“You’ve filled out,” Ellayria says: a little absently, her face pink. She’s not staring.
Cole is struggling into his dress jacket, badly, one arm flopping around while he hops around and tugs. His hair is brushed out of his eyes and his pants are hanging loose and low, and he looks like a scarecrow with a very well-defined hipbone. Not that she’s staring.
“You have lines all the way down your back and into the little hollow above your tailbone,” says Cole, without missing a beat, and while Ellayria opens her mouth and shuts it he gets his collar straightened. “It feels wrong without the daggers,” he adds, quieter.
“No weapons at the dinner,” Ellayria says firmly, feeling the heat in her cheeks. “We all promised.”
“They hate you. They want to hurt you.”
“I know, but we have to try to be nice with them.” She sighs, pulling his hat down a bit: “At least for now.”
“Lord Terevin hates elves,” Cole says from underneath the brim, his voice muffled.
“We need that route into the Anderfels. He’s our best option.”
“He’s gone into the alienage at night.” Cole takes off his hat, and his hair is sticking up and his eyes are looking straight into hers. “He takes people. He knows the streets and the houses. Ellayria, please let me keep the daggers.”
For a moment she wavers, and then shakes her head. “No. We promised. But Leliana knows what to do if anything happens.”
Cole looks mutinous, but focuses downwards on doing up the buttons on his jacket. Ellayria reaches out again to tug his jacket into place, hands brushing against hipbones for one moment, and then sputters something about “uh, Josephine” and hurries for the door.
Josephine herself looks gorgeous in yellow silk and ribbons, with flowers in her hair and at the clasp of her neckline. Her skin is glowing and she’s flushed, and she’s going around with a tiny secret smile these days. Beside her, Vivienne looks like moonlight in cool blues and greys and her robes glimmer constantly.
Ellayria grins gratefully up at them as they’re shown into the courtyard. She’s been trussed up into a dress at their insistence, and her stays are pulled tight and her hair is pinned up. She has to take careful little steps in the shoes. For a moment she feels like a toy doll, then she thinks: look up to them. You’re part of this now. Act like it. Act like them.
Cole is… glowering. He’s lost the hat, and he’s brushed his hair and everything about his uniform is in impeccable condition. But he’s hunched inward. And though people are watching them—curiously, avidly, warily—they’re not watching him. Their gazes slide past.
He also keeps close to Ellayria, one hand touching her back.
“Look, they brought jugglers,” Ellayria whispers to him. Two masked harlequins are tossing coloured balls in the air, and the crowd gasps and applauds as they explode: puffs of flower petals, sparkles of light, clouds of perfume.
“Yes,” says Cole shortly.
“See, you’d be good at doing that.”
“Maybe.” He’s still scanning the crowd.
“Do you want a drink?” Cole doesn’t answer, and Ellayria lets out a sigh. “Cole, seriously, it’s all ri—”
“Madame de Fer,” comes the rumble from her left, and Lord Reynald Terevin is holding out both hands to Vivienne. There’s air-kissing on both cheeks. “You’ve broken at least three hearts just walking in here. Do you still have that minstrel following you about?”
“Oh, Maker, that poor man!” Vivienne’s voice is rich like honey. “I’d nearly forgotten him. What was his name? Bertrand? Berwin?”
“Fourteen ballads, by my last count, and each one at least an hour long!” Lord Terevin straightens his back, just a little. “Ah. Inquisitor.”
“Andaran atish’an,” says Ellayria sweetly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes, likewise.” The skin around his eyes is tight and the smile doesn’t quite make it up there. Nonetheless, Lord Terevin bows deeply. “Shall I escort you to the table?”
He hasn’t looked once to either side of her. Ellayria suspects it’s not just rudeness. Cole’s hand is still on her back, and it tenses for just a moment before Lord Terevin offers his arm. She smiles, and lays her hand on top of it, and resists the impulse to look back.
“How are your shoes?” Vivienne asks in an undertone, sipping at her wine glass.
“I kicked them off,” Ellayria confesses, wincing a little. Her feet are bare and her toes are wiggling under the table. “Don’t tell.”
The First Enchanter smothers a laugh. “Poor darling. Dalish don’t wear shoes, do they?”
“Depends on the clan.” There’s a whole peacock on the table with its head still on, staring directly at Ellayria. It’s unsettling. “Mine does, but I’m not going to wear them in Orlais—”
Over on her right, Josephine is laughing and talking rapid-fire with another Antivan. A woman has feathers in her hair as she leans over to gesture with her hands, and two men in domino masks are arguing.
Cole has barely touched his plate, and he’s fiddling with his fork instead of using it. His eyes are down on the tablecloth.
As Vivienne is pulled aside by her seatmate, something about the Chantry, Ellayria slips her hand under the table to knot her fingers with Cole’s. “Hey,” she says softly, ducking her head in to be close.
“Thirty-two times two is sixty-four,” says Cole. “There’s sixty-four knives in this room. And fourteen in the kitchen. Seventy-eight.”
It’s not even the words: it’s the monotone he says them in. Ellayria’s breath catches. “Cole, I’m a mage,” she says, as quietly as possible. “And Vivienne’s a mage. And there’s a lot of people here—”
“The mask doesn’t have eyes in the holes.” Cole’s voice doesn’t change inflection. “But I look for it and it disappears into the crowd. I can’t see it.”
“Let’s go into the courtyard,” he says, turning to her as his fingers tighten on hers. “Let’s go right now.”
A servant has been whispering into Lord Terevin’s ear, and he stands up to tap on a glass. “Excuse me, everyone…”
“Come on,” says Cole, urgently now, and he’s half out of his chair.
“There’s, ah—this is embarrassing.” Lord Terevin chuckles. “There’s been a bit of an incident in the kitchens, and I’m afraid we’ll need to move to the courtyard outside. Evidently my cook can, in fact, burn water.” As the people laugh, “Madame de Fer, if I could borrow your assistance…”
“Of course,” says Vivienne, perfectly calm, and only shoots the quickest look at Josephine as she gets to her feet. Josephine slides from her seat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please…” Lord Terevin is ushering them out, people are bustling, and Ellayria is flanked by Josephine and Cole as they head for the doors. Wait, she thinks, craning her neck to see. Everyone is chattering and carrying glasses, skirts are rustling, the music has started up again and she’s still trying to get free of the crowd when she feels it.
Her knees buckle and she jerks forward, just a little, and when it disappears again she stays still.
“Ellayria?” Josephine is looking her over, her grip tightening.
“Seventy-seven,” says Ellayria evenly, putting her hand to her back. It comes away smudged with blood.
The antidote smells like a horse pissed on a skunk and then died. It doesn’t taste bad, though: sort of like unsweetened tea.
Ellayria has to drink it all, so she’s sipping and making faces at the cup while her advisors are gathered around the bed. Cullen is blaming himself, Leliana is planning five simultaneous murders, and Josephine—she has her hand in Josephine’s.
“We’re going through his papers and chests and talking to his servants,” Leliana reports. “So far they can’t find any evidence.”
“He’s hiding it,” Cassandra says, thin-lipped and white-faced.
“Or it was somebody else.” The ambassador looks drained, and Ellayria squeezes her hand. “There were jugglers and musicians there…” as Cassandra demands, “Do you have the guest list?” and Leliana answers with, “Yes, Cullen’s men are going through it.”
“It was quick,” says Ellayria, forcing down another gulp. “And it was a thin blade, it felt more like a prick. Not like a regular dagger or a kitchen knife.”
Leliana taps her papers against her mouth, thinking. “I think I’m going to write to an old friend of mine.”
“I’m going to see if I can rally the other Orlesian nobles,” Josephine adds, withdrawing her hand from Ellayria’s and standing up. “I’ll write letters now and get the word out, see how much support we can get.”
“I’m going to… be a little sick over here,” Ellayria says sheepishly, pointing to the bucket on the floor nearby. “Sorry.”
They clear out after that, still talking to each other, and she eases herself gingerly backwards against the pillow. Her back is thickly bandaged up and the potion she took earlier is kicking in: she feels dreamy and light-headed, without pain.
“You’re back,” she says to the shadow in the corner.
The shadow just watches her, its face white.
“Are you all right? Where’d you go?”
“I was chasing him.”
“Did you find him?”
“No.” Cole’s voice is thin. “He dropped his mask and I couldn’t think. You were hurting and I couldn’t make everything be quiet.”
Ellayria lets out her breath. “I’m all right. Everyone’s all right, we’re all safe. It’s okay. Thank you for—I mean—”
“I need to keep my daggers with me.”
She looks down at her hands for a moment, looking for words. “Right now?” she says finally.
Shaking his head no. Ellayria holds out her hand and Cole unfolds himself from his perch, coming to sit by her side on the edge of the bed.
“Dar atish’an, ma vhenan,” she says, reaching up to kiss the corner of his mouth very lightly; her hand cups the back of his neck, short hair bristling underneath. Cole lets out a shuddery breath, barely audible, and leans into her.