Summary: A masked ball in honor of Lavellan saving Thedas. Not everyone is who they appear to be.
Lupa watched the people dancing from her throne, smiling congenially as someone walked by her and murmured her name. She had gotten better at smiling at strangers, gotten better at a great deal of things that she never thought she’d have to do. Though it was still uncomfortable to sit at a throne above others, still uncomfortable when people of power looked to her, eyes shining with reverence, she was better at hiding it. Instead of seeing a Dalish elf, teeth bared and tattoos stark against her skin, they saw a leader, a commander, and a divine hero. And so she got better at turning her lips up from a grimace to a smile, and she pretended that she still had tattoos that could make a grown Orlesian gasp in horror and indignation at the savagery. She resisted the urge to touch her cheek. She knew they weren’t there.
“Inquisitor, you are not dancing!” Josephine smiled at her, though only her lips were visible. A brilliant, scarlet mask covered the top half of her face and hair, vivid and bold against her tanned skin. Lupa paused and then smiled at her, too.
“I like watching.” She said, as though it were obvious. And it wasn’t entirely a lie. She nodded over to Bull and Cassandra, the first attempting to goad the latter into a dance. Lupa smiled, this time authentically. “He has been trying to get her to dance for the last ten minutes.”
“They are not wearing masks!” Josephine exclaimed, and her voice held a note of disapproval.
“Neither am I.”
“Yes, but…you are the Herald of Andraste! You don’t need a mask. People should see you as you are, a figure of power. Those two…” And then she was off, no doubt to try and force a mask onto Cassandra. Lupa wished her luck. The only two more adamant not to wear masks than she was were Bull and Cassandra. The first, because he claimed that none of them would fit over his horns and rest correctly. The second, because she informed them all heatedly that masks and balls were stupid. Lupa had slipped away from the meeting before she could be pinned to the board and interrogated.
Everyone else was dressed in regal splendor, gowns of sapphire and suits of ruby. They were dripping in the boldest, loudest of clothes, gifts from Empress Celene, with love. It had been hinted that such a masked ball was something that the Inquisition needed, a night of fun and mystery instead of the tension that had made for many a sleepless night. Lupa watched them, and she smiled once more, another sincere smile. They needed something fun. She watched Cole dancing with a woman from the stables, the woman none-the-wiser. And yet…
…she sighed quietly to herself. This was not where she wanted to be.
She stood up and nodded to a group of nobles that bowed deeply to her, biting back the urge to laugh. Nobles, bowing! As though she were the Empress of Orlais herself! This sort of pomp and circumstance was too much, far, far too much. If they only knew how she had once lived, how she had scraped by with her clan, earning every meal and every bit of gold with blood and hard work. And now, humans that would have once stepped on her, bowed to her. How things had changed.
Gods, how things had changed.
“Your Worship, a small cake?” A baker held out a platter to her, small cakes on plates stopping her in her tracks. She resisted the urge to lick her lips. She loved little cakes.
“Yes, thank you.” She wolfed one down, and then another. Before anyone could see, she snagged another two from the tray and moved on, nodding to the baker and sneakily stuffing another into her mouth. Creators, she loved the little cakes from Orlais. That was something that she could handle as Inquisitor.
“I mean it! She doesn’t have those…those…well…marks anymore…” She paused when she felt someone’s eyes on her, far more probing than normal.
“The marks? I saw her, it looks as though she never had them.”
“Oh, she did! It gave me such a fright when I first saw them, but now they are gone! She seems…kinder without them.” Lupa stuffed the last little cake into her mouth and swallowed, glancing about before catching the eye of a noblewoman, forcing a smile when the woman saw her watching. Damn.
“Your Worship! I was just telling my dear friend, Jameson du Bluon, about your markings! Didn’t you have them before?” Her mask was lace, a dark color that kept her features from being seen, though her scarlet lips stood out starkly against the other dreary colors. The man beside her, a puffed-up sort of gentleman, wore a mask that resembled a lion.
“Are you referring to my vallaslin?” She said slowly, an uncomfortable sort of feeling prickling in her gut. She hated when people spoke about them being gone. When Sera had laughed herself into hiccups, Lupa had to force herself to walk away before she physically harmed the childish elf. When Josephine had gasped and stammered before tactfully inquiring about them, it’d taken all of her self-control not to scream. Cassandra, at least, hadn’t asked any probing questions, nor had she stared the way others had. It was a sore spot, a subject not open for discussion.
“Yes, yes! I do remember them, vivid onyx and they positively took over your face! Is that why you do not wear a mask? Because they’re gone?” The man, Jameson, she’d said, tilted his head, his expression hidden as his friend spoke. Lupa hated the Orlesian masks. The lion roaring did nothing to show her his true expression.
“I do not wear a mask because I do not need to pretend to be someone else in order to have fun.” She replied, and she checked her tone. The Inquisitor couldn’t be so blunt to these people. She was supposed to be clever, silver-tongued. The woman didn’t seem perturbed, thankfully. She laughed delightedly and clapped her hands together.
“Oh, oh! But how did you get them removed? I had thought they were-”
“I am sorry to cut in,” someone said smoothly from behind them, “but I believe this is our dance.”
She turned around, and she felt a tingle in her veins as she stared at the stranger before her. Rather, she thought he was a stranger. His face was covered in an intricate mask of a snarling wolf, his clothing long sleeved and hiding any rank or distinguishing feature. When she glanced at his hands, they were gloved. Clearly, someone had taken the idea of the masquerade entirely too literally. His voice sounded familiar, but in the same way that an echo was familiar -a remnant of a memory, something that slipped across the mind and then was gone.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I did not know you were waiting to dance, Inquisitor!” The woman laughed and fanned herself, curtseying in apology. Lupa, not daring to lose her escape route, nodded to the woman and lightly took the man’s gloved hand.
“It’s alright. Your conversation was so engaging, I’d forgotten entirely.” She replied, and before the woman could bother to question whether she was sincere or not, the stranger led her away to the dance floor. Everyone parted, whispering, but she ignored them. She was used to eyes and lips that spit words, now. Humans couldn’t help it. As the music started, a sweet violin, the stranger bowed to her and took her hand once more, sweeping her up into a graceful dance.
“I am sorry. You had not promised me a dance, but you looked like you needed rescued.” His grip was light but possessive. As they turned, his fingers tightened on her waist.
“I don’t need rescued. I can take care of myself.”
“Of that I have no doubt. But sometimes, I imagine that it is nice for someone else to take care of things, even if for a moment.” He spun her away from him and then turned her back, an ease and grace in his steps that she couldn’t help but admire. It was easy to follow his lead.
“Yes. As Inquisitor, I am sure you are used to the world on your shoulders. But there is no need for nosy people asking questions that you’d rather not answer."
"And so you rush to the defense of my vallaslin. A knight in mask and dancing shoes.” He didn’t reply at once, and she tried to pin his voice and stature to a face. But he felt foreign, not at all like anyone she’d been in close contact with. An Orlesian noble? No, no…his accent wasn’t anything like theirs. Perhaps a Free Marcher. Someone that joined the Inquisition and wanted to get close to their leader.
“I know that the vallaslin are important to your people.” He said at last, haltingly. “And whatever the circumstances were that led to yours being removed…it should not be casual conversation among strangers.” He turned her again, and when he spun her back, he pressed closer, a daring move. Instead of feeling repulsed or uncomfortable though, she looked up at him and pretended that she was holding his gaze. It was hard to tell, though. The snarling mask hid everything from her, much to her frustration. She did not like not knowing.
“Besides, Your Worship; you did not appear to be having fun."
"And now I am having fun?” He laughed, low and sweet.
“That is not for me to decide. Only for me to hope.”
“You stake a great deal of hope on one dance."
"I do. Perhaps I am overzealous. But I have seen you in action, Inquisitor. You inspire everyone around you to hope for more than they normally would.” Someone closer than a mere stranger, then. As they spun, their feet moving together as naturally as breathing, she tried to place his voice, his stature. But though there was something so entirely familiar about him, there was enough of an alien pattern of his body language and speech that she couldn’t say how she knew him.
“You flatter me.”
“It is not flattery if it is sincere. Flattery implies that I over embellish your success. I have done no such thing.” He spoke with such finality, like there was no room for discussion on the matter. There was something in the cadence of his voice, and it soothed her. She couldn’t stop the small smile from overcoming her mouth.
“It is nice to hear a compliment that isn’t followed up by a request for a favor.”
“I have a notion that you have become used to such things. Your Worship grows tired of so many admirers?"
"I shouldn’t speak, lest I cause offense.”
“You could not offend me, even if you tried.” She bit her lip, considered him as they moved about. It was silly, but she almost felt like they were floating, hardly stepping on the floor anymore. She couldn’t hear anything but him and the music.
“…I have never grown accustomed to so many people.”
“So many humans.” He corrected, and she laughed. My, but how he could read her! He had to know her. She had to have seen him before. But where? When?
“It is easier, now. But struggle brings people together. I think there has been improvement on both sides.”
“But it is still uncomfortable?” She thought about it, wondered if it was safe to divulge so much to a stranger. But what was the harm? What would he say that no one else had heard at some point or another?
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the crowds. I am used to the forest, the trees outnumbering the life around it. Here, the people outnumber the blades of grass."
"I’m sure you feel that way because you are a wolf.” His words froze her, and she almost stumbled over the next step. He was quick, though, and turned her before she could fall on her face. He tilted his head and she wondered what expression he held.
“I beg your pardon?” She asked when she trusted her voice. Her heart was hammering, and her palms felt clammy. Memories, memories, memories. She could hear his voice, smell the heady scent of mint and earth. She was sure that if she blinked, he would be standing beside her, a secretive smile on his lips and solemn eyes that saw her when no one else did.
“That is…I’m sorry, was that not common knowledge? I’ve heard Varric call you wolf before. It’s one of your nicknames in the barracks and the infantry. The wolf that saved the world.” She nodded slowly, but it was mechanic, slow and stiff. Varric did indeed call her that, though once upon a time, another did as well. Affectionately. Tenderly.
“Yes, I…didn’t realize that it’d caught on.” He spun her, and before she knew what was happening, he was dipping her, arms securely holding her up as he leaned down, a sharp scent on his collar. She breathed it in and stared up at him, transfixed despite herself.
“It suits you.” He whispered to her.
And then she was on her feet, everyone applauding and cheering. They were watching, she’d realized, the entire crowd circling them as they’d danced, eager to see the Inquisitor move across the floor with a stranger. She could spot Cullen, awkwardly at the back with his own lion’s mask, and he was clapping, a half-smile on his lips. At least his mask only covered half of his face. She looked over at the man beside her, appraising the snarling lips of the wolf hiding him from her. His arm was around her waist, and his head was turned towards her, ignoring the cheering and applause from everyone around them.
“Would you like some privacy?” He asked. Without entirely meaning to, Lupa nodded. He moved her through the crowd with ease, dodging nosy nobles and evading Sera who was watching from the back with mischief in her eyes. Her fox’s mask couldn’t hide her blunt bob and plaidweave dress. He led her to the balcony, away from prying eyes, though the open doors still let them hear the orchestra’s new song. She leaned against the banister and stared at him openly. He stood, his back to the door, and she could feel him staring back.
“You managed to attract a crowd without showing your face.” She said.
“They did not encircle us to watch me, I should think. They wanted to see you.”
“I am more approachable without my vallaslin.” She replied dryly. She saw him shift, then clasp his hands behind his back, as if bracing himself.
“…Do you miss having them?” He asked, though he sounded like it wasn’t quite the question that he wanted to say. Perhaps it was the mask that muffled his voice, distorted his tone. She looked down at her hands, battle-scarred and nicked and bruised, and she shrugged.
“Sometimes. They were part of who I was, a rite of passage. But what they represented wasn’t what I as an elf want to represent."
"They were your mask.” She looked at him sharply, but she couldn’t tell his damned expression. She wanted to rip off the mask, see the person beneath. Her fingers itched, and she resisted the impulse.
“Not a mask.” She snapped. “But…a security. Now my skin feels as though I am always naked. I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
Before she could breathe, he was directly in front of her, a head taller and much broader. Though she couldn’t see them, she could feel his eyes combing over every inch of her, and the knowledge made her mouth go to cotton. She swallowed thickly and stared up at the wolf’s eyes.
“You should feel nothing but confidence. Ma vhenan…you are so beautiful.” He said, and she froze. Because though in every other way, he was merely distantly familiar, she knew those words, knew the voice that spoke them. Her heart stuttered, stammered.
“Solas?” She whispered, and her voice cracked. And then she was reaching for his mask because she had to see him, had to see him, and her lungs were burning, aching, and she drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and-
He was gone.
She looked around, confused, and saw him hurrying back into the crowd, slipping through the dancers as though they weren’t there at all. Before she knew what she was doing, she was running after him, but instead of evading their swaying, spinning bodies, she was trapped by them. The masks of laughing animals, beasts, and fairies swirled and blended, and as she tried to fight her way through the blockade, she frantically searched for his tell-tale mask because she couldn’t let him get away so easily this time. For the first time in a long time, she’d finally caught his scent.
And she couldn’t let it go.
“Solas!” She shouted, but no one flinched or ducked away to hide from her. The people kept dancing, the music kept playing, and she stood in the swirling mass of skirts and elegance, unable to move, unable to do much of anything at all. She’d finally found him, finally heard his voice and felt his touch.
And he’d still gotten away.
“Inquisitor?” Leliana spoke from behind her, and she turned to her friend, unable to stop herself from scowling, a bitter anger easing through her as she stamped down the pain that threatened to blister and burn. Her eyes felt hot, and she blinked rapidly.
"Are you alright? You look flushed.” Leliana tilted her head, her eyes glittering behind a half-mask of a butterfly. The pretty sight of it didn’t appease her, though. Instead, it made her angrier.
“These masks are ridiculous.” She snapped. “Utterly stupid. After tonight, I don’t want to see another one.” Leliana’s eyebrows rose, but she didn’t say anything. She merely bowed politely and stepped back, allowing Lupa to pass. Lupa walked by her, and bypassed the little cakes, the friends, the admirers, and she made a beeline for her private quarters because she was tired of masks, and she was tired of the people that wore them.