Chapter 14: Thunder
Most of the King’s day to day life folded into an easy routine. There’d be some time spent with his children, he was getting much better at properly parting the princess’ hair, then it was hours upon hours of meetings. For the first few Reiss stood at constant attention, her eyes trying to bore through every noble that barely glanced a flicker over at her. She knew there were assassins on the horizon, but after having to sit through another droning voice speaking ad nauseum for an afternoon about the sewage problems in Denerim Reiss’ attention began to drift away from her job. On occasion, she’d catch sight of the King with a quill in hand jabbing at a piece of parchment. He kept an arm in the way so no one else at the table could see, but standing behind him Reiss spotted drawings mixed in with his notes. Most were line figures of heroic characters fighting off probably dragons, and once or twice he drew the person droning on crushed below a giant cheese wheel. Stink lines seemed to be a favorite addition.
After a week and a half of this, Reiss found herself blending into a safe familiarity. Her always being on the King’s heel kept her apart from the rest of the guards, but she’d find time to speak with the head cook Renata and Philipe. Apparently the King’s appetite was legendary and he wasn’t one to wait for servants to bring silver trays to him therefor he’d often snuck off to the kitchen. Commander Cade would glance over at her, but rarely say much. He made it evident that as far as he was concerned, this outside hired bodyguard wasn’t under his jurisdiction. Reiss wasn’t certain if that was a blessing or a curse. Her only backup seemed to be the King, the man she was supposed to protect.
With clouds buffeting away the warm spring sun, a chill crept through the windows and across the meeting room’s floor. Alistair stood beside the head of the table, he never could sit long and would often pace during meetings that ran into hours. Before the others arrived, he took to running his finger over the snarled teeth of the various stuffed heads hanging on the wall. “When I was a boy, I used to think people would stash things inside the mouths,” he said aloud to Reiss or perhaps the other servants scrambling to set up the meeting room. The Orlesian banner sat upon one place setting along with a golden goblet, which an elf was filling with red wine from a separate decanter.
“I remember they had a giant bear, well what seemed giant to me, in the Lothering tavern. In truth, it was a little black one, maybe four feet tall,” Reiss said. She stood beside the door, far across the room from the King. Turning away from the muzzle of a wolf, he gave her his full attention. “I screamed for days after seeing it. Called it ‘Blacktooth.’ My father refused to take me anywhere near that tavern ever again.”
“Blacktooth?” he smiled, “Maker, that’s a great name for a pirate. Is it too late to...?”
“Yes, Sire,” one of the clerks interrupted.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“To register a boat with the Port Authority under the name Blacktooth so you may traverse the high seas. It is too late in the day and season to attempt such things,” the man droned on, not bothering to raise his eyes to his King.
Alistair stuck a hand on his hip and stared at the clerk who was the first to arrive in the room, “What happened in your past to drain all the fun from you, Derek?”
He moved to speak, when the door flew open and the first of the guests to this meeting arrived. Reiss didn’t recognize most of them, full faces hidden below expensive hats or above ruffs, but each gave in to her inspecting their hands and asking they leave any and all dangerous weapons outside. Most were obliging about it, having heard the news of the assassination and not wanting to cause trouble. The Orlesian ambassador gave Reiss the most trouble, refusing to part with the breast blade the bodyguard noticed in an instant.
“It is an antique of the Drakon dynasty, a gift from the Empress herself,” Madam Cherie stuck out her porcelain chin, or whatever the mask was made out of.
“Ambassador,” Reiss threw on the voice she used to get her brother to bathe. It worked 99.9% of the time against the nobility.
“I do not trust any of your sticky fingered...” her eyes traveled over Reiss, in particular the ears, before she faced fully upon the King, “servants. If you allow an assassin to move in your midst, then what is to stop thieves as well?”
Reiss wanted to reach over and yank the damn thing out of her cleavage herself, but the King interceded. “Give it to me, and I’ll keep it safe until the meeting’s over.”
Her eyes danced over the man, “And I am to think you are safer hands? I’d be best tossing this priceless relic to the dogs.” Despite her very Orlesian complaints, she reached inside her bust, pulled out a three inch long knife, and pressed it into the King’s palm. “Do not ruminate upon where it rested,” she hissed before sliding to her seat and taking a long sip of the wine.
Rolling his eyes, the King slipped the dagger safely under his belt on his back before whispering to Reiss, “How did you notice it on her?”
“Women carrying one will keep their backs straight at all times to avoid it accidentally nicking anything vital. When she reached across her to shake a hand, I noticed she froze a moment to check herself.”
“Maker’s breath,” the King whistled as if impressed. Then he leaned even closer and in a breath asked, “Do you often inspect women’s chests?”
“Only if I’m being paid,” Reiss admitted.
Laughing at that, Alistair returned to his spot at the head of the table and waited for the rest to enter. A dozen more came, including the Spymaster, Commander Cade, Chancellor Eamon, and to Reiss’ surprise the Hahren of the Denerim Alienage. Shinai’s eyes barely paused in glaring at the multitude of humans, but for a brief moment they landed upon Reiss. She’d heard of the woman being named an Arl but the very idea seemed a farce. Reiss was certain that it had to be a title only and that they’d never let an elf attend court, much less sit in on meetings. A few grumbled at the woman’s presence, but Shiani ignored it all and sat in a flourish beside Ghaleb and one of the Banns from the far south.
“So,” the King slapped his hands together and then cast an eye towards the door. Silently, Reiss shut it, sealing them off from anyone else wandering past the room. “What’s gone horribly wrong in Denerim now?”
A few eyes glanced over their heads, most still in that late morning haze. It was the red headed elf who sat up first, prepared to speak over top anyone, “The alienage is crammed to bursting, which I’ve been telling you for months. If you don’t fix it soon it’ll be a big problem.”
“You say that as if elves clustered together in a hovel is something new,” a bald man with a black beard spoke to her. He barely glanced in the Arlessa’s direction, nor addressed her properly.
Shiani didn’t blink, “This blighted well is.” She turned up to Alistair and pointed at him, “Too many people stuck living on top of each other invites chaos.”
“I thought we loosened up the work restrictions for elves,” the comptroller said. She was dressed in a grey blouse festooned with ruffles. It reminded Reiss of the chickens on the farm when they were fluffed out during a cold snap.
“Jobs don’t mean a thing if people are jammed five or more to a bed,” Shiani spoke to the King who steepled his fingers and stared through her.
“Isn’t your job to keep the peace in your lands, Arlessa?” the bearded man spat at Shiani, finding her title to be a laugh.
She didn’t turn to the King or anyone else for support, the woman raining fire down upon the man. “Maybe I’m of the mind to let them give into their anger when my people’s needs keep getting swept under the rug. You shove more elves into the alienage it’ll be plague again, and riots are a certainty.”
“Disease and thuggery, the two traits elves are famous for,” the bearded man quipped under his breath but loud enough the two knife-ears in the room heard. Shinai growled at him, her teeth bared as if she intended to rip his throat out while Reiss couldn’t shake off her glare winnowing down.
It was the Spymaster who spoke up, seeming to himself, “Elves have shown a proficiency of magic beyond human lines. Nearly one in five members of a family are known to be mages.” He blinked those watery eyes a moment before focusing upon the elves turning to him. Ghaleb eeped and then burrowed into his robes, “Their dexterity ranks higher than all known species as well.”
“For the Maker’s sake, Perrin,” the King groaned, “could you try and act civil for once in your damn life?”
“The facts are...”
“All right,” Lady Cherie rose out of her chair, her fingers hovering above the table, “I’ve humored his Majesty long enough. I see no reason for you requiring my costly attention.”
Alistair grumbled but threw his hands behind his head, “Seems a lot of the elves flocking to Denerim are coming out of Orlais. I’d thought you’d want to have some input on your citizenry.”
“Please,” Cherie waved her perfumed hand in the air but slowly returned to her chair, “they hardly count as citizens.”
“What was that?” Shiani began, focusing her ire on the ambassador.
“Dear, just because Ferelden finds it adorable to prop up elves like stuffed dolls in the middle of their throne rooms doesn’t mean that Orlais is into such a farce.”
Shiani didn’t reach out and punch her the way Reiss feared she would and for which she was grateful. She didn’t want to have to restrain the Arlessa, and backing her up would probably get her fired. Instead, the woman leaned back in her chair and tented her fingers, “What do you call your Marquise Briala?”
“A one night stand that failed to leave in the morning,” Cherie muttered under her breath.
The King banged his hand on the table, drawing every eye to him. “We could spend the entire damn day arguing over piddly little shit but it won’t solve anything. Shiani, I assume you’ve got some ideas.”
“A few,” she said, and the Arlessa yanked out a scroll which caused the entire assembled group to groan. Without any waver in her voice, Shiani read aloud her ideas complete with plusses and minuses to each one that were then shored up with data. On occasion, Ghaleb would toss in a comment, most of which backed up the elf’s work. She’d done her homework and then some.
Of course, the multitude of options led to more infighting. One tiny man insisted they couldn’t fit it into the budget. When pressed for which of the Arlessa’s ideas he claimed nothing would, rendering the entire thing moot. As the meeting went further off the rails with Perrin and Cherie bickering over the level of sewage runoff in Denerim’s streets compared to Val Royeaux, Reiss’ attention began to wander. The room was not that impressive for gathering together so many people important to Ferelden, middle sized with a small hearth that no one felt the need to light, it boasted only the table they clustered around and a few bookcases. The table itself bore the wear of age and what looked like a trio of dagger cuts jammed into the wood, no doubt from someone trying to dramatically mark a map.
A chill crept up Reiss’ legs and she glanced at the window behind the King. Someone worked it open, despite leaving the hearth cold. Did they anticipate so many people full of hot air overheating the room? Or was it some trick by crafty advisors to force the people to come to their demands faster to escape suffering the chill? Either way, it seemed odd. Grey clouds bulged in the sky threatening to open up and drop rain across the ground. Judging by the height of the window, they’d need a ladder or hook to properly close it...
Reiss felt someone looking, and she glanced down to find the King’s eyes staring right at her. As she met them, he smiled wide and shrugged at the constant bickering that amounted to politics. She began to smile back, when the pieces fell into place in her brain. Reacting, Reiss barreled towards the window and slammed her shield in place. The politics fell to a crash, everyone watching the strange bodyguard acting like a loon, when the flit of arrows cracked the air. Two embedded into her shield, causing Reiss’ arm to rocket back. A third landed in the middle of the table, causing all the diplomats to scatter back as if it was a venomous snake.
“Protect the King,” Cade cried out. Catching on quickly, Alistair hopped away from the window and hid behind a bookcase. Reiss pulled back her shield to inspect the arrow shafts, the feathers were both red and gold - regulation army out of Ferelden. No doubt the assassins yanked them from the armory on their way up to... She leaned out the window, mentally following the trajectory up to the top of a battlement on the east wing. Glancing quickly at the bottom, she noticed that there was only one door out from the assassin perch.
“The attack came from that tower,” she shouted back at the Commander, who nodded gruffly beside her, his own shield out in anticipation of another volley. But none would come, she knew. Their assassin was running down those stairs about to make a break for freedom. And the only way out of the palace was...
Reiss didn’t think. Using that elven dexterity Ghaleb mentioned, she leapt onto the windowsill and took off running down the eaves. Behind her she heard Cade shouting, “Guardsman!” at the top of his lungs, but there wasn’t time to explain. If she wasn’t quick, the assassin would be lost and they were back at square one.
Right on cue, thunder rattled the heavens above and fat plops of water rang against her armor. She ignored it all, full out running across the slick roof while her eyes peered through the ground floor. Two stories, a straight drop would most likely break an ankle or worse. Had to be a quicker way down. In the distance behind and across the square she heard the sound of a door opening, the assassin making his or her break. There!
Leaping off the palace roof, Reiss aimed for a small lean to. The wood cracked at her addition and she scrabbled to keep upright on the narrow beam but it didn’t break. As she rose up, out of the corner of her eye she caught the assassin. Male. Stocky. And a hint of that same tattoo across his face. He pinwheeled his arms, gliding to a stop at the sight of a guard standing on the roof prepared to take him out. Sliding through the mud, he turned down an alley between the two towers.
“Shite!” Reiss cursed at herself, then promised to give two canticles for her sister. Shaking off the pain she knew was coming, Reiss ran full bore into thin air letting the Maker smash her down to the packed mud. It was mostly dirt still, the rain only beginning, but her heel skidded as she twisted her leg and broke into a full run. Her assailant wasn’t in armor, but that wasn’t going to slow her down. Using the run to knock her ankle back in place, Reiss pursued him around the bend in the tower. Her boots skidded in the wet grass as she turned, catching sight of his sun bleached clothing. Not even a cloak obscured him. The man tried to tip over a few crates to slow her down, but Reiss easily hopped around them, never slowing, never giving up.
Leading her back to the square, the assassin aimed for the gate. It was small, barely large enough for a few horses to come through. Not that getting through it would help him. Reiss had his scent and...Oh no. The sound of a multitude of people erupted from beyond the palace walls. Market time. Shit, shit, shit. If she didn’t stop him now, he’d easily slip into the group and vanish.
There was only time to react. Yanking her arm back, Reiss aimed her sword at the gate control and hurled it with all the force she had. It wasn’t elegant, but the blade skittered against the latch and the gate plummeted to the ground just in front the assassin. He froze, probably saying a prayer that he didn’t get caught in the plummet of the portcullis, before turning around and remembering he was under pursuit.
The assassin made it a step to the side before Reiss pummeled her shield against his nose thrice in rapid succession. Ramming forward, she pinned the man a good foot taller than her against the wall and growled, “You’re under arrest by order of the guard. The royal guard.”
“Ha,” he spat blood on the ground, his fingers gripping onto the shield. “That so?”
“Yes!” she screamed, adrenaline rampaging through her system.
“Have it your way, knife-ear,” the assassin grabbed onto her shield and shoved it back towards her. Reiss forgot to plant her feet and stumbled back. Stupid. In berating herself the shield dropped a moment and the assassin lashed out with a dagger. She met it quickly, her reflexes saving her when her brain failed. Sparks scattered through the rain as the blade etched against metal, each one she fended off with certainty. That seemed to be slowing the assassin down, the man not used to fighting someone trained for war.
Knotting her shoulder back, Reiss plowed the bottom edge of her shield into one arm, sending the dagger skittering across the grounds beyond either of their reach. But in doing that, she left her flank open, which normally would have been covered by the man at her side. The assassin rebounded faster than expected and the blade slit across her upper arm. Some of it was knocked away by the armor, but the dagger worked through a groove and bit apart her skin. Pain roared up her arm, but she didn’t stagger back, didn’t curl up to whimper. That beast that she kept chained and leashed inside her leaped forward.
Instinctively, Reiss smashed her shield into the man’s chin and let go. As he cried out in pain, she grabbed onto his arm with both of her hands and wrenched out the elbow until hearing a pop. “GAH!” the assassin screamed, agony no doubt circling through his bones from the one she dislocated. It dangled limply, the dagger falling from his fingers.
“Right,” Reiss lifted up her fists, “you wanted to do this the hard way.” This was no friendly sparring. Smashing her knuckles against the man’s jaw and then cheek, he fell back to the wall.
“Knife-eared bitch!” he hissed.
She couldn’t kill him, he needed to be kept alive, but there was no reason for him to know that. “Give up now and I’ll let you live,” Reiss taunted.
“Fuck you,” he growled before dropping down and running at her with his shoulder. She tried to step away, but the slick ground turned her foot, sucking her in place. With nowhere to go, the man smashed against her chest, flattening Reiss to the ground.
Air fled from her lungs and she watched as he rose above her, that cocky glare in his eyes. Below her, Reiss felt the dagger she’d freed from him. Staggering up to a sit, she tried to grip it with her fingers while the assassin slid back and forth on his feet.
Grinning like a fat tom, the assassin yanked out another damn dagger off his never ending sheathe. “Sorry, flatfoot. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he taunted, raising the blade above his head.
She didn’t blink, her fingers finally gripping onto the dagger. There was only one chance at this, roll over as he attacked and stab him in the arm, keep the assailant alive and yourself. Focus on that last part in particular, Rat. The assassin’s arms flew down and Reiss twisted her body, her head the last to move, when a bolt embedded into the man’s chest. He paused, not seeming to be in pain from the piece of wood sticking out of the gap between his ribs, but in shock. Cupping a hand around the bolt, the assassin moved, when another bolt shot through his chest. That caused him to fall to his knees, when the last shattered into his eye socket, the eye bursting from the force like a popped zit.
Reiss kicked at the mud, scurrying to turn and challenge whoever killed him. As she staggered to her knees, she watched as Commander Cade calmly restrung his crossbow and nodded at her. “Are you all right, guardsman?”
“Yes, Ser,” she stuttered.
“Is he dead?” Cade asked.
Scrambling over the mud, Reiss ran her fingertips over the assassin’s lips, but there was no breath. Damn it! She’d nearly had him! Broken, her head fell down and she mumbled, “Yes, Ser.”
“I guess we’re back at square one then,” Cade groaned. “I’ll get my men to inspect the body, you should return to the King. You know, the one you’re supposed to guard.”
Reiss staggered to her feet feeling foolish beyond measure. She wasn’t hired to chase after wily assassins, especially ones that could easily take her down. “Sorry, Ser.”
Cade eyed her up, the man unmoved by her self loathing, “I ain’t the one you need to apologize to. And get that looked at, don’t want it getting infected.”