Guarded Love

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Chapter 12: Garden Party

When a pop reverberated through the gardens Alistair cried out, “Okay, that’s it. Daddy’s done.” Spud’s impenetrable lip stuck further and further out, like a drawbridge to release the horde, but he was unmoved by her plight. He also couldn’t move due to his knee seizing up. Groaning, Alistair tipped over to his side which invited a toddler to hop onto his back like a crazed deepstalker. She began to coat him in the grass she’d yanked out in tufts because of reasons that made sense in her mind.

“Spud,” Alistair warned, trying to get her to stop while he gritted his teeth and stretched out his knee. A thousand curses erupted behind his eyes but he bit them all down while the renegade joint gave in to his commands. He couldn’t remember exactly what caused this part of his body to fall apart, but he suspected there was something stupid he did in his twenties that was finally enacting its revenge. Aging was best left to the young.

Unaware of her father’s struggles, Spud’s pudgy hands beat erratically up and down his arm trying to get him to become the playful druffalo again. “I’m out, Tater Tot,” he said, trying to rise to his feet. But the tyrant in short pants wasn’t hearing any of that.

“No!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. A few of the nobles who just had to visit the gardens while the royals did perked up. Alistair had wanted this to be simple, a family thing, so of course Eamon used the moment to their political advantage. Nearly everyone who was certain either the Queen was about to keel over dead, was already dead for five years or more, believed the children -- as a ruse by the palace -- were secretly puppets, or were just general jerks stood around watching. He’d shrugged most of it off, wanting to for once ignore that damn crown shrinking him down year after year, but nothing in his life could ever be simple.

“Spudkins,” Alistair warned. “What do we say?”

“No, I don’t wanna!” she fumed, nearing stage five on the toddler breakdown scale. After this it was pounding her fists on the ground, crying giant crocodile tears, and refusing to do anything anyone asked of her. Which would go over swimmingly with so much of the Bannorn sticking their judgmental noses into it. He anticipated a swarm of “Well I nevers” from old dowagers who hadn’t seen a filthy nappy since they named the damn Age.

Alistair reached over to swoop up his daughter into a hug, which she deftly dodged, the tears beginning, when a calmer voice spoke out, “Little Lady.” While her father meant nothing, her mum’s softer but more direct condemnation stifled those waterworks in an instant. “We behave when in public.”

“Fine,” Spud groaned, before flailing out her skirt and plopping onto the ground.

Cordell slipped over to the grumbling princess and hovered above her. “Shall I play with you instead?”

She jabbed her finger into a small hole in the dirt, sifting it back and forth with the full anger at her reach before turning to the man and shrugging, “Okay.”

Clearly out of his element, Cordell wasn’t prepared for the princess to lob a clump of dirt at him. It splattered against his not so pristine white robes before flopping onto the ground. Spud gave him the same look the advisors often did to Alistair after explaining something blisteringly simple. “You catch it.” Then the three year old mimicked catching her dirt clod to the man, certain that he didn’t understand the mechanics.

“Yes, of course,” he gasped. “Do you not have a ball we could use or...?”

“She’s always puncturing the bladders, they never last,” Alistair explained.

Those startled blue eyes met his a moment, Cordell gasping with uncertainty in how to address the man. “Ah, yes, I understand.”

Spud reached over and tugged on the hem of his robes, “Chase me!” Before he had time to respond, the girl ran off down the rocky path, her shoes long since abandoned. Nodding to his King, Cordell ran stiff legged after her. He was so far out of his element it was almost adorable. Spud was going to run rings around him.

Chuckling under his breath at the man of the cloth saddled with toddler duty, Alistair collapsed onto the warm bench beside the Queen. She kept a shall draped over her head to try and combat the sun, and also keep her pale face shadowed from the other onlookers searching for any chink in the royal armor. Still, she looked better every day, the healers assuring him the danger had passed. Thank the Maker for small miracles.

“How’s he doing?” Alistair asked, jerking his chin at the blanketed prince snuggled in his mother’s arms.

“Full and exhausted. He’s been sleeping most of the day away,” Beatrice commented, rocking the boy back and forth.

“Oh boy, growth spurt incoming,” Alistair groaned. “I turn around and the kid’ll gain another ten pounds and be walking.”

She smiled politely at his complaint and then lifted the baby towards him. Without needing any suggestion, Alistair scooped him up. For a moment, her fingers trailed over Cailan’s slumbering mouth, those tiny lips slightly parted. “It goes quickly, but we should have some time to enjoy the quiet moments.”

Bea was right, the baby was down and out, barely twisting in his sleep as the father he tolerated shifted him in his arms to a comfortable position. “Sure, quiet moments right before he’s dipping into levels of rage a berserker can’t reach,” Alistair tipped his head in the direction of their daughter, who was currently lecturing Cordell on something. Knowing Spud there was a good chance what she was saying only made sense in her head. Often times Alistair would nod along in utter confusion, and if she got really worked up about it, swoop in to tickle her.

“She is very certain in her opinion,” Beatrice said, “That will serve her well on the throne.”

He tried to not groan. That was the point of their little family farce after all, to make kids however they could to fill that seat when he was gone. Before, when an heir was just a theory or a lump under the Queen’s dress Alistair didn’t care. But the idea of putting all that stress and fear on his daughter’s shoulders rubbed Alistair raw. He hated the idea of her suffering, in particular because of him.

“What about you?” Alistair whispered to the bundle in his arms instead. “Will you be set in your opinion?”

“Ah...” Beatrice began, about to whisk the baby away but Cailan didn’t wake despite the interruption. His tiny fist thudded a few times against the course peasants before falling back to the blankets. Beatrice smiled warmly at her baby, enjoying every moment she could before he was a two year old rampaging through the gardens. It was stressful on her keeping up with the voracious appetite of a newborn, but she insisted that Marn take some time off. If it weren’t for the gathered gentry, the bear of a bodyguard standing frozen beside the gate, and a continual threat of assassins on the horizon this was almost a nice day.

Folding her hands across her lap, Bea smiled, “This was a lovely idea.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Alistair said. “I could kill Eamon for...”

“Now,” Bea interrupted. Funny, she never did that before. Not that she didn’t often object to whatever stupid thing Alistair said, she simply didn’t care or didn’t think it her place to raise her thoughts. “It is all well. The day is lovely and warm, the spring flowers are in bloom. In particular those sunny daffodils, and there is no reason the rest of the gentry cannot enjoy the garden with us.”

Alistair dropped his voice to a whisper, “How long were you practicing that speech once you saw the lawn was overrun with these leeches?”

She snorted once and didn’t respond, but for a flicker of a second Bea’s eyes darted over to him and she sneered. Despite being married for, Maker’s sake, was it really twelve years? He knew next to nothing about his lawfully wedded wife. She had some fascination with horses, enjoyed water colors and would do things to flowers. That was the extent of what Alistair picked up in over a decade. In all that time he’d never seen her bare her teeth at anything, the youngest daughter to a noble house raised to be above all things polite. Which was what often drove him up the wall about her. He wanted someone who’d call him on his shit to his face, not lay down and play the part of welcome mat. A few years of people sucking up to the King’s royal hemline solidified that in his mind.

But this, her family, her children, seemed to be the first thing that Queen Beatrice would snarl and rip someone’s throat out for. It didn’t make him fall head over heels in love with her, but it was nice to see a human lurked below those nice and friendly gowns.

Without any warning, Bea pronounced in her soft and motherly voice, “It has been sometime since you took anyone to your bed.” The shock of it nearly caused Alistair to drop the baby out of his arms, his eyes widening in terror as he whipped his head around.

“I, uh, what? Who did the...no, I um...Orzamaar?” His brain flared out, tossing up the first word it could manage.

For her part, the Queen only waited until the storm passed before she glanced over to him. “The fact is not a well guarded secret.”

“Ah, well, that’s just...” Alistair stared down at his baby boy, wishing the kid would wake up screaming to save him. Damn that growth spurt.

Bea’s perfumed hand landed upon his shoulder, “It has been many years since her death.”

“I know,” Alistair screwed up his eyes feeling a pinch in the back of his head. Lanny’s death broke something in him. No, not exactly that. The blame of her death landed squat on his head and never budged. Not until... Even then, when he should be free of it, it clung there to him like an engorged tick. She wouldn’t have gone into the deeproads if not for him. She wouldn’t have met up with Hawke who drug her off to the Inquisition. And, if she didn’t hate him, maybe he could have talked her into returning to Ferelden and she never would have sacrificed herself at Adamant.

He’d ignored the cauldron of guilt and tried to compartmentalize it by focusing on Spud. There wasn’t time for someone else in his life when a baby was around screaming at all times and on occasion giggling. Then she started walking and it was as if the fade itself ripped open in the palace. People would shriek and scream down floors in pursuit of a princess that seemed to hit the ground running. Now, well, there was another baby he could throw himself into. No reason to go dipping into those pesky emotions.

Alistair glanced over at Bea and caught concern in her eyes. How did they put it, heavy is the head who wears the crown and empty is the heart upon the throne? Kept apart from all and above them, that was the deal that came with being King. Not that Alistair was ever a part of much of anything. Born a motherless bastard child running around in a palace, with no one to care if he skinned a knee or chipped a tooth. Then a templar that hated the vows and everything that came with it. His only place was with the Wardens which lasted all of six months before... Alistair shook off the memories of Ostagaar. There used to be a bright light mixed in with all the darkness but he made certain to snuff even that out.

“Your thoughts have run away with you,” Bea spoke softly.

“Ha, that’s when I’m at my scariest, right? Who knows what dumb thing Alistair’s about to do. Everyone lock down the crystal goblets just in case!”

His wife, a woman he exchanged at most a page and a half of dialogue with prior to Spud’s arrival, shifted in her seat. “I was thinking upon our wedding.”

Maker’s sake, that was a nightmare and a half. They needed a Queen. Fine. Alistair didn’t care at that point and would have wed a damn goat if he was ordered to. Though it might have been worth it to watch the horrified look upon the Orlesians as they had to bow to a goat in a dress. He’d only met the lady in question once before the big day, and when pressed confused her for one of her handmaidens. Truly, it was a romance out of legend. While he got through the day itself by drinking heavily and waiting for people to point him in the right direction and tell him what to say, it was the night when Alistair’s meager kingly countenance collapsed under him.

It was nothing but polite smiles, giggles behind hands, and exaggerated eyebrows as the bride and groom were shoved off into a solitary room while the party itself continued on. While Bea stepped inside and sat primly upon the bed, no doubt wanting to get it over quickly, Alistair felt his stomach knotting itself into a pretty bow. Panicking, he yanked open the door to the wardrobe and dashed inside of it.

The probably terrified bride waited a moment before asking if he was all right while Alistair breathed in the aroma of stale furs coated in horse and dust. He couldn’t do this. He wasn’t the kind of person to do that with someone he barely knew. Add in that an entire damn country was waiting with bated breath to see if their screw up of a King could manage to seal the deal and any chance of him performing shriveled up. While hiding in the wardrobe, Alistair confessed the truth to the poor woman. She took it well, and as strange as it seems, while they were supposed to be consummating this royal marriage the two struck an arrangement to deal with their sexless marriage.

He confessed about being a Warden and the doubtful chances of there being any babies from his actions. Told her about his current interest at the time, even confessed about Lanny while wadding some random guest’s scarf absently around his neck. Beatrice listened politely, on occasion adding her own thoughts on the matter of how to make their marriage livable. In the end Alistair confessed all of his short romantic life to this wifely stranger save one encounter. The only time he managed to lick a hated lamppost in winter was by screwing up his eyes and pretending it was happening to another man with another woman, any other woman than her. Blessedly, she didn’t speak a word after about it, leaving Alistair to try and bash away the memories. Lanny only brought it up once during their forced march across Ferelden to reach Denerim.

Her eyes glanced from Alistair over to Morrigan once before asking him, “Do you regret it?”

He told her no and nothing more. She was angry at him still, would probably be forever after the Landsmeet. At the time, he felt off about it, uncertain and unclean, but it kept her alive and that was all that mattered.

A hand ran across Alistair’s shoulder, drawing him out of his navel. He shook his head and focused upon Beatrice who seemed to have more to tell him. “When the idea of marrying you was broached to me, I inquired what the man to be my husband was like. The women said that King Alistair is uncouth, impetuous, untrained, inelegant, and boorish beyond measure.”

Trying to not let the facts sting, Alistair glared up at the sky and muttered, “They forgot hygiene is questionable at best.”

“But...” Beatrice dragged it out, “they said that he has a good heart. Which,” she gestured off to Cordell chasing after his daughter, a hint of laughter breaking through that chantry smile/frown, “is why I agreed to marry you.”

“I, uh,” Alistair struggled to shake away a blush burning on the back of his neck. “It was, I’d rather have reinforcements, you know.”

“I understand,” Beatrice smiled. “You’ve been more understanding than most would, and I would like you to have my assurance that I offer you the same.”

He slid awkwardly in his seat, feeling an urge to run away, but with the baby prince in his arms that would probably start a panic. “Right, okay, thank you?” She thought he was refraining from rushing head first into another mistress because of her, as if that ever stopped him before.

Rousing from his slumber, Cailan cried out and in a deft swoop, Beatrice plucked him from Alistair’s arms before he had time to blink. As she cuddled her baby to her chest, she glanced over at the unloveable King awkwardly banging his fingers together. A toddler sized giggle erupted from Spud as she splatted both feet into a puddle, then leapt up to do it twice more. Sighing, Alistair staggered up to his legs. While Cordell waved his blessing hands over the girl slowly transforming herself into a mud monster, the King scooped her up in his arms. Spud kicked her filthy legs back and forth in the air, at first trying to get down, then a full smile cracked her moon face and she rolled her whole body back and forth. Alistair had to grip tighter so she didn’t plop out of his arms.

“What did we say about puddles?” Alistair began, but for his attempt at discipline he got a giggle and then a muddy foot that splattered right into his stomach. Groaning with fresh pain, he dropped Spud to the ground quickly, the girl rebounding in an instant as she chased over to her mother.

“That was a solid blow,” Cordell whispered to the man with teeth gritted in a fake smile while the gentry watched.

Shaking it off, Alistair sighed, “At least it was to my gut this time.”

Uncertain how to respond to a King talking about his jewels in public, the Brother nodded his head and then stepped over to the woman he loved. Spud stood on her muddy tippy toes while Bea let her touch the baby, after scrubbing her hand clean first. When Cordell rounded behind the Queen they looked the perfect picture of a happy family, daughter speaking nonsense to wide eyed baby while mother held onto father’s hand. Too bad Alistair had to wedge himself into that mess.

Roaring from the back of his brain came an image he tried valiantly to forget of a different woman flocked by her children, her belly filled with another. His children. Theirs. A cruel trick by the Fade used to tempt him to remain behind. Abandoning that happy dream ripped another section of Alistair’s soul away, just like it did with his sister and father. How many damn times was that cursed place going to take another pound of flesh from him? He adored his kids, loved them to bits and pieces even when a foot knocked the wind out of his sails, but sometimes he wished he could turn around and see the darker faces of those wisps of dreams. It wasn’t Lanny that he loved, not like that anymore, but the potential squandered so many years ago.

“Daddy!” Spud squealed at the top of her lungs, shaking him from his dark thoughts.

Smiling at his daughter who was so excited she was clapping her hands and rustling her muddy skirt back and forth. “What is it, Tater tot?” Alistair asked, beckoned by her mirth.

She pointed at the baby giving up hope on getting to sleep in his mother’s arms and shouted, “He winked at me!”

Alistair took a knee, digging grass stains across his pants, to scoop Spud into his arms while they both stared up at the baby blinking uncertainly at the world. “Did he now?” Alistair asked. He was waiting for that first smile, and then the laugh, followed by the first word, step, then run. They all were.

Spud reached her one filthy and one clean hand back around her father’s neck to tug his face closer to her as she whispered as softly as possible, “You’re the best Daddy in the world.”

“I,” he melted like butter on a skillet in those tiny arms, blubbering through a stew of tears while glancing up at Cordell trying politely to ignore the King’s undoing. Beatrice smiled warmly, rocking her baby back and forth. Their baby.

“That’s because you’re the best spud in all of thedas!” Alistair rebounded with before tickling into Spud’s sides. She squealed in laughter before folding inward and then running back to the daffodils.

Beatrice caught her and called out, “We don’t pick the flowers.” Spud could only manage a shrug but she refrained from grabbing at the stems, only skirting her fingertips above the yellow petals. She wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking, all her child focus on the flowers dancing below her hands, and plowed straight into a pair of robes.

Both fathers staggered up, prepared to rescue the three year old certain to go into meltdown mode. But the robes turned and a woman’s smile beamed down on Spud. “Hello there, princess. It seems you bumped into me.” The words threw Spud off completely, her eyes blinking fast as she tried to stare up at the new woman. Nodding her head, the woman dropped down to a knee and looked the girl in the face. “My name’s Linaya. I work with your Daddy.”

Spud carefully turned back to eye up her father, confusion in those emerald orbs. He was surprised she didn’t pop in her thumb, even if it was covered in mud.

“Did you know that I’m a mage?”

That got the girl’s attention. “You make sparkles?” Spud gasped, her fingers wringing the air to mimic fireworks. You could cast an ancient spell forged from the birth of thedas itself and it wouldn’t impress a three year old. But, light a fuse that sparkles or toss some glitter and she’ll think you’re the bravest, wisest hero to ever exist.

“Yes, I can,” Linaya said.

“Do some!” Spud insisted.

“What do we say?” Alistair responded automatically.

Chastised, the girl drug her toes along the grass and mumbled, “Pwease.”

The newest mage smiled and lifted her fingers in preparation of a spell. Alistair expected to taste that metallic twinge of the fade parting but instead she glanced over at him and paused. “Only if your father says it is allowed.”

Spud whipped her judgmental head around and glared at Alistair with a threat that he better let her see sparkles or he’d never hear the end of it. He didn’t much care and would rather his daughter grow used to magic instead of fearing it, but something in the way the mage’s eyes hung upon him made Alistair grow uncomfortable. Shaking it off, he waved that it was okay and Spud spun back around, waiting ecstatic for a few sparkles of green and purple to drift from the mage’s hands.

Folding up his arms, Alistair watched his daughter to make certain she wasn’t going to grab the woman’s arm and disrupt the spell. Behind him, he heard Beatrice comment, “I see we have a new arcane advisor at court.”

“Only took the college a few years to settle down and kick someone out here,” Alistair mumbled in response.

“Indeed.” Something in that word drew his attention back to his wife. Bea was the picture of wholesome sweetness you expected to find slapped onto a jar of strawberry jam as she said, “It seems what we discussed will most likely resolve itself.”

“What are you...?” Alistair began when he caught Spud reaching for the mage’s fingers. “No!” Instinctively, Alistair blanketed the area in a dispel, wiping away the mage fire before it could sting his daughter. She frowned at the loss but was unharmed, the issue was in the blowback striking the mage.

Linaya staggered from the hit, crumbling to a knee. She must not have fought many templars. Maker knew Alistair was far out of practice and even then he wasn’t much of one, but the woman folded inward, groaning from the wipe. Feeling terrible, Alistair reached out and caught her hand. “So sorry, I panicked and...fatherly instinct to keep my little death wish from murdering herself.”

For her part, his little daredevil smiled wide, unaware of the trauma she caused. Every eye in the garden swung towards their King trying to console the mage he just accidentally attacked. Linaya struggled for a breath before gripping onto Alistair’s hand. Holding tight, he helped her up, trying to repeat sorry a few more times.

After she adjusted herself, she beamed her eyes straight through to his soul and smiled. “Your Majesty, there is nothing for you to apologize for. It is my undoing, I should have anticipated the girl’s interest and prepared accordingly. Please, forgive me.” The woman curtsied deep, her eyes falling shut as she did.

“It’s,” he glanced back at Beatrice and felt a blush rising along his back from so many knowing smirks plastered upon people’s faces. “Are you alright?”

“I fear I am a bit lightheaded,” Linaya confessed.

“Yeah, the blast can be a bit much if you haven’t trained. Food helps, or a cool place to sit. So I’ve been told,” he grumbled to himself the last part.

The mage smiled brightly at him and smoothly rolled her arm with his until she held onto the top of his hand. “Perhaps you could guide me to somewhere inside that I may recover?”

“Uh...” Alistair glanced around hoping someone would appear that he could pawn this off onto, but by a miracle of Andraste herself, everyone was either vitally busy staring at their hands, speaking to themselves, or prodding at the ground. He was on his own. “Of course, right this way Lady...?”

She moved in step with him, putting some of her weight against his arm as they staggered towards a door. “You may call me, Linaya, your Majesty. Lady seems so formal.”

“Unless your name was Lady, then it’d be Lady Lady, and that’s all I’d ever call myself,” Alistair babbled while leading the arcane advisor to the door.

Behind him he swore he overheard Bea, his wife and queen, leaning towards that kitchen boy Philipe and whispering, “I am in for three weeks, two days.”

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