The Winter Palace smelt cloyingly like a ladies' parlour, like fragrant flowers and silks and a heavy dusting of talc. Or maybe that was just the woman in front of him, bundled up in a dress that looked liable to swallow her whole at any minute. He wasn't entirely certain whether she'd been making eyes at him as she spoke, it was hard to tell behind the thick set of her pale blue porcelain mask, but he was fairly certain she was flirting with him.
It had been the coy laughter and the flustered hand gestures that had tipped him off, along with the fact that she was the fourth woman that evening to try. Everything about Halamshiral put him on edge, his unwanted admirers sent him over the edge.
How was he possibly supposed to help the Inquisitor when he couldn't walk five paces without being accosted by another faceless woman?
He was lamenting his run of bad luck when the courtier in front of him was ushered out of the way by another. Unlike her predecessors, she did not make idle conversation and ask idler questions about his role as Commander of the Inquisition. Unlike her predecessors, he knew her, from the low, wry tone to her voice to the mischievous glint in her flint grey eyes that sparkled through the heavy Orlesian mask.
"Having fun in the corner, are you?"
"Hawke. What are you doing here?"
He had last seen her in Skyhold, leaning against the ramparts as though she owned the place, axe in one hand, ale in another as she watched the sun rise over the valley in front of the fortress. Much like how she stood in front of him in the Ballroom, exuding the same kind of languid confidence she had possessed since Kirkwall.
Unlike on the battlements, however, she had exchanged her heavily scarred plate armour for a dress the colour of wine and decorated with edgings of lace. Across the bodice, in case there could be any doubt, were the insignia of House Amell and the City State of Kirkwall intertwined, and above the low cut of the neckline a gold ring glinted from a chain around her neck.
Her upper face, like everyone else's bar those of the Inquisition, was concealed behind a sharp edged porcelain mask, and her hair had been assiduously tucked into the fabric netting behind it. There was no mistaking her intent - she blended into the nobility as if she'd been born into it, only offset from the swirls of silk by a broad smirk. One which merely widened at his confusion, leaving him with the distinct impression that she could swallow him whole.
"I got bored waiting. Besides, no matter how quaint the Orlesians like to consider the Free Marches, dropping the name of the Viscountess of Kirkwall does grant some perks. Relax, I'm not here with your Inquisition. Strictly pleasure."
She rolled the last word on her tongue like a reminder, and he stifled a shiver. If she noticed it, she remained unusually tactful, and instead extended her hand for him to kiss.
For all the eyes watching them, he went along with the charade, and then held his breath as she leant in close, her breath hot on his ear.
"Ask me to dance."
"Your nightingale isn't the only one with ears this evening," she shifted slightly, and he could feel the brush of her lips against the side of his face. "Besides, this is a Ball, isn't it? We could all use a little relaxation."
Heat was rising in his cheeks, one not helped by the sight of one of his earlier admirers chattering not so far away to one of her friends, her gestures leaving him in no doubt what she was talking about. Embarrassment choking his thoughts, he stammered his response.
"Dance? I can't dance."
"Nonsense," she teased, "I seem to remember you defended yourself quite ostensibly in the Hanged Man."
That night, always that night - perhaps it was simply his imagination that threaded it through her words and left him remembering a sweat soaked summer night in Kirkwall seven years ago. Drawing back, he caught himself on the sharp edged corners of Marcelline's smile and reassured himself that she was doing it on purpose.
She had been dangerous long before she'd been a Viscountess, and he found himself pitying any Orlesian who considered themselves a match for her in the art of the court. Where Leliana was a spy and Josephine an ambassador, Hawke was a silent reminder that an axe and a well placed word are equally effective ways of killing a man. Or in this case, a dance and a subtle cue.
Succumbing to suggestion, he bowed, and played the part she had expected him to play from the moment she walked over.
"Viscountess Hawke, would you care for a dance."
She returned a curtsy. "I would be honoured, Commander Cullen."
As if there were any doubts as to her role, the moment they reached the dance floor she began to lead, all the while casting her eyes about and watching the nobles about the ballroom floor with a hawkish gaze. Content that they were merely looking rather than paying actual attention, she returned the full weight of her unimpressed gaze to him.
"For a Noble, your Inquisitor plays the Game poorly. There's no finesse, only sincerity - it has quite a few of the young demoiselles talking, and quite a few of their mothers too."
"Is that why we're dancing, so you can speculate on where the next marriage proposal is coming from?"
" No, of course not. We're dancing because you asked me, remember? And I didn't come to speculate, I came to warn." As the music changed tempo, she adjusted accordingly, quickly drawing him from one dance to the next, her eyes never leaving his. "Lady Leliana may have many eyes and ears, but they are scattered, focused as much on gathering all possible information as that of particular individuals."
"And which particular individual would you have us focus on?"
Another couple passed close by, and an expression of mirth suddenly seized Hawke's face as she spoke. "Lady Mantillon seems quite enchanted with Lord Trevelyan, perhaps she has found a way to address her land issues."
"Tsk," she tutted as they passed closer to one another, "I'm glad for the Inquisition's sake you are neither its ambassador or its spymaster. Now, left hand on my hip, lean in, and we'll close the Allemande. No doubt Florianne de Chalons has the same designs for our Lord Inquisitor."
"And how do you know all this? When did you become so good at the Game?"
"The Game is another word for what all people play at, it dresses up human interaction and pretends that it's something more dangerous than simple politics. You don't have to have a title to understand it... Though, becoming Viscountess teaches you a thing or two about the nobility you wish you never had to knew, and," she laughed lightly then, airily, "Sebastian did always like to tease me that there were some problems I couldn't solve with an axe."
Almost chest to chest, they began to move counter clockwise across the well worn boards of the ballroom, reducing the world to a whirl of colour and light and sound and the single individual opposite them. Which was exactly what Hawke had wanted.
"Mademoiselle de Chalons does her family and her Empress credit, but she seems far more concerned with the Inquisitor than most sane women should be. I would suggest she may have designs on him from the way her eyes follow him the moment he re-enters the room, but I would assume that sort of predation is beyond her."
"Of the sexual sort, or perhaps even the romantic," Marcelline's expression flickered with annoyance, "but Florianne is apparently not one for those pursuits, and the Inquisitor has had eyes only for Cassandra all evening without deterring her."
Hawke's sentence confirmed what Cullen had spent a long time suspecting, that Cassandra and the Inquisitor were romantically engaged, but he felt compelled to defend them nonetheless.
"Whatever exists between the Inquisitor and Cassandra is their own business."
"Why of course," she rebutted, "but that will not change the fact that either her or Leliana will be drawn into the search for the next Divine. And then what will our little love-struck suitor do?"
As the music slowed, signalling the dance coming to an end, he realised that they were pressed chest to chest, dangerously close to one another. His hands were still on her hips, her left hand rested against his chest, and their breaths were entangled in the heady atmosphere of the Orlesian Court. Apparently he wasn't the only one who noticed.
"We haven't been this close in years."
For a reason, he reminded himself, for a reason - there was a good, cast iron reason why he and Marcelline Hawke hadn't been close in a long time, one that started in the Kirkwall Gallows and ended with him waking up in a room of the Hanged Man alone.
But still, as she leant in to press her cheek to his, her mouth returning to his ear, he found the memories he had spent some time burying unearthing themselves and threatening to undo him without her encouragement.
"I remember you had too much to drink and ended up under the table."
He remembered that he hadn't had enough to drink, that he'd straddled the line too closely between light headed happiness and toppling into oblivion, that when he woke up in the morning he remembered every moment.
It had been one of the other templar's suggestion that they go to the Hanged Man to wind down after work, and in a fit of good will and a strong desire to integrate with the rest of the Kirkwall Circle templars after transferring from Ferelden, he had taken them up on the offer. Back then, before laces and perfumes and even the armour of a Champion she'd been a mercenary, one of Meeran's lot who lingered around Lowtown with few things better to do than to get up close and personal with the law.
But she'd always been slightly sharper than the crew she ran with, like a shard of glass in a stack of shivs. He supposed that was how she detected Florianne's actions, given how she'd cornered him that night with nothing more than a flagon of the Hanged Man's finest rotgut and a well placed smile.
They'd discussed Ferelden and the Templar Order, then joked, then kissed, then ended up dancing on the tables - then falling off of the tables, as his bruises attested to the next morning. Then, then came the part he'd tried the hardest to forget.
"I remember," he responded, trying not to let the tension show in the tone of his voice, "I remember that you kissed Meeran."
Her eyes darkened fractionally. "Oh if only I'd left it at that. But then we wouldn't be here otherwise."
Because after she had kissed Meeran she had kissed him again, more deeply and insistently, quashing whatever arguments he might have had about her and the Mercenary leader. Years had diluted the memory well worn by the fingers of his thoughts to nothing more than snatches of sensation and a flush of warmth, but he knew what happened next just as well as she did.
Which begged the question he should have asked to start with.
"Why are you reminding me of all this? Aren't you engaged to Sebastian?"
Mischief glimmered in her gaze. "Of course, and you're getting ahead of yourself. I was just curious as to whether you remembered something that happened so long ago when you've spent all the time I've been at Skyhold avoiding me."
He didn't need to voice that that was the exact reason he had been avoiding her, because she caught on to his grimace with a grin of her own.
"Relax, Commander. We were friends as well, weren't we? Even after we ended up in bed together." She removed her hand from his chest and pulled away as the music finally began to fade. "So consider this a favour to a friend - you can now have the rest of the evening free of any unwanted tag-alongs."
"Is my fiancé, and will no doubt find the whole thing very amusing that I managed to intimidate the famously obtrusive Orlesian courtesans by doing nothing more than dancing with you."
For the first time in the conversation, he made no effort to break away from the glint of her gaze, but rather looked. Beyond the innuendo and the imagery, buried so far beneath the illusion of the seductress and the champion as to be almost unrecognisable, was a bald sincerity only Marcelline would deem a weakness.
As the music came to a close, they turned and dipped into a bow and curtsy respectively, and along with the rest of the dancers drew a small smattering of polite applause. Almost as if on a cue, the Inquisitor staggered back into the ballroom and was quickly accosted by Florianne de Chalons.
Hawke's smile was victorious as she turned to Cullen and winked.
"You just wait. Next she'll be trying to kill him."