Guarded Love

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Chapter 17: Backroom

That piquant blend of the cheapest mead short of someone rebottling piss, overlaid with top notes of cheese dropped onto a hot griddle overpowered the air. His bodyguard seemed to be drooping at it, but Alistair smiled wider as he approached the backroom of all backrooms. Past the kitchens, beyond the scrap station where they gathered leftovers to be scattered to their handful of livestock, rested what most of the month was the secondary larder, but for one glorious night was his freedom.

“Okay,” Alistair banged his hands together to try and warm them before turning back to Reiss, “there are a few rules about entering here.”

He watched her thin eyebrow arch, giving the elf a stern Mother possessing a ruler look. “Do not tell me, the first rule is we do not talk about this place.”

“Well, you can, but I rather doubt anyone else in the castle will much care.” Alistair watched the fire flicker below the door and heard a few voices cry out in joy. He didn’t want to seem too antsy to escape inside, but politic matters had already caused him to miss the first hour. For her part, Reiss seemed uneasy about the idea. “No one stands on ceremony in there. Everyone leaves their business at the door and we’re only going in to have fun.”

“All right,” she drug the words out, both eyebrows now folding in the middle.

“So, you can stay out here in the cold with the smell of pig shit in the air as the bodyguard, or head inside as Reiss. It’s up to you,” he smiled wide parting his hands. In his heart, he prayed she’d say yes if only to have a few minutes where they weren’t standing on such unleveled ground.

“I...” her eyes shot open wide as a few male voices shouted in jubilation, before sighing, “I shall join you, your Majesty.”

“Alistair,” he said, waving a finger in front of her face.

She screwed her eyes up and shook her head, “You. I can deal with you.”

“Good enough,” Alistair grabbed onto the kerchief dangling out of the hole that used to hold a knob and yanked the wooden door open. “Please, after you.”

Reiss eyed him up a minute before stepping inside. They’d overdone themselves this time, the usual table that was covered in farm bric-a-brac was cleared to leave space for a platter overflowing in cheese and shaved sections of meat. Okay, someone left the gelder in the middle but that was pretty much their inside joke now. Two men sat in a glaring death match, their hands clasped together while waiting for the first to blink. Karelle leaned closer to them, a handkerchief waving as she watched, when Philipe’s eyes suddenly wandered to the side and scrunched up.

“Aye!” Karelle shouted, “Ghaleb has it.”

The Spymaster smiled and released his hold on the kitchen boy before picking up his mug and taking a long sip. “Maker’s ballsack,” Philipe whined while rubbing across his face, “it’s like staring into the sun agains’ him.”

Reiss stood rooted to the spot, seeming to be in total shock at what lay before her. Trying to not laugh, Alistair leaned closer and whispered, “So, what horrors were you expecting.”

“Honestly? Goats in skirts, really frilly ones. And someone eating fish off a naked woman.”

That caught Alistair and he gasped out, “Fish?”

Those endless summer eyes rolled back to him and she shrugged, “I’ve seen it before, though I do my best to forget.”

Swallowing down a frog rising in his throat, Alistair called out, “Hey gang, we’ve got a new addition to the crew. This is Reiss, some of you know her. Karelle, of course.”

“No shit,” Karelle cursed, letting her normally sort of polite self trail free in the room.

“Ghaleb and Philipe,” Alistair continued, not even blinking at Karelle’s outburst.

“Seeing he still ain’t run you off yet. That’s got to net me a few coppers,” Philipe cooed to Reiss who remained rooted on the spot. Alistair gently nudged into her shoulder and sliding forward, she tugged out a chair beside Ghaleb.

The Spymaster tucked his three decks of cards closer to give her room, and then reached for a plate. “Duck, only the sharp cheeses, and a raspberry jam?” he asked her, indicating the piles of food.

“How did you...?” Reiss glanced around in surprise, “Ah, yes please.”

While Ghaleb loaded down her plate, Alistair grabbed up his own and began his assault upon a tower of cheese that wasn’t likely to last the night. Philipe caught him and shouted out, “Oi! Leave a bit for the rest of us. Some of us are starving away here, right Karelle.”

“Shove it up your scrawny ass, Philipe,” Karelle bit back with, a wisp of a smile curling her lips. Philipe cracked up at that, pounding the table to emphasize how hilarious it was.

Loaded down, Alistair fell into his seat beside Karelle. Funny enough there was an empty one across from him. “We expecting someone else tonight?” It was a rotating crew from across all strata of the palace. On occasion a noble or two would try to join in, on the assumption this was some special back dealing place to get on the King’s good side, but if you couldn’t deal with a piss boy calling you on your shit, you were kicked out. Teagan came a few times, but he started to complain about heartburn keeping him up all night and began to demure.

“Don’t tell me Sister Amay’s back in town,” Alistair continued, popping cheese into his mouth and chewing less than thoughtfully.

“Nah, she’s off converting heathens in Highever,” Philipe answered.

“What heathens exist in Highever?” Ghaleb asked. His thin fingers broke apart the three decks and began to ruffle them into one.

“The ones someone cleverly told the Sister about so she’d leave for a few months and allow our dear Philipe to win all his money back,” Karelle smirked.

“Cor, ain’t just me she swindled. She took Alistair for near on all his bits.”

Alistair coughed and shifted in his seat, “Not quite all of them, thankfully.”

“Good,” a new voice smiled from the door. Lifting his head, Alistair caught that brash, bronzed smile of the Admiral of the Siren’s Echo. Isabela knocked back her lush crimson pirate hat with a flick and smirked, “Because I was hoping I could put ’em to good use later.”

“Well well, look at what the tide pulled in.” Alistair rose from his seat and caught Isabela’s salty hand, “I didn’t think you were gonna make it until summer.”

“Things change,” she shrugged and her eyes slowly drifted over the Reiss. “Who’s this new lovely one added to our table?”

“Reiss,” she said, sticking her hand out to the pirate and no doubt gripping tight.

While Isabela gave her the once over that’d make Alistair blush bright, he said, “She’s my bodyguard.”

That drew the sly look right to him, “She’s in charge of guarding you? Pretty thing, you have my utmost condolences.”

Reiss’ cheeks lit up from the compliment but she shook it off, “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

“So,” Isabela slapped her hands together, stretched one leg over the chair and dropped straight into it. It was such an impressive move even Philipe whistled under his breath. “Let’s play some cards.”

The first few hands were child’s play, well, not literally. Anytime he played cards with Spud they wound up propping each one up on pillows to get them to sleep, tried to feed them ashes from the fireplace, and then gave them all baths after getting dirty. But Isabela went easy on her cheating, Karelle was barely paying attention, and Ghaleb was more focused on some Duke in Orlais that decided to start up a wyvern farm. Apparently it wasn’t going well for the Duke.

“...Despite losing three shepherds to poison, and having one of them climb the walls to escape, he still believes he can make it work,” Ghaleb finished before tossing a two of cups into the pile.

“Wall? What wall?” Karelle pushed.

“The ten foot tall ones ringing the castle he tried to confine them in.”

“Shite and more shite,” Philipe gasped before pouring a shot of what had to be turpentine down his throat. Even being near it caused Alistair’s eyes to water. “That’s bonkers, eh? Complete and utter donkey licking madness. At what point do you say ‘Hey, maybe this ain’t such a good idea?’”

“As he is Orlesian, I suspect it will take until one of the pet wyverns accidentally digests the Duchess’ shoe. Pride can only be shattered by crimes against fashion,” Ghaleb pronounced with such a dramatic flare everyone in the table burst into laughter. He blinked a moment, the eyes watching before joining in.

“Oh, Orlesians,” Isabela sighed, rubbing her eyes of the salt still clinging to them. “What about you, sweetheart?”

“What? Me?” Reiss pointed at herself. She’d been quiet, letting the old friends catch up and fall into their usual patterns. Isabela seemed to make it a point to draw her out of her armored shell.

“What are your thoughts on Orlesians?”

“Well, uh, I only dealt with them on occasion in the Inquisition.”

“You were with the Inquisition?” Isabela’s eyebrows shot up and she turned a calculating stare over at Alistair. “Interesting. Any chance you were intimately involved with Comman--”

“No, no,” Alistair waved a hand, cutting off Isabela’s line of treachery which also drew the curious stare of everyone at the table who knew nothing of their adventures together. The pirate gave him a cocky look and he smiled, “Izzy, it’s your draw.”

She scowled at the nickname, angrily shuffling the cards in her hands before returning to her newest toy, “So, sweetheart, what’s your type?”

“Type of what?” Reiss seemed to be panicking from the attention of Isabela as if she was held under an interrogation lamp. Alistair wanted to call her off, but he knew that would only incite the pirate more.

“Here,” Isabela slapped a ten of swords down and turned fully to the elf. “What makes your gaatlock explode? Rotates your windmill? Tickles your taint?”

Reiss watched the pirate a moment, while Alistair watched her. He shouldn’t do it he knew, but there was this moment when she’d slip from quietly observing to bitingly witty that was fascinating to see. It was as if she lit up from the inside as she assessed a situation in seconds while everyone else fumbled around. He’d caught it while with Harding and tried to not stare too agape as the two of them puzzled things out together.

“I see,” Reiss opened her mouth and for a moment her eyes flickered up to Alistair’s. It caused a chain reaction and his lips lifted in one of ten of his goofiest smiles, nearly causing an awe shucks to dribble from his mouth. The elf turned away, her hand absently fanning her face as she spoke with a shrug, “Um, good?”

Isabela laughed at that, “We all want them to be good in bed, otherwise what’s the point? Or on the table, in the pew, standing astride the prow while facing down a storm of...” Her eyes stared through the horizon before she woke herself back up, “Details. That’s the fun part. Mixing all those weird edges of ours together and for a brief moment enjoying the way they fit, or really loving the way they don’t.”

“Oh, that, well I...” she gurgled into an incoherent babble and pointed at the table.

“Let me take a guess,” Philipe spoke up before holding both of his fingers over his eyes like a blindfold, “Tall, dark, and a handsome man who works in the kitchens?”

Karelle nudged him in the ribs and sat up, “Don’t go giving the girl a fright like that. She’s clearly gotta have a thing for elfy types, they all do. Lanky, and lean, and skinny, and what not.”

Alistair swallowed and tugged on the constricting collar of his tunic which drew every eye to him. “Oh no, I’m staying out of this. I barely know what I’m attracted to most days,” he folded into himself and found his hands endlessly fascinating to watch.

“You’re easy,” Isabela jabbed a finger at him. “Short, dark,” she nodded at Philipe with that one, “and capable of saving the world.”

“Yeah,” he nodded his head, feeling like honey dribbled out of the wound from her dagger striking through his heart. That wound was eternal no matter how much time crawled on, but it wasn’t always painful either. “Which is so easy to find.” Alistair felt himself drifting lower into his navel. He’d tried being with women before; Lanny, others after her, Lanny again -- which was an even bigger mistake -- and they all ended badly. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for it, for any of that romance stuff. Cuddling with someone in bed while reading random lines out of books to make a new story. Holding her hand before leaping off a cliff into a lake. Aching to kiss only those lips. To feel her laugh up through his arms while holding her. Everyone else seemed capable of it, but like all things in life, Alistair was the eternal screw up.

Clapping his hands to try and lift the clouds that settled across the group, the King threw on his biggest smile. “Right, that’s enough going easy on the new girl. Let’s get this real party started.”

“I hope you’ve got the coin to back up that mouth,” Isabela smirked, her grin shaking off the last of the awkwardness. Everyone else moved to cash in their cards, passing them to the Spymaster to shuffle.

Ghaleb accepted them all, his head hanging down, but under his breath he muttered, “Shoulders broad enough to hold the world and a heart willing to try.”

Isabela was on point, she did have her little fleet to finance after all, but Alistair knew how to counter most of her moves. It didn’t take long before Philipe bowed out as well as Karelle who was never in for the gambling. Alistair found his eyes darting over to the bodyguard who kept sneering at her cards. As the night wore on her hair started to creep out of its bun, a small tendril constantly flopping in her face. When she plucked up a card, and gave a quick breath to knock it up and out of the way, he had to bury his face into his hand to hide the smile. For a moment, he caught Isabela’s always curious glance eyeing him up. She gestured at Reiss, who mercifully wasn’t paying attention, at him, and then...proceeded to make a rude gesture which earned her a growl. Of course Isabela laughed at it, even more certain in her guess.

“Right, I’m done,” Reiss folded her hand up tight and dropped them with a thud against the table. Tucking back her hair behind her ears she absently snatched up a hunk of bread and chewed it apart.

“Do you know the real trick to this game?” Isabela asked. She rarely looked down at her hand, finding it far more fun to watch everyone else stew over theirs.

“Having another deck stashed up your sleeve?” Reiss mumbled to herself before pausing. Panic crawled up her face as the table fell deathly silent, each eye turning first to the pirate queen and back to the bodyguard struggling to swallow.

Isabela folded up her cards and with care pulled a stack of cards out of her leather gauntlet wrapped across her bicep. Shrugging, she tossed it onto the table and resumed play, “If you’re going to cheat, might as well go big. You know, it’s funny you noticed that. I remember the last person to catch that deck of cards on me.” Her smile turned from the bodyguard to Alistair whose brain took a few more seconds to follow along and he felt himself melting into a puddle.

“That was...” he screwed up his eyes and fought down the urge to run out of the room, “she’s talking about the Hero.” He felt like he needed to explain without going into any details for fear of all the details Isabela would go into.

“You met her?” Reiss asked so sweetly innocent Alistair wanted to tackle her from across the room to try and rescue her.

“Mm,” Isabela exchanged one of her legal cards for another, “you could phrase it like that. She has a lovely birthmark, very memorable.”

Reiss shook her head, “The one on her neck in all the paintings?”

“Yes, that one’s good too. Are you in or not, Ali?”

Alistair shuffled up and tried to mop away the sweat beading across his forehead. This room was not always so hot, he was fairly certain. There was probably someone he should talk to about lowering the fire levels. Ignoring the glances from the rest of the party, he picked another card and tried to shake off the groan. “What about you, Ghaleb?”

“My contributions would be trite. I shall refrain from playing.”

“What?” Isabela turned on the Spymaster.

“That means he’s out. Looks like it’s just you and me,” Alistair smiled wide, trying to put his teeth to good use.

Isabela remained unimpressed. She plucked a grape off the stack and dropped it into her mouth before spitting the seed into a slop bucket behind Alistair’s head. “First time for everything, I suppose. So, how about we make it interesting?”

“Interesting?” He’d expected this from her, the pirate always trying to goad people into giving up things they wanted. Normally, Alistair didn’t have much to ask for but he’d been thinking of something really good. “All right. You know, I bet that hat of yours would look nice on me.”

Her fingers ran along the brim that he swore got bigger since he last saw her. “You’d ruin this beauty with your misshapen head,” Isabela frowned.

“Is the Pirate Queen scared?” Alistair leaned forward, both elbows digging into the table.

A cocky smile replaced her worry, and she jerked her head, “Not for a moment. You know what I want.”

“Yeah, yeah, what you always do, so...let’s do this.”

The cards flew furiously across the table, many tells exchanged, most of them blisteringly obvious. At one point Isabela snatched up a card then howled at the sky. Of course Alistair had to one up her by grabbing a small knife and ceremoniously knighting the card. He checked with Karelle to make certain it was legal and then kept Ser Card in his front pocket the whole night. But even as their antics delighted the people slowly crawling into their mugs at the table, both combatants could taste the blood in the air. The end was drawing nigh as the last of the coin, the buttons, and what crackers they could steal before Philipe whined piled up on the table.

Alistair glared over his cards, all three of them ready to attack, “You ready to fork over that hat?”

She ran her finger up and down the brim as if caressing it before thumbing her nose at him and sticking out her tongue. “Not on your bloody life. You won’t stand a chance, little King.”

“Okay,” he couldn’t bury the smile widening upon his jaw. Isabela kept her face neutral but he knew that snake grin in her eyes. She was certain she’d won. “On the count of one, two...”

“Will someone throw down their cards!” Reiss shouted from the sidelines, then she eeped and tossed a hand over her mouth.

“As you say, pretty one,” Isabella cooed before tossing her no doubt winning hand upon the table. She moved to scoop up the pile and flashed a wicked smile at him.

“I hate to break it to the hustler in our midst, but...” Alistair dropped his cards and Isabela’s jaw hit the table, “she just got took. Hat please.”

Snatching up his cards, Isabela glared through them, her face shifting in an internal rage, “You cheated!”

“So did you,” he chuckled. “I still beat you unfair and wobbly shaped. Doesn’t change the outcome. Hat.”

Growling, Isabela slammed the cards back onto the table and then slapped them a few more times for good measure. She ignored his waiting hand and downed her drink before yanking a flask out of her corset and unscrewing that.

“Grumble all you want, but I’m not moving until you drop that on my head,” Alistair smirked pointing at her pirate hat.

Her fingers drummed up and down on the table, a stormy sea ransacking her brow as she glared death through the wall, when it all passed in an instant. Isabela smiled wide, finished off her flask, then spun around to fully face Alistair. “Fine,” her fingers didn’t dart up to her head but down across her chest. What in thedas was she doing?

Working with a lightning fast dexterity Alistair would kill for, Isabela unlaced her corset and, completely topless, hurled it across the table at him. Sweet Maker. He knew his cheeks lit up bright red as his eyes tried to find the ceiling utterly fascinating with its cobwebs and missing slats. Unmoored by her own unclothing, Isabela positioned her hat tighter to her head and said to the melting King, “Wear that, oh Majesty.” Turning on her heel, she marched breasts swinging out the door.

“Well that was something,” Karelle quipped first.

“For Andraste’s sake,” Alistair groaned as he picked up the warm, white leather. “Will someone go flag her down and return this before she causes massive heart attacks in the guards?”

“I’m on it,” Philipe reached over to tug it from his hands, but the King held it tight.

“Someone else,” he said.

“Aye, I’ll stop her,” Karelle rose to her staggering height and barreled past into the night to try and stop a naked pirate wandering his castle. That could be the summation of Alistair’s reign right there: it was all naked pirates and piss-poor assassins. A laugh grew in his throat and he leaned back in his chair, trying to scrub his face clean when he heard a similar one echoing from his bodyguard. He drew his hand away from an eye and caught her shaking her head as she smiled brightly, the last of that armor falling to bits.

After a time Isabela returned dressed and baring a fresh bottle she unearthed from Maker only knew where. Her only approach to drawing attention to her leaving was by knocking back her hat and smiling wildly.

“The hour draws nigh,” Ghaleb spoke.

“Aye, and it’s gettin’ late too,” Philipe answered for him, getting a slow sigh from the Spymaster.

Isabela slammed the bottle of rum on the table and jeered, “Are you a bunch of chantry sisters or what? We’ve got drink, enough light for a few hours, and I need to win back all that coin your nobby ass swiped from me.”

She finished the last part at Alistair who parted his hands in humble triumph before patting the pot. “I suppose it’s only fair.”

Flopping into her seat, Isabela hooked her boot up on the table and yanked out a dagger. Everyone held a breath watching the pirate as she slowly drew the back of the knife up and down her leg trapped below the leather. “Damn thing gets itchy. Okay, let’s do this. Who else is in?”

“Karelle? Ghaleb?” Alistair asked, earning a shake of their head for each.

“I’m in,” Reiss answered. She tucked her plate to the side and drew closer to the table. “But what if we switch to something other than Diamondback?”

Alistair smiled at her enthusiasm, while Isabela was drawn to her, “Whatcha got in mind, sweetie?”

After five hands the pirate queen was clearly upset but the rum smothered most of her anger into general cheekiness. Philipe sat perched upon her lap after the pirate “bought” him from himself, Isabela jiggling the poor man up and down as she reached for a drink. When Reiss threw out her last card, sealing the game, the pirate blew agitated bubbles into the glass and slammed it down hard enough yellow mead cut with rum and cherry jam slopped over the edge.

“We’ve got ourselves a ringer here. I’ve never seen anyone that good at pitch.”

Reiss shrugged as she reached over to gather up her small pittance and add it to the pot she’d been slowly accumulating. “I never did Wicked Grace or Diamondback much, but this was all we played in the camp.”

“Camp? Oh, did you attend Lady Everly’s Camp for Wayward Girls and Others Who Like to Climb Trees?” Karelle asked, rising out of her mostly drunken stupor. She kept up a small game of flipping a biscuit back and forth with Ghaleb while also enjoying the gossip around the card table.

“Ah,” Reiss didn’t blush, but she turtled down into her neck while blinking rapidly in the light. “Not precisely that, no, it...”

Stretching his arms wide, Alistair interrupted her with a massive yawn. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m done. Be a true miracle if I can make it up the stairs to my bed.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s slept down here,” Karelle laughed before pointing a finger at Ghaleb who’d curled up on the extra chairs beside the door. He seemed as innocent as Spud when his daughter would collapse on the rug in front of his hearth, her special blanket draped over her. And there was still a good chance that baby face was plotting to kill him. Alistair wanted to ignore all that, it was the point of the room -- yanking off the crown, burying it in the dirt for a few hours, and being himself.

Trying to not groan at himself, he stumbled to his feet and dug into his shoulders. “Maker’s breath, when did this knot up?”

“Getting old sucks,” Isabela responded. She shooed Philipe off her knee, the youngest of them all, before staggering to her own legs. Cracking her neck with an expert snap, she shrugged, “At least that’s what all your old asses keep telling me.”

Alistair watched Reiss gather up her winnings in a small purse with a golden cord. That had to be a story. He knew so little about her,, it was silly. Shaking away the hazy dust, Alistair staggered off to the door.

“If’n you’re feeling bad we could always get that newest mageling to fix you up a treat,” Philipe chuckled from his perch on the table.

That drew Isabela’s attention instantly, “There’s a new arcane advisor in the palace? I’m not too late to enter into the pool yet, am I?” She ended that question at Alistair who tried to slide away from it all.

“Nah,” Philipe answered for the man at the center of this demoralizing group activity. “Near everybody’s already gone in though. Let me get my book to check the dates available.” He ran a finger across the thing while Alistair fought down the urge to chuck it into the fire. “Yup, damn near everyone.”

“Except I assume the mage and royal ass in question,” Isabela chortled before taking the book out of his hands to look for herself.

“Aye, oh, and the new bodyguard,” Philipe said offhandedly, gesturing at Reiss.

Her coin scooping stumbled, sending a few of the coppers rolling out the door and towards the kitchens. “I, uh...should probably get that.” Without looking up, she chased after her lost coins while Alistair followed her. He managed to find a single one while Reiss scooped up the rest. When she rose to her feet, her entire face was cherry red all save the nose which stayed ice white.

“Here, I think this was the last one,” Alistair said, dropping it into her hand.

“Thank you, I...” she scooped it into the purse and clipped it to her belt. A woman who saved every copper she could find was one that knew what it was to go without. So many others tried to impress him by often tossing one away, sometimes silvers or even a sovereign which often led to the King turning the carriage around to pick the damn thing up.

Struggling down a giggle, Reiss smushed back her free hair behind her ears. He felt an urge to run his hand against those broiling cheeks, but kept both pinned tight behind his back. “I’m glad you decided to come in as yourself,” Alistair smiled, waffling back and forth on his feet. “It takes some getting used to, but you’re welcome to come whenever you like. They hold it about once a week, we each take turns gathering food and setting up.”

“Even you?” she gasped.

“I’d be a pretty terrible leader if I made someone else wipe off chairs and hide away all the piss buckets.” He felt silly saying it aware what a fool it would make him in the eyes of the bannorn, Arls, and Teryns, but she smiled and her summery field eyes wafted over him. Maker’s sake, why was it hot in here too? There wasn’t even a hearth blazing away.

“It was fun,” Reiss said. “I haven’t done this since the Inquisition.”

“You’re welcome any time, even if I’m drowning in meetings. Just ask Philipe because the man knows damn near everything,” Alistair sighed, turning back to the kitchen boy who seemed to be secretly running things from the larder. Reiss smiled up at him, her thoughts hidden behind a mask he couldn’t pierce. Nodding once at him, she stepped over to Philipe when Isabela snaked her arm around Alistair and turned him towards her.

“So,” she jerked her head at Reiss, “that’s a pretty one to have watching your ass all day.”

“Is she? I’m too busy trying to find my own ass to notice,” Alistair cut back with. He’d been preparing the quip for a few weeks but no one had yet to say anything to him. It almost seemed wasted on Isabela who stampeded right over it.

“Right, and the way your eyes were trying to peel every layer of that tacky armor off her were what? An employee evaluation?”

He felt the blush starting that always happened because of Isabela. It was so specific he felt it should appear on his cheeks in a pirate ship pattern, but Alistair had his own ammo to turn back on her. “You’re just mad because you lost.”

“There’s nothing you nor any other King, Queen, Empress, or whatever the void they have in the Free Marches can do to get this hat off my head.” She leaned closer to him to whisper, “It stays on for everything.” Isabela finished it up with her sly smile and her eyes traveling up and down his body.

“Right, don’t need to know the specifics. Oh, wait, while I have you,” that earned a snort from the pirate clinging to his arm, “metaphorically speaking, I assume you’re in town because you have a new shipment. How many?”

“Twelve,” she said.

“Maker’s sake, twelve? The Alienage is already full to bursting. How am I going to hide twelve more ex-slaves in there without the Arls noticing?” He meant to whisper but the panic in his voice strained it to a higher, more grating pitch.

“Here I’d think your greater concern would be the Tevinter Ambassador,” Isabela whispered.

“That man refuses to learn our language and during any meetings will lecture me in Tevene for twenty minutes before returning to his dragon roost. If he’s aware, he couldn’t give a nuggalope shit at the top of the Frostbacks.” Shaking his head, Alistair pinched the top of his nose already mentally preparing himself for the work. “No, it’s Shiani who’s gonna have my ass nailed to a post for this.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you have a bodyguard now. She can stand outside and watch it all day for you,” Isabela smiled before jabbing her elbow into him. “Tomorrow at noon, be there with a translator because most of them only jabber in that blood mage stuff.” Without waiting for Alistair to respond, the pirate returned to the group, no doubt with a mind to plunder Philipe for the night.

This was why Alistair lived for the backroom, once he left it and stepped across its threshold the crown and its ten tonnes of problems all collapsed right back onto his head. He didn’t realize he had his head buried in his hands until a hand lightly touched his elbow.

“Ser?” Reiss asked, her body close to him. He hadn’t noticed how bright pink her lips were, more vibrant than a rose.

Shaking the thought away, Alistair smiled, “Bed is my next plan. Assuming I can make it.”

“I’ll be here to guide you, Ser,” she said, following into line behind him when Reiss began to sway to the left. Instinctively, Alistair reached out to hold her up and she gripped onto his arm.“Sorry, I...”

He laughed, “How about we help each other up to bed. I think if we try it together we just might make it.”

“Or we’ll collapse in the staircase and have to live inside the walls haunting people throughout the castle,” Reiss answered as she leaned onto the King. Together they moved like poor participants in a three legged race towards the door.

“I’m really glad you came out,” he smiled, turning his head to gaze over at her.

Her eyelids drooped, the woman looking about to pass out on her feet but she wasn’t going to give up for anything. Absently, she reached over to drape her arm across Alistair’s back to keep her steady. When her hand squeezed into his shoulder she smiled, “Me too.”

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