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Celene dispatched Briala to find him. Then, because canceling the hunt would be an act of weakness, she called for her shining white mare, adjusted her riding skirts, and went off to battle. As they rode into the woods—carefully sculpted woods, enough to offer fine hunting, but not enough to pose a real threat to an inexperienced rider—there was noise all around Celene. Gruff orders from the servants to their underlings, banter and laughter amongst the nobles, the occasional barking of the hunting dogs.
The nobles wore riding gowns or leathers, all of it accented with silver and gold and ribbons that complemented their riding masks. The servants trailed behind, always ready to rush up with a goblet of watered wine or a skewer of meat, cheese, and wine-soaked fruit for a rider more interested in eating than hunting.
Celene rode in icy silence, a polite smile frozen upon her face. In her agitation while ordering the search for Michel, she had neglected to take tea before she had left, and her nerves felt simultaneously raw and clouded at the lack.
Gaspard looked back. Gaspard chuckled. He was flushed and awkward in the saddle. Then, up ahead, the dogs bayed in pursuit. Celene turned to the group. The exchange with Gaspard had shaken her, though, and she needed the disruption to gather herself for the next exchange. Her horse pounded through the woods, quickly losing the others as each noble found a different route through the trees, trying to reach the quarry first. Then the clop of hooves behind her proved her wrong.
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It was a heavy horse with an experienced rider, and rather than appear to flee, Celene slowed her mare to a trot. Gaspard pulled abreast of her a moment later. But these woods are so tame. Practically a park. I prefer the hunting in Lydes. Then he burst out laughing. At least he was honest in his folly. They came into a clearing, and Celene pulled up her mount. Maybe we can let those idiots in the Chantry and the Circle kill people outside our borders instead of inside them. His features were still hawk-sharp and rugged, and he spent enough time outdoors to have tan lines around the edges of where his mask normally sat.
It was effectively a challenge. After a moment, Celene pulled her own mask free as well. He gave a small nod, still smiling. We cannot afford to play games while war looms.
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She damned him for bullying her into removing her mask. And that was the Game, played faithfully by both your side and mine. If you wish to dwell on our bloody history instead of saving Orlais, you are less than the woman I think you are. So did Duke Bastien, and so did Duke Germain. We were all wrong.
Together, we could save this empire. Celene actually considered it for a moment, staring at Gaspard as he sat unmasked on his great warhorse, proud and rugged. But finally, she shook her head. I do not need a husband. Then, with a speed that belied his size, he kneed his horse over to her.
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His hand came down on her shoulder. Smoke rose from his arm, and the fine cloth was scorched. He clutched the injured wrist to his chest. I know it quite well, thank you. It crackled with fire as she raised it. He moved, and Celene lashed out, trailing a line of fire across his forearm as his blade cleared its sheath.
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She kneed her horse out of range and held herself low. The reach from his blade put the odds in his favor, but if she had done enough injury to his sword-arm … Then in the distance, the hounds bayed again. Gaspard glanced in that direction, and then sighed and dipped his head in a brief bow. Everything that happens, you could have avoided with wedding vows.
She could raise the alarm right then, she knew. She could have her cousin in shackles as soon as her guards arrived. But if she did, Orlais would be at war before the sun set. He slid his mask back on and, still holding his burnt arm close, rode back out of the clearing. Celene shook her head and slid her knife back into its sheath. Then, as just another elf—one of dozens serving the merchants and caravan drivers in the market district—she began looking for word of Ser Michel. The most famous spies in Orlais were the bards.
They were legendary for their ability to ferret out information, to lay intrigue and dissemble with skill enough to turn nobles to their purposes. They were invited to play despite this, and sometimes even because of it.
The lords and ladies who played the Game always fancied themselves cunning enough to match wits with a master of lies and learn something from the exchange. But even as the bards outplayed the nobles, they were watched. They were famous. They were legendary.
Briala was just another elf in the market. And the elves were everywhere. She learned from an elven boy unloading spices that Churneau was expecting a poor harvest this year. An old elven woman washing cloth that had gotten soaked in the rain mentioned that the merchants in Val Firmin thought something strange was going on at Adamant Fortress.
Briala walked, and watched, and listened, waiting for the lead that would point her in the right direction. They had been talking about hunting, and how they expected various nobles to do when the season opened. It had seemed silly and pointless to Briala. Listening to the nobles talk about hunting for the throne of Orlais, Briala had only then realized how much her mother had done.
The girl blushed, staring at. Briala consoled herself by noting that a few of the merchants themselves were elven.
Though still rare, elven merchants with unique goods were allowed into the upper-class market, and Celene had declared threats against them to be unseemly and distasteful in her last visit. It had been Celene who had taught Briala to watch, since a girl, especially an elven girl, could not act as a man did. A man who acted quickly and aggressively was praised as bold and daring.