Chapter 13: Want To Have A Go?
After depositing Sylaise in the stables and making certain she was kept far away from the kennels, Reiss retired to her room to unpack. It would probably seem pathetic how few belongings she owned in her life, but it wasn’t as if she ever had a permanent home to keep them in. Most of the clothing was simple, little more than tunics and breeches left over from the Inquisition. Someone thought they were too tattered and threadbare to be used and tossed them onto the scrap pile, but Reiss scooped them up in an instant. She’d been repairing them over the years, hemming and folding too long sleeves and pants to fit her.
A handful of her old farm clothes remained. The look on the face of that Inquisition soldier in camp when she first strolled in and pledged herself wafted into her mind. She’d been walking for days, mostly at night to avoid anyone’s attention and with her sight focused upon the recently exhumed camp in the distance. It sat up on the edge of where someone’s fancy estate gave way to nature’s wrath ages ago. Reiss had nowhere else to go, almost no coin to her name, and the clothes on her back. Her only hope was to take up with the people who were fighting these bastards rampaging the land. And, of course, when she walked uncertain into the camp, it was full of nothing but humans. They could have turned her away. After answering truthfully that she had no combat experience or training, she expected them to.
Upon reaching Skyhold with the rest of the churned out recruits from the Free Marches, they asked Reiss a single question, “Why did she want to fight?” She knew the right answers “To stop this madness” “Revenge for our Divine” “Fix the hole in the sky.” That was what everyone else kept cheering on about during the trip up the mountains, how they’d earn glory in their name defeating whatever ripped apart the sky. Closing her eyes, Reiss answered truthfully, “To save my brother and sister.”
Shaking off the memory, Reiss unearthed the letters Lunet gave her out of her pocket. Lorace’s, her brother, stank of fish, the envelope thin enough to be translucent, and was written in such a cryptic hand it was a wonder any of his reached her. Atisha’s were heavy with the weight of an institution that never gave their people any hope.
Lorace’s would be easy enough to respond to, “Hello brother, yes that is a mighty fine dagger you’ve purchased no doubt. Fish gutting sounds like a fine job, do try to keep it for more than a month. I’m still alive and have enclosed this amount to keep you alive as well. No, I don’t think forming your own dock gang is a wise idea.” It was answering Atisha’s giddy news that drew a pallor to Reiss’ cheeks, an ill defined terror creeping along her limbs at the very idea.
Placing the letters upon the desk for later, Reiss returned to her chest tossed onto the bed. There were a few personal objects, a comb her old friend carved out of a giant’s tibia, a sewing kit inside a monogrammed bag that was her mothers, and... She was careful to wrap her fingers around the mechanical box bundled in her pitiful sampling of towels and shirts. Bigger than her hand, it was crafted out of a deep brown wood that lit up red when started.
All her Inquisition friends pooled their coppers together to get her a birthday present and out of all the wonders of Orlais they chose this box. She had no idea what it was upon first opening the bag, just excited to be given anything. Having a bed and meals on the regular were a birthday every day to Reiss. That she had a place she not only belonged but felt welcome...
Putting that bittersweet memory back on the shelf, Reiss placed the box on her vanity. Her fingers slid along the edge in the front and carefully she undid the clasp to open it up properly. A pool of light rose in the middle of the box, the red swirls curled inside what looked like a basin while soft cracks and pops echoed out of the sides. Reiss yanked out the first of the cylinders from the shelf below and with the dexterity of a watch maker, placed it into the notches across the basin. Giving it a gentle spin with her fingers, the hisses and crackles came to life and music floated out of her special box.
Tinnier than real life, the magic could only manage a few instruments, giving life to the songs from each of the cylinders inserted into it. For this one a drum, lute, and fife played a toe stomping beat. Reiss watched the lights shifting in color from blue to red rolling out of the cylinder to match the rhythm before she closed her eyes. The thump of the beat even from something so tiny rolled up through her legs. Instinctively, Reiss widened her stance. Her arms lifted up, fists folding into knuckles as she shielded her thumbs.
“Ah,” Reiss cried out, punching at thin air while she moved through the first of a dozen trained motions. No one knew what to do with the scrawny elf with hands covered in calluses from the farm. They suggested working in the kitchens or the stables, but Reiss wanted to fight. Wanted to learn, properly instead of scrabbling to survive. If the Inquisitor could do it, then...
Rain pounding in waves from the sky so thick it was impossible to see beyond your nose. The ground was treacherous, churned up and muddy, already having claimed three ankles in the time since it began. Recruits kept ducking out, taking the Lieutenant’s offer to bow out if the weather got too much for them. But not Reiss. Right arm, left. Shield up. Elbow in. Frozen from the southern cold, she ignored the pain in her fingers until she no longer felt them at all. One by one, each combatant vanished, cursing at the rain and skipping into the warm tavern to dry off.
After a time, no recruits were left; only Reiss and the Lieutenant stood in the rain. She wore a helmet, which siphoned the torrent off her head like gutters while Reiss sputtered through the rain, her head bare because she couldn’t afford a hat. “There’s no one left to spar with, Recruit,” Addley spoke up, drawing Reiss from her funk.
“Aye, Ma’am,” Reiss nodded, her arms lowering. As the haze passed the pain returned, her fingers and toes screaming against the cold.
“Get dried off,” Addley ordered, pointing her in the direction of the tavern where the rest waited. As Reiss limped past her to find the others pressed against the window watching, Addley asked, “Incidentally, why didn’t you give up?”
Reiss shrugged, “Never have before.”
“So that’s what’s making all the noise.”
Reiss’ eyes snapped open, the memory of Skyhold bursting away to reveal the King standing in their shared doorway. He leaned against the frame, his arms crossed while pointing towards her music box. “Your Majesty,” Reiss stuttered. She tried to reach over to shut up her box, but her feet were off balance and she banged a shin into the bed.
“I heard some music and for a brief moment feared we had bards nesting in the walls,” the King laughed at himself before waving a hand. “Don’t stop it on my account. Music’s preferable to the wailing I hear all day.”
“You met with the gentry?” Reiss asked, sliding away from her gift but keeping a wary eye on it.
He laughed hard at that, those shoulders shaking below the tight tunic. Not helping your case there, Reiss. Let it be. “Oh, Maker, you’re on to me. And you...” he eyed up the music and began to tap a hand along his thigh with the beat, “You were trained by a templar.” The smirk wavered a moment, something almost hurtful bobbing below his eyes.
“I...” Reiss struggled to not upset him, “I was trained by Ser Addley, who I believe was in the Kirkwall circle. How did you know that?”
The hurt vanished in an instant, his face shining brighter than the sun. “That song, we all learned to that damn song. Though we didn’t have fancy magical boxes in the abbey I was trained in. They’d make all of us stand in a circle, clap our hands, and sing the cursed thing while people sparred off. It’d be stuck in my head for weeks after.”
“I had no idea,” Reiss started, turning to her box. She’d thought the melody exciting and rather pretty. “There are words?”
“Yeah, it’s an Andrastian war chant that’s all about beating the Imperium hurrah hurrah. Not a big surprise that templars would bash each other to it. Let me think, I know that damn chorus. It’s on the tip of my tongue...”
“Forgive me for disturbing you,” Reiss felt a blush starting up her backside and crawling for her cheeks.
The King had a finger in the air, his face tipped back as he traced forgotten lyrics before catching onto her words. “Disturbing? No, I was...” he gestured back to his room and whatever waited for him back inside, “doing nothing interesting whatsoever.” Reiss waited a moment, uncertain if she should speak while the King shuffled back and forth on his feet. Awkwardness rampaged through the room, and in a breath he spat out, “There are a few old golem dolls in my possession I was cataloging for...uh, reasons.”
“Oh,” Reiss chuckled, “yes, I know some of those. My brother, he was always on about them. Got himself a couple second hand from the Caridin line.”
“Right,” he pointed at her, his voice high as if needing to gasp the words out quickly, “Ol’ Cary himself. That was...a very long couple of weeks in the deeproads.” Smooshing his hair up, he glanced around at Reiss’ room and changed the topic again, “Can you even get a proper swing going without chopping the walls to bits in here?”
“I was...my sparring attempts are,” she felt herself on edge around him aware that he was the one man in thedas that could ruin her without trying, but something in his easy manner drew her in. “Without a partner I wasn’t really sparring, only working off some, uh...”
Those brown eyes watched her a moment, his smile never wavering, when he figured it out. Briefly, the King ran a finger down his own bruised knuckles and he sighed. “Ah, stuff to...yeah, I know that one. So,” he banged his hands together before asking, “want to have a go?”
“Ser?” her eyebrows shot up in surprise as Reiss’ head whipped to him.
A blush burned up his cheeks and he absently rocked back and forth on his feet, “I mean you and I, you know,” he absently punched at the air seeming to be unable to voice any words while shrugging haphazardly.
Reiss carefully surveyed the man. He wasn’t doughy like most nobles she ran into, and under that bonhomie grin stretched a taut band that seemed ready to snap if given proper cause. But... “While I appreciate the offer, I’m not certain if it’s wise,” Reiss responded.
“I’d rather my bodyguard be on point, and well practiced. Right,” he jerked his head out to his room and Reiss accepted that there was no way she was getting out of this. Picking up her music box she trudged out after the King. He led her past the really breakable furniture into a smaller back room filled with three training dummies, swords lining the wall, and one child’s bow coated in dust. After placing down her box and restarting the cylinder, Reiss tried to steady her nerves. She was going to spar with the King of Ferelden. She hadn’t even taken on Lieutenant Addley, never mind the Commander, and certainly not the Inquisitor.
After scooting away some of his mess, the King stood in the center of the room. He was dressed as simply as any stablehand. The drawstring of his tunic was lopsided until nearly yanked free, the gap revealing a long line of blonde hair poking out of the neckline. “Well,” he jerked his head to her and raised his fists. At least they were in the right position. Without any recourse left to her, Reiss stumbled into the sparring ring and followed suit. She tried to blanket herself for what could only prove her undoing when the King whispered, “Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you when you lay me out on the floor.”
With that the dread broke and Reiss saw only a man. He had reach on her, but he moved slowly, cautious and uncertain. Always waiting for someone else to make the decision. The music folded into her muscles and Reiss struck first, her fist reaching for his chest. Easily deflecting it, the King slid backwards on his feet. The smile wavered a moment as he worked quickly to re-position himself, but it dawned brighter at Reiss’ renewed attacks.
“Maker’s breath, you sure a templar trained you?” he huffed, blocking her attacks but barely in time.
“Yes, though I was known for often going off script,” Reiss admitted.
“You’d have scrubbed ten times the pots I had to. And I once broke a Knight’s nose on accident,” Alistair chuckled, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.
Reiss paused in her swings and in a breathy voice whispered, “I’ve done my fair share of pot scrubbing in my time.” Ignoring the burn at the base of her skull, she drove her fists quick at the man, a right uppercut he barely blocked followed by the left into his chest. Her knuckles scrapped across the solid muscle below, causing him to slide back but the man’s body seemed to be armored as it rebounded from the swing. Or she’d been only sparring with the doughy guardsmen and forgot what a real warrior was like.
“Is that what sent you to the Inquisition?” Alistair asked, “Getting away from pot scrubbing, I mean.”
“I...” his question threw her off, and Reiss missed one of his fists driving towards her stomach. She took some of the force and rolled with the rest of it. For a moment the King paused, his fists hanging in the air and she thought she spotted concern in those doe eyes. Shaking off the pain, Reiss rebounded to attack. “The farm I was assigned to was attacked by red templars. Most of the other hands panicked, they’d never faced an attack like that. I...” she shook off the full truth of it, knowing a King wouldn’t care, “we survived, but the farm took damage. So, those of us deemed not useful were kicked off the land.”
She’d stood there, coated in the bastard’s glowing red blood, protecting the farm while the other shems ran around like headless chickens. It was brutal, but Reiss had known worse in her life, had stood upon the edge of the sword with more at stake than her life and the status of a barn. Despite her having little training, the templars were weak, didn’t expect any resistance, and she cut them down. How was the elf who saved the day rewarded? The same as all the rest, ordered off the land with the clothes on her back. She marched for a day while the wound in her arm festered before stumbling upon water to wash it.
Reiss woke from the memory to find her fists plowing into the King’s forearms with rapid succession. Pain radiated up her knuckles and she paused, slowly sliding back to whisper, “A bed in the Inquisition was preferable to nowhere else.”
Blinking by the candlelight, the King lowered his hands leaving himself vulnerable. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered.
Shrugging, Reiss tried to blanket away the old wound. It wasn’t her place to put it upon him, nor anyone else. “I learned new skills, served, it wasn’t the worst to suffer,” she forced on a smile while internally she waited in dread for the next coming question. Why did she leave the Inquisition. He had to wonder. Calling it a secret only made people more curious, but Maker she couldn’t confess the truth. Lunet was the only one to know in her entire precinct and Reiss all but whispered it to her from behind her hands.
“Your templar taught you well,” Alistair said instead, “wide stance, high head, good form.” The compliment made Reiss smile and the King broke into his own blushing grin. “Very strong and built for withstanding strong things, I mean. Uh...so, Kirkwall?”
The way the man melted into a stumbling goof threw her off. Mentally she knew he was the blighted King, but when he blushed and his lips tipped up in a lopsided grin Reiss could no longer see the crown. “It is a place, across the Waking Sea,” Reiss said. “That was once brimming with Qunari.” She did her best to not spit the word out.
“I’m guessing your time in the City of Chains made you not a big fan of the old horn heads.”
In truth it was her time outside of Kirkwall, but he didn’t need to know that. “Something of that nature,” Reiss admitted tight lipped, her guard fully up.
The King’s attack renewed, thudding limply against her blocks. “So...you’re probably not a big fan of mages then either.”
Reiss shrugged, “I feel no ill will one way or the other.” She wasn’t in Kirkwall when the chantry exploded, but even after news reached her it was hard to not think upon the few that had offered her a helping hand without expecting anything in return. Blocking a punch, Reiss returned it, scraping across the man’s shoulder. “And I need not ask how fond you are of mages.”
That threw Alistair for a moment, his hands plummeting, which would have left him wide open if she had any intentions of winning this. A thread of surprise etched along his face before he shook it off and danced his feet back and forth. As if drawing power from the static charge his socks managed off the floor, his boyish smile returned and he shrugged, “Not even here a week and you’ve already heard all the rumors about the terrible and evil King who lurks in the castle.”
Reiss tried to not smile as she punched forward, barely any force in it. Her shoulders felt lighter, as if the stress that’d been pounding her down broke for a moment. For his part, Alistair waved his hands around seeming to have no intentions of connecting either. It was a strange dance, two combatants not in the mood to hit while also not wanting to stop. With a straight face, Reiss responded, “To be fair, I believe they said that you only consume the blood of virgins every other Tuesday. Much more civil than what occurs in Nevarra.”
Cracking a wide smile, Alistair snorted out of his nose and his shield arm ran back through his hair. “As if virgins are that easy to come by. Best you can hope for is a harvest once every couple months, if that.” They were speaking nonsense at each other, but Reiss couldn’t shake off the silent giggles rolling around in her stomach. Perhaps that was what the strange feeling was, laughter she kept buried in order to appear professional.
“So I need not worry about rivers of blood soaking into boots? Good, it’s a pain to clean out of any rivets,” Reiss said.
“Tell me about it,” Alistair rolled his eyes, their sparring practice fully forgotten save the two of them occasionally shifting their weight back and forth. “But, I must warn you.” The jolly tone faded away to an ominous certainty. “Whatever you do, never enter into the west wing of the palace tower.”
“Wh...” Reiss swallowed down the concern in her throat at the glare in his eyes, “Why not?”
Like striking a flint, his face lit up in joy and Alistair smiled, “Because there’s this Maker awful statue of me in there. Eamon thought the courtyard needed one and boy did he pick the wrong artist.” The King stopped his sliding feet and stepped close to Reiss to whisper in her ear, “It’s naked. Nothing, not even a tasteful fig leaf. Yeah.”
“Oh...” She didn’t bite down on her lip, that would be improper. Nor did she stir her toe and fold into her shoulders while giggling. But Maker take it all, Reiss couldn’t stop a blush rising up her cheeks. “That, uh, understood,” she coughed out, trying to shake off the tiny part of her brain daring her to find this mysterious statue. It wasn’t as if it was necessarily correct, he doesn’t seem the type to have posed for it. And for the love of Andraste, why are you even thinking that?
“What about you?” he asked, drawing her out of her blushing bubble.
“Beg pardon?” Reiss squeaked out.
“Any big secrets weighing you down that you want to confess off your chest?” He smiled innocently, before his eyes flared and he stammered, “Not that you’d have a naked statue or other nude uh...things in existence to be noticed and I should stop talking.”
Reiss’ steps faded away and she knotted her fingers together. Weights upon her chest? There were too many to count. What if she failed him? Failed all the elves in the city? Where would she go then? Could she rebuild her life for a third time? What of... “My sister,” slipped out of her mouth. Reiss froze up, unable to speak more through a bramble lodged in her throat.
“You have a sister?” Alistair asked.
“Aye, and a brother as well. They...” she took a steadying breath before throwing on a fake smile. “I shouldn’t trouble you with this.”
“I did ask,” Alistair insisted, “in my typical stumbling into the throne room without any pants on kind of way.” She knew he wasn’t a mage, but she felt as if the man put her under some kind of spell. Charming she was used to, the pointless flattery, the eternal compliments, but this was something else. He was bowling her over with an earnestness she’d never seen before.
“Atisha, that’s my sister’s name, she’s been in Jader for a few years now. And...” Maker’s sake, Reiss. He won’t care. Why are you telling him? “After the Blight she became devoted to Andraste, fervent to an annoying degree.”
He snorted, “I know that one. Let me guess, she tsks her tongue at you for letting a single damn out.”
“I haven’t seen her in many years, but,” Reiss smiled, “she would often send back my letters with big red circles and little prayers for Andraste written in the margins for my less than savory words.”
Alistair whistled under his breath, “Shit, she’s worse than most templars I knew. Granted, when a fireball’s coming at you, the Maker’s gotta allow a few good swears out.”
“She’s taken vows,” Reiss spat out. Atisha’d been hinting at it for months, ecstatic about some Mother that took her under her wing, but Reiss never thought anything would come of it. “The first elven Sister in Jader. And I’m terrified of what...” She shook it off, don’t complain to shems about other shems. They’ll always draw rank. “She’s my younger sister, I’ve spent much of my life watching out for her and it’s hard to let things go.”
The King opened his mouth, seeming like he was going to call her out on whatever terrified her, but he closed it softly and squeezed his eyes tight. “Jader, huh?”
“I am uncertain if the fact it’s near the Ferelden border makes it better or worse,” Reiss was willing to admit.
“No kidding, it...” he ruffled his hair until it nearly stood upright before yanking both hands down to stare at the bruised knuckles, “I shouldn’t bore you with politics. I wish I didn’t have to bore myself with them.”
“Nor should I you with my familial problems,” Reiss said, snapping to attention.
Alistair wrapped his hands together and said, “You heard me the first night, didn’t you? It’s okay, I don’t blame you for not saying anything. I thought I spotted a shadow but didn’t want to speak up either because then it gets awkward and we’re both trying to avoid each other all day despite having to be together all day.” He tipped his head in thought and swung his fists limply at his side, “That stuff, it builds up and sometimes I need to get it out. Without scaring any of my easily startled subjects.”
She placed a hand against his upper arm and smiled, “I understand.”
“Thought you might,” Alistair whispered, his bruised fingers gripping onto the ones she put upon him. Sweet Andraste, Rat, you’re touching royalty. What are you doing?
Reiss didn’t know how to yank her hand away without making it more awkward, so she left it there pinned under his warm skin. “If you ever need to have someone to work it out with, I could certainly use the practice.”
His sunny smile dawned and that flutter trembled up and down her stomach again. “Thanks, you too. I’ve been, not exactly in your shoes, but well I haven’t always had a shiny crown weighing down my head. I don’t mind if you have to rant about shems.”
Starting, Reiss’ eyes cracked open wide and she her jaw fell slack. “Did I...? I, uh...?”
Laughing, Alistair released his hold on her and folded his arms up, “My door’s always open, Ser Reiss. Seeing as how I gave you the key.”
“You did,” she smiled, reaching into her pocket and finding the pair nested together. “I should...go to sleep.” She pointed her thumb behind her as if he didn’t know where the door was.
“How goes adjusting to the new shift?”
“Slow,” Reiss admitted. As she picked up her music box, the song slowed down, the melody straining to become a haunted ballad. “How do you sleep, Ser?”
He paused in inspecting one of the swords along the wall and turned back to her, “With the weight of Ferelden upon me. But the bed’s really soft so it balances out.”
“Good evening, your Highness,” Reiss bowed her head, trying to shake off a smile etched on her heart.
“And to you, knight of the realm,” he answered back. “Oh, and about those mage rumors. If you’re going into the pool, I’d go for more than 6 weeks.” She paused in her steps and turned to find the man shrugging, his smile assured in the face of the entire castle betting upon him. “Call it a hunch.”