Guarded Love

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Chapter 16: A Nap

Screaming and smoke filled the forest air, one of those crimson feathered birds struggling to rise away from the battle. Red templar or perhaps mage fire struck it; it was impossible to tell in the chaos. Reiss yanked up on her tunic below the Inquisition armor, trying to cover her mouth against the toxic ash flittering down from the sky. The others fighting in the stream barely gave it pause, pain crying out through the wilds. Blood streaked across the ground, Reiss struggling to keep upright as she pursued an injured templar. It wasn’t one of the human looking ones, this person had been transformed beyond anything approachable. The entire face was cracked and glowing like demonic glass, red shards erupting off the back. Or had been until Reiss hacked away at them, spending nearly all her energy to take it down and still it continued onward. How did the Inquisitor and his company make it look so easy?

Her prey limped down a hill, and Reiss felt herself slipping to a knee. Splashing into the creek, she was surprised by how warm the water ran, soaking into the cracks of her armor. The stream glittered scarlet, as if the land itself bled from the pain they were inflicting. Shaking her head and looking anew, Reiss could see only the murky depths of what had once been a crystal stream. After splashing herself in the face, she rose and summoned the last of her energy to pursue the templar.

At the bottom of the hill he roared back, his arms extended wide to try and pick off... “Ethan, no!” Reiss’ mind cried out at the solider bracing himself behind his shield. Without thinking, Reiss leaped down the hill, her oversized boots scrabbling to find purchase in the shifted terrain as she aimed for the red templar. It was drawing back its arm, pounding red fire across Ethan’s shield while the man had no opportunities to respond. Growling, Reiss swung her body forward and barreled fully into the walking crystal. Jagged edges punctured her skin, slicing sharper than any blade could across her face and hands, but Reiss ignored the blood dripping down her arms.

While the red templar scrabbled to find footing, Reiss pinned herself on top of it and drove her blade through its throat. It didn’t go in instantly, and she had to work it back and forth slowly sawing the templar’s head clean off. When it penetrated the neck, blood gushed out from her hole dissolving through the crystal armor. Slowly the lights in the templar’s eyes drained away.

She nearly plummeted face first onto the creature in exhaustion, but a hand grabbed onto her shoulder. Rising up she first caught the look on Ethan’s face. It wasn’t pride at her accomplishment or even gratefulness in his face, but a calculating pout causing the acid in her stomach to boil. She yearned to leap up, to berate him, to shout all the things she’d kept bottled up for years, but the hand turned her around. An elf gripped her, an older one with black hair and startling green eyes.

“That was a near thing,” she spoke in an Orlesian accent before shifting her staff to the other side and offering a hand to Reiss.

“I got lucky,” Reiss answered, staggering to her feet.

“Perhaps, but it takes courage to even try,” the older woman smiled.

Reiss began to slide away from the mage back to her people when a scream shattered the sky. That wasn’t a poetic turn of phrase, it literally broke apart the bright blue of the forest, a shadow blotting out the sun as the power of the roar smashed hardened Inquisition soldiers to their knees. No, no, no... The archdemon, just like the one in Ferelden all those years ago, flailed its wings above the sky and dipped down through the trees.

Fire dribbled from its mouth, a deadly purple erupting through the trees while new screaming - the kind mortal and familiar - followed in its wake. The mage waved her hands, and the air tasted like iron to Reiss. Her arms felt lighter while a strange red sheen drifted across the side of her vision.

“What do we do?” It didn’t matter who said it. Perhaps it was a mage, maybe an Inquisition recruit, it could have even been one of the commanders of the army. Regardless, they all in that moment had the same thought. What do we do against a dragon?

It flipped back, preparing to take another round against the forest when a volley of arrows launched from Celene’s camp. The first round bounced off the black and red scales, scattering as the dragon batted its tail, but the next stuck, ripping apart those leathery wings and sending the archdemon plummeting right towards them. Tucking into a dive, the dragon rolled with its fall and landed first front legs and then back upon the ground.

She’d never been near one before. Its breath stank of rancid meat and brimstone, fire dribbling between its teeth the size of daggers. A few soldiers revived from the fall and ran at the dragon from behind but it was quick to kick them away. “Ethan?” Reiss glanced towards where he’d stood, but the man was gone into the forest, fleeing with the rest of the recruits who had no idea how to take down a dragon.

The elven mage lifted up her hands and ice flew from her fingers, embedding into the dragon’s eyes. That halted its attack from behind and it glared death upon the small elf pelting its face in cold. Rising up, the archdemon lifted its neck as if preparing to give a speech. The primitive part of Reiss’ brain knew what was coming before it informed the rest of her. She ran towards the mage as the dragon dropped its head down and slowly opened those deadly jaws.

Fire burst apart the air, instantly igniting the water to steam as Reiss knocked the mage over and dropped her shield right in the way.

“Grand Enchanter!” someone cried out in the distance before everything, every sound, every smell, every sense was replaced by fire. It blasted into her shield, passing both elves huddled together behind it for safety. Burning, bleeding, cutting was all she felt; pounding ash in the eyes, smoke down the throat, heat coating every inch of her skin. Darkness enveloped Reiss like a black cloak, pinning her tight to the ground until there was no escape.

Her hand clawed at the air and she snorted awake to find a bird halting its song outside the window to glare at her. Maker’s sake. Reiss groaned to herself as she cupped her head in her hand and tried to wipe away the nightmare memories. In doing so, she heard not a bed creak below her but a chair, one she sat in to pass the time while the King...

“Awake?” came Alistair’s cheery question. He sat himself at a desk in a preferred study cozier than the others; this held far more grey warden paraphernalia on the walls. A few clerks moved in and out but for most of the afternoon it was just the two of them -- one writing letters and reading them, the other bored out of her skull. She’d only meant to rest her feet for a few minutes, then her eyes.

“Ser, I’m so sorry,” Reiss staggered to her legs which complained of a major cramp. Maker’s sake, how long was she asleep in that damn chair?

The King waved his hand at her and turned around in his chair. It was a simple design and wouldn’t look out of place at an average Denerim resident’s table, but someone took the time to carve an archdemon into the back of it. Smiling at her, he whispered, “If I were in your shoes, I’d take every nap I could get.”

“I...” Reiss shook her head, trying to will sense back in. She’d fallen asleep on the job. “So, were there any assassins while I was out?” she tried to chuckle while kicking herself in the head a few times.

He laughed again, his eyes sparkling before turning back to his work. “Sadly none who made their presence known, though you did miss Karelle’s fluffy skirt thing catching on a lamp, knocking it over, and starting a small fire.”

“You’re joking,” Reiss gasped.

Shrugging, he pointed at a small black burn mark upon the floor. “It wasn’t too bad. I threw my mead on it and it went out no problem. Which means I need to have a talk with the kitchen staff about watering it down again. One more thing to the never ending docket!” He jabbed his finger in the air and then pretended to write out a list over his pile of papers.

“Sire, I...” Reiss staggered over towards him. She caught a few unknown names and places written in his sloppy hand. Many people relied upon rulers to hold their words in tight until they learned how to manage it free hand, but the King either never tried or didn’t care. His letters all leaned drastically to the left as if the entire text was on a sinking ship. On occasion he’d insert forgotten lines or sentences in the margins and then draw arrows to indicate where it belonged. There were a lot more stick figures of people either fighting, eating, or doing something indecipherable than she suspected were in typical royal correspondence.

The King twisted around in his chair to give her his full attention as Reiss tried to beg for forgiveness. “I should not have let myself succumb to such trivial circumstances in your, um...” she lost her train of thought at the man’s smile slowly lifting up each side of his lips until a deep set of dimples broke upon his cheeks.

Alistair’s fingers skirted over to hers and held tight a moment, the quill he’d coated in ink drawing a black line across her skin. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been thinking about instituting nap time for Ferelden for awhile now. Every man, woman, and child shall be required to go down for at least an hour after the noon meal.”

“Is that edict meant for you or the princess?” Reiss asked.

He let his warm fingers slip off hers as he shrugged, “Pretty sure I need the naps far more than Spud does. That kid could power a mill all by herself no water needed. A year’s worth of millet ground in a day.”

The princess of all of Ferelden doing manual labor would make for an interesting sight, no doubt. All the fancy dresses and velvet pants dragging through a flooded field to watch the little girl pluck up armfuls of wheat and drop it into the grinder. Sounded like the start of one of those atrocious holidays when all the noble class act like they’re servants because it’s fun and the elves are forced to pretend they’re in charge without saying or doing anything to get their ears sliced off tomorrow.

Reiss staggered back from the King as a herald knocked open the door and entered. Letters overran out of a grey satchel knotted around his waist. Barely pausing to take a breath, he dumped a handful onto the King’s desk and then wiped a forearm against his brow. Alistair waited, his eyebrow rising dangerously high with each passing second until the mail deliverer explained, “Responses for the call to the summit.”

“Let me guess, they all want the fish,” he chuckled, scooping up the first handful.

“Don’t know nothing about fish, Sire,” the herald either failed to catch the joke or chose not to.

The King waved his hand to try and tell the man he was kidding when the random letter shuffling revealed an envelope baring a blue and gold seal. He turned it over and, with his finger, ripped apart the paper where a letter opener would have popped it cleanly free. Eyes churning quickly through the words, Alistair seemed to skip up and down the small letter before tossing his head back and groaning, “Of bloody course.”

“Your Majesty?” the herald asked, rising up and down on his toes to try and read over Alistair’s shoulder.

“It’s...not important,” he began. “Take these to Karelle. She’s drawing up the guest lists, and itineraries, and baths, and other things people draw for these sorts of shindigs.” He waved at the pile of letters the herald scattered but kept the one he opened tight in his fist.

The letter carrier scooped all of them back into his satchel, stifling down the groan of “Why didn’t you tell me to take them to the chamberlain in the first place?” When he moved to reach for the one in Alistair’s fist, the King clung tight, his eyes a million miles away. Reiss had seen him frown before, even the beginnings of a growl when pushed to a limit, but a sneer twisted up his face revealing teeth clenched tight.

“Sire?” the herald tried to break him from whatever travesty had burned away the sunny disposition.

“Hm, what? Oh, right,” Alistair released his death lock on the letter. Nodding his thanks, the herald slipped back into the hallway, adjusted his groaning bag, and tried to head off to find the chamberlain. From the knot along his shoulders, Reiss expected the King to bang his royal fist on the desk and curse. Quietly, she reached over to close the door the herald left open but when turning back she found the King with his fingers pressed against his lips and absently blowing into them.

She recognized that seal, a fist holding a book lit on fire, associated with the Enchanter’s College. On occasion, the Inquisition would receive official missives or commendations from them after they first established themselves. There’d been a banner hung up in the Herald’s Rest for months until someone drunk ripped it off, wrapped it around his naked body, and tried to leap off the roof. Luckily it was a short fall to the ground and only his pride was injured.

Uncertain if she should say something or not, Reiss fumbled with her sword, enjoying the feel of it banging against her hip. The movement seemed to revive the King from his stupor. He threw on a forced smile and scrunched his eyes up. “I think hey, we need to get some people together to talk things out. Not a big deal, talking to people I can’t stand’s about 97% of my day...sometimes including trips to the privy. But of course we have to make it a big todo because, I don’t know, bakers of really big cakes like coin and an excuse to use those little wooden pillars between layers.”

She knew that wasn’t what was bothering him, but she was in no position to call him out on it. “You called for the summit.”

“Yes, no. It didn’t start out as that. I didn’t want a proper Landsmeet because that’s nothing but me sitting on my ass listening to the Bannorn bicker about whose great-great grandfather stole a chicken. It was meant to be, well, this; a few people in a room talking, getting something accomplished. Then I went and told Eamon, who let it slip to Karelle, Cade had to get involved because of all the people attending and next thing I know it’s the highlight of the spring season. Everyone who’s anyone is going whether they have a damn reason to be here or not.”

The man’s smile stretched to a rictus, his eyes bulging. He looked as if he needed something to hit or a well to scream down. Sadly, Reiss wasn’t certain where the palace well sat and she suspected it would unnerve the clerks in the study if she and the King began punching each other. “This summit, its intentions are...?”

“Right, suppose you’d probably want to know having to work it and all.” He scrubbed his face with his hands, vigorously trying to peel the layers of political bullshit free. “Don’t know if you’re aware, but after the Blight the Dalish were awarded land in the Kokari wilds.”

“You awarded them the land,” Reiss said. She knew. It was talked about far more than the Arlessa of the Alienage because elves thought the former actually meant something.

He pulled a hand off half his face, leaving the other side covered and shrugged, “The area was decimated by the darkspawn, it didn’t seem to be anything super controversial. And they did help to save us all, after we handled their whole werewolf tree lady problem. Anyway, with lots of hard work the Dalish started turning the once broken and useless land into something, to the point elves from other kingdoms started heading down south. There isn’t a town yet, but there are enough clustered permanent houses without sails that it’s becoming one.”

“And the local land owners are concerned...” Reiss filled on.

"Concerned,” the King snorted, “That’s what they say as if I know they aren’t salivating at the prospect of scooping up acres of cultivated soil ready to pop out crops for ’em.” He banged his hand softly against the desk, watching the ink pot tremble back and forth, “Scuffles broke out, which wouldn’t have been much but people wanted to turn a nug into an archdemon. Add onto that the overcrowding in the alienage. I’d originally hoped that some of the more adventurous elves would try their hand down south. But if the Banns are going to go all...”

The King shook his head at what had to be clinging to his lips: exalted march. Andraste, their prophet, freed the elves and the chantry gave them land until deciding it was inconvenient. Now the Bannorn wanted to re-enact that bloody chapter once again. “What...” Reiss coughed, knowing she shouldn’t have an opinion on this. She should remain neutral, “what is the Divine’s opinion?”

Alistair laughed, “If Leliana had it her way she’d be standing with the elves before the walls aiming an arrow at the first masked idiot carrying a torch. But officially, the chantry supports peace, which is a nice way of saying ‘You’re on your own.’”

“I see,” Reiss muttered, her eyes glaring through the floor.

At that the King chuckled, “You sound just like the Inquisitor. Oh Maker, please tell me there were ‘I see’ challenges to find who could do his exact same curt dismissal without making anyone feel bad.”

“Ah,” Reiss couldn’t shake off the smile from his own infectious grin, “I am afraid not, though on occasion a few of us would...” her words trailed away as she realized she shouldn’t discuss this with her boss.

“Would? Oh, the mocking,” he smiled at her downturned face. “Please, making fun of your superiors behind their backs is a time honored tradition. It wouldn’t be an army without that.” He laughed to himself and then caught her eye. “How’s your impression of me?”

“It’s,” that damn blush returned and Reiss whipped her head to the side to try and disguise it. She wanted to assure him that she would never be so gauche as to mock someone in power, certainly not her superiors, but even when she played the good girl to the rest of the humans braying about any gossip of the Inquisitor or advisors that caught their fancy sometimes she’d let something slip. It was easy to get tired of having to be the model example all the damn time. Smiling, she whispered, “I haven’t had much time to perfect it.”

“Well,” Alistair closed up his ink bottle and shuffled the letters he’d been transcribing deeper into the desk. “I expect something good in time for the summit.”

“I shall endeavor, your Majesty,” Reiss slightly bowed while stepping back to give him the freedom to leave.

Something caused the man to pause in closing up his desk. The key waited in his palm, but he ran a finger over what looked like an old letter already yellowing with a few years of age. “Did you, in your time with the Inquisition, spend a lot of time with the mages?”

Reiss’ hackles lifted instantly but she tried to smooth them down. She had no right to feel jealous of his attentions upon a mage. “Not often, no. They tended to keep us separate.”

“Put a templar in charge of your army,” he whispered to himself, before shaking his head, “The Grand Enchanter, Fiona. Did you ever meet her?”

That wasn’t who she expected him to ask about. The Grand Enchanter was easily in her fifties to sixties, and seemed to be beyond wanting to take up as a royal consort. “No,” Reiss said. She didn’t think he’d much care about her trials in the Arbor Wilds. How for a brief moment the no-name elven soldier threw her shield in front of the Grand Enchanter, both facing down death, before the archdemon took to the skies and flew away. It wasn’t a particularly heroic moment without someone slaying the dragon.

“Huh,” the King said noncommittally, his fingers sliding around that old letter.

“What of you? Did you ever meet the Grand Enchanter?”

He blinked slowly, his shoulders hunching over, “Once...” Placing the letter back below the others, the King closed his desk and inserted the key, “that I can remember.”

Before Alistair could rise out of his chair the door opened again. “Unless you want suggestions on cake flavors - chocolate for all layers, in fact skip the cake and have a giant pile of frosting - Karelle’s the only one you should be talking to,” he began before the dwarf hidden beneath a wide brimmed hat yanked it off.

Lace Harding grinned up at the King, “You do keep your chamberlain buried under an avalanche of work.”

“Well, well, it looks as if that iron shipment is here,” the King was obviously trying to bluff to anyone listening in. Reiss’ eyed up the clerks but they all had the “King Silencers” in their ears, blissfully unaware.

“What, ah...yes, oh yes, lots of iron for you to get. I suppose,” Harding said. She placed her hat back in place, making certain to situate it properly to obscure her face in shadows.

“Let’s all head down to the room that the iron would go in,” the King said. He glanced over at Reiss once and she fell in behind as Alistair led the two women across the palace in near total silence until they walked up to the meeting room that was the sight of the attack. Someone took the time to put a sawhorse in the way and marked in yellow paint “Crime Scene Under Guards.” Judging by the door left wide open, people seemed to be crawling over top the sawhorse to get in there and clean up the mess.

Someone removed the arrow, leaving only a notch in the table a good half an inch deep. Reiss reached out to run her finger against it, then glanced back at the shut tight window. Stepping in, Harding waited until the King closed the door. She yanked off her hat, seeming to hate the thing, and spoke, “I’m guessing this is where the latest assassins tried to get you.”

“Yes, and please, please, PLEASE tell me you have something,” Alistair clasped his hands together and begged the dwarf. Reiss didn’t see Harding much during her soldier days. On occasion the scout of the Inquisition would stop by established camps to refuel before being sent to another far flung section of thedas. For being the hard nosed scrabbler routing through underbrush to snipe enemies the woman seemed affable and rather kind.

She turned her own fresh face upon the King and stared up at him. “I don’t know yet, but...there might be something. You mentioned in your raven letter that Ghaleb was here during the meeting. Can you tell me where he sat?”

“Uh...” Alistair gestured around the entire table. Despite someone cleaning up the arrows and spilled drink, they oddly left the chairs all where they fell.

“Here,” Reiss spoke up, pointing at the chair she remembered vividly in her mind, “the Spymaster sat here.”

“Right, he was across from Cherie,” the King said.

“Not precisely, she was one to the right, slightly nearer your seat. Ser,” Reiss tacked on before dropping her eyes down.

It wasn’t the King that stared through her but Harding. “I’m guessing you were in the room when it happened.”

“Aye,” Reiss nodded, but it was the King who spoke up.

“In the room? Andraste’s sake, she took two arrows to her shield, then ran the bastard down on foot.”

The ex-scout’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed up and more up the elf trying to not self consciously rub the back of her neck. “If you caught the assassin then...?”

“Dead,” Reiss interrupted before the King could. “My fault. I was thrown off by him during the fight and the Commander had to neutralize him before I was injured or killed.”

Every sound in the castle died from her words, as if thedas itself held a breath to let Reiss’ failure ring clear across the world. Harding took a beat, then turned fully to the King, “This Commander would be...?”

“Cade, leader of the royal guards. Oh right, you probably haven’t met him. Big, beefy, I call him Roasty behind his back,” Alistair admitted. It was such an off the cuff remark, Reiss felt a giggle escape even through her hang dog face. That drew the King’s eyes to her and Reiss could feel him staring at her face. Normally when she sensed the shemlan glare it drew up the hairs on the back of her neck, but the King’s only caused the contents of her stomach to flip around.

Harding, having no time for the bodyguard attempting to punish herself or the King trying to make her feel better, paced towards the window. She gently pushed on the glass then looked up at the mechanism. “So, you say the assassin fired three bolts through this window. Two of which the bodyguard caught on her shield, and the last that missed it and jammed into the table.”

“That’d be the long and short of it,” Alistair said, then he winced at saying short to a dwarf.

Harding waved it all off, “The locking mechanism on this window, can either of you tall people reach the latch?”

While Reiss didn’t even bother to try, the King slid next to the window and scurried up on his tiptoes. With an arm straining out of its socket, he pawed at thin air missing the latch by a good foot.

“A difficult to open window was left wide open on the day that arrows happened to slice through to kill a King,” Harding reported to herself.

“You think someone did that deliberately?” Alistair turned on her.

Both women shrugged and gave an identical, “Of course.” It wasn’t until Harding whipped her head over that Reiss thought to blush. She hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “What did you see, bodyguard?”

“Reiss,” the King said.

“Who happened to be standing in just the right spot to catch two arrows with her shield drawn,” Harding continued. That amiable nature split in twain revealing a revenant lurking below those freckles. Reiss knew in her marrow that if she wasn’t careful that dwarf could destroy her without trying.

“Well,” Reiss shook her head and glared at the floor. If she closed her eyes tight she could see it again. “I stood here,” she paced back to the chair behind the Orlesian ambassador. “While the Arl of the Alienage was in an argument with...” Reiss tipped her head, struggling to bring back the voice, “Perrin. When I glanced out through the window and found it curious that someone left it open.”

“Why?” Harding asked.

“Because,” Reiss’ eyes opened and she stared down at the dwarf, “it was raining that day.”

“That’s right, it was raining,” Alistair snapped his fingers.

“You do realize this all happened yesterday,” Harding cut back at the King.

“Funny how nearly dying again tends to knock about someone’s memory,” He grumbled to himself, folding his arms.

The dwarf shook her head and sighed, probably muttering about how she missed the professionalism of the heretical Inquisition, before turning to Reiss. “And that was what drew you to pull out your shield? The fact a window was open.”

“I reacted,” Reiss admitted, “if there’d been nothing I’d have looked a fool but no one would have been hurt. If I hadn’t then...” She scrunched up her nose, something tickling in her brain. It wasn’t quite right.

“You say reacted as if it’s a bad thing. Soldier?” Harding asked, not about to let anything past her.

Reiss had been trained, honed to an edge by some of the best but sometimes her brain broke through the programming. Like in the arbor wilds. She shouldn’t have pursued that red templar, her orders were to guard the stream upriver. In that state, when she gave into her baser instincts, her senses seemed to heighten, giving her the foresight to protect the Grand Enchanter and also the King. It saved her and sometimes also nearly damned her, a fact that Reiss tried to keep hidden away. Trained to overcome instinct and rely upon orders, ignore pain for the job, that was also true of assassins. Proper ones, the expensive kind sent after Kings were taught the same. They weren’t orphans plucked off streets, given knives, and pointed in the right direction. They took their time when it came to the shot.

Shouldering past Harding, Reiss yanked off her shield and held it in the same position she had yesterday. “Scout, I mean...”

“Don’t worry. Most people call me Scout Harding. Even my aunt’s started. What are you thinking?” she asked, stepping closer to the elf.

Reiss’ eyes darted off the two holes in her shield she needed to repair back to the King. “Sit in the chair,” she ordered, indicating the head of the table.

“Okay,” he shrugged, not blanching at the elf giving commands as he slid into it. “Now what?”

With her fingers, Reiss dug into the angle of the first arrow, then the second. Dropping her shield away, she trailed both down to where they were aimed for. The first would have shattered into the floor and the second nicked against the King’s side into the table. “None of the arrows would have killed you,” Reiss gasped.

“Well,” Alistair chuckled, “it makes me feel better to know my assassins are shit at aiming.”

Reiss shook her head, willing him to see what her mind pieced together, “No, that tower is near, far closer than a shot most hunters take in the woods. No foliage in the way. The wind was low. If these are trained assassins...”

“Then all of the shots should have been aiming right for the King,” Harding said, leaping onto Reiss’ idea.

“Center of mass first, then head,” Reiss said, “only proper way to do it.” She gently plucked her finger into the back of Alistair’s skull before trying to follow the line of sight back to the tower.

“If you’re going to make me lay down on the ground and pretend I’m dead, I better get some fake blood to use,” the King said. Reiss felt a second of guilt from the way she was playing with the man’s life, when he turned in his chair and smiled up at her.

“So,” Harding peered out the window at the tower window, then turned back to Reiss, “two options before us. Either we’re for certain not dealing with the House of Repose, or Crows, or anyone professional.”

“Or,” Reiss circled at the arrow hole in the table and tried to follow it back, this one on an even more erratic path than the two warning shots, “they were all supposed to miss.” The elf and dwarf shared a look, both their eyes widening as the bare facts ran before them.

“Wait, wait,” the King stumbled to his feet causing the chair to tip back. “Who sends assassins with orders to miss? Why not just tell them to stay at home, have a nice cup of cocoa, and take a nap? Seems a better way to spend your time.”

“It...” Reiss felt the spark of an idea burning in the back of her mind but as she chased after its tail it fizzled out. “It is possible that this assassin missed.”

“The King could have shifted in his seat, or the assassin anticipated a change that didn’t come,” Harding agreed. “Regardless, first thing I’m looking into is whoever opened that window. What’s your Spymaster up to?”

“Void if I know,” Alistair confessed. “He seemed spooked by the last one, babbling more than usual and rushing back to his tower.”

“You still suspect him?” Harding asked.

“I think the people I don’t suspect right now are you two and Cailan because he can’t lift his head on his own,” Alistair grumbled into his hands.

“What about your daughter?” Reiss asked. She felt an urge to run her hands over his shoulders to comfort him but, Maker’s sake, that was wildly inappropriate.

The King shrugged, “If I told her she couldn’t have a cupcake for dinner, she’d hire a good ten mercenaries to cut me down. Toddler vengeance is not one that is crossed lightly.” He peered up from his hands, a hint of a smile coating the lips but sadness haunted through his eyes. The man seemed exhausted and broken by the needs of everyone hanging off him while death lurked through the corridors. “Harding, keep on Ghaleb and the Baronet just in case. If it’s not the Crows we’ll, I don’t know, hold an archery contest for every assassin in Ferelden and shoot them all when they register.”

Harding snatched up her hat and pinned it back in place. “I’ll get right on it.” She stepped towards the door and yanked it back. Sliding under the sawhorse, Harding turned back to say, “And Sire.”

“Yeah?”

“You look like you could use a nap.”

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