Nainsí stands still behind Queen Anora, trying desperately to ignore the unfamiliar itching of her new silk-and-linen gown, as the queen is introduced to Empress Celene. The introduction is all a sham, as Celene and Anora met when Anora was simply daughter of a teyrn and Cailan’s wife, but Anora is banking on the meeting to bolster her legitimacy as Ferelden’s sole ruler. Which is why she's brought half the court with her.
Including the elf. Nainsí can feel fifty different stares crawling over her, the expressions they belong to ranging from curiosity to uncertainty to outright hostility - or they would be, if they were not covered by absurd Orlesian masks. It's not an unusual experience to be watched and judged, but it seems to carry so much more weight when the judging humans are Orlesian and could try so much to topple the new system in Ferelden, and Nainsí does what she can to keep her nervousness off her face even as her knees tremble under her uncomfortably heavy skirts. She’s not the only elf along on the trip as Anora strengthens her claims, with plenty of elven servants under stairs (including Nessa, who’s tagged along under the pretense of being Nainsí’s lady’s maid). But she’s the only one with supposedly enough standing to be included in the affairs of state.
Eventually the ceremonial introduction ends, and as soon as she's given leave by Queen Anora, Nainsí finds her way through the maze of the Imperial Palace and back to the impossibly large suite of guest rooms she's been given for the duration of the visit. Her hand resting on the doorknob, she takes a deep breath to steady herself for another round of trying to convince what feels like an army of fellow elves that she doesn’t need the room re-cleaned every three hours (or Nessa’s insistence that she needs the army to help keep track of all of Nainsí’s fancy dresses), and she's not paying nearly full attention as she pushes open the door.
As it is, it's all she can do not to scream in exasperation as the door swings open to reveal yet another unfamiliar elf, and then in terror as she realizes this elf is holding not an assortment of cleaning supplies but a pair of wickedly beautiful daggers, the silverite blades gleaming in the sunlight streaming from the window. Despite the weight of her formal dress, Nainsí drops into a ready stance and frees a pair of slim daggers from the leather guards on her sleeves, staring hard at the intruder as she scans the room to ensure Nessa’s not around. “And you are?”
Briala still isn't used to how up-front these Fereldans are. They don't couch their true meaning in layers of intrigue and a few dollops of lies, and yet she finds them more difficult to interpret than she expected. But the question is simple enough, and she inclines her head towards the elven Fereldan chancellor, choosing to be honest herself despite her better judgement. “Briala. The empress’s handmaid.”
Well, honest to a point. She sheathes her daggers and stands up straight, holding out her hands away from her body in a gesture of peace. The Fereldan chancellor eyes her suspiciously for long moments before straightening as well, but does not let go of her own daggers. They don't catch the light as Briala’s own do - made of steel, she thinks, or possibly veridium - but they are obviously well cared for, and held comfortably in hands that know how to use them. Not a gift from the queen, Briala decides, but a different kind of important.
“Nainsí,” the chancellor says, and Briala did not need the introduction but nods anyways. “And do all handmaids of the Empress carry daggers of silverite?”
“Good eye,” Briala says, and does not elaborate. “How are you enjoying Val Royeaux?”
Nainsí’s grip on her daggers does not slacken, Briala notes, even as her face draws in surprise and confusion. A Grey Warden’s mastery of her weapons, but oh so Fereldan even so. She takes a breath, weighing her options: a diplomat at heart, too.
“It is a beautiful city, and a beautiful palace,” she says, and then seems to think better of her hedged words. “But I am unused to being attended to. By servants. It is...unnerving, to say the least, when women who would be my mother’s age are cleaning up after me in a space that could hold half my alienage.”
Briala laughs, warm and full. A real laugh, of camaraderie rather than jest. “Let them. They are astonished that they are allowed to take care of one of their own, and in awe that one of their own is a Grey Warden. And they will be valuable friends to you, I am sure.” She retrieves her mask from the table, threading its ribbons through her dark curls, and readies to take her leave.
Nainsí interjects before she can. “Why are you here? Did the Empress send you?” She doesn't move, blocking Briala’s path to the door, her daggers still at the ready.
“No,” Briala answers, her voice sharp, but she softens before she continues. “I hoped to meet you. Am I not also an awed elven servant?”
Nainsí hesitates, but smiles, tilting her head in acceptance and stepping to the side to free the path to the door. “A pleasure to meet you, Briala,” she says, and she may not be adept at the Game but Briala cannot bring herself to see it as a weakness.
“And you, Nainsí.” Briala slips into the hallway, drawing her cloak close to hide the daggers at her belt, and gives a last look at the closed door before she leaves.
Blinking dazedly, Nainsí sets her own daggers down on the table and takes another slow breath. “Awed elven servant, my ass,” she says to no one, checking methodically around the room to ensure Briala hasn't left anything dangerous behind. Halfway through, she's startled by a sharp knock at the door, and realizes with a sinking heart that it's time to be manhandled into another dress for dinner. But Briala’s words echo in her head, and an idea starts to form in her head as she listens to Nessa’s chatter about the rest of the servants.
After the meal, she badgers Nessa to let her borrow a dress, and she sighs in relief as she dresses herself in the servant’s dress that feels more familiar than anything she’s worn since arriving in Orlais. Once dressed less conspicuously, Nainsí makes her way through the maze of the palace until she finally finds the kitchen. Huge and bustling, it holds the largest gathering of unmasked people she's seen since entering Orlais - humans and elves both, all rushing to their tasks with an urgency that makes her idle hands itch.
“What do you need, girl?” calls a booming, accented voice, and Nainsí finds herself already hurrying towards the woman who must be the cook. Some part of her is giddy at the lack of recognition on anyone's face, that she can be an anonymous servant again, and she weaves her way through the room with a spring in her step.
“What do you know of Briala?” she asks, once she's closer than shouting distance, and the cook’s heat-reddened face breaks into a wide smile.
“Oh, Miss Bria!” Her enthusiasm is infectious, and Nainsí finds herself smiling along. “She's Her Radiance’s handmaid -” the truth, then, Nainsí thinks, but how much of it “- but she's never too busy to spare a moment for us. Helps let us know who and what's on a bent and keeps us from getting caught in the way.”
Nainsí nods, encouraging the woman to go on, but she has to press herself against the wall to avoid two girls lugging away dirty dishwater, and when she's back in front of the cook the woman’s eyes are narrowed, her face grim. An idea that frightens her seems to have entered her thoughts, and she rests a hand on a hip.
“What is it you want with Miss Bria, Fereldan?” she asks, the last word said as if it tastes rancid. Some of the others nearby look up at her tone, and Nainsí lifts her hands in a gesture of surrender.
“No, no, nothing like that!” she says, keeping her voice level. “I just met her earlier today, and she seemed intriguing. I haven't met anyone like her before.” She casts about for something else to say, but settles for the embarrassed smile she’d perfected to appease disgruntled human shoppers what feels like a lifetime ago.
The cook’s face relaxes, and she waves the girls nearby back to their tasks. “That's good, then. Just don't want anything funny going on here that could hurt Miss Bria.”
She brushes her hands off on her apron and sticks one out for Nainsí to shake. “Rilene, head cook. And you are?”
Hesitating, Nainsí tries to decide what to do - if she gives her name, they'll know exactly who she is, and whatever accord she's about to come to will be lost. “Shianni,” she answers, and a familiar chuckle rings out of her memory as she shakes Rilene’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“I didn't know Fereldans were so polite!” calls a voice, and Rilene snaps a dish towel in that direction with a laugh before turning back to her work. Nainsí slips from the kitchen with a laugh of her own, and crawls into bed with a light heart.
Briala knocks this time, and waits until Nainsí opens the door before walking in. She leans comfortably against the wall, no daggers at her belt, and smiles what feels like her first genuine smile of the day. “Hello, Shianni.”
Nainsí groans, dropping into a chair. “They told you?” Her tone is easy, teasing, but there's worry there too, in the crease of her forehead and the set of her jaw.
What does she think I’ll do? Briala thinks, but all she says aloud is “whose name is it?”
“My cousin.” Nainsí laughs, the worry disappearing from her face as she remembers. “She used to give my name when she’d get in trouble with shems. Only worked once or twice, before Hahren Valendrian realized what she was doing. But she kept doing it, mostly to mess with me.
“She wanted to be hahren herself. But they elected my father. Who takes her suggestions far less often than she would like.” Her face clouds back over, and she rises from the chair to stand at the window overlooking the courtyard, fussing with the sleeves of the servant’s dress she’s donned again.
When Briala breaks the silence, it feels almost like ice cracking after first frost. “Come with me,” she says, and there’s a flicker of doubt on Nainsí’s face, but she turns to the armoire and fastens a pair of leather bracers to her wrists. She lets Briala see the daggers she slides under them.
Briala doesn’t answer, secretive as she leads the way out of Nainsí’s guest room. They weave their way through the palace, alternately nodding or ducking their heads depending on who they pass. Emerging onto a crowded street from a side door near the kitchens, Briala melts immediately into the mass of people, and Nainsí has to dodge a trundling wagon and its attendant delivery boys to keep up. She nearly loses Briala when the latter stops to hide her mask in a cache tucked deep in the marketplace, and the thrill of doing something more strenuous than standing behind the queen has Nainsí grinning as she skids around a corner and shouts a hurried apology to a merchant’s elven assistant as she catches sight of Briala again.
They slow to walk beside each other as they reach the edge of the upper markets, and the number of elves in the passing crowds grows as they push farther into the city. Nainsí relaxes with each step, her shoulders falling away from her ears. She chatters away at Briala, telling childhood stories with far less of the homesickness that’s plagued her the whole trip to Orlais, unable to resist despite her inkling that Briala is not as she seems.
Briala, for her part, is quiet for most of the walk, reacting appropriately to stories of climbing trees and tumbling off alienage gates but keeping her thoughts to herself. They walk through the slums, their well-soled boots clapping loudly on the cobblestones, and the ratio of elves to men grows larger as they continue forward. But when they reach one of the oldest sections of the city, not explicitly walled off but effectively so, with its ramshackle apartments leaning together as if they can’t stand up on their own, Nainsí falls silent too. She hurries in front of Briala, turning corners as if she’s familiar with Val Royeaux’s alienage herself, until she finds the market square and the vhenadahl, draped with ribbons and surrounded by candles. The stream of elves through the square parts around her, glaring when they notice her clean dress and boots, but she stands stock-still with her face upturned, not bothering to stem the tears that stream down her cheeks.
Briala browses the wares at some of the booths nearby, keeping an eye on Nainsí while praising the dye of the scarves a suspicious woman is selling. When Nainsí joins her at the stall, Briala presses a golden royal into the woman’s hand, taking only a small handkerchief worth less than a quarter that much, and they make their way out of the square as the woman’s eyes go round as saucers.
“Thank you,” Nainsí says as they emerge from the slums, the first words she’s spoken since entering the alienage. They don’t speed up, keeping a sedate pace, and Nainsí breathes slowly, trying to keep control of her voice. “I needed to see. Someplace like home.”
“I want to help them,” Briala bursts out, and then bites her lip. She should not be so forthright, with someone she has barely met, with someone Fereldan, with anyone.
“They are your people,” Nainsí says, as if it’s that simple. Maybe it can be.
When Nainsí leaves, with Anora’s court, she carries a letter from Briala, and a promise to write back.