade might have called herself a rogue, she’d never say she was a villain. She’d never had delusions of depravity.
Other than doing what she had come to Antiva for.
“Come a bit closer; my eyes are not what they once were.”
She couldn’t think of a reason not to obey and Charade’s heavy boots left footprints in the plush carpet as she approached. The delicate scent of Marjolaine’s perfume grew stronger and more inviting with each step; there were roses and something deeper under it, something like cool spring evenings or midnights with no moon. It seemed to Charade, who’s scratched palms were stinging as sweat gathered there and who was wearing clothes that hadn’t been washed since she’d gone to the Chantry to beg Andraste for success, that Marjolaine was the bard that other bards sang about.
“So you are not an assassin. Too rough, I think. Oh, I do not mean to insult you. Not all can deal in daggers as easily as cards.” She paused and dragged a slender finger over her lip, testing the plumpness of her mouth. The smile that appeared there was a snake’s or a cat’s or a dragon’s before Marjolaine run her nail over it, smoothing it down. “So what were you planning once you snuck in to Countess Clementia’s estate?”
Charade had only a moment to weigh the risks of baring herself to Marjolaine and decided to make armor out of her admittedly clumsy lies. “I’m looking for someone. Her name’s Serah Trastamara.”
“Hm, I believe that elf is here.”
“I think you know. Or you should, if you’re really Marjolaine.”
A laugh like bells. “Very well, tell me more. Why do you wish to find her? Are you a jilted lover?”
“She has something of mine,” Charade answered vaguely. She wondered how much she keep from Marjolaine and decided to risk feeding her some information - some, and not anything of too much value. “I have a father somewhere - I never met him. My mother left him when she was pregnant. I think that he and Serah Trastamara -”
“Pah, your story of family drama does not interest me,” Marjolaine interrupted “So you were just going to walk in and then walk out again?”
“Maybe steal a servant’s dress,” Charade improvised. “Or someone else’s.”
“Ah, now that idea that we can work with. But some things must be taken care of first.”
“You’re going to help me?” she asked, incredulous.
Marjolaine laughed again. “Perhaps. You interest me, child, and you may have potential. I can offer you a bath at least, which we would both appreciate, no?” She was still reclining on the bed like a satisfied cat and even when she reached up an arm, it was a languid stretch. She tugged at a tasselled rope and almost instantly, as if he was summoned by magic, a servant opened the door.
“Messere?” he asked his feet as he bowed.
“My poor maid, she has arrived at last and pah! smelling of the road. Draw her a bath and clean her. Quickly, we don’t have much time before the party.” She waved her hand dismissively. “In some other room; I need to prepare in here.”
It was an efficient bath and it wasn’t long before Charade was hustled back to Marjolaine’s chamber, scrubbed and perfumed but still unclothed. The bard was by the window, looking out as if she expected someone else to climb in next. Charade had a feeling that the woman knew she was there; making her wait was a powerplay. A petty one, but Charade was used to waiting. It had been the majority of her work, in fact, though she had never loitered about in the nude, dripping onto rich carpets. That was another line of work entirely.
“Such a long time!” the bard exclaimed with her back still turned. “So much dirt - I think that perhaps you brought all of the road with you when you traveled from Orlais. But enough of that - You will not keep me waiting again, I think. So then, business.”
Charade clenched her towel tighter when Marjolaine turned around. She could tell that the bard was waiting for her to speak, but she couldn’t come with words and after a moment, the other woman smiled and shrugged her shoulders. There was something different about her gown: it moved like water, the ribbons along the neckline flowing down to expose more of Marjolaine’s still creamy skin.
“You are here as my guest. My protege, perhaps? That’s what people will think, and we will let them. You will come to the party on my arm, in lace and perfume, and all eyes will be on you. The curve of your breasts make up for any flaws of your face."
“I just want to get in and get out.”
“No, no. You would be a poor killer, no? And we have already seen your skills as a thief. My little bird, it would be much easier for you to play than to struggle. I think you are a scoundrel, not an assassin. As I said, the other guests will be watching you. Even this elf, you see?”
“And what? I seduce her?”
“Why not?” Marjolaine chuckled. “There is a certain neatness to that, if she was once your father’s. Yes, seduce her. Or be seduced.”
“Will you give me lessons on that, too?”
Charade said it boldly to fight against Marjolaine’s coy intimidation, but in her mouth it was more like stale bravado.
“So direct! You are too much a Marcher still; did you learn nothing from Orlais?” Marjolaine laughed again, then said with a shrug that made her neckline plunge even deeper, “Hm, if you like. Stop clutching that towel and let me inspect you.”
The hesitation didn’t last long. As Charade dropped the towel, Marjolaine approached with that languid movement again, slow small steps that made her hips sway and her long hair swing around her face. She circled, inspecting Charade's angles like an artisan satisfied with her work. The first touch was so light that Charade almost believed she had imagined it: a stroke over her left shoulder, then a breath there when the fingers pulled back.
“What is there in the world like a young lover?” Marjolaine asked as she stepped closer. Charade could feel the scratch of the lace of Marjolaine's bodice and the softness of her breasts behind it. Strong arms wrapped around Charade's chest and Marjolaine settled her chin on Charade's shoulder. “Girls with their sweetness like a summer peach. I have been chaste for far too long, I think.”
Her legs were trembling, just a little, and it was almost like she was still on the sill outside, clinging to the edge above the precipice. Marjolaine steered her deftly toward the bed and then gave a push just as Charade felt the mattress behind her knees. She grabbed Marjolaine's arms as she tumbled down and in a rush the other woman fell on top of her, with the rustling silks and satins of her dress settling cloud-soft around Charade's bare legs. It was easy to push them up and when she touched Marjolaine's warm legs, she was delighted but not particularly surprised to feel skin instead of stockings. Her hands traveled up until she curved her palms around the bard's fleshy hips and then slid inward to the damp tight curls of hair that framed Marjolaine's sex. Before she could part her lips, though, Marjolaine shifted her weight to break out of Charade's embrace and stretched herself on the bed.
“You want this to end so quickly? Pah, youth, so impatient. Come, let me teach you and we shall practice together.” That feather-light touch was back, fingers tiptoeing over Charade's collarbone, skipping over her breasts and to her ribs. “Ah, you like this, I see. See, your breasts are sensitive and your nipples stand up to reach for my attention. But the skin here, under where your breasts curve, that feels good, no? When I touch you there? And then here, down your sides – I see your skinny stomach quiver when I stroke you here. You must eat more, for who wants to make love to a skeleton? Maybe those Nevarrans, with their obsession with the dead. Stay away from their beds, my bird.”
Marjolaine's long nails scraped across Charade's hip and down her thigh. “Now you may want me to find your clit between these slender legs of yours, but no, for now I shall continue to stroke downward. If you are a good girl, perhaps I shall come back to reward you. Well then, are you a good girl, hm? A good girl would reply to me, 'Yes, my lady.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Very nice. You are quick at learning, I see. Lift your leg.” When Charade obeyed that command, Marjolaine slid closer and kissed Charade's hip, thigh, then raised knee. Charade had had a couple of lovers, trysts for fun in the dark romantic spots of the city, but they were smoke or shadows or maybe just dreams, because as soon as Marjolaine’s mouth was on her, Charade forgot everything. On her neck, pulling down the damp towel to get to her collarbone, then to her breast. And she didn’t just kiss and she didn’t just suckle - Marjolaine nibbled and then she bit hard enough to leave a mark. And she didn’t just use her mouth - her fingers waltzed over the goosebumps that covered Charade from throat to ankle.
Wherever the bard touched her, Charade felt like she was on fire. She gasped as she burned and had to cover her mouth with both hands when she finally came to stifle the cry of pleasure. She could have laid there on her back forever, but Marjolaine was impatient again and Charade roused her lazy limbs to roll onto her side and return the favor.
“You were not completely honest with me before, my little bird.” Marjolaine chided lightly afterward. “I know that you would not risk so much to simply have a tete a tete with a spoiled elf with the rash and more debt than sense.” Those fingers that had been stroking, teasing, pinched a bit now when they reached for Charade’s flushed flesh. When Charade didn’t instantly reply, they scratched hard enough that she cried out in surprise. “Oh, you make so much noise for such a little touch. Come now, why are you here?”
There was steel underneath her velvet tones and Charade suddenly felt very small and very alone, and the bed under her back was a hard wall blocking her escape. She wished she had more brains or more strength, or even more faith in the Maker’s plan - More of anything, really, to be more than she’d always been. Marjolaine scraped at her again and Charade admitted, hating herself as she did, “She has a gem that I want.”
“Theft?” she asked in surprise. The fingers withdrew to tap on Marjolaine’s chin. “How common.”
“It’s a big gem,” Charade said defensively. “Anyway, that’s why I’m here.”
“How does a bird of the streets like you know of nobility’s jewels?”
That was a long tale of bribery and study, rumors and wine-soaked gossip. She told Marjolaine a little, mostly about Gamlen and how he’d spent a fortune - not even really his to begin with - on Rivaini hedge witches and charlatans who were even worse. The rest was her story and Charade didn’t want to give too much of herself to the bard. She tried not to be obvious in her staring, but as she talked, Charade studied the other woman in an attempt to divine if she was going to be another obstacle.
Marjolaine rolled the idea though her head and found it wanting, apparently, shrugging her shoulders dismissively. “Shall I add this to my own intrigues? Eh, no, I will leave this pickpocketing to you.”
“Will you still help me? Or just stay out of my way?”
“I think I am helping you already, no?” Marjolaine tossed the question over her shoulder as she rose. She slipped the robe over her shoulders and lifted her hair free, then reached unseeing over Charade’ still naked body to ring again at the servant’s bell.
Charade clung to Marjolaine’s arm until the other woman rapped on her knuckles with her fan. It wasn’t a flirtatious gesture and Charade withdrew with a curse she muffled only half successfully. Her dark look was ignored; Marjolaine was busy flickering smiles at the Antivan princes of note and the merchants richer than all the nobles in Ferelden combined. There were dwarves and elves alike milling about, and towering above the poofed hair and fancy hats, Charade saw the amazing horns of a Qunari. The rest she’d seen before, even in all their glamorous glory, but a Qunari, here in the ballroom, was astounding, and she gaped until Marjolaine rapped her again.
“Now pay attention and try not to humiliate me too quickly. Do what you can to locate Juana Trastamara. Her husband Alphonse will be here, but I expect that they will not be together. Such is married life, no? Her most recent admirer is another elf, one with those silly facial tattoos that they mar themselves with. You will dance and smile, and you may find someone who knows where our lady is, or even better, where she is sleeping.”
“But where will you be?”
“Little bird,” she said with a huffing sigh, “you are done questioning me. Do what you must and perhaps we’ll meet again. Beyond that, I do not need to give you anything. Now kiss me.”
Marjolaine had said that all eyes would be on them and she was right, to a degree. But the attention they drew was a fleeting thing: eyes slid toward them as the pair strolled through the crowds, but Charade could see the crowd’s curiosity dampen and then extinguish. Even the Qunari seemed to be little more than an amusing pet and not the marvel that Charade thought him to be.
There was a sculpture that Charade first assumed was crystal - A swan with wings out and neck up as if it were about to launch off the table. It was huge, at least half her height and probably weighed just as much as her in all her borrowed finery. When she managed to get closer, she realized that it was shimmering and started. Magic? A servant in all white moved forward with utmost care and ignoring Charade, tapped at some back feathers with a same chisel and slivers fell into cup on the table. Ice then, of course, she realized and laughed at herself. She’d unmask herself as a bumpkin if she didn’t keep her mouth from hanging open so often. Still, to keep something frozen in the room of swarming bodies had to require some spell, and she looked around for the mage who was certainly tasked with preventing the flood.
But it was impossible to find the caster. There were too many people milling about and each in a dress more chimerical than the last. And most were in masks in the Orlesian style: sheets of thinly-hammered gold and silver or skulls carved to fit over powdered faces. Birds were out of fashion - Charade had heard about that style and how the initial beauty wore off quickly, bird crap being too outrageous of an accessory for even the Orlesians. So no live animals in the wigs this time, though she thought she did see some furred creature on a leash perched on someone’s shoulder. There were still massive hair creations, of course: one man had what appeared to be a ship on his head and she trailed behind an elf who’d apparently tried to outdo everyone else by designing a whole dragon, including wings that whacked other guests in the shoulder if they didn’t move quickly enough out of the way.
Mara would have hated it.
Marjolaine nimbly twisted away from Charade and inserted herself in a conversation. Charade didn’t bother to hover behind the bar and instead marched away to search for Trastamara.
But it was another woman who intercepted her. “Let us be daring and start the intimacies right here in the ballroom,” the guest said and smiled. Like Marjolaine had, she placed her hand on Charade’s arm, the white lace like foam against Charade’s sleeve. She was being claimed, Charade realized, and tried to be relieved. The woman was in a celestial-themed costume with stars of pearls sewn into her tight breeches. Her black hair was pulled back by pins and combs, and she had a single black moule on her dusky chin. It moved when she spoke and Charade hoped that the woman thought she was staring at her lips and not that dancing dot. “I am Ermensinda Cadera Lanos. I’m so pleased that we have fresh blood here tonight; today was dull, dull, dull. Even the Crows have flown away. And you? What is your name?”
“Charade,” she answered, figuring that the truth was as obscure as a lie would be.
“Charade?” the woman repeated. “Truly? Or another little game of Marjolaine’s?”
They were innocent enough teases. Besides the weather, geography was generally innocuous enough topic to blather about over expensive drinks and fish eggs. But Charade felt uncomfortable already, and wished that she had come up with a new identity to mask herself with. She had no fortune to lose or reputation to tarnish, but her family - or lack thereof - was a vulnerable spot and she’d come into a party of savages without much armor.
They’d made a complete turn about the room, but the lady didn’t let Charade escape back to Marjolaine. “What is your family name, then, Lady ‘Charade?’ Or are you another flower that Marjolaine has plucked?”
Eberhart, that had been Mara’s last name, Amell was Gamlen’s. And claiming Amell heritage, that was only one step away from saying she was Charade Hawke.
“Flower,” she said and gave a smile. And then because everyone else was flirting as much as they were breathing, she added, and tried not to feel ridiculous, “A beautiful one, right?”
Ermensinda Cadera Lanos laughed. “It is hard to say with all our faces covered in masks,” she demurred. But then she added, “Perhaps I could see more of you?”
It was Charade’s turn to laugh. “Trust me, this costume is the most interesting thing of mine that you’ll see.”
“Modesty? That’s not chic at all. Instead you should say that you have, oh, a tattoo. Yes! I love tattoos. A tattoo of sword that goes all the way down your spine? Or a dwarf on your arm that you can make dance?”
Charade grinned and shook her head. She pushed Marjolaine’s instructions of haste out of her mind and leaned in a bit closer to Lanos’ smile and that moule. And of course it was at moment that she sensed it, like the thing was calling to her, and had to jerk away.
“What’s that necklace that lady over there is wearing? That one,” she said as she pointed at an elf as discreetly as she could. Her voice and hand were steady, ready to take a shot. “That gem. It looks like a tear.”
“I’m sure that her husband cried quite a bit at the price, poor sweet Alphonse,” Lanos murmured. “She calls it a Dragon Tear, in fact, and claims that it fell from the archdemon as it died, but she is full of foolishness and lies. And the rash. I happen to know that Alphonse bought it off a Crow some months ago. Crows collect baubles like that.”
It was an opal, as wide of Charade’s palm, and looked like the sun burning in a cream of cloud. The setting had been changed, but there was no mistaking the thing for anything else: it was the Keroshek. In five steps she could be there in front of its owner, in six more she could be out the window the the gem in hand. But when Lanos tugged on her sleeve, the opal winked out of sight as Charade turned away. Charade smiled at Lanos and made her voice light as she asked, “So where did this Crow get it? Off the body of some unfortunate merchant prince?”
A male dwarf in a mask of reds and purples like an autumn sunset answered that., “A Witch of the Wilds! He seduced her and in the morning ran off with her virginity and jewel! Haha, what a sight that must have been!”
“You’re drunk, serah,” Lanos replied, supremely distasteful.
“It was rescued from Ferelden dogs,” said someone else. Suddenly the story was picked up by a group of people who’d clustered around and maybe it was because someone had just mentioned them, but the image that rose into her head was of dogs slobbering over a bone. “Cailan had it!”
“No, Anora wore it in her crown at her wedding. It cursed her reign.”
“No, it was the mages before they tore themselves apart in their tower.”
“Then how did it end up across the sea, if you know so much, mi amor?”
“An apostate stole it,” came the reply from some quick-thinking guest in so many layers of silk and velvet that Charade couldn’t tell if it was man or woman, human, elf, or dwarf who spoke. “Used it to barter his way to freedom.”
She almost wanted to elbow in and set them all straight. She’d tracked it through history and across Thedas, and even Gamlen would be impressed by its journey with its previous owners. But it was obvious that none of the conversation required her input or even presence, and even Lanos had forgotten her, too busy coming up with her own ideas to notice that Charade had slid from the woman’s side. She made fists in her skirts to lift the heavy fabric, freeing her feet to move as fast as they could in their improbably heeled shoes. She spotted Trastamara’s shimmering dress appear and disappear among the crowd like a deer hunted through the trees, and slipped through the overgrowth of people to try to get to her. In her own bulky costume she didn’t have half the speed and grace that she could manage in her street clothes, but the party was getting wet enough that she managed to slide in and out of the clusters without too many elbows to the chest.
Andraste had to be watching and enjoying Herself, because luck was on Charade’s side: when she finally aligned Trastamara in her sights, the elf was alone at a table spread with enough meat that Charade wondered if there had been any animals left in the woods. Some was still raw and over the perfumes Charade caught the sharp scent of blood. Doubt wormed into that initial moment of glee and suddenly her stomach tightened and palms started to leave damp handprints on her skirts.
But then she straightened her spine, and not just because the corset hurt like the blight when she slouched. Mara would’ve ordered her to be strong or at least to fake it well enough that no one would see her vulnerable. That had been Mara, hard but fair, with willpower enough to see them both through the shit fate had shoved in their way. But she was with the Maker and Gamlen was with whomever he’d been shackled to after Mara left, so there really wasn’t anyone for her to retreat to, wasn’t anything for her to do but go forward.
“Clementia must be a fantastic hunter,” she said as an introduction, pretending to be enthralled by the dishes. A quick glance at Trastamara told her that her comment had been more colorless than charming and her mind whirled as she tried to intimate Marjolaine’s smooth sweetness. “I’m so glad - honored! - that I was able to come. The food, the guests - Everything looks so good.”
Trastamara sniffed and then deigned to speak to her. “You have no Antivan accent, nor Orlesian. No, nor Nevarran. Pity - Those are the loveliest. You are from the Marches? You simply cannot be Anders, for not even Clementia would let one into her party.”
But then Trastamara swirled away. Charade cursed under her breath and shoved the plate back on the table and turned away before changing her mind and grabbing one of the sweet grapes, popping it into her mouth. And then she was ready to try again. The dance was some churning one with partners swapping and curling circles of close embraces, the sort of movements that the nobles had stolen from the elves and then forbidden in the alienages. Charade skirting at the edge of the dance floor. She finally stepped in and caught a partner for herself, a Dalish elf in a mask that he had pushed up into his hair. Sweat was beaded on his forehead and trickled down branches of his facial tattoos, and he looked profoundly uncomfortable, only nodding briefly at her as they danced around before staring intently over her shoulder. It was only because Charade was looking for Trastamara that she noticed that he too was staring at the other elf.
He noted their shared target and squinted his eyes at Charade, then exclaimed as he recognized her, “You came with Marjolaine. I saw you come in together. What are you doing here?”
She was prepared for suspicion and tossed her head in a gesture that she hoped was coy. “Marjolaine wasn’t going to turn down an invitation to a party like this.”
“Marjolaine doesn't simply drift around Thedas on the wind,” he said irritably. “She's here – you're here – for something.”
“So? Leave if she bothers you,” she returned in the same tone.
“I didn't say that,” he said. “Look, just tell me: you aren't here for me, are you? If you are, I won't run or tell anyone. I just want to know!”
“What sort of bard do you think I am?” Charade demanded, affronted. She wanted to yank her hands free but then did the opposite and held onto him all the tighter. There was potential in a disgruntled friend of Trastamara, and she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, even though he had terrible breath of alcohol and fish. “And why do you think Marjolaine even knows who you are?”
“It's Juana! Juana Trastamara, of course. We've been fighting. She wants to get rid of me, I know it. She'd kick me out with just these clothes on my back and I've earned more than that!”
His voice had risen loud enough that the partners dancing next to them turned and stared quizzically at him. Charade said in a voice not quite as loud, but clear enough, “She doesn't give you an allowance?”
“Well, yes. A little. But it's barely anything at all! Not enough for anyone to live on, believe me.”
“Maybe she can’t afford you anymore.”
“Can’t she afford me?” It was his turn to be affronted. “Do you have any idea how much that necklace she's wearing cost her? How much her dress did?”
They spun away into another cluster of curious onlookers. Charade lowered her voice now, hoping that enough of what they'd exclaimed before had been overheard. “So you want revenge.”
“I didn't say I wanted to kill her,” he said hurriedly. He looked around like he expected Trastamara to be standing reproachfully behind them. “But I think I deserve something!”
“You could try to make her jealous,” she suggested. It had been the first thing to come to mind, but Charade realized that the idea, petty as it was, wasn’t too awful to try. She added eagerly, “Make her see how much she’s missing.”
“Isn't that cliché?”
“It's the oldest trick in the book because it works,” she insisted. But then she shrugged her shoulder the way that she'd seen Marjolaine move, a slow roll backward that made her breasts push forward. “But if you'd rather just be replaced... Perhaps someone younger will -”
“Dammit! I'll think about it. But it won't be with you!”
“What about Alphonse?”
He stared blankly then said slowly, dredging the name up through his memories, “Her husband Alphonse?”
“If that doesn’t make your mistress want to reclaim you, you might at least get a new master out of it.”
“It’s shrewd, I’ll give you that,” he said.
She covered up her optimism with an insulted sniff. There were a few more steps to their dance that tied them together, but then finally they pushed each other away into the arms of other partners. She saw the man throw her a sneer before he pulled down his mask, but Charade was already working out the next part of her plan.
Which she was so caught up with that when her next partner grabbed her hands, Charade did realize it was Marjolaine until the bard brought her heel down onto Charade's toes. “What are you waiting for?” she hissed through a smile. She put her mouth against Charade's ear. “Find Trastamara and drag her off.”
“I'm working on it!”
“See that you finish it!” Marjolaine snapped.
When the music slowed – Charade was beginning to wonder if it ever actually stopped – she waltzed out of the current of dancers, back to the tables where food was still being piled. The swan was just as magical, its wings shining without a single drip of water on its feathers. The servant trusted with the task of preparing ice for drinks was still there, patiently tapping away at on unobtrusive parts of the fowl's backside. Charade grabbed a glass of wine from a platter and squeezed toward the sculpture.
“Oh, excuse me!” she exclaimed when she reached the servant. And then she poured out her glass of wine onto his sleeve and the burgundy stain was like blood on snow. “I'm so clumsy – I think I've had too much to drink. This wine is amazing! You know, you should wash that out before it sets. It looks pretty messy. And doesn't really match with the rest of your uniform.”
She could see him grimace under the curve of his mask but he didn’t dare to direct his frown at her. When he looked over his shoulder to call to a taller servant standing near the door, Charade's hand shot out and she grab the chisel and hammer that he had dropped onto the table. With his back turned and his replacement still fighting through the crowds, she was aware that she only had a breath or two to act: she jabbed the chisel onto the tail and broke off a chunk. Too large. “Shit. Shit shit shit.”
“Shit,” she said one more time, but because she was such an idiot. It wasn’t melting yet - in fact it was blighted cold, so cold it burnt her palm - but all it would take was time. She pushed it into her sleeve and thrust herself into the fray. She spotted Trastamara’s erstwhile Dalish lover and grinned in his direction. He’d been busy too, the tenacious bastard. He had some nobleman against the wall, which made more than a few dancers pause to gawk.
He and Marjolaine had done their part. The rest - the victory or the crushing defeat - was up to her and the rock of ice in her sleeve. And rocks in her head, she thought.
It was easy to find Trastamara this time, either because Andraste was looking out of her again or, more likely, because the rest of the guests were looking out for blood. No one was bothering to be civil about the scandal, so Charade raced against the gleeful snickers and caught Trastamara just as a dwarf was waspishly informing the elf just who was doing what with whom.
“They what?” Trastamara exclaimed and dropped her glass. She raised her empty hand to slap the not-quite innocent messenger, but Charade caught it instead. And Marjolaine would’ve been proud, because then Charade pulled the slighter woman into her arms and swept her up and to the dance floor.
“Make them jealous,” Charade murmured and Trastamara’s expression, part surprised but mostly supremely pissed off, lightened somewhat.
Even with the mask, Trastamara was a sight. There was a scar on her delicate chin, a mark curved and white like a crescent moon, and her eyes were a color so deep that Charade thought they could be an improbable shade of purple. Paint in glorious peacock patterns covered her mask and then continued on the skin underneath. And under that elegant face was a gold chain.
And on that gold chain was the Keroshek.
It was a long necklace and the opal pendant hung down to swing under the elf’s ribs. Charade ran her hand down Trastamara’s side and then settled it on her waist. A jerky enough movement made the necklace swing close enough to brush over the top of Charade’s knuckles, but she needed more time and obscurity to pull off the switch. Schemes rushed through her head, but she dismissed them all until she remember, with a bit of a flush, bedding Marjolaine. “What would you like me to do, my lady?”
“Who are you?”
“Just a guest. And an admirer. Now, give me a command.”
Trastamara pursed her lips. “A kiss on the cheek perhaps. An innocent enough request.”
“It’s a good start,” Charade said as she lowered her mouth. She smeared the paint with the kiss, but Trastamara, who was straining to look around Charade for with her husband or lover didn’t seem to notice. Taking advantage of her partner’s distraction, Charade suddenly dipped her - and even somewhat in time with the music.
“You!” the elf squealed as she was righted.
“Just making sure you’re paying attention,” Charade said. And winked, just for good measure. And then couldn’t stop grinning because she’d managed to catch the chain between two fingers. It was now pulled to Trastamara’s side. That was an achievement, but it was only the first step out of many, and Charade could see a stain start to appear on her sleeve where between the layers of fabric the ice was beginning to melt.
“Kiss me again to make up for that spectacle.”
With her other hand, Charade tipped up that small chin and kissed Trastamara’s pouting lips. And Charade, with her rogue’s talents that Mara had hated, nimbly twisted the chain around her finger to secure it while she bent her wrist and carefully shook her arm. The rich folds of Trastamara’s gown hid the movements and the fist that she had to make.
They were still dancing and Trastamara was still occupied. She was resting her head on Charade’s shoulder as they swayed in the waves of dancers, switching between hissing threats and criticisms to and about her lover, her marriage, and the other dances, and rubbing her face and makeup into Charade’s dress.
Which was perfect.
The ice slid a cold path down to Charade’s wrist, then stopped there. She had to keep her arm straight and still, which was hard enough, while wiggling and bending her fingers around the gem’s setting.
“Red and gold aren’t your colors, mi amor,” Trastamara said. “Cool blues and purples, that’s what I would have dressed you in. But Marjolaine has always been more concerned with the cut of the dress than its colors. Orlesians are always like that. And I can see that she chose this one for that neckline.”
“If it catches your attention, then I don’t care what color it’s in.”
“Is that so?” she laughed. “It’s refreshing to find someone so obliging. Are you looking for a new mistress to serve? Perhaps a change of scenery? Antiva is beautiful in the winter.”
“Temptress.” Charade pulled back a prong from the stone. The gem was tear-shaped, but it was asymmetrical, which made it easier maneuver. Easier, but not easy - The stone and its metal prongs were slippery in her palm and her nails chipped as she wedged them in to dig up the claws. She held her breath and squeaked a few giggles when she was able, then pressed her thumb hard against the opal.
When it popped out, she rolled her wrist and curved her fingers. All of the street workers knew how to do it, how to catch a coin and hide it away before a guard, a thief, a parent saw it. It was a flick and twist and fingers moving like playing an instrument, and the opal slipped into her sleeve as the ice slid over her pulse and into her palm.
They weighed almost the same. The ice was a bit heavier, but only a bit and that’d change soon enough. It was still winter-cold and had only shrunk a little since she’d stolen it, and with another hard shove with her thumb that popped her knuckle, Charade pushed the ice into the empty setting. And then holding her breath, she let the necklace go and the chain swung back down across Trastamara’s chest and nestled itself into the lace and ribbons.
Andraste’s sacred flaming ass, she was good.
“He tells me that he lost at cards because his old girdle was ill-fitting and he couldn’t concentrate. Idiot elf. Before I picked him out of the mud, he’d never even heard of a girdle, the brute.”
“Maybe it’s best to let Serah Alphonse have him then,” Charade said. She couldn’t see Marjolaine in the crowd anymore, and for some reason that made nervousness creep through the tentative triumph. Mostly she wanted to get out, fast and quiet. Her eyes drifted down to Trastamara’s chest and that chain that bounced over her breasts and she pulled her gaze back up to scan the room again.
“Where is that fool?” Trastamara spat. “You will come with me when I find him. I want to see that look on his face when I tell him we’re through. He and that fat Alphonse can go to the Maker for all I care. They deserve each other. There he is! Quick, bring me to him No, not that way!”
Trastamara kept one arm firmly in Charade’s. As they plowed through indignant guests, Charade wondered if the good Messere Juana Trastamara had been something other than a noblewoman - maybe a Dalish too, or a Crow, or maybe a warrior who traded her armor for bodices. They passed the tables, now spread with desserts, and the candles on the wall were already half-melted. Outside the massive windows the sky was darkening.
“My lady,” Charade began, but then Trastamara shrieked and pointed a long finger with a long nail at a figure in a cluster of people and he stood fixed to his spot like he’d stepped on her glyph.
“So are you done with my husband already?” the elf cried.
“Braska.” Said Trastamara’s ex-lover.
“Ooh.” The party-goers applauded.
“Where is he? What did you do to Alphonse? Will I find him passed out on some bed with your hideous scribblings on his face?”
The Dalish elf took a fluid step forward and slapped her. The sound rang out and silenced the violins, the stomping feet, even the clinking glasses. And then noise rushed into that empty moment and Trastamara punched him back and then threw herself onto him and those layers and layers of dress flattened them both.
Charade thought it would be prudent for her to give the pair some privacy. As she backed up, people eagerly took her spot and soon she couldn’t see anything of the struggling elves. The whole thing was perfect - Once the empty setting dangling from Trastamara’s chain was discovered, they’d probably blame it on the fight. It was perfect. She was perfect. The heist was perfect. The night was perfect. Charade’s hair had long since flopped out of the combs and pins that Marjolaine had stabbed her skull with and her mask kept slipping down her sweaty cheeks. Perfect time to escape, then.
“Where is Serah Alphonse?” someone wondered as Charade passe. The dwarf grabbed a passing servant and asked again, “Have you seen him? Find him - Tell him to take his pick and get one of these elves out of here.”
Charade was at the door that she and Marjolaine had strolled through was the night started. Her hand was damp on the doorknob and the moment it took for her to grasp and turn it was long enough for her to hear a servant’s terrified scream, “Serah Alphonse is dead!”
She flung open the door and scrambled through it but wasn’t fast enough to escape the cries that followed.
“Find Marjolaine and her girl!”
Charade’s high-heeled shoes sank into the thick carpet that lined the hallway. There were paintings on both walls and she almost through that the portraits’ eyes were following her as she ran. Her breath was heavy and the stone in her sleeve banged painfully against her arm. She turned right, then left, opening doors to find startled servants and incensed - and naked - guests who hadn’t heard the screams from the ballroom.
Finally a door opened into an empty room with windows overlooking the grounds. She closed the door behind her and plunged the room into darkness, and stumbled over a chair as she ran toward the windows. She banged against the glass as she tried to find the locks. She was so close and the windows, as expensive as they had to have been, were thin, shitty things that let in enough air that she could feel a night breeze on her face. So close. So close.
“It had to be that damn girl Marjolaine brought!” exclaimed a voice that echoed down the hall. “She was spending enough time with Serah Juana and that damn Larigen. She’s still in the house. Find her!”
“Shit,” Charade said under her breath. She bashed her shoulder against the window and it finally opened and spilled her out onto the wet grass. She kicked off her shoes and started tearing at the dress as she ran. Didn’t matter if she left a trail if she could move fast enough. The Countess Clementia’s estate was only a few miles from the city - If she could get back there, she’d be safe. Safer.
The moon was only a sliver in the sky and it only blinked in and out through the clouds. The yard was a long stretch of emerald green that was inviting enough when she passed through it in the morning, but now the trees that flanked it look like demons. Charade stopped by one of them to catch her breath and look wildly around for the markers she had noted when she snuck in. She’d hidden in the woods, then blended in with the deliveries, then hid in the stables until dashing to the house. It wouldn’t work in reverse, dammit, but at least she knew how to get into the woods again.
The trees in the small forest that the Countess had saved from being demolished for a pool were protection - But a scanty one. Charade pushed aside branches and lost more pieces of her dress to the gnarled fingers. When she heard the first baying hound, she almost screamed a reply herself, but then she swallowed it and replaced it with a curse and ran faster. She had outrun dogs before. But not mabari. And the Countess probably could afford a whole kennel of them.
Her bare feet hit stone with a painful crunch. Charade kicked herself backward into the trees and peered out carefully: the graveled entranceway, with rows of empty carriages waiting to swallow up their masters once they stumbled out of the party. Drowsy horses and drunk grooms loitered around. They were harmless enough now, but Charade wasn’t going to risk running into ones who fancied themselves vigilantes. She stayed in the trees, hunched low and making herself move so damn slow that she was sure that it’d be dawn by the time she caught out of the reach of the house. The dogs were getting closer and the grooms and horses were prickling their ears, stamping feet. And she was nearly naked with only her knife at her thigh and the Keroshek in her bodice like a second heart.
One of the carriages’ doors suddenly swung open and an Orlesian voice hissed out at her, “Quickly, in here!”
Marjolaine! Charade darted over the gravel and dove in. Instantly the coach was moving, turning around and then the whip cracked over the sound of howling. She pressed her face against the window and watched the house grow smaller and dimmer. Then she sank against the cool seat and Marjolaine reached up to light a small lantern that hung from the rood.
The woman sitting across from her was not Marjolaine.
“Stay calm, please.” She said and held up a hand as Charade reached for her knife. “This is all just a misunderstanding, I’m sure.”
Charade’s hand rested on her thigh, close enough that with a stretch of her fingers she could have her blade ready. She glanced quickly at the window again, trying to judge how far they were from the house, the city. The woman had a crossbow on the seat next to her and as close as they were, Charade was sure that her kidnapper could shoot her without wasting time aiming.
“I am Leliana. You are from Orlais too, I believe. Please, relax. We may not be friends, but surely we are not enemies. In fact, I think we may be able to help each other.”
“I’ve had enough help this evening, thanks.”
“This evening, yes. It has been a strange one, has it not? We have a little time before we get to the city. Perhaps you could tell me what happened at the Countess’ party?”
“You should’ve come, if you’re so curious.” The little light didn’t illuminate much, but Charade could at least see the face of the woman: she was probably in her late thirties, with red hair cut short to her chin. She was in leather armor, fine stuff, like maybe she belonged to a guild.
“I received an invitation, yes. But then I hear reports that a strange woman is climbing over the fence and outsmarting the guards and I decide instead to wait to make my appearance. But you, you are no assassin. What were you doing at this party? What did you want with Marjolaine?
Charade was surprised by the woman’s second question. “Marjolaine? You know I stumbled into her, really.”
“Is that so? The Maker works in ways that we cannot comprehend.”
“Why do you ask? Did Marjolaine want something from you?”
“Who can say? “ She said with a light laugh. Charade knew she was faking - she didn't need a to be a bard to figure that out - and suspected that the woman knew she knew. But they both led the lie slide through the conversation unmolested. “I knew her once. Perhaps that is reason enough.”
There was a long pause. The woman was staring at her and Charade stared back. The initial fear was waning, but Charade hadn’t relaxed. She wouldn’t until she got to Kirkwall and had miles and miles between her and Antiva and Orlais. maybe she’d even move to Ferelden.
“Let us play a game. I will guess and you will tell me how close to correct I get. Marjolaine bargained with you? Or promised help. But you find that maybe she has betrayed you in the end. You did not kill the man.”
“Yes. I mean no. I mean, Marjolaine was helping me but then she disappeared and all of a sudden - So how do you know her? Or me? Or what happened? I didn’t kill Alphonse. I didn’t even see him, not really. I’m not a murderer. And then I ran and they set out the dogs.”
“And I am sorry to hear it. I believe that Marjolaine may have been waiting for me. But she ensnared you instead.”
“It’s all right,” Charade said uncomfortably. “I mean, it’ll be all right if I just get out of here.”
The woman didn’t reply and Charade didn’t really feel like making polite conversation, so she tapped her fingers on her thigh and stared out the window. The trees thinned and small houses filled the spaces between them. She could feel the road go from dirt to cobbled, and glanced at the woman to see if she’d keep her promise.
She smiled back, and despite it all it was a little reassuring. “Here,” she said and reached under her seat to pull out boots and a cloak. “And here is a little gold. I suggest that you take a ship out of Antiva as soon as you can. The authorities will not come after you, but Messere Trastamara may not be so understanding.”
Charade gaped at the offerings. “Wait. Who are you? You don’t even know me and why should you believe me? Don’t you want to know what I was doing there?”
“You are not a criminal,” the woman said, “unless believing the lies of a nefarious charlatan is now a crime.”
“So you’re letting me go?”
“I do not waste my time hunting pick-pockets,” she replied and rapped on the wall behind her. The coach slowed and Charade could smell the salt of the sea reeking over her own sweat.
“You do waste time chauffeuring them, though.”
“I was simply going for a drive tonight. To see the sights and speak to the locals.”
The door opened and Charade stepped out in her new boots. They were too big, but it was better than standing barefoot in the puddle of whatever it was under her. She didn’t stay still for long, in case her benefactor turned out to be another Marjolaine, but then the coach continued down the road and she was left alone by the docks. If it had started to rain right then, the story would’ve been complete.
The Keroshek was hot where it pressed against her chest, but everywhere else was cold. And scraped. And tired. And she smelled like a whorehouse set up in the sewers. And a man was still dead, and even if Charade hadn’t killed him, she was still bloody. If she ever told anyone about what happened, she’d end it with taking the opal out of its setting. Just stop the tale right there, fade to black, change the subject. Her savior had said that she wasn’t a criminal, but she had been stupid, and where she had grown up, idiocy was worse than crime.
Still, she won. And that meant something. She had the gem, the gem that Gamlen had ruined his family and then hers to get.
Charade wrapped the cloak tight around her shoulders and walked toward some lights she saw in the ocean mist. There had to be a tavern open and from there she’d buy some clothes and find a way to Kirkwall. And then sleep with the Keroshek still in her bodice to keep the damn thing safe a little while longer.