Chapter 15: Headache
His headache was growing exponential, the throbbing assisted by the chattering voices of people panicking after they realized they were fine but suckered onto an ample excuse to draw attention. Their illustrious Orlesian ambassador was enjoying a faint across the floor. After she folded to the ground, most Fereldens walked over her, hustling into the courtyard in pursuit of his bodyguard and the assassin. Seeing as how no one seemed to care about Cherie hitting the floor, she seemed intent to wait there until someone did. It was the strangest stalemate to have a grown woman laying upon the stones like a petulant toddler with no endgame in sight. Alistair wished he could stay and watch but there were a dozen other problems to solve.
“Ghaleb,” he jerked his head to the Spymaster who kept prodding at the arrow shaft embedded into the table and watching it quiver.
Those watery grey eyes wandered over to Alistair’s left ear before he slid out of the evacuated room. “Sire?”
“Tell me you know something, anything. A clue, an idea?”
Ghaleb spoke in his jagged breath, words crammed together with pauses inserted sometimes between syllables. “Perrin’s wearing three pairs of smallclothes, Chancellor Eamon has taken up with a distinguished Mother without his wife’s knowledge, and the Madam Ambassador is trying to slide a handkerchief out of her bodice without anyone seeing.”
At that Alistair spun on his heel, catching only a shiver from Cherie’s fingers as they froze before she resumed her dead faint. Growling, he whipped back to Ghaleb, “About the damn assassination attempt that just happened.”
“Don’t you think you should...?” he rolled his hands through the air waiting for the man to catch on when a voice called out through the antechamber.
“Milord, the assassin has been stopped,” the tell tale timbre of Cade shouted from below. Alistair scurried to the railing and peered down off the landing to watch his Commander of the guards stopped upon the muddy carpets, his beefy arms thrust back. But what drew Alistair’s eye was the woman that ran without thought for herself through the window and leaped off a roof in pursuit of a criminal. Her head hung low, the eyes skirting the ground, but she seemed no worse for the wear. Thank the Maker, he sighed, then tried to shake it off.
“What is the state of him?” Alistair shouted out to his Commander. “Hopefully awake enough to answer a few rather pertinent questions. His favorite color? His opinion on mixing plaids with stripes? Thoughts on this sudden trend of Orlesians wearing cheese instead of eating it? Oh, and if there’s time why he and his ilk are suddenly trying to kill me.”
“I,” Cade paused a moment, those sunken in eyes darting over to the elven woman staggering to the side. “He is dead, Sire.”
Alistair’s head snapped back and a groan reverberated up through his bones. “Of blighted course he is. You know, alive would have been preferable. Unless you know a good mortalitassi that can get a few answers from a corpse we’re back up that creek without a paddle or the ability to swim.”
“Milord, I...” Cade began before Reiss interrupted.
“It is my fault, Ser,” she said lifting her weary head and staring at him. Alistair was struck by bruises dotting her wan face and he finally noticed she was clinging tight to her arm.
“Are you alright?” he asked, stepping down the stairs to her. The pack of lost diplomats followed on his heels like homeless hamsters with nothing better to do. Only Cherie remained where she fell, her fingers drumming against the floor.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Alistair walked towards Reiss, when Cade intercepted him. “The Corporal here engaged with the assassin but he overpowered her. I had no choice but to finish him off before he killed her.”
She didn’t look up at him, only glowered at the floor and shifted on her feet. Absently, Alistair tugged his hair up and sighed, “Well, dead assassin is better than dead guard. You made the right decision, Cade.”
“Obviously,” the man didn’t grin. He seemed incapable of it, but he slid back on his heels and folded his arms in that smug satisfaction way.
“Your Majesty, I just heard about...” another voice echoed through the halls, the door to the kitchens flying open as their newest mage flitted in. She looked out of breath, as if she’d been running the entirety of the palace with a towel of all things tucked into the belt of her robes. “An assassination attempt? Maker, is it true?”
Alistair shrugged, and the woman reached over to grab up his hand. While she patted it the same way one would comfort an abandoned dog, Alistair groaned, “The rate these are coming they could become a daily attraction. Come to the palace for our hourly assassination attempt on the King. First ten visitors get a free toe if it’s successful.”
“You survived unscathed?” she stopped petting his hand, giving Alistair the chance to tug it away. He tried to not wipe it off on his pants in the view of everyone but it felt sticky from her grip.
“I’m fine, but Ser Reiss...” he turned to his bodyguard.
“It’s nothing, a scratch,” she insisted.
Ignoring the mage clinging to his shoes, the Commander doing his damnedest to fill the room, and the hordes of diplomats milling about, Alistair slid over to Reiss. She kept that verdant gaze burrowing into the ground, her breath unsteady as her fingers gripped tight to try and stench the blood.
“May I?” he asked, indicating her hand. Shrugging, she let him lift it off the bent armor to reveal a gash of scarlet dribbling crimson tears to the ground. “A scratch can still be deadly when assassins are around. They’re big fans of poisons and all,” he whispered to her which the woman slowly nodded her head at. Then he lifted his voice, “Linaya.” Maker’s sake, the woman practically glowed from the fact he spoke her name. “Do you know any healing?”
“Aye, I am well versed in...”
“Good, heal her,” Alistair released his soft hold on Reiss’ elbow and stepped back to let the mage draw near. “Please,” he tacked on. She blanched at the blood, probably too young to have been involved in a lot of the rebellion as she tried to inspect the wound.
“I will, of course, your Majesty,” Linaya curtsied deeply. Alistair was about to tell her to get up and get to it but the mage rebounded quickly and a sheen of professionalism took over as she escorted Reiss to a bench. She accepted the help and didn’t flinch even as the mage dug her fingers down through the armor. Alistair however did. Not all healers needed skin to skin contact to do their work, both Wynne and Lanny could slap your leg back on through your pants and then turn around to pummel darkspawn. Over the violent years, Alistair had run into a few mages that weren’t as versed in the power of spirit healing and Linaya seemed to be one of them. Reiss tried to shake her off, but the mage kept pointing at the wound and insisting on something. Groaning, Reiss dropped to a bench and her fingers began to work apart the inner buckles of her armor.
“Milord,” Cade spoke close to Alistair’s ear, jerking him out of his thoughts and causing the King to leap an inch in the air.
“Maker’s sake, a little warning. Unless you want to kill me stone dead, then sneak around like that. What is it?”
Cade didn’t gesture at the woman pulling off her breastplate and groaning as it slipped to the floor but he made it obvious who he was looking at. “You’ve had your...whatever your point was, but this was a close one. I cannot allow you to put your life in some untested woman’s hands any longer.”
“Untested? She caught two of the arrows on her shield, then ran down the assassin on foot,” Alistair scoffed. He knew he shouldn’t sound impressed having to be kingly and all but he couldn’t dampen it out of his voice. If he’d jumped out the window, he’d probably have slid on the tiles and fallen face first to the dirt.
“Exactly my point,” Cade said. “She was not hired to pursue criminals, her job is to protect you. What if there had been another assassin lurking in a second tower? You were left open and vulnerable.”
“I’m not a blighted baby bird, Cade. I can handle myself,” Alistair snarled.
Cade’s beefy eyes traveled up and down his King’s form, barely able to suppress a sneer from what he probably considered a weak and fragile body. “Be that as it may, it is in my professional opinion as the Commander of the royal guards that you take Brunt as your personal bodyguard.” Cade turned away and sneered at the woman trying to roll up her sleeve to expose the wound. It wasn’t going well and Linaya seemed to be no help. “If you like the elf so much, assign her to your children. She seems to have a knack with little ones.”
“Belittle her all you want, but if she hadn’t chased down that assassin he’d have slipped out before you or any of your guards caught up to him,” Alistair fumed.
“Luck isn’t a high watermark in this profession, Sire,” Cade spat at him.
The King rolled his eyes at that. Luck was the only reason he was still breathing a good dozen times over. If it weren’t for that little kiss from the Maker upon his brow he’d have been ash on the wind at Ostagaar, any time during the Blight, Fort Drakon, Seheron, those other assassins at his palace (the horned kind), or while in the Anderfels. If luck blessed his bodyguard then he saw that as a good reason to keep her around instead of not.
“What’s really got your knickers in a knot, Cade? You’re being smugger than usual while there’s an arrow still vibrating inside my table.”
He turned to face the Commander and waited. Cade wasn’t a fiddler, he didn’t prod at his buckles or knock his sword about. Instead, he folded his arms tighter together and glowered over Alistair’s shoulder, no doubt at the elf that seemed to jump up his craw for some reason. “She answers to no one.”
“Pretty sure she answers to me. I think that’s how the whole ‘I’m your boss, here’s money for the work’ goes.” Grinning at his comeback, Alistair swung around to catch the eye of the woman in question. She wasn’t watching either of the men scrutinizing her as Reiss was too busy yanking the hem of her shirt up over her head.
Oh Maker. Alistair felt his cheeks turn bright red as he whipped back around to face the not naked woman area. In the brief second before he blinked hard, he caught a flash of skin pale as moonlight with a hint of marks up and down her stomach. Pinching into his nose, he tried to blot out the image. Professional. Be professional.
“There? Is that exposed enough now for you to heal it?” he heard Reiss snipe at the mage, her voice crackling on the edges as she sat half naked before the assembled heads of state. Alistair wished he could toss a blanket to her or something, but in his state he’d have to walk backwards and would probably throw it onto a chandelier where it’d catch on fire.
“Your Majesty,” Cade began, trying to wheedle into Alistair’s light panic attack.
“Look, your complaints have been recognized and recorded, or they would be if my clerks hadn’t run out the door pinwheeling their arms at the first sign of trouble. We keep things as they are. It was just getting into a routine. I don’t see any reason to rock the boat once again.” Alistair expected more needling from the Commander, he’d been grumping and groaning about Reiss for over a week. It got to the point Alistair was surprised he didn’t wake up with a portrait of Brunt and a lock of his hair to convince the King just how perfect of a man he was.
Instead, Cade parted his hands and slid back. “As you say, Sire. It is after all your neck on the line.” He scrunched up those meaty lips and smacked them once. “However...”
“Andraste’s sword, here it comes,” Alistair groaned to himself.
Cade barely dropped his voice down, but he glanced over at the half naked woman with only caginess in his face. “Be careful putting your trust in someone so unknown to us. There are reports of sightings of your bodyguard slipping into the stables at night.”
“What? That’s...” Alistair wanted to insist it was impossible, but it wasn’t as if he was around her constantly. That would make using the privy even more awkward than usual. Forgetting himself, Alistair glanced over his shoulder. She’d slipped her tunic back on and was inspecting the gash to her shirt above the dried blood. What did they truly know about her? What did he? If he couldn’t trust Ghaleb then there was no reason he could trust the Spymaster’s information either.
“Sire?” Cade prodded again, his non smile glittering in his eyes.
“When at night?” Alistair asked. The elf’s gaze darted up to him for a minute, her fingers reaching for the tossed breastplate, before her eyes skipped down to the ground. If she was a liability, he’d get to the bottom of it himself.
She was a fool. It was bad enough being berated by the Commander of the royal guards while standing over a dead body once again picked clean of all identification, then having to explain three times that her sword was wedged inside the gate mechanism and that’s why they couldn’t open it. But suffering that dithering mage’s fumbling attempts to heal up her wound made Reiss wish she could climb inside of a bottle and never get out. Way to represent your people, there rat. Why not give the shems even more reasons to dismiss you?
The King said little to her. He inquired a few times if she was of sound health to continue on her feet, which, despite the mage’s novice level spell casting, was the case. Reiss had known worse in her time, though she was certain there would be a scar. One more in a long line. After moving through his usual steps of the day, the man seemed colder after the attack. There was no reason to be surprised, he did have his life threatened for a second time. Perhaps he needed to shuffle deeper into himself to keep from lashing out.
Once the princess was put to bed, about the only time the King brightened for the day, he led them back to their shared room and said he intended to turn in for the night, provided no assassins were lurking under his bed. Reiss offered to check with her sword, but he declined and gave her leave. After mending her tunic, the once proud scarlet fading to a dingy red-grey, Reiss headed towards the stables. She patted her hip thrice to make certain the offering was there while twisting down the servants entrance. Despite it leading nearly right to the courtyard that opened back upon the horses, the King never took it. There were probably rules about where royalty should and shouldn’t trod. If it’s not gilded and carpeted, no noble foot may touch it lest the limb rot away.
Reiss chuckled to herself as she slipped through the heavy night into the barn. Okay, it wasn’t really a barn. She knew those all too well, this stank of far more shit than the barn she had to sleep in. Despite the chill, the flies were on point, hissing in anger as they dove in and out of their own heaven from the piles plopping up in the horse’s beds. Reiss expected to find the stablehand here, a young man who despite looking human grew up in the Alienage --the curse of having a single elven parent. He could pass as human but didn’t have much of a foundation to prop him up. Normally he’d be whistling under his drawn cap while shoveling the shit into his cart, but no one seemed to be in the closed stables. Due to the rain they probably tugged down the wooden window panes giving the place a strangely ominous feel.
“Pst,” Reiss called out. Shadows flickered around the stables, horses whinnying at someone new who might be there for them, but nothing that right shade of grey darted around. “Pst pst,” she tried again. “Maker’s sake, you better be here!”
Slapping her hand against her thigh, Reiss peered under a few of the stable beds, but found only horse legs. “Are you in the loft?” she tried again, her finger trailing along the ceiling as she hunted for the tuft of grey. “Sylaise, come out, come out wherever you are.”
Through a door past the stables rested the kennels. Reiss did her best to keep the damn cat from sneaking through it, offering up many good reasons why cats shouldn’t have anything to do with dogs, but like all cats she completely ignored her. Left open a crack, Reiss pushed upon the door and cried out, “Sylaise?”
A few of the mabari opened their eyes, most down for the night. They weren’t impressed with the elf skulking in their kennels but didn’t think it was worth getting up for. “Maker’s sake, you better not be hiding in here you stupid...” Reiss’ trail of thought died off as she stepped towards the last partition. She could have sworn she caught the swish of a grey tail slipping in through the bars. “Sylaise, you’re going to get ripped apart! Get out here.” Reiss dropped to a knee into the scattered straw and tried to reach in for the cat when a dozen mabari stood up at attention and began to bark like mad.
Her first instinct was to reach for her sword, the elf whipping her head to the door behind her where a shadow stood. It seemed to have roused the dogs into a frenzy, each of them stomping their feet into the ground as they hopped back and forth. “Maker damn it all,” the shadow cursed before turning up a lantern in his hand.
“Your Majesty?” Reiss stuttered. She yanked her hand away from her hip and tried to rise to her feet.
“Damn dogs, yes, fine, it’s me. Look at that. Will you shut up? Okay, one pet,” he reached through the bars to rub his hand on the mabari with a tan coat before placing down the lantern and going full in for petting the rest.
“Sire, er, Ser?” Reiss froze at the end of the kennel, “What are you doing here?”
He paused in his petting and turned a cold eye on her, “Funny, I was about to ask you the same.”
“I...” There was no chance she could lie her way out of it. Throwing down her shoulders, Reiss gestured him closer. The King froze a moment, his eyes casting down over her hip where the sword rested in its sheathe. “Forgive me, I don’t know if I’m allowed, but I...” He slid nearer as she dropped to her knees and reached through the bars for that damn cat. Sylaise rolled out of the straw and batted without claws at her hand before stretching high and sliding out. “I brought a cat with me to the palace.”
Reiss scooped Sylaise up into her arms and she began to climb her way up the elf’s shoulders. The King paused, his jaw hanging slack as he watched. “You...you have a kitty?” Even with his eyes on Reiss as if expecting her to transform into a demon, he absently reached out to scratch along Sylaise’s head.
“I was feeding her at my old guardhouse, she’s a stray, and when I went back she sort of stowed away in my things. I didn’t want to be any trouble and thought maybe another mouser wouldn’t be a problem on the grounds,” Reiss admitted, her fingers fluffing up Sylaise’s tail.
Those haunting yellow eyes beamed upon the human in their midst, seeming to size him up. “Sweet Maker, it’s a cat. You’re feeding a cat,” he laughed once and threw his hand up.
“Forgive me for...”
“No, no,” the King spoke over her and with both hands scooped Sylaise up to him. She meowed uncertainly before the man tucked her close the same way he would his infant son. “Hello kitty cat. Er, she probably has a name.”
“I call her Sylaise,” Reiss smiled, scritching along her back.
“Sylaise,” Alistair grinned, “why does that sound familiar?”
“It’s a uh,” Reiss pivoted back and forth on her feet before answering, “An elven goddess.” She expected the human to frown, but he chuckled and lifted Sylaise up high in his arms.
“Well, if anyone’s going to act like a goddess it’s a fat ol’ alley cat.” Sylaise took offense to this and in true catlike fashion twisted around in his arms to leap free land flush on the kennel. She began to mewl, her eyes fully on Reiss.
“Right, sorry,” she fished out some of the crumbs from the meat pie for dinner and held them out for Sylaise. A single white paw landed on Reiss’ palm while the cat chewed thoughtfully upon the morsels.
The two of them watched silently until the cat finished eating, then as she stretched her back up against the underside of an eave. Tired of the audience, Sylaise leaped down off the partition to land back into the kennel Reiss pulled her from. “I wish I could move like that,” she mused to herself.
“From what I saw today you can,” Alistair responded.
A burn inched along her cheeks, both from shame and...something else Reiss was doing her best to ignore. “Sire, when I abandoned you...”
“You were doing your job,” he interrupted.
“No, I wasn’t, which is the problem. I should have left it to the guards. I reacted instead of acted and it could have done untold damage. I understand if you do not wish to employ my services any longer.”
She shored up her voice but kept her focus on Sylaise who was batting her paw at the slumbering lump in the kennel. Reiss feared that if she glanced over at the King she might break down into hysterics, pain and exhaustion in equal parts rubbing her soul raw.
His hand landed upon her shoulder and he smiled, “I have no intentions of firing you. Oh, I didn’t touch your wound, did I?” he suddenly panicked, yanking his hand away as if her arm burned.
“No, you did not. It is lower and...not important,” Reiss felt a smile stir in her stomach but she kept it off her lips.
“So,” he sighed ruffling up his hair, “you’re probably wondering what I’m doing skulking around in the kennels.”
Reiss shrugged a shoulder, “Others must have spotted me visiting with Sylaise and rather than inquire of me or the stablehand, they assumed it was some clandestine meeting with spies and informed you.” She glanced over at the King to find his mouth hanging slack jawed.
“How in...you figured all that out in like,” he snapped his fingers unable to shake the awe from his face.
“I am an unknown,” Reiss stated. She’d been expecting something of it for awhile, in particular after this second attempt. Slowly a smile lifted up her lips and she laughed at the ground, “which is why you selected me to be your bodyguard in the first place.”
“An unknown chosen without any predetermination means the chances of slipping a spy in undetected is almost impossible. Clever.”
Alistair scoffed at her, “You are probably the first person in all of thedas to ever call me clever.”
Turning to face him, Reiss’ eyes danced around his sunny face. It hid away his anger and pain, trying to coat any major slight in a patina of sugared jam but she saw its existence that first night. “Perhaps people aren’t looking closely enough.”
“I...um,” he gasped, both hands digging through his hair, “am feeling particularly unclever right now. Forgive me for suspecting you.” He dangled his hand before hers.
She accepted it, but answered, “You were within your rights given all that’s happened.”
“Maybe, but I don’t want to become the crazy king that leaps at every shadow and can’t put his trust in anyone. I’m not a fan of slippers, can barely grow a beard, and my hygiene is eh.”
There was that damn earnest charm again ensnaring her faster than she could deflect it. Reiss kept pumping their hands up and down, a smile rising up her cheeks as she glanced in on her cat. Sylaise was kneading against the mabari’s snout who finally lifted up his head. He leaned closer to the cat, and in a quick huff, splattered snot across the grey fur. Sylaise mewled at the slight and in response the mabari’s tongue rolled out. He didn’t attack the cat, didn’t snap his fangs nor growl, only lapped up the snot he peppered the cat in and then shuffled back to sleep. This time, the mabari left two paws extended so Sylaise could snuggle up beside him.
“I feared that the dogs would scare her or worse, but...” Reiss sighed, “they shouldn’t get on so well.”
The King tipped his head as he watched the grey cat folding against the rumbling of the white mabari, both of them lulling back to the comfort of sleep, “It’s funny how things in thedas are bad at doing what they’re supposed to.”
“I...” Reiss’ eyes met his for a heartbeat, and then two more. She yearned to say something to him, but had no idea what. Patting her fingers together like blocks, Reiss sighed, “I should return to my room.”
Alistair nodded at her as she moved to slip out of the kennels. Out of the corner of her eye she watched him bend over the partition to run his fingers across the slumbering pets. Reiss stepped out into the night, the cloying scent of wet grass and horse shit clinging to the crisp air. “So,” he called behind her, “I was thinking I might take you up on your offer to check under the bed for assassins. You know, because you never know.” He shrugged his shoulders in that charming impotence before bouncing back on his heels.
Barely suppressing a chuckle at the idea, Reiss said, “It would be my honor, Ser.”