Fingers laced tightly together, the two women walked to Josephine's office. Nehna knocked for politeness's sake, but it was clear she and Sera were expected from the way they were both quickly hurried inside. Josephine looked flustered as she walked back to her desk, moving mountains of paperwork aside in search of a particular scroll. Nehna and Sera stood close nearby, waiting patiently for whatever was coming. Or tried to, at least; Sera had begun to fidget, muttering something as she tried to stay calm, so Nehna gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Nehna, you have been summoned to attend a ball at the Winter Palace in Halamshiral by the Empress Celene of Orlais personally," Josephine said once she found the relevant scroll, reading out the letter in the Empress's succinct, tidy hand; it was neither too florid or plain, getting the message across clearly while seeming to neither beg or require their attendance too greatly.
"The Empress wants me to go to Orlais? To... a ball?" Nehna was bewildered. As the Inquisitor, she had attended more human gatherings and talks than she could possibly remember, always staying polite and civil and never rising to the bait when issues around elves or magic were raised. Still, those had been fairly simple to deal with, and had required nothing more than sharp focus and a healthy dose of wit; she had never been required to dance. Certainly not dancing in public before the eyes of a nation so famous for their brutal Grand Game, which could make or break a noble's reputation through something so simple as coughing... or so she had heard, though she wondered if people were exaggerating for her benefit.
"It is a great honour. She requests the company of the Inquisition, which shows that she and the people of Orlais now recognise our importance as an organisation, even if her letter appears to say otherwise," Josephine told her. "It would be prudent in the time leading up to this event to invest in relevant lessons for everyone, lest we make a social faux pas in their eyes. The court would pick us to shreds if that happened."
She shuddered slightly before recollecting herself. "Dancing lessons, of course, though I admit I am... not sure of the likelihood of the Empress dancing with you herself. Still, it is important to be familiar and comfortable." She stacked the scroll elsewhere, found a scrap of parchment and began writing notes. "You will need to learn how to play the Game, too. The court will be judging you as much from appearances as your actions."
Nehna nodded. She was vaguely familiar with how it worked. "Leliana described it to me as a dance herself, once," she said. "Intrigue and seduction, ambition and scandal, always trying to make your opponents falter and fail while never being directly linked to anything, but always appearing involved. It was... confusing," she admitted.
"Pointless, more like," Sera grumbled. She scuffed her boots irritably. "Nobody says anything that means anything, and when they do, it's dangerous. They just prance around in masks all day sniping at each other and gasping like they're above it all. They play with words, thinking they're so smart and brave, and nobody actually does anything."
Privately, Nehna agreed, but said nothing.
Josephine shook her head firmly. "It is of the utmost importance that we do not ruffle any feathers in Orlais." The ambassador shook her head, sighing. "Our fame has grown drastically within these past few months, and the fact we are granted an audience with the Empress is of no small significance. We may be more powerful than ever, but in the eyes of Orlais, we are still a fledgling organisation. This appearance could make or break our reputation throughout Thedas."
She put her head in her hands and groaned. "My wrist is aching just trying to draft a reply that will meet the Empress's standards, and now my head is swimming with all possible thoughts of how this could end disastrously."
Sera grinned. "Don't worry, Josie. You can use words here better than anyone else when it comes to keeping people humble, right? Just make sure they don't get ahead of themselves and we'll all be good."
"That would be easy if they weren't one of the most powerful nations in Thedas," Nehna teased.
"Ugh. Don't remind me, please."
"I will need to arrange a fitting for the Inquisition's outfits," Josephine continued at a hurried pace. "We will need to look immaculate, utterly beyond reproach. Oh, and suitable cosmetics. I will need to send birds to Orlais to see what is in the latest fashion there. I am not as familiar as perhaps I should be," she admitted, "although it changes so frequently that... ah, no matter. Leliana will be beyond thrilled to assist in this, I'm sure."
Josephine looked quite excited herself; she clapped her hands and gave a little squeal. "Oh, I haven't been to Orlais in so long! It will be so interesting to see if anything's changed since the last time I was there!"
Sera shrugged and gave her a nonchalant look before counting off on her fingers. "There's a pretty butt on the throne, lots of unhappy servants getting unhappier, ridiculous fancy crap that just gets fancier, poncy noble pricks who can't see past their noses,... oh, and have I mentioned how boring it is?" She groaned. "I'd rather drink my guts out in a tavern somewhere than go to a ball."
Josephine sighed. "Perhaps if you feel so strongly, Sera, then may I suggest that you don't -"
Sera's neck practically snapped as she turned to glare at her, and the ambassador instantly fell silent.
"Don't go?" Sera yelled. "You must be joking. I'm not letting her -" she pointed at Nehna "- go there without me. She has no choice in this whole thing, but I do, and I'm sticking with her. I don't want her going into some... some hornet's nest without a few bees at her back." She grinned. "That was like poetry, wasn't it? I practiced a couple of times, you know."
"Poetry for the soul, vhenan," Nehna assured her with a smile, kissing her on the cheek. Sera beamed, proud of herself.
Josephine cleared her throat. "Then if you have no objections, I'll add you to the rota so I know who to prepare for." She smiled. "It's going to give me a massive headache sorting this out, but I couldn't be happier. Oh, the little frilly cakes! I hope the Empress Celene serves them at the dinner!"
She shook her head, growing serious once again. "Perhaps if you are coming after all, Sera, then..." She coughed, embarrassed for a moment. "Perhaps we might schedule in a few extra etiquette classes for you?"
Sera rolled her eyes. "I know what this is about. You're going to say I don't use enough fancy words, or I don't bow everytime someone breaks a sweat, or I don't do this and that so some noble lady doesn't have a fainting attack looking at me. Then you're going to say I need to go to a hairdresser's so I don't walk around looking like something died on my head, and you're going to say I need to work on my smile so some rich prick doesn't shit himself looking at me."
She looked exasperated. "Then you're going to say, 'Don't say shit or fuck or pissballs or anything else like that,' and then I'll say, 'Great, you've just taking all my words away, aren't you?' Then you'll tell me not to be sarcastic or rude or offensive to anybody, don't even think of doing any pranks, don't mention Red Jenny, and whatever you do, don't look at Empress Celene." Sera glared. "That about sums it up, yeah? Got it out of the way for you. I just know you're going to list all the thousand ways I'm no good at any of this shite, so I just did your job for you."
Josephine sighed. "Sera, that's not what I meant. You can be a little coarse at times, that's true enough, but I wouldn't say it's impossible for you to attend at all. There just need to be... well, certain considerations."
"Certain considerations can kiss my hairy arse."
"Such as... well, not telling anybody to kiss your arse, perhaps. Or the word 'arse' at all, under any circumstances."
Sera groaned. "Look what you've got me into!" she said, turning to Nehna. "Going to this poncy place just for your benefit, you know. No doubt I can't even drink there because their wine tastes like horse piss, and they'll say ladies don't drink beer or ale or some daft shite like that. Then I'll have to talk to all these stuck up prats about when Divine Galatea took a shit or how many caprice coins you need before someone thinks you're smart enough to tell your own joke without laughing at it."
"I'm not sure if the history books ever recorded when Divine Galatea took a shit, actually. Maybe you could ask a servant if there's a relevant book in the Empress's library," Nehna suggested.
"Oh, shove off it. Don't tease me when I'm serious, Inky. Even from you, it's... uggh!" She kicked the corner of Josephine's desk then yelped, breaking out into a torrent of curses.
"Didn't you learn the last time, vhenan? Besides, I don't think the Empress would be able to cope with such language," Nehna teased, directing a stream of healing magic to Sera's toes.
The other elf gave a sigh of relief before glaring again. "Hey, I said no teasing, right, and that means no teasing. Not even to cheer me up or anything," she grumbled.
Nehna gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze in apology. "You know, you really don't have to go if it upsets you so much," she said gently. "I promise I won't be offended, you know. I wouldn't want you bored out of your skull just for my benefit, or uncomfortable, or... well, any of the negative ones, really."
Sera gave her a crooked grin. "I won't be bored, you know," she told her, adding, "because I'll have you to stare at all night. Certain parts especially," she winked, and Nehna flushed a deep shade of crimson. Sera made an obscene gesture and leant over to whisper in her ear before she was interrupted.
Josephine coughed. "Yes, well.... that's that then, yes? Everybody's happy, so now I just need to send the right birds to the right people. It will take weeks to get all this arranged as it is, and the ball itself isn't for a while at least. There's no rush, I suppose, but still..." She turned back to her parchment, fiercely scribbling down a few more notes.
"May we leave now, Josephine? Unless there was something else you wished to discuss?" Nehna asked.
"Oh, nothing more for now. I'll arrange the lessons and fittings when I can, but you'll get a note about them soon enough. For now, just keep your eyes peeled. Oh, and do try not to put on any weight between now and the ball," she added with a mischievous look.
"I'll do my best," Nehna assured her with mock seriousness before turning to walk away. She noticed Sera had already scampered off without waiting, so she turned back to the desk. "Oh, and Josephine?"
"Yes, Inquisitor?" The ambassador looked up from her notes, quill still in hand.
"I'd appreciate it if you went a little more gently with Sera on this," Nehna said, lowering her voice. "It's not something either of us are used to, I know, but it's more stressful for her than it is for me, I think. She just needs a little more time to get used to the idea, so please just -"
"Hey, Inquisitits!" Sera peeped through the doorway with a roguish grin. "You coming or what?" She giggled. "Well, all in good time I suppose, but still."
Nehna flashed her a smile. "Be there in a sec!"
Josephine nodded. "I promise I will take that into account next time. I apologise, Inquisitor." She offered her a little bow. "And of course, I forgot you had never been to one of these events either. I will do my best to ease you into this environment as smoothly as possible. Both of you," she added.
"Thank you, Josie."
The ambassador gave her a wave before turning back to her work, so Nehna left the room and shut the door behind her.
Within seconds, Sera wrestled her to the wall and peppered kisses around her throat. "You took too long," she murmured against her collarbone. "At least you don't take so long in -"
Nehna coughed, reddening quickly. "Perhaps we could continue this discussion elsewhere?" She gently pushed Sera away but gave her an eager smile. "There's a better place for it, anyway."
She looked around, making sure nobody had seen or overheard them, but there were only servants in the hall currently. They were all occupied, discreetly ignoring the couple, but Nehna still felt slightly uncomfortable giving them such an uninhibited display in public.
Sera grinned. "Right you are, love. You always are."
"Not always," Nehna teased, swatting her arm as the two made their way to the Inquisitor's quarters, hand in hand.
"Oh, you are about the stuff that counts. Like this..." She kissed her cheek as she opened the door wide enough for them both to slip through. "And this." Sera gave Nehna's backside a hearty slap.
The Inquisitor's half-embarrassed groan and her lover's giggling rang out into the hall as Sera closed the door behind them. She locked the door, just to be on the safe side... and for the servants' sakes.
When they were finished, Nehna rolled over onto her side and kissed Sera, who was still lying on her back. It was a short kiss, but sweet and gentle; the two women were still sweaty and panting, and they were too tired for anything more passionate than a brief peck. Their hands laced together again as Nehna leant on her other one, looking adoringly into her lover's eyes.
Sera was still slightly flushed from their lovemaking, but now embarrassment made her even redder. "What are you getting all moon-eyed for, love?" she whispered, hoarse.
"Just you," her lover replied, beaming at her.
Sera felt as if her heart was going to burst out of her chest, but she tried to act nonchalant as if she'd heard it all before. "Oh yeah? What about me?" she teased.
"Hmm." Nehna pretended to think. "How good you look all sweaty?" she suggested with a wink.
Sera giggled. "You loony. You're meant to say I'm glowing, or something."
"I thought I was the one who glowed. It's kind of my job, you know."
The two women laughed. Sera turned on her side, shuffling closer until their foreheads touched. "Daft, you are," she whispered. "Still love you, though."
"I love you too."
They lay like that for a while, legs lazily intertwined, listening to each other breathe and waiting until their heartbeats slowly returned to normal.
"Reckon you want another round?" Sera teased, ghosting her fingertips across Nehna's belly.
Her lover shivered. "It's tempting," she admitted, "but I think I want to go for a walk. Get some fresh air, you know?"
"I know what you mean." Sera sighed. "Tumbling is really fun and all, but the room gets hotter than a forge afterwards."
"This might help while we get dressed." Nehna sat up and held out her hand, concentrating as she cast a glyph of ice onto the floor. A cool, refreshing breeze instantly picked up and wafted around the room.
"I don't know if I'll ever get used to your magic dealies," Sera admitted, "but it's damn useful, that's for sure."
"Truer words were never spoken."
The two women got out of bed, groaning as their joints creaked while they bent over in search of their hastily scattered clothing. Nehna slid into her smalls and was just tying her breastband when Sera had an idea.
"Hey, you know how you can do lightning and all that shite?" she asked. When her lover nodded absently, fixing her clothing in place, Sera continued, "Well, can you use that in bed or what?"
Nehna looked up, startled, and Sera giggled. "What, you never thought of that? You're the mighty Inquisitor. You think of everything."
"I don't think of sex most of the time, Sera," Nehna said, fighting her blush. When the other elf looked at her expectantly, she sighed. "I... suppose you could," she said hesitantly. "It's combat magic, and I don't really know, but in theory... Honestly, I've never even thought of that before, let alone tried it."
The last part was a lie. One night, she had sneaked out of her family aravel, wandered a safe enough distance away from the clan so that nobody would hear, but not too far that she couldn't run back to safety if need be. Kneeling in a patch of dense grass, she had tested her newfound lightning spells on herself, hesitantly at first before gradually growing more confident. Once she had been able to control the current more easily, the gentle electric pulses had been very effective, and she had been grateful that the distance and a thoughtfully applied ward muffled her cries. After she had hastily made her way back to her cot, mindful of the squeaking floorboards and her parents close by, Nehna excitedly thought about the other potential ways she could use the spell, wondering to herself if any other mage had put it to similarly lewd practice before.
Her thoughts must have showed more clearly on her face than she had intended, because Sera laughed heartily. "You're lying, I bet you are! I bet you tried it on yourself at least once! Ooh, you're blushing! It's true? You dirty old -"
"You brought the subject up," Nehna reminded her. "And..." She sighed, shoulders sagging slightly. "Yes, I did. Once," she added, hastily.
Sera's head tilted. "So, if it's safe for you, you could... you could use it on me, right?"
"I could," Nehna said slowly. "Though it might take a while to work out certain things, like how strongly you'd like it, or for how long, or -"
"Hey, don't strain your brain, Inky!" Her lover teased. "This is fun stuff, remember? It doesn't have to be perfect." Sera giggled. "Besides, I wasn't asking like I was expecting you to drop your pants and demonstrate now or something. I don't even know if I'd want that right now, anyway. Just curious for now, you know."
"Curious about... sex magic?"
Sera threw her hands in the air. "Well, what else is it good for?"
"I don't know. Healing, combat, nature, spirits..."
She groaned. "Sometimes you're insufferable, you know. All literal and that. Can't take a joke."
Nehna gave her a wolfish grin. "Yet you suffer me all the same."
"You have me there."
Once the two women were dressed again and Nehna had removed the ward, they made their way out of the Inquisitor's quarters and wandered along the battlements. The air was cool and crisp, and Nehna tilted her head back to let it playfully move her hair along her shoulders. Sera watched her with a soft expression and was about to murmur something loving when Thedas's best-known dwarf turned up out of nowhere.
"Enjoying the view?" Varric called out with an impish grin.
Sera rolled her eyes. "Should've known you'd turn up and ruin the fun. You probably crawl up towers and shit so you can eavesdrop for inspiration on your next big story."
The dwarf staggered from an imaginary dagger. "Oh Buttercup, you wound me with your acid tongue. And here I thought we were getting along famously." He shook his head, turning to Nehna with a twinkle in his eye. "I know it's not professional to mix business with pleasure, but I hope you'll forgive me this once, Nehna."
"Certainly," Nehna teased, "though it depends on the favour."
"Smart woman." Varric beamed. "Turns out there's another smart woman you might be interested in meeting. Aside from you, of course, Buttercup," he added, offering Sera an apologetic bow.
"Don't care," the elf shrugged. "I know she's mine. No competition, anyway."
"I love your humility, and I suspect there's a grain of truth in that statement hidden away somewhere. Either that or a thinly veiled threat, but my companion won't make any attempts on your blossoming relationship, I assure you. Now, if it was another friend of mine, I suppose she might tease you a little and -"
Sera groaned. "I thought you came to invite Her Ladybits off to meet someone. Your friend will have died of boredom before you finish rambling, you know."
He chuckled. "True enough. I never did learn to hold my tongue, I suppose." He gestured further along the battlements. "Nehna, if you wouldn't mind?"
"Of course." Nehna turned to Sera with a questioning expression, who merely sighed.
"I get it," she said. "Inquisition business or whatever. Just find me afterwards, alright? I'll be in the tavern. Don't take too long or I might drain Cabot's barrels."
"And where would we be then?" Varric smiled. "Skyhold would fall apart without an unquenchable supply of alcohol. That's the secret to any good organisation, of course. Not discipline or structure - ale."
"Yeah. What he said." Sera kissed her, breaking away with an anxious look that she tried to hide. "You will find me, right?"
"I promise," Nehna told her solemnly, before adding teasingly, "I won't be gone that long!"
Her lover looked disbelieving for a second before perking up again. "Bull's horns!" she blurted out, giggling. "That's it! Right, bye love. I've just got an amazing plan. Ooh, Cabot would kill me." Sera ran away cackling.
Nehna turned to Varric. "What do you think that was all about?"
The dwarf shrugged. "Beats me. I thought you were the one in Buttercup's head."
The elf rolled her eyes, half-exasperated. "And I thought you were the storyteller who could imagine all possible scenarios."
"What is this, 'Insult the Dwarf Day'?"
"Maybe. I have the power to decree that, you know. I could make it tomorrow," she teased.
"Ah, come now, Nehna. I thought we were friends."
The pair walked on in silence for a while until Nehna couldn't bear it any longer.
"Alright, what's this favour you want from me and who am I meeting?" she demanded.
Varric sighed. "And I thought Sera was blunt. Can't we have a bit of dramatic suspense along the way?" When she arched her brow at him, he crumpled a little. "Look, I want to tell you, but..." He looked around. "There might be spies about. I don't want to blurt it out, just in case... well, you know."
"Just in case Leliana turns up with a bow at your throat?" she giggled.
"I was thinking more Cassandra," he said glumly. She looked at him questioningly, but he didn't elaborate.
Nehna looked ahead. She could see a figure in the distance standing at ease, gazing out over the mountain range. They seemed vaguely familiar, although still too far away to really make out any features.
"That's them, right?" she asked.
"The one and only," he grinned. "Someone I've wanted to introduce you to for a while. Getting her here was... a logistics nightmare, to say the least."
Nehna was about to offer a quip when she stopped. They were a few feet away now, and she could recognise the stranger as a woman. A mage, too, judging by the staff strapped to her back. But what really took her breath away was the stranger's face as the woman turned to face her, offering a jovial smile, and then she realised exactly who she was talking to.
"Hello, Nehna," the woman said. "That is the right name, right? It would be just like Varric to tell it wrong to me."
"I swear, nobody in Skyhold has any faith in me," Varric chuckled.
"I've got faith in your abilities to smuggle people in without anyone else noticing," the woman laughed. "But where are my manners? I'm pleased to meet you, Inquisitor Lavellan. My name is - "
"I know you are," Nehna blurted out. "You're Hawke. You're the Champion of Kirkwall."
"Oh, please don't worship me," Hawke teased. "I'm not really the worshipping sort."
"Our up-and-coming Breach destroyer here has an enemy in common with you, now. I figured it would be a good idea for one darkspawn slayer to meet another," Varric said.
Hawke raised an eyebrow. "Corypheus? But we killed him years ago. You were there, Varric."
He shrugged. "We thought we did. We thought a lot of things about him. Turns out they're more false than... well, Hard in Hightown 3, for starters."
The Champion of Kirkwall groaned. "So there's more chaos to deal with?"
"Just like the good old days, Hawke."
The other woman looked at her feet in silence. Nehna tried her hardest not to stare, but it was fairly difficult. Here was a fellow Free Marcher, a hero whose name was known across all of Thedas... It was hard not to feel small in comparison, either.
"I'll leave you two alone, then. Talk it through. It won't make any more sense to you than it does to me, but it's a good place to start." Varric wandered off, leaving the two women with an even more awkward silence between them.
What do I say? Nehna had no idea. Fabled heroes didn't just wander into Skyhold as a regular event, and she had barely met anybody more powerful than a Keeper before becoming the Inquisitor.
She was still struggling to form a coherent sentence in her mind when Hawke sighed, facing her with a weary grin. "I think I'll need a drink before I talk about it all over again, don't you? Actually, make that a flagon." She began to wander in the direction of the tavern before turning back. "You're coming too, aren't you, Nehna?"
She nodded and hurried along, hoping she wouldn't trip over her toes as well as her tongue.