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the first thread of red

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At midnight Leliana puts her lips to Josephine’s ear and whispers: “Let’s get out of here.”

She’s wearing blue, a light shade like spring skies, fine silk with a shimmering sheen. White lace and ruffles like strips of cloud, just the right amount of neat little bows. The dress is cinched at the waist and the skirt is a wide, rustling mass of petticoats. It doesn’t reach the floor, exposing her ankles in sheer white stockings and her dainty satin slippers with pointed toes.

Josephine turns around to meet her eyes, also blue but deeper, devious behind the silver mask. “You want to leave the ball already? Is anything the matter?” 

“Oh no, you did a fine job,” Leliana says. “Anyone who is someone is here tonight. You call and they come - very impressive.”

For the Antivan ambassador, it is. They mention her home country in a certain tone in Val Royeaux. Anteeva, and then this little snort of haughty amusement, the way they might speak of a servant with scholarly ambitions or a lapdog dressed up in a jester suit. It has taken much work, thousands of letters and aching smiles, but in a relatively short time she has polished her reputation to a flawless gleam and when she wields her position it’s not without effect. Her parties are particularly well regarded. The fireworks at Wintersend were the talk of the capital for nearly a full week, and the Grand Duchess chose one of her soirées to wear the latest creation of court tailor Maqouine. Entirely feathers; incredibly daring.   

Still, Josephine frowns. She didn’t see Marquis d’Epée, all but one of the de Chancillerie daughters sent their apologies last minute and the œufs cocotte were a little bland, weren’t they?

 “Josephine, relax.” Leliana is smiling, a chuckle in her voice. Her mask catches the light and Josephine can see her own reflection in it, the furrowed line of her brows. “I couldn’t have received a grander welcome back to Val Royeaux if Empress Celene herself had thrown me a feast. This has been a victory for you! Now come. Celebrate it with me.”    

 “We really shouldn’t… The hostess and the guest of honor absconding together before any of the guests, you know how that will look.”

 Now she’s laughing, this wicked woman. How infectious it is, and how surprisingly soft.

 “I don’t care,” Leliana says. “I just want to party like we did in the old days. Oh, we used to be wild, remember?”

 Josephine remembers a great many things, some of which she’d rather forget. Yet the promise of adventure shines like a gloria around Leliana, it always has, and tonight the promise is for an adventure about sour wine, frantic dancing and the frightening but inviting grins of strange and nameless girls. It’s been ages since she had one of those.

She nods yes, and it doesn’t feel like the defeat it objectively is. Immediately Leliana’s hand is in hers and pulling her with through the corridors of the ambassadorial estate, behind curtains and out through the garden where the statues lurk in the shadows.

 Her calluses are rough, scraping against Josephine’s palm. It’s all part of the promise, Josephine thinks, just like the lips on her ear.

 --

 “You worry too much,” Leliana says. She moves briskly through the night-gloomy streets. They’ve left the diplomat enclave behind, all those representational estates with their walled gardens. This part of the city houses mostly landless nobility and the upper bourgeoisie, wealthy tradesmen and others with large enough fortunes to have some political influence despite their common background. If her ancestors hadn’t been exiled, this might have been the place Josephine called home.

 “I’m only saying that if we’re robbed blind, I shall blame you entirely for it.” Josephine tucks the burgundy velvet trail of her ensemble into her golden belt to keep it from sweeping up every speck of dust on the cobblestones. While her manner of dress remains distinctly Antivan, and thus not as outrageously impractical as the fashions of Orlais, she didn’t plan her outfit with any outdoor escapades in mind. “We’re thief bait dressed like this, walking alone at this hour,” she adds, but Leliana waves her concern away.

 “I can take care of myself. And of you. Besides, we’re almost there.”

 ‘There’ is a villa of moderate size, rose bushes growing on each side of the door. The red flowers are black in the dark. A dwarf with their face concealed under a hood stands in the doorway, so shrouded in shadow that Josephine doesn’t even spot them until Leliana slips them a coin. The dwarf nods, and opens the door for them.

 The light, the noise, the heat and smell of a hundred sweaty bodies engaged in revelry - it all hits Josephine abruptly, boldly, a slap of challenge in her face. The room they’ve entered is large, crimson tile floor and white plaster walls. High ceiling, at least two stories. Stairs run along both side walls, disappearing into the unlit rooms and hallways on the upper floors.

 The party is majority dwarves, with a fair number of elves as well. She and Leliana aren’t the only humans - though certainly the most overdressed - but their demographic is vastly outnumbered. A diverse crowd for Val Royeaux. There’s even a qunari in the band, strumming a long-necked lute up on a makeshift dinner table podium. Most of the floor space is taken up by dancing and, oh, what dancing! It’s like a stormy sea, brimming with violent joy in a never-ending billowing rhythm.

 “Now that’s a real party,” Leliana says. Her grin glitters. “May I have this dance, Lady Montilyet?”  

She curtsies with perfected flourish and Josephine laughs. “I don’t know how to dance like this!”

 “Who does, really? It’s not the sort of dancing one learns,” Leliana says, and then her arms are around Josephine’s waist, sweeping her off her feet and throwing her into the fray.

 It’s not truly dancing, not in the sense Josephine usually knows it. It’s leaping to music, spinning to sound. Pressed against Leliana and clinging to her shoulders, bumping into every couple they pass on the jampacked dance floor, just trying to keep up with the breathtaking speed. A rush of motion, an exhilarating ride caught in a stream of people, no, a whirlpool, sucking her in deeper and faster with every turn. She’s laughing in gasps and Leliana is too, holding her tight. They step on each other’s toes and laugh even more.

 How long has it been since she did something so completely without abandon? Josephine can’t remember. Perhaps if she goes back to her university years, retraces some of the wine soaked nights after court performances with her Antivan peers, but right now this ravaging, unrestrained moment feels quite matchless.

 They dance one dance, then two and three, but when the musicians pause for a minute before striking up the fourth tune they both extract themselves from the frenzied horde, stumbling out on less chaotic ground.  

 “Oh,” Josephine pants, “my goodness.”

 “Agreed.” Leliana cranes her neck to survey the room, locks in on the bardisk. “A drink, yes?”

 The dwarf behind the counter has a bushy beard and a bald head covered in tattoos. He looks at them with sullen indifference.

 “What do you have?” Leliana asks, and he grunts.

 “Dwarven ale.”

 “And?”

 “Dwarven ale.”

 “...Ah.” 

 Leliana orders one pint for them each, both frightfully large, and they withdraw further down the bar, into as private a corner as is to be found in this bustling circus. Josephine eyes the frothing liquid with trepidation.

 “I’ve never had dwarven ale before.”

“My first... experience with it was in Orzammar,” Leliana says, and Josephine doesn’t understand the wryness with which she enunciates the word until she takes her first sip. The taste is atrocious, outright offensive, like drinking the liquefied smell of moldy mushrooms. Her immediate thought is to spit it out, but she has been trained far too well to ever give in to such an impulse. So, she swallows, and thinks her face will probably remain frozen in this grimace forever.

 Leliana watches her contorted face with amusement. “I suppose it’s an acquired taste.”

 “Indeed!”

 “I admit, I haven’t quite acquired it myself,” but Leliana handles her own mouthful with barely a twitch.

 “Why serve only this?” Josephine says, incredulous. There can’t be many in the imperial capital with an appreciation for the beverage.

 “It probably has something to do with this being a Carta party.”

 Josephine blinks.

 “The Carta?” If she wasn’t sitting down, she would be staggering. “There is Carta presence in Val Royeaux?!”

 “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a presence. More like a few scattered agents,” Leliana says. She’s taken off her mask and her naked face is flushed from the dance. Her hair is a little messy, fine strands rising with static. “The organization has been turning topside lately. I hear they’ve managed to establish quite the influence in Kirkwall. Here, though? Not yet, at least. Val Royeaux doesn’t have the right kind of corruption for them to thrive.”

 “My word. So everyone in here is a criminal?” Josephine doesn’t care that her affront is clearly audible in her voice. This is the sort of thing one wants to be aware of before one enters the strange villa and wears oneself out dancing.

 Leliana chuckles. “Oh, no. Far from it. My guess is only a handful of the people here are actual Carta members. Most are simply thrill seekers, like you and I. However,” she smirks with a steely glint in her eyes, “if any surfacer had a longing for the underworld, or some disgraced noble felt the yearning for less legal gold… This would be the place for them to be tonight.”

 Josephine peers out over the crowd. How do you tell a regular surface dwarf in a worn jerkin from a lyrium-smuggling, throat-cutting one? And what if they have other agents as well, even less obvious ones? It could be that elf chugging down pint after pint, or the human man in the long green coat. She folds her hands neatly, one over the other. “I wonder whether it would be at all possible for me to receive information of any individual from the upper echelons involving themselves in such… activities.”

 “Why, Josephine,” Leliana says. “Planning to drag someone’s good name through the mud?”

 “Oh, I’m sure I would never."

“Perish the thought.”

 “But, one does wish to keep oneself informed in my line of work.”

 Leliana looks as if she’s about to say something else, but then her gaze snags on something further away. “Wait here. I need to talk to someone.” She gets off the barstool and adjusts her dress, turning to Josephine one last time before leaving. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, so don’t worry.”

 “I didn’t think you were going to abandon me,” Josephine says, and the smile she gets is warm. 

 She tries to track Leliana as she criss-crosses through the room, but it’s a hopeless venture. Before long, the burst of red that is Leliana’s hair has blended into the crowd. If she decided to disappear and set off on her own she could do so easily here, and Josephine idly wonders if she’s wrong to trust Leliana not to do that, where her instinctive certainty the other woman would have her back in a pinch really comes from.

 Leliana may speak of ‘the good old days’ and include Josephine in a ‘we’ that sounds perfectly natural, but it would be an exaggeration to call them friends. They used to move in similar circles, attended the same social affairs and afterparties, might have taken tea together once or twice. They were acquaintances, hardly more than that. Leliana was a whispered legend even before she became a hero of the fifth blight, a pale beauty with the voice of a siren, turning both heads and hearts and playing The Game with the same deft fingers that plucked the strings of her lute. Josephine was a teenager with ill-fitting masks and a pimply décolletage. They weren’t in the same league.  

 Their shared histories ran parallel until they both struck off on new paths, they didn’t intersect. Yet seeing Leliana again tonight, for the first time in years, was like revisiting a favorite spot in the garden and finding it sprouting new flowers. Familiar, but filled with new delights. Josephine is good at people and she has a reliable gut. She wants to follow this hunch, the faint fluttering feeling deep in her belly.

 She shifts on the barstool, not really regretting her choice in attire but wishing the temperature would be more amenable to long sleeves and rich brocade. Sweat itches in her armpits, she can feel the damp of it under her breasts, and when she touches her forehead her fingertips come away wet. A loose hairpin falls into her collar; she shivers as it slithers down her back.

 When Leliana returns she’s adjusting her hairdo, putting her best effort into ensuring it will survive the night at least mostly intact.

 “Sorry about that,” Leliana says, and Josephine shakes her head both in reassurance and to test the security of the pins.

 “It’s no trouble.” She hesitates. “...Who were you talking to?”

 Leliana gives her an appraising look, like she’s deciding something, then leans in and says in a subdued voice: “I was making contact with a potential agent.” 

 “For the Divine?”

 “Yes, of course.”

 “Here?” 

“I want to expand the Left Hand’s network. Widen its reach in all directions,” Leliana says. “Any person no matter their background can become the instrument of the Maker, they just need to be given the opportunity.”

 She speaks with conviction, her tone serious despite the smile on her face. Josephine has never before met someone whose piousness manifests in such a clandestine way before, but there can be no doubt that Leliana’s devotion runs strong and true. 

 “So this was a professional visit, then,” she says, and her disappointment must have bled through because Leliana swats her on the shoulder, the touch light, playful.

 “Oh, Josephine, don’t sound so put out,” she says, “and don’t pretend you planned this evening without considering your career. The soon to be appointed Left Hand of the Divine makes her first appearance in the capital at an event hosted by the Antivan ambassador! That will work in her favor, no?” 

 “Well. Yes. It... will be beneficial, I’m sure,” Josephine admits. “But it wasn’t my sole motivation, it was just as much about reconnecting with an-” She cuts herself off. ‘Old friend’ isn’t right, she’s all too aware, and to voice her hopes for a future closeness out loud seems too precarious, as though the blunt impact of the words would topple the as of yet unsteady construction she’s trying to build. Her silence extends uncomfortably until Leliana covers Josephine’s hands with her own.

 “Same here. Please, don’t believe otherwise.”

 Her palms are a little clammy, but very warm. Her smile is warm, too, and Josephine feels her face heat up. She counters with a smile of her own and feels the fluttering in her belly grow, expand into her chest.

 She’s admiring the faint dusting of freckles on Leliana’s nose when Leliana suddenly giggles. “Little Josie,” she says, and Josephine raises her eyebrows.

 “Beg pardon?”

 “That’s what some of us bards used to call you back when, at court.” Leliana tilts her head in honest question. “Do you mind being called Josie?”

 “Not at all.” It’s the ‘little’ she minds, but she’ll let it slide for now. This is making her curious. “You used to talk about me?”

 “We used to talk about everyone, but yes. We did,” Leliana says, playing with Josephine’s fingers. The casual contact makes her heart speed up. “Figuring out who was and wasn’t spying was a favorite pastime of ours, and none of the others ever had pinned you for one. Too innocent, they would say. But I always argued your case.”

 Josephine swallows. “Was it- Is it so well known?” she whispers, and to her great relief Leliana shakes her head.

 “I didn’t know for sure we had this in common until you said that,” she says. For a flaring second Josephine is furious - Leliana played her, and played her well - but then she registers Leliana’s own admission. This isn’t meant to antagonize or upset. It’s meant as a moment of bonding, an acknowledgment of a shared past, an offer of connection. Their fingers intertwine, Josephine’s short and chubby with Leliana’s longer, slender ones.   

 “Your secret is safe with me,” Leliana adds. “As I assume you’ve quit?”

 “Years ago, yes.”

 “Hm. Bit of a shame.”

 Josephine doesn’t answer. Sometimes she still dreams about stairs, the dull thud of death.

 “If you hadn’t given up the bard’s life, you could have had a fantastic career,” Leliana continues. She disentangles a hand from their finger-embrace and lifts it to Josephine’s face, cupping her chin. “Look at that darling face! Who would ever suspect you of anything?”

 “I’m happier with the life I chose. Quitting was the right thing for me to do.” 

 “If you think so, then I do, too.” Leliana looks into her eyes, deeply and sincerely, with a kindness that lowers Josephine’s shoulders. Her hand leaves Josephine’s chin, travels along her jaw to tuck an errant lock of hair behind her ear. There it lingers, while Leliana squints curiously. “No piercings?”

 “Oh. No.”

 “Rather uncommon for an Antivan, isn’t it?”

 “Yes, but you should know my mother did try her best,” Josephine says. “I was five when she had her chambermaid bring out the tools the first time and I started crying, no, wailing, as soon as I laid eyes on the needle. She didn’t have the heart to go on. There were several attempts after that, she even took me to a barber in the hope a public setting might make me too embarrassed to cause a scene, but no such luck. Eventually she gave up.”

 “And you never considered getting it done yourself when you were older?”

 “On occasion. Yet somehow... I don’t know.”

  Leliana pinches her earlobe, not hard. “I could do it for you, if you like. Right now, even.”

 “Here? That- That cannot be sanitary!”

 “I had mine done at a party not unlike this. As you can see, it hasn’t killed me yet,” Leliana says with a chuckle. “Come on, Josie. I’ll buy you a pair of earrings.”

 “Don’t you sweet talk me,” but she’s giggling: Leliana has started tickling her neck in a dastardly resort to a most underhanded tactic. She isn’t being held, if she wanted it to stop she could easily move out of reach, but she wants to stay here, where Leliana’s attention is all on her and her fingers dance over Josephine’s skin until she squirms.

 She doesn’t, however, want to pierce her ears.

 “Come on,” Leliana insists, and, oh, this wicked woman and her wicked grin, how she makes the flutter within Josie rise and soar in the wildest, most dizzying whirl. “A needle, a candle and some ice is all I would need.”

 Josephine takes a deep breath. “I’m telling you, no.

 At once, Leliana withdraws. She’s still grinning and it’s still rather wicked, but her palms are pressed on the bardisk and there is some more space between them, a distance that would be considered respectable from a potential suitor. Josephine is at once disappointed and relieved.

 “Fine. Have it your way,” Leliana says with a dramatic sigh.

 “You’re most generous,” Josephine says, adjusting the ruffles on her sleeves. “Is there anything I can do honor this noble sacrifice? Any entertainment I might provide to distract from this grievous loss?”

 “Hmm.” Leliana taps her cheek. “Another dance?”

 “Heavens, one more will be the end of me.”

 “Then you suggest something.”

 Josephine looks out over the party. The dancing still rages on, the drinking has kicked up a notch, but a couple paces over a few dwarves and an elf are seated around a table, intent on the cards in their hands.

 “Wicked grace!”

 Her enthusiasm has Leliana raise a brow.

 “You play?”

 Josephine just laughs.

 --

 The dwarf with the burn scar on his forehead slams his cards on the table.

 “Sod it!” he shouts.

 “Goodness,” Josephine says blithely. “I suppose this means I win again?”

 He glares at her with such open hostility that it takes a great measure of self control not to flinch. “Eight times in a row. That ain’t natural.”

 “Settle down, Bardo,” says the elven woman beside him, and he sinks back in his chair, muttering to himself.

 She carries herself with authority, this elf, despite her scruffy appearance. Short messy hair, dressed only in a threadbare tunic that might once have been a dark green but has faded to a washed out grayish color. Bare feet and vallaslin, the signs of her heritage a confusing contrast to her street-smart demeanour. Her arms and legs are skinny, though her chiseled shoulders and sharp elbows suggest a wiry strength, and her complexion is very pale with an unhealthy, blueish tinge. She never raises her voice but when she speaks the others listen - dwarves and elves and humans, all genders alike. 

 Had she been a character in an adventure novel Josephine would have been quite smitten. Here, with the woman only a couple of meters away, her presence is mostly worrying. The empty sockets of the skull on top of the staff leaning against the elf’s chair send a chill down Josephine’s spine.

 Still, it puts no damper on her feelings of triumph. This is a successful game night, even by Josephine’s standards. She started out with five coppers borrowed from Leliana, and now there’s a small mountain of gold coins in front of her. Josephine keeps her neutrally pleasant game face intact, but can’t help rejoicing inwardly at the sight of her shimmering hoard. She does enjoy winning, there’s no denying it.

 And then there’s the way Leliana looks at her. Ever since Josephine played a winning hand five minutes into the first game she’s felt Leliana’s eyes on her. Her smile is one of the purest delight, absolute admiration, and Josephine basks in it with her whole heart and no shame. It’s as though her victories come together as one big win for Leliana, as if Josephine is a most desired price. She loves feeling so coveted, to be able to surprise and gratify this way. Perhaps she’s showing off a little too much, but with an audience this appreciative, how can she not?

 “You’re pretty good,” the elf woman says, fixing Josephine in her sharpened grey stare. “Where’d you learn to play like that?”

 “Antiva,” Josephine replies, already regretting having divulged a piece of real information about herself, however small. Leliana would have lied, and easily.

 “Yeah. Yeah, thought you sounded like it. So, hey.” The elf leans over the table, posture a predatory hunch. “Don’t know about the other guys, but I’m getting sick of losing money.”

 “Oh. You want to break it up?” A shame, but maybe it’s time. Eight wins - Josephine would be able to brag about this were she the bragging kind.

 “Didn’t say that. Did I say that?” the elf asks one of the dwarves by her side and he shakes his head.

 “No, boss. You didn’t.”

 “What are you thinking?” Leliana says. She’s been mostly silent thus far, and Josephine has been grateful for it. The less attention she draws to herself, the easier it is for Josephine to make sure Leliana never loses a round.

 “This is gonna end with us losing the clothes off our backs anyhow, so how about we just skip straight to the fun part?”

 “Stripped grace?”

 The elf grins, showing all her teeth. “This one gets it.”

 Josephine and Leliana exchange a glance. Leliana is smiling and Josephine isn’t entirely sure whether this is truly a good idea, but she also knows she could easily keep winning all night, if need be. She nods.

 “We’re in,” Leliana says, and so they’re dealt into a game of strip wicked grace with an apostate and her undoubtedly criminal companions. Josephine can’t decide if she’s more scared or exhilarated.

 The first round is an easy win for Josephine. When all cards are on the table, it turns out the elf woman is the loser. Her henchmen look less than happy, but she tips her head back and laughs, unexpectedly girlish.

 “That’s what I get, huh?”

 The dwarf named Bardo spits on the floor. “They’re cheating. I swear to you, they’re cheating us.”

 “Hey, now. We don’t go accusing people like that. What kinda peasantry would that be, eh? Sure our new friends here got nothing but noble intentions,” the elf says, stressing the word ‘noble’. She stands and Josephine is bracing for the tunic to come off, but rather than grabbing it by the hem to pull it over her head the elf reaches in underneath. In a fluid motion she pulls her smallclothes down her legs, steps out of them and throws the garment on the table.

 Josephine gasps. The onlookers cheer.  

 “Another round, yeah?” the elf says, and how she can sound so smug when her unmentionables are on full display is beyond Josephine.

 The cards are dealt; the game begins anew. The atmosphere is at once more rollicking and tenser than it was before clothing was added to the stakes. It’s more entertaining for the bystanders, their numbers steadily increasing,, and for the players it’s no longer simply a game for money, but prestige. It’s a bit of a battle, Josephine thinks, her and Leliana versus all the rest. The thought doesn’t intimidate her. She has the game well in hand, as always.

 She wins again. When the angel of death card descends she’s already nursing a full suit of knights, and there’s simply no beating that. Keeping any urges to gloat in check she looks to see who lost this time around.

 “I think my luck has run out,” Leliana says, revealing her cards.

 “That can’t be-!” Leliana should be sitting pretty on a middling hand, songs and daggers, but none of her cards match. Either Josephine is losing her touch, or someone has started tampering with the cards. As the former is completely impossible, only the latter can be true.

 “What’s that?” the elf says.

 “I think she just admitted they’ve been cheating,” her dwarf companion mutters.

 “Don’t be ridiculous.” Leliana doesn’t raise her voice, but there’s a fine edge to it. “My friend happens to be more skilled than all of you, that’s it. And really, it’s not very hard to be.”

 It is, actually, there’s a lot of concentration going into each win, but Josephine isn’t about to argue that point right now. She doesn’t like the knives strapped to the dwarf’s belt, nor the way his hands keep twitching toward them. 

 “If I have to tell you to shut it one more time, Bardo,” the elf says, “I’m gonna fry your balls. Think how we’d feel if someone came up, said we were cheating. We wouldn’t take kindly to it, would we?” A beat. “We wouldn’t take kindly at all.

 Leliana rolls her eyes. “I trust we’re all done posturing now, yes?”

 She stands, just like the elf did, and just like her she reaches in under her skirt. Given the volume of her petticoats it’s a far less elegant maneuver, several seconds of fumbling with an armful of fabric tucked under her chin, but after a little while and a few soft curses in Orlesian Leliana’s underwear is sliding down her legs.

 Josephine watches with a furiously beating heart. The air is heavy with a sticky sort of desire and Josephine understands, she knows the excitement of shapely thighs in thin stockings and secret, silky things, but she doesn’t approve. She wants to throw a bottle into the face of every leering man, every ogling woman, as unreasonable as the impulse may be. Leliana is undressing by her own free will, but still Josephine seethes with outrage. No matter how she presents herself, Leliana ought to be regarded with more respect than this.

 Leliana throws her smallclothes on the table as well, accompanied by wolf whistles and hoots. 

 “Nice,” the elf says, and Josephine could swear she’s salivating.

 “Do you need a breather?” Leliana says with a smirk, and the same smugness that was so annoying in the elf Josephine now finds indescribably charming. The elf snorts and cuts the cards.

 The mood has shifted. Turned... predatory, Josephine can’t find a better word for it. It isn’t all because of Leliana’s underthings, she thinks, not entirely. She’s done too much winning on someone else’s turf. Like in a jousting tournament, when a foreign knight knocks all the native contestants out of the saddle and the audience turns against her. Josephine is already thinking of polite excuses or subtle signals to send Leliana to ensure this is the last they join. One must realize when teasing has turned into antagonizing, however inadvertently.

 She’s feeling rather antagonized herself. These people are cheating, she’s sure of it. Absolutely infuriating, acting high and mighty and frightening only to turn around and do the very thing they’re accusing Josephine of. She frowns, and picks up the new cards she’s been dealt.

 It’s a catastrophical hand. Nothing matches, and try as she might her situation doesn’t change as the round proceeds. When she draws the angel of death she considers pretending otherwise and trying to sneak the card back into the pile, but honor wins out in the end. An Antivan wins through skill and cunning, nothing else. 

 The elf has done well, she has a full hand of serpents to show for herself, but- But wait, there’s the serpent of deceit and avarice, even though Josephine already discarded it earlier in the hand. Josephine is running hot with anger - these unscrupulous cheaters! deceit and avarice is right - but then she goes cold. All players have a least one matching pair, except her. She’s lost.

 “Come on then, sweet thing,” the elf says. Mocking, victorious, dirty feet propped up on another chair.

 Josephine armored up for the evening. Overdress and underskirt, blouse and petticoats, pants and stockings, vest and shoes, girdle and camisole, layer upon layer. She could lose and lose for hours without ever showing skin. Yet even the thought of taking off the heavy gold link necklace fills her with dread. All those hungry gazes close in around her, burrowing in under her clothes, a violation even in unrealized intent. It would be unbearable to open herself up to them, and Josephine feels suddenly very small in a way she hasn’t experienced since the early days of finishing school, passing groups of teenage boys from the academy next door.   

 She wrings her hands, a nervous habit no stern old teacher has ever managed to rid her of, searching for the right words to get her out of this predicament. Before she can formulate anything Leliana’s voice cuts through the room, clear and steely like a fine-honed blade.

 “Cheaters.”

 The room erupts with hostility. The dwarves get on their feet with knives half drawn. Onlookers withdraw to witness whatever comes next from a safer distance.

 “You don’t want to say that,” Bardo growls. He’s brimming with violence, so close to spilling. It’s such an overreaction but he’s been looking for an excuse, all of them have, and here it is, adorned with lace and glaring daggers.

 “Oh? Would you prefer swindler?” Leliana says with a flippancy that makes Josephine nauseous. What does she think she’s doing?

 Only the elf remains seated, but her fingers rest on her staff.

 “Told you we don’t take kindly,” she says.

 “So don’t cheat.”

 “Anyone can lose.”

 “Not my friend.”

 “Aw, what’s the matter? Little princess too precious to drop a ruffle?”

 Leliana’s eyes narrow at that, just for a moment, and Josephine knows she must intervene. Stop this absurd argument in what seems to be her honor. Leliana can be lethal when she wants to and Josephine wishes to avoid bloodshed, on all sides, though it would most likely be on theirs. Neither she nor Leliana is armed.

 Josephine stands. She closes her eyes for a couple of heartbeats, takes a deep breath. This is not so unlike the halls at court if you think about it. The only difference is the daggers aren’t concealed. She smiles, pleasant, obliging. 

“Please,” she says. “Forgive us.” 

 “It’s all right, Josie-” Leliana starts, but Josephine holds a hand up.

 “Please.” Her expression doesn’t waver for a moment. “My friend gets heated in these matters. Orlesian pride, one must be patient,” she says, betting everything on the common ground as outsiders she shares with the elf, Leliana can frown all she wants. “We both know this is all in good fun and I’m positive the regret I feel over this unfortunate turn of events is mutual. This misunderstanding saddens me deeply, so please, let’s not see this splendid night end in discord. Allow me to return the money to you as an apology, so that we may all part as friends.”

 The elf regards Josephine for a bit. Then, she shrugs.

 “Whatever,” she says. It seems she lost interest already. Her dwarves are slowly settling down.

 “Most kind,” Josephine says, and holds back on the ‘my lady’ that nearly escapes her lips, for fear it will be taken for mockery.

 Leliana has stood, too, has come to Josephine’s side. “We’ll take our leave, then,” she says, moving to shove the money across the table towards the elf.

 Josephine gets to feel relieved for a full second. Until Leliana folds her torso over the coins like a dragon protecting her clutch and instead scoops the entire pile into her skirt. 

 “Josie! Run!”

 She doesn’t understand. For a gasping moment Josephine doesn’t understand, can’t register, the situation slippery like night-old ice, she’s skidding all over the words without finding footing. Leliana didn’t- Did she? She did, and the knives are out again and the crowd is closing in and, oh, she does need to run!

 She snatches up an errant coin from the table, illogically, and whatever else her hands can close around and then she’s fleeing after Leliana, along the path she’s cut through the crowd. Shoving her way forward, following Leliana’s elbowing example. Voices behind her, commotion, she’s stumbling into bodies that keep getting in the way and she’s not running fast enough, fear clawing its way up her throat, the taste of bile on her tongue. A tug on her trail nearly has her falling backwards and with a yell of a volume she didn’t think herself possible Josephine tears herself out of her pursuer’s grasp. The sound of fabric ripping, and she is free to bound up the stairs to the second floor, two steps - no, three! - at a time. 

 Andraste preserve her long enough to throttle Leliana.

 She’s waiting for Josephine at the top of the stairs, waiting despite the shine of magical fire from below, the roar of a party exploding into a fight. She pulls her through a door to a side room. It’s dark inside, large windows letting in the full moon and more doors, thank the maker for these balcony doors and for not being trapped. Leliana kicks them open. A pane shatters and shards fly, a glittering cascade. They crunch beneath Josephine’s feet as she gets out on the balcony. Before she has time to despair over the lack of ladders, of bushes below to cushion a jump, Leliana loops an arm around her waist and sweeps her off her feet and up on the balcony rail. The neighbor villa is close, another balcony mirroring this one just opposite and Josephine’s heart stops when she understands what is about to happen.

 Leliana jumps. With Josephine hanging on for dear life, the seconds until they land dragging out unbearably while there is nothing but air between them and a fatal fall. But they land, they land on stone with a stagger and a gasp in unison. There’s a window open to the bedroom inside the other villa and they climb through, dash past a four poster bed and into a corridor, a cry trailing after them. They hurry around corners and down stairs, thick carpet muffling their steps. They find the entrance hall, double doors in pale wood. Leliana fiddles with the lock, Josephine holding her breath while the sounds of agitation from upstairs come nearer and nearer and then Leliana is through and they burst into the street and they run, and they run and run.

 --

 The Chantry of Sorrowful Cinders is little more than a chapel, ekeing out a humble existence on the outskirts of an upper class residential district. Once the open place it overlooks was a bustling marketplace, but today it sees little traffic and the chant is sung to an ever dwindling number of ears. The chantry is entirely dependent on donations from the box outside. The altar cloth is faded, the candles not always lit.

 The building broods silent when Josephine and Leliana collapse on the front steps. Josephine’s chest hurts, she can barely breathe. Her hands shake, her ankles are weak like wet paper, every inch of her is screaming out for rest. She’s gulping air on her hands and knees, too exhausted even for fear.

 If they’re still being chased, then so be it. Let their demise come. If she runs just one more meter it will kill her anyway.

 Slowly, her heart rate settles. The whoosh of blood in her ears dies down and she straightens her back. She can’t hear anything but Leliana’s panting beside her. They got away. Thank goodness.

 Josephine sits up. She is to ask Leliana if she’s alright, but when she sees her hands still clutching the blue silk around the coins, the tremors of fatigue in her legs turn to solid fury.

 “What were you thinking,” she hisses. “I had defused the situation. We were about to walk away! Without confrontation!”

 Leliana looks up at her. She straightens, sitting back on her knees, skirts bunching around her in crests and valleys like a stormy sea. Her face is nearly as red as her hair, but whether from exertion or embarrassment Josephine can’t say.

 “That was an unnecessary risk and extremely reckless behavior,” Josephine continues. “There’s no telling what those people would have done to us and I simply do not see the- the value in antagonizing a group of armed gang members and apostates and-” She has to pause to re-catch her breath. Anger is getting her short of it again. “We could have walked away, Leliana, instead of jumping from a- Oh, I cannot believe-” She stops again. Not solely because no words can describe how indignant she truly feels, but because Leliana isn’t looking her in the eyes, instead staring at Josephine’s lap, a baffled look on her face.

 “...Are you at all listening to me?” Josephine asks.

 Leliana points at her hand. “Why did you take those?”

 Confused, she opens her clenched fists. In one is a single gold coin, and in the other- Sweet maker.

 It’s the elven mage’s smallclothes.

 “Oh!”

 Josephine throws the garment away from her, horrified. She must have grabbed it in that initial confusion, perhaps aiming for Leliana’s.

 Her mouth is open and her cheeks are burning hot. She looks at Leliana, at the way her nose twitches with barely contained mirth, and she can’t hold it in. The first laugh gushes from her in a torrent and Leliana is laughing, too. They fall into each others’ arms.

 The gold spills out on the stone between them when Leliana lets go of the fabric bundled around the coins to hug Josephine tight. Josephine hugs her back and their laughter echoes against surrounding buildings. She has been frightened tonight, yes. She has been angry and confused but she’s also felt adventurous like she hasn’t in years and years. Mischievous and wild, free and licentious, like she embodied the sort of scandal it is her job to avoid or cover up. Josephine laughs until her abdomen is cramping, until there are tears in her eyes.

 At one point Leliana’s lips finds hers. The kiss is brief, soft and wet. She tastes like dwarven ale and it’s absolutely awful, absolutely wonderful, and Josephine kisses her back, giggling into Leliana’s mouth. They stay entwined until the irrepressible tides of laughter finally subsides. 

 “You looked so petrified when you lost,” Leliana says at last. Her voice is low and tender. “I had to do something.

 Josephine sighs. “I had it in hand.”

 “Mm. By the way,” Leliana nods toward the smallclothes, “what are you going to do with those?”

 “I’m not going to do anything! What would I possibly-”

 “-Because I have some ideas.”

 “...What?”

 The coins jingle as Leliana stands. She picks up the smallclothes, holding them between her thumb and index finger, walks over to the chantry board and pins them to it.

 “The left hand of the Divine.” Josephine shakes her head. “I fear for the future of the chantry,” she says, but laughter threatens to bubble up anew.

 “This is how a real party ends.”

 “It’s really unacceptable.”

 “Josie, it’s just a-” Leliana starts, but Josephine cuts off her protest.

 “One must be more informative when posting a quest to the board.”

 Josephine reaches into one of her deep, hidden pockets for a vial of ink and a short docked quill. She tears off a piece of paper from one of the other missives on the board, dips her pen and writes: “Lost from loins. Please return to Fanny.”

 She pins it to the board next to the smallclothes and then they both collapse back into laughter, steadying themselves against each other, swaying together on giggle-wobbly legs.

 “You know what would be lovely right now?” Leliana whispers after a while, putting her lips to Josephine’s ear and sending all kinds of little luxurious shivers through her.

 “Do tell.”

 “Champagne.”

 “Ah.” Josephine brushes a lock of hair from Leliana’s forehead, and where the gesture would have felt inappropriately intimate six hours ago, now it seems to her as the most natural thing to do. “If we return to the estate, I’m sure I can accommodate that wish.”

 But first they gather up all the coins and put them into the chantry donation box, one clinking act of piety after the other.

 --

 They forgo glasses.

 The Antivan ambassadorial estate sits at the top of a hill, perching proudly on a vantage point entirely out of proportion with its political oomph. It’s a gorgeous view over lush gardens and gleaming ponds in all directions. Josephine and Leliana sit on the third floor grand balcony, dangling their legs over the railing, drinking champagne straight out of the bottle. The little bubbles dance down Josephine’s throat, the alcohol settling like the softest cotton around her tired muscles. She’s too content like this to feel much in the way of remorse or anxiety. Still, she sighs.

 “If word of tonight reaches my circles… I don’t want to imagine what someone could do to my reputation with this information.”

"Come on, Josie. Who would take rumors of the Antivan ambassador playing stripped grace with the left hand for truth?” Leliana says with a chuckle, and Josephine purses her lips because, really. More outlandish things have been claimed and believed in the parlors of Val Royeaux, but she drops the topic. Whatever comes of this, she is well equipped to face it.

 Leliana lifts the bottle, takes a deep swig. “Let’s do this again.”

 “Which part? The secret crime party, the stripping or the running from people who may or may not want to kill us?”

 “All of it! Wasn’t it fun?”

 “It was horrifying!” Josephine bites her lip. “Although- Oh, don’t make me admit it.”

 “You know, all parties like these end with theft or a brawl, or at the very least someone blasting a hole in the wall,” Leliana says. “We probably wouldn’t have been very hurt if they had caught us.”

 “Probably isn’t good enough!” Josephine takes back the bottle. “If we ever do anything like this again you must promise not to act so brashly without communicating your plans to me first. And if I have the situation in hand, you let me handle it.”

 “I promise,” Leliana says. Her smile, that started out so gentle, goes wicked. “...But you would do this with me again? Because I might have some plans.”

 “If I say yes, how much trouble am I getting myself into?”

 “Only as much as you want to be in.”

 Josephine laughs, tipping her head back to sip some more champagne, and she knows she will return here, to the borderlands that Leliana inhabit with one foot in the alleys and one in the royal halls. Next time, she’ll know what to expect.

 Leliana watches her drink, suddenly pensive. She lifts a hand and brushes her finger against Josephine’s earlobe.

 “A needle, a candle, some ice. That’s all it would take.”

 “No,” Josephine says. She guides Leliana’s hand back down and meets no resistance, no more teasing. Her eyes are very dark in the murky light seeping through the curtained windows behind them, her skin alarmingly pale. Her fingers are a bit cold but when Josephine rubs them, they warm quickly.  

 “I let mine close up for a while,” Leliana says. “After the woman who pierced them was out of my life. I only recently had them remade.”

 “Do you feel happy with that decision?”

 “Yes. Yes, I think so.”

 For the first time since she first stepped into the ballroom all those hours ago, Leliana looks serious. A little sad, a little limply lost. She both is and isn’t the woman she used to know, Josephine thinks. Harder and more brittle at the same time, both truer and more guarded than she were.

 She squeezes Lelianas hand.

 “We’ll keep in touch, won’t we?”

 “Of course,” Leliana says. She leans in and gives Josephine a quick peck, on the cheek this time. The flutter inside of her, the agitated hope that has been twisting around her heart from the first curtsy, the first glance, the first greeting, it settles in the knowledge of friendship. “How can I get you into more trouble if we’re not in touch?”

 “Hopefully it won’t be all trouble all the time. Perhaps there can also be tea? On tuesday? At four?”

 “I’ll be there and I’ll be delighted.”

 She wraps her hand around Josephine’s on the champagne bottle, lifts it in the air.

 “To new old friends!”

 “To new old friends,” Josephine agrees, and then they spend a giggly minute bumping their noses together over the bottleneck, battling for the first toast-sip.

 The night is gradually diluting, morning is less than an hour away. The first tentative cadences of bird song are coming from the trees and the rooftop horizon is outlined with the gold of a rising sun. The sky is shifting, black to blue, and there is wetness in the air, the falling dew. Leliana hums a little melody under her breath, sweet and simple.

 Together, they meet the dawn.