Guarded Love

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Chapter 10: Cloaks & Daggers

“I’d like to keep this under strictest confidence,” Alistair whispered to the woman sharing the booth across from him. While he felt the need to dress for the clandestine meeting in a cloak complete with drawn hood, she wore leathers that cried out whenever she moved. Seeing as how they were in a less than savory tavern in the middle of the dwarven districts few people glanced over. Most were too busy drinking themselves into a stupor while banging out a rather melodic ballad upon helmets. Alistair didn’t get close enough to see if the heads were still inside.

She took a small sip of her mead and turned a slow eye at him, “Please don’t tell me you’ve invented a secret handshake we have to use.”

A blush burned up his cheeks, and absently he turned back to spot his bodyguard sitting alone at the bar. She was within protecting distance as well as listening and was well aware that Alistair spent some of the night perfecting one. “No, nothing like that,” he waved it away.

“Right,” ex-scout Lace Harding didn’t roll her eyes but she chuckled into her mug. After placing it down, she turned her dissecting stare upon him. “I doubt you brought me here for just a drink. And, before you go any further, you should know I’m spoken for.”

Now his blush was in full form. Maybe it was having to turn around from Lanny’s memorial and trudge out to a backwater tavern complete with a few ladies of the evening trying to pry him out of his coin and hose, but Alistair felt he was all of twenty again and terrified that speaking to anyone of the lady persuasion would cause him to melt through the floor. He glanced over at Reiss, who’d asked surprisingly few questions when they ditched Teagan to head out drinking. She still wore armor, though threw a cloak over some of it to disguise the obvious royal parts. Anywhere else in Denerim she’d stick out, but even the waitresses in The Forge were better kitted out than he was at Ostagaar.

“I assume you heard about the assassins at the naming day celebration,” Alistair began, his fingers rolling a coin back and forth across the filthy table. Harding nodded, then daintily wiped away the drink clinging to her mouth. “Well, funny thing it seems that the esteemed ambassador from Antiva’s alibi is full of more holes than a colander chamberpot.”

She winced at his metaphor, but nodded, “Got it. But why turn to me? What about your Spymaster?”

“Ghaleb. You know him?”

“We met at one of the spy conventions.”

Alistair threw his hand up, his thought trail fully abandoned, “Wait, wait, there are spy conventions?”

“They’re very popular. All the espionage aficionados show up to trade in advice, catch up, network, spy on each other. The usual. I’m not an official one, but was there to help ease Charter in after Leliana...”

“Took the big hat?” Alistair threw out.

“Your Spymaster was there as well. He’s rather peculiar,” Harding said, careful to not anger anyone. “There was this fancy dance where everyone was supposed to dress up like their best get. Half of them pretended to be Empress Celene, as if anyone could get that slippery Orlesian eel, and Maker feathers were everywhere. You couldn’t move without breathing them in.”

“Who’d you go as?” the King was doing his best to not focus as he didn’t really want to voice what he had to.

Harding’s eyes dropped to her mug and she mouthed, “Erimond.” At that name, Alistair sneered but nodded his head, glad that particular snake was without a head. “But Ghaleb wore no feathered pauldron nor mask and dressed in the same outfit he wore the entire day. When pressed, he said he came as himself. No one was certain if it was the most idiotic or brilliant costume of the night.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem with him. Figuring out what he’s thinking requires a second Ghaleb and why I need your help.”

“I don’t think anyone short of a flock of mages is getting into that mind,” Harding interrupted.

Absently Alistair worried his fingers together, the coin alternating across the knuckles, “Ghaleb claimed he checked out Donato’s story, that it was sound. I happen to know for a fact that the chantry was putting on a play that day as the Grand Cleric apologized for the conflicting schedules twelve times. And I also know it was only to be attended by the Revered Mother and a few Sisters. Unless Donato’s given up manhood in order to take up the cloth, it’s a wee bit fishy.”

“All of which any low level Spymaster would have sussed out in a day,” Harding finished for him.

“Right,” he nodded, his head slipped down as he tried to pry a thought from his brain. “If I can’t even trust my own Spymaster where does that leave me? Assassins, secrets, lies...”

“Throw in a sex scandal and you have the makings of a good crime serial,” Harding laughed, breaking up his maudlin turn. The coin stopped flipping up and down over his fingers and he watched it. No one bothered to mint his cheap mug on any of them, for which he was eternally grateful. This copper still bore Maric, the lone eye of the father who never wanted him, the father he had to kill, the unknown father’s metal gaze always watching him from the back of his money. Maybe that was why Alistair never carried coin anymore.

Slipping it into his pocket, he tipped his head back and forth to the beat of the helmet drums, “How’s your mother?”

The change in topics didn’t even swerve Harding. She smiled softly, then folded her hands against her mouth. “Well, all things considered. I think the move to Denerim has helped. My aunt’s here and they spend afternoons together playing Diamondback. It doesn’t replace my father, but...” Her words tailed off, pain threaded through each one.

Kicking himself for bringing it up, Alistair tried to refocus, “And you, how’s not-Inquisition life?”

“Fine. Bit dull without Qunari attacks, red templars, giant magisters who want to be gods, the usual. I sell wares with a dwarf in the main square. Took me forever to talk him into updating his slogans. Shouting the same thing day in and day out at people isn’t going to exactly endear you to any customers. ‘Fine Dwarven Crafts’ indeed.”

Alistair shifted in his seat and leaned closer, “This whole bit with my Spymaster, and assassins, and potentially Antiva trying to start a war, I really would prefer the Inquisition not find out until it’s been settled.”

An enigmatic smile twisted up Harding’s lips, “Why Sire, I’m no longer with the Inquisition.”

“Right, and I’m the Archon of Tevinter,” he said.

Shrugging, Harding shoved her mug away, “My lips are sealed for the time being. Ghaleb and the Antivan ambassador?”

“Donato, Baronet Donato. No, I don’t know what Baronet means either,” he said.

“A Baronet is a vassal to a Baron, often in the form of a non-noble line knight who most likely served with great honor or his own family line did,” Hardin recited without pause. At Alistair’s gobsmacked look she shrugged, “I had a lot of time to read while waiting for the Inquisitor to show up at camp sites.”

“Thanks Harding, for coming out of retirement for this,” he said bowing his head.

“No problem, just doing my civic duty and all,” she moved to slide out of her seat when she paused. “If I find something you don’t like...?”

“Your mother is still welcome to stay in Denerim. One, I’m not stupid enough to grab the Inquisition’s horns to shake them. And two, I know you’re going to find something I don’t like.”

Harding slipped to her feet, her stature barely putting her above Alistair while sitting in the short booth even as he struggled to keep his long legs under the table. “Pleasure doing business with you. I’ll drop you a note when I’ve got something.” He nodded at her as she walked towards the front of the house. Pausing, Harding waved her hand and shouted, “Oh, and thanks for buying me a drink.”

“I didn’t...?” he began when a massive tal-vashoth appeared instantly at the table and grabbed onto his wrist. Reiss staggered to her heels, her hand reaching for a hilt, but Alistair shook her off. They were incognito, no reason to go spilling ox man blood here. Gulping, Alistair glanced up and up at him. Slowly he dug out his coin purse and asked, “How much do I owe you?”

As the qunari bouncer skipped off with half the coins in the King’s pocket, Reiss slid into Harding’s vacated seat. Her eyes coldly followed the ox man’s wake. If looks could kill, his grey skin would’ve lit up like a bonfire. Alistair was about to ask if she knew him, when the elven woman turned to him. “Ser, if I may be so bold?”

“Please, be as bold as you want. Bolder than a naked man crawling through a dragon’s nest of thorns.”

He anticipated a groan, but she smiled a moment before dipping down her head. By the weak rune light of the tavern, her cheeks were thrown into high contrast, elongating the small nose. “If you have concerns about your Spymaster why not have him brought in?”

“Only to learn that it was all some big misunderstanding and the real villain was the butler the whole time! In fact, Ghaleb was ten steps ahead and about five to the right as his quirky, little brain often is. Then I’m stuck with a Spymaster who knows all the secrets of blighted everyone he’s ever met that also hates me.”

Reiss’ crisp eyes narrowed before sliding out towards the door. “So you enlist a known scout of the Inquisition to aid you because if she is caught...”

“That damn chantry can’t stop poking its nose into other people’s business,” Alistair chuckled parting his hands, “We all know how much Mothers love hearing the dirt on their flock.”

“Everyone spoke of you as being...” Reiss’s smile faltered to panic, her face falling slack in terror but Alistair leaped upon the grenade.

“A complete and utter moron? A man incapable of finding his own ass if you drew a map on it and then jammed a few daggers into the flesh? The essence of true stupidity concentrated and distilled down into one teeny, tiny brain?” He spoke each one with a laugh, savoring the outlandish rumors. Oftentimes he’d traipse up to Ghaleb’s tower to sit and hear the best ones the man collected. Everyone else tried to keep Alistair from them, but Ghaleb never wavered in forking them over. He enjoyed the Spymaster for what he was and hated the idea that he was wrong about him the entire time.

Reiss watched him spin each joke; she was a cautious one. He hadn’t seen a front wall that thick in years, but every now and then a few gaps allowed her real self to prod through. Tapping her finger on the table, she paused a moment before speaking, “How is it no one knows the truth of you?”

“Ah,” Alistair blinked rapidly, suddenly feeling the sting of smoke in his eyes, “I...who’s not to say it isn’t? There’s a damn good chance under my rule Ferelden could fall into the sea and then catch on fire. I suspect it hasn’t due to my incredible dumb luck, emphasis on the dumb.” Maker’s sake, was it hot in here? Dwarves loved their lava pits, but how could they recreate the boiling pits of Orzammar in a tiny tavern in Denerim? Shifting uncomfortably on his ass, Alistair tried to not glance over at the pretty woman who seemed to be sizing him up. Usually he took it on the chin, prepared for the scoff and hair flounce once a decision was reached but this one made him uncomfortable. His stomach knotted and it felt as if he’d eaten an entire pot of his lamb surprise stew in a night.

Reiss’ scouring eyes shifted back to the denizens of the bar, “Are you certain it is Crows?”

He was about to shrug it off, having been as certain of that as anything else, but something in her tone caught him. “You have some idea on that?”

For a moment her lips opened, a finger lifting on the table. He knew that look, remembered it from Lanny when she’d have some brilliant theory erupt in sparks across her brain. But Reiss reeled it back in. “Not quite, Ser. I was only curious.”

“Right,” Alistair finished off the last of his mead and tried to ignore the lump of metal someone dropped in the bottom of the cup for flavor. “If all goes well, Ghaleb will track them down, we’ll have a small man hunt, and then a beheading.”

“And if all doesn’t go well?”

Digging his palm against his forehead, Alistair knotted his eyebrows back and forth manually. “It never goes well. Plan for the worst because Maker knows the best is impossible. Okay, that’s enough cloak and daggers. I should head home. Big day tomorrow and all.”

Reiss nodded her head, already sliding out and ever so gently clearing a path to the door. For being someone he plucked at seeming random, she appeared to breathe this job. Maybe when the matter was resolved, and he didn’t have to worry about assassins lurking like deepstalkers, he could offer her a more permanent job in the royal guards. It’d be nice to have someone that didn’t bark “Yes Sire!” at ear splitting volume in response to Alistair’s random musings.

Following after his bodyguard, Alistair tugged the cloak’s hood up to disguise his face. Would it be too much to ask for this kinging shit to get easier? Laying on the table were the last of his silvers, Good King Maric glaring up at whoever came to claim them.

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