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In her years as queen of Ferelden, both at Cailan’s side and alone, Anora has dealt with tedium in all its forms. She has been lectured by revered mothers so old and doddering they lost track of precisely which aspect of moral decay they’d been addressing, and had to be delicately rerouted. She has negotiated upon points so utterly inconsequential they’d needed scholars on hand to clarify what, exactly, the semantic differences were between the positions of Starkhaven and Ostwick. She has even, in times of true calamity, listened to the opinions of Arl Eamon.

There is nothing more interminable than the pleasantries of men who’ve traveled from all across Thedas hoping to marry her.

This primped and polished chevalier, Michel de Chalons or whatever his name was, is not the first or even the tenth bland, polite and fair-haired suitor to be flung at Anora, as if a cheap semblance of Cailan will be all it takes to persuade her to cede Ferelden’s throne.

And it would be a surrender; of that Anora has no doubt. She cares fiercely for her people but sees their pettiness and prejudice with clear eyes. Andraste is all well and good for their chantry fables, but on the Fereldan throne they would rather see Maferath, the man who betrayed her out of jealousy and spite. They would rather have had the romantic tale of the bastard son returning.

Never mind the fact that Alistair had as little desire to be king as Anora does to marry a man.

It was easy, when she was young and Cailan was wrapped so tightly around her little finger—when they could travel Ferelden, finding battles throughout the countryside and celebrating their victories with drink and dancing and Cailan pinned so easily beneath her—to mistake the thrill of adventure, the heady rush of the power she held over Cailan, for something resembling love.

Her desire to rule did not only outstrip Cailan’s, it outstripped him, until there were times she felt like an endless, agonized wellspring of longing, with all her dreams forever just out of reach while her husband played at war and slept with servants. Anora wanted this kingdom he’d been granted by an accident of birth. She wanted so much more than to be Cailan’s wife.

And as that hunger crystallized inside Anora’s heart, other truths about herself became much harder to avoid. They waited and whispered in every touch of Erlina’s hands against her neatly combed hair, or on the clasp of a necklace, or tugging at the laces of Anora’s gown. The truth crept forth on all the nights she slept alone in her private rooms, too weary to feign interest in conceiving an heir who might inherit all the power she was denied.

In the end, Anora was forced to admit that she did not simply envy Erlina’s soft figure, or Ser Cauthrien’s strength, or the raw determination of the Hero of Ferelden. It had never been only that. Hers was a different breed of desire, so much deeper and more frightening than jealousy.

Knowing what she wants means knowing that she may never manage to have it.

The chevalier steps down from the throne with a bow, the wry acknowledgement of his failure already written across his unremarkable features. At least, Anora thinks, he has the wits to realize that he’ll have no luck with her. She spares him only a polite, dismissive flick of her hand, as with so many other guests; there are times a reputation of coldness can be quite useful.

Her master of ceremonies moves forward smoothly to continue the introductions.

“Madame Vivienne, First Enchanter of Montsimmard and Enchanter to the Imperial Court.”

Only now does Anora realize how truly distracted she must have been, to not have noticed this particular guest approaching the dais. She swallows, or means to, her throat convulsing uselessly before she forces down the sudden, unwelcome attack of nerves.

This Enchanter Vivienne cuts a striking figure: a tall woman, made taller by the heels of her shoes and dressed like no mage Anora has ever met, her robes a fitted, complex gown, knee-length and slit up the sides to allow greater freedom of movement. Laid over knee-high boots and dark grey leggings are swathes of silk and samite and a blood-red highever weave that must have cost a small fortune, only to be made into the robes’ innermost lining, concealed by layers of white and grey.

Vivienne steps forward smoothly, her steady gaze locked on Anora. It’s as if nobody else is in the hall, as if Anora’s gown is transparent and her thoughts laid bare along with her body—like those dark eyes can see every inch of her. Even the guests’ polite murmurs seem to fade, until the only sound is the steady, echoing strike of Vivienne’s heels on the smooth stone floor.

With years of experience to fall back upon, Anora does not so much as shift her weight upon the throne. Only her fingers, neatly folded and tightening in her lap, tremble slightly with the urge to draw this woman close, to touch. The rest of herself is devoted to watching in silence.

By now Vivienne has nearly reached the customary spot for guests and supplicants stand to be received, her staff held like an ornament in one graceful hand. She, like most of the envoy from Orlais, is unmasked in concession to Fereldan custom—but upon her head rests a weighty hennin, curved almost to resemble horns, engraved and inlaid with silverite and pearls. With no mask to balance it, the piece requires that the wearer’s posture remain upright, impeccably balanced. And yet the gleaming white-and-silver hennin stays, without the slightest hint of wavering, even when Lady Vivienne sinks into a curtsy.

This, Anora thinks, the breath shocked out of her lungs, is a woman who knows the value of control.

And she is astoundingly beautiful. Even in the Fereldan winter, these months when Anora’s hands are always flushed pink and chapped by wind, Vivienne’s skin looks soft and flawless, her cheekbones catching the light at precisely the angle of her hennin. Her lips shine as if they’ve just been wetted. As if Anora has already kissed them.

That mouth curves into a smile, watching Anora, and the decorative greaves spanning upward from her boots seem solid and sharply defined, drawing one’s eyes to the extravagant collar spreading out from her bare throat like wings, shielding her face and neck, and the hard metal tips on each finger of Vivienne’s gloves. For a single moment, it seems as if Vivienne walks among them in full armor, poised to strike, with none of them any the wiser.

But like any foolish, melodramatic notion, it passes quickly.

Such an honor to be here, your majesty,” says Vivienne, arch and unconvincing, in a murmur that easily carries across the room. The insincerity comes as a blessed reminder that Anora mustn’t be carried away by someone who no doubt despises her as a filthy, uncivilized dog lord.

She nods, the gesture no more telling than her dismissal of the others, and lets words gather up unsaid inside her throat as Vivienne walks away without a backward glance.

 

--

 

Hours after the reception is over, with dinner and its endless, agonizing niceties finally complete, Anora sinks into her favorite chair by the fire in her study and sighs. Her mabari, Moira, long since settled in to sleep on the carpet, stretches out her front feet and huffs companionably in reply. Anora meant to slip off her shoes, but the energy for even that small task eludes her.

Instead she closes her eyes. For once, the castle is silent, and there is peace.

A peace inevitably broken, of course, by Erlina’s quiet, graceful steps across the threshold. There is always some matter to attend to, even at this hour of the night.

Damn this business of ruling a kingdom. Anora loves it too dearly, and it will be the death of her.

She sits up straight, stifles a yawn out of habit rather than much desire to cling to decorum, and doesn’t bother turning around. “Yes?”

“A visitor for you, my lady.”

Anora lets her shoulders slump, fingertips digging irritably at her left temple, and barely manages not to groan aloud in her frustration. Last time, it was that idiot prince from Nevarra, come to assure her that his holdings were vast and valuable. Can these people give her no peace?

“Who is it?” she asks, enunciating pleasantly through her clenched teeth. It won’t fool Erlina for a moment, but there are times when a little pretense helps them both.

“Enchanter Vivienne.”

It’s enough of a surprise to make Anora turn, her cheek resting against the high back of the chair. She remembers, in a hesitation only as long as a heartbeat, that in the pit of vipers comprising the Orlesian empire’s court, Vivienne is also known by the name Madame de Fer. To inspire such a title among those who daily snatch at power no matter the cost, she must be at least as dangerous as she is beautiful. The risk here is considerable.

“Send her in.”

She does not rise when the door opens again moments later, only counts the smooth, even footsteps until Vivienne stands before her again, offering one more flawless curtsy before sinking into the opposite chair. Her clothing remains spotless, the white cloth brilliant and the black without a single fleck of dust. Vivienne crosses her ankles and carefully shifts the hem of her robes as far away from Moira as possible, as if she fears mabari are prone to spitting in their sleep. That, at least, is a strike against her.

“I apologize for coming to you so late,” she says, her voice just as charming and false as it had been before.

Anora finds herself inexplicably, idiotically disappointed. Of course this is yet another political maneuver by another scheming Orlesian. Why would it be otherwise? Better to just dispense with the pleasantries and give her refusal as quickly as possible.

“Why did you come here?“ she asks, not bothering to hide her annoyance and exhaustion. “What is it that you want?”

Vivienne's smile grows, but it is distinctly cold. “My dear, why I came and what I want are two entirely different questions.”

“Then I trust you’ll answer both, in whatever order suits you,” says Anora sharply, sweetly, with a smile of her own.

It's then, of all moments, that she could swear she sees a glimmer of—could it be respect? excitement?—in Vivienne's eyes, a spark that makes Anora's chest abruptly tight, her heart pounding in a way that's very inconvenient. It's so difficult to think. “Of course, your majesty,” Vivienne murmurs, with the slightest incline of her head. “The imperial court has a place for a mage, and always has. Granted, the title traditionally makes them little more than a diversion. But in the proper hands, any position close to the empress can be made valuable.”

“I take it yours are the proper hands,” Anora says without thinking, and damns her skin for flushing when Vivienne's smile continues to widen.

“It's hardly for me to say, of course. Especially when Celene has found a new diversion in her feral arcane advisor.” Venom creeps into Vivienne's voice at that, no matter how smoothly she recovers, and Anora cannot help but feel a pang of sympathy. To work so hard and thanklessly toward what you want the most, only to find that you may be forced away from all you've earned—yes. She knows that feeling well. “These men who flock to Denerim seeking your hand will return to their homes saying that you are cold, when in fact it’s quite inevitable they are rejected. If word of your preference for women were to reach the proper ears, you’d surely receive suitors more to your liking.”

By some miracle, Anora manages not to flinch. And that's as it should be. She has nothing to be ashamed of. But to have the truth laid bare by a woman who knows her not at all...there's an awful sort of vulnerability in that.

“You’re perceptive, Lady Vivienne,” she replies when she can trust her voice. “But I have no wish to remarry.”

“You should,” says Vivienne, as if it's truly that simple. “You trust your reign will speak for itself, which is nonsense. A queen’s decisions are a single stone cast into the void for history to judge, with your aim toward righteousness only as true as your judgment can make it. Your people are the ones who speak.”

“And?”

“Come, my dear. Anyone sensible knows you are more than competent, but you’ve failed to make an impression in the hearts of those whose opinions are dictated by your detractors. Sentiment could be appealed to where logic has failed. Imagine how the common Fereldan might feel upon learning their queen has been swept up in a love affair.”

Another moment, shorter now, for Anora to forcibly unclench her jaw. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, but you do, my dear. In her eagerness to see me gone from court, Celene has unwittingly bestowed upon me titles akin to nobility. She puts me forth as a crowning jewel, greater even than the Grand Enchanter, to conceal the fact that she’s tossed me aside like so much rubbish.”

The words, then, lie in wait between them, Anora's to claim. “And we could be married.”

“She would have no choice but to provide her blessing. No doubt she’ll claim it was her idea. And the good folk of Ferelden—” Her teeth seem to stick unpleasantly around the words “—will be inspired by this unlikely tale of romance.”

“It would be complicated.”

“Darling, there’s just been a Blight.” Vivienne's mouth curves indulgently, as if she's putting up with the protests of a child, and Anora should be offended rather than wanting so very badly to kiss her. “No one will be likely to second-guess such lovely news. As for cultivating rumors before the announcement, we’ll arrange private meetings. Perhaps breakfast tomorrow, and a walk in the gardens?”

“I’d like that,” Anora says too quickly, before realizing her mistake. The question was not what she would like, but what they should do. Twisting her fingers nervously, she tries again: “I mean yes.”

This anxious, desperate anticipation in her gut makes it impossible to concentrate. How does anyone bear it? She’s never experienced the agony of courtship with someone who makes her feel like this. Vivienne has tied her in knots without even trying to, without laying a hand on her.

But oh, Maker, if she did—if she placed those beautiful well-kept hands on Anora’s skin—

Anora presses her lips together and straightens her neck. There is no time for this. She is a queen, and a sensible woman, and she can consider this clearly.

An Orlesian—but sentiment has warmed since they aided in stopping the Blight, particularly after Warden-Commander Caron fought off the horde at Amaranthine. A mage—but after the tragic and bloody annulment of the Circle Tower, sympathies toward the few remaining mages have increased dramatically. Enchanter Wynne has done much to cultivate goodwill.

It just might work.

“What do you gain from the arrangement?”

“Out of being queen-consort?” says Vivienne dryly, one eyebrow arched.

“In a land you most likely detest. Answer my question.”

“I gain power, despite the efforts of those who tried to keep it from me. I gain the means to reform the Circle within the borders of Ferelden, in hopes that others will realize the sense in what we’ve done and follow suit. I gain far better means to decide my fate.”

“And a wife.” Anora crosses her arms. “Have you no feelings about that?”

“Blunt as always,” says Vivienne, with a smile that seems rather forced. “I suppose I must get used to it. But while we're on the subject: I had no illusions regarding my chances of marrying by choice. At best, I might be the mistress of someone whose tastes I find generally acceptable. You might offer far more, and a station of greater legitimacy than would otherwise be granted to a mage of my birth in Orlais.”

It makes sense, probably. Or it should. Anora feels dizzy. She is overwhelmed by everything she's heard, blindsided by a possibility she'd never begun to consider, and afraid of how suddenly and badly she wants it. “I see,” she murmurs numbly, standing without any idea what she means to do next.

“It's something to consider, my dear.” Despite the tall and shining silver heels of her shoes, Vivienne rises with grace so practiced it appears nearly effortless, and with a gravity so completely irresistible that Anora cannot help but stand along with her. Before she can begin to compose a proper goodbye, Vivienne lays a hand on Anora's arm and leans close to kiss her cheek, gentle and lingering.

Her lips are unbearably soft, her perfume subtle and sweet, and Anora nearly trembles, so difficult is it to hold herself still.

Vivienne exits quietly the way she came, as if she has not left the world transformed in her wake.

When Erlina comes to check on her, Anora is waiting impatiently, fingers twisting at her rings and adjusting seams that already lie perfectly straight, just for something to do. She knows she is flushed pink, and knows she is smiling at Erlina, half-giddy with thoughts of we could, we can try, we might get away with it. It's hard to recall when Anora last felt something as precious and easily crushed as hope.

“Send a messenger bird to the Circle at Monstimmard immediately. I want to know all there is to know about Madame Vivienne.”