He’d only donned his coat a half hour before, but already Cullen’s collar chafed at his neck. He resisted the urge to unbutton it, knowing that Josie would be over to adjust the damn thing in half a heartbeat if he dared – audience or no audience.
The whiny voices of the Orlesians bowing and scraping to his Ladybird rubbed as well. Each of them seemed determined to one up the guest before, and the level of smarminess and insincere compliments directed at his Inquisitor weighed her down. Literally, if her posture was any indication.
She slumped lazily into her throne’s cushions, legs spread wide, with a pleasant expression – almost certainly forced – worn like a mask. Her thoughts surely echoed his own.
Fucking get on with it.
The candelabras shone dully, the light they gave off, usually warm and welcoming, tonight was dimmed, as if they didn’t want to perform for the guests, either. He wished for natural light, to dispel the gloom, but the doors at the far end of the hall had been closed for the occasion. Unnecessary, as Skyhold’s residents didn’t need to be told to steer clear of the Great Hall when Josie hosted one of her ‘small fetes’, less they be handed a tray and told to distribute hor d’oeuvres, canapes, and tiny cakes.
Summoned by the thought of food, however miniscule, Cullen’s stomach rumbled, his Ladybird’s mouth twitched, and her smile bloomed a little brighter for a moment. He folded his arms across his chest defensively, but then dropped them, to hold the hilt of his sword. There was no reason to be embarrassed. He hadn’t eaten since Avexis had forcefed him breakfast, and the servants had long since finished laying out the spread. The smell of roasted lamb rose to the rafters. His wasn’t the only stomach rebelling against dignity.
They were almost finished – a mere half dozen guests left to be greeted now, and then he’d be allowed to guide Avexis to her chair, and take his own hard-won place of honor at her right hand.
His battle with Josie over the ridiculous manners had been something of legend. He’d only emerged victorious when Leliana, softly smiling, had mentioned certain death threats that had been delivered anonymously. Even Josie had to agree that Avexis’ protection was more important than quibbling over whether the Comte de Montfort or the Marquise d’Abelard deserved to be Avexis’ dinner partner.
Cullen frowned, and the latest petitioner took a step back at the expression, before he could school it into something more appropriate. Avexis had seemed relieved past the point of just wanting him next to her – but they’d had no time to discuss her discomfort before Josie had whirled them into fittings and tutorials about the guests.
The last couple in the receiving line was announced, and Cullen prepared himself to move forward to offer his hand to his Lady, when the doors in the back cracked open, and the last of the reddened sunset slanted into the candlelit chamber. Next to him, Josie stiffened at the intrusion, while Avexis audibly sighed. Cullen braced himself for bad news, but instead…
Instead, a small group of Avvar, skin tinted blue, and dressed in the most practical clothing Cullen had ever seen worn in the Frostbacks, stepped into the Grand Hall, one with wide eyes, but the others with the sort of Wicked Grace faces that even Josie wouldn’t be able to beat. Avexis sat up straighter, and Cullen only stifled his chuckle when Josie kicked him.
Of course, Ladybird would rather play host to a group of Avvar scouts than a horde of Orlesian nobility.
The leader approached the throne and Avexis rose. “Inquisitor.” The woman glanced around, taking in the food and company with a level of nonchalance that Vivienne – were she present - would envy. “I wish you and your hold plenty.”
“It has been a good year for hunting. The Mountain-Father has smiled on us,” Avexis replied formally, and Josie relaxed. Cullen knew how thorough her etiquette lessons had been, but still, the Inquisitor was a shining example of graciousness. “You are welcome to join us, and share our prosperity.”
The Avvar representative nodded. “You honor us with your hospitality.”
“Perhaps someday your Hold can reciprocate,” Avexis smiled, and Cullen could tell she was trying not to bounce. She had sent messengers to several holds weeks ago about the possible dragon, but this was the only group to respond.
The formal pleasantries went on for some time, the scouts displaying a gift they’d brought – a very fancy staff offered by their Augur – which Avexis immediately accepted, eying the strings and brightly colored feathers used as the focus curiously. “Josie, have more chairs brought in for our guests, placed near me, if you please.”
Josie opened her mouth to protest the ruin of her seating plans, looked thoughtful, and then acquiesced, gracefully. “Certainly, Inquisitor.” Her hand motions to the servants were graceful things, and they clustered together like a flock of starlings to follow her wordless orders.
Cullen seized his opportunity to claim his place at her side, and offered his hand, and Avexis laid her own upon his arm with a small smile, promising future favors. “Perhaps this dinner won’t be as dull as either of us feared, Ladybird,” he risked a whisper.
Avexis’ eyes flashed to the Marquise d’Abelard. “Oh, I never thought it would be boring, Commander,” she shivered slightly, but turned away to the main table on his arm, squeezing it slightly. “Quite the contrary.”
The muttered complaints of the displaced Orlesians were music to Cullen’s ears, but their whining didn’t keep them from their abominable forwardness – several hands skimmed across his backside while he led the Inquisitor to her chair, already pulled out for her. She sat, and the group of Avvar sat themselves down without ceremony. Avexis picked up the roll of bread in front of her, and glancing at Josie, broke it, and handed half to the Avvar leader. “What is mine, is yours.”
The Avvar took it, and ripped off a hunk of bread, chewed and swallowed.
“Such savages,” a nearby elderly Orlesian woman twittered to her companion.
“They’re like birds,” the wide-eyed Avvar scout muttered to his older associate. “No point to their noise.” The older scout back-handed him.
“Be polite. Even birds speak for the Lady of the Skies. We are guests here, just as they are. Do you want them to think you were raised with no manners?”
Cullen choked on his bread, and fumbled for his water glass. Avexis shifted forward to assist, concerned, but he waved her back with two fingers. She sat back, eyes worried, but forward.
They were still trying to maintain a low profile, at Josie’s request. Any open demonstration of preferential treatment was taboo, much to their mutual displeasure. Their argument was strong - the war was over. There was no point in the pretense of using either of them as bait for allies with no enemy to defeat.
But Josie insisted that the Inquisition still had to be fed, and housed, and the coin of the nobility did just that. It was a wonder that he had any appetite at all, knowing where the food came from. He’d rather dine on elfroot and herbs than be beholden to the likes of these stuffed popinjays.
But he was supposed to behave himself, so he allowed his plate to be filled, and thankfully began to eat, the food disappearing with the unexpectedly enjoyable dinner conversation. The scout seated next to him started a lively discussion about the best way to hunt a bear with Cassandra.
He’d never seen the Seeker so animated, as she described her experiences in the Hinterlands. The entire Avvar group was laughing and miming punching bears, as she flushed and admitted the truth. Avexis giggled, unable to resist. “You finally admit your skills, Cassandra. I suppose there really is a first time for everything.”
Next to her, Rylen, a trifle too relaxed for most of the company, stretched his arm across the back of her chair. Cullen squashed down his jealousy at the other man’s easier relationship path. “That’s nothing. She punched a varghest for me, in the Western Approach. Didn’t she, Bull?”
The Iron Bull grinned, and swallowed, before speaking. “Never seen anything like it. Knocked it right out.”
A Orlesian twit pretended to faint, until Sera kicked her chair. “Can it,” she told the woman who jerked abruptly. “Bet you’ve never done anything, and Cass outranks you and all that shite.”
“Lady Pentaghast-” the woman began, hopelessly. Cullen could have easily advised her not to talk back, but he was now occupied with hiding his smile behind his wine glass.
“Seeker Pentaghast,” Rylen corrected politely, with a grin at the Seeker next to him. Cassandra’s fingers threatened to tear the napkin in her lap. “She didn’t go through the Vigil to be called ‘Lady’.”
Cassandra blushed deeper. Cullen greatly approved – nothing about this damned dinner was turning out to be dull.
Avexis finally butted in, with lidded eyes hiding her amusement. “Only half-right, I think. She’s soon to be ‘Lady Seeker’.”
Cassandra pressed her lips together, “Only if the Revered Mothers don’t…” her words faltered, and the lighthearted conversation died out. Cullen understood – talking about the next Divine had become a forbidden topic around Skyhold – even once Vivienne had left for Val Royeaux, to prop up her own slipping chances and, barring success, solidify her power as newly elected Grand Enchanter.
Even he didn’t know what Avexis had done to minimize Vivienne’s chance at the Sunburst Throne. It might not have been her, for that matter. He didn’t much care, either. Vivienne – for all her positive attributes – was dangerous, like magic was dangerous. He’d rather his Ladybird didn’t get burned.
Sera finally snorted, breaking the silence, “Come on, you lot are about as lively as the garden slugs I slipped into the salad.” The Orlesian next to her gagged on her arugula. “Don’t worry, it was going to the other table,” Sera grinned impishly. “Didn’t want my greens all wholy. Get it, Seeker? Holy?”
Josie pressed her lips together and made a valiant attempt at rescuing the conversation. “Marquise, I understand you had a request of a personal nature for the Inquisitor?”
The woman lifted her chin. “I have reason to believe she…”
“You’re discussing business during the meal?” The wide-eyed scout interrupted, only to be elbowed in the ribs. “But Morra…”
“Customs differ, Elrik,” the older scout shut the innocent down. “We are guests here.”
“As I was saying,” the Marquise spoke over the Avvar, the curl of her lip speaking volumes, leaning forward in her chair in an attempt to catch the Inquisitor’s attention. “It is a matter of succession. My two oldest children died in service to the wretched usurper Gaspard.”
“Both of them?” Cullen muttered, understanding exactly where this woman’s alliances were.
Josie kicked his chair. “I am sorry for your loss,” she murmured graciously, as if he hadn’t jerked to attention across the table.
“Thank you. I have reason to believe, thanks to your gracious former First Enchanter, now Grand Enchanter Vivienne, that you can give me news of my son. My youngest was a Templar, serving at Montsimmard. Pierre Abelard.” The woman sipped her wine, face hidden by the rim, and her mask, but her wine trembled in her glass. “That is your former Circle, was it not?”
Cullen jerked in sudden understanding at the Inquisitor’s earlier relief at the seating arrangements. Pierre… that’s his mother. No wonder she didn’t want to be sat next to her… didn’t Josie know? Did Leliana? He exchanged a swift glance with the spymaster, who nodded, imperceptibly. He tipped his glass in gratitude, and the woman smiled.
Next to him, Avexis opened her mouth, her arm, brushing against his, tense with terror.
“I imagine,” Cassandra’s voice was a little too loud, “That his fate was that of hundreds of Templars. He went to Corypheus, Marquise d’Abelard, and was destroyed by the red lyrium Samson provided.”
The woman’s face darkened, “My Pierre was pious. He would not have been so easily fooled as to follow anyone naming themselves a god.” Varric coughed pointedly, and the woman’s eyes narrowed, a nerve jumping in her cheek. “Your Grand Enchanter insisted you were aware of his fate.” Her hand tightened on her fork, her lips narrowed. “You must know-"
Cullen raised his wine, and sipped, catching Josephine’s eyes. He was no expert at the subtle art of communicating without speaking directly on a subject, but for his Ladybird’s sake, he had to try. “To many in the Order, piety was of less importance than obedience. Perhaps after the Circles fell, your son felt the same?” Josie’s face didn’t change, but somehow, he thought she’d caught on.
Dorian coughed, “Pardon me, but I think I recognize the name.” Avexis glared at him, half begging and half resigned. “No, I’m sure of it. He died in Crestwood, didn’t he? The last victim of that varghest infestation. I’m almost sure of it. He was corrupted… but not so far gone that he couldn’t talk. He recognized the Inquisitor – don’t you remember, bella donna?” The mage feigned thoughtfulness. “Yes, he died. I saw to his pyre myself.” He patted the lady’s hand. “I’m so sorry to be the bearer of such ill news.”
The Marquise shrank into herself, aging a decade with the bad news. “I see. I owe you my - gratitude, Magister Pavus.”
“Not a magister,” Dorian smiled at her with hollow eyes and removed his hand. “It was the least I could do, for such a…” he coughed, while he searched for an appropriate word, “…dedicated Templar?” His eyes were hard, as he added, “Truly an example of the Southern Circle that was.”
Cullen frowned again. Avexis had paled to the point of alarm, and he beckoned the server over. “The Inquisitor needs wine,” he murmured, and the servant filled her cup. She didn’t normally indulge during such affairs, but this was an exception. She allowed herself a small smile in his general direction before sipping, and a few moments later some color was added back to her cheeks. She then took a larger swallow, rolling it around in her mouth with her eyes closed in apparent enjoyment.
As if her indulgence was a signal they’d been waiting for, the Avvar scout next to her guffawed, “Now this is a party! Morra, tell a story! That one about the four rams and your grandmother!”
“That was your grandmother, ass!”
Varric sat forward in his chair. “I want to hear this. People tell me I spin a decent yarn myself. Care for a contest?”
The Avvar eyed him, and then grinned. “You’re on, dwarf. As the challenged, I will begin.”
Cullen felt Avexis relax next to him with the distraction. Sighing, he settled down to the storytelling contest between Varric and the Avvar Morra. By the end of the evening, they were fast friends, and the Marquise was nowhere to be seen – excused herself early, no doubt. No one would judge her for it.
Another crisis averted.
It was hard to imagine that the crises would ever stop. But he had to believe they would. Otherwise, would all of their sacrifices ever be worth it?
Maker, let them be worth it.