Sabre Dance

Dragon Age Inquisition AU.  F!Qunari Inquisitor/The Iron Bull

Sabre Dance

“So,” said Caputalis Adaar, “You want me to dress up and go to a fancy ball, slay the traitors/demons/Fennic, rescue the princess and save the kingdom. And you want me to do it in a fancy dress.”

“…Yes?” said Lady Josephine Montilyet, clad as usual in an Antivan style involving skirts and pantaloons in a way that made Tallis wonder if Antivan’s were aesthetically blind. “As you know we must prevent the fall of Orlais –”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Josephine. And for fuck’s sake, call me Tallis, will you? You’ve known me more than long enough.”

Leliana huffed a laugh in the corner. “She has you there, Josie.”

Josephine harrumphed, brushing back a strand of mink-brown hair from her coppery skin. Tallis flashed a grin at her spymaster.

“All right, yes,” said Josephine. “If you insist on such informality, you must also call me Josie.”

“I would be honored, Josie. I promise not to slip up in the throne room if you don’t.”

“Or in front of dignitaries, diplomats, guildmasters…”

“Oh, I don’t know, Josie – that might be a bit hard for a no-name Vashoth mage to handle.” Tallis’ voice was light, but she saw the barb sink home.

“My apologies, Tallis.” Josephine winced. “That was not well said of me.”

“I forgive you,” Tallis said easily. “I know for a fact you’d have said that to Dorian, and his manners are exquisite, even when he’s being an ass.” Tallis paused. “Maybe especially when he’s being an ass. Which means that he has to come, if for no other reason to see him peacocking in something approaching his natural habitat.”

Leliana laughed. “Wouldn’t that be a sight? Dorian Pavus, heir to a mighty Tevinter Magister, making small talk, consuming canapés, and breaking all the lads and lasses hearts.”

“You cannot be serious, Inquisit—Tallis.”

“Oh, I’m very serious.” Tallis gifted Josephine with a mischievous grin. “Dorian, Bull, and Cole –” she hesitated, feeling a bit guilty, “and Varric and Vivienne if we can fit them into the invitation.”

Leliana’s eyes sparked with mischief. “Iron Bull?”

“Mmmmhmmm.”

“My Lady… Tallis, yes, I will become accustomed, do you think it’s wise to bring your… your…”

“Maybe ex-Ben Hassrath Hissrad lover?”

“Oh, who better?” asked Leliana, laughing. “You have seen his reports, Josie. Bull has an amazing eye for intrigue and can pick apart the situations he sees as quickly as I. And the shock to the court will be utterly delicious.”

“If it is your will to shock the court, why not bring Sera?”

“My intent isn’t to shock Celine’s court out of anything other than complacency. A collective apoplexy might be a bit much.” said Tallis. “They continue to play the Great Game when their people are dying and their land lies in chaos.” She gestured to the fractured sky. “And I want them to know what is coming for them.”

“Corypheus?”

Tallis laughed. “Oh, it would be a joy if they realized that Corey-porey was real, but no. What we’ve built here – the Inquisition – isn’t going to go away once we defeat Corypheus. It’s grown too large, with too many faithful, although we’ve mostly avoided outright zealotry, thank the Maker, or the Creators, or even the Qun.”

“You want them to know you,” said Leliana, considering. “Herald or Inquisitor, in this it is just another name for queen, not just savior.”

“They hear the rumors and assume that I am just a figurehead, a Qunari savage being manipulated by my human handlers. You point me at problems and I blow them up for you.” This time her smile is slightly bitter. “I am your ‘Dangerous Weapon,’ after all.”

“You are so much more than that, Tallis.” Leliana crossed the room. “Doesn’t that mean ‘Truth’?”

Tallis snorted. “If I meant it that way or was a Ben Hassrath assassin, sure. Bull refuses to call me that, so it certainly means something to him and his Qunari sensibilities.”

“I believe we are straying away from the point,” said Josephine.

“Oh, Josie! It’s the first time Tallis has been willing to gossip about Iron Bull, and you want to talk about clothes?” Leliana’s eyes brightened. “Or Tallis could tell us all about Iron Bull and we could discuss clothes!”

Josephine leveled a mild glower at Leliana, which was utterly ruined by the smile twitching the corners of her lips. “It is more that we should be careful with what we wish to do with the Herald’s reputation, and how we wish to achieve it. For many months, it has been advantageous to paint her as the burgeoning savior of the world – but I quite see your point, Tallis. It is not how we first envisioned it, a mission that would be over once we found and punished the ones who destroyed the Conclave and murdered the Divine.”

“Ye-es,” said Leliana. “It would be easy enough to choose some kind of matching uniform, making us easily identifiable as emissaries from the Inquisition, yet I do not think that it would be… enough. Not if we wish to do more with the unspoken word than the spoken one.”

“Well,” said Tallis, “That’s where the idea I had comes in. I’ve seen Orlesian fashion and I’m not going to wear that, or wear some stupid mask to cover my face.”

“Nor should you,” said Leliana. “Your features are exquisite, it would be a shame to hide them. Also, it gives the impression of honesty, as they assume that the play of expression is something that cannot be controlled – after all, it is why they wear masks.”

“Men and women of power, they set fashion, they are not slaves to it. Men and women of wealth and taste display power with subtlety and grace, so the power speaks for itself, yes?”

“Of course,” said Josephine.

“And, I don’t know about you, but I want armor – real physical armor – for the event. We’re going there to deal with assassins, after all.”

Leliana stared at her and Tallis gave her a sunny smile. Josephine began to laugh.

“We have all of these dragon-bits in storage…”

“You want a ball gown made of dragon hide?”

“Dragon webbing, more likely,” said Tallis cheerfully. “It actually looks and flows like silk, can be dyed, takes enchantment well, and is really fantastic as armor. And jewelry of silverite or volcanic aurum – simple, beautiful things where only the knowledgeable would understand the value.”

“You want a ball gown made of dragon hide,” repeated Leliana.

“No, I want a bunch of ball gowns made of dragon hide and I want to put the boys in leather pants, webbing shirts, and lovingly tailored vests made of the best protection we can give them.” Tallis waited a beat. “Also, Cullen in thigh high boots. Because reasons.”

“Because, reasons?” said Josephine, eyes wide. “Reasons like, ‘I wish to start a riot in Skyhold when the Commander walks by’ kinds of reasons?”

“Darling, I share my bed with Iron Bull. Do you seriously think we don’t fantasize about Cullen?” Tallis sighed. “He’d be so pretty tied down to the bed. And don’t get me started on the Templar/Sarebaas/Hissrad fantasies. By your standards, Bull has some pretty amazing deviancies.” Tallis glanced over at Leliana, whose eyes had glazed over a bit at the mention of Cullen in boots. “On the whole, Bull thinks that small clothes hung from the chantry board makes for a pretty tame party.”

“And you wish for him to attend a ball at the Winter Palace?”

“Josie, that’s not a party, it’s a war.” The corner of Tallis’ mouth quirked up. “Who else would I bring?”

“So,” said Bull, running a hand down her side, “I hear that you’ve got some fancy plans for this shindig of the Empress is throwing.”

Tallis frowned up at him. “We can talk Inquisition business or we can fuck, Bull. We’re not doing both at the same time.”

“Is that right?” A thick, perfect finger parted her folds, circling slowly around her clit. “But what if I want to talk about Cullen in well-fitting leathers?”

“Hmmmm,” she arched into him lazily. “Do we get to talk about Dorian, too? Maker, he’ll be so pretty in leather and aurum, all that lovely bronze skin covered up like a secret.”

A second finger joined the first, sliding wide and perfect into her cunt, the wet, slick sound of it fucking into her whispering between them like a prayer.

“Unf. Yes.” She spread her legs farther as Bull slid down her body. “Dorian will ask the ladies to dance, and leave them wet and aching for his pretty, pretty cock, but it’ll be a beautiful blond boy he convinces to kneel before him. A guard, farm-fresh with wide shoulders and trim hips and he will fuck that boy’s mouth like he owns it.”

Bull slid a thigh over his shoulder, opening her up for his mouth, tongue wide and rough, like a cat’s, lapping idly at her wetness, teasing her clit.

“Bastard,” she breathed. “Cullen will watch them, flushed and panting, wondering what it would be like to take Dorian’s cock like that, those long, slow strokes filling his throat, Dorian’s musk surrounding him like a cloud.”

“Do you wonder that?” The question rumbled into her quim like a strange tsunami, the vibration of Bull’s voice tipping her over some invisible ledge as she came on his fingers and tongue.

“Fucker.”

“It’s in the plan,” said Bull, sliding up her body slowly, his impossible width sinking into her like an anchor. “But I asked about Dorian.”

She clenched around him and rocked up. “I’m more interested in seeing him take your cock. His skin is so perfect, I’d like to see it framed in silk and knots while you make him come.”

“Would you, now?” His voice was like granite, rough and deep as he locked his hands around her wrists. “Do you want to fuck him?”

“Maker, yes,” she hissed as he bit, just below her collarbone, the scent of iron and copper blooming between them. “And Cullen. Not that it matters. Neither one of them is capable of wanting me.”

“Hmmmm,” said Bull, thrusting languidly and teasing them both. “All the more for me, then.”

“You asked Wade and Herren to come to Skyhold and design our wardrobe for the ball at the Winter Palace?” asked Cullen for the third time. “Are you mad?”

“I also asked for the most talented seamstress and leatherworker in Skyhold and Lady Vivienne,” said Tallis. “Mistress Kerian is, from all accounts, the actual talent behind Madame d’Ouvre in Val Royeaux, but you know Orlais – they can’t accredit elves, or any non-humans, with talent, taste, or ability.”

Cullen flushed and she rolled her eyes at him. “Cullen, I’ve long since forgiven you for admitting that you don’t find my people attractive.”

“It’s not… not that, Inquisitor.”

“What is it with you and Josephine? Tallis. It’s not hard to say.”

“Right. Sorry.” He sighed. “I find that I am more prejudiced than I had considered myself to be, and it was rather disappointing to realize this about myself.”

“Hey, you noticed. That puts you up on 99% of the human population. All anyone can do is ask you to do better. And pay attention.”

“It is… difficult, Inquisitor –”

“Tallis.”

“—Tallis, and I shall do my best to change. But more, I do owe you an apology. You are, without doubt, one of the most amazing women I have ever met – and given that I have known both Her Majesty, Elissa Theirin, and Marian Hawke, you are in at least moderately august company there. It shames me utterly that I should have dismissed you because of your heritage.”

She stared at him for a moment. “Did Bull put you up to this?”

“What? No! Of course not!” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s just, I thought – you deserve to be received by Empress Celine’s court as the magnificent person you are, draped in silk and power. Instead you’re asking to have an armored ball gown designed. I realized that… I have been as bad as any in Orlais or Ferelden, even when I know that you are so much more than a tool or figurehead.”

A smile played about Tallis’ lips. “Oh, Commander, so serious.”

“It is a serious matter.”

“Prejudice always is,” agreed Tallis. “And I am asking for the design in part because I intend to shatter their complacency, fuck up their assumptions, and change their world – but mostly it’s because, you know, assassins and some asshole named Corypheus.”

Cullen laughed.

“Right then. To work?”

Tallis grinned at him. “To work.”

And it was work – just getting Mistress Kerian and Wade to successfully discuss design and prepare something was a fight. Darala Kerian was capable of out-calming Josephine, but Wade, well… Wade was a prima donna master craftsman and his histrionics made Dorian – master of the snide, over the top, sarcastic tantrum – look like the most angelic being ever to have been born. It had taken weeks for Wade to accept that between them and the jewelsmith that they’d found in the refugee camp in the Emerald Graves, they were going to create a series of masterworks that would stun the world.

And they did.

The gowns created for the women of the party were utterly unique and suited to the wearer, yet provided much the same protection as heavy armor. The men’s outfits, too, were deceptively simple yet as protective as the armor they wore in the field. Between Darala and Vivienne what appeared to be leather and silk went from being ‘rather Ferelden’ to something beyond elegant.

“What do you think?” asked Tallis, avoiding Bull’s eyes in the mirror.

“The color suits you,” said Bull. “And the simplicity of line is far more elegant than anything we’ve seen around here or in Val Royeaux.”

“Look at you,” she said, “with an opinion on fashion.”

Bull stood behind her and met her eyes in the mirror. “I have opinions about you, kadan.”

“Do you?”

His fingers traced lightly along the silverite filigree of the gorget Tallis had insisted be part of the jewelry created for the dress. From it would hang her half of the dragon tooth that she shared with Bull. Once it was in place, the neckline of her dress would form a stylized Eye of the Inquisition.

“Will you wear it after the party?” he asked.

“Do you want me to?”

“Kadan.” Iron Bull wrapped his arms about her waist.

“It’s a useful piece of armor,” she said, wry. “Although I won’t deny that the… symbolism is intentional. And only you need be aware of it.”

“If I ever decide you need a collar, you’ll know.”

“But do you like it?”

“Kadan.” He took a breath. “Caputalis.”

“Yes?”

“Wear it when you want, and I will come to you.” He placed a hand carefully over her belly. “But I will never place a collar on your throat, Kadan, no more than I would silence you or cut off your horns.”

“Will they ask you to?”

He stilled.

“We are together, no matter how far apart we are,” she said calmly, touching the dragon’s tooth. “I’m not a fool, Bull. That test on the Storm Coast was about me, not you, and I know that in the eyes of the Qun I failed utterly when I asked you to sound the retreat. Gatt undoubtedly believed you were outcast, because a lie works so much better if you successfully fool your friends, especially ones of long standing. You are no more Tal Vashoth than I am a fairy princess.”

“I should kill you now,” said Bull.

“You can’t, Hissrad.” her smile was small, but real. “You still need me. I just… wanted you to know that I know. And that you need to remember that the Qun will not suffer me to continue as I am. Bas-sarebaas.”

“Caputalis Adaar,” he returned. “Dangerous weapon. Your parents were more right than they knew.”

“Bull,” she said softly, “That is the name I chose for myself. I’ve never told you the one my parents gave me.”

His fingers stroked over the dragon webbing, over her womb. “They will tell me to kill you, once the deed is done.”

“What will you do?”

He closed his eyes. “Give you a fighting chance, Kadan.”

“It’s as much as anyone could ask for,” she said, placing her hand over his. “But that is a ways away. Shall we seize the day? I’m not actually wearing smalls in this, since the lines would show.”

“Kadan,” said Bull. “You know you’re actually evil, right? I’ll have to go the whole night watching your ass move in that dress, knowing that you’re wet for me?”

“It’ll be worth it, love,” she grinned. “Or so you tell me every time you keep me on edge for hours.”

“You’re going to pay for that.”

“I can’t wait.” She turned around in his arms. “By the way, have I told you I expect you to be the most charming individual you can be? I want you to utterly destroy their assumption that Qunari are uneducated barbarians. Also, you’re going to dance with me and any other person you can convince to go on the dancefloor with you.”

“You want me to do this while I know that you’re not wearing smallclothes.”

She grinned conspiratorially. “Get Dorian to dance with you. I guarantee he won’t be wearing any either.”

“Pure. Evil.” He humphed. “Fine. But it better be worth it.”

“Darling, we’ve got Cullen in thigh-high boots, because reasons. He hasn’t even thought to ask us why.”

Bull laughed. “What am I supposed to do with you, Kadan?”

She slipped to her knees, bowing her head in easy, elegant submission. “Far be it for me to decide.”

The entire event was as much of an unpleasant clusterfuck as could possibly have been anticipated. Tallis had danced, fought, and made pleasant conversation with people who denied, to her face, that the Herald of Andraste could be one of the ox-men. She had overheard, petty, vicious, obscene rumors that gave the Inquisition leverage over the disgusting, petty nobles of Orlais; had danced with the puppetmaster while wearing a serene, pleased smile.

True to her fantasies, Dorian charmed his way through the single and married women, leaving them sighing and fanning themselves. Vivienne and Varric had swept through the rooms and gardens, a scything blade of vivacious hauteur that had unsuspecting nobles all but abasing themselves to gain their notice. Bull simply wandered around asking men and women to dance, leaving them pink and breathless and laughing despite themselves. Dorian and Bull made a well-received spectacle of themselves as they threw testosterone and challenge at one another on the ballroom floor.

Cole who flashed through the palace, following the scents of worry, of pain, of concern – finding instruments of harm, of blackmail, of hurting and bringing them to her and Leliana.

Cole, who told them of the dead elves in the kitchens and lead her and Bull and Dorian to where the Venatori agents lay in wait. Cole, who warned them of the ambush that had been laid. Cole, who she had abused for his abilities as a humanized spirit, who wanted to heal the emotional wound she had caused herself by doing so.

Cullen, who met them at the doors of the ballroom, half-panicked by the knowledge that they still didn’t know who the killer was supposed to be when she hushed him with a gentle finger.

“There’s nothing to worry about. I’m going to have a small chat with Grand Duchess Florianne.” He flinched as she loosed a tongue of power, flicking blood from her dress onto already soiled tiles. “I believe that I have had quite enough of the Game for one evening.”

“Inquisitor?”

Tallis aid nothing, gliding away to leave straining silence in her wake.

Influence gathered around her, first in slow ripples and careless eddies, then in raging, storm-wrought tides as she approached the steps to the ballroom floor. An awed hush grew behind her as she moved, serene in the moment, graceful and gliding across the shining marble floor. Here, in this place, in the space of these heart beats, Tallis is everything she should be for her people and for her cause.

Power flows from her in a crashing tide, an orgasm of regality and charisma drenching everyone in her wake. The putrid, rotten corps of the nobility of Orlais falls in behind her, gathering at balconies, spilling onto the marble behind her in a foul and unwholesome train. They are drawn to her, to her purely burning flame, and she can only home that some will manage to be cleansed by it.

She is the Herald of Andraste. She is the Inquisitor. She is a Mage and a Qunari Vashoth.

She is a queen without a country, a ruler without a people, a sovereign without a throne.

Every beating heart knows that she is their Savior and in this moment they love her more than anything or anyone they ever have – or ever will again.

She is Caputalis Adaar and she is supplicant to no one.

She is the threat and the promise that Celine Valmont of Orlais should fear, even as the words that will destroy the Grand Duchess drop like poisoned honey from her lips.

“The eyes of the world are upon us, Florianne. You should smile.” Her own flash of teeth draws blood, and the pleasure of the kill is absolutely glorious, even as the guards haul Florianne’s desperate, weeping form away.

Tallis stares up at Celine, Empress of Orlais, and can see fear in her eyes. Tallis pulls her awareness from the never-ending now, and time began to flow like winter honey between her heartbeats.

“I believe we should talk, your imperial majesty,” she said, bowing her head slightly, equal to equal. Celine’s mouth twisted slightly, dipping a curtsey that acknowledged Tallis as her superior before allowing the guards to guide her out.

Tallis stopped to take a breath at the top of the stairs, collecting Vivienne, Josephine and Leliana as she made her way to the Empress’ balcony.

“That was impressive, my dear,” said Vivienne quietly. “I had no idea you could do that. You did not even seem to use magic.”

“I didn’t,” was all Tallis had time to say as they were ushered out under the stars. Celine stood with her back to the ballroom, facing down her cousin, Gaspard, and her former lover, Briala.

“Are you mad Celine? You will allow this, this, ox-ridden whore dictate to you?”

“She is here as your guest, Gaspard. Surely you should be grateful that I would offer her all courtesy.”

“I’m not sure what is more amusing. The fact that your guest just silenced your nobles like the spoiled children they are, or the fact that you weren’t wise enough to know that she’d do it.”

“Frankly,” interrupted Tallis, “I’d love to hear a reason why I shouldn’t just kill you all and burn your putrid country to the ground.”

Josephine gasped.

“Sorry, Josie, but I’m a little tired of the Game these idiots play with one another while their people die.”

“Inquisitor, you promised.”

Vivienne sighed. “Really, dear, that was, perhaps, a bit excessive, don’t you think?”

“Almost the entire elven staff of the palace is dead, Vivienne, and all these assholes noticed was that there weren’t enough servers,” said Tallis. “Even now, you can bet that the cesspit behind us is complaining about the lack of drink while they utterly ignore the wet bloodstains on the floor.”

“You must be exaggerating, darling.”

“She’s not.” Cole appeared beside them. “A familiar face, place, space. Red, and red again, a gasp before darkness. He needs, he needs, he needs – one more and the tear will gape open and drip its tears…”

“Inquisitor, we cannot allow Orlais to fall,” said Leliana gently. “That is why we are here.”

“Right,” said Tallis. “Doing Corey-porey’s job for him is rather a no-no in this Inquisition business.”

“Indeed,” said Josephine, still sounding shocked.

“So, here’s the question: Which of you actually intends to do what is right for the people of Orlais, not those mewling, self-important jackdaws outside?”

The three of them stared at Tallis, visibly confused.

“Right. Which of you actually has the power to do anything useful for the populace of Orlais, which – between your idiotic civil war, a bunch of fade rifts, a few dragons, and a lot of demons – has been severely impacted. Oh, and you’re welcome, by the way, since I personally have been dealing with your fade rifts, dragons, demons and refugees while you lot have fucked around.”

“Inquisitor,” said Briala, “As you know, my cause –”

“Right, shut up. Elven oppression, blah blah blah, which will be ended by random elven violence while the world is ending. Gaining freedom only to be chained by a Tevinter Magister from the beginning of time is a brilliant strategy. I’m sure it’s very effective. How about you, Gaspard?”

“How dare you, you blasphemous pretender to Andraste’s grace?”

Tallis laughed, vicious and honest.

“Oh, how quickly opinions change, your grace,” said Leliana, her smile a quick, and shining blade. “How unfortunate that what you picked up was not a tool – but a weapon. Every player of the Game should know how to wield what they unsheathe. Swords have been known to slice the unwary.”

“Indeed,” said Josephine. “The Inquisitor is not so passive as to merely be used, your grace.”

Gaspard flushed a dark red.

“Right. Hey, Celine, did you know that Gaspard intended to have a coup tonight? I mean, he’s hardly the only person to sneak troops in tonight – your security is appalling – but he’s the only one to have left orders for your death with his seal on it out where any enterprising person could find it.” Tallis held up a piece of paper. “And while I’m pretty sure that he didn’t personally murder the poor emissary for the Council of Heralds – after all, leaving a dagger with the family crest on it was a bit clumsy and entirely stupid, which is why I expect it was Florianne – the fact that he did, in fact, import foreign mercenaries that wouldn’t hesitate to kill you says something about him as a person.”

“Gaspard,” said Celine. “Truly? You were not willing to discuss it at all?”

“You are weak, Celine, a useless politician more interested in a false peace and a whored out profit than Orlesian pride! You would have demanded things that would destroy the soul of Orlais!”

“I find it unlikely that cleaning up the Alienages, giving elves the full rights and protections of citizens and requiring that they actually be, say, paid for their work would destroy the soul of Orlais,” said Tallis. “Bankrupt some of its most corrupt and disgusting nobles, sure, but soul destruction of a non-living social construct? Not so much, really.” Tallis bit her lip, considering. “And as a point of record, I am ridden an ox-man fairly frequently. You should try it some time. It’s really very relaxing and has a way of clarifying your thoughts so you don’t, you know, commit treason, murder, and other ill-considered mayhem.”

Briala choked.

Celine took the paper from Tallis, examining it closely before closing her eyes.

“Gaspard, you have proven yourself to be an enemy of Orlais and of my person.” Celine said it steadily, taking the few steps between them. “The proscribed punishment for this level of treason is death.”

“You haven’t the courage to have me publically executed.”

“C’est vrai.” conceded Celine in a bright flash of motion, swift and sure. Blood sprayed out, hovering for a moment before falling to the ground in a gentle rain. “But it is my right to take your blood reparation myself.”

“Celine,” said Briala, shocked.

“Do not speak to me.” Celine stood still. “You are not welcome in my court, Ambassador Briala of the Elves. I declare you persona non grata. I do not exile you, for it would do me no good, but I advise that you send someone I can work with to my court, with a guard escort of your choosing. With the backing of the Herald of Andraste, I will be able to effect greater change on a shorter timetable than I was expecting.”

Briala nodded, clearly shaken.

“I would like to speak to you in private, Lady Briala, before I leave.” Tallis held the elf’s eyes. “Your cause is just.”

“Your will, Inquisitor.”

Briala walked out, head held high. Josephine, Leliana and Vivienne followed her example, leaving Tallis alone with the Empress and Gaspard’s cooling body.

“And, so, Inquisitor.” Celine looked out over the gardens. “It seems I owe you both my throne and my life.”

“Yes,” said Tallis, studying her. “You have been too complacent, here in Orlais. You will need to find nobles who will help you and remove others from power. It’s not going to be pleasant, but we will aid you as much as we can.”

“Why do you care?”

“The sky broke open and threatened to swallow the world, your imperial majesty. I live in this world, too, you know.”

Celine huffed indelicately and Tallis laughed.

“Truthfully, all I ask is that you actually govern.” Tallis sighed. “I don’t want your country and I don’t want your throne, but I need both to be stable. You’re making my job harder than it needs to be, and my job is to defeat a darkspawn Magister who wants to become God. There is no time for petty – or even serious – squabbles when the world is ending. Ask Alistair of Ferelden – he knows that as intimately as anyone can.”

Celine winced.

“And after this is over?”

“You mean, assuming I’m not dead and this fucker, Corypheus is?”

Celine wrinkled her nose at the crudity. “Yes, that.”

“Then we rebuild the world into something better.” Tallis crossed her arms under her breasts. “The Inquisition isn’t going away – you must understand that now. Even if you had me killed the moment Corypheus dies, it will likely continue, with the Herald of Andraste a martyr to the cause.”

Celine sighed. “What you ask is no simple thing.”

“Nothing worth doing is.” Tallis placed a re-assuring hand on Celine’s shoulder. “If it helps, I have faith in you.”

They returned to the ballroom and addressed an adoring crowd, firing them up for what was to come. Josephine and Vivienne worked the crowd tirelessly while Tallis held court beside the Empress. It amused her that so many who had snubbed her at the beginning of the ball now came to her as supplicants, hoping that she would allow just a crumb of influence or power drop from her hands.

“Kadan,” said Bull, threading his way through the throng with a grace and urbanity that the fawning parasites responded to with a kind of awed disbelief. Tallis smiled in spite of herself, as the tailored dragonhide and webbing emphasized his strength and non-human magnificence in a simultaneously sophisticated and basely sexual manner. “I believe you promised me a dance.”

He held out a hand and she took it with a smile. “Celine – if I may, this is The Iron Bull, captain of the Bull’s Chargers, and one of my closest confidants.”

The empress smiled slightly, eyes amused behind her mask. “I have heard much of The Iron Bull. He has made many conquests here. I can see how he might… cause one to re-think a desire for ill-advised mayhem.”

“Ma’am?” Bull’s eye narrowed slightly. “Kadan?”

Tallis laughed. “Oh, just some advice that I gave to Gaspard.”

“Is that right?” He pulled her away from the throng and toward the crowd of twirling couples. “And what advice was that?”

Tallis leaned in close, lips brushing his ear. “That he should consider being ridden by an ox-man on a regular basis. It’s very… clarifying of purpose.”

His laughter was unrestrained as he swept her onto the dance floor.

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