Guarded Love

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Chapter 18: Love's Treason

Reiss propped up the wall outside a closed door. She’d struggled to rise from the drunken stupor of her own making the night after that strange card game, while the King... A smile flirted with her lips at the memory of the man, his hair plastered straight up like a scared cat and every blanket upon his bed tossed over his body. He looked more like a beggar coming out of the cold wind and less the leader of a nation. With a gunk coated tongue he whisper/begged for someone to bring him the saltiest thing in the kitchens covered in bacon and then fried before sliding back to bed. When Reiss heard a thump, she panicked but found him crumpled on the floor insisting he was fine but in no shape to move either vertical or horizontal.

That was over a week ago, and while they had the Spymaster searching for the assassins on one side and Harding on the other, little changed in their day to day. One thing had, Commander Cade insisted in no arguing terms that his Highness remain ensconced behind palace walls. After acting shocked that Cade knew the word ensconced, Alistair pointed out that the last attack technically occurred when he was at the palace so it might be best if he snatched up a tent and camped somewhere in the Winding Wood. She took it as a joke, but as the days wore on the King seemed restless. He kept his harmless smile on even while snapping his fingers relentlessly and often leaping up in the middle of meetings to jog around the room. On more than one occasion, Reiss found the man she was supposed to keep safe scaling to the ceiling to see if he could ‘walk across the beams.’

If the man didn’t get out of the castle soon he was liable to either lose his mind or break his neck, both of which would spell a disaster for the lone bodyguard. At least she knew he was safe now.

A giggle followed by a girlish shriek echoed from behind the closed door, and she sighed. Mostly safe.

With harried feet, one of the messengers that flitted through the palace like butterflies skittered across the hall. He ran to the end, paused, then turned to look back at the elf leaning against the wall. “Ser Reiss?” he asked, slowly skirting towards her like she was a wild animal.

“Yes.”

“I have a message for his Highness.”

Reiss glanced to the door to her left when another round of giggles escaped below the gap, “He gave the order to not be disturbed under any circumstances during his private conference.”

“Oh?” the messenger scrunched up his picked clean face before a pair of white blue eyes flew open in panic. “Oh! I, normally I wouldn’t wish to impede anything of a, uh, private moment with someone but, I was told this is vital.”

“Very well,” Reiss unfolded her arms. Far be it for her to interfere with some nob getting his nose stuck in a cream pie or whatever required the King’s attention. She knocked once on the door, but it was unlikely to be heard over the sounds of fun behind it, before lifting the latch and stepping inside.

“Sire,” the messenger shoved past her and froze in his boots.

Unaware of his audience, the King stood back straight while lifting a book higher to speak in a high pitched voice, “Lord Copperbottom commands all his subjects to bathe in chocolate sauce until he is happy. What’s this? Prince FiddleFaddle refuses to comply. I shall have to...”

His recitation of the story paused as the man turned to catch sight of the terrified messenger and Reiss’ bemused smile. The princess sat on a small table no doubt carved just for her, a stuffed frog in her lap as she tried to get it to eat a piece of bread. It wasn’t so much the King playing with his daughter that caused the messenger to stumble but what the man was wearing.

While the color of the bodice matched nicely with his own natural yellow undertones, and the skirt frilled out not so far as to ram into anything but enough to accentuate his hips, the dress itself was far too small for his frame. Without the ability to properly cinch it up, the skin of his back was left exposed as the King spun back to his daughter, then to the people standing in the doorway. Though, Reiss had to give him credit, the pearls around his neck were a good choice. A cup someone, most likely the girl trying to yank the book out of his hands, perched upon his head began to slide off.

Darting forward, Reiss caught it before it shattered to the floor and handed it back to the man who bore his potential humiliation with a shrug and smile. “So, I see we have guests for our afternoon tea.”

“No tea!” the princess shouted, then stuck her tongue out and bleched.

“Right, this is Lord Copperbottom’s chocolate custard dance party,” he smiled down at the girl he’d been humoring for the afternoon.

“Sire, I...” the messenger’s eyes darted down the dress straining tight to the King’s body. It was bolder than Reiss felt, as she kept her eyes focused up to the ceiling and over at a window as if to make certain it remained latched. “There is something that requires your attention.”

“Yes, yes, a matter involving sewage, or roads, or roads made out of sewage,” he waved each away with a toss of his royal hand, obviously wishing to remain for a few more minutes in his daughter’s fantasy land.

“Your Majesty,” the messenger began to absently curtsy to him before shaking his head and bowing instead, “I come at the request of Harding.”

That caught the King’s attention instantly. “Good news? Bad?”

“She requires your company immediately, if possible,” the messenger whispered, his eyes darting out from under the scarf/cap combo knotted around his chin.

Alistair dropped his cup and book onto the table and began to tug the dress off over his head. The princess caught on that this meant the end of her fun time as well, “Da-addy?”

“Sorry, mashers,” he answered while buried under enough fabric to smother someone. After wrestling himself free, the King dangled the dress over his arm, smoothed his hair in place, and then tugged the princess towards him.

She wasn’t in the mood for his placating kiss on the forehead and stuffed her arms tight into her armpits. “You promised. To the end!”

“We can’t always keep our word, sometimes...Hey, I know. Brunt!” the King shouted to the silent statue that stood guard with Reiss in the hallway. Ambling slowly into the room, the man ducked down to make it under the door frame and then rose up to his imposing height. Sometimes in his silent shadow Reiss felt like the tiny meadow rabbit about to be mauled by a giant bear. It didn’t help that the man seemed incapable of smiling.

“Yes, Sire?” Brunt grumbled, his voice so deep the spoon in the cup rattled.

“Here,” the King passed the giant bearded man the dress, “you can be Lord Copperbottom for the rest of the story.” It was a testament to the man’s willpower that, as he unrolled the dress and lifted the delicate lady’s clothing up to his massive chest, he didn’t even flinch. Alistair stood shirtless watching with a smile as his daughter leaped off the table to thrust the book at Brunt. With a single paw, the man swept it up and began to rustle through the pages all while he helplessly held onto the dress between two claws.

“Sire,” Reiss kept her eyes focused on a very fascinating stone in the wall as she spoke, “you’re half naked.”

“Oh, right!” he blushed bright. In reaching to fluff up his hair, the movement caught the woman trained to watch for just that. You know you shouldn’t look. Certainly shouldn’t notice that the man kept himself trim but Maker’s sake far too built for sitting on a throne. Pay no attention to the biceps hardening as he tugs up his shirt and laces an arm though. Give no heed to the pecs as he lines up the buttons and begins to latch each one. And for the love of Andraste, do not look at the shoulders.

Hopefully unaware of his bodyguard’s struggles, the King leaned into the messenger, “Where is Harding?”

“I’ll take you to her,” he said. The man kept alternating between the bodyguard who had his arm stuffed up a dress while a little girl scaled his leg, and the King struggling to figure out which button went in which hole.

Giving up instead of mastering dressing, Alistair nodded to the messenger but he spoke to his daughter, “Spud, be good. And you better take a nap after this.”

“Okay, Daddy,” she giggled, having far too much fun to ever contemplate sleeping.

The three swept away towards the door and to find Scout Harding, when Alistair turned back and caught Brunt’s sunken in eyes. “Oh, and please don’t stretch out the dress or the Queen’ll have my hide. Thanks. Have fun you two.”

“Bye!” the princess giggled. She glanced up at the giant frozen in place and instructed, “You wave.”

Awkwardly, the man lifted his arm and gave a slow undulation of his fingers which caused the skirt to flap in the breeze. Alistair, with only a breath of a snicker to his lips, returned the wave before leaving the man to entertain the princess. It wasn’t into one of the dozens of meeting rooms, studies, or other places set aside to hold tables and/or hunting trophies that the messenger led them to, but outside the courtyard and past the barracks. The King trailed close behind him, followed by Reiss with a hand upon her sword. Alistair was trying to keep lighthearted, joking about glitter in his hair, but he had to feel it. The winds shifted and more than rain hung in the air.

“Harding, thank the Maker,” Alistair called to the dwarf standing beside a gated door nibbling on her cuticles. She waved him near and drew back her hood. The normal half smile the dwarf always wore was flat, her face shrouded to hide whatever emotions stewed below. “I feared for a minute that the messenger here was going to take me out behind the last latrine hole and then give me the option of my money or my life.”

The messenger’s eyes flared a moment, spinning on his heels to insist, “Sire, I swear I would never...” when Harding interrupted.

“He’s joking, he does that a lot.”

A rumble echoed through the pregnant clouds drawing all eyes up to it for a moment, but no rain slithered out. It seemed only a matter of time. “So...?” the King banged his hands together and shrugged.

Groaning, Harding yanked on the cell door and stepped over the bar on the bottom, “Follow me. I’ll explain on the way down, and try to keep from interrupting.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the King saluted before turning to smile at Reiss.

The ex-scout led them down a craggy stone staircase, the foundation reeking of age and decay as silverfish scattered out of every crag. Barely waiting for the door to slam behind them, Harding began her tale, “For the past week I’ve been following up on a lead that put Ghaleb and our Anitvan ambassador in the same place at the same time. A few people caught the two secreting away together. It wasn’t easy to learn of, by the way.”

“I’ll be sure to make a generous donation to the Scouts Who Are Now Merchants charity,” Alistair answered back with. As they slipped down to the first landing, his smile washed away. No one moaned out of the cells lining the edges, but Reiss caught the dismal straw beds with rats for pillows that made up the royal guard dungeon. No light save the drab flicker of a few candles crested around the dank dungeon. Even their one holding cell at the guard station had a window. A chill crawled along the floor and up her spine.

Harding kept them walking past row after row, “Today was the day to strike. In particular, without you aware, it would mean the Spymaster wouldn’t be either. I gathered up a handful of close allies,” she said diplomatically while really meaning mercenaries, and then turned down a second staircase. The entire thing leaned to the right, causing all of them to have to drag their shoulders against the wall while stepping down it.

“What happened, Harding? I’m guessing you’re not taking us down here to show off your latest pin collection.”

“We stormed the place, anticipating to find others, documents detailing plans, perhaps even hints at dead drops for hired assassins.” She stopped at the landing and yanked up a solitary candle left to dribble alone in a sconce. Passing it to Alistair, Harding’s eyes lit up as they wandered away to the ground. “Instead, we...found them,” she turned down the dungeon stuck in the void itself, “in bed.”

“Oh Maker,” Alistair groaned, his head flopping forward until the flame threatened to catch his hair. “It could be a ruse,” he threw out.

“True, it could. I’ve got my people scouring through both their sets of belongings, reading papers and the like. It’ll take awhile until we’ve got a full picture but...”

The King caught her unwillingness to speak and tried to drag it out, “But what?”

“I think you should talk to them, both of them,” Harding said as she stepped to the side and pointed at a cell holding the once peculiar but proud Spymaster. The man huddled at the back of the sagging, damp and fetid cell, his hands wrapped around his naked chest as he sank further into the scratchy straw.

“Maker’s sake, you didn’t give them any clothes?” the King stormed.

“Cade said...”

“Sod, Cade. Get them clothes, real ones too. No burlap sacks, or hair shirts, or anything like that. We’re not barbarians,” he gripped onto the bars, but the Spymaster wouldn’t lift his head to look over at the man he betrayed.

Harding smiled at that and shouted to one of her men, “Hey, get out the robes we found and give them to the prisoner.”

“He’ll need his turban too. It’s special for...something,” Alistair groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose, “I can’t remember why, and Ghaleb’s not the best storyteller anyway. I...Andraste’s flaming sword, where’s the other one?” He turned on his heel, unable to look at the man who had traded cards with him only a week ago.

As Harding tugged Alistair on, Reiss paused to stare into the cell at the man who was either a secret agent for Antiva or, even worse, risked everything in his life for love. Even without knowing which was the truth, pity swelled in her heart for the broken creature covering his head with his hands. She began to slide away to follow her boss, when a whimper rattled across the stones. It barely broke above the other echoes of shoe and breath, but both hardened scout and world-weary King paused at the sound. They found Donato not in his cell, but in a smaller room off the side.

“Cade’s been putting him to questions since we arrived, seemed to think it’d work better in the officer’s room for whatever reason,” Harding explained.

“What’s Cade even got to do with this?” Alistair hissed, “I thought it was going to be between us.”

“It was,” Harding agreed, “until I stumbled upon instant treason and two men who knew they were goners, then I wasn’t sure what to do. Dwarven apartments don’t come with a lot of dungeons.”

The King scrubbed a hand across his face, his second still clinging to the candle as if it was warding off the demons haunting a place this terrible. “Are you sure about that? I’ve known a few dwarves after all...not that I want to pry into your private life.”

Harding rolled her eyes, and cracked open the door. “Sire,” she said, gesturing him inside.

Donato looked not that bad all things considered. He had a blanket curled over his shoulders and someone was kind enough to lend him pants. His normally perfectly coiffed hair was slicked up at the back leaving a wave of white to wash over the black, but given the action Harding found them in that may have not had anything to do with the guards. Growling, Commander Cade turned away from the prisoner he had manacled in a chair to the King.

“You’re dismissed, Cade.”

“You can’t be blighted serious, Milord. This here’s a potential dangerous criminal. He needs interrogating, and then some,” Cade jabbed a thumb at the man who looked as frail as a wren’s bleached bone. Donato bore such a dignified air the few times she’d watched him flit through the halls but stripped of his titles and clothing, his skin wan and a pallor drawing down his cheeks, the man looked about to crack in half. Maker only knew what it was doing to the far less stronger Ghaleb.

Alistair placed his candle down on the table and eyed up the Commander that looked like he could hoist the King up and throw him out the door. “I am going to talk to the prisoner.”

“You?” Cade snorted. “What about...?”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ve got my bodyguard with,” he glanced back to Reiss who felt Cade’s judgmental eyes sizing her up before he snorted. In the damp cold of the cellar dungeon it pillared out in a fog.

“Fine, but I’ll be havin’ a go over him and the other bastard after your little tea ceremony, your Majesty,” he cursed, shouldering past Reiss. Without waiting for the command, Cade slammed the door behind leaving Alistair and the elf alone with the broken man.

Slowly, the King began to pace back and forth while massaging his forehead. Reiss crossed her arm and kept one within close distance of the dagger in a sheathe near her chest. On occasion, Donato would glance up, his eyes brimming in the weak candle light without any tears falling.

It took a few more laps before Alistair spoke, “I honestly don’t even know where to begin.”

“Sire, please,” Donato said. His voice gargled in his throat and Reiss noticed a speck of blood dribbling down his lips. Cracked or... If there was pain, the ambassador didn’t show it. “I admit full responsibility for what occurred.”

“Just for my sake, knowing how stupid I am, why don’t you tell me exactly what did occur?” Alistair froze and turned a glare down at the ambassador.

The ambassador folded his hands tightly and shut his eyes. “You must think me a cad,” he said and grimaced as the pain finally reached him from no doubt a fist punching his jaw. “That I seduced your younger Spymaster as lecherous old men are known to. All for some nefarious plot to eradicate you from the throne, but...”

Donato’s head skimmed into his hands, the manacles jangling at the attempts. “By the honor of my Patron, and what little my own name carries, I swear to you that I have had nothing to do with the attacks upon your life.” His voice was heartbreaking, the bottom lip quivering as he tried to shore up his heart with what little dignity remained for a man chained and broken at the darkest depths of the world. It could be an act, but every instinct inside Reiss told her it was genuine.

Trying to appear unmoved by his plight, Alistair pinched thumb and forefinger into the bridge of his nose. “So you claim, but what about my Spymaster?”

“Ghaleb?” Donato stuttered, the name flying from his lips.

“What’s to say it wasn’t his plan all along and he used you to get his hands on some Crows for a little meet and greet?” Alistair resumed his pacing, no longer looking down at the man.

“He isn’t that kind of,” Donato pleaded, mid-sentence switching tactics, “you know him.”

“Not as well as I thought,” the King volleyed with, “not as well as you certainly do. For the love of Andraste, sleeping with another head of state? On the rather short list of stupid things for a Spymaster to do, that’s right up there with selling all a nation’s secrets for a couple magic beans. How long?” When Donato didn’t lift his head, Alistair slammed his hands on the wall and repeated, “How long?!”

“Five years,” Donato mumbled, his eyes slipping shut.

“Five...” Alistair staggered away to cup a hand over his mouth beyond the ambassador’s sight. For a moment his eyes met Reiss’ and they both shared a thought. Five years meant there would be proof found. Evidence. It also all but damned them both. A brief affair could be excused with the right amount of begging for forgiveness to the court, but this...

“It will be impossible for me, for the crown to know what influence you’ve had on our Spymaster or what secrets he let slip to Antiva.” Alistair folded his hand into a fist and began to pound it against the other while he thought, “That’s treason, you know. High treason, not even taking into account the threat of you hiring assassins to kill me.”

“Please,” Donato lashed his bound hands out and grabbed onto Alistair’s poorly buttoned shirt. Reiss moved to unsheathe her dagger and shove the man back but the King gave her a slow shake of the head. She let the dagger remain where it belonged, but didn’t relax her stance. “Your Highness, I beg of you, it is my fault. Let this fall upon my head. Please,” his lips quivered and that patrician man who looked like every incorruptible scholar Reiss ever saw in the distance, cracked in half. Tears rained down his cheeks, pooling in his lap as he could only face the ground while pleading not for his life but the man he loved. “Please, do not hurt Ghaleb. He’s...”

“He’s a grown man, who knew what he was doing was wrong, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept it secret,” Alistair answered back before sliding away. Donato let him go, his hands falling limp as the King tried to glower down from on high. “The fact is that you have diplomatic immunity in this matter. While any sign of you attempting to assassinate me will wipe that away in an instant, and believe me we have probable cause to go looking for it now, you will most likely be returned to Antiva when this is over.”

Donato blinked, lifting his head to stare in the weak light, “What of Ghaleb?”

It was Alistair who turned away now, unable to face the pleading face. In a broken voice he whispered, “You know what the sentence for treason is.”

“Sire, no, please...” Donato tried to grab onto the King but he missed and plummeted to the ground, his blanket scattering off his shoulders. Reiss scrunched down to pick it up but before adding it back shot a glance up at her boss. He gritted his teeth and nodded, letting her preserve what little dignity the man had. Alistair returned to the door and knocked twice before shouting, “Cade, return him to his cell. I’d like to speak with our Spymaster next.”

“Very well, Milord,” Cade shuffled in, gripping the ambassador around his thin arms and hauling him to exhausted feet.

Alistair’s hand shout out and he gripped tight to the Commander’s bulging arm. “And do try to refrain from shattering his jaw in the trip there and back, please,” he didn’t hide a growl in his words.

“As you say,” Cade returned with a sneer, but he more carefully trucked the ambassador down the long hallway.

Only shuffling followed in the wake, feet dragging against the ground as Reiss caught the King’s stern face glaring through the air itself. He looked completely solid, as unmovable as a statue, when Donato’s voice called out through the jail.

“Ghaleb? Maker’s sake, please he can’t handle that. He needs, Ghaleb...I promise, it’ll be okay. I’ll be here, talking to you. I’ll guard you. I won’t leave you.”

The final vowel of that you transformed into an oof hopefully as the Commander helped him into his cell and not by punching him in the stomach. Reiss glared at the darkness of the dungeon before turning to find Alistair crumbling before her. His fingers dug tight to his cheeks, a rictus replacing what had been an easy smile. Despite everything in her brain telling her not to, Reiss reached over and cupped her palms to first one then the other of the man’s hands and tugged them down. He bit onto his lower lip, watching their strange handhold before slowly nodding his head. Screwing up his eyes, the King drew forth a strength that he would need for confronting an old friend about his potential execution.

In the distance, they both heard Cade shout out, “All right, you’re next.”

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