Authors: David Gaider
Tags: #Magic, #Insurgency, #Fantasy Fiction, #Dragons, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Imaginary Wars and Battles, #Epic, #Media Tie-In
The dancers lined up across from each other and assumed the
right foot slightly in front with the weight evenly distributed. Then they began: a small kick in the air with the left foot followed by a small hop with the right, alternating until on the fifth step they performed a small jump back into posture. Then it began again.
All the kicking and hopping made for quite the spectacle. There was much drunken merriment on the ballroom floor, though some of the dancers clearly devoted themselves to the endeavor with practiced grace. The crowd on the sidelines clapped loudly in admiration, and even the Divine and her priests joined in.
As the tempo of the music increased, the pace of the dancing became frenzied. Suddenly there was a cry of alarm— a young woman spilled to the ground, tearing her skirt and taking three others down with her. Worse, her mask flew off and landed on the floor with a great clatter. The music ground to a halt as a murmur of interest mixed with amusement erupted.
No one moved to help the young woman. She was left to scramble awkwardly to her feet, holding up the remains of her skirt as she chased after her mask. An imperious- looking woman in a towering wig of white curls, clearly her mother, ran out onto the floor to grab her arm and pull her off. The mother's face was hidden by her golden mask, but her every movement spoke of mortification rather than concern.
An adept observer might have noticed that another young woman in a brilliant yellow gown had been the culprit responsible for the fall. They might also have noticed that as the musicians began a new, slower song to recover from the interruption, she moved to intercept the gentleman across from whom the fallen girl had been dancing. Truth be told, Evangeline suspected everyone present knew exactly what she had done and why. They would also quietly approve of her maneuver. The Game was as merciless as it was contemptible.
Evangeline kept her place in front of the Divine's dais, scanning the crowd carefully. Her legs were sore from standing for so long, and the musky stench of sweat covered by sweet perfume was slowly becoming difficult to bear. Still, she had to be vigilant. The trouble with so many masks was that any of them could hide an assassin. Anyone here could be a stranger, and not a single other guest would be aware they didn't belong. She had to hope the army of guardsmen just outside the ballroom had been diligent in their duty. In the meantime, she could only wait. Another hour, perhaps, before the Divine politely retired, and then her duty would be ended.
"You cannot wait to get away, I see."
Evangeline turned to see that one of the Divine's attendants had approached her from the dais. This was one she'd seen before: a woman with short red hair and vividly blue eyes who carried herself in a manner so controlled and graceful that Evangeline wouldn't have been surprised to discover she wasn't a priest at all, despite the robes. A bodyguard, perhaps? It certainly made sense that the Divine wouldn't trust her fate to a lone sword. Evangeline was hardly offended.
"Her Eminence need not fear I'll abandon her," she replied.
The woman held up a hand, smiling disarmingly. "Oh, I did not mean to imply that you might. You do a better job of guarding your feelings than most templars I've encountered. Even so, this must be a very boring assignment for you."
Evangeline paused, not quite sure how to respond. "I think my Knight- Commander believed I might be more . . . comfortable in this setting, considering the family I was born to."
"But you're not."
"I left that life behind a long time ago." She looked out over the crowd of dancers, who were just finishing the latest song. They vigorously applauded the musicians in the gallery, and then dispersed into conversation. It was like watching a pack of wolves at work. They ferreted out the weakest of the pack, isolating them in anticipation of the kill. The only violence done, however, was with soft words and promises. The ballroom was a battleground, already littered with bodies, and yet no war was being won. At the next social gathering this scene would play out again, and again at the next, as regular as the tide. "All that wealth and influence, and what do they use it for? Their own advancement, while their world crumbles around them."
The red- haired woman seemed impressed. "I would agree with that. I know Her Eminence would, as well."
"That makes at least three of us, then."
She laughed heartily, and extended her hand. "Pardon my atrocious manners. My name is Leliana."
"Knight- Captain Evangeline."
"Oh yes, I know. There was a great deal of discussion as to who would be guarding the Divine to night. Many of those in your order of similar rank, after all, have expressed certain . . . attitudes which cause us great concern."
There was a tone in the woman's voice which roused Evangeline's interest, as if there was far more to what she was saying than she was letting on. When Leliana strode a short distance away to a side table and poured a glass of wine, Evangeline followed.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "What sort of concern?"
"You're aware what happened in Kirkwall."
Leliana gestured to the row of stately windows on the far side of the ballroom, through which the White Spire was clearly visible. It was one of the few structures besides the palace itself which could be seen from anywhere in the capital city, and at night it was lit by magic to make it appear a brilliant sliver of white cutting across the dark— the sword of the Maker, as the templars liked to call themselves. "The Circle of Magi in Kirkwall rebelled and plunged the city into war, and we've been feeling the effects across Thedas ever since. The templars now have two ways they can view it: either as a challenge to their authority . . . or as a lesson to be learned."
"And what does that have to do with me? I don't believe I've expressed an opinion one way or the other."
"Haven't you?" Leliana sipped from her glass, studying Evangeline over it with amusement twinkling in her eyes. "You say the nobility do nothing useful with their influence. Am I not to read from this that you feel the templars are different?"
Again with the hidden meaning. "Of course I do. We protect the world from the mages and the mages from themselves— not because they ask us to, or because the task is an easy one, but because it is the right thing to do."
"That sounds like an opinion to me."
"It is one I happen to share with the rest of my order."
"If only that were so." Leliana appeared somber for a moment, but then shrugged. "There are many who believe a war is inevitable, and that the Chantry has not done enough to support efforts the templars have made to prevent it. They say we must begin picking sides."
"And you're saying I was chosen to guard the Divine to night because you believe I've picked a side?"
"I cannot say. That might be worth a discussion."
Evangeline paused, taken aback. The red- haired woman continued to drink her wine, her innocent air making it appear as if they discussed nothing of importance.
Across the ballroom another templar entered into view. This was a young man, one of the junior members of the order, and the sheen of sweat on his face said he'd come here quickly. He spotted Evangeline with a look of immense relief and raced through the crowd toward her. "Ser Evangeline! Thank the Maker I found you!" He stopped short as he drew near, belatedly realizing he'd interrupted their conversation.
Leliana laughed lightly, not seeming the least bit offended. "There is no need to worry, young ser, though I hope you have a good reason for bringing your sword. There is only supposed to be the one, after all." She tilted her head toward the blade that hung at Evangeline's belt.
The young templar glanced down at his weapon, still in its sheath, and blushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, I didn't think . . ."
"You have a purpose here?" Evangeline reminded him.
"I, uh . . . I do!" Relieved, he took a folded parchment from his tunic and handed it to her. "I was sent by the Knight- Commander. There’s been another murder at the White Spire."
"There has?" A chill ran down Evangeline's spine as she opened the parchment. It was a note summoning her back to the tower as soon as the Divine retired for the evening. It also mentioned the Lord Seeker had taken a personal interest in this latest murder. Reading between the lines, it was clear the Knight- Commander considered this an unwelcome development. "Tell him I will return as soon as I'm able."
The templar nodded, but instead of leaving, he hesitated. He stared at Leliana, chewing his lip uncertainly, and she arched a curious eyebrow in response. "I'm sorry, madame, but I think I might have a message for you as well."
"Oh? From the templars?"
"No, there was a servant outside looking for you. A red- haired priest with the Divine, he said. I was told there is an old friend asking to see you."
"An old friend?" She appeared intrigued. "Did this servant say which one?"
"No, madame. He said this person came from Ferelden, if that helps."
"It does." She turned to Evangeline and curtsied. "It seems our conversation will have to continue another time, good ser. Maker watch over you until then."
"And you." Evangeline watched the woman leave with the young templar, and found her curiosity piqued even more than before. It was said that the Divine kept agents at her side, and that some of them were bards— master manipulators of the Game, sometimes spies and even assassins. If this woman was one, then their conversation had been a very dangerous one.
Evangeline casually glanced around the ballroom, wondering how many people had witnessed their discussion and remarked on it. Would word get back to the Knight- Commander? This was a difficult time for the templars. The rebellion in Kirkwall had sparked unrest in every Circle across Thedas, and the resulting crackdown had made things very tense. Everyone was jumping at shadows, with conspiracies seen in every corner. The White Spire was no exception.
Thankfully, no one appeared to be paying her any attention. The Divine was an ornament to these proceedings, as far as the Orlesian nobility was concerned, and Evangeline was a bodyguard to be paid no heed. She let out a slow breath and returned to her post in front of the dais. What she should be concerned about were the murders. Her investigation had gotten nowhere, and in the current climate that was an unforgivable failure. With any luck, there would be more evidence this time.
The ball was slowly winding down, the musicians already making their final bows and putting away their instruments. Some of the men were retiring to the palace's "evening room," which was a polite way of saying they were going to drink heavily and smoke kohl pipes and otherwise engage in activities their wives wouldn't approve of. Conveniently, this left the women free to complain about their absent husbands and indulge in some matchmaking. Others were already making apologies— those would be the ones cutting their losses, getting out before they did further damage to their reputations— even if leaving before the guest of honor would be seen as an admission of weakness.
As if sensing the opportunity, the Divine stood from her chair. The priests beside her stepped forward on the dais and began clapping loudly to get the crowd's attention. It was effective, and there was a general din of excited conversation as everyone assembled in anticipation of a speech. Evangeline moved aside so as not to block anyone's view.
Nodding thanks to her attendants, the Divine raised her hands. She was an impressive figure in her ceremonial robes and headdress, and by rights the nobility should have been bowing low and thanking the Maker Himself for having been granted the opportunity to meet His chosen, rather than treating her like just another guest with a fancy title. Naturally those present were far too jaded, or too proud, to show such obeisance— but they were willing to feign respect, and after a long moment the room was completely silent.
"Honored citizens, brothers and sisters," she began, her voice ringing out. "We gather here to night to give our thanks to the Maker, for it is by His will that we enjoy so many privileges: prosperity, freedom, an empire that stretches across half of Thedas. It is in this city that the Chant of Light first began its journey to the four corners of the world, and so it is fitting we stop to consider our role as the Maker's favored children."
The Divine paused, and with an enigmatic smile she descended from the dais. Evangeline almost choked in surprise, and the barely concealed alarm on the faces of the priests still on the dais told her this was very much unexpected. In fact, it was unheard of.
Marveling whispers spread through the ballroom as Her Eminence approached those closest. Some backed away uncertainly, while others had the good grace to curtsy or kneel. The leaders of the Chantry had always been aloof figures, rarely coming out of the Grand Cathedral except for state occasions. That this one agreed to come to a ball, even at the Empress's request, had been something of a surprise. There was thus no real precedent for the nobles to draw from for anything but a formal audience.