Imperial Wintersend Ball of 9:16 Dragon
Vivienne had never seen anything like the Winter Palace.
The wide-eyed nineteen-year-old drifted through the lofty marble halls as though in a dream, taking in the unspeakable opulence. She was no stranger to castles or members of the aristocracy, but she was stranger to luxury and finery on this scale.
The tall, dark-skinned maiden was Fereldan yet had always been fascinated with Orlesian culture. Their nobles wore impeccable silks and intoxicating perfumes; they donned polished masks and were never seen barefaced in public.
I belong here.
Vivienne blinked, briefly taken aback by her own thoughts. She was not a noble, she was not Orlesian, and the only reason she was even here now was that mages from the White Spire and the Montsimmard Circle--her Circle--were invited to entertain the court. She had no birthright, clout, or claim of any kind that would allow her to inhabit this wondrous realm and yet...
I belong here.
The thought was less shocking this time as she was slowly lulled into this world. She needed to find its pulse, learn what made it tick so she could find an opening and gain a foothold.
"Spectacular, isn't it?"
Vivienne turned to see a shaven-haired stranger with twinkling eyes. He was no Orlesian either, but fully Elven, replete with daintily pointed ears. Judging by his poise, he was also clearly a mage.
He work a long dark gray silk robes, and simple yet elegant circlet upon his bald head. Unlike the perfumed Orlesians milling about them, he smelled of wind, rain, and forest. He stood with his hands primly clasped behind his back, his shoulders high and perfectly confident.
His pale skin was smooth, unlined, but that told her nothing. She could never accurately guess the ages of Elves. She met them so rarely. And while they were on the subject....
"I didn't expect to meet an Elf at the Winter Palace," she finally replied.
He smiled, but even as his lips curved, his eyes were unreadable. "Surely, you mean an Elven guest," he raised an eyebrow. "There's no shortage of servants with pointed ears."
Elves were looked down upon no matter where they went, and though Vivienne didn't agree with that attitude, she knew she'd never fit into this society if she spent the whole night talking to this man, no matter how...intriguing he was.
"I am Solas," he finally introduced himself, never breaking eye contact. Vivienne found herself unable to break eye contact either, suddenly noting how deep his voice was.
"Vivienne," she replied softly, gazing at him, whether in wonder or confusion. Why was he even talking to her?
"And to which Circle do you belong, Miss Vivienne?" he asked.
Oh, right, she blinked, remembering. We're both mages.
She was surprised by the slight pang of disappointment.
"Montsimmard," she said lowly, shoulders falling slightly. "You?"
He let out a soft snort. "Oh, I'm no Circle mage."
Vivienne stiffened. "Daelish then?" She definitely needed to get away from this man.
"No, no," Solas shook his head. "Not that either."
Vivienne's eyes widened. "You're...self-taught?" she asked hesitantly, her voice just above a whisper.
"Quite," he smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.
The only thing more scandalous than a Daelish mage was a hedge mage, and Vivienne desperately needed out of this conversation. And yet, she felt split into two. One half of her wanted to stay and talk with this man. Though scandalous, she'd always secretly found hedge mages fascinating. She even admired the ones who didn't self-destruct.
The other half of her was distracted by the polished floors and high ceilings of the candlelit Winter Palace; she was beguiled by the sound of a full orchestra and the smell of rare wine left to breath in golden goblets. She could smell money and power as easily as she could smell perfume; her desires stubbornly tugged at her, body and soul.
"And to what do I owe the pleasure of meeting a hedge mage...at the Winter Palace?" Vivienne asked tightly. She didn't want to be rude.
"I'm a consultant of sorts for the Templars," he replied, lips teasing an amused smirk. "And you are quite young to be a fully fledged mage."
"One of the youngest in history," she nodded, suddenly feeling proud. "I was originally at the Ostwick Circle, but I was recently transferred to Montsimmard."
"Just in time for an Imperial ball," Solas mused, widening his eyes slightly. "What make of you these people?"
"I'm a great admirer of Orlesian culture," she admitted with a nod, turning back to the throngs of nobles. "I feel quite privileged to be in Orlais."
"Privilege is the theme of the evening, isn't it?" he pondered, turning with her to face the crowd. "I haven't been at court for some time now. I must confess I've missed it. These Orlesians navigate high society very much like a complex dance, smiling and chuckling as they sip champagne with their mortal enemies."
Vivienne blinked surprised. "You come to court often?" It seemed she'd underestimated this man's importance.
"Every now and again. The Empress values her relationship with the Chantry, who value their relationship with the Templars...as do I."
Her brain started spinning, calculating the possibilities. "Then what make of you these people?"
"Well, they don't fear magic, that's for certain," he shrugged slightly, starting to walk. She walked with him. "Every noble house has its own mage. You'd think we were just accessories to them, nothing more than status symbols." He bit out that last part.
"What benefits are there to being attached to a noble house?" she inquired casually.
"Some money," Solas shrugged again, "comfort, prestige of sorts." He turned to her. "But you'll never be seen as an equal. You would always be their servant and expected to protect their lives with yours."
I could find a way around that that.
"Is that why you threw your lot in with the Templars?" Vivienne asked.
"They do grant me a measure freedom to conduct my research," he told her. "I get to come and go as I please."
She knew it was a jab at her Circle mage status, but ignored it.
Solas was supposed to be in a room somewhere, pretending to care as stuffy politicians bickered with brusque templars and aloof clerics from the Chantry.
He hadn't meant to chat with Vivienne this long. She was very young after all, easily enthralled by this pretentious world of pomp and perfume. But she was also the most stunning woman at the ball.
In the flickering lights of the palace candles, her dark skin shone like nothing he'd ever seen before. She had big beautiful, dark eyes, cheekbones that reached to the heavens, and the lips of a goddess. Despite being a Circle mage, she surprisingly liked to show skin. Vivienne wore a long, split-sleeve linen gown of muted purple that had a neckline which plunged to the point of shocking. She smelled of lavender and violets. She wore no jewelry and such was her beauty that it required no adornment.
Solas worked with women every day, from soldiers, to noblewomen, and even fellow mages. None had ever affected him in this manner because never met anyone like Vivienne.
Even as he maintained his calm detachment, he wanted to know more about her, know everything in fact. Her family wasn't noble; he could tell and liked her all the more for it. Her accept was crisp, proper, and she was learned, as was to be expected from a mage. But it didn't him about her, and with every polite response and composed mannerism, he yearned to know more.
But just as she was about to reply to his Circle mage comment, a page approached them and bowed to Vivienne.
"My lady," the Orlesian servant said, "the Duke de Ghislain humbly requests a dance."
Of course he does, Solas mused, watching the young mage's eyes light up. He could practically hear her heart fluttering at the word "duke".
"Lead the way," Vivienne gasped, suddenly breathless. "Mister Solas," she said in quick farewell before nervously following the page back to his master.
Solas watched her go, and then spent the rest of evening watch her repeatedly dance with the Orlesian duke. In fact, the Duke only danced with her the whole night, much to the shocked whispers of the court. Solas could see the future as though he were an oracle; next Ghislain was going to send expensive gifts and lofty letters, then he would make her his mistress, then he would formally move her into his estate. Proper society would reject until it no longer could, and soon, this unrivaled beauty would become a popular addition to the elite.
And no one could stop it, not even a powerful hedge mage from the North.
Next: Death and the Madame