Lyssa managed to calmly walk out on the balcony even if she wanted to run. For several minutes she could do nothing but breathe to slow her racing heart, inhaling the scent of the flowers and the night wafting up from the gardens below. The coolness of the night air soothed her after the heat within from too many people and candles and for some time she closed her eyes, letting the sound of the music and voices drop away. When she felt someone coming out to her, she had won back her calmness.
"That's the fourth time you're coming out here on your own. What's up?"
Lyssa would never be not fascinated by how soft the voice of a person so large as Bull could be.
"I needed some air. Too many people", she said, forcing her fingers to relax as she looked up to him.
"Yeah, I can understand that." He was silent for a minute before he asked: “So what is it? The masks?”
“How did you know?”
“I see you reading people’s faces all the time. Figured it’d be hard for you here.”
Lyssa took a deep breath and nodded. He was Ben-Hassrath after all.
“I should have known you of all people would notice”, she said, giving him a small smile. “It's a habit I picked up when all I could do was watch people."
Bull nodded, though his gaze was thoughtful. Lyssa had a feeling he wasn't really surprised by any of what she said but still waited for her to elaborate. She really didn't feel like talking about her past at the moment, though. Clearing her throat, she turned to him.
"How do you do it? Read them despite their masks?”
She had thought about it ever since he told her the masks did nothing to hide the humans’ true feelings. For her it was like walking through a jungle of puppets, blank and creepy marionettes dancing without strings, pouring honey laced with poison with their voices. Those with half-masks were not so bad but there were enough people with full masks that covered the whole face that she had no idea what truly lay behind their words and intentions. But she could feel their eyes on her and heard the whispers. The crowd did nothing to put her at ease, too often making it hard to breathe. She was glad for Josie’s relentless training before the ball. Without her, it would have been pure horror and even with all the preparation she felt a bad headache coming.
Bull accepted her diversion with a nod before he explained: “You’re too fixated on their facial expressions. Gestures and postures can tell you nearly as much.”
He turned around and nodded towards the couple he had talked about earlier. According to him, the man was sleeping with four different servants and the woman had an affair with another noble.
“Remember them? See how her body is nearly always at least halfway turned towards that noble with the ridiculous feather hat who continues to look to her? Every now and then she shows him a bit of ankle beneath her skirts and every time she does he hides a smile behind his glass.”
Lyssa had put her mask back on when she turned towards the crowd. She didn’t want them to have an advantage over her and she knew how expressive her face was. Bull waited patiently while she observed the woman. After a moment she nodded. “I see it. Ah, and he just deliberately touched that servant’s fingers when she handed him another glass.”
Her brow furrowed beneath the mask. “She hated it.”
Unlike the guests, the servants didn’t wear masks.
Bull nodded. “Yeah. The others are mostly indifferent and the third actually likes it but not her.”
Lyssa pressed her lips together and made a mental note to tell Sera about him so that Red Jenny could investigate.
“He’s also calling for something to drink way more often than his glass is empty and once even was so careless to whisper to one of them”, Bull added then raised his glass towards another couple, both with full-face masks. “Now. What do you see?”
Lyssa forced her eyes away from the unhappy face of the elven servant waiting to be called on again and watched the other couple. The overwhelmingly familiar feeling of dread when she couldn’t even tell from a distance if they were talking welled up again but with another deep breath she made herself look away from the blank golden masks.
“She’s nervous”, she nearly immediately said, blinking surprised and wondering how she could not have seen that before. The woman was holding her fan so tightly that her knuckles had turned white and she shifted her weight repeatedly from one foot to another. “Oh. I think he’s mad because she spent too much money. If they came together that is.”
Bull nodded. “They did. Why’d you say that?” He sounded pleased.
“Because he’s really rigid. His body is turned towards her but he looks away. And the velvet of his coat is partly worn while her dress is new. And laced with gems.”
She more felt than heard Bull’s chuckle and when she looked up at him, he grinned down on her. “See? No need to see their faces when their bodies tell you nearly all you need to know.”
Lyssa’s face lit up and she felt lighter as she nodded. It did take away at least some of the pressure she felt even if it wouldn’t help with the overwhelmingly crushing feeling of being in a crowd.
“Thank you”, she said, feeling alright for the first time this evening and he laid his hand on her shoulder, pressing it reassuringly.
“Any time, boss.”
“Am I interrupting?” came Solas’ voice from within. He had two glasses in his hands but did not approach them until Lyssa said: “Not at all”, and smiled at him.
Bull nodded at them both and went back inside. As he turned the corner, Lyssa saw him wink at her and as if by accident, one of the curtains that were held aside by a silken rope fell close, giving her and Solas some semblance of privacy. Solas raised an eyebrow as he saw it and they shared a grin before he handed her one of the wine glasses.
“I thought you could use it”, he said as she thanked him and clinked glasses with her. “How are you holding up?”
Lyssa shrugged, taking a big swig of the wine. “Bull just showed me a few things that should help with the rest of the night. But I confess it’s a bit much.”
“You could’ve come to me”, he said, an unasked question in his voice. As he searched her eyes, tenderness welled up in her and without a second guess, Lyssa threw all caution for appearances into the wind as she took his hand, holding it tightly.
“You seemed to enjoy yourself. I didn’t want to spoil your mood”, she said. Solas slightly shook his head, a smile on his lips as his fingers interlaced with hers, soft caresses in his touch, his thumb drawing lazy circles in her palm, invoking memories of a completely different touch. This time, the reason for her heart speeding up was not at all unpleasant and for once she was glad for the mask hiding her blush.
“Ah, Lyssa. You couldn’t if you tried”, he said.
She couldn’t say if it was the wine that made her bold or just the need for something familiar and honest but as she looked at him smiling down on her, she could no longer hold the professional distance she had maintained until now. For once, she ignored the whispers from within and took a small step towards him, turning slightly as she did so, so that her body hid her hand coming around him to caress the curve of his bottom. Closing her eyes, she inhaled his scent, feeling the warmth of his body against her skin.
“What did you say you liked about events like this? A heady blend of intrigue, power and sex?” she whispered and looked up at him from beneath her lashes as she heard his sharp intake of breath.
“Was that a challenge?” he asked, his voice dropping to a seductive tone and his hand on her hip drawing her closer.
She tilted her head ever so slightly, her smile answer enough.
The bell calling her back to the ballroom rang.
Lyssa sighed deeply, regret flooding her. "I need to go back to the game", she said but didn't move.
"A pity", Solas answered and the way he looked at her was enough to make her breathless. They hadn't had much time for themselves after their second kiss on the balcony, leaving for Halamshiral not a week later and there was hardly any privacy to be had before and on their trip. Not with the big entourage, the tailors, coiffeurs and lessons on dancing and politics before their departure and the cramped wagons and tents and Leliana and Josephine taking up any free moment drilling her for this night even after their departure. By now, she wished for nothing more than a few days or even hours alone with him. Sadly, it would have to wait for a while longer.
"Keep the thought", she sighed, slightly brushing her lips across his before taking a step backwards and smiling. "You still owe me a dance."
"I have not forgotten", he answered, reluctantly letting go of her hand, a promise burning in his eyes as he watched her leave.