Guarded Love

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Chapter 2: The Pieces

Alistair barely got his blade wet before the real professionals swooped in to finish off the assassins. Smoke drifted through the Denerim square, permeating up tipped over tables leaving vittles and other puffed pastries to rot on the ground. “Is everyone okay?” Alistair shouted, trying to waft away the fog with his armed hand. People ignored the King, their focus all on either panicking, -- understandable -- or bossing everyone around for not bending to their noble whims. The latter Alistair shoved aside with his shoulder, earning him a deadly glower and a “Well, I never” until the Bann got a good look at the face.

“Sire? Thank the Maker you’re all right,” a voice called out through the haze. Alistair’d know his not-uncle anywhere and he paused waiting for Teagan to catch up. Time had been less than kind to the gentle Arl, walloping him good over the years as if every stressful moment from his life landed in one go. But that didn’t stop Teagan from throwing up a gentle smile to all who crossed his path.

A woman clung tight to his arm, her fingers worrying over the Arl’s no longer white finery. Alistair didn’t recognize her, but he barely bothered to look at her face. He was too busy trying to pierce the fog for answers. “Yep, I’m just great. Really spiced up the party to have these stabby clowns added at the last minute. In fact, I’d love to sit down and have a long conversation with whoever thought to invite Maker damn Crows.”

Teagan tried to shake off the woman, but she wasn’t about to let up, her talons dug in tight. Instead, he sighed and patted her clutching arm before grabbing onto Alistair’s hand and tugging him closer, “Sire...where are the children?”

“They’re--”

“Milord,” a bombastic voice echoed above the roiling din of cries, its bass deep enough to cut through solid rock and roll up Alistair’s legs. Turning away from Teagan, Alistair spotted the cocksure walk of the man partially responsible for all of this.

“Commander Cade,” he greeted him, unable to stop sneering, “I hope you’ve got a great explanation for what in the void happened here.”

“We should get you to safety,” Cade continued over top the king’s words. He wasn’t an ugly man, not by any means. If you were to take a side of beef and by some demon wish turn it human you’d have an approximation of the Commander of the royal guards. Everything about him was meaty, from forearms thicker than ribeyes to a nose broken and reset so many times it nearly fell flush against his juicy cheeks. Whenever Alistair met with the man he felt an instant craving for roast pork.

“Funny, I’d have thought my own damn city would be plenty safe. Well, aside from the shopping rush before Satinalia. Then you’re just asking to have your kidneys perforated by an old lady bearing a hat pin,” Alistair babbled to himself while surveying the bodies being carted towards the dais where he sat with his children what felt only a minute ago. He ran into a few assassins on his way back to the square but nothing worthy of being called a Crow. Maker, even Zev had better moves than the two that all but leaped onto his blade. One had his eyepatch slip to the other side, causing him to run headfirst into the wall. Alistair meant to knock him out for questioning, but then the man tumbled face first over the retaining wall and then another twenty feet to his squishy demise. Maybe a soothsayer could make out something in his entrails decorating a laundry line.

Shaking away his thoughts, Alistair jabbed the bloodied sword at the piles of bodies, “Did you catch any alive?”

“Afraid not, Sire,” Cade shook his beefy head back and forth. Pink etched along his cheeks, breaking up the marbling of his skin. The man had been exerting himself.

“Who were they?” Teagan asked.

“Assassins,” Alistair sneered, “as a group. One out of two guesses whose.” While the House of Repose was always a good guess, they’d been on okay terms with Celene and her little love in elf with the Inquisition’s help. It seemed unlikely she’d let her in house assassins off the lead that easily. There wasn’t an official reason for Antiva to come after him, but Antivans never went in for proper politics. Treaties and diplomacy got in the way of all the best stabbings.

“Sire,” Cade spoke up, rocking on his tiny feet. “Perhaps it would be best if you...”

Alistair ignored the concern dripping from people paid to keep him alive. Dropping to a knee, he ran his hands along one of the dead bodies. Lacerations to the throat and...ah, it was a thigh wound that got him in the end. Nasty way to go, better than a gut one at least. He rifled through the pockets but they all turned out empty almost as if they were ordered to remove all identification before leaping onto a guard’s blade.

“Welp, I’m out of ideas,” he said, slapping his hand to his knee and staggering up.

“It might be in your best interest if you leave it to the professionals,” Teagan said, those sparkling blue eyes darting over the Cade.

“Aye, Sire, we will do all we can to get to the bottom of this disaster. You have my word.”

Alistair nodded, his eyes darting over the bodies. There were a good half dozen, but he couldn’t find the one that elven guard decapitated. Hm... Shaking off the thought, he turned to his Commander, “How many were hurt?”

“We’re not certain yet,” Cade hemmed.

“Some of the nobles were trampled in trying to escape,” Teagan spoke up.

“By other nobles who nobly ran right over top each other,” Alistair groaned, well aware that when it came to the gentry it was every man and woman for themselves. Probably while you threw a gallon of pitch and lit a match behind you to slow the others down.

“Please, Your Majesty, this is a matter for the guards to handle,” Cade said. “And we’re gonna drag it out of someone, believe me.”

Alistair tipped his head, accepting that he was in no position to go running around Denerim solving mysteries. For starters he looked like a right pillock with a pipe and hat. “Is the area secure, Commander Cade?” he asked, looking over the destruction of what was supposed to be the introduction of his son. So much for chiseling out his name now.

“Yes, Sire. We’ve made certain of it.”

“Good,” Alistair sagged before turning to Teagan, “Spud and the baby are holed up in the abandoned house at the end of the northern street. Blue chipped paint, rotted, Spud’s probably ripping some poor guard’s hair out. Take Marn and get them back to the castle.”

“Of course,” he said, tipping his head and almost causing his stupid hat to fall off.

“Spud can have whatever cake she wants. I assume Marn can handle the baby and...” he shook off the pain burrowing at the back of his head trying to chisel away his kingly stance. Alistair wrestled away the idea that he almost lost them both and knotted it away for later. Way later in the emptiness of his room where no one would see.

Patting Alistair once more, Teagan yanked back on the stricken woman clinging to him. He glanced over at Marn who shouldered through the flock of stricken handmaidens. Despite being in the thick of it with her own little one at her side, Marn was steady as a rock, with a face that could make a Qunari shit his little loincloth. Somedays Alistair wished she had been around for the blight. She’d probably have ripped an ogre in half with her bare hands.

“Ah,” Alistair shouted, causing Teagan to turn back. Rolling the sword in his hands, he presented the grip to his uncle. “Can you return this to the guard I borrowed it from? Thanks.”

Nodding that he understood, while also eyeing up the bloodied blade with a wary look, Teagan and Marn set off to find his children. Alistair wished he could go with, that he’d be the one to scoop up Spud, press a dozen stupid kisses to his son’s forehead, and then load them both up with all the sugar in the palace, but he had king shit to do, and sometimes that took priority.

“Commander Cade, gather up the dignitaries from Antiva and Orlais. I think it’s time we had a little chat.”


“Sire?”

Maker’s breath he was tired of hearing that. Day in and day out, sire this, sire that. As if all of Ferelden couldn’t stop thinking about his, er...uh. Andraste, don’t let them be imagining the royal scepter. He glanced up from his stance, arms folded tight into his armpits as if he was about to draw two daggers from behind him.

It was the Orlesian ambassador who spoke first, her dark eyes darting around the room as she somehow settled in while standing at attention. While the rest of Ferelden preferred to keep themselves dressed simply in the event they’d have to get work done, she was always swooping through the corridors with the extended hips of her outfit trying to knock down any end tables in the way. He heard that the scaffolding under her dress used to be wider until she wedged herself into a tighter hallway and someone had to cut her free. Lady Cherie was of noble blood about the same as him, a bit less bastard but there was some second wife in there or something. He ignored most of the dossier figuring it didn’t matter. In the fifteen years since sidling near the throne they’d been through seventeen Orlesian ambassadors. There was a point when two arrived, couldn’t decide who should stay or go and, after dealing with Alistair for a month, both abandoned ship back to snail land.

But Lady Cherie stuck it out. He suspected whatever she had waiting for her back in Orlais was less gilded than the Denerim palace, but she sure wasn’t going to slip off her high horse and admit it. Smoothing down her silks with the palm of a bejeweled hand, Cherie tipped her mounds of black velvet curls at him. “Do you intend to inform us as to why we’ve been summoned?”

No, I just invited you all here for a game of hide and seek. First one to find me gets the crown!

Alistair shook his smart ass thought away. He wanted to retreat back from what happened, but he threw on the cold anger that rarely came to him. “I’m wondering what you two were up to today, you know, when assassins dropped out of the sky and then tried to murder me.”

The second in that two was their Antivan ambassador, Baronet Donato. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain what a baronet was, and on occasion Alistair asked if it meant the man was once part of an orchestra. Older than what one would expect in an ambassador, normally it was a young one’s game, he bore that striking debonair look that could only be pulled off from the age of forty to about sixty five. A tasteful streaking of grey about the temples and slight baggage around his eyes were all that hinted at the bronzed man’s age, as well as some interesting history on him and his involvement in Antivan politics.

“Your Highness,” Donato bowed, his thick accent slipping in, “what occurred in the square was a travesty.”

“Really? You don’t end most naming ceremonies with Crows? Here I’d assumed that was tradition in Antiva.”

“Ah...” Donato blanched, those steel eyes darting over to the woman a decade or more younger as if she had all the answers. “You are certain they were Crows?”

“Certain, no? What I’m certain of in this world you could jam through the eye of a needle. Which is why you two are here to answer a few questions,” he began to pace around before his throne. The room was mostly cleared as his guards ran around handling the clean up in the square. There’d been no fatalities reported so far, which seemed highly unlikely. A pack of assassins and the only one killed were the trained killers? Maybe the Maker was smiling down on them that day.

“Are we on trial?” Cherie spoke up, her raspberry red lips puckering at the end of her sentence.

He blinked at it before shaking his head, “Depends.”

“On what?” Donato asked.

Alistair’s pacing paused right before his throne. He didn’t sit in it but the sword of Ferelden did. Oh, of course someone made certain to snatch that thing up and protect it with their life. Wouldn’t want the golden backscratcher to get lost. He knew it was practically useless, but the two ambassadors whose only experience on the battlefield involved reading reports long after the dead were burned kept shooting fearful looks towards it.

Stretching his arms wide and letting one dangle near the hilt, Alistair glared from one ambassador to the other, “If you had anything to do with it.”

“Sire,” Cherie scoffed. How did Orlesians manage to make laughing sound like they were putting on powder? Every grating chuckle was another dab of the lung choking dust into the air. “I understand you are...distraught and perhaps being overly emotional.”

“Could be,” he tipped his head back and forth, his lopsided grin sliding into place, “man can go a bit funny when his children are threatened right in front of him. Hard to not want to find whatever bastard was behind it and...see if they enjoy the multiple amenities of a dungeon suite.”

Donato and Cherie didn’t gulp, didn’t shoot worried glances at each other, or scream ‘you’ll never catch me, mwhahahaha’ while hurling down a smoke bomb and rushing out the door. They folded back into their damn safety ambassador bubble. He knew it wouldn’t work to threaten them. She had that damn game, and it was doubtful Donato could show more than one, perhaps two emotions period. Alistair shot a quick glance over at Commander Cade who’d personally escorted both to his throne room.

“Sire, please, there’s no need to bring threats into this matter. I’m certain the Empress...”

“Will fully side with Ferelden in this matter. Believe me, for all of Celene’s fanciful metaphors hiding behind chevaliers, siccing the house of repose upon the children of a crown will turn her allies against her. Don’t think the Free Marches isn’t just looking for an excuse to knock about Orlais.”

Cherie sneered below her mask. She wore it so often he stopped thinking of it as a mask and considered it her real face. It fit her personality better, all sharp lines and exaggerated features. “I do not know what low-brow Marcher politics you think you have control over, but I shall not be treated in such a fashion.” She lifted up the ends of her dress about to spin in place when Cade’s kindly hand thudded onto her arm.

“My Lady, you may wish to remain for the moment,” Cade whispered, the man of meat towering far above her wispy frame.

She blanched below her piles of rouge, locking her arms back around her stomach to wait. Jerking his head, Alistair motioned the Commander away from the two ambassadors so they could whisper alone.

“Milord, if you don’t have anything concrete to challenge them with I’m afraid we can’t keep them hostage,” Cade explained as if Alistair wasn’t aware. Diplomatic immunity was a giant pain in his ass on a good day, and this was not a good day.

“This would be easy if those damn assassins had thought to keep an, I don’t know, royal on them or... Blighted hell, what do they even use in Antiva?” Cade looked about to answer, but Alistair waved him away. He didn’t care. “And where’s our damn spymaster in all this?”

The answer to his second question charged through the door, knocking it open so fast it swung back at him and nearly bashed into his nose. “Sorry, sorry, got all caught up in...there were some, um...what’d I miss?” He skidded to a halt beside the two ambassadors and tried to stand at attention. Ghaleb was exactly what you didn’t expect to find in a spymaster. While most were terrifying shadows come to life, he was an oil painting someone picked up and shook before it dried. His face didn’t just drip, it all but sagged off his skull. As he was a good five years younger than Alistair it was all downhill from here. There were times the king wanted to grab onto both of Ghaleb’s cheeks and lift them back up into their proper place.

Instead of a hood, Ghaleb always wore a turban knotted around his head. At the moment it was trailing along behind him, the ends coated in dirt. He followed his King’s eye and then panicked at his mess before yanking the end up and trying to stuff it all back around his head.

“I’m guessing you heard about what happened in the square,” Alistair said to his spymaster.

“Yes, yes,” Ghaleb nodded before crinkling his ruddy nose. “Er, what happened precisely?”

“For the love of the Maker...” Alistair jabbed a thumb at Cade. “Fill the man in, and you,” he pointed at Ghaleb, “get out there and find the culprits.”

“Yes Sire!” Ghaleb saluted and turned on his heel about to run out the door. He paused before Alistair had to shout for him to get back here and sheepishly returned.

As his comically awkward spymaster listened to the full list from Cade, Alistair rounded back on Cherie and Donato. “I assume you both have alibis during the actual attack,” he sighed. Anyone with any skill would have arranged all of this with themselves present to make it look good. He may not have paid much attention to Leliana and her bardic ways, but he at least got that part figured out.

Cherie nodded her head crisply; knowing that woman there were a dozen men clustered around and fanning her while popping grapes into her mouth. It was Donato who paused, his steel eyes drifting back towards Ghaleb as the spymaster kept bouncing a finger against his goatee and gasping. “Your Majesty, if you have intentions to place us under arrest...”

“No,” Alistair waved his hand, accepting defeat. For all his bluster there was nothing in his hand. He’d been chucking a few joker cards at them hoping they’d fold if he caused a bad paper cut. “Not unless we find anything.”

“So we are to be watched? Delightful,” Cherie said and she sounded as if she meant it. Spinning on her heels, which she clicked together for no discernible reason, the Lady Ambassador clip-clopped across the throne room for the door. Baronet Donato bowed deep before sliding back to follow. Before exiting he cast another glance over at Ghaleb who was now jabbing his finger in the air as if he could see something no one else could.

When both ambassadors exited, Alistair yanked up his sword and collapsed into the throne. He hated the damn thing; it pinched his lower back, flattened his ass, and whenever he sat in it a bundle of nerves at the back of his brain blared as if someone blasted a horn at him. But right then and there he needed to sit and people’d probably frown on their king collapsing to the floor like a toddler. A cookie, juice, and a nap sounded delightful.

“Your Highness,” Ghaleb shouted, his tenor voice echoing against every stone. While most other spymasters whispered he tended to scream as if afraid everyone would overlook him. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibilities, at barely five and a half feet and skinny enough to slide through the bars in the dungeon, he tended to blend in with everything. That, however, wasn’t what made him their spymaster.

“Please tell me you’ve come up with something,” Alistair said.

“Ah, perhaps. I’ll have to run a few...and, no, maybe the left one is, but then again...I, uh.” He gulped a few times, reining that galloping mind back in, “I’ll go get to work right now, Sire.”

“Good,” Alistair waved his hand, “dismissed, get to it. Do that thing you do.” He didn’t watch Ghaleb scamper away, though it had to be entertaining, he was too busy crumpling up into his lap trying to not scream at the world. After a good decade of every damn noble in Ferelden hinting rather loudly that there should be a screaming mouth or five in the palace by now, they finally had not one but two. It wasn’t exactly his doing, and while Alistair thought he’d keep himself apart from all that sire rearing, he didn’t count on falling deep under the spell first of his daughter and then son.

Spud, not her real name obviously -- even he wasn’t that cruel -- was beyond what he’d ever expected or hoped for. Alistair thought he’d let that side of him die, the selfish part that could get attached to things he wanted. Maker knew he certainly tried to bludgeon it to death after giving up Lanny post getting saddled with the shiny hat. He snickered at that thought, she was the only one dead certain that he’d bond with his daughter. Maker, how was that woman always right?

“Milord,” Cade’s rumbling broke Alistair from his maudlin turn and he flexed his face at the Commander. “I think it’s time we consider security.”

“Yes, someone should keep tabs on both of the ambassadors to make certain they don’t, I don’t know, take to hiding barrels of explosives around. Maker, that was fun.”

“No,” Cade interrupted. He was one of the rare ones to call Alistair on his bullshit without flinching and, funny enough, the King liked that about him. “I mean security for you.” After whistling, the door was thrown open and a bear stepped into the throne room.

Alistair skidded off his seat, fingers fumbling for the useless sword, when he realized that below the mounds of black fur sprouting a foot off the chin and up over the head was a human face. He had to tip his head back even further to try and catch the eyes, the man approaching seven feet tall.

“How does he fit through the halls?” Alistair whispered to the Commander, eyeing up the man who could easily be two men and still have enough room for another half.

“This is Ser Brunt,” Cade said, tapping his man on the back.

“Brunt?” Alistair stuttered. “Is that a family name? Did you have a grandfather named Phineous Brunt? Great aunt perhaps?” For his part, Brunt only grunted at that, the forced laugh shaking his beard.

“Milord,” Cade continued, trying to snap Alistair’s attention away. The king felt an urge to hand over a honey pot to Brunt just to see what would happen. “After the attack today it is obvious you shall require protection and this man is the best soldier under my command.”

Alistair shook away his thoughts of seeing Brunt riding around on a pony while wearing a fez. “What? No, it’s fine.”

Narrowing his meaty lips, Cade shook his head. “Sire, as head of your security I demand that you have a bodyguard on your person at all times.” Alistair turned to argue, when Cade added, “At least until we solve who sent those assassins.”

That did him in. He had a pretty good excuse, it wasn’t as if he was without fighting skills and a few of the ol’ templar ones if he focused really hard. But this was different. They nearly got to him. They nearly got to...

“Ser Brunt will guard my children,” Alistair pronounced in such a Kingly fashion even Cade took a moment to interrupt.

“Sire?”

“You said it yourself, he’s the best, right? And what I want protecting them from whatever’s out to get us is that. The best. All seven feet of it.”

Brunt turned down to look at his boss, confusion clouding his massive brow. Swallowing down what sounded like a dozen objections, all of which Alistair could easily deflect when it came to his kids, Cade licked his lips. “And what of you Sire? You still require a bodyguard.”

“It’s not a problem, Commander.”

“Milord?”

Alistair picked up the golden sword and slipped it back into its underused sheathe, “I’ve already got someone in mind.”

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