“A moment of your time, Marquise?” Gaspard had no trouble catching up to Briala with his long strides, and was soon walking by her side on their way to the royal palace’s map room. She knew whatever he had to say was all for games. It always was, whenever he used her title. (And only ever with sarcasm.)
“Should it not wait for the Empress’ ears? Or did you forget yet again of our cooperative arrangement?” Gaspard should know by now she was just as good at playing games as he was. Better.
“It’s nothing of her concern, rest assured.” He took the liberty of stepping in front of her, forcing Briala to stop in her tracks. The days of her being shaken by his sturdy physical presence were long gone, and yet it somehow still always took him by surprise whenever she refused to balk. “A good friend of mine was in the middle of expanding his trophy room, when the shipment of bricks he was expecting never showed.”
Briala kept her composure, resisting the urge to smile. “The roads are dangerous these days. Lots of bandits.”
“Of course,” Gaspard nodded. “What makes me wonder though, is what kind of thieves would steal a wagon full of bricks?” The Grand Duke waited for her to respond. When she did nothing but casually tighten the cord holding her dark curls back, he continued. “Coincidentally, I hear several buildings in the Val Royeaux alienage have gotten knew roofs. But that mustn’t be true. How would the rabbits get a hold of such building materials?”
Gaspard’s face reddened with frustration, but he was done pressing for information they both knew she wouldn’t give. After a minute, he stepped aside, and the two continued down the low-lit hallway. One two, one two, Briala counted her feet hitting the floor. Her leather shoes made little noise with each step, unlike Gaspard who practically created earthquakes as he walked.
They were both supposed to meet Celene over an urgent nature. The small slits in the walls offered little lighting from a sun that only started to rise. The palace’s servants hadn’t even been up yet to light the place, although Briala had no doubt her personal assistants had long been awake to make sure the Empress had her Rivaini tea, and was looking freshly powdered and primped. There were days when the elven woman would find herself waking up and thinking she still had to do such things. It was then she would collapse back in bed and focus on breathing in and out. A few fleek minutes of self-indulgent nothingness, before another day of politics, and another night of rebellion.
Their forced compromise was nothing but a joke, and the three of them knew it. Sure, in the people’s eyes things were resolved, but anyone with even a minor stake in The Game knew better. Gaspard and Celene were still plotting, and Briala was still doing everything in her power to keep the elves afloat. The only difference was they were now all doing it with a smile for the public, and a knife behind the back. It was why Briala was nothing if not suspicious of Celene calling on them, especially at such an hour. Had she not known an Inquisition ambassador would be present as a moderator, she’d assume it was just another setup.
Not to mention she would rather avoid seeing Celene when she could. Whenever she looked at the woman, Briala would always see Halamshiral burning as a reflection in her eyes.
Gaspard opened the painted white doors, and prepensely didn’t hold it for her. Celene was seated at the head of the small, dark teak wood table, similar to the colour of the Briala’s skin. She was still as a statue, and the elven marquise wondered how long she had been holding that position, waiting for them to arrive. Her blonde hair was left loosely flowing over her shoulders, an unusual sight for a formal setting. With her ivory mask, shimmering white gown, pale skin and blood red lips, she looked like a ghostly figure haunting the room.
At the opposite end was Ambassador Zerlinda. She was short, even for a dwarf, and was looking incredibly tired, under the makeup trying to cover the bags under her dark blue eyes. Her light brown hair was cut too short to do anything with it. If it Inquisition pin was proudly rested on her chest, you’d have never known she was an ambassador by her casual clothes and look. Briala had spent a great deal of effort trying to track down anything she could on the dwarven woman, but to no avail. She knew she came from Orzammar, and had a young son. She knew she was possibly the most unlikely ambassador Lady Montilyet could have picked, but perhaps that was purposeful. After all, how could one manipulate a mystery woman?
Gaspard greeted his cousin, but did not join her at the table. Instead, he went directly to admire the great map on the far wall. The painting stretched from one end to the other, and from the ceiling to the floor. Emperor Judicael II commissioned the piece in 8:76 Blessed, as a celebration of Orlais’ continued hold of Ferelden. As such, the map was greatly outdated, but had never been painted over.
Briala decided to skip the greetings and get right to the matter. She took the seat to the right and crossed her arms in a supercilious fashion. “I assume there is good reason to call on me amidst a food shortage?”
Celene allowed herself to be taken back. Briala found it hard to tell if she was faking it or not. “I was just speaking with Comte Pierre a few days prior to now. He said nothing of a food shortage.”
“Of course he wouldn’t. But a good Marquise looks after all her people, not just those in the Halamshiral High Quarter.” Gaspard huffed at that, but opted to join them at the table. As he took a seat, Zerlinda rose and passed around a package of papers tucked in her coat.
“These letters are from Mistress Poulin of Sahrnia, and Lord Odilon of Port d'Argent. Both control small but profitable communities in Emprise du Lion, and were happy to see their trade restored with the defeat and removal of the Red Templars. Until recently, business was on its way to returning to normal.”
“What changed?” Briala asked, speed reading through Lord Odilion’s flourished writing. She hated needlessly long reports.
It was Celene who answered. “They and several other neighboring villages have requested the Inquisition’s assistance in dealing with an increasingly hostile Dalish clan. Mistress Poulin describes this clan as holding a presence in the area since before her time, rotating through areas but never leaving the Highlands. They’ve experienced scuffles in the past, but have never displayed such aggressiveness. Reports range from kidnapping servants, to full on attacks on the town’s inhabitants. Hunters have stopped venturing into the woods in fear of encounters. Odilon says they have even driven his silver miners out of the quarries.”
“Our forces have just recently pulled out of Suledin Keep, and we don’t want to ruin relations by moving back in. The Inquisitor feels this is a matter better dealt with by the Empire,” Zerlinda explained. It was interesting, Briala noted. She never saw the Inquisition to back down from a request for aid before.
For a minute, all four were silent, until Gaspard broke it with his roaring laughter. “Maker’s breath, Celene. I at least thought to give you more credit than this. You called on us for what, a few pesky elves? Just burn them out. You’re good at that.” Briala saw the joy he took on his face, with that added comment slicing the air between them.
“The Inquisition… suggested… we discuss this together,” Celene replied through tight lips. “Did Chevaliers suddenly lose their honour in agreements while I wasn’t looking? Or will you listen to what your Empress has to say?”
“Go on, go on,” Gaspard waved at her, but was still chuckling softly. Briala hardly found things so amusing.
Celene raised her head, showing off her long, soft jaw. So unlike Briala’s squared face, or Gaspard’s sharp features, and yet the subtle movement still held dominance when it came from an Empress. “Cousin, what forces are currently occupying Verchiel?”
“Nearly 300, Your Radiance.”
“Good. Verchiel is the closest land to the Emprise with ready troops. Half your men should be more than enough to drive the elves away.”
No. “What kind of discussion is this if you’ve already made up your mind?” Briala stood up, and placed her hands firmly on the edge of the table.
“Weren’t you just complaining about wasting precious time?” Gaspard challenged.
“Let her speak,” Zerlinda countered, and Briala obliged.
“Emprise du Lion is part of the Dales. Am I not the Marquise of the Dales? You invited me here for what, formality?”
“Then what do you suggest, Bria?” Celene remained stone-faced, even when calling her that name. Briala wanted to tell her not to, but didn’t want to break her train of thought.
“Has no one thought to speak with them?”
“Who, the Dalish?” Briala could tell Gaspard was rolling his eyes behind his mask.
“The last time we sought to converse with the Dalish, it did not turn out so well,” Celene needlessly reminded her.
“And the last time I spoke with a noble, they tried to have me assassinated.” Which really, was nothing new. Briala had been fending off assassination attempts ever since she practically forced Celene to arrange for her title. There were many humans who refused to accept an elf as their marquise. But thankfully, many more elves who had pledged to her cause. “We know nothing of these people.”
Briala squeezed herself past Celene and walked over to the map. She traced her finger along the river running through the Emprise, and recalled her old mentor saying something about it… Both Port d'Argent and Sahrnia rested along the water. The Dalish were likely using the river to travel. “Where were the Dalish last seen?”
“Lady Poulin was the most recent to report trouble,” Zerlinda answered.
“Then I will travel to Sahrnia and seek them out. If this can be resolved without bloodshed, for both sides,” she added, knowing that theirs was the only one they cared about, “then history will certainly speak favourably of your tactfulness.”
Briala had spent twenty years working for Celene. She knew what it took to persuade her into the better direction, whenever possible. And she knew that there was no better motivation for the Empress than how history will remember her. Before the Celene even replied, the elf could see the answer on her face. Her lips puckered, then flattened in decision.
“Then as Marquise of the Dales, I will wait for your final verdict.”
“I beg pardon?” Gaspard gasped, but Celene ignored him.
“If you successfully meet with the elves, and successfully convince them to relinquish their attacks on the townspeople, then I will accept your assurance that they will no longer be a problem.” Briala waited for the ‘but.’ “But,” Celene continued, “I cannot allow this to continue. Should you find otherwise, or if we receive no word from you in three weeks’ time, I will be forced to assume the worst.” At this, she turned to Gaspard. “It is then I expect you will lead your troops to clean things up.”
The man stroked his moustache, contemplating his agreement. “So be it, Celene.”
Three weeks. It did not seem like much, but Briala knew it was more than what she could have asked for. And travel was hardly an issue, with her eluvian network.
Briala looked to Zerlinda. “Thank you for your presence, Ambassador. I trust you will bring back record of this discussion to the Inquisition?”
“Of course. I will be sending a raven as soon as I leave here.” It was good to remind her partners of the third-party involvement, should they get any ideas.
“Then unless there is anything else?” Briala asked, looking at the two humans. Celene looked like she wanted to say something, but didn’t. Gaspard just looked bored. Which meant he was probably trying to think of a way to take advantage of this. Briala made a mental note of that, and did a pseudo courtesy before striding to the door. “Then I will be in touch by three weeks.”
* * *
You could count on a single hand the number of elves who, despite making up the majority of Halamshiral’s overall population, lived in the High Quarter. Briala was one of them. It was the former capitol of the Dales, and as such, it was only fitting that she reside in it.
Her home was bigger than the average house, but smaller than the average mansion. You would never see the weatherworn exterior and imagine the inside would contain such well-kept décor. It even had three bedrooms, one of which she used as an office space, and the other was storage for her people’s gathered eluvians, waiting to be placed in needed locations. There were currently two leaning against the walls, not including the one kept for herself. The one she stepped out of and glided into the room by.
There was a loud ruckus of what sounded like books falling to the floor. Briala quickly ran to open the door and find Chelle, one of her newest agents, down on her hands and knees surrounded by a pile of tomes. Her hands were quickly but hesitantly feeling around on the floor, until Briala spotted the brass spectacles she was looking for and promptly bent down the assist the girl. She graciously accepted the aid and, after regaining her vision, looked up with a smile.
“Thank you, Lady Briala.”
“It’s just Briala,” the elder elf reminded gently. The two then worked to collect Chelle’s books.
“Shouldn’t you be at the University?” Briala asked.
“Yes, La— I mean, Briala.” Chelle brushed the black ringlets out of her face, her smile gone. “But I have unfortunate news I could not trust to a letter, even a coded one. There is talk among some of the faculty of issuing a mass expulsion of the elven students.”
Briala recoiled, taken by surprise. “On what grounds?”
“Their proposal will say that it’s not safe for the human students. That the elven terrorists pose too much a threat.”
Briala pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. This was the last thing she needed. “Foolishness. There are barely any elven students to being with, what with requiring a noble to sponsor with each application. What possible threat—No, I don’t have time to even question this.” It wasn’t easy arranging Chelle’s entry to the school, but well worth it. For months she had been copying from the library’s restricted sections only accessible by students, which proved useful in tracking down more eluvians as well as secret-hoarding. Chelle was, of course, suddenly at a much higher risk. Briala thought positioning the newbie in an easy spot like the University would be a good test. But with these suspicions rising, one could no longer say that.
There was also the matter of what this meant for all elves, not just the students. It was a demonstration of authority more than anything. Another reminder that every act of kindness ever given could just as easily be taken away. Nobles loved dangling things over the noses of those under them. Briala knew the message well. There were supposed to say thank you, for the slightest hint of equality. There were supposed to shut up and be grateful, for being seen as people. As if it was a gift, an extra effort on a human’s part to not be as much an asshole as they could be.
It seemed the elves would have to send a message themselves. Briala suddenly knew of how to use one of those resting eluvians.
“Chelle, I think it’s time you were let in on our biggest resource…”