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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.

Chapter Text

The first disaster of Val Royeaux is not artichokes, but Yvette.

“I don’t have a single painting!” she bawls, snot-nosed and sobbing on Josephine’s shoulder. The pale-straw sun, normally so gentle, casts Yvette’s every frazzled braid and erupting pimple in sharp relief.

Josephine’s heart crumples. They can moan the cost of the gallery and tuition later, but for now?

Yvette is her sister, and needs comfort.

Josephine pulls a box of chocolates from her desk. It was originally meant for her own indulgence, but she will gladly sacrifice it for Yvette’s happiness. She undoes the ribbon with a tug, passing the box to Yvette. “Your exhibit is next month, and you’ve been so excited about going to the studio!” she soothes. Yvette is sensitive to criticism when she’s in these fits, so Josephine is careful to keep her own voice gentle and free of accusation. “What happened?”

This only propels Yvette into greater tragedy.

“You wouldn’t understand! You’ve always been the best at everything!” Yvette crams two raspberry creams into her mouth, still bawling over a lifetime of imagined inferiority.

No. I was never better than you, simply more diligent, Josephine thinks, then dismisses the thought as unkind. More than unkind; it is unnecessary to pick at Yvette’s faults when she is already miserable.

Orlais has taught Josephine to play the Game, in all its cruelty. But cruelty without purpose is nothing more than sadism.

“That’s not true.” Gently, Josephine disentangles herself from Yvette long enough to give her a handkerchief. “I only do what I am good at. There’s a difference.”

Yvette, in typical Yvette fashion, fails to recognize this as the confession that it is.

“And I’ve always been good at painting! But there’s being good at something and there’s being...inspired. My paintings are adequate, but never great. No matter how I splash my colors, it never matches what I imagine!” Yvette sniffles, rubbing her blotchy face into the handkerchief. This accidentally smears chocolate on her chin, a wicked little goatee of indulgence. “I have a half-dozen unfinished paintings. They are unfixable in all their flaws, and I just! I cannot show them!”

“You’ve always had talent. You just need more time, maybe more practice, and I’m sure—”

“I have been practicing!” Yvette cries plaintively. “I have paint under my nails and easels in my dreams! I even wake up brushing my pigtails over the pillow!” And it’s true, once Josephine looks past Yvette’s tear-streaked face and wringing hands; spots of ochre and pale blue under the whites of the nail, a red dab on the underside of Yvette’s wrist, and orange flecks in the crevices of her skin.

“Would you feel comfortable showing your paintings to me?” Josephine offers, wondering if Yvette needs reassurance rather than critique. “Perhaps fresh eyes will help?”

“Oh! But you’ll just lie and tell me what I want to hear!” Yvette gives a burbling little laugh, flinging her arms around Josephine so her head wedges under Josephine’s chin. “You’re so...so kind. And I love you, Josie, but I don’t want you to lie to me!”

Josephine lets out a long sigh. She strokes Yvette’s hair, then kisses the top of her head. “Kindness is a choice, never a lie. Do you think I love you too much to tell you if your paintings are terrible?” she asks, hoping very much that they’re not actually terrible.

“You don’t have a single mean bone in your body!” Yvette accuses.

If only she knew.

“I think terrible things sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I have to say them.” Yvette hiccups at this, making a face. But at least she’s no longer crying. Encouraged, Josephine says, “If you trust me to look at your paintings, I promise not to lie about them. Or maybe it’s just stage fright? It is your first exhibit after all.”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Yvette says stoutly.

Laughing, Josephine squeezes her. “Or perhaps you just need a distraction? I’ll clear my schedule, and we’ll spend some time at the opera, perhaps?”

Yvette nods, hiccuping.

 


 

Unfortunately, on the day of their planned opera excursion, Yvette marches back into Josephine’s office in indignant disarray.

“Josie! Have you heard—?!”

Josephine has heard many things lately, most of them unpleasant.

“About the ban? Yes,” she says curtly. Gaspard cares little for subtlety, and with the Artichoke King menacing his merchants and grocers, he took the most direct route to disrupting the leader. Josephine’s only surprised that Briala agreed with this level of retaliation. Grimly, Josephine attempts to steer Yvette out of her affairs. “It is a setback, and nothing more. Perhaps you should focus on finishing your paintings?”

“How can they ban artichokes in Val Royeaux?!” Yvette exclaims, crescendoing in her rage. She plants her heels in the ground, one hand on her hip and the other raised as if to challenge the very gods for this blasphemy...while completely ignoring Josephine’s question.

Whatever Yvette’s other follies, at least Josephine can always count on her support.

Josephine smiles, finally managing to find a ghost of humor. “Technically, the artichokes themselves are not banned. But the sale or import of artichokes most certainly is.”

“Have you heard what Lord Aubergine was crowing?! He was tut-tutting, ‘Orlais has so many delicious traditional foods of our own, why do we need artichokes?’”

“As if his own family isn’t named after a vegetable originally imported from Nevarra,” Josephine says dryly.

“Psht. Like banning something ever works. Only ever lines the pockets of them that move on the black market,” Sera chirps, popping up behind Josephine’s elbow—and just where did she come from? Josephine scolds herself for being too distracted by this latest disaster to notice Sera’s comings and goings. Sera may be a different sort of disaster, but at least she’s benevolent.

Mostly.

Yvette’s astonished face teeters between shock and delight, mouth falling open in a startled ‘O.’

Sera scowls, crossing her arms, and that inexplicably tips Yvette into delight.

“You are the Inquisitor’s companion! From Halamshiral! I meant to ask you to dance, but you were all off uncovering conspiracies—”

“Yvette—”

“The heralds announced you as Her Ladyship Mai Bhalsych of Korse—”

Yvette—” Josephine tries again, over Sera’s snickering.

“—but that’s surely not your real name, is it? Or do you prefer the mystery of not telling?”

Yvette!” Josephine explodes, grabbing her sister by the elbow and steering her away from the now-grinning Sera. “Do you have anything else to add about the artichoke business?”

“No fair, why do you get to meet all the interesting people?”

“Because I have interesting work to do!” Josephine snaps. Yvette visibly wilts, and Josephine almost feels guilty, until she remembers the time that Yvette stole her favorite doll and buried it under the orange tree. Yvette had been contrite back then as well.

“Ooh, I’ll tell you my real name.” Somehow, Sera manages to make it sound salacious. “So long as you tell me things. I bet you’re full of juicy secrets about our Josie—”

Sera. The black market?”

Sera grins at Josephine, all teeth and feral humor. “Look, it’s all your trade rubbish, yeah? Supply and demand. Supply’s gone kaplooey, but demand’s still there. Prices are gonna spike. Artichoke King’s not gonna stop, oh no. If anything, he’s gonna roll more ‘chokes to market, on account of how he’s gonna make a killing.”

Has he killed anyone?” Yvette asks in a needlessly breathless sort of way. Harshly, Josephine notices that either Yvette has gained a suspiciously specific amount of weight, or she’s started padding her brassiere.

“No, and we shan’t let him have the opportunity,” Vivienne says, cutting through the conversation. Her heels click across the floor, punctuating her words as she sweeps into the room. Her magnificent heels add to her already magnificent height, drawing attention like a diamond draws brilliance. Behind her, almost lost in the glitter of Vivienne’s approach, is a narrow woman in green robes, the hem spattered with mud and dirt. The smaller woman clutches her fists on the edge of her sleeves.

“Yvette, can you make the tea for our new guests?” Josephine asks, automatically slipping into her hostess duties.

“But Josie, it’s Madame de Fer! Madame!” Yvette angles herself closer to Vivienne, attempting to pluck the other woman’s sleeve before freezing—figuratively—under Vivienne’s cold appraisal. Yvette changes it to a furious tapping at her own nose. “Did you know, back in boarding school—”

Yvette.”

“I’ll help!” Sera volunteers, with suspicious eagerness, and the two scamper off together. Josephine makes a note to check on them if they’re not back within ten minutes.

“I don’t mean to cause any trouble—” the new mage squeaks.

“Nonsense, dear. It’s no trouble. And even if it were? You’re worth it,” Vivienne says firmly. She leads the woman to one of the comfortable chairs opposite Josephine’s desk, and the woman sinks gratefully into the seat. “Blanche was one of the mages escorting our latest shipment, and can give us an eyewitness account of the attack.”

Attack? Josephine almost asks, but she bites her tongue instead. As shaken as Blanche appears, it may be better to have her speak on her own terms.

“We weren’t expecting bandits. I’m a mage, but I can only chill vegetables!” Blanche laughs, sharp and brittle. Her knees rub together, as if desperate for warmth. “I can’t summon arcane blasts or walls of ice! Not well! I mean, I tried, but Geoff—the porter’s boy—he saw I wasn’t doing more than ice the ground and shoved me back, where they wouldn’t see…”

“Which may have saved your life,” Vivienne says gently, hands cupped over Blanche’s. Fleetingly, foolishly, Josephine finds herself jealous of this attention. “Most trained fighters will target the mages, first.”

Blanche lets out a high-pitched squeak that dissolves into hiccups. “I know, I know, I thanked him after, but—I was useless. And I hate being useless!”

“You survived,” Josephine murmurs. And showed at least one small caravan that not all mages are to be feared, not when you’re as vulnerable as the rest of us. The political calculus may be indelicate, but at least there is something to be salvaged. This was one of Vivienne’s other goals, after all. “That’s useful enough. Especially if you can tell us more about the bandits...?”

Slowly, details emerge. No more than a dozen attackers, but still sufficient to overwhelm their party. They had been ambushed at the edge of a forest that marked the boundaries between two nobles who were on trusting terms, enough that they rarely patrolled the area—a tidbit that Josephine puts away to examine later. If this is the so-called Artichoke King, he is familiar enough with the local routes and politics to have picked an advantageous spot. She will send letters to the respective landowners.

“They knew what they were after. I mean, they asked us to empty our pockets and one of them took Yasmine’s bracelet, I think just because it was sparkly, but they asked where the cargo was and checked it before going off. They took the cart, and I don’t know how we’ll compensate…”

“That is not something you need to worry about.” Josephine says. She tries balancing the proper amount of concern—genuine, at least, even if she must put the full weight of her worry in abeyance and maintain her composure—against the sudden stab of panic over wondering where the tea is. On cue, Yvette and Sera return with a full tea tray and a box of almond cookies that Josephine had locked away on the third shelf. Josephine chooses to ignore the latter fact for now. A hot drink and a sweet snack go far to mend a wounded spirit, and Blanche looks visibly stronger with her first sip of well-sugared tea.

“Grand Enchanter, what should I do now?” Blanche pleads.

“Rest, my dear. I will escort you to the Circle to recover. Josephine, I suggest we study the reports and consider our next move.”

Josephine nods, and resignedly pulls the concert tickets from her desk. “Yvette, I’m sorry. It looks like I won’t be able to go with you. Perhaps one of your friends…?”

“I’ll go!” Sera says cheerfully.

Yvette squeezes Sera’s arm, trilling, “Oh! Will you? I’d be delighted!”

Oh dear.

Josephine suspects she will regret this.

 


 

It takes three pots of tea and midnight rations in the form of sandwiches and pastry, but Josephine and Vivienne collect their reports and map the locations where farmers have been threatened and caravans waylaid. Josephine sends discreet messengers to some of her family’s allies, and examines previous reports of possibly related food crimes, such as the maple syrup fraud and the cheese heists.

Unexpectedly, Sera turns out to be their salvation.

“Look, you’re thinking too big,” she says doggedly, leaning on the edge of the desk and swiping the last sandwich. Her hair is mussed, her cheeks blotchy, and there are suspicious smears of either rouge or lipstick on her chin. Considering that Sera never wears cosmetics, they undoubtedly come from another woman. Curiously, her fingertips are spattered with paint. “You’re thinking like...like it’s a mastermind of food crime. Or something. It’s not, it never is. It’s just about, like, opportunity. It’s not some bandit sitting back and going ‘mwahaha, I’m stealing all the cheese.’” Sera pauses, scratching her chin. “Why did they steal all the cheese anyway?”

“Some Antivan cheddars require at least a decade to properly age,” Josephine explains. “Some specialty banks will take the cheese as collateral…”

“...which means that these were bank heists. Not simply cheese heists,” Vivienne finishes. “At the time, the banks did not understand that their valuable cheeses needed to be guarded in the same manner as their other holdings.”

“Okay, so some fancy cheese gets stolen. It’s a bank heist. You’re not looking for a hungry crime lord, your Terranova guy’s probably not even related to those other ones. He’s just the one who saw artichoke prices going bonkers and decided to take a piece of it,” Sera says around a full mouth. She smacks her lips, catching loose crumbs on the back of her hand, then rakes Josephine and Vivienne with a critical eye. “I know people. Friend of a friend. Gimme a few days, might get something good. If you’re ready to get dirty.”

“Define ‘dirty,’” Vivienne says grimly. “I did cross the Fallow Mire with you, if you recall.”

“Eh, not so much muck. Dressing down, like. If I give you info, you’re going after it yourself, right? Not just sending little mages like Blanche?”

“I would never dream of sending my charges where I dare not tread.”

And with Vivienne’s brave example, how can Josephine do anything but follow?

Josephine had thought these days of subterfuge long behind her, but at least focusing on the minutiae of dress helps distract her while waiting for word back from Sera. They must not dress ostentatiously—that would only tempt others to rob them—but with sufficient luxury to imply that they have a taste for bribes, and to justify their presence at a well-known smuggler’s locale.

Josephine finds two outfits in the Orlesian style of last season, made of rich materials. Vivienne’s gown of yellow silk gleams gold against her skin, with a drape of cream-colored lace that makes her positively ethereal. A string of pearls around her neck completes the look, and Vivienne manages to make even the dated fashion look timeless.

Which makes Josephine feel even more relentlessly frumpy in her own outfit. The dark green color is altogether too muddy, making her skin appear sallow, and the skirt’s scalloped hem makes it appear as though she is wearing an array of leaves. Josephine adjusts the miniature purple hat she’s using as a hairpin, and takes a moment to examine herself in the mirror before realization hits.

“I have made myself into an artichoke,” Josephine says in horror.

“A lovely artichoke,” Vivienne teases, rubbing her thumb along her necklace. She pulls the strand, examining the knots between pearls. “If you are the artichoke, perhaps I am the aioli?”

Josephine sniffs, indignant on her friend’s behalf. “I would never dream of comparing you to such foodstuff.”

“Then perhaps you should compare yourself to a flower? Try this perfume, no ensemble is complete until one chooses a scent for it.”

Josephine stands before Vivienne, allowing the other woman to dab perfume behind her neck and at her pulse—and tries not to think about how her heart thrills to be so close to Vivienne, how intimate a confidence this is. Perhaps she should be ashamed that Vivienne thinks that Josephine does not know the artistry of scent, that perhaps Vivienne thinks she is a child in need of tutelage, but Josephine holds her breath without thinking, afraid to disrupt the spell of Vivienne’s proximity.

“Breathe, my dear.” Vivienne’s breath kisses the tip of her ear, close enough to stir the fine hairs on the back of Josephine’s neck. “Tell me what you think.”

Josephine takes a long, shuddering inhalation through her nostrils, tasting as much as smelling the top notes. A floral citrus, like an orchard in full sunlight, like starry white flowers against the leaves’ green gloss—

“Orange blossoms,” Josephine murmurs, sighing as the sweetness melts into something warmer, woodier, with notes of juniper and sandalwood. It spills memories from her lips, like confession. “Like a tree in full flower. It reminds me of home. There was—is—a tree in my family’s courtyard. The fruit was never very good, always too small and sour, but in spring…? Oh, it’s like heaven.”

Vivienne’s eyes gleam like a river of stars, and she applies the same scent. “I’m glad it suits. You always speak of your family and the orchards with such delight. Meeting Yvette was an unexpected pleasure.”

“Yvette is an unexpected everything,” Josephine laughs. Vivienne laughs as well, and for one golden moment, their mingled laughter is a precious balm against the petty stings and bruises of the mundane.

“Are your parents still sending you marriage candidates?” Vivienne asks.

And like that, the fantasy is punctured.

Josephine swallows her disappointment, turning away to adjust her pin. “I have been given more choice than I would have dreamed possible.”

“Is it necessary that you choose quickly?” Vivienne’s voice is infinite patience, an undeserved kindness after all this. She is Josephine’s friend, and friends do worry, and yet...

Josephine sighs, examining her face in the mirror so she need not look at Vivienne. So she need not tempt herself with someone she cannot have. “No, but it is selfish of me to delay so long.”

“And yet, I see no such pressure on Yvette.” Vivienne’s tone is cool, artlessly casual. Perhaps it is casual for her, or perhaps she is masking how foolish she thinks Josephine is being. Vivienne’s reserve is a blessed restraint after dealing with Yvette, and yet...

Josephine makes a disparaging noise. “Oh, Yvette. I love her, but some of us have responsibilities. And she’s had more unsuitable infatuations.”

“Even less suitable than Sera?” Vivienne asks. Her raised eyebrow might as well be an exclamation point.

Josephine laughs, finally steeling herself to face Vivienne. “Sera is part of the Inquisitor’s inner circle. As...indelicate as she may be, that is still social currency worth spending. And for all her foibles, Sera is good-natured. Usually,” she amends. “Yvette can—and has—done much worse.”

“If your parents consider Sera suitable, then I must wonder how much more acceptable they would find anyone else in Cadash's inner circle,” Vivienne says dryly.

Josephine’s heart stills. Could Vivienne truly be implying…?

Her thoughts jump and skitter over one another, and she struggles to keep the panicked chirp from her throat. If, if! If Vivienne has realized Josephine’s affections, then surely this is an acknowledgment! And if not, and Josephine pursues…

Then Josephine, foolish girl, has damaged a treasured friendship. And this time, she won’t even have youth as an excuse for her bungling.

Josephine scrambles for a half-truth, something to deflect without denying. Because oh, if Josephine has read this all wrong…

“I am touched by your concern, but Cassandra and I have never been—I mean—”

Vivienne breaks into full-throated laughter. “You and Cassandra? Is that what…?”

“You are not the first to ask!” Josephine exclaims, cheeks flaming with—not embarrassment, but relief, because Vivienne seems delighted rather than offended. So this was not an indirect suit, and Josephine has damaged nothing through misinterpretation. “Cadash asked! My sister asked! I love Cassandra dearly, but simply not in that fashion!”

Vivienne twists her pearls between her fingers, never mind that she already looks perfect. Josephine knows these small, absent-minded movements of hers, and knows that they are rarely as absent-minded as they appear. Vivienne’s thinking deeply about something, though what it is, Josephine cannot dare to guess.

Tentatively, hoping to fill the chasm of silence, Josephine says, “With things as they are...I need friends, more than I need lovers. Even an arranged marriage might become a love match, given time.”

Vivienne smiles like a break of sunshine, a warm and infinite patience.

“Josephine—I hope you trust that I am your friend, first and foremost. If time is what you need, I shall bring every hour for your disposal.”

 


 

Vivienne curls her lip as they walk pasts the docks, but Josephine luxuriates in the familiar. In any city, the same ships that bring trade also bring people, a rich tapestry of language and culture. It is late evening, long hours past the nightly carillon of the Grand Cathedral, but the streets hold their own concert. The slap of water against wooden hulls mixes with the cry of gulls and a potpourri of curses across multiple languages. The sea smells different than in Antiva—maybe it’s something about the water, or the stone on which the city’s built. But if she closes her eyes, she can still imagine herself back home and overlooking the Montilyet shipyard.

Of course, there are less pleasant aromas. There is the sharp scent of urine in the alley, and the rancid smells of over-fried food and cheap oil. Nothing’s perfect, after all.

They pass a pair of bronze statues, their placard helpfully labeled ‘The Swimmers.’ They are a mixed pair, man and woman, and both human. The woman arches her back with one arm stretched overhead, and the sculptor has made it appear as if her blouse is wet and clinging to the skin. Passers-by have ‘helpfully’ polished the tops of her breasts smooth. Her companion is a man, bent at the waist to pick up a shell. His buttocks have been similarly polished by pedestrians.

“Who says people don’t love street art?” Josephine chuckles.

Vivienne rolls her eyes. “Audience participation isn’t usually a key element of art. There are much lovelier statues in the public gardens. Perhaps we should pay a visit, after this unpleasantness.”

Josephine agrees, though with only half an eye on Vivienne’s face. She is looking for Sera’s contact, a pirate captain of some renown. Josephine is familiar with Captain Isabela by reputation rather than recognition, but Sera had helpfully said she would be wearing a very large hat.

“Well. That is a very large hat,” Vivienne says, apparently spotting someone. Her disapproval is smoothly submerged, not even a ripple of dislike across her face.

But oh—when Josephine sees who Vivienne means, it is a very large hat. It’s as broad as a parasol and trimmed in peacock feathers that still somehow fail to match the intensity of the woman beneath it.

“I thought we were supposed to be inconspicuous,” Josephine murmurs, already steering her steps towards the pirate.

The pirate, as it turns out, has sharp ears.

“No. You’re supposed to look like you belong,” Isabela retorts, grinning ear to ear and embracing Josephine like a long-lost friend. Josephine finds herself smothered against a most magnificent bosom, but Vivienne escapes such treatment by thrusting her hand for a firm handshake before Isabela can threaten her with the same. “So! We’re old friends going out to the pub, right? You just need me to get you in.”

“Dare I ask what you are hoping to get out of this arrangement?” Vivienne asks.

Josephine jolts in surprise as someone entirely new chimes into the conversation.

“Favors. Gold. Puppies. All those things are very useful, aren’t they? But your friend already made the arrangements. So you can relax! Or relax as much as you feel comfortable, really. Some people get less comfortable the more you ask them to relax, I don’t know if you’re one of them?” chirps a pale elf in Dalish tattoos, standing so close behind Isabela that Josephine curses herself for not noticing her earlier.

Even with Isabela’s magnetism, ignoring her friend was simply rude. Josephine fixes a quick smile and curtseys, mustering up one of the few Dalish phrases that she can recall. “Aneth ara, friend.”

“Oh! And to you! You know, I don’t believe I’ve met a shem who spoke the language of the People before. It’s quite delightful! Do you—”

“Merrill, love, I think she’s trying to make introductions.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’m Merrill. I get dreadfully distracted sometimes, but I’m delighted to meet you!” Merrill envelopes Josephine’s hand in an enthusiastic if very cold-fingered handshake. “And you are Josephine, unless you prefer a different name?”

“Josephine will do,” Josephine manages, still flustered.

Vivienne curls her lip, claiming Josephine’s hand and tucking it securely in the crook of her arm. She traces the back of Josephine’s palm—and Josephine’s heart flutters for a moment before looking at the back of Merrill’s hands. They are covered in thin lines of scars, old hatched with new. Oh dear. Just what sort of people have they involved themselves with?

“We’re just old friends on a night out, I get you in, we spy on your bird, and we leave. Easy enough,” Isabela says briskly, suddenly business-like.

“Why not just kill him?” asks Merrill, the content of her words entirely at odds with the sweet earnestness of her voice. “We are very good at killing people.”

“Because we must cut the entire chain of command, not just one link,” Josephine says firmly. “And I would rather not bring an entire tavern’s worth of scoundrels on our heads.”

“Good enough. I like this place, and I’d hate getting banned!”

‘This place’ turns out to be a small pub on the edge of the docks, away from the worst of the effluvia. The air reeks of garlic, mingling with the smell of fish and almost overpowering the ever-present sea. There are no letters on the sign, only a painted head of garlic that looks as much like a crude rose as it does anything allium-related. Josephine isn’t quite sure what to expect from a den of iniquity—a knife fight at the bar, perhaps scantily-clad dancers on the tables—but a few quiet words from Isabela gets them entrance and a busy server nods them towards a table. One of the corner booths is half-shielded by a wooden screen, and Isabela slides in with her back to the wall. Merrill follows, sitting so close her shoulder bumps Isabela’s.

If Isabela and Merrill are not lovers, they are, at the very least, beloved of one another.

Vivienne appears to take her cue from their display of affection, and drapes an arm across Josephine’s shoulder. Josephine’s breath stutters—firmly, she reminds herself this is just a role, and that she still has a list of potential suitors to choose from—and she lays her hand over Vivienne’s, praying that her palms aren’t sweaty.

There are no menus, but the harried server rattles off a list of house specialties. Most of them appear to be garlic flavored with food—all based upon garlic, garlic, and more garlic—but Isabela orders an appetizer for the table. The server returns with a sizzling iron skillet of whole garlic cloves in a bath of hot oil and herbs, as well as fresh bread. Merrill tears off the heel, dipping it into the garlic bath with her pinky extended. Josephine finds herself charmed by the mannerism—and how much of Merrill’s disarming charm is intentional?—and mimics it. The taste is divine, though Josephine is sure her pores will release garlic for days.

“Hardly a meal for polite company,” Vivienne observes. She takes the smallest bite, chewing slowly. “Yet surprisingly appealing.”

“If you can’t eat garlic among friends, then who can you eat garlic with?” Isabela says amiably. “They have fried artichokes as well, but under the circumstances…”

“If selling artichokes is illegal, how do they get around it?” Merrill asks.

“Trickery, my love! They are simply selling a very expensive dish of aioli. The fried artichoke is a gift!”

Vivienne crosses her ankle, her foot brushing Josephine’s calf. Josephine tries not to shiver at the touch. “Under the circumstances, that’s less than appealing. Now, where exactly is our...bird?”

“Not like he made a reservation,” Isabela says around a mouthful of bread. “Worse comes to worst, we sit here a few hours and have a good meal.”

“Worse comes to worst, we’re stuck with the bill, you mean,” Josephine says dryly.

Isabela winks. “Oh, I’m sure we can think of ways to sweeten the deal.”

Isabela starts teaching her to play cards, and Josephine lets her. The deck is marked, of course, but Josephine pretends not to notice. It’s enough to simply devour cheap wine and good food, learning Isabela’s system until Josephine cleans the woman out.

“Oof! Vicious!” Isabela gasps, fanning her cards on the table and keeling back with feigned exhaustion.

“Beginner’s luck only, I assure you.”

Vivienne chuckles, fanning her hands with a smile. “You are an artist at work.”

Isabela flutters her eyelashes. “As you now have all my coin, that still leaves you paying the bill tonight. Unless you accept other forms of payment…?” Under the table, her foot slides up Josephine’s ankle, skimming the crook of the knee—

Until Vivienne pointedly pulls Josephine under her arm, spinning Josephine dizzy with the sudden intimacy. Even with the garlic and anchovy, Vivienne’s warmth is intoxicating.

“Oh look, they’re monogamous,” Merrill says sadly.

Vivienne sniffs, only because it is too dainty to be called a snort. “Hardly. Simply invested in more seemly behavior.”

Josephine struggles to parse Vivienne’s tone—Cool? Dismissive? Possibly concealing an ardor to match Josephine’s own?—and takes a gulp of wine. It fails to cool her down.

“Don’t turn, but our man’s just walked in,” Isabela says quietly.

Josephine does not turn, but she leans into Vivienne’s shoulder, eyes half-lidded as she tries to disentangle the swirl of voices. The new group takes a seat at the table next to theirs, making Josephine newly grateful for the screen. While she cannot study Ciro Terranova as she might like, she can still hear him reasonably well.

Merrill keeps up a steady stream of nonsense-chatter, verbal camouflage as Isabela cuts the deck and deals out a new hand. Josephine pays more attention to Terranova than the cards, but still raps Isabela’s knuckles when Isabela tries palming an extra queen.

“Can’t blame a girl for trying,” Isabela sighs.

Merrill’s nose twitches. “We can still kill him.”

Vivienne frowns, shaking her head. She holds up two fingers for silence, just as Terranova starts regaling his dinner companions with his business ventures.

They don’t leave the restaurant until hours later, after Terranova’s deep in his cups and snoring across the table. Merrill’s fingers twitch towards her belt, one eyebrow raised in question. Josephine shakes her head and Isabela sighs, wrapping an arm around Merrill. Josephine pays for the meal with her winnings, and they bid farewell to the two.

Vivienne escorts Josephine back to her apartments, and they walk in silence for a time. Val Royeaux breathes around them; the city never fully sleeps, and the distant strains of a mandolin threads through the night. Lamplight and moonlight paint long shadows on the streets, diffused through panes of glass and thin fabric awnings.

“I apologize for my behavior at the tavern,” Vivienne says quietly. Despite her legs being so much longer than Josephine’s, she paces herself so Josephine can match her stroll. Josephine’s own calves ache with empathy, recognizing the grace with which Vivienne makes those high-heeled strides seem effortless.

Josephine tilts her head at the words. No offense comes to mind, but if it’s important enough to make Vivienne apologize… “What do you mean?”

“I was possessive and controlling. I apologize for both.”

“Our purpose was to blend in, and we did just that,” Josephine says lightly. “No offense was taken, so there is no need to accept your apology.”

Vivienne turns her head to the side, studying Josephine. “I confess, it was not necessary for me to feign jealousy. I was Bastien’s mistress for many years, and he remained happily married all that time. Nicoline and I never minded one another, and have even been friends most of that while. I should have treated you with that same respect and equality.”

“You implying that we are equals may be the most beautiful thing I have ever heard from your mouth,” Josephine chuckles. Her chest bubbles, fizzy and effervescent with delight, and she has to hold one hand over her breast to tamp down the sudden rush of good feeling.

Vivienne smiles, lips parted to show a flash of teeth. “Then I shall have to say it more often.”

 


 

“Then I shall have to say it more often.”

Josephine’s thoughts churn as she struggles to sleep. She first tries lying on her left side, forearm pillowed beneath her head, then gives it up as useless and tries to sleep on her right side, knees curled to her belly. That proves equally distressing, so she at last lies on her back, staring sightlessly at her bed’s darkened canopy while her heart beats its way up her throat. Her palms are sweaty. Her toes are sweaty. She has not fretted so much since…since...

She clutches her hands to her face, and bites the base of her thumb in order to stifle her scream.

To be Vivienne’s friend—that alone is a marvel, one that a younger Josephine would have swooned over. To be seen as Vivienne’s equal—Vivienne, a magnificent enchanter in the full of her power, impeccably dressed and at the peak of her influence—would have been the stuff of fantasy.

“I am your friend, first and foremost. If time is what you need, I shall bring every hour for your disposal.”

To bring every hour is not the same as to devote every hour—Vivienne shall only bring her spare moments and idle times for their garden walks. It is a mutual friendship, a shared pleasure. It need not imply a greater sacrifice or a greater devotion—they are not just friends, but they are best friends, sharing an intimacy that does not necessitate romance.

And yet...what if they were not just friends, but beloved?

Josephine had dreamed of this, once.

She was only a schoolgirl, and the object of her early infatuation had been nowhere near as charming or as dazzling as Vivienne herself—but again, they were schoolgirls. Josephine had been utterly besotted, tenderly nursing her friendship the way that Mama had tended her orchids. She had been so young, so entranced by the delicate touches of Orlesian intimacy. It was easy to read—to misread—mutual devotion in the stroke of the other girl’s fingers, in the way that she held Josephine’s hand and plucked her by the wrist before drawing her in to gently brush their cheeks against one another.

Josephine had written a letter. A love letter.

Josephine had even delivered it, coaxed by the sweet seduction of the stars and by her own dreaming heart.

She still remembers the girl’s shocked expression, and the way her jaw fell in horror. As if Josephine had brought her a bouquet of cockroaches.

I am third cousin to the Empress herself! And you...are but the daughter of Antivan merchants!”

Josephine can still remember the choking miasma of the girl’s perfume—overripe peaches and honeysuckle, poisonously sweet.

Every Orlesian cheek-kiss, and every time they had held hands—it had meant nothing to that girl.

And again this daughter of Antivan merchants is overreaching, desiring more than friendship from a glittering Orlesian.

Vivienne is the Grand Enchanter. She was a grown woman when Josephine was still tittering over doomed teenaged loves, and is used to far greater seductions than clumsy letters and moonlit strolls. Vivienne displays more elegance with one single step of her high-heeled boots than Josephine could possibly dream of matching, even given an artichoke of a dress and an orchard for perfume. Vivienne’s beauty shines brighter than her many jewels, and when she laughs—when she laughs, a real and genuine thing, rather than the practiced laughter of the court—her eyes shut just enough to show the grace notes of age at the corners of her eyes.

Vivienne is beautiful, accomplished, and magnificent.

And...Vivienne thinks that they are equals.

Could this be love?

 


 

Josephine struggles to maintain her composure, and enforces the borders around her heart. Thankfully, preparing for Terranova’s ambush allows all of her nervous energy to be reinterpreted as concern for the outcome of their mission.

Unable to recruit more guards, lest Terranova’s men grow suspicious, Vivienne replaces her cadre of kitchen witches with more experienced battle mages—including herself. Josephine knows that Vivienne is a most capable Knight Enchanter, but that’s cold comfort as Josephine is left behind in Val Royeaux.

There is little she can do besides fret and play cards with Yvette.

“You’re letting me win!” Yvette whines, throwing down her cards.

Startled, Josephine realizes that she’s lost three hands in a row. “I most certainly am not! You’re getting better at this.”

“I wish I were! You’re worried for Madame de Fer, aren’t you?”

Josephine’s cheeks heat at the suggestion, though she knows they shouldn’t. “And you aren’t worried for Sera?”

“Oh, I know Sera will come back. And Madame de Fer. They fought Corypheus! A few upstart bandits will barely break their stride!”

Josephine wishes she could share her sister’s blithe confidence. Rather than disagree, she eats another chocolate. The indulgence is wax in her mouth, and she chews mechanically.

“You really like Madame de Fer, don’t you?” Yvette asks, heedless of Josephine’s glum demeanor.

Josephine swallows. Calmly, she says, “She is my business partner. More importantly, she is my friend. And I still need to reply to Mama about arranging interviews with my marriage candidates.”

“Oh, pooh! As if Mama wouldn’t jump for joy if you fell in love and picked your own wife!”

Josephine picks up the cards, slapping the deck as she shuffles with unnecessary force. “There are other things to consider, Yvette.”

“Like what? Vivienne has excellent connections, and rumor is that Bastien left her a wealthy widow.” Yvette flounders, fluttering her hands. “I mean, wealthy mistress?”

Yvette.”

Yvette wilts. “It’s true. That’s what people say.”

“And people always say the truth?” Josephine throws Yvette’s words back at her, drat the grammar.

“All I mean is that you can afford a love match! You needn’t follow Mama’s dull lists!”

“Vivienne isn’t even interested, Yvette! She told me herself, she is my friend!”

Too late, Josephine realizes her slip.

Yvette pounces like a tiger. “So you admit that you are interested!”

“I—!” Josephine’s hand flies to cover her mouth. “That was not what I said!”

“Josie has a crush! Josie has a cru-ush!” Yvette chants, an annoying, breathless sing-song that drags ‘crush’ into two syllables.

“I am worried about Vivienne and Sera getting hurt, while I just sit here eating chocolates!”

“Then don’t! Have a pastry instead!”

Josephine groans, throwing her hands in the air. The cards fly from her grip, raining across the floor and skidding under the furniture. “Oh! Now look what you made me do!”

“‘A lady must be poised at all times, and never let her actions be set awry by another,’” Yvette sings, puffing her chest to imitate their old etiquette tutor. “But Josie, listen to yourself. Mama knows you’ve been dallying on her replies, and it hurts her terribly. You’re not mad at her, are you?”

“No,” Josephine replies, with all the stunned and sullen grace of adolescence.

Yvette purses her lips and taps her chin. Finally, with a mighty sigh, she announces, “Very well then. If you truly have no intentions for Madame de Fer, or any desire to cause our mother heartbreak, then I’ve decided. I’ll help you sort out the marriage candidates. We’ll sort them into piles—yes, no, maybe, absolutely not. We’ll get giggly with wine, and I’ll look up all the gossip! And maybe, just maybe, you’ll stop puckering and sighing like an old man, alright?”

Josephine makes a face, swatting Yvette. “Fine, fine.”

They work their way through another pot of tea and demolish an entire tray of biscuits as they sort through the neglected mail. Josephine reads each suitor’s details aloud—name, rank, holdings—as Yvette supplies scurrilous gossip. Josephine writes these on sheets of paper, setting them into stacks according to desirability. While none earn an immediate ‘yes,’ at least Mama has enough taste that only one lands in the ‘absolutely not’ pile.

“He brought a sculpture on a beach holiday,” Yvette exclaims, wrinkling her nose as if personally affronted.

“Is he an artist?” Josephine asks, idly running her finger down the page. He had earned his ‘absolutely not’ by virtue—to use the term loosely—of being the dullest conversationalist she has ever spoken with. She’d had more lively banter from the Inquisitor’s bog unicorn.

“It was a butter sculpture. It melted and turned rancid and utterly ruined the mood for everyone.”

Whatever his reasons for the butter, Josephine decides that no, that poor judgment shan’t do for a future spouse.

“I want someone who can be restful,” she confesses.

Yvette throws her hands up in the air. “And I thought you were a romantic! Love conquers, love consumes, love—”

“All those expressions of love are so violent! I don’t want a love that consumes, I want a love that nurtures,” Josephine retorts. She slaps her hand on the olive wood table—a small luxury, imported from Antiva—and gestures at the Orlesian architecture all around them, the arched roofs and spires that carve the skyline into so many patches of territory. The Grand Cathedral glitters in the distance, its towers visible for miles. This city—this empire—gluts itself on the best of other countries, and swallows them without a thought. “Can’t that be enough?”

“You should make a list, then!” Yvette exclaims, cheerfully oblivious to the map of Josephine’s thoughts. “Of everything you want in a partner. Perhaps it will help Mama arrange for more suitable candidates?”

Josephine rubs her eyes, struggling not to appear incredulous. “That is...actually an excellent idea. Thank you, Yvette.”

“‘Actually,’ pooh. I am full of nothing but excellent ideas,” Yvette says haughtily, sucking on the tip of her quill.

Josephine can think of a dozen examples to prove otherwise, but bites her tongue. Instead, she finds her thoughts drifting towards…

“I suppose...I have always had a weakness for someone taller than me. And...graceful.” Josephine has enough sense not to wax rhapsodic on the beauty of long legs and full lips in front of her sister, for Andraste’s sake, but surely she can admit to having a type? Is it so shallow to crave a partner whose touch leaves her breathless? “Or at least someone who can wear heels, and wear them well. But also someone who is martially inclined—not necessarily a warrior with sword and shield, but someone who has faced combat. Someone I know could defend us, or the family.” Her gaze roams, flicking across the books on her shelf, the genealogies of the major families and the poetry borrowed from Vivienne. She tries not to blush as Yvette’s quill scratches away. “Someone who has experience with politics and the Game, so that we can both advance our careers. Someone who enjoys reading, so we can share books and grow our libraries.”

Yvette chews her lip, then sets her quill down. Her face is a study in emotions—always an open book, and an illustrated one at that—but this is an expression that Josephine hasn’t seen before. It is a cipher.

Quietly, Yvette says, “I’m sure we’ll find someone.”

The chocolates are devoured and the tea is drunk, so Josephine is left only with lethargy as she starts picking up cards. Yvette sighs, kneeling on the floor and helping clean up. It’s warm and companionable, much like when they were children playing with dolls on the nursery floor.

“What do you like about Sera?” Josephine asks. She never wanted to judge her sister’s choices, but it feels like an exchange of confidences is deserved after so thoroughly sharing her own would-be suitors.

“She’s charming, she’s funny—not stuffy at all, no matter how heroic she is. I love her shoulders and her freckles and her smile and the way she always stands up for what’s right, no matter who’s in the way. She inspires me, you know? I finished my first painting in years, this week. Because she told me I had to, and I finally felt like...I couldn’t disappoint her.” Yvette’s voice trails off, almost wistfully, and Josephine wonders how many other people Yvette would have been willing to disappoint. Or if Yvette would even have been aware of their disappointment. Finally, Yvette’s lips curve in a slow smile. Shaking her head, she says, “All this time, I thought I needed inspiration. But really? I was afraid of missing the mark.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was—not stage fright, exactly. But you weren’t wrong. I was afraid that the things I wanted—the things I dreamed of—would never live up to reality. That somehow, I would fail them. It is so much easier to live in the hope of what I could have done, than to embrace the failure of living. But Sera? She told me that I’ll always miss unless I truly take aim.”

Josephine lets out a long breath, studying her sister. Yvette still has scattered pimples across her face, and her hair is frizzing out of its pins—but somehow, Yvette is no longer the child that Josephine has always known her to be.

Very quietly, Yvette says, “I love her, Josie.”

A lump forms anew in Josephine’s chest. “Truly? Last year you nearly eloped with a pirate—”

“And that was last year!” After a long pause, Yvette admits, “I did—I wanted to, with Sera. I asked her if she’d like to elope—”

Josephine’s heart lurches.

“—but she said no, that love is too important to rush.”

Sera said not to rush?” Josephine feels faint, dizzy—surely up is now down, and left is now right. Surely the heavens themselves have opened up and reversed the ways of the world, if Sera said not to rush.

“Not on this. Not on us.” Yvette chews her lip, awkwardly shuffling her cards together. “And she trusts you. She likes you. She doesn’t have any family of her own, and...she wants to meet mine. She said that she wants to do it right, when it’s time. With your blessing and all the family.”

“I didn’t realize you two were so serious.”

“Well.” Yvette gives a half-hearted shrug, then smiles. “I love her.”

 


 

It takes several days, but Yvette ruthlessly winnows the ‘maybe’ pile into more ‘absolutely not’ candidates. Yvette then rewards herself by folding them into small paper birds and flinging them into the fire, and Josephine applauds her for every perfectly thrown target.

Of course, it is in the middle of an indecorous whoop that Vivienne returns. The Grand Enchanter had unlocked the door with her copy of the key, and Josephine had been too busy clapping to notice her entrance.

Vivienne arches a perfectly-shaped brow. “Am I interrupting?”

“Oh! Absolutely not!” Yvette pounces upon the list of desired traits—did she really have to label it ‘Josie’s Dream Beau’?—and Josephine foresees disaster, so immediately interrupts.

“Just sorting the mail! You’re not hurt, are you? How did it go? Please, let me see—”

Vivienne holds herself with immaculate poise, permitting Josephine to fuss over her, to examine her face for signs of weariness, to press her fingers and squeeze her arm and reassure herself, over and over, that Vivienne is whole, Vivienne is hale, Vivienne is—

“Careful on that shoulder,” Vivienne says lightly, Josephine’s fingers ghosting over the embroidered silk, the bright-hammered pauldrons and polished gorget of her armor. “One ruffian managed a lucky blow before I disarmed him.”

“Oh!” Josephine’s eyes flood with tears, remembering that even the incomparable Vivienne is not invulnerable. “Vivienne, you’re hurt—”

“Nothing that our healer hasn’t already fixed. It’s little more than memory in flesh now, not even a scar,” Vivienne murmurs, but Josephine caresses the curve of her bicep, the subtle dip where the muscle of the shoulder curves into the flex of the arm. Vivienne’s squeezes her hand, lightly, and Josephine’s heart could burst at the feel of Vivienne’s skin—

“I’m here too!” Sera adds, and Yvette falls over herself ministering to Sera’s non-existent wounds.

“Thank you for worrying about me, but it is entirely unnecessary,” Vivienne says softly, cupping her palm beneath Josephine’s chin. Josephine allows herself to be tilted upward, their faces so close that she can feel the soft breath of Vivienne’s words over her own lips. Vivienne’s eyes are a deep and beautiful darkness, like a well of stars, and Josephine could fall endlessly into them. “I have been guarding myself for years. These would-be bandits presented no challenge.”

Josephine’s heart thumps her lips, beating her words breathless. “I apologize, then. For bothering you so.”

Vivienne’s smile widens, and the way it makes the skin around her eyes crinkle tells Josephine that it is more than formality. “Unnecessary is not the same as unwelcome, my dear. Unlike your mail.”

“Ah, it is nothing to worry about,” Josephine demurs. What are a few papercuts, after Vivienne has so bravely routed the bandits? “My mother’s list of marriage candidates.”

“Is she forcing you to hurry?” Vivienne asks. There is nothing but gentleness in her voice.

Josephine knows it is a measure of their friendship, that Vivienne should offer her such comfort. But just friendship is a painful disappointment. Josephine swallows, shying away from Vivienne’s touch. “There is no rush, but—I am determined to do what is best for my family.”

Vivienne takes half a step back, releasing Josephine as she studies the papers still on the table. Thankfully, ‘Josie’s Dream Beau’ is hidden beneath a weighty volume on the Antivan peerage. “Marriage is not the only way to cement an alliance, if you are so opposed.”

“Not the only way, certainly.” It would be difficult to dispute that fact when Vivienne still benefits from her connections to her beloved Bastien. Josephine does not think she herself would oppose being someone’s mistress, for the right reasons—love being one among many. But if a young Circle mage had been allowed to marry a noble, if mages were allowed to hold land and title, then how would that have reshaped Vivienne’s life? “But one of the easiest.”

Josephine allows herself a sigh, redirecting the conversation. This might be a topic to continue at another time, without Yvette’s eager ears.

“But please, tell me of the ambush,” Josephine insists.

Vivienne relates the ambush in dry specifics—location, time, number of attackers—as Sera adds colorful flourishes such as ‘and then she iced him real good!’ or ‘and then he browned his trousers!’ Josephine tries to take notes of what might be relevant, like the currencies found in their pockets and significant jewelry found while searching the bodies, but the most useful information is that they captured several of the attackers. The bandits had no true loyalties to Terranova, and it was easy enough to loosen their tongues with a combination of threats and bribery, including the promise to lighten their sentences.

“I’m surprised that you would tolerate such negotiations!” Yvette bursts out, clutching Sera.

Sera scratches the back of her head, giving an awkward shrug. “I don’t like politicking. They’re just little people, still picking on other little people, but…” Her voice trails off, nose scrunched with furious concentration. “It’s different when it’s some big arsehole who don’t care about the blood, only thinks it matters if it’s bleeding from someone important, but everyone’s important to someone. And if I go back on Vivienne’s word and knifey-stab them after they talk, then I’m making her a liar. And me too. It’s different, killing someone tied up and talking."

“And they talked enough to give us a few names and contacts. It won’t be all ambushes and combat, but we do need to collect enough information to bring charges against Terranova,” says Vivienne. She sweeps her gaze towards Josephine. “That will be your forte, my dear.”

Which is enough to get things started, to issue a series of carefully worded letters and gentle tugs at the nobles and merchants who have been terrorized by Ciro Terranova. The effort of penning such missives helps distract Josephine from her other letters, and the variety of very suitable candidates that Josephine can’t bring herself to entertain. While Mama is doubtlessly doing her best, there is no denying the fact that Vivienne makes far better company than parchment and ink.

Her evening walks with Vivienne are another lovely distraction, strolling through the public gardens of Val Royeaux. The evening air is laden with sweet blossoms and the fresh smell of green and growing plants, the garden turned magical under moonlight and a series of miniature lamps lining the path. Tufted ferns sway in the breeze, while lilies dot the surface of the pond. Sera and Yvette are on their own evening stroll, though Josephine suspects the two are spending more time sprawling than strolling. Hopefully they’re not jumping in the pond in the Garden of Eternal Spring.

“I must confess, Sera and your sister have endured longer than I first suspected,” Vivienne remarks. A half-broken twig on a nearby shrub bears a pink flower, and Vivienne snaps it into her hand. Josephine peeks at the plaque, which identifies it as a type of camellia. Vivienne tucks it into Josephine’s hair, her fingers grazing the shell of Josephine’s ear, and all the blood in Josephine’s body throbs to that small touch. “Does your family consider her suitable, then?”

“I would have to ask them. I have learned not to inform Mama of Yvette’s every infatuation, but I think Sera is more than a fancy,” Josephine admits.

Vivienne tilts her head, examining a cup-shaped flower growing over a trellis. “If they are so willing for Yvette to pick her own marriage prospects, surely they would permit you to do the same?”

“I would. If I knew I had such a prospect,” Josephine says, carefully pressing her words pale and colorless. “But I would only bring my own suitor if I knew that it was reciprocated. I would need more than an advantageous match, but one that I could love, and would be loved by in return. I am a coward, that way.”

“Those are daunting standards for anyone who would wish to court you,” Vivienne says softly. “Perhaps even for someone who thought they already were courting you.”

The words hang softly in the air.

The possibility that Vivienne is courting Josephine, perhaps has been all along—that is sweeter than honeysuckle. There is enticement in the plausibility of such affection, with Vivienne using gentle friendship rather than ornamental declarations as courtship. It is the difference between the seduction of lingerie and the warmth of bare skin.

Josephine feels her face flush at the thought, and casts her gaze across the sea of flowers. The blossoms shade through soft pinks and whites, their leaves cast in silver and velvet beneath the full-throated moon.

For one moment, Josephine chokes on the smell of honeysuckle.

Her hands are shaking, she realizes. Josephine blinks quickly, her lashes suddenly heavy with tears that threaten to overflow. She loves this woman, she knows. She knows that Vivienne has never shown her anything but kindness. Despite Vivienne’s love of all things Orlesian, even Vivienne knows what it’s like to stand on the edges of an empire that will never fully embrace her—and perhaps that is part of why Josephine loves her. They share that hunger for legibility.

And yet…

I am so afraid of being consumed. I am afraid of losing your friendship. I am afraid that the two are entwined and inseparable. I am afraid of so much more than I should be.

Given the choice between the safety of Vivienne’s friendship, and the terror of being Vivienne’s beloved, of always worrying that a misplaced word might bring the loss of their relationship—no, worse, the loss of Vivienne’s respect—then Josephine will pick safety every time.

The vanilla of Vivienne’s perfume blends with the evening jasmine. Josephine breathes it in with rapid gulps, as if trying to inhale the very memory of Vivienne’s presence.

“You are my dearest friend,” Josephine says, struggling to keep her words even. Distantly, she knows that she is doing it perhaps a little too well; her words are cool and flat. It is too late to correct it now, and if she dares to show any emotion it will be too much, flooding her defenses beyond all repair. “You are the dearest, kindest person I know. To stand next to you and to be seen as your equal, worthy of breathing the very same air as you—that would have been more than I would have dreamed of, as a schoolgirl. You have set my standards so much higher than I would have dared to imagine. To risk altering our friendship…”

Josephine has to force herself to swallow, curling her fingers tight into her palms as she makes an elaborate show of examining the garden. Never mind that the flowers are blurred, transformed into watercolors through her tears. Now, more than ever, she must remain strong.

“It is because I care for you so much that I want nothing more than to remain the best of friends,” Josephine finishes.

Vivienne is very still. Josephine dares not risk turning to look at her, to study Vivienne for the most minute of expressions that might slip past her practiced mask. To gaze at Vivienne would invite being gazed at in return, and Josephine cannot stand such scrutiny. Still, she finds herself straining for the slightest catch of breath, for the faintest sound of disappointment.

“Josephine, I want nothing more than to remain the best of friends,” Vivienne says softly. “I trust you to know your own heart on the matter.”

Which, perhaps, is the kindest—and most crushing—thing she could have said.

 


 

The next week brings a flurry of mail and little chance to speak with Vivienne. Josephine’s ink-stained fingers are cramped and sore at the end of each day, and Yvette makes soothing noises and brings her a basin of warm water to soak her writing hand. Sera even brings a tray of profiteroles, though she and Yvette devour the entire ‘gift’ before Josephine can eat a single one.

If Josephine had a single bite, perhaps it would sweeten her words.

As it is, they come out tart.

“Sera. What are your intentions towards my sister?”

Yvette lets out a squeal, but Sera narrows her eyes. “Knives out?”

“No. But as your possible sister-in-law, I am very concerned over why Yvette is so concerned over my marriage prospects.”

Sera wriggles in her seat, not quite meeting Josephine’s gaze. “We-ell. If you get married first, it’ll be like a trial run, yeah? I get to see what you’re all about.”

“You do realize that there is no law that the elder siblings must be married before the younger ones?”

“Do you think we’re not serious?” Yvette exclaims.

Josephine watches Sera’s hands, which are tightly gripping her knees. The knuckles are white against the freckled skin, covered with patchworks of old scars and burns. Sera is very, very still.

Deliberately, dropping her words like stones in a pond, Josephine says, “I find it peculiar that you are so interested in my pending nuptials, while you two have chosen to wait.”

“And I find it fecking weird that you’re still sorting through all these letters and Lord and Lady and Ser Whatsits when you’re obviously already in love!” Sera bursts out, entire body flung upward as she bounces off the edge of her seat. “What the hell, Josie! Of all the goddamn nobs, I figured you’d pick love over vast tracts of land!” She jiggles her unample bosom. “Or at least go for vast tracts of land, if you’re gonna—”

“I am not in love!” Josephine says sharply, raising her voice. “I have endured all sorts of innuendo from you and Yvette, and I am sick and tired of it!”

“You’re just so used to holding the winning hand all the time, you’re afraid! You’re afraid to take a risk!” Sera sweeps her hand, toppling an inkwell. Yvette dives for it with a yelp, setting it upright and saving a sheaf of correspondence from the spreading pool. “You and her both, and I’d laugh myself sick if it weren’t so stupid—”

“Sera! I have had enough! This is not some ridiculous romance, and I will not endure any more of your absurd—”

Vivienne sweeps into the room, and everyone freezes.

Vivienne turns slowly in place, taking in the tableau—Josephine with her palms flat on the table, Sera hopping on one foot with her hand still raised, Yvette perched on the edge of her seat and blotting the spilled ink—and with a razored calm, says, “It looks like I came just in time. I was going to invite you to the opera, Josephine. If you have no other obligations?”

Josephine lunges for the rescue. “Not at all! I was just finishing my work. Sera and Yvette can clean up.”

Yvette’s face crumples, eyes scrunched as if she might burst into tears. Sera’s scowling furiously, arms crossed and foot tapping the floor. Josephine has no mercy for either of them as she takes Vivienne’s hand. Fleetingly, Josephine regrets that she hasn’t properly dressed for a night out, but Vivienne is kind enough to ignore this lack, and allows for a wash of entirely trivial, entirely soothing gossip rather than anything of deeper substance as they enter the carriage.

By the time they reach the opera, Josephine has regained her composure and is able to look forward to the performance on its own merits, rather than merely an avenue of escape. An usher gives them a playbill while escorting them to a private box, and Josephine skims it in the velvet darkness of the booth.

The show begins, and for a happy hour or so Josephine is blissfully unaware of anything except the music. Josephine clutches her knees as the characters face their tribulations, weeps into her handkerchief when they must part, and holds her breath as the singers finally reunite and embrace on stage. Josephine leans forward, lips parted as Vivienne shifts next to her. There is a sudden tension in the air, and Vivienne’s arm curls around Josephine’s shoulders—

“Get down,” Vivienne commands, and Josephine falls forward as a sheet of ice crashes behind her.

Frost radiates across the floor, chilling Josephine's palms as she scrabbles for purchase. Josephine’s heart is in her teeth as she rolls aside, huddled behind her chair as Vivienne contemptuously deflects a man with a knife. The blade of her spirit-sword crackles as she freezes him in place. One man is already on the ground, shackled in a glowing prism of force, and a third is on the run, footsteps disappearing down the carpeted hallway.

The theatre is in uproar, the ushers running to bring lights. In all the tumult there are questions to answer, people to talk to, with, or at, and Josephine passes through them like a ghost, mouthing entirely correct and polite answers that she cannot recall. Josephine can’t even remember how she gets back into the carriage, but is grateful for the privacy as she sits across from Vivienne.

“We were targets, my dear. That much is clear,” Vivienne says. Arms crossed, foot tapping, the square of her shoulders and the clench of her jaw betraying the heat of her anger. “I should have taken precautions.”

“Precautions? Vivienne, we were at the opera!”

“And we were also targeted by a man who is doubtlessly unhappy about our interference in his banditry,” Vivienne replies, too slowly to be a snap. Every inch of her is metered control, from the precise line of buttons marching up the side of her high-heeled boots to the sharp-faceted diamonds in her earrings. “Unless you can think of another reason why someone might send assassins after us? Inept assassins,” she adds, with a curl of her lips. Nostrils quite visibly not flaring.

“Our ties to the Inquisition—”

“Would have gotten us a much better class of assassin.”

Josephine presses her palms together, leaning on her steepled fingers.

“I insist that you hire more guards, Josephine," Vivienne says crisply. "Perhaps consider an escort.”

“An escort? I think I can consider my own quarters safe!” Josephine softens, pulling her hands from her chin. “I appreciate your concern, but I think you are feeling too responsible for this. You saved me, Vivienne.”

Vivienne crosses her hands in her lap, and starts to twist the jeweled ring on one of her fingers. She catches herself in mid-motion, glaring briefly at her hands, and composes herself back into stillness as she looks directly into Josephine’s eyes.

“I have few true friends, and cannot afford a single loss.” The words are blunt. Bare. Vulnerable, in a way that shakes Josephine to the core. This is Vivienne unmasked, and a far greater measure of their friendship than any number of moonlit walks or elegant luncheons. “I esteem you too highly to risk losing you, Josephine. If you will not take care for your own sake, then please consider taking care for mine.”

Josephine’s thoughts are a sheet of glass. Her words slip and find no purchase. She knows—distantly, faintly—that Vivienne has offered her a gift beyond compare, but she can do little more than tremble with gratitude for Vivienne’s attention, for Vivienne’s concern. Josephine’s gaze will not settle, and her limbs sway with deep-bodied exhaustion.

When Vivienne insists on guarding Josephine, Josephine mouths the correct apologies and deflections, but they both recognize the steps of this dance. Vivienne is not a woman to be swayed, and Josephine is not a woman to deny herself comfort after a harrowing experience.

‘Harrowing.’ She almost laughs at the thought, sharp and hysterical. Of course Vivienne knows such harrowings better than she.

Vivienne also insists on staying in Josephine’s room.

“I can hardly defend you from across the hall,” Vivienne says calmly.

Was any seduction ever so reasonable?

Heart still drumming from the assassins, from the theater, from Vivienne’s nearness, Josephine replies, “As my guest, I insist that you take the bed.” It feels like a miracle that Vivienne can hear Josephine at all over that hammering pulse.

“And leave you sleeping on the lounge? Nonsense. Your bed is ample enough for us both.”

And so it is.

Josephine dons her most demure nightgown and lies rigid in the dark, eyes fixed on the canopy. Willing her breath to come soft and even. The bed is ample, as Vivienne said—even as a child, Josephine had demanded room for a dozen dolls and stuffed toys—and there is a chaste foot of space between the two of them. It is not unlike a sleepover, or one of the slumber parties from boarding school.

“Penny for your thoughts, my dear?”

Josephine blushes, grateful for the darkness. “I doubt they are worth so much.”

A dry chuckle, then the rustle of Vivienne fluffing her pillow. “A vast underpayment, I assure you.”

The words are tied between her teeth like so much loose thread. Yet they dance to attention, taut and threatening to snap loose if Vivienne keeps speaking. If Vivienne keeps breathing, so close that Josephine can fold herself in the violet scent of Vivienne’s tooth powder, so close that Josephine can melt into the warm heat of Vivienne’s thigh, then Josephine just might kiss her. Josephine’s left hip dips lower than the right, Vivienne’s gravity shaping the mattress as if to pull her close.

“I am trying not to be afraid,” Josephine whispers into the dark, into the many shades of night. Moonlight peeks around the curtains, starlight beyond that, and now that her eyes are adjusted she can count the shines off her scent bottles and hair pins, all the little pieces of glamor arrayed neatly on her nightstand.

“Then be angry,” Vivienne says, with a gentleness at odds with her words. “Anger will serve you better than fear.”

Josephine swallows disappointment. “Anger is useful. It can be an armor, but for now…?”

Josephine is quiet, for several long breaths of silence.

But Vivienne gives her room to speak, and Josephine finally whispers, “Emotions are not so easily changed. For now, I am afraid. And I hope that means I haven’t lost your respect.”

Vivienne rolls over, a comforting weight on the bed. The blankets tug around Josephine, echoing Vivienne’s movement and twining around their legs.

“My dear,” Vivienne says, so soft it’s more breath than voice, “please do not be afraid for that reason.”

If Josephine turned her head, her nose might brush Vivienne’s. Her lips might brush Vivienne’s. They might kiss, a small and secret sweetness to mark the end of a terrible night. That alone might be enough to change the whole evening.

Unbidden, memory hisses in her ear.

I am third cousin to the Empress herself! And you...are but the daughter of Antivan merchants!”

One kiss had capsized an entire friendship.

Misery chokes her senses like rotting fruit, and Josephine twists her hands tightly into the blankets. Josephine is an adult, now, and can laugh at the ‘third cousin to the Empress.’ The girl had so little status that she had to borrow glory from that distant relation, using it to cover for her own lack. Josephine can know these things, measure them out like weights on a scale, and yet—

“You are beautiful even when you fight. This is the first time I’ve seen you in combat,” Josephine confesses, hoping to shift the tone. The breathlessness of her lingering panic will hopefully sound like excitement.

Vivienne laughs, rolling back on her pillow. “And that scares you?”

Josephine smooths her hands upon the sheets. “No. If there is danger, I’d rather face it at your side. I’d rather be beside you, than behind anyone else.”

“I am honored with your trust.” Vivienne sighs, almost wistful. “Imagine what we might have been, if we had met before the Inquisition.”

Josephine’s heart rattles the empty spaces between her ribs. “Ah. But we did.”

“Truly?”

It is rare to hear Vivienne surprised. Josephine would normally savor it like a slow melt of chocolate, but her words rush out in a long-held confession. “I doubt you remember—it wasn’t a meeting, so much as a mutual sighting. I was quite young, still in boarding school. You and the Duke came to admire the gardens.”

“The Clarisse de Monfort School for Young Ladies?”

“You do remember!”

“No, alas.” Vivienne chuckles, adjusting the sheets around her. Dimly, Josephine can see her eyes shine in the darkness. The shape of her nose, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s simply fantasy, Josephine imagining those familiar features so close. “But Nicoline has fond memories of her girlhood there, and makes generous endowments to the school. And the gardens are lovely; the roses make an easy metaphor for budding young women, still in need of tender care.”

Josephine laughs ruefully. “True, though perhaps less obvious to one’s girlhood self. But you and Bastien were touring the gardens, and we were...advised not to provoke or pester, but many of us still watched. I remember he held a parasol in one hand, the other tucked behind you. They said that he had filled your library with peonies, sending an army of florists holding flowers by the armful...You two were sensational.”

Vivienne gives a warm laugh, bending her knees so they brush Josephine’s. “Yes. My Bastien always created a flutter wherever he went. He stirred many schoolgirl passions, I am sure.”

Josephine allows herself to curl her body into a question mark, turning to face Vivienne. “He was not...the only one. You were also greatly admired.” Josephine bites the inside of her cheek, squeezing her thighs together.

Vivienne, maddeningly, gives no answer. Only an expectant pause.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. It existed before there even were books, this trick of waiting in silence, of letting the other party squirm with the urgency of creating noise.

Josephine wants to create noise, to dance as close to truth as she can dare.

“Many of us took great joy in composing letters,” she confesses. “Long ones, never to be sent. Only to be savored as a joyful, secret tenderness.”

“And do you think it was only schoolgirl folly, to feel in such a way?”

Vivienne is but a breath away, and Josephine is breathless.

“I do not believe in love at first sight, or that a schoolgirl’s infatuation should outlive her school years.” Josephine’s words are soft, her voice weak. A reminder, not a remonstration.

“I would have thought you held more fondness for your school years,” Vivienne murmurs. “Nicoline spoke of hers with such enjoyment, after all.”

“I was an Antivan novelty,” Josephine whispers. “Some girls adopted me into their friendships the way they might adopt an exotic bird. I was—mistaken, once, to believe that friendship meant anything more.”

“Mistaken?” Vivienne’s voice is gentle, curious.

“I had written a love letter,” Josephine says, her voice flat as tin. It is an old hurt, but even healed breaks can ache. “She was—unkind, in her rejection.”

“Unkind? To you?” Even in the dark, Josephine can glimpse the startled whites of Vivienne’s eyes. Vivienne’s hand twists into the sheets, as if throttling some unseen adversary. “How can anyone be unkind to you? You are a gem, Josephine. If she could not see that, she is no more than a pebble to be kicked from your shoe.”

“It was not all bad,” Josephine whispers. “If I hadn’t been rejected—if I hadn’t run to my favorite hiding place, in the library overlooking the garden—I would never have seen you. You and Bastien, in the garden.”

Josephine no longer knows if this is memory or fantasy, her recollections polished over the years of reminiscing. She remembers—or thinks she remembers—the soft puff of her breath against the window, the tip of her nose against the glass and leaving a smudge. She remembers her lashes clumped with dried tears, and the dizzying suck of breath from her lungs as she stared helplessly at the lovers in the garden. Vivienne had touched Bastien’s arm, tilting the parasol back just enough to reveal a glimpse of her face, gilded with sun. Her eyes seemed to meet Josephine’s with a knowing sparkle, and then—

“You looked up—and you smiled.”

And, oh—what was a third cousin to an Empress, next to the glamorous Court Enchanter who held the very ear of the Empress? What was a candle, next to the sun itself? Vivienne was the epitome of elegance, and so Orlesian, in the way that excited Josephine’s yearning fascination back then. She had imagined that smile as acknowledgment, as recognition that yes, someday they might become equals.

The very memory still makes Josephine smile, even as she admits, “I know it wasn’t at me, you couldn’t have possibly seen me, but... you were beautiful and magnificent, everything I felt that I was not.”

And like that—Josephine had decided to pen all her yearnings towards the unattainable Vivienne. Vivienne was beautiful, remote, and so safely beyond reach that Josephine could afford a helpless devotion, knowing it would never bear fruit.

Josephine swallows, heart fluttering with all the memory of that childhood crush.

“Do you hold fondness for your Circle apprenticeship?” Josephine asks, wondering if she has already bared too much of her own feelings.

“They were the years that shaped me; there are some similarities between my Circle and your finishing school. They were both places meant to teach and inspire young minds, while keeping us safe from the world around us. But…” Vivienne’s voice trails, and she lets out a long sigh. Her fingers brush Josephine’s hand, and neither of them move. “I never had your girlhood sleepovers. There were the shared dormitories of apprenticeship, but we had to be mindful of early morning lessons and templars enforcing curfew.”

“And after your Harrowing?”

Vivienne is very still, her fingers cool against Josephine’s palm. “Competence does not breed camaraderie.”

Josephine curls her fingers over Vivienne’s hand. Not hard—she would not be so presumptuous as to restrain Vivienne in any way. But enough to warm the edges of her skin.

“I am proud to call you my friend,” Josephine says softly.

Vivienne gives her a single squeeze.

Chapter Text

Over the next few weeks, Josephine flourishes her quill more than Vivienne does her blade, sending cutting missives and sharp replies from her office in Val Royeaux. Cadash, upon hearing of the assassination attempt, sends not only Inquisition soldiers as a formal guard but a dozen scarred and tattooed dwarves with colorful names like ‘Hacksaw Harry’ and ‘Tabitha the Crusher.’ Josephine believes the sobriquets are only an extended joke until she overhears Tabitha asking Hacksaw about his children Mauler and Thrasher.

The assassination attempts do not stop, alas. Most unfortunately for the assassins.

One assassin tumbles off the roof and into the fountain, while another is discovered in the kitchen pantry. It takes Tabitha less than two minutes to apprehend the miscreants, and over twenty minutes to flex and preen for a delighted Chef Robin. A third assassin is then discovered in the garderobe, and it turns out that while Tabitha has very strong feelings about people surprising Chef Robin, it turns out that Tabitha has even stronger feelings about people surprising her in the lavatory. The assassin ends up begging—begging!—to be turned over to the guards.

This is their new normal, a comforting domesticity even amidst assassins. Vivienne moves her wardrobe and a select portion of her library into Josephine’s quarters, overflowing Josephine’s shelves with herbology treatises and combinatorial rune analysis.

They are two sensible women of means. They could easily afford another bed, or pay for Vivienne’s own bed to be transferred to Josephine’s apartments...and yet, they never do. The possibility might be mentioned over their morning tea, then forgotten by luncheon. Somehow, it just never seems terribly important to either of them.

But still. Assassins.

“Are they even trying anymore?” Vivienne sniffs, over a dish of lamb stew and couscous, thick with ginger and cumin. After her original surprise at the flavor—Orlesian cuisine does not incorporate preserved lemons in one’s meat dishes—Vivienne had fallen in love with Chef Robin’s newest creation with her usual appetite. While they trust the chef, that doesn’t stop the guards from fighting over who gets to taste it, ‘for poison.’ Tabitha usually wins such fights, on account of her noble defense of Robin’s pantry.

“If I must have assassins, I would rather they be incompetent,” Josephine says dryly.

“One derives status from the strength of one’s enemies. This is laughable.”

“Only because they were caught. If any of them had made it through…”

Vivienne takes Josephine’s hand, her palm soft across Josephine’s knuckles. “I have had my share of bards after me,” she says quietly. “Even under attack, we must find joy.”

Josephine’s heart pangs, and she lets out a long sigh. “How could I forget? Your romance with Bastien was absolutely exquisite, all bards and thrilling escapes.”

Vivienne chuckles, dipping her head in modest acceptance. “It was very romantic, I admit. Though more so after the fact, rather than while facing down assassins.”

Josephine flushes. Feeling daring, she adds, “Some of the other girls tittered about how dashing he must have been, rescuing you all the time. But after having seen you in action...I wonder, how many times did you rescue him?”

Vivienne laughs, covering her mouth with one hand as her eyes crinkle shut. “Oh, no more than half the time, I assure you. He had a remarkable talent for improvisation. He once bludgeoned a man with a ham, after all.”

No!” Josephine squeals with delighted shock.

Vivienne does not just smile, she grins. It is not the artful, guarded expression of the court, but something far more beautiful. It creases the corners of her eyes, and frames her mouth in warm parentheses of affection. It stirs Josephine like a breath of spring, and Josephine cannot help catching her breath as Vivienne nods, as if to assure her that yes, it really did happen.

“That gives an entirely new meaning to the term ‘food fight!’” Josephine laughs, helping herself to another spoonful of stew. “This sauce is far too good to waste on fighting—though it is worth fighting over.”

Vivienne lifts her chin, taking pride in her chef’s work. “I shall have to ask Robin to make this again. We normally enjoy more Orlesian fare, but I now regret how little we’ve sampled of other cuisines.”

“Well,” Josephine says lightly, “we are in Orlais. An understandable oversight.”

Vivienne sighs, folding her napkin into quarters and setting it on the table. “An oversight, yes. You said, once, that Orlais consumes what it loves.”

Josephine nods, curious as to the thrust of Vivienne’s thoughts.

“You were right. We not only consume what we love, we change what we love. We make it more appealing to Orlesian tastes, and think that we are elevating it in the process. I have consumed delicacies from across Thedas, but rarely sampled them in context of their original cuisine.” Vivienne hesitates, and for one moment—Josephine sees her, elegant and straight-backed, a woman in silks and jewels, but also the girl she had once been, who had been taken from her parents at a young age. “You are a dear friend, and worth more than any amount of cinnamon or saffron. I would never wish you to think that I wanted to change you.” Vivienne smiles, beautiful as poetry, and her words sing their own meter to Josephine’s ears. “We are equals, Josephine.”

“The most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard from your mouth,” Josephine breathes, blinking back a sudden shimmer of tears. Oh, why must she cry when she is joyful!

Vivienne still smiles, making a small motion of her shoulders that’s not quite a shrug. “I did promise to say it more often, didn’t I? And I would like to remain friends, no matter where your marriage takes you.”

It is everything that Josephine should want: a promise of equality, and a promise that Vivienne respects Josephine’s choice to remain friends. It is a promise that nothing needs to change, if Josephine does not wish it to.

Perhaps the things that Josephine wants—the things she dreams of, the things she fears—will never live up to reality. It is easier to live in hope of what might have been than to embrace the possibility of failure.

But...if Vivienne was brave enough to face bandits and assassins, Josephine can be brave enough to face the terrors of her own heart.

Still, Josephine clears her mind along with the empty plates. It would be cruel to reopen that line of inquiry, not until Josephine has deciphered the tangled longing of her own affections.

In contrast, their after-lunch interrogation of the captured assassins is charmingly simple.

It turns out that Terranova’s purchased loyalty is only worth so much compared to Vivienne’s pointed interrogation, especially with Tabitha glowering behind her and cracking her knuckles in a menacing fashion. Josephine listens in intently, winnowing fact from misdirection and genuine ignorance. Once they have a few names, it is but a matter of following the threads to unravel Terranova’s network.

In the end, it proves anticlimactic.

Josephine and Vivienne are enjoying another luncheon, dining upon seafood paella with saffron aioli, and Josephine is admiring how Vivienne can make even the gentle sucking of the mussel from its shell into a thing of grace and beauty when another letter arrives. The courier is a breathless Sera, the envelope ripped open and the page crumpled in her hand. Before Josephine can chide her for opening the mail, Sera blurts:

“Terranova! They got him!”

Vivienne pauses with a shell to her lips, and sets it down to clink against the plate. “Who?”

“Inky! Cadash went after him with all the rest, and now they’ve got him!” Sera drops the letter onto the table, and Josephine does not bother smoothing it out before reading.

A quick glance confirms all that Sera as said—though Josephine’s gaze lingers on Cadash’s closing statement.

I can get Terranova for you. I can get you his head or his balls on a platter, your choice, says the crabby scrawl, the ink stabbed into the page as if Cadash forgot she was wielding a quill rather than a knife.

“Neither,” Josephine pens swiftly. “We’ll turn our evidence over to the magistrates and let him serve his time in prison.”

Sera happily gorges herself on paella while Josephine blots her letter, then wipes her mouth on her knuckles as Josephine presses the letter into her other hand. Sera then runs off to have it delivered.

Vivienne taps her spoon to the bottom of her paella, letting the metal chime off the bowl. “I suppose with Terranova apprehended, there is no further need for me to stay.” She says it artlessly, as casually as discussing the weather.

Josephine’s heart seizes in her throat. “...No, I suppose not. Though you are wonderful company, and I’ve treasured your presence.” She folds her napkin in her lap, creasing the folds between her fingers. She knows it is a silly gesture, one meant to keep her hands from trembling.

“Considering the number of things I have brought in, it may take me a few days to move everything back,” Vivienne says, as if idly musing. “I hope it shan’t impose on your time…?”

If ever there was a more perfect time to invite Vivienne to stay…!

Unless your rejection has already ruined Vivienne’s interest, a wary part of Josephine whispers. She deserves a library full of flowers, jewels and poetry of the highest order. Not a weak-willed little girl still playing at nobility.

No. If Josephine is to court Vivienne—if Josephine is now to prove herself worthy of Vivienne, if only to herself—then she will do this right.

“Absolutely not. Take as long as you need—you are never an imposition,” Josephine insists, already contemplating the perfect diplomatic campaign.

So it is that Josephine engages in battle on two different fronts: she commits herself fully to helping her beloved friend move her possessions, to packing Vivienne’s slippers away from next to Josephine’s own, to stowing Vivienne’s jewels and bottles of nail lacquer into her luggage, to retrieving all the odds and ends of borrowed ribbon and perfume, until the only remnant of Vivienne’s presence is the lingering scent of citrus and vanilla. Until the only physical sign of Vivienne’s now-absence is the faint imprint of her sleeping head upon the pillow.

And on the other front: Josephine scours the stock of nearby florists, considering all possible permutations of flower arrangements. Roses would feel trite, and peonies a poor imitation of Vivienne’s prior love. Camellias, then. They are beautiful, showy things, and would be a way of rewriting that disastrous conversation in the garden. Josephine will invite Vivienne to the opera—something beautiful and passionate! Josephine will order that the box be filled with flowers, and Vivienne’s every comfort will be anticipated. Josephine will make her intent as undeniable and devastatingly romantic as possible, and then—

Josephine spends days planning the particulars of the evening, jotting out the exactitudes of every moment. She rests the tip of her quill against her lip, struggling not to chew on it. It is a ridiculous childhood habit, like biting her nails, and she alternates between throwing herself at the problem of courtship and relentless self-distraction by playing cards with Yvette.

It is in one of these lulls that Yvette interrogates her.

“You’re moping,” Yvette says, chin perched on her hands.

“I most certainly am not.”

“Yes you are.” Yvette crosses her eyes, puffing an errant strand of hair out of her face. “You always do this, writing and writing when you don’t know what to do. You would rather spend a week planning something than one hour just doing it.”

“Many things are better when they are planned!” Josephine protests. “Weddings, for example!”

Yvette cocks her head. “Are you planning a wedding, then?”

Josephine can feel her nostrils flare as she glares at Yvette. “Most certainly not.”

“If you are not planning a wedding...perhaps you are planning a courtship, then?” Yvette asks, eyes sly. She taps the side of her chin, studying Josephine while Josephine schools her face to absolute stillness. “Oh, don’t look all puckered like that! You pretend to hold your cards so close, but I haven’t seen you look at a single one of Mama’s suitors! And if you are not in love with Vivienne, and not looking for any of Mama’s candidates, then perhaps you simply need to write out your feelings—whatever they are. Maybe it’ll help you sort things out?”

Josephine has never kept a journal—far too many opportunities for nosy siblings to pry—but the thought has a certain appeal.

She does not tell this to Yvette, but simply rolls her eyes and shuffles through Mama’s letters. Josephine makes a show of struggling to decide on the least objectionable candidate, but after Yvette goes yawning off to bed, Josephine pulls out a blank sheet of paper.

Dear—

Her quill stutters on the page, appalled by her own familiarity. No. She is writing this only for herself. This is a letter she will never send, like the love letters and tendresses of girlhood.

Better than girlhood; Josephine is a woman now, and confident that Vivienne has loved her, once. Vivienne may love her still, and perhaps even love her again, once Josephine has planned a proper courtship.

The knowledge unstoppers her panicked thoughts, smoothing them into the flow of fresh ink on paper. She writes, loose and full-bodied, moving her shoulder as much as her wrist, hand lifted to avoid smearing the wet ink.

Dearest Vivienne—

I will never send this letter, because I am a coward.

I can admit this to myself, safely distant from the sparkle of your eyes and the delicate curl of your lip. You have the most exquisite expressions, and I could spend hours admiring the arch of your brow or the smallest curve of your mouth. You are a symphony for the senses, with all your layers of movement and meaning.

But I did not write this simply to praise your beauty, though you deserve it.

I have idolized you for so long, but that impossible distance of devotion makes for a lonely pedestal. I realize now that I had imagined you beyond my reach—which is easy to mistake for respect, except that I had spent so long believing that you had no flaws that I forgot how entirely warm and human you actually are.

When I say ‘for so long,’ perhaps I must explain. I have already told you of my disastrous teenage affections, and the girl who spurned me. I have since grown past that childhood hurt, and anointed myself in charm and polish so as to never allow myself to be hurt again. At the same time, seeing you in that garden—I fell in love with all the single-minded intensity of youth. I loved you with the same impossible distance that a candle might love a star.

I felt safe in that remoteness of pining and admiration. I would never feel the sting of rejection, because we would never meet. I would never have to worry about carving away pieces of myself to fit among your friends, never have to worry about how my status in Orlais might affect my standing in your heart. I would never have to fear being consumed, or being changed by one who professed to care for me.

When I met you in the early days of the Inquisition, I thought that I had outgrown that childhood infatuation. Instead, I found myself falling more deeply in love with you. I admired your assurance, your poise and control—and I felt so young, so unsure of myself despite my accomplishments. Silly as I was, I even had to restrain myself from an indecorous whoop when the Inquisitor first officially addressed us at Skyhold! But you were a friend, a companion and trusted confidant.

When did this warm friendship, this love platonic and strong, turn romantic? Or, perhaps, when did I realize that it had never stopped being romantic?

At our first artichoke luncheon.

If roses are too easy a metaphor for budding girlhood, so too is the sweet thistle-flower on which our fortunes are comprised! But it is an absolute truth. You are far more elegant, more composed and lovely than any mere artichoke, of course—but you require patience and tenderness to reach the heart of you. All good things deserve patience, and you have been beyond patient with me as I fumbled through my own feelings.

But if I have learned anything else from our recent adventures—from you taking on bandits and brigands and assassins, like the centerpiece of all my girlhood romances!—it is that I am a coward. More than assassins’ blades, I feared your rejection.

But more than rejection, I feared being made small again.

I know now how silly this was. We are equals.

We are equals, and I love you.

~Josephine

Josephine sighs, pushing back from her desk with a feeling of rising from deep water. She rolls her head, wincing as her neck crackles, and then massages her shoulders. Looking down at the page, she impulsively lifts it to her lips. There. Sealed with a kiss, even though she will never send it. This is a private tenderness, one last farewell to girlhood before she devotes herself to planning the perfect courtship.

She leaves it to dry on the table. Later, she’ll press it under her pillow for sweet dreams—but as sleep overtakes her, she decides it can wait until morning.

 


The world feels so much easier after making a difficult decision!

Josephine wakes with a smile on her lips and a song in her heart, cheek pressed to the pillow and her body curled to face Vivienne’s absence. The lingering scent of citrus and vanilla is like sunshine in her veins, and she decides to ask Vivienne where to purchase it. She brushes her hair, humming, and thinks about the day’s plans. She still needs to purchase the opera tickets, after all.

But first, she’ll write to Mama.

Josephine sits at her desk, pulling out a fresh sheet of paper. Yvette was right, Josephine has been far too neglectful of her mother’s correspondence. An apology, first. Then a few quick words, hinting at Josephine’s own intentions towards Vivienne? And then—

Josephine stares at the desk, realization slapping her like cold water.

The love letter is gone.

Josephine checks beneath her desk, then under her loose papers. She rattles the drawers, rifling through her stationary and up-ending her assortment of ribbons and sealing wax, biting down her rising panic.

The most important part of a secret letter, a love letter, is that it must never be discovered.

Josephine is on the verge of dismantling her desk when a yawning Sera enters.

“Hey, Josie, whuzzat?”

You!” Josephine springs, ready to rattle Sera’s freckles. “What did you do with it?!”

“With what?” Sera wrinkles her nose, eyes comically wide.

“With my letter!”

“Hey now, I don’t touch none of that stuff—!” Sera shrills.

I did,” says a very small voice. So small, in fact, that Josephine almost does not recognize it as her own sister.

Sera and Josephine both turn to stare at Yvette.

Yvette glares back, jutting her chin. Her spine is needle-straight, heels touching, holding herself in like a dancer. One hand still rests on the doorknob, as though poised for flight.

Josephine bites her nails into her palm, struggling to keep the tears from her voice. Anger will serve her better than tears. “How dare you! Yvette, you cannot keep going through my things!”

“And you won’t dare allow yourself to be happy, Josephine! What’s next?” Yvette’s lower lip quivers, as threatening to burst into sobs. As if she has the right. “Hair shirts and mortification?”

“Where did you put it?” Josephine asks, voice cracked with strain.

“I sent it.” Yvette locks eyes with Josephine, clenching her fists—and Josephine’s lungs implode inside her chest. Her cheeks burn, then fade to a horrible numbness. Yvette’s face is utterly still, with only a tremolo of her lip to betray her agitation, as if she is only now realizing that she is a child playing at romantic fantasies before adding, “I sent it to her.”

There is a long pause, during which Josephine starts counting in her head. Metering off the moments so she will not strangle her own sister.

Just as Josephine reaches the count of ten, just as she has decided to try her best to forgive Yvette, Yvette blurts, “Like you should have done.”

Josephine launches herself at Yvette, only to be yanked to a halt as Sera’s hand twists in the back of her blouse. Josephine struggles, face contorted with humiliated rage.

“Hold off, hold off! Letter? Her? What’s going on?” Sera sputters, her gaze ricocheting between Yvette and Josephine.

“Josephine finally admitted that she’s in love with Madame de Fer!” Yvette explains, ducking behind a potted plant.

“Oh! That’s good, then?” Sera grunts, swatting at Josephine’s hands as Josephine starts flailing.

Yvette bats away at the plant's long fronds. “And she wrote a letter!”

Sera has to wrestle the still-struggling Josephine to the ground, sitting on her for good measure. For such a petite woman, she’s surprisingly heavy. Especially when all of her weight is concentrated on Josephine’s chest, adding another physical burden to the emotional crush of ill-feeling. “Fuck yeah!”

“And refused to send it.”

“Wait, that’s—what?” Sera sputters.

“So I did,” Yvette finishes grimly.

Sera twists to look at her captive, brow crinkled. “Wait, why would you write a letter you’re not going to send? That’s thick as a brick sandwich. Makes my teeth all achey.”

“That was my letter and you stole it!” Josephine hisses. Anger will serve her better than tears—but the tears prickle her eyes anyway. To be criticized by Sera, of all people!

Sera lets go of Josephine, rolling sideways and into a cross-legged sprawl. “Hold on, hold on. Sit down. Maybe explain it, like. Unless it’s non-’splainable nonsense? But you, Josephine,” says Sera, pointing for emphasis, “finally realized you’re arse over kettle for Vivvy. So you wrote a letter?”

Josephine pushes herself upright, cheeks aflame. “What of it?”

Sera’s face scrunches like she’s trying to excavate a seed from her back teeth. “And you wrote the letter, but decided not to send it?”

“That was my decision!”

“...why?”

“Because—”

“Because she’s a coward and only ever plays when she knows she’s going to win,” Yvette says, blistering with contempt. “She won’t play Wicked Grace unless she’s going to skin someone. She never makes a bet unless she already knows the outcome! She never wants to risk losing something because she’s afraid that all her carefully-built competence will go crashing down around her ears!”

“How dare you,” Josephine whispers, face rigid. Her kindness is a choice, every time, and for Yvette to take advantage…

Josephine unleashes her full fury, hurling a lifetime of petty grievances like crockery.

“We should all be like you, then?” Her voice rises in crescendo, vibrating with rage as she clenches her fists by her side. “Frittering not your money, but the familys money on lessons and showings and galleries that you never attend, never paint for?” She stabs her finger at Yvette, wielding a lifetime of petty grievances like a knife.

And oh, if Yvette can be cruel, then Josephine can be cruel as well.

“Maybe we should all comfort ourselves with tear-stained pillows and wretched poetry when our crush won’t return our glances!” There, that struck home—Josephine can see it in Yvette’s blanched face, in the slackness of her jaw. Viciously, Josephine continues. “Or when you were abandoned in the orchard after midnight because they didn’t show up for your ‘secret rendezvous’—”

“At least I live!” Yvette cries, abandoning the cover of her potted plant as she launches her arms around Sera. “I’ve found the one I love, and I’m going to marry her! I only want you to have the same happiness!”

“Wait,” Sera says, distinctly muffled as she speaks into Yvette’s bosom. “You mean, Josie doesn’t know that Vivvy’s absolutely arse over kettle for her too?”

Yvette screams “Yes!” just as Josephine shouts “No!”

The potted plant, unused to such excitement, falls over with a clatter.

When the echoes of plant, pot, and petulance die down, Sera scratches her head.

“Like...really? Oh crap. Like. Big fat donkey crap. You really don’t know?”

“I—” Josephine takes a breath, hands shaking. “I knew. She as much as told me herself. And I...refused her.”

Why?” Sera and Yvette demand in unison.

“Because I was afraid,” Josephine whispers. “Because I thought that it would ruin our friendship—no. No, that she would see me as something to be conquered. Someone to be changed. But now I—I know how foolish that was. So now I must court her, and let her know that my heart has changed. I only hope that she is still interested.”

“You’re so stupid when you’re smart,” Sera remarks. “It’s a special kind of dumb.” Then Sera springs to her feet and out of Yvette’s bosom, starting to count out on her fingers. “Of course she’s still interested! One. Vivvy actually spends time with you. Like, looks for you to go do stupid things together.”

“We’re friends!”

Two,” Sera adds, offering her hand and hauling Yvette up to standing. “She holds your hand all the friggin’ time.”

“She’s Orlesian!” Josephine protests, but her objection is lost beneath Sera’s next outburst.

Three. Nobody likes gardens enough to go walking every damn day, unless it’s to spend time with their pash!”

Four!” Yvette chimes in triumphantly. “Madame de Fer is extremely eligible, and would make Mama beam with pride!”

Five!” Sera bellows, spinning Yvette in a whooping arc. “Have you ever, I mean ever, seen Vivvy get all seething like she did after the opera? She clenched up more for you than she did after Haven! For you!”

Six!” Yvette flings herself away from Sera, clasping her hands in implorement and swaying before Josephine. “Josie, do you really need more reasons? You two are perfect. And,” she adds, lip trembling, “if it turns out that I am utterly, completely wrong about this—you can blame me. It’s just a silly prank from your little sister, after all.”

Yvette’s eyes shimmer with tears, wide-eyed and guileless.

Josephine steps back, reeling. Possibilities flit through her mind, full of branching paths and futures yet undetermined. If Vivienne says no, she does not share such sentiment—yes, yes, this was a joke. A joke in poor taste, committed by Yvette. Josephine will remain blameless, and she can happily continue her friendship with Vivienne knowing that nothing is altered.

But if Vivienne says yes—if Vivienne says yes, her heart belongs to Josephine, just as surely as Josephine’s heart belongs to her—

“I must stop that letter.”

“Why?” Sera demands.

“Because I love her.” Josephine slams her hand against her desk, and straightens her spine.

“Wait, what? But Yvette just said—”

“Yes, but what if Vivienne does still love me? I had meant to court her with wine and music, but wine and music cannot change a heart gone cold! Can I look her in the eye and say, ‘I was too much of a coward to say how I felt, so I let my sister do it for me?’ Can I truly give my heart to someone if I’m already planning a way to take it back? To turn it into a joke and escape responsibility for my feelings?” Josephine’s voice breaks, faltering as she plucks dust from her sleeves. “That would be cruel. Love is a vulnerable thing, and if I cannot risk it, then I do not deserve her.”

“But Josephine—” Yvette pleads.

“That’s why I have to tell her myself. In person.”

Yvette gasps, swooning into Sera’s arms. “Oh! Do it, do it, Josie!”

“When did the courier leave?”

“Thirty minutes ago…!”

Josephine shoves herself into her shoes, and plunges into the street. Yvette’s voice trails behind her, but Josephine can barely hear it as her ears roar with the urgency of her mission.

Val Royeaux, jewel of Orlais, is, in a very real sense, a large city. It throbs with life, the foot-travel of pedestrians surging through it like blood in its veins. The first time Josephine had seen the city at night, the White Spire glowing in the dark, she thought it was something from a fairytale.

However, it is also, in a very real sense, a small city. The Inquisition on the march has had to cover as many as thirty miles in a day—and Val Royeaux is not thirty miles.

With only a thirty minute penalty, Josephine knows she can catch up.

So Josephine takes off at a brisk jog down Great Street; not yet a sprint, for she knows herself to be over a decade out of university and less agile than her youth. While she normally encourages her couriers to take the main streets—it is good to have the Montilyet colors seen—that means she can shave time off the route by jumping the hedges that politely separate the Antivan from the Free Marches embassy. Giving a cheerful ‘hello!’ to the confused guard means they are too bewildered to take off after her, especially since Josephine has made a habit of bringing pastries once a week in order to establish goodwill. Most likely, they are bewildered at seeing her without a basket of sweets.

Once over the hedge, she slips behind a row of ornamental pears and through the service gate. There are all sorts of side-streets with the express purpose of bringing and taking away the delicate things that ambassadors do not wish to flaunt in front of their guests—laundry, linens, scraps and groceries—and Josephine avails herself of them now, her soles skidding across a row of cobbles as she catches herself against the nearest gate. Oof.

Breathing heavily, she emerges onto the Rue de la Fontaine. There, there. It is still early enough in the day that the street is merely occupied, rather than crowded, and she cannot see any courier wearing the blue and gold of the Montilyet family, so that means she must keep going.

Unfortunately, the occupied street soon becomes an obstacle course.

Josephine dodges two laborers carrying a sheet of glass down an empty street, skates across radishes and lettuces from a vegetable-seller’s upturned cart, and trips on a rogue cabbage before landing in the arms of a street-singer. He grins, flashing gold teeth, and spins her into a dance as she protests, “No, no, I must go!”

And then the amorous goat attacks.

Lured by cabbage, music, or merely a sense of mischief, it butts the singer in the side. With a mighty ‘oof!’ he releases Josephine, who takes off sprinting for Vivienne’s salon—pursued by the goat.

“Shoo! Shoo!” Josephine exclaims, flapping her hands wildly.

The goat bleats, rolling the horizontal slits of its eyes at her.

Josephine has never seen a goat this close before, and is already finding herself rapidly disenchanted by the experience.

It follows her across Rue de Port—oh no, she has gone far too much to the east—and to the Rue des Jardins, where she makes her way to the Garden of Eternal Spring and pushes for the entrance.

The garden’s main feature is a large pond, meant to evoke a river, which runs the entire length of the garden and divides one half from the other. In the interest of convenience, there are two bridges, one at each end. In the interest of aesthetics, the garden’s entrances are at the center of the pond. It is meant to encourage the visitors to walk from one end to the other, following a gentle circle and appreciating the fullness of the garden’s design.

The pond is, perhaps, a tenth of a mile long.

But it is only six feet wide, so Josephine starts sprinting.

She’s already done this once, on a dare, back when she was a student…

As soon as her toes leave the edge of the manicured lawn, she remembers—that was over a decade ago.

She lands in the pond, falling forward on her hands and soaked to the hip. Her sleeves flap heavy against her legs as she limps her way out of the pond, trying to wring them dry as she keeps walking.

The goat manages the same leap with one dainty jump. It cocks its head at her, preening.

“Show-off.”

It bleats good-naturedly.

But the garden is only a few minutes from the Circle, even laden with a wardrobe full of water and her own foolishness. The goat keeps pace, dancing nimbly behind her as Josephine slows to a walk, huffing around the stitch in her side. Maker! Her lungs feel like they’re made of paper! But as long as she makes it before the courier—

Just as she’s thinking it, the courier steps into view. Leaving the Circle.

“The letter! Has it been delivered?” Josephine puffs, still out of breath.

“Er. Yes?”

Josephine stares into his eyes—his name is Rodolfo, she remembers, and he likes the almond rondos from the bakery on Wisteria—and sees them widen, reflecting her bedraggled form and clenched fists.

“Er. Should I—?”

She pushes past him, past the still-swinging doors, past the wide-eyed templars and a moustached man that tries impeding her, but she draws upon centuries of family privilege and over two decades of sibling squabbles to give her haughtiest, “I am Lady Josephine Montilyet of the Inquisition. I am also Madame de Fer’s business partner, and you shall not stand in my way!”

Her pantaloons drip on the floor, and into stunned silence.

“Er,” the moustached templar says, sounding remarkably like Rodolfo. “The goat, too?”

“The goat is unnecessary,” comes Vivienne’s smooth voice, and the lady herself glides into view. She has only a low heel today, but still sufficient to tower over her armored templars.

Josephine is wordless.

Vivienne is beautiful. Stunning. Perfection in flesh, her robes freshly pressed and the clean lines drawing attention to her long legs, the sweep of her neck and the casual elegance of her posture.

And...Josephine is still squelching.

The goat bleats.

“Come, my dear. Whatever has brought you here, we can discuss it inside.”

One of the templars attempts to restrain the goat, and falls clattering on his backside. The goat prances through the halls, leading the armored templars on a merry chase while Josephine and Vivienne escape into Vivienne’s study. The goat makes one last effort to follow them, but Vivienne slams the door in its face, leaving it bereft and bleating.

Josephine sees the fateful letter on Vivienne’s desk.

It has been bent into quarters, now unfolded.

“Vivienne, I—”

Vivienne lays a gentle finger on Josephine’s mouth, resting on the swell of the lower lip. She inclines her head, her features set in a gentle smile—and oh, it is devastating with its tenderness. Vivienne could destroy Josephine with a word, no matter how gently spoken.

“We are equals,” Vivienne says quietly. “As your friend, I feel obligated to respect your intent—this was a letter that was never meant to be sent. We need not speak of it, and we can consider it undone.”

It is a terrible mercy she offers, and yet…

“Or—as someone who loved you, and loves you still, we can accept the truth of our feelings,” Vivienne murmurs. Her face is beautifully still, as calm and reasonable as if she were talking about the weather. And yet—her hand trembles, and Josephine can feel it against her lip like the beat of a butterfly’s wings. “I, for one, would much rather choose the second. But that is only possible if you are willing to take that step.”

Josephine takes a breath. If she is to be anything more than a coward—if she is to ever seize a more perfect moment—

Josephine sinks to her knees, wet clothes clammy and clinging as she raises her hands in supplication. Vivienne is a woman worthy of bold romance and sweeping gestures, and if Josephine cannot offer her a library full of peonies at least she can offer the truth of her heart.

“I love you so much, and was afraid that I had ruined our chances,” Josephine whispers, her heart in her mouth. Vivienne looks down at Josephine with her mouth barely open, lips parted like the petals of a flower. “I was planning to woo you, as beautifully and extravagantly as you deserve, to take the same time and patience that you had shown with me. I had meant to do this artfully, delicately, face to face rather than through letters. But when my letter escaped—I had to catch up.”

Vivienne’s expression is still devastatingly tender, maddeningly soft as she bends her knees; not to kneel, but to take Josephine’s hands and tug her to her feet. Their faces are mere inches away from one another, Vivienne’s breath warm with the scent of violets.

“Josephine...one must never kneel to an equal. After all this time, how could you not recognize that I love you too?”

Josephine lets out a startled gasp, half sob and half laugh. “Oh…! Because I made so many excuses for myself, afraid that I was foolish for hoping for more. Afraid that you might still see me as a silly girl in need of Orlesian tutelage. And—afraid that your feelings had cooled, upon being rebuffed.”

“And it never once crossed your mind,” Vivienne says, coming closer, so that Josephine can count the individual shadows of her eyelashes, “that perhaps I might have felt afraid? You seemed so determined to misread my every signal, and to peruse your Mama’s potential suitors. And when you rejected me—of course I grew restrained. Only a cad continues pursuing one who is uninterested.”

“I am not rejecting you now,” Josephine whispers. She rises on tip-toe, trying to meet Vivienne halfway before Vivienne sweeps her into a kiss.

Josephine lets out a startled moan into the hollow of Vivienne’s mouth, and their noses bump. Vivienne places one hand on the back of Josephine’s head and tilts, and oh it is as if the earth itself has opened beneath their feet, because Josephine’s eyes flutter shut in the velvet darkness of warm sensation and there is nothing else but Vivienne’s mouth on hers. She grips Vivienne’s arms, love-drunk and dizzy from the realization that Vivienne’s robes are now utterly filthy from Josephine’s pond-soaked clothing. If the kiss hadn’t been proof enough, then surely this is evidence of Vivienne’s ardor.

From beyond the door, the goat bleats. There is a metallic clatter; presumably another templar has fallen.

Vivienne chuckles, pulling back, and Josephine lets out a groan of frustration.

“My dear, you may seduce me after we get rid of the goat.”

Chapter Text

One year later...

“Ohhh Josie, I can’t decide between the marigolds or the zinnias! We absolutely can’t have the poppies, or else Bobo will eat them—” Yvette gushes around a mouthful of stuffed artichoke, spilling crumbs across her plate.

Josephine holds out her hand, struggling to swim upstream of Yvette’s babble. “Does Bobo like poppies?”

“I don’t know, but Bobo likes everything, and poppies are poisonous so we mustn’t risk it!” Yvette exclaims, slapping her hand across a list of Robin’s proposed menus for the wedding banquet. The choice of food is made more difficult by the fact that Yvette loves every single one of Robin’s offerings. Even with Tabitha as Robin’s devoted new prep cook and inamorata, they are barely able to keep up with Yvette’s excitement.

Bobo bleats contentedly, and steals an artichoke leaf from Yvette’s plate.

Josephine sighs.

Neither she nor Vivienne had expected the wayward goat to keep following them. Nor had they expected that Sera and Yvette would adopt the goat. Thankfully, the knowledge that the goat eats anything has kept Sera and Yvette from making the newly-named Bobo their ring-bearer.

There is a warm presence behind Josephine, lightly perfumed with fresh orange blossoms. Josephine leans back with gentle familiarity, and Vivienne’s arms are already open to embrace her.

“I trust you will keep my words in strictest confidence,” Vivienne murmurs, breath stirring the shell of Josephine’s ear.

Josephine smiles; Yvette is entirely too distracted to notice the whispering right in front of her. “Always.”

“Sera was, dare I say, charming. She held admirably still for her measurements, and was thrilled to pick out the design for her wedding gown. The tailors were delighted with her enthusiasm.”

Josephine laughs, covering her mouth with the palm of her hand. “I’m glad. Thank you for helping, my love.”

Vivienne chuckles, leaning forward to brush her lips over Josephine’s cheek. “For you...anything.”