The Comtesse sat up on her forearms, lying on her stomach, her bare back arched and her chocolate hair spilling over her shoulder as she turned her head.
Taesas sat at the end of the couch, buttoning the front of his velvet jacket.
"You should dress. Your presence will be missed," he told her flatly. "And you'll stain the longue."
The Comtesse moaned and kicked her legs up and down like a child throwing a tantrum, her feet bouncing off the white padded cushions. The ornate chaise was the centerpiece of the library. The dark hardwood had been hand hewed from the Tirashan in the far west. The legs of the chair were intricately carved to resemble a lion's paws, while the gently sloping back took on the form of a roaring lion. The cushions were upholstered in pure Vyrantium samite imported from Tevinter, so pristinely white that any extended use would spoil it forever.
The Comtesse had demanded Taesas take her upon the couch, prizing the feat of despoiling the Duke's furniture more than the pleasure of the act itself. She was playing the Game, but playing it poorly. Duke Bastien might have been unwell these past few months, but such a slight would never go unpunished. The Comtesse would be socially destroyed. It might take a month or two for the Duke to retaliate, but it was inevitable.
"Mmm, I must say that your reputation is well deserved, Enchanter," the Comtesse said, rolling onto her back, throwing her right arm lazily across her forehead, covering her bare chest with her left hand with a feigned modesty.
"The pleasure was mine, Comtesse," Taesas lied. She was rigid and overly enthusiastic. She squealed like livestock and her face contorted in unsightly ways in her passion. "I trust that you will have no issue convincing your husband to think of the Chantry and the Loyalist Mages when he opens his vault in philanthropy."
The Comtesse snickered and sat up, grabbing her gown off the floor. She stood, quickly stepping inside, pulling it up her legs, over her bare backside and upon her shoulders. "I hope this was more than just business to you."
It wasn't. But Taesas stepped behind her, wrapping his hands around her waist and planting a kiss on her neck. He worked his way up, his tongue tracing the curve of her ear as he gently nibbled her earlobe, causing her to shiver. "Of course not, Perrette," he lied. "My eyes have been upon you since you arrived."
His eyes had been upon her, but not out of boyish infatuation. She was a target. She had been quietly inquiring about the elf for the last month after catching sight of him at a fete in Val Foret. Perrette was connected, albeit not particularly powerful.. What little influence she had could be turned to the cause, used up and discarded when it ran empty.
She twisted her head, nuzzling the side of her head into him, holding his hands with one while she reached back to fondle him. "You could always push me up against that bookshelf," she suggested.
She smelled of tuberose, but was heavy-handed and gauche. If she had class, she would have selected a scent of jasmine or even of citrus in the summer heat, but she lacked grace. The stench overwhelmed the smells of dust and old paper that filled the library. It was a room the Duke had not been in much at all since his illness.
Her makeup was so caked upon her cheeks to cover blemishes that at this distance her face looked like a pastry caked in powdered sugar. The gems in her earrings also looked too glassy to be real and Taesas knew that some swindling jeweler had sold her counterfeits. "I'm afraid we've already overstayed our diversion, sweetling."
She groaned with displeasure. "You're right, of course," the Comtesse said. "We shall have to do this again sometime, perhaps while my husband is away on business."
Taesas helped her lace up the back of her gown, tying the strings into a bow in a different shape than she was wearing before. She would never know, because she was fumbling and oblivious. But the more sharp-eyed players of the Game would take note, for sure. "You know how to contact me, always, Perrette," he said, planting one more kiss on her cheek before sending her out the door of the library. She tasted of bitter powder.
She quickly scampered away, donning her mask at the doorway and returning to the salon as if nothing was amiss.
The upholstery on the chaise longue was noticeable damp. The Comtesse had sweated like a laborer. The chair was ruined, as expected.
He grabbed the two thin braids of black hair from across his temple and tucked them behind his ears. The Comtesse had grabbed the pointed tips of his ears as he supped upon her sex. They always touched his ears. The highborn of Orlais were always infatuated with the taboo. Elves were everywhere. Often abused. But no noble would openly dare to take a servant into his or her bedchamber.
But when that elf was a ranking Enchanter from the illustrious Circle in Montsimmard, the Game changed. The chase became a daring and exhilarating hunt requiring proper, subtle steps and the right type of influence to close the deal. If the dance could be done properly, the pursuit was a trophy. Incorrectly, and it would cause scandal.
There was a cost to dabble in such taboos and the Circle always left the richer.
Taesas straightened the collar on his jacket, ran a hand through his jet hair to smooth and push it back over the top of his head. He snapped the cuffs of his shirt and lifted his mask back to his face. Most elves would never get the privilege to don such finery, but his position in the Circle, his vast connections gave him many opportunities the drudges of Orlais could never dream. He stepped back into the hallway, quickly looking left and right to see if anyone else was there.
There was no one. He was alone, except for shadows, whispers and rumor that were already circulating in the ballroom below. His work was done for the evening.
Taesas stepped past the trophy room and out the balcony overlooking the west garden. The south garden was the larger and the more impressive with its many flowers, blooming trees and the shrubbery labyrinth with its many, many lovers' alcoves. It was especially popular during the spring parties the Duke hosted after the cold and harshness of winter's chill and snow. Many young people intoxicated on the spring air could slip away for a moment to steal salacious words and soft lover' kisses.
But the west garden had a shimmering pool that reflected the starlight, the slight ripples on the glassy surface causing the points of light to dance and twirl in the water. The few cherry trees were also in bloom, their soft pink petals fluttering down like snow with each gust of wind.
"Take care, my dear," a deceptively sweet, powerful voice echoed through the hallway. "We shall be seeing each other again soon."
"The pleasure was all mine, Lady Vivienne." A man's voice. Marcher. Eastern accent. Taesas turned his head, looking back through the open doorway.
The man wore sturdy armor, a horn at his belt, a greatsword strapped across his back. He wore no mask, carried himself without the cautious posture of an Orlesian. He was certainly no chevalier. Arriving in the garb of war was a faux pas, but he was clearly not of the court. He wore no signet that Taesas could see, at least from this distance and angle.
His brown hair had been pushed back, the dusting of stubble across his cheeks and jaw. He was not handsome. His cheeks and mouth had a soft fatigue, but his eyes were hard and his brows cast, trying to study and understand. At first glance he appeared to be no one of import. A foreigner, a middling, with no immediately apparent influence.
But as he turned toward the stairs, his left hand lifting slightly for the rail, Tae could see the subtle green glow, the dim, ethereal light slashed across his palm.
The First Enchanter had just made a very, very powerful ally.
She caught Tae's eye as she waited for the Herald of Andraste to descend the stairs, then slowly glided toward the balcony, her silverite mask shining. He smiled as she approached, leaning back against the railing of the balcony and giving the First Enchanter a slow, quiet clap as she crossed the threshold.
"I was not aware you were courting prophets born of the Fade this evening," he said.
"There was word that he was in Val Royeaux, trying unsuccessfully to convince the weaklings that make up the remainder of the Chantry to silence their bleating," Vivienne said, resting her hands on the balcony as she came up next to him. "I sent an invitation. I honestly did not expect that he would accept it. Fortuitous, but not unwelcome."
"Always working," he commented.
She looked at him, shooting one of her frowns of disapproval. "I could say the same about you. I had to take the Herald down the hallway out of earshot of your own encounters, Taesas, darling."
He rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest. "You should be the one apologizing to me, Vivienne. I'm in desperate need of a bath after rolling in with the swine."
Vivienne let a single "ha" escape her lips, quite an uncommon outburst for the stoic First Enchanter. "Oh Taesas, dear, you are a delight." She smiled, her fingertips lightly grazing his shoulder. It was rare for her to smile, only done in private and very rarely even at that. "Please tell me you didn't spoil my Bastien's favorite chair."
Tae ran his hand across his chin. His face smelled of the Comtesse. The stink made his stomach ill. "It's quite destroyed," he said. "I'd purge the whole room with fire, just to be safe."
Vivienne groaned. "My dear Bastien does love that chair," she mused, looking off into the garden, suddenly seeming sad at thinking of the aged Duke. He had been bedridden for weeks now, the sickness slowly eating away at him. He had grown so thin and frail, he hardly looked the man who had led the Council of Heralds with such surety, principle and conviction.
She had spent many of the recent weeks here, in Ghislain, despite the turmoil of the war raging across Orlais. She did not speak of the Duke often. There was pain in her voice, well-hidden, but still there for those who knew how to hear it.
The Duke had been a means for Vivienne to quickly cultivate an expansive field of influence in Orlais. Perhaps at once their relationship had been one of convenience, Vivienne seeking power and the Duke seeking companionship. But Taesas was more aware than others that she did have a genuine love and affection for the man, ancient as he was.
"Sacrifices are inevitable in the war," Taesas reminded her. "I believe it was you who told me that."
Her ebony skin was a smooth and delicate as ever, softly touched in the gentle moonlight. Vivienne towered next to him, a pillar of power and influence. The royal sea silk upon her dress was pristine without a single crease or wrinkle, the pure white leather rigid and unmarked, the silverite accoutrements upon the collared wings, the gold that ringed the oversized shoulder pieces, the plunging corset that cinched her waist and lifted her breast.
She had come from humble origin, and vaulted to power within the Circle in few short years. She was shrewd, intelligent, powerful and merciless. Tae stood in her shadow, inches shorter but miles below her in her expansive influence. Vivienne consulted directly with the Empress and her will and call alone held together the remains of the Circle.
Taesas loved her. Known, but unrequited.
Her rebuffs of his advances were curt, carefully worded and planned, delivered with the same polite but stern ruthlessness she exhibited in all matters. Taesas had known she would reject him, not just because of Bastien, but because she was untouchable. He would be a liability, a problem, a weakness in her machine. All this he knew. All this was apparent. Yet he could not shake his admiration and infatuation.
Although other mages called her "loyalist" with disdain, Vivienne wore their ire with pride. The First Enchanter had shown that one could gain much in the Circle if they played by the rules they were given. She was intelligent, beautiful and intimidated by no one. How could he not love everything she was and every ideal she stood for?
Taesas had resolved to move forward with his confession despite the risks. He had no expectation she would acquiesce to his feelings, but for his own sanity he had forged ahead. Vivienne could have easily destroyed him, crushed his standing and set him amidst the bumbling mages and enchanters who did little more than exist in the Circle.
Instead she had raised him up.
She had not pushed him away since that day two years ago. She had pulled him closer, respectful of his candor and his initiative. They had only come closer, strengthening his longing. She knew, holding those strings and tugging them as she needed.
He freely gave her the control.
Tasesas turned around, resting his forearms across the balcony next to her, stealing a glance down her corset, feeling a longing clench in his groin that he had not felt at all before laying with the Comtesse.
"We're joining the Inquisition," Vivienne declared as she stared out into the garden.
There was a long silence before Vivienne slightly turned her head to him. Her face looked as if she was waiting for a response, something that he had not expected of her.
"I must admit, you disarm me, Vivienne," Taesas said. "I don't take you as the type to ask for permission. Or approval."
"I want your opinion." Her answer was blunt and flat. Was it doubt that he sensed? Or was she merely testing him? If this was merely a move of the Game, he was losing points for every second he delayed. The First Enchanter made decisions and issued commands. She did not solicit opinion.
He hadn't thought about it much. They had heard of the Inquisition and its leaders. Many claimed the fledgling rebellion was led by a man that many were claiming was the new prophet. At his side were the Right and Left hands of Divine Justinia. The explosion at the Temple of Sacred Ashes had decimated the Chantry and taken a good chunk of both the Templars and the rebels with it.
"The Chantry can't protect us anymore," Taesas said, leaving it at that, not risking exposing any more of himself to Vivienne. Although he served at her will, a learned player of the Game never gave all of himself. Alliances and friendships were notoriously fleeting in Orlais.
Word had spread quickly from Val Royeaux of the way the Lord Seeker had publicly humiliated those who posed as the last remnants of Chantry power and influence.
The Circles had fallen spectacularly. At the first opportunity for mages to decide their own fate, they had done exactly what the Chantry had always suspected they would. They tore each other apart in an orgy of blood, magic and unchecked power. Blood had flowed through the halls of White Spire. A similar massacre might have occurred in Montsimmard, had Vivienne not been there with her iron fist to prevent the mages from doing anything equally as foolish.
Some of the mages, apprentices mostly, had deserted the Circle over the next week, turning escape fantasies into realities. But thankfully no one had been killed and few dared to speak out against Vivienne's rule.
The few Libertarians in Montsimmard negotiated a peaceful release from the Circle with what Templars remained after Lambert nullified the Nevarran Accord. Almost all of the Aequitarians agreed to stay. Taesas led the small contingent of Lucrosians, but everyone knew his leash was held firmly in the palm of the First Enchanter.
"Marquis Brevere has requested your presence at his summer chateau," Vivienne said, moving on to other matters, which only made Taesas further question what she had really been prying at. "I told him that you were needed back in Montsimmard, but that I was sure you would make the slight diversion north to visit with him."
Taesas let a small groan escape him. While the Comtesse had been middling, the Marquis commanded actual power and wealth. Unlike the Comtesse, he was also an extremely skilled player of the Game, one who knew how to dance all the proper steps on the metaphorical dance floor, despite his age and girth preventing him from doing so in the physical plane.
The last time Taesas had made a private visit to the Marquis, they had walked through the Marquis' extensive gallery, discussing some of the new paintings and sculptures, the portly man's face flush all the while they spoke. When Taesas had joked that his neck was stiff from craning to observe all the art, the Marquis had his elven servants oil and massage Taesas for more than an hour as the noble sat nearby drinking wine and fanning himself from the midday heat.
The Marquis abruptly excused himself after that, having come down with a sudden and incapacitating case of the vapours. In his stead, he offered the full hospitality of his estate to Taesas in condolence for his unexpected indisposition. He had enjoyed a dinner of perfectly poached eggs, a medium steak so coated in black pepper that it delicately straddled the fine line of brute spice and inedibility and a delightful bottle of 8:97 port from a long-defunct vintner outside Rialto whose later declarations never touched the intricacy and complexity of his pre-Dragon Age bottles.
The Marquis later sent a veritable delegation of his servants, both men and elves, adults, nubiles and pubescent courtesans of both sexes to attend to whatever pleasure or fancy he might desire in bed. By then, Taesas' head was spinning from the fortified wine he imbibed while reading. He politely sent them all away with many thanks to his gracious host.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he had a master sculptor awaiting my arrival to carve my likeness into marble for his bedchamber," Taesas commented. "Although it is your flawless form that the Brevere should be wanting to preserve."
The First Enchanter was not impressed, although he had not expected her to be. Still, he always liked to proffer a verbal reminder or a small gift of affection from time to time to gauge her reaction and test the limits of her patience. Her response had never been anything he would consider close to warm, but likewise they had never been cold or curt.
"You can save your flattery for the Marquis, darling."
A breeze sent rippled across the reflecting pool, blurring the starlight in the water. The leaves of the trees rustled, sending pink petals fluttering to the ground. He could hear the sound of strings as the players picked up again in the main hall after a slight recess. Taesas could feel the taste for red wine developing on his tongue, the need to wash the filth from his mouth.
They stood quietly for a moment, the shadow of the First Enchanter swallowing him as he leaned across the railing of the balcony. Her eyes were looking ahead too, staring somewhere distant, a thousand thoughts likely running through her head.
Somewhere, far in the distance, there was a gaping, spiraling hole in the sky. There had been talk of smaller tears in southern Orlais, but nothing so dreadful so far north in Ghislain. Orlais continued as it always had here, even despite the raging civil war that raged all around them. And here they stood, mages still loyal to the ideals of a Chantry that had been falling to pieces before one spectacular shattering explosion deep in the Frostback Mountains.
Vivienne had thrown their lot in with this fledgling Inquisition. Taesas knew her to be incredibly clever and shrewd, but he couldn't decide whether her actions tonight were the next carefully plotted move in her grand design or an act of desperation. Her silence made him uneasy. Madam de Fer, the Iron Lady, did not fear and did not falter, or so the court declared.
"So what kind of man is this Trevelyan?" Taesas said to break the silence.
Vivienne didn't move, her gaze still unfocused far, far away from Ghislain. "I honestly don't know, dear" Vivienne said.
"But I do know the type of man I intend to make of him."