Warden-Commander Cousland sighed as she entered Halamshiral.
It had been three years since the Blight. Two and a half since she had become Warden-Commander of Ferelden.
She just wanted to retire somewhere nice.
But no, nothing was ever simple. Elissa, Kallian Tabris, and Nathaniel Howe were riding into Halamshiral on request of the Empress of Orlais.
Amethyne was with them as well, though how she had convinced Elissa to let her come along was beyond her.
"Answer me this, Warden-Commander," Nathaniel said as he slid off his horse and handed it to one of the handlers. "Why did I have to come?"
Elissa helped Amethyne off the horse. "Kallian came because she's my second in command, and you came along because you're one of the last Wardens I trust."
"And why did the kid come along?" he asked. "We don't know what we'll face here."
"Amethyne came along because she used her silver tongue to convince me," Elissa said, gesturing for them to follow her. "Besides, I'm gone a lot. We need to spend time with each other."
Nathaniel rolled his eyes. "Let's just get this over with."
Kallian pat Elissa on the shoulder. "I'm sure the empress doesn't want much. We'll be fine."
Elissa snorted. "Do you know how many times we've said, 'We'll be fine' and then nothing goes fine?"
Both Wardens laughed, but Nathaniel was the one to say, "It's just our luck. Nothing ever goes right for us."
Amethyne tugged on her hand. Despite the fact that the little elf was a teenager now, she still acted like a kid.
"What is it?" Elissa asked, her head tilting to the side.
"Can I get something before we leave? I've never been here before."
"We'll see," Elissa said. "If you behave and do as your told, then sure. But if you misbehave, or you get in trouble, you're not getting anything."
Amethyne beamed. "I'll be on my best behavior, mamae!"
Kallian chuckled from behind her. "Even after three years, you still look uncomfortable when she calls you that."
Elissa shrugged. "I'm not used to it, is all. I didn't really think I'd ever have a kid."
"Well, now you do," Nathaniel said. "Hope it's worth it."
Elissa shook her head. "Sometimes it is. Other times not so much."
She took a deep breath before they entered the Winter Palace.
Elissa told the man waiting for them their names as they walked into the ballroom of the Winter Palace.
She already heard whispers from the Orlesians, but she wasn't sure who they were talking about.
"Speaking for the Wardens," the man announced, "is Warden-Commander Elissa Cousland of Ferelden, Arlessa of Amaranthine, Champion of Redcliffe, and Hero of Ferelden." She scoffed at her titles before she bowed to the crowd. "Accompanying the Warden-Commander is Warden Kallian Tabris and Warden Nathaniel Howe."
Before they descended the steps, Elissa turned to Amethyne. "Listen to Kallian," she said. "I have to speak with the empress. If you need something, talk to either her or Nathaniel. I'll see you later tonight."
Then she descended the steps to the empress.
One good thing about being Left Hand of the Divine was that Leliana had many resources.
Sometimes they were very helpful. She had learned that two years ago, Elissa Cousland had been declared missing in action. No one knew where she had gone. It was like she had never existed in the first place.
Which was why Leliana was surprised to hear her name announced.
Leliana only knew it was Elissa by the claw-like scar on her jaw from the Blight, when Swiftrunner had swiped at her.
She looked so different. Elissa was much paler than she had been during the Blight, and she was much skinnier. Less muscled. Her cheekbones stood out unhealthily.
What had happened to her all these years?
Elissa bowed to the empress, who was watching her with interest. She curtsied right back, however.
"Empress Celene," Elissa said. "I believe there was something you wished to discuss?"
Maker, her voice. There was no kindness to it, no sign of the Elissa during the Blight.
It was a little frightening.
Empress Celene nodded before she gestured for Elissa to follow her to one of the rooms.
"Well, well, well," said an elven voice from behind Leliana. "Long time no see, Leliana."
Leliana smiled and turned to the voice. "Hello, Kallian. How have you been?"
"I've been great!" the elf said. She seemed to be ignoring the smaller elf tugging on her pant leg. "We all - well, most of us - have been pretty well under Elissa's command. And, I have a son!"
Leliana's smile grew. "Really? When did this happen?"
"A few months after the Blight, I realized I was getting a bit soft around the edges, despite my training. Several months later, I have a son."
So she hadn't been completely tainted yet. Not like Elissa had been.
"How... How is Elissa doing? She doesn't look so good."
Kallian frowned, but before she could say anything, the little elf spoke up.
"Mamae is gone a lot," she said. "She doesn't like to talk about what happens while she's gone. But she always comes back looking empty and a lot thinner than last time."
Leliana glanced up at Kallian, an eyebrow raised.
"This is Amethyne," Kallian said. "Pain in everyone's as - uh, butt."
"Mamae says you don't have to watch yourself around me," Amethyne said. "I'm not a little kid."
"Well, if you aren't," said a male's voice, "you need to stop acting like one."
Amethyne stuck her tongue out at the dark-haired man. "When's Mama gonna be back? I want her to show me how to dance!"
"Your mother is very busy." Kallian crouched down to Amethyne's height. "I'm sure Nathaniel would love to teach you, though."
The dark-haired man - who Leliana assumed was Nathaniel - looked betrayed. "Fine," he grumbled. "But only because you're Elissa's daughter."
Kallian stood beside Leliana as she watched the two go down the steps to the dance floor.
"She hasn't been good for quite some time," Kallian murmured. "Elissa, I mean. She barely talks to anyone anymore. She doesn't eat. Doesn't train. I don't know what happened. Solona tried talking to her, but I think that just made it worse."
Leliana nodded. "I can try to speak with her, see if she tells me anything."
But Kallian shook her head. "No, you might make it even worse than it already is. Leliana, she barely says a word on good days. She's only speaking today because she has to."
"Is Fergus worried?"
"Oh," Kallian said, "you don't want to see the fights they get into. She barely talks, yes, but once you get her pissed off... Maker, you better run for the hills. If she's talking to you, you know something bad-"
"Kallian," barked a voice. "Where's Amethyne?"
Kallian turned her head. "She's dancing with Nathaniel."
Elissa stepped into view, her Grey Warden armor shining. "Who are you - oh. Hello, Lady Nightingale."
Leliana tilted her head to the side. "After all this time, that's all you have to say?"
"I have several things to say," Elissa said. "But not right now. I'm busy."
She started making her way to the dance floor, but Leliana grabbed her wrist. "Say it, then. We're all adults."
"Are you going to let go of my wrist?" Elissa asked. "Or do I have to remove it myself?"
Leliana's brows furrowed, but she removed her hand. "Come to the balcony with me. We have several things to discuss."
A muscle twitched in Elissa's jaw. She gestured for Leliana to lead the way.
"I'll keep an eye on Amethyne," Kallian called out to them.
Elissa didn't relax even when they were away from prying eyes. She stood straight with her hands clasped behind her back, her eyes on the sky above them.
"What did you want to talk about?" Elissa asked, still no sign of the old Elissa.
"What happened to you, Elissa? Everyone is worried."
Elissa shook her head. "They don't need to be. I'm their Warden-Commander, nothing else. I'm fine."
"You don't look fine," Leliana commented. "You look sick."
"Thanks," Elissa muttered. "Are we done here?"
"That's it?" Leliana asked. "You have nothing more to say?"
Elissa shrugged. "What would I say, Leliana? We're not friends any longer. We have no reason to talk."
"We were together for almost a year and that's all you have to say? You're not the woman I fell in love with."
"I wouldn't imagine. That woman died when you left before you even knew if I was still alive."
Leliana flinched at the bitterness in her tone. "Excuse me?" she asked. "I delayed my trip to Orlais for you. I didn't leave until I knew you were alive."
"That must have been quick. You were told I was still alive on the day I almost died, and you left soon after, right?"
Elissa's face was calm. Neutral. She showed no emotion on her face.
"You didn't even care, did you?" Elissa asked, curiosity seeping into her voice. "'Well, Elissa could die, but her usefulness has run out. Time to run away to Orlais!'"
"I would have waited for you!" Leliana shouted. "If you hadn't broken things off between us, I would have stayed by your side. But it pained me to even be near you!"
"How convenient, right?" Elissa murmured. "I kept you safe and away from danger during a Blight, I killed your abusive ex-girlfriend for you, I took wounds for you that should have been inflicted upon you... But here you are, never once in any danger of dying while I almost bled out scared and alone on top of Fort Drakon."
"By the Maker, Elissa-"
"I bet you couldn't wait to be rid of me," Elissa interrupted. "First chance to leave and you took it." She shook her head, sorrow starting to line her features. "When I woke up, I wanted to explain my actions to you. I had this whole thing planned out, only to learn that you had left for Orlais."
If she thought about it, Leliana could see where Elissa was coming from. Because instead of trying to convince Elissa that Leliana loved her, she became defensive.
"Saw all my flaws and left," Elissa mumbled, almost too quiet for Leliana to hear. "It really shouldn't be surprising." She cleared her throat and wiped at her eyes. "I should be going. The empress has no further need of me, and clearly, neither do you. Good evening, Lady Nightingale."
And just like that, Elissa was gone.