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Faded From the Winter

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The carved doors of the war room banged shut behind Josephine. The noise was accompanied by the receding rap of Cassandra's boot heels on the stone. Josephine hastened after her. "Seeker Pentaghast, a word, if I may?"

"Yes, Lady Montilyet?" Cassandra swerved a look at her. Her brows were tightly knit and did not ease for Josephine's benefit.

She'd worn that glare of intense, unhappy concentration for most of the meeting. While Leliana ran them through the inexplicable disappearance of a crucial agent in Verchiel, Cassandra stared instead at the Ferelden side of the war table map, gloved fingers tapping the meticulously illuminated parchment.

Josephine might sympathise. It had been altogether inopportune timing for a meeting, but Leliana's news had been urgent. Josephine trusted her friend to have the situation in hand now that they'd convened to lay out a plan. For herself, Josephine had other endeavours today.

"You will be at the Wintersend reception tonight, I hope."

Cassandra visibly mustered herself. "I will. I must, no?"

"It might be put that way." They came to Josephine's study, opening on the left side of the corridor. She quelled the instinct to gently steer Cassandra to a chair and invite her to unravel whatever knots were snarling up her temper.

She only slowed her pace, so Cassandra was forced to do the same or overtake her.

"You wish something of me," Cassandra said. "Ask."

"By your leave, then. Are you familiar with the Marquis du Lac? The head of a very old noble family from Val Chevin."

"I know of the du Lacs. I've never met one."

"The marquis is here for the reception, arrived this morning, without prior word, and in reparation for the quarters where I had to house him--" Josephine halted herself." I do apologise. My thoughts are going a hundred ways. The important thing is, he admires you greatly. Divine Beatrix III was a distant relative of the du Lacs in her earthly life."

"I see." Cassandra all but bit off the words. Usually her frankness struck Josephine as refreshing, like a gust of sweet air on a smothering day; now it had a jagged, frosty edge to it. "I assume you need me to... entertain this marquis."

"He holds trading rights in Jader. If we can win his favour, our supply routes to North Orlais could be shortened by weeks." She was overexplaining again. The exasperation in Cassandra's stance threatened to snap and burst. "If I might seat him next to you. I know you don't enjoy this pomp and circumstance, but..."

Cassandra cast her eye towards the wall. "If it helps you, do it. It's been a trying morning."

Recognising a reconciliation when one was offered, or even summarily thrust her way, Josephine said, "So it has. Let's hope Leliana's troubles will be solved, too."

Cassandra's hand twitched, then closed into a loose fist that she pressed to her hip. Her exhalation was more rueful than irritated. "I will be there, my lady. You needn't fret about that."

"Excellent. That only leaves seventy-eight other things I must attend."

Cassandra graced her with a husky, amused huff. It was, perhaps, all Josephine could ask for. "I'll leave you to them."

With a brisk, unvarnished nod, Cassandra left for the main hall. The door rattled at the far end of the corridor, signalling her exit, and Josephine's quiet, "Thank you", fell unheard.

* * *

Josephine fit the last gemmed pin in her hair just as the evening bell sounded in the watchtower. The three knells, curiously mournful in the brass body of the ancient bell, reverberated across the fortress grounds. She dashed a sprinkle of rosewater over her hair, straightened her bodice for the last time and hurried downstairs as swiftly as she could while maintaining an air of proper serenity.

The eaves of Skyhold were still clumped with icicles that made every sensible soul give the underhangs a wide berth. In the garden the hardy early-spring flowers were spreading, dotting the soft green grass with colours. Hopeful, Josephine had had a pavillion raised there, in case some of the guests fancied a breath of fresh air later in the evening. The Inquisition had only taken up residence in the fortress the past winter, and this was the first sizable feast they were hosting. She'd had a crew of servants sweeping, mopping, airing, plastering and hammering the main keep into presentable shape for the last month. Some doors had simply been barred and a guard posted on them, in the end.

Running the last fifteen things that might go wrong and her immediate plans for addressing them in her mind, she stepped into the main hall. It had been decorated in the formal heraldry of the Inquisition, trestle tables laid end on end along the sides. Most of the palaces and estates of Orlais and Antiva had halls broader and better lit than this: she'd despaired briefly of the sitting arrangements. With the wrought iron candelabras lit and raised and the tablecloths shimmering white under the golden candlelight, the hall seemed almost inviting. Rustic, grievously rustic, but the tall ceiling and the gleaming painted glass of the windows lent it a certain solemnity.

What the main hall lacked was any sort of vestibule. Skyhold was built for defence, not for holding court. She'd had no choice but to allow the guests to enter and mingle as they arrived. A smattering of Orlesian masks and earthier Fereldan fashions already filled the room.

"In the old Imperium they sacrificed to Urthemiel at the end of winter," she heard someone say. "I'm assuming you have something more sedate planned to crown the festivities, lady ambassador?"

"Serah Pavus." Josephine turned to find Dorian leaned over the nearest table. She was still not certain if that was the right term of address, but he hadn't objected. "Yes. I was rather hoping we might avoid any blood being shed."

"It is customary to postpone duels until the next dawn, even in Ferelden." The imperious snap of heels suggested the identity of the next arrival before she even spoke. "Perhaps the Tevinters do not observe such courtesies."

"Slights are addressed on the spot." Dorian picked up a goblet as if to inspect it for some minute imperfection of cut. "Nothing livens up a tedious evening like a magical duel in between galliards."

Vivienne went past Josephine in a sweep of silks. Her mask bore the filigree image of some peregrine, its plumes worked in silver and tipped with jewels. "Do try to restrain yourself, then. We are looking to make a positive impression, no, my dear Josephine?"

"First Enchanter." Josephine sketched a polite half-bow. "That would be ideal. I must beg your leave. Our guests are on their way."

For all their bons mots she could be sure--mostly so, in Dorian's case--that those two would comport themselves properly. On account of the Wintersend night, the Herald's Rest had been opened for the soldiers and workers, and ale and wine would flow on the Inquisition's coin tonight. Josephine held a private hope that it would suffice to keep some of the more eclectic members of the Inquisitor's inner circle from making an appearance. She'd never have belittled their efforts; her only doubt concerned their courtesies.

Now if she only could make sure that the Herald herself planned to appear. Josephine could understand Lavellan hardly relished the prospect: as an elven mage at the head of the Inquisition, she'd stood on treacherous footings from the first. Between her and Cassandra, Josephine steeled herself to the possibility that she'd have to employ some elaborate persuasion yet tonight.

"Lady Montilyet?"

The thought of Cassandra had apparently summoned her to the door. She'd exchanged her brigandine and leathers for a sleeveless jerkin of ink-dark velvet, lined with carmine at the hem and collar. The snug sleeves of her shirt repeated the red stitching, and its turned collar bared her neck down to the dip of the clavicles. Although she held herself with steely, soldierly poise, her voice was tinged with something akin to hesitation.

Josephine blinked twice, then found the breath that had stayed to tarry in her throat. "Lady Seeker." She'd known noblewomen who would have committed murder with a hair accessory for that long, queenly line of Cassandra's neck. That she hid it under gambeson and gorget all the time surely counted as a minor crime against beauty.

"Am I presentable, then?"

Presentable was nothing short of an insult to the figure she cut. "Blessed Andraste," Josephine said with sincerity, "you are striking, my lady."

"I... Well, that is one worry calmed." Cassandra corrected her already flawless posture. "I haven't been to any court for too long. And my wardrobe is more suited to travel and battle these days."

"I shall have to help that matter--if you wish, of course." Josephine laid a friendly hand on Cassandra's forearm and caught something with a warm note of cloves, wreathing her hair. The touch told her that Cassandra was as tense as she appeared. "I must repeat what you said to me. There's no need to fret."

"You are on home ground here."

"I won't say that the hundreds of etiquette lessons don't give me a leg up," Josephine said, "but you are a living legend to many of our guests. The Hero of Orlais. They will not expect grace so much as... a certain martial mystique."

"Oh, wonderful."

Not the most apt choice of words, it seemed. Josephine went on hastily, "Sprezzatura, as the Antivan goes, can be achieved in many ways. Be what you are, Lady Cassandra. Resolve and discipline have their own charm among those who are used to indulgence and leisure."

There was a disorderly twanging of lute strings from the balcony above. Wood scraped, and someone muffled a shout that the heights of the vaulted ceiling still gladly echoed. Josephine had thought to settle the musicians there, but had assumed they'd have the wits to tune their instruments elsewhere. Or whatever it was that was causing the ruckus.

"Oh, Maker's..." She stifled the rest. "Where's Seneschal Baldwin?"

Cassandra craned her head towards the hall proper. "Judging by his sudden hurry, already ahead of you."

Cassandra's greater height had given her a small but crucial advantage in angle of view. As she shifted back, the chafe of cloth under her palm reminded Josephine that she'd never taken her hand off Cassandra's arm. She barely managed to slide it away surreptitiously.

"I should go."

"I... suppose so." As arresting as Cassandra was standing tall and controlled, the brief bemusement in her eyes turned her countenance strangely sweet. "If you wish to speak of my, ah, wardrobe later, I..."

"I look forward to it." Josephine cast a last sideways glance at her. "Have as pleasant an evening as you can."

"I shall try, Lady Montilyet."

* * *

A while later the musicians found their places, the stumbling lutist included. Leading with a selection of Fereldan part songs, they soon faded into the background of Josephine's concerns. At the end of winter, fresh comestibles were hard to come by for gold or favours, but Josephine had done her utmost. The heavy Fereldan fare of the main courses was brightened by cherry compotes, tiny apple tarts with cream, and candied oranges from across the Waking Sea. If she'd been able to persuade someone for a measure of cinnamon, she'd have added the almond milk and rice pudding her mother's cook used to make.

On the other hand, it would have made her homesick, and this was not an evening for reveries. She flitted from one cluster of guests to the next. To her relief, Lavellan had appeared, although in understated attire of green and brown that helped her blend with the steep candlelight shadows along the walls. "We must make select concessions," Josephine muttered to a disapproving bann from Killarney. "The Prophet herself began her life as a mortal woman. Humility is a virtue in her Herald, as well."

The bann harrumphed, and Josephine excused herself with a bow, ignoring the irritable tightness between her shoulder blades. One step at a time would get them all where they needed to go.

As she swept the room, she counted their visitors and remarked on the Inquisition members alike: Vivienne, encircled by the rapt, masked figures of several Orlesians; Leliana, who'd managed to trade her spymaster's hood for a long red kirtle, slipping into the hall as if she were fashionably late rather than delayed by the crisis in Verchiel. Cassandra lingered at the table, her chair pushed back, bracketed on one side by the Marquis du Lac in his own seat. The marquis was a man of middle years, built like a hunting hound and festooned with a slight surfeit of lace even to Josephine's tastes. His gestures snapped in the air, but he was listening avidly to Cassandra's account, whatever the subject.

Josephine smiled a somewhat rueful smile Cassandra's way. She could not be sure if it was spotted as Cassandra lifted her glass. Tonight, she supposed, their duty to the Inquisition wore a different guise.

So she inquired after the nieces of Fereldan dowagers and the bandit troubles of Dales lordlings. She made circumspect promises of audiences and swore on her honour that the arl of the West Hills would have the Inquisition's aid with the rifts gaping open across the countryside. She steered the arl's representative towards the Inquisitor; Lavellan would find discussion of a new expedition far preferable to the quandaries of noble etiquette.

As most of the heavy tables were being dismantled to make more room for dancing, Josephine snatched up her goblet and hid in a chair next to the fireplace where Varric would write on calmer days. She'd dutifully spun on the floor to lively Orlesian tunes. Her right slipper was digging into her heel most disagreeably.

The current piece of music was carried on voices rather than instruments, a lingering Heartlands madrigal. That meant a brief reprieve from trying to remember how Fereldans danced the pavane. Someone had opened the side door to the garden. The clean smell of spring rain billowed in to swirl through the air heated by bodies and fires.

"No!" Cassandra's voice, though low, cracked with sheer fury. The minstrels had chosen that moment to rearrange their assembly for the next dance, and the word rang out clear to Josephine.

It had come from the direction of the garden. She sidled her way past a comtesse's voluminous hoop skirts and drew a few meddlesome glances, but thankfully they did not linger. Only belatedly she recalled that the door would shut with a prodigious slam unless eased closed.

She put her shoulder against the thick oaken thing when Cassandra spoke again in the shadowed gallery hedging the garden. "Maker's breath, if you do not shut up, I will hit you."

A man replied in a stream of rapid, slightly slurred Orlesian. "Ah, but my sweet, fierce Seeker, nothing would please me better."

"Not. Another. Word."

"No--no woman has ever spoken to me this way. You don't unders--"

Josephine abandoned the door to its noisy fate. "My lord Marquis? I do apologise, but if you would--"

She got no further. Cassandra stepped forward, snarled in her throat and dropped the woefully inebriated Marquis du Lac at Josephine's feet with a single sharp punch. Then she vaulted the low railing of the gallery and strode off into the garden.

* * *

Rain dripped off the cowl of Josephine's cloak, but the woollen lining kept her cocooned in warmth. The clouds were thinning above Skyhold. Only the pitch-dipped watch torches burned on the battlement any more, save for a few scattered candles in the main keep windows.

With a tint of tired hysteria, she envisioned explaining to her mother that she had resigned as ambassador and was coming home on the next ship. Dearest Mama-- I prevailed against many harrowing obstacles, and then came the Wintersend feast. My one shining opportunity.

She leaned against the wall and watched the pallid shapes of the mountains beyond the towers. It is not all bad. I will not miss the winters, or the fact that the nearest city is three weeks away.

Loose gravel ground under approaching feet. Josephine stood bolt upright. The guard had been kind enough to shorten his round so she could ponder undisturbed.

Cassandra, too, wore a half-cloak of dense wool. Her sword and dagger were buckled at her hips again, over a simple dark gambeson. She stopped, quiet, two steps away from Josephine. They stood like that for a moment.

"What can I do for you, Seeker--"

"I am sorry, but I must speak--"

Josephine dropped her face against her palm. "You go first, Lady Pentaghast. Please."

Cassandra's jaw twitched. "I'm sure I did not act worthy of that title tonight."

Josephine's mind working as it did, through diplomatic convolutions when it must and gentler windings when it could, she almost spoke to reassure Cassandra before it even occurred to her that the comment could be warranted.

"I assaulted a guest inside our walls. Hospitality demands that he can seek redress. It... it will not please me to make a public apology, I admit, but if the Inquisition requires it, I will."

Josephine swallowed. Her heart abruptly felt tender against her ribs, for reasons she could not scrutinise there and then. "Well," she said. "First we must wait for the marquis to sober up. The healer said you did not permanently crook his nose."

"Good. I think."

"You think?"

"A part of me would..." Cassandra seemed to relax a little. "I am not used to such advances. Most people see the Seeker emblem and keep their distance."

"And the rest must realise you could break them in half if you wished," Josephine dared to venture. Cassandra made a sound between a scoff and a chortle.

"Thank you for putting it so uncouthly, my lady, so I did not have to."

Slowly Josephine stepped closer, so that the fluttering torchlight reached her. "The marquis may yet give us trouble. By Fereldan and Orlesian custom, he is the offended party. You may need to make amends by word or by sword."

"It's the word that worries me." Cassandra's gaze turned distant again. "I am not so proud that I'd sabotage your alliance with him. If it can still be saved."

That was the marrow of the problem, was it not? Josephine had, even if indirectly, led Cassandra into her predicament, but now she'd have to find her own way out. On a rare, bold impulse, she grasped Cassandra's hands.

"If you are not so proud, would I be so callous, then?" She firmed her jaw. "In a word, the marquis was an insufferable rube, and if I didn't sorely need his ships I'd have him tossed out of the gate on his... posterior."

She dropped her eyes to the tips of her shoes. "I beg your pardon. I'm sure you don't need me to champion you in this matter."

Cassandra's gloved fingers shifted to cup around Josephine's. Drops of rain struck and spread across the pale leather as she watched them, their joined hands, and wondered.

"It is... a novel thought. More often I find myself playing the champion."

"A role that suits you well," Josephine said softly. She did not want Cassandra to take her hands away, but that wasn't a thing she could say aloud. She fumbled for something in its stead. "May I... You seemed very distracted in the meeting today. Like something was the matter."

Cassandra sighed, the kind of slow, ponderous sound that either heralded or impeded a confession.

"I lost a trail in the Hinterlands. It is a concern for me, for now. If anything ever comes of it, I may need to ask for the Inquisition's help."

Nodding once, Josephine looked up. The rain was dwindling, a haphazard last dash of droplets here and there, the clouds dispersing into patchy, luminous swirls around the greater moon. The second one would only peer out later.

Cassandra met her gaze. "I am glad you asked, Lady Josephine." There were raindrops clinging to her lashes as she lifted Josephine's hand and pressed her mouth to the backs of her fingers.

Josephine drew and held a small, stunned breath. Reaching up, she kissed Cassandra's cheek as she would that of a friend, back in university in Val Royeaux, where life had contained its share of scandals at parties, but decidedly fewer moments such as this, atop chilly battlements in the dark of the first night of spring.

"Do not mention it," she said. "Until you require that help. I will do whatever I can."

They broke apart out of some unspoken accord. Cassandra only went as far the nearest crenel in the battlement, leaning her hand on the edge of the chest-high gap. "It will be a clear day tomorrow."

Sweeping back her hood, Josephine came up beside her. "I believe it will."

*