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A Most Edible Thistle

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Josephine and Vivienne are seated at a wooden table. They each have a glass of wine and a plate covered in artichoke leaves. Vivienne has a fork raised to her mouth, and is looking fondly at Josephine. Josephine is cutting into her artichoke, eyes closed and blushing.

“It looks like a flower!” says Sera, poking at the green vegetable sitting on her plate.

“It looks like a thistle,” says Cassandra, dour as ever. Her arms are crossed, her expression dubious.

Josephine smiles, leaning across the table with a conspiratorial whisper. “You are both correct! This is an artichoke!

Vivienne sits back in her chair, managing to make herself the head of the lunch party despite the round table. “You should appreciate this, Sera. It is a food meant to be eaten with one’s fingers.” Her jaw tightens, smile fixed as Sera dunks a finger into the aioli. “One’s clean fingers.”

Sera looks ready to fling her aioli at Vivienne, so Josephine swiftly intervenes.

“Artichokes are gracing tables across Thedas, and I suspect they will soon be even more popular. They are a difficult vegetable if one has not previously encountered them, and I thought this lunch might serve as a lovely introduction for all of us.”

“And a nice way of marketing the Montilyet artichokes,” Cadash snorts. She seems amused rather than displeased, twirling a dagger in her hand.

Josephine chooses to ignore the dagger—Cadash is more likely to cut herself than the table, and taking away one dagger only means that Cadash will pull out another of the dozen or so on her person—and focuses on the twinkle in Cadash’s eye. Yes, definitely amused. “The artichoke is actually the bud of a rather large thistle. It is slightly sweet, tender, and was originally rumored to be an aphrodisiac reserved only for men—”

Sera’s face contorts with disgust. “Yuck!”

“—or for women hoping to conceive sons.”

Double yuck!”

“However, as we now live in more enlightened times, we can simply enjoy them for what they are: delicious.” Vivienne smiles beatifically, dipping her fingers in a bowl of water set aside for just this purpose. She wipes her clean fingers on a napkin; then, with utmost delicacy, she plucks one of the outer leaves of the artichoke. She holds it aloft for the table to inspect as she touches it to the surface of her aioli, then places it between her teeth. She bites down, pulls the leaf, and drops it into an empty bowl. Demonstration complete, she nods at Cassandra.

Cassandra lets out a long sigh, clearly ready for disappointment. She rips away at one of the outer leaves, giving it a half-hearted dunk in the dipping sauce before scraping it with her teeth. “Ugh. There is so little food on it. This is a food for paupers, not princes.”

Sera tears at her artichoke, pulling off a half-dozen pieces before gnawing them two at a time. “This has got to be the only food where there’s more of it when you finish than when you start!”

“It is a food that deserves time. We can linger over our meals and our conversation, but if you prefer…” Josephine strips the last of the fibrous outer leaves, and neatly slices her artichoke in half so that her knife chimes against the plate. She had considered using one of the silver dining sets for this, the better to make an impression—she also thought that an argument could be made for using silver due to the delicate acids of the aioli, similar to the way that one might use silver for the dressings of a fish course—but after the row that had ensued the last time when Vivienne and Sera debated the merits of such things, she decided best not to tempt fate. Still, her cutlery proves adequate as she turns over the halved artichoke, displaying the delicate flesh and creamy yellow of the interior leaves. “The center holds more substance. Be mindful of the choke,” she says, peeling out the thin hairs, “but the heart of the artichoke is entirely edible.”

Sera gleefully stabs her way to the center, popping it into her mouth and exclaiming, “Hey! It’s actually good!”

Josephine smiles.

This is comforting, in many ways. As trivial as it may be to discuss artichokes after the entire world-ending potential of Corypheus, it is a balm for the soul. Cadash has defeated the evil magister, the rifts are closed, and trade can resume.

Or, more simply: they can indulge in small pleasures again.

The luxuries they now enjoy are evidence of the Inquisition’s reach and wealth, easily inventoried through the provenance of the foods on the table. The lemons used in the aioli hail from the warm climes of Antiva, while the maple syrup that glazes the edges of an excellent ham comes only from parts of Ferelden where the temperatures drop below freezing. The artichokes are an Antivan import, but the more temperate portions of Orlais and the Free Marches are starting to grow them—which of course creates its own dilemma, because what farmer will grow a vegetable for which there is no demand? Hence the importance of such tastes being introduced to patricians and plebeians alike.

So it is that one lunch can demonstrate the power they wield.

Which brings its own issues.

Josephine normally treasures correspondence from her family, replying to Yvette’s theatrical gushings or Antoine’s latest exploits on the very day she receives them. But there is a week-old letter from her mother on top of her dresser, neatly folded and refolded into thirds.

Unanswered.

Now that Corypheus has been dealt with, Josephine is supposed to focus on marriage. She had deflected previous offers by pointing out that she would only gain more status with the Inquisition, so it was best to wait until they could ensure the best match for the Montilyet family. Josephine is well aware that an arranged marriage does not preclude love—look at her own parents, still thoroughly besotted after over three decades!—but it is still something she has no intention of rushing into.

Why rush, when Josephine has such pleasant company in the meantime?

Josephine’s gaze drifts towards Vivienne, who emanates poise even while cutting her artichoke into quarters, and Josephine cannot help smiling fondly.

Vivienne, of course, has even more concerns as Grand Enchanter than she did as one of the Herald’s trusted companions. Her correspondence has always been extensive, but now Vivienne holds herself responsible for the welfare and benefit of all the mages in their many Circles.

What had begun as idle conversation and mutual commiseration soon blossomed into a shared business venture. Vivienne had sought to replenish the libraries of the many Circles that had been devastated during the rebellions, but such activities required funding. Josephine had sought to increase her family’s coffers, and what better way than to introduce southern Thedas to something entirely novel?

Josephine and Vivienne had worked together before, and it was only natural that they go forward on this artichoke business.

Which returns them to the luncheon at hand.

“There is...a delicate sweetness,” Cassandra allows, peeling her way through the leaves. She still appears to view the leaves as a vehicle for conveying sauce to her mouth, rather than something to be enjoyed on their own.

“Takes a while to get to the good stuff,” Cadash says, mouth full. Her plate looks filled with discarded hedge clippings. “But tasty, sure.”

“It is not meant to be rushed, but savored,” Vivienne says, smooth even in her chiding. “As with any tenderness, it should take a while to reach the heart.” Her foot grazes Josephine’s under the table, and Josephine’s own heart swells at the gentle contact.

Savored. Right. You got any more of those blueberry tarts?” Sera asks hopefully.

Laughing, Josephine dips her head to indicate that yes, she just might.

As the meal turns to sweets and confections, Josephine happily shares news of Yvette’s upcoming salon exhibit.

 


 

Cadash’s good graces mean that word of artichokes soon spreads across Thedas—the Inquisitor eats artichokes, after all! They have always been popular in Antiva, but they soon spread to Ferelden, Orlais, and the Free Marches. The Randy Dowager declares them an aphrodisiac, and in hopefully unrelated news, even Queen Anora is reputed to serve them on special occasions. Demand spikes after Varric’s latest novel includes a scene with Captain Abeline snacking on pickled artichoke hearts, even reaching as far as Tevinter after Dorian abuses his ambassadorial privileges to acquire a shipment. The farmers are able to command as much as six sovereigns a crate for their produce, and the profit to be made by the merchants—mostly the Montilyets, thanks to Josephine’s careful schemes and control of the routes—is even higher.

Of course, none of this would be possible without Vivienne.

Magic is a tool, not solely a weapon, and Vivienne arranges contracts for her mages to escort the shipments. She admits that they are the weaker mages, the ones with more control than power, and few of them have seen combat—or at least, few have willingly seen combat. But one need not summon a spear of ice in order to refrigerate a compartment, nor invoke a fireball in order to boil water while traveling. Vivienne chooses her escorts carefully; they are young, lovely, and eager to make a good impression wherever they go.

“Essentially, they are ambassadors,” Josephine teases, across a late supper in Vivienne’s quarters. It is a meal of many small plates: fried artichoke hearts with lemon and pecorino, roasted garlic with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette, deviled eggs and olives. It is charmingly informal, and Josephine is delighted to know that she is one of the few friends with whom Vivienne will trust herself to eat roasted garlic.

“Essentially, you are correct,” Vivienne replies, lips curled in the gentlest of smiles. “It advances a cause when its representatives can be charming and sophisticated.”

“And the cause?”

“Rebuilding the immense libraries which have been destroyed. Many of the originals may be irreplaceable—and I do not relish lining the pockets of black-market dealers simply to reclaim an original folio or first edition manuscript. But at least we may get passable copies.” Vivienne sighs, taking a sip of her wine. It is an excellent vintage from the Montilyet family vineyards, which few outside the family have had the privilege of tasting. Josephine has not bothered informing Vivienne of this fact, which makes Vivienne’s unfeigned enjoyment all the more pleasurable to witness. “Knowledge should not be a luxury.”

“Though this new refrigeration technique may make the Circles places of luxury.” Josephine sighs. “Imagine the wonders that could be accomplished! Cherimoyas in the south! Fresh strawberries in winter!”

“Regrettably, that may be less common than you’d think,” Vivienne says. Not apologetically, but a gentle correction. “I was originally inspired by Dorian’s jaunt with the Venatori—but refrigeration is no substitute for time magic. And time magic is difficult enough that I would consider it a grave waste simply to preserve strawberries for half a year.”

“Or, alternatively, a demonstration of your Circle’s skill and resources.” Josephine smiles, letting her dimples show.

Vivienne arches a brow, leaning across the table. “My dear, I do believe this is little more than a ploy to get strawberry cream cakes in midwinter.” She raises her hand, brushing it across Josephine’s nose as if to wipe an imaginary spot.

“I confess nothing,” Josephine chuckles, cheeks flushed at the reminder of the last time they ate strawberry cream cakes together. Josephine had been entirely too enthusiastic about her dessert, ending up with cream on the tip of her nose, and Vivienne had delicately wiped it for her. Is it any wonder, then, that she still feels a childish uncertainty around Vivienne? “At least it would be a delicious expenditure, unlike other culinary fads. Remember when celery mousse was all the rage?”

“Unfortunately, I do.” Vivienne sighs. “Chef Robin is a survivor of that craze. Their magic manifested late, after they had already finished their culinary training.”

“That must have been a difficult adjustment,” Josephine says sympathetically.

Vivienne smiles, slow and gentle as a souffle. “They are a much better chef than they are a mage. Still, they have found some quite delicious applications of ice and flame. This crème brûlée, for example.”

Josephine delights in the first tap of the spoon against the scorched sugar crust, then savors the contrast of the cool custard and still-warm sugar. She moans as the dessert melts down her tongue, and exclaims, “If they are ever permitted to leave the Circle, I already know at least six noble families that would pay their weight in gold.”

“And you have not even sampled their coffee sorbet yet!”

“I correct myself,” Josephine says primly. “I know no noble families that would desire their services, and I demand further proof of Chef Robin’s skills before I can recommend them to anyone.”

Vivienne chuckles. “I can worry about hiring out my most excellent chef after we have finished building our empire.”

“Not empire,” Josephine demurs, hoping that her discomfort will be read as mere modesty. “But a highly profitable trade business.”

Vivienne smiles, ice-bright and beautiful. Josephine finds herself distracted by the smooth planes of her face, the perfect arch of her brow and the flawlessness of her complexion. Vivienne is more than beautiful, she is exquisite. A self-made work of art.

Beautiful and worthy of worship as Vivienne may be, her pedestal crumbles when she says, “No need to be so humble. Orlais is an empire, after all. I see no reason you should be a lesser jewel.”

The crème brûlée turns bitter on Josephine’s tongue, though Josephine keeps her smile light. Orlais’ invasion of Ferelden had been before Josephine’s birth, but that’s still less than a lifetime ago. Antiva would be a smaller prize, but no less rich. Her homeland’s safety is ensured only by the barriers of Nevarra and Starkhaven.

Despite Vivienne’s Orlesian plumage, Vivienne was born outside the empire.

For that alone, Josephine softens her words to disarm rather than to wound. “What is a taste for empire without a taste for conquest? An empire never considers itself to be finished, after all.”

“Are you implying that you have no taste for conquest?” Vivienne laughs in disbelief, throwing her head back as if enjoying a grand joke. “You, the diplomat who can end a marriage with four words and the proper glove left on the proper table?”

“One of the premises of an empire is that it seeks to create more of itself, wherever it goes.” Josephine keeps smiling, head throbbing with the effort. Smile, smile. Gold and glitter to distract from the severity of conversation. “Coming from one outside the bounds of such an empire, I am somewhat distressed.”

Vivienne is too sharp not to notice the strain, and her eyes narrow thoughtfully. She opens her mouth as if to speak, then thinks better of it and smoothly changes it to sip at her tea. She takes a decorous swallow, then sets her cup down so gently that it fails to clatter. “We are not all Gaspard, wishing to spread our borders at the point of a sword,” she says, not unkindly. “We only wish to spread civilization.”

That kindness just makes it worse.

“How fortunate for Orlais, to see only Orlais as ‘civilized,’” Josephine replies softly.

For all her years of polish—despite her girlhood friendships and the whispered giggles of finishing school—Josephine knows how well the Orlesians mark her as an outsider. They view their country as the center of Thedas, the cradle and continuation of all civilization, and instill their beliefs into their children. The machinations of teenage girls were less lethal than those of the Game, but no less cruel.

Josephine has learned to shield her heart, smile when expected, and bide her time.

Perhaps Vivienne sees some of that written in Josephine’s face; the other woman’s eyes soften, and Vivienne lays her hand on the table. Her palm’s up, her wrist bare to show the tenderness of the skin. It is a vulnerability, one of the few that Vivienne allows herself.

“If anyone were to claim that you lacked in civilized graces, that reflects more poorly on them than it ever could upon you,” Vivienne says. Her words hold, perhaps, a trifle more heat than strictly necessary. She smiles, cooling her tone to something both more friendly and more artificial than before. “Orlais does recognize civilization outside its borders. Orlais loves many countries, after all.”

“Love conquers. Orlais consumes what it loves,” Josephine retorts. Her heart beats tympany beneath her breastbone, thrumming to the challenge of silk meeting steel. She gestures towards the elaborate table, the crumbs that cross continents. “How many borders have been redefined, once one party demands more than the other is willing to give?”

“I can offer no justification for our ancestors and their endless wars, but perhaps your metaphor’s fallen apart?” Vivienne leans forward with an easy confidence, an intimate proximity that is both warm and horrifically Orlesian. Her smile could burst roses into bloom. “Love consumes. Love changes.”

It is bait, fragrant as overripe peaches. Josephine’s mouth is awash with sun-drenched memories of a garden long ago, a girlhood passion almost forgotten...

Josephine rallies her tongue, refusing to surrender so easily. “Perhaps it is better to love something for what it is, rather than as something to possess?”

“We may disagree upon the history of an empire,” Vivienne demurs, which is—not quite a retreat, nor a white flag. But a detente. Pointedly, Vivienne asks, “But is there, perhaps, a reason that you do not wish to expand our control of the artichoke trade?”

Equally pointedly, pressing her spoon into her crème brûlée so that she scrapes the bottom of the ramekin, Josephine says, “I never said that. Only that I believe we can still profit without belittling the labor of those who are instrumental to us making said profit.”

Vivienne tilts her head, examining Josephine as if she were a new delicacy offered on a plate. “I had no intention of implying that. I apologize. I had not realized that it disturbed you so.”

“Our world is swiftly changing.” Josephine gives a delicate half-shrug, more a suggestion of motion than an actual heave of her shoulders. “The Inquisition was meant to establish order, but with Corypheus gone...the Inquisition is not a crossbow, to be simply dismantled and put away. Considering how entwined we still are, I do not feel comfortable associating our humble artichoke trade with anything more warlike. Especially not with Emperor Gaspard’s amicable non-intervention.”

“Amicable, in that our trade distresses neither him nor Briala. And why should it? We are only bringing vegetables to market, after all,” Vivienne says dryly. “And artichokes are as much a delicacy in the Orlesian court as anywhere else.”

“And I hope it remains as such. A delightful and nonthreatening delicacy.”

Vivienne laughs, which is as good as scoring a point. Josephine smiles back, feeling the tension drain from her shoulders, and the rest of the conversation turns to Yvette’s latest foibles. Even the cost of Yvette’s tutors and the lack of finished paintings is a comfortable complaint, when shared with such excellent company.

By the time that Josephine finishes regaling Vivienne with a tale of shooing Yvette up an orange tree, Josephine has entirely forgiven Vivienne for her talk of conquest.

 


 

It is a slow process, building a network of delicate negotiations—and Josephine refuses to call it ‘building an empire,’ even in the privacy of her own head. Josephine will never bring a sword where a quill will serve. But not only must they gain access to various routes and markets, but they must demonstrate the importance of what they bring. Establishing these connections will line the coffers of both the Montilyets and the Circles. These are fruitful efforts, and Josephine can chart their progress via the delicacies offered by Chef Robin. They enjoy shaved ice and ice creams, as well as luscious citrus pies topped with billows of toasted meringue. Vivienne never serves anything less than excellence, but the rarity of the ingredients improves—Truffles! Saffron-infused cream! Vanilla and cardamom!—along with their finances.

Sera inevitably finds out about these dinners, and in typical Sera fashion, starts ‘volunteering’ to taste-test the menu.

“My dear,” Vivienne says, sharp and glittering as the edge of a knife, “please do not harass Chef Robin while they work.”

“I’m not harassing! I’m helping!” Sera exclaims around a mouthful of halvah. She sucks the sweet sesame paste from her fingers, unrepentant.

Chef Robin, a broad Rivaini with a plaited beard and pink robes which flutter about their ankles like the petals of a flower, laughs heartily. “Better she’s in here where I can keep an eye on her, than running off with a half-dozen pastries. Again.” They give an indulgent smile, offering both Josephine and Vivienne small slices of halvah dusted with pistachio.

Josephine laughs, not without relief. These petty domestic dramas are even more entertaining than her letters from Yvette. There is one such letter sitting on her desk at this very moment, opened. As well as another letter from her parents.

Unopened.

Josephine does not need the gift of prophecy to already know the contents: a list of marriage candidates. Her parents trust her judgment enough to allow her to examine the candidates on her own, but whether that means marrying Lord Otranto, Lady Bellevue, or Ser Olamina…

She chooses to ignore her budding headache in favor of another lovely day with Vivienne.

“This is delicious. I don’t believe I’ve ever had sesame as a dessert,” Vivienne remarks, examining the treat with renewed interest.

Robin shrugs expansively. “My mother would make this back in Rivain. The ingredients are hard to get, this far south.”

“My parents were Rivaini traders, but I was born in Wycome,” Vivienne says quietly. Her face is very still, smooth and elegant as a sheet of glass. It always surprises Josephine, this remembrance that Vivienne was not actually born in Orlais. Then again, Josephine is not Orlesian; she imagines that those actually born in Orlais never allow Vivienne to forget. “I do not recall them ever giving this to me.”

Robin smiles, a rueful curl in their lips as they nod their head with something less deference than apology. “This is the food of my childhood, Grand Enchanter. It might not be yours, but it is dear to me.”

Josephine’s heart pangs, recognizing all the things left unsaid. Best to divert this melancholy topic.

Before Josephine can open her mouth, Sera does.

“Why don’t you cook more Rivaini food, then? ‘Sgood,” Sera asks, smacking her lips. Sera holds as much guile as a sieve holds water, and her question is entirely earnest.

Robin gives a faint smile. Their expression is entirely fixed upon Sera, which Josephine cannot help but think is a deliberate avoidance of Vivienne’s gaze. “Because not all Orlesians consider Rivaini food elegant enough for the table.”

“Arseholes,” Sera says decisively. “If Rivaini ingredients like saffron and cinnamon and all are good enough for them, then why not Rivaini food?”

The answer rises in Josephine’s throat like indigestion.

Because they are an empire. Empires take what they love, and change it to suit their tastes.

Josephine coughs discreetly into her fist.

“If Sera is helping Chef Robin, then it looks as if we are the ones in the way,” Josephine says lightly, taking Vivienne by the elbow. Sera looks far too interested in any hints behind Vivienne’s polished surface, and it is easier to pull Vivienne away for now. “Would you grace me with your company? The dawn lotus is blooming, and is beautiful under the moonlight.”

Sera, predictably, blows a wet raspberry.

It is insufficient to dampen Josephine’s happiness.

 


 

Unfortunately, it is a fleeting happiness.

The next day, Josephine receives three separate reports of merchants who had been approached by suppliers most unscrupulous (“ill-dressed, bad-breathed, and cleaning their teeth with a knife!”) who offered them artichokes at ludicrously high prices, with thinly veiled threats if they did not accept such blatant robbery. She unfolds each letter and sets them side-by-side on her desk, checking them for similarities and conveniently obscuring the newest unopened letter from her parents.

Sera brings her own reports.

“Hey, Josie. Friend of a friend of a Jenny says that some of your thistle-farmers are getting troubles. Big tough sorts asking ‘em to sell low or else ‘accidents’ happen, that kind of thing.” She delivers this news while sitting on an empty corner of Josephine’s desk, drumming her heels against the side with a scowl. Vivienne sits primly across from Josephine, back straight as if lined with steel. Or a very stiff corset, though Josephine knows that perfect posture requires no corsetry.

Josephine does not pinch the bridge of her nose, nor does she exhale her frustration. “Have their local lords done anything in their defense?”

“Pfft. Some of ‘em might be the local lords. Who do you think greases their palms?”

Josephine’s first impulse is to alert Inquisitor Cadash—but no, this is not an Inquisition matter. This is a personal matter, and it would be a gross abuse of authority, especially with Ferelden and Orlais still looking askance at the Inquisition’s abrupt military presence on their border. Josephine’s lips tighten as she considers the implications. Then again, it is hardly a secret that the Montilyet family’s eldest daughter is the Inquisition’s ambassador, so an attack on the Montilyet holdings might still be an indirect attack on the Inquisition.

Vivienne’s expression remains perfectly calm, with only the slightest furrow of her brow to reveal her anger. “I highly doubt that multiple criminals have come up with the same scheme at once. There must be someone behind all this.”

“Birdy tells me it’s the Artichoke King.”

“The ‘Artichoke King’? Surely not the name his mother gave him,” Josephine murmurs. The joke is weak, but at least it is some attempt at wrestling events back under control. If one can laugh, then surely one is not powerless.

“Do your erudite friends have any other names on their tongues?” Vivienne asks. Josephine notes the delicate flex and curl of Vivienne’s fingers, a visible sign of restraint as Vivienne does not tap her fingers against the desk. Just as Josephine does not.

“Ciro Terranova,” Sera says with utter relish. “Dunno if that’s a real name either, sounds too theatrical-like to be real.”

“This...Ciro Terranova threatens to destabilize the local economy and demonstrates that the nobles are weak against this so-called ‘Artichoke King,’” Josephine says slowly, laggard wheels finally turning. There are always pirates, whether on land or by sea, and she should have been expecting predation. “We need to bring order back where it belongs.”

“Ooh, good. Haven’t had to shoot a bunch of arseholes in ages.”

Vivienne sniffs. “Last week was hardly an age.”

“It didn’t even wound Lord Puffypants! It just nicked his drawers!”

Rather than argue the point—which may or may not have landed in a nobleman’s buttocks—Vivienne smiles. With unsubtle redirection, she says, “I do believe Robin is waiting in the kitchen for you to taste their latest pastries. If you would be so kind…?”

“You used to be less obvious,” Sera complains, already sliding off the desk.

“You used to be more odious. If you shan’t be bothered to try, then neither shall I.”

The door swings shut, cutting off Sera’s raspberry.

Vivienne turns gentle eyes towards Josephine. “My dear, how are you holding up?”

“I need to present this information to Inquisitor Cadash, then send notice to the relevant nobles for passage through their lands, and then—”

“My dear, that was not what I asked.” Frost lines Vivienne’s words, though her hands are warm as she cups Josephine’s palm. Josephine catches a whiff of Vivienne’s perfume: cool water and flowers, like rain in a night-blooming garden. “I was asking how you are holding up. I know many of these people are your friends, not just business associates. Seeing them harmed must be distressing.”

“It does no good to dwell on my unhappiness, does it? Only action can remedy this.” Josephine tries to keep her voice strong, as strong as Vivienne herself, but it comes out brittle instead. In a detached way, Josephine is already analyzing her own words—that slight tremulo at the end, the flat delivery in the first half. She should study such things, so she does not repeat them.

“Feelings without action are meaningless, but that does not mean that one should not feel,” Vivienne says quietly. Her finger traces the pulse of Josephine’s wrist, and Josephine has to swallow hard, reminding herself that this sort of handholding is a common Orlesian mannerism. It means as much—and as little—as a cheek-kiss between friends. “Take care with that tender heart of yours. We shall deliver our report to Inquisitor Cadash, and then I would consider it a great personal favor if you schedule yourself a bath. With bubbles.”

Josephine laughs, a hysterical tickle in the back of her throat. “A shame, as I have no more bubbles.”

Vivienne’s smile is a scimitar of delight. “How fortunate for you, that I am always prepared.”

Vivienne provides not only bubbles, but a slim volume of poetry for after-bath reading. Her tinkling laugh dispels all Josephine’s efforts at gratitude, and she simply tells Josephine to enjoy herself.

So it is that Josephine takes an early night in the privacy of her quarters, body cradled in the tub’s warm embrace. Josephine really must thank the ancient creators of Skyhold for having the foresight to install plumbing. The tub is also the perfect shape to envelop her, allowing every bit of her body—even her knees!—to be completely submerged.

Or it would be, if she weren’t indulging in the other luxury of the night: ice cream. Vanilla ice cream served with a drizzle of honey. Flecks of vanilla bean dot the luscious dessert, and Josephine licks the back of the spoon as she contemplates the depths of the bowl. A full soak is luxury enough. Ice cream is its own luxury. Combine the two, especially with the added extravagance of an aromatic spice that hails from war-torn Seheron?

Put in that context, is Josephine so far from building a trade empire? And would it be so bad to be an Empress, compared to this upstart Artichoke King…?

She thinks of Sera’s grubby knees and stained trousers, the worn boots with her garishly colored socks peeping through the toes. Sera can easily afford better, but wearing them is a statement of politics, not just taste.

Josephine groans, setting aside her bowl and sinking chin-deep in the tub. Sera would be the first to tell her that it’s all pretension. That way lies thinking of people as less. As worth less than her own ambitions.

The best that Josephine and Vivienne can do is honor their contracts, and defend those who have been threatened by Ciro Terranova.

The best course of action, therefore, is to go to their offices in Val Royeaux.