Guarded Love

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Chapter 19: The Trial

Someone took the time to form a crisis management team, he didn’t know who because on the whole Alistair had been completely and fully useless. Harding was scattering through piles of documents and letters amassed over the years from both the Spymaster and ambassador. On occasion, Alistair would catch the dwarf streaking past as fast as should could manage and ask if there was anything new to report. All he’d get was a “not yet” echoing down the corridor. He’d convinced Cade to move both of them to proper cells and not whatever dilapidated dungeon there was under the barracks. The Commander argued, with his constant perfunctory splattering of Milord throughout, insisting that they had to keep this under their hats. But what did it matter?

Either they’d find some connection putting the Spymaster and/or ambassador as the evil mustache twirlers behind the assassins or... That was the part that kept Alistair pacing at night. Nearly four days since this mess splattered in his lap and no one had any good answers. Karelle combed through protocol on the matter, but either all previous spymasters were smart enough to keep it in their pants or they hid it well. There wasn’t a precedent to fall upon beyond the big ol’ t begging to be branded across Ghaleb’s pyre. Maker’s breath, did they even give traitors pyres or were they tossed over the walls to the vultures?

That drew a shudder to Alistair’s frame and he pitched forward. “Sire?” Karelle asked.

“It’s fine,” he argued, “just my stomach acting up.” He seemed to be cursed with an ever expanding ulcer that birthed upon first spotting Ghaleb broken in his cell. The interrogation went about as poorly as Alistair expected, the man gibbering about orange blossoms and pointing to the north.Nothing incriminating dropped from his lips, though neither did anything to pardon him. Just orange blossoms.

“Here, your Majesty,” the mage woman stepped up from the crowd gathering beside the hearth. Eamon was there, along with the chamberlain, Cade kept himself busy barking orders from across the castle as if he needed to present a facade of law at all times. And, of course, there was his bodyguard. She glanced up from her guarding of a bookcase and tried to force a smile. Poor thing had to be exhausted, no doubt hearing her roommate shuffle back and forth each night unable to sleep, but she bore it well with no complaints.

Alistair accepted the familiar white gloop from Linaya and sneered at the contents. She stood near to his chair, her fingers knotting together as she said, “You have to drink it all for it to work.”

“I know.” Pinching his nose he tossed his head back and let the paste slide down his throat. It tasted like bronto snot blended with egg whites that were seasoned by fireplace ash and then cooked until burned. Whipping his head back and forth at the flavor, Alistair smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in the hopes it could break up some of the cloying disgust.

After passing the bottle back to the mage, he sighed, “What exactly is that supposed to do?”

“It calms the turbid matter in the stomach which becomes enflamed during times of great stress,” she explained.

He sat up higher and leaned nearer. In a not really whisper, he asked, “You can tell me the truth, it doesn’t actually do shit, right? It’s just really funny to watch me have to drink it every day?” Alistair expected a smile, wanted someone to wear one just for a minute or two, but the woman panicked.

“No, Sire, I swear on Andraste’s sword that...”

“It’s all right, child,” Karelle interrupted the young woman’s panic, “he’s tugging on your leg.” The chamberlain shot a damning look at the King and he slid back to his chair. He hadn’t meant any offense.

For her part, Linaya let her lips slide upward but it didn’t feel like a smile, something off about it as she turned to the King, “Of course, a jape. They say you...enjoy them from time to time.”

“Jesting and jousting, that’s me,” Alistair groaned, feeling the first of the bubbles popping in his gut as the mixture did whatever it was brewed to do. Shifting on his seat to relieve the pinch, he asked aloud, “Any chance you know a spell to tell if someone’s lying? That’d solve this problem right quick.”

“I’m afraid not, My Lord. That would be...”

“Blood magic. Yeah, I know,” Alistair groaned. “No, you know what would be really useful, a spell that could detect evil. Like, make people glow red or something if they’re the bad guys.”

The mage tapped her fingers together as if she could cobble something impossible like that together, while Karelle groaned, “Sire, I rather doubt that would work how you want. Everyone’s got a little evil in them. We’d all be glowing like Satinalia at the Grand Cathedral.”

“That’s true,” he admitted, running a nail across his ear.

“I’d be most concerned with someone who didn’t light up at all,” Reiss spoke up from her silent vigil. She stared out through the horizon as if lost in thought. “People who never think they’re wrong are dangerous.”

“That can’t be true,” Linaya laughed at the elf. “There are plenty of people that do good and only try to help.”

Reiss didn’t answer the mage, but her eyes honed in from a million miles straight to Alistair. The battled hardened elf shared a look with the politic weary king. Good and evil were a matter of perspective and sometimes the very idea flipped based upon who held the sword or crown. Sometimes the good turned away because they had no choice, or the evil would save a person after sacrificing a town. He missed the certain morality of being a warden. Darkspawn bad, kill them.

“I mean,” the perhaps mid-twenties Linaya glanced around her elders and continued to make a point, “the Hero of Ferelden was a good woman.”

Darkspawn bad and mindless, kill them. But what if one of them talks? What if it wants to change things? Should they all be obliterated? Alistair was dead certain that yes, they cause blight what other option was there. But Lanny, she had this thought that maybe killing all the archdemons wasn’t the answer the wardens assumed it was. Maybe, finding a way to live together was. It always seemed like ramblings to him, but he climbed out of that trench a long time ago while she kept returning to the deep roads. What did they say? Over time one either saw the enemy as a monster or a friend, it was up to the person to pick the path. Or something like that. Alistair tended to skip over the philosophy assigned to him while in the templars in favor of the histories - those had more sword fights.

“Yes,” he said, pinching up his nose and trying to shake off a cloak shrouding his heart, “she was a good woman.”

Alistair thought that’d be the end of it, but Linaya’s hand glanced across his. He watched her soft fingers roll over his gnarled ones -- the middle bulged where it failed to set properly after a break over a decade ago. “You must have cared a great deal for her,” she said. The forced intimacy drew up the hairs on the back of Alistair’s neck and he stumbled to his legs, which caused him to walk partially into the mage.

A snicker broke from Karelle and he caught the same damn knowing smile everyone had been wearing since the mage popped up. Frankly, he was getting sick and tired of it. Tugging his hand back to where it belonged -- dangling limply at his side -- Alistair groaned, “I’m going to go find Harding and see if there’s anything new.”

“Didn’t you just ask a few hours ago?” Karelle said.

He wanted to snap back at her, but all the King could manage was a shrug. “Eamon’s busy smoothing over the other diplomat’s, and Arl’s, and Teryn’s feathers.”

“I’m aware,” Karelle sighed, “I was the one who told you.”

“Right,” he pinched his fingers to his forehead and danced his eyebrows up and down. Maker’s breath, when was the last time he slept? It felt a fortnight ago. “So, I think I should check in on that or...something. I need to do something.”

“Very well, your highness,” Karelle bowed slightly to him, while the mage curtsied even deeper.

Only glancing once at both women, Alistair caught Reiss’ eye and jerked his chin to guide her out into the hallway. He led her with as kingly of a gait as he could manage, with spine locked in place and shoulders tossed back down hallways that were bustling with cloudy browed servants. Not everyone cared for Ghaleb, but the spymaster was one of them, one of them all. The Chancellor was trying to keep the rumors to a minimum and information on a need to know basis but they had to wonder what put the Spymaster behind bars. Were no doubt concocting wilder and wilder stories over scrubbing pots and ovens. And somehow it all led back to the King. Did they think after 16 years he’d finally gone full tyrant and was about to start taking heads off?

Alistair stumbled and his shoulder scattered into a sconce that was mercifully not lit. The candle cracked in half, plopping to the ground with a pathetic splat. Bending over to scoop it up, he groaned to himself, “I hate this.”

“Perhaps you should leave it to someone else,” Reiss spoke up. She’d bent down as well, her less exhausted fingers picking the broken candle from his hands. While Alistair squatted on the ground, one hand used for ballast on the floor, she attempted to stick the bottom of the candle in the sconce and then balance the top on as if nothing happened. Unfortunately, it wasn’t broken well and kept sliding off. After a few attempts, she abandoned hope, yanked off the bottom, and stuck the shorter top in place.

“I wasn’t talking about the candle,” Alistair said. The long nights and worry chewing through him finally took hold and the King of Ferelden flopped onto the floor. She paced around above him, her hand upon the sword, but looked down at the man scurrying to lean his head against the wall.

“I’d...assumed as such.”

“It would be so much easier if Harding came running through that door with proof that one of them had hired assassins, or better yet, both without the other aware. They could have realized their misstep and laughed and laughed like the mage who traded her staff in for a shield to give the templar that traded in his sword for a staff blade. And I’m babbling, which means I’m either about to pass out or throw an epic tantrum.” Alistair slipped his eyes closed and tried to take a steady breath, but his lungs ached as the boiling in his gut pressed upward. Something brushed near him without touching and he glanced over to find Reiss scooting down to sit beside him.

“Shall I fetch you some jam and crackers?” she asked, only a hint of an eyebrow lifting.

He snickered at that and sighed, “No, though...it does sound nice. I can see why Spud loves it. Comfort food.”

“Whenever I’d come in with the ’growling eyebrows,’” Reiss made air quotes for that, “my mother would include a small rye cracker with my dinner. It’s silly but it worked to lighten my mood. I search them out when I’m feeling low. What about you?”

Alistair watched her face, usually walled off behind her armor, melt into a sunny glow as she reminisced to her first home, her family. He didn’t have any fun stories like that to tell. Not really. “There, uh, I didn’t have a mother, anyone who’d cook something for me, but sometimes when I’d see the Arl. More like run past the Arl, he’d stop me up and slip me a few carrots. Which now that I say it aloud makes me sound like I grew up as a horse. Not even a liked one either, it wasn’t sugar cubes or an apple. Okay, once it was an apple but Balthie swiped it before I had a chance to eat it?”

“Balthie?”

“One of the Arl’s mabari; big, mean, full of himself in that way the oldest ones in the pack get. I’d sleep in the...never mind. So, rye crackers for you.”

“And carrots for you,” she smiled, nudging her shoulder into him.

“What am I going to do?” Alistair folded his forehead into his hands, his stomach gurgling at the indecency of him bending it in half. “Why couldn’t Ghaleb have actually been some evil villain stalking around up in his distant tower plotting to take over the world? Instead, the fool had to go and fall in love.”

“You believe their relationship is true?”

“Not one but both of them begged me to punish him to save the other. If that’s all part of some twisted plan to get off scot-free I’m not catching it. It’s stupid, dangerous, and so very, very treasonous for a spymaster to have any personal ties with another head of state. Which he knew. But that’s the problem with love,” Alistair groaned and he tipped his head back against the wall, “it makes us lose our damn minds.”

How’d Lanny put it? He had a nasty habit of letting his brain screw over his heart. She’d been trying to be kind in her slightly kicking him when he was down way. It was fair given that he did come to her for advice while rather inebriated. Older and in theory wiser, Alistair realized that crawling to an ex’s doorstep to ask why the last love affair exploded wasn’t the smartest move. Either go all in or don’t try at all, that was what she said, but he was the type to leap blind into the pond and then panic once he was underwater.

Banging his head against the wall, Alistair tried to use the pain to jumpstart his brain. He paused a moment and glanced over to to catch Reiss doing the same, though hers was cushioned by her blonde bun.

“Ghaleb made a mistake, no masking that, and he admitted to it, sort of.” The Spymaster’s confession was a mishmash of sentences and ideas as the poor man glanced up and down the walls. Alistair didn’t realize how thin his wrists were until he watched Cade try to notch on the manacles tight and have to give up. “But treason? Because two people fell in love? It would be easier if he’d been playing me for a fool these past years and was planning on stealing the throne for a pack of evil ghasts.”

He didn’t realize how much he enjoyed the Spymaster’s belabored friendship until he had to play the bad guy. Ghaleb was strange, hard to understand at the best of times, and curt without having much concern to who his manners displeased, but that was what Alistair found entertaining about him. Maker’s sake, was that the only person in his life he had left that Alistair didn’t have to be the King with?

“On the other hand,” Alistair spoke, trying to hide away the blush his realization drew, “if Harding does find something and we’re within our rights to execute Donato, that doesn’t mean Antiva won’t be knocking around the borders wanting some kind of retribution. They’re not as nosy as Orlais but they get tetchy when you take out a diplomat, principle and all.” He wanted to bury his face in his hands. No, his face in his lap. Even better, he wanted to run as far from this as possible, maybe hide in the deep roads for a few months until someone else made the decision and he could head on back with some darkspawn trophies, wild tales, and a beard to his chest.

That wasn’t a possibility. No matter how much Alistair still ached to flee screaming back to civilian life, he’d burned too many of those old bridges to turn around and shit on them now. Maker, he didn’t even want to think of the face Lanny would pull, assuming she didn’t set his ass on fire just because. Trying to not groan, he glanced over at Reiss and caught that look in her eye - the one that seemed to be ripping apart space and piecing it together to form a new puzzle.

“What do you think about this?”

“Hm?” she startled from wherever her mind tripped off to. “I don’t think it’s my place to...”

“You did that before,” Alistair spun away from the wall to fully face his bodyguard who wilted at the attention. “In the tavern when we met with Harding, I met with Harding, you said you didn’t think it was the Crows. What makes you so certain?”

“I...” Reiss tipped her head back and shut her eyes tight, “I do not wish to bias you in any way.”

“Please,” Alistair grabbed onto her hand and pinned the glove between his. It wasn’t until her eyes snapped open and she stared at him that he realized how awkward that was. Too late to let go now, he continued to beg, “I trust your instincts and anything -- any information, ideas, half whispered rumors, a dream you only kind of remember and confused with an old serial about ducks would be useful.”

Her lips twisted up a moment and she smiled to herself. “Very well. We know two things about these assassins.”

“That they suck at their job and really don’t like me?” Alistair threw out with a shrug. Maker’s sake, why are you still holding her hand? He had no idea how to let go at this point and hoped she didn’t notice. How long can you stretch that out before someone finally calls the bluff? Be more than a bit awkward when one of you has to go to the privy.

Reiss sighed and smiled at his joke, a move he was far too familiar with, “One, that they have varying degrees of tattoos. Nothing easily traced to a group, but it must mean something due to their familiar look. And two, perhaps most telling, that they are all men.”

“Huh,” Alistair sat back at that realization and his hand tugged away from hers ending the stalemate in a whimper, “I didn’t even notice that, but you’re right. How did I not catch on? Or Cade?”

Reiss shrugged, “You’re men. You’re used to men. Both the Crows and the House of Repose employ women.”

“How do you know that?” he asked, not trying to catch her up but enjoying the play across her face. As she unveiled each thought, Reiss seemed to mentally wave her hands and give a little shimmy in excitement. It was strangely entertaining.

“We had some dealings with the House of Repose in the Inquisition, a dead servant and...it doesn’t add to the conversation,” she said.

“What about the Crows?”

Her warm cheeks lit up red and she swayed back and forth on her haunches while staring at the fascinating cracks in the ceiling, “I, uh, may have read a few serials about them from time to time involving...other things that don’t add to the conversation.”

Maker’s breath, she was cute. And that is not a relevant thought to be having about your bodyguard there. Shaking it off, Alistair tried to dive back to the heart of it. “Serials are known to stretch the truth from time to time. You should read the ones about me.”

“I have,” Reiss let slip absently, when panic set in across her face and she bit down on her lip.

“Ah ha,” feeling as if his shirt and pants all constricted upon him, Alistair swallowed hard. “Anyway, you’re right, the Crows employ women. Very good, strong, assassiny women. So what does this mean?”

“For the immediate problem, that most likely the Spymaster did not seduce the Ambassador to gain access to the Crows. Though, it is possible that Donato used Ghaleb for information.”

Alistair hated that potential twist more than any other. It would be one thing if Ghaleb was behind it, or in on it, but sending a man to his death because he fell for the old honey pot? Trying to shake off his thoughts, Alistair said, “In order to find the assassins we look at places that are known to be full of men.”

“Mercenary bands tend to run down the genders,” Reiss said. “I believe the Qunari also do not mix company.”

“Not without a giant woman telling them to go make babies with a complete stranger,” Alistair whispered to the air before cringing. He would never understand the Qun no matter how much Sten glared at him for asking.

“Which doubtfully means anything seeing as how none of the assassins had horns,” Reiss answered his thoughts.

“Right, okay, just men. Check all the glee clubs, male bath houses, and that one knitting gang that meets on Wednesdays for assassins.”

“I’d start with the knitters, they know their way around sharp objects,” Reiss said with a deadly serious tone. It broke away the clouds that’d been crowding out Alistair’s mind for the past week and he felt a smile rise not only on his face but through his gut as well.

“Sire,” Harding’s voice called from the floor below them, “I have news!”

“As do I,” Eamon responded from across the way, both of them heading towards their downed King.

So much for that break of sunshine. The storm of despair snapped back in record time. Staggering up to his knees, Alistair heard a dangerous pop and thought of Spud. She’d been spending a lot of time in her room, they all had. Even the three year old seemed to be aware that something was wrong, though she expressed that by tossing half of her toys out the window -- all of which were recovered and then generously donated to the Alienage orphanage in the princess’ name.

He began to roll to find a better purchase to rise, when Reiss’ hand dropped to him. Gripping it tight, she helped haul his royal ass off the ground when both Chancellor and Scout appeared. They were struggling to catch their breath, Eamon relying on his cane while Harding no doubt canvassed most of the palace on her tiny legs to find him.

Alistair waited a moment, watching them both not rush to give him the no doubt great news that this was all a dream. “Well,” he sighed, “not all at once or anything.”

“Sorry, Sire,” Harding stepped forward to take all the potential wrath upon herself, “we’ve combed through nearly all of the ambassador’s correspondence we could find and aside from a few notes he sent to others in the palace regarding official business, everything mentioning the spymaster appears to be love letters.”

He didn’t groan but he wanted to as Harding thrust a half a decade’s worth of a secret romance into his hand. Shuffling the stack with his thumb, Alistair waited for a summation. It was what scouts were known for, that and knowing precisely where the bronto dung was. If you wanted to save your boots you always befriended a scout.

“We’re still trying to make sense of Ghaleb’s color coded string of words but...” Harding let her hands flop to her sides as she scowled. “If there’s a connection to the assassins or anything else shady, we haven’t found it yet. Though I doubt a million clerics given a million years could decipher a single receipt from the Spymaster.” She sneered and yanked out a small scrap of pink paper, “Like this, all it says is ‘Pinecone.’ What in the Maker does that mean? It’s pink, so I think that’s unimportant in his filing system, yet the date puts this at nearly seven years ago. Why keep a note marked pinecone if it’s not vital? Sire, I...I don’t know if we can give you any concrete evidence.”

Nodding slowly, Alistair bundled up the love letters and handed them back to Harding. She seemed as happy to receive them as he did to learn of it. If the romance had been thrown on as a cover, it should have been relatively easy to pick apart but this took time and effort. Andraste’s sake, if someone sat down and wrote out a good fifty pages pretending to be in love with another for the appearance of a backstory he deserved to walk free. That’s serious dedication.

“What terrible news do you have to add to this, Eamon?” Alistair asked turning to his Chancellor.

“We just received word from the Antivan guild of finance,” Eamon sighed. He wrung both hands against his cane while trying to keep out of Alistair’s reach. “Unless we can offer proof of the Baronet’s involvement, then he must be released from our prisons and returned to Antiva for their form of discipline.”

“Involvement?” Alistair pointed at the bulging stack of love letters, “Do they want us to send each one back individually or attached to an entire flock of ravens?”

“I,” Eamon eyed up the pile then sighed at Alistair. “I rather doubt that’s what concerns them. The Antivan guilds do not like the idea of one of their own languishing in our jail cell, most likely because they know how it looks to the other nations.”

“So, skip any investigation and pretend none of it ever happened? That’s a brilliant plan,” Alistair fumed.

“I’m getting the impression it’d have been easier if I’d shot them first, no questions asked,” Harding piped up. She was sharp as flint but something pained below that steel frame. No one liked this.

“Your Majesty,” Eamon interrupted, “you must make a decision and soon. I fear none of us shall find any more information to add and any delays will give greater fire to Antivans either on Donato’s side or looking for an excuse to begin war.”

At that Alistair threw his hands in the air and spun around, “Great, a war started because an ambassador fell head over heels for a spymaster.”

“Sounds Orlesian,” Harding muttered.

There were no right answers here, no stab this guy win the day moves. Kill Donato and the Antivans would be furious. Free Donato and either they’d find out later that he had connections to the assassins or it will embolden the real villains to try again. Then there’s Ghaleb. Maker’s sake, what was he going to do with a Spymaster he couldn’t trust?

“Right, okay,” Alistair scrubbed at his face and felt a twinge of pain. Tugging it away he spotted blood flecking across his palm. How hard was he tugging on his broken skin? “We end this. Get everyone to court. I’ve got to get cleaned up and...Maker’s sake, where did I leave the damn crown?”

“I shall have it fetched, Your Highness,” Eamon said, bowing to his King who was also the same knock kneed child he’d on occasion give attention to.

“Everyone, it needs to be official. No off the books, no undercover, they all should know what happened. Got it?” he spoke to Harding but it was Eamon who answered with a yes. Breaking from him, Eamon limped off to get the nobility in order while Harding went to gather up all her hard work over the weeks.

It took a few hours to corral everyone into the throne room, a few Banns making a giant fuss about missing a log tossing contest. Cherie stood center stage in the right cordon, a small moat around her as she glared up at the man perched in the throne. Everyone knew something was bad when Alistair entered with that god awful crown perched upon his head, but when he sat in the chair a collective gasp rattled the windows. Beatrice sat beside him, her head bent as she waited patiently for her husband to start. Her attendances to court were all on her, the King rarely making any requests because he’d rather avoid it every chance he had, but for this one he wanted backup from any spot possible.

“Thank you for coming,” he whispered to the Queen.

She smiled at him and said, “Of course, whatever my King commands.”

“Right,” he pinched between his thumb and finger trying to drum up the will to get it over with. More than Banns and other high ranking officials of Denerim filled the standing areas flanked by the open aisle. Denizens of the palace itself; the cooks, the servants, the footmen, the one guy in charge of yelling ‘all’s well’ also stood with the nobility, though someone made them head towards the back of the room. This was going to be a disaster either on the scale of a blight, a major earthquake, or - if he was lucky - a small flood. In glancing over the crowds, Alistair caught Reiss standing beside the shut doors. She nodded once and stood tall.

It was time. “Send in the prisoners,” Alistair ordered from his seat. He yearned to get up and pace but that wouldn’t be dignified.

The King’s order filtered down a series of soldiers standing down the line, each one turning to the side to eye up the door opening. Commander Cade took up point behind both Donato and Ghaleb as they stumbled into the bright throne room together. The ambassador lifted his weary head and bore a proud glint to his brow. If he was going down he wouldn’t do it on his knees. Ghaleb however blinked against the light and as his eyes took in the crowds he shrunk deep into his robes, attempting to burrow away from the masses. For a brief moment, Donato reached over and caught Ghaleb’s flailing hand, trying to calm the man, before Cade pushed both of them in the back.

“Walk,” he ordered. Donato didn’t turn back to look at the Commander. He dropped Ghaleb’s hand and the pair of them staggered down the aisle past a crowd falling deathly silent. Alistair kept focused on the two walking past soldiers following their every move with hands on hilts, but for a moment he caught sight of Cherie’s lips. The only part of her visible beneath that mask, she had them pursed tight while watching her fellow diplomat being shoved through the throne room in chains. Were you in on this mess as well?

By the time Donato and Ghaleb reached the end of the aisle, chatter erupted throughout the audience, a hundred voices asking what was going on? What happened? The two lovers didn’t turn back to look at the commotion. Instead, they stood side by side, waiting for their final sentence to come.

“Ambassador...” Alistair began, but his words were shoved away by the cacophony of gasps and mutterings emerging from the crowd. “Hey, will you quiet down?” he tried to lift his voice, but it dropped like a rock.

Throwing back his head and bellowing, Cade’s voice smothered everything with a, “SHUT IT!”

Nary a squeaky shoe broke as the Commander’s gruff order echoed through the rafters. Slowly, every eye in the room turned to the King who was focusing on the men wilting below him. “Ambassador Baronet Donato, do you know why you have been called before me today?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Donato didn’t blink as he stood at attention to announce his sins, “I was discovered to be engaging in an illicit affair with your Spymaster.”

“Holy shit!” a voice shouted from the back which released an avalanche of other exclamations, each one growing in crassness as it swept nearer to the throne.

Alistair lifted up his royal hand and shouted, “Hold your comments until this is over!” Either they all yearned to hear more of this juicy gossip, or Cade’s command still rattled their spines as the voices died down to whispers. “And you, Spymaster Ghaleb, do you know why you are here?”

In full view of everyone, the wispy Spymaster turned fully to Donato and whimpered, “Yes.”

“Do you deny these allegations?”

Donato reached over and grabbed up Ghaleb’s hands, ignoring the gasps of the audience at such a bold move as he fought for his life. The pain of Ghaleb bit into the ambassador more than the potential hangman’s axe. Pinning both of them tight in his own he lifted the pair and breathed across the skin. That had a calming affect on Ghaleb, his trembling shoulders slowing to treacle.

Facing the King, Donato spoke, “There is no reason for me to. You have witnesses to the crime, no doubt have ransacked my things and discovered all the letters exchanged between us over the years. But please, Sire, I swear to you on the hem of Andraste’s gown that it was not done out of malfeasance or to curry favors for my home country.”

The crowd began to turn against the ambassador pleading for his soul, each muttering turning into a spit as they surveyed the man who dared to defame Andraste to protect himself. Alistair glared up at them and stomped his foot on the ground. “What did I say about shutting it?” he warned them.

Most of the crowd quieted down, but one male voice sputtered out, “Well, actually, you didn’t.”

Maker’s sake, there was always one. Scooting forward, Alistair addressed Donato, “Why? Why would you risk treason and death if not to better your standing either in Antiva or here?”

Donato smiled sadly with eyes shut tight. In a whisper that carried across every stone in the palace, he said, “Love.”

That set everyone off yet again, one half of the crowd swooning from the romance angle, the other all but willing to knot the noose themselves and offering the king a shiny new axe at a great deal. “If the gathered gentry cannot hold their tongues, they shall ALL be escorted out of here,” Alistair ordered, no longer in the mood to play babysitter to grown adults. “Chains are also optional if it comes to it!”

It wasn’t much of a threat, he doubted they had more than at most fifty manacles across all of Denerim, but the idea of it shut people up. “You’re right about a couple things, Baronet. We did go through your belongings to try and uncover any connections you may have had to the assassination attempt made during Prince Cailan’s naming day.” People gasped out of habit whenever assassins were mentioned. Alistair figured after the third attempt on his life the only reaction he’d get would be a mild confusion at it being brought up and a request that he move out of the way of the buffet.

Donato turned up, his eyes watering. He had to know how easily they could plant evidence, anyone with a quill and some parchment could draft up an “I’m going to kill the King” note. Without drawing it out, Alistair broke the tension, “But we found nothing.”

The condemned man sagged down, his hands coming to his lips as he muttered prayers to the Maker but the crowd lost it. In their minds they already concocted a much better tale than reality and wanted someone to pay for a slight not even against them. Booing roused from the back while the bannorn hissed like snakes. He noticed the only one not making a noise was Cherie, her arms crossed as those Orlesian eyes stared through the ambassador. No doubt she was already making calculations for all the times over the years the two of them ganged up on the King.

Speaking over the crowd he could barely command on a good day, Alistair turned to the Baronet. “The Antivan guild of whoever owns your ass has interceded and demands we release you into their custody immediately. With no connection nor proof of obvious harm to me or my children I am afraid I must abided with their wishes.” That went over as well as he expected, the crowd stamping and snarling like caged beasts. They wanted a sacrificial lamb and were willing to take it anywhere they could, even if the only animal around was a bewildered parrot about to beat wing.

“Baronet Donato Alfonse de Seleny you are banished from Ferelden and forbidden from setting foot upon its soil ever again,” Alistair decreed. It wasn’t any true punishment but he made it sound enough like a death sentence the crowd clapped in appreciation. Cade stepped forward and made a show of freeing the man of his manacles. Donato didn’t even pause to massage his wrists before reaching over to wrap Ghaleb into his embrace. Snatching out quickly, Cade grabbed onto his arms trying to tug him away to his boat home.

“Commander,” Alistair shouted, causing Cade to pause but not release his grip, “leave him until I am finished with the sentencing.”

“Milord?” Cade questioned a moment, before sighing, “As you say.” He glared at Alistair and then the ambassador before sliding back.

“Ghaleb of House Videnza, step forward,” Alistair ordered. The spymaster lifted his head and turned not to the King, but the man clinging tight to him.

“It will be well, dolcetar. I am here with you,” Donato whispered to him. Due to the acoustics his heartfelt plea echoed to the awkward King trying to not blush.

“Orange blossoms,” Ghaleb whispered back, his forehead brushing against Donato’s cheek.

The ambassador smiled a moment, his eyes tearing up as he released his hold on Ghaleb, “Indeed.” Slowly, the spymaster turned and stepped closer to Alistair.

Ignoring protocol, Alistair stood up from his throne and crossed to the man with his hands strapped to a metal bar dangling limply off those bony shoulders. He stopped a few feet away, but tried to stare into Ghaleb’s eye. “We searched your information, your tower to see if there was any connection to the assassins.”

“Nothing, not there. Not outside Ferelden either, within,” he stuttered, struggling to get the words out.

“Forget the crowd if you can, Ghaleb. I’ve known you for years and respected you.” At that the spymaster glanced up and he smiled so proud. That stung back at the King who knew the pain this trial would put the man under, who wished he could go back in time to tell Harding to abandon her search before it began. “My kids, they’re my life, and I need you to tell me the truth right now. Did you have anything to do with the assassins that threatened them?”

Ghaleb blinked slowly, that brilliantly confusing brain processing the request and probably doing advanced maths at the same time. “No,” he answered with the same sing-song voice that would ask for an egg without any yolks and then mash it all up into cut pieces of toast. Who’d sit across from Alistair during card nights and point out how people in Nevarra would place a skull on the table to tell when someone was cheating. That was perhaps the only man in Ferelden that didn’t ever treat him like a King. To Ghaleb everyone had the same worth because they were people.

Nodding, Alistair slid away from his friend and caught Beatrice’s face. She had perfected the ‘I’m listening without giving a fart about what you’re saying’ face for court, but now her lips hung flat and tears brimmed in her eyes. This wasn’t easy for anyone. Returning to his throne, Alistair raised his voice to deliver the sentence he stayed up all night arguing with himself over.

“Ghaleb, you have served valiantly these past seven years as Spymaster to the crown, and I would even call you my friend,” he paused to glance down at the man. “However, I cannot overlook your egregious break in not just protocol but ethics as well.” Alistair had practiced saying egregious in front of a mirror for ten minutes to make sure it didn’t come out ‘egg rageous.’ “This breach requires a punishment.”

It wasn’t Ghaleb who whimpered but the stalwart Donato. He reached his freed hands to grip Ghaleb’s shoulder and the man cupped those fingers with his own manacled ones. Alistair gave them a moment to steel their spines before speaking. “Ghaleb, Spymaster to Ferelden, for consorting with another head of state without revealing that fact, you are henceforth with etcetera and so on stripped of your titles, any claims you have made on behalf of the crown, and...” Those crystal grey eyes tipped up and stared deep into Alistair’s soul as he prepared for the end. “And are banished from Ferelden,” he spat out, feeling tears prickling in his eyes but walking them back.

Donato gasped, slapping a hand to his mouth as his knees began to buckle. The crowd erupted into no one was quite sure. Some were upset that no one was having their head chopped off, while those, in particular the ones towards the back, liked Ghaleb at least enough to not want him lost. It was only the man of the hour who seemed unmoved by the King’s words. Ghaleb twisted his head to the side like a lost bird and waited, but Alistair needed a minute for the crowd to die down and to find his voice.

Turning to Donato, Ghaleb asked a question with his eyes and the ambassador whispered to him in antivan that he wasn’t going to die. When understanding bloomed, Ghaleb moved to rush up and grab the King’s hand, but Cade was quick to pin him in place. The Commander was fuming, as Alistair expected, but not about to disobey a King’s order.

He needed to wrap this up quickly and Alistair spoke above the crowd, “You will be boarded onto a ship immediately with a handful of your personal possessions. We shall retain any and all research or letters you have. I suggest you spend the walk to the harbor deciding on where the boat shall take you. I hear Antiva’s not so bad, if you can get used to Crows everywhere.” With that final joke the doom of the past week collapsed into a bright rainbow and Alistair’s smile lifted wide over his cheeks. He felt like he could float as Ghaleb and Donato embraced fully, both of them whispering in shock to each other while tears of joy broke from both their exhausted eyes.

“Milord,” Cade interrupted the happy moment, “may I please escort our prisoners out of the throne room now?”

“Yes, Commander. Take them to the antechamber until their things are gathered, then a squadron will see both to a ship bound for Antiva this afternoon,” Alistair ordered. He’d had to cough up a fancy Rivani rug to keep the damn thing waiting for him.

“As you command, your Highness,” Cade groaned. He tried to tug the two apart, but they seemed to be tethered together now by an unbreakable bond, for the first time letting their relationship out into the open air. That had to be nice.

It took awhile before Alistair could officially leave the throne room, a few of the Banns seizing the opportunity of the King in King-mode to bring up their grievances. He didn’t remember everything he promised, but the lack of sleep and giddiness filling his veins may have caused him to say every man and woman in Ferelden would get their own nug hat.

After gathering up Reiss, Alistair shook off the rest of the gentry upon Eamon and made a b-line for the antechamber. It was foolish, but he wanted to say goodbye. When he walked through the door, Ghaleb was adjusting a pin on his turban while Donato ran a finger down a stack of shirts inside a wooden crate. Both glanced up at the door opening, no doubt expecting it to be their escort out.

“Your Majesty,” Donato was the first to speak, and he bowed so deeply his head was perpendicular with the floor. “There is no gratitude I can express for what you have done.”

“It’s not,” he tried to wave off the emotion and reached over to shake the man’s hand instead. The disgraced ex-ambassador returned it, so full of gratefulness while he no doubt awaited a lot of probing questions from his guild and a questionable future. It felt wrong to be thanked for uprooting two people’s lives, but Alistair smiled through it and he turned to shake Ghaleb’s hand as well.

The ex-Spymaster launched himself at the King and caught him in a full hug. “Well, ah,” Alistair patted against Ghaleb’s bony shoulder blades and tried to ignore the awkwardness rising in his gut.

“I am sorry we shall be unable to finish our discussions on morality regarding the rise and fall of darkspawn,” Ghaleb said as if that was the most important thing to worry about. He nearly lost his head and the fact the King didn’t have anyone left to talk to was his concern. “And if a shark riding a dragon could win in a fight against a grizzly bear astride a giant.”

“That, uh,” Alistair stepped away from Ghaleb knowing his cheeks turned bright red as he tried to not glance over at the pretty woman watching this. “That’s not important.”

“Sire,” Cade stopped chewing apart his jawbone long enough to speak up, “the cavalcade is here to escort them.”

“Got it,” he had more he wanted to say, to give some all an inspiring speech for what was to come but nothing came out. Ghaleb picked up a bag far too small to give any man a new start on life, but he slipped an arm around Donato who was struggling with his crate. Two of the guards took pity and picked it up, or wanted to get down to the harbor quickly.

“Wait, I did have one question,” Alistair interrupted before the opportunity vanished forever. “What does orange blossom mean?”

Ghaleb’s normally stoic cheeks lit up red and he glanced down at the ground as if he hadn’t just had his personal life ripped apart by every able bodied person in the castle. Sensing his lover’s reluctance, Donato spoke, “It is our code of sorts. When we first kissed it was under an orange tree in blossom.”

“Awe,” a voice spoke from the corner, but when Alistair traced it to his bodyguard she was looking over her shoulder to see who it must have come from and also trying to disguise a no doubt blush on her cheeks.

There wasn’t time for proper goodbyes, or any really. Donato and Ghaleb vanished from the castle in a flurry of swords. To anyone watching, it looked as if the two were being marched to the gallows by the level of hardware on display, but judging by the smiles stretching upon both of the lovesick prisoner’s faces it appeared they had an armed escort to a picnic. Cade growled at their exit and looked about to say something to the King before shaking his head and leaving.

Alone aside from the bodyguard, Alistair sagged his ass against a small fountain, crumpling against the stone basin. He felt water splattering against his back but didn’t care. In fact, it was rather cooling. “You were kind when you didn’t have to be,” Reiss said, skirting closer.

“Was I? Ghaleb’s scary smart but he doesn’t have much in the form of people skills and Donato’s going back with a scar across his reputation to the land of assassins and more assassins but with fancier boots. They’ll have a huge climb uphill to make it.” He’d obsessed with it forever. A ruling of no punishment was out of the question. The fact remained that both lied to him, to the people, threatened the security of Ferelden. People would demand blood if Alistair didn’t make a show of it. So he tried for the kindest cut he could.

He felt a hand land upon his shoulder and lifted his exhausted head to stare up into Reiss’ eyes. Peridot! That was the stone’s name that glittered a sweeping grass green. Somehow hers were even brighter than a cut gemstone. “As long as there’s a chance, it’s amazing what people can manage.”

“I’ve seen some crazy pairings in my day. Ferrier with a butcher, stablehand with a dowager, mage with...with a templar, but a spymaster and an ambassador? People are going to be gossiping about this for years.” He felt a pinch around his temples, and Alistair’s hands wandered up to his head to bounce up that blighted crown. Yanking it off, he placed the damn thing beside him on the fountain and gently tugged his hair back into place.

Reiss glanced out the door then turned back to him, “Love can make people do strange things. But what other ruling could you have made? It was the best decision given the circumstance and no one can argue with that.”

“Wanna bet?” Alistair asked. Staggering to his feet, he lifted his hand and said, “Three, two, one.”

“Sire!”

“Your Majesty!”

“I protest against your unfair treatment for this supposed spymaster. He is a traitor to the Ferelden people!”

“Will you be honoring the concords enacted by the ambassador or have you destroyed everything the man worked for?”

“Why wasn’t there a hanging? We were promised a hanging?”

As the multitude of his citizens all burst in to remind Alistair that in this game there was no pleasing anyone, ever, he glanced over to Reiss. She grimaced at the multitude and then mouthed to him, ‘It was good.’

Somehow, in that moment, it was enough for Alistair.

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