Guarded Love

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Chapter 20: Dumplings

“Here, let me look,” the King reached across the table, his sleeve skirting through a boat of gravy to snatch up one of a dozen missives that arrived on the hour. Reiss tried to gesture to his mess, but he caught it and absently sucked on the stained sleeve while reading though yet another report from Harding. “She’s only been acting Spymaster for two days, and I’ve already got enough reports from her to build a little fort,” he complained. “Was she this bad in the Inquisition?”

“I cannot say, Ser,” Reiss said. While the rest of the castle either breathed a sigh of relief at having the Ghaleb problem solved, or flounced off to stew about the King’s decision, they were granted a nice reprieve from an ever pressing doom. Only Harding bit fully into her job, unearthing thousands of Ghaleb’s old notes and often needing the King to translate some of it.

“Oh, I know this one,” he turned the paper upside down and then glanced up, “anyone got a quill?”

“Yes, Sire, we regularly dine with ink bottle and feathers,” someone called from the end of the table. It was hard to make out who as people kept flittering in and out, Reiss barely catching a face or voice.

Unperturbed at the sarcasm, Alistair dipped his finger in a red jam and dotted it against the first letter in each paragraph. Proud of his work, he leaned back and smiled, “There, Harding should be able to get the rest.” As he rolled up the jellied scroll, another plate of dumplings were deposited in front of the man. He didn’t even blink as he turned to the woman and smiled, “Renata, these are perfect.”

“Aye, I’d hope so seein’ as how you’ve eaten a horse full today,” the cook snickered. She’d taken the time to toss off her apron and fluff her hair out of the cap, proud of the food that was fattening a King who never showed it.

He flashed a cheese eating grin and stuffed one of the dumplings straight into his cheeks. Gnawing upon it like a squirrel ready for winter, he shrugged, “It’s nice to have an appetite back.”

“Right you are, Sire,” Renata smiled, her hand patting the King on the shoulder like an ornery but generally good natured boy. She limped back towards the kitchens no doubt to prep them for another dumpling run.

Alistair returned to the work he’d let pile up while he stewed about Ghaleb. On occasion Eamon would pop in and gently try to steer the man towards other matters, but after his performance with the Spymaster problem it seemed everyone was happy to give their wayward King a little more leash. Which made him even more playful than before.

“You’re not eating?” the King glanced over at Reiss who stood in her place. He’d cleared a seat but someone else was quick to claim it, and she wasn’t about to push her luck.

“I am good, Ser,” she said, often making quick meals of whatever she could grab in the kitchens. Renata was good on her word, occasionally have small plates marked for “The King’s Beleaguered Bodyguard.”

“Okay,” he shrugged then reached over to jam another dumpling into those stretched cheeks, “but these are really good today. Best she’s ever made. Perhaps best in Denerim.”

“That I rather doubt,” Reiss snickered, she meant it to be to herself but those puppy brown eyes honed in on her.

“Really? Are you holding out on me here, knight?”

“It,” she mentally kicked herself while trying to walk back a way out of this mess. Good job always stepping in it there, Reiss. “There’s a small shop I know of in Denerim that are the best in thedas.”

“Right,” the King dipped his hands in a bowl of water before ringing them against his thighs and staggering up. “The gauntlet’s been thrown. For my cook’s honor I shall have to inspect these better dumplings.”

“Ser, I...” Reiss tried to keep her voice low as she leaned towards him, “this is not a wise idea.”

“Why?”

She could point out that he’d been eating the damn things all day and was liable to explode, but people seemed to take the man’s bottomless appetite in stride. “Do you not have meetings to handle today?” Reiss tried instead.

“I’m King, if I want to reschedule people have to agree otherwise,” he mimed chopping a head off with his hands.

“The shop I know of is, it’s located in the...” Reiss tried to whisper with the flow of the dining hall so no one would hear her next word, “Alienage.”

She expected him to flinch, to hem and haw about the idea of anyone with blue blood setting foot in the slums of Denerim, but the man only shrugged. “Okay.”

“Okay? You, you have no problem with, this is an Alienage. A dangerous place for anyone, in particular humans never mind of noble birth. I’m not certain if it is a wise idea for you to risk your life for a few dumplings. Even if they are the best in thedas.” She tried to play it off as a joke, but it belly flopped on impact.

Alistair’s eyes slipped closed a moment and he breathed deep. “After the past few weeks, an excuse to get out of the castle, sit somewhere for awhile, and eat dumplings sounds perfect. Forget things for a bit.”

There was no argument Reiss had against that. Truth be told, she missed walking the alienage. She’d never been this long gone since first arriving in Denerim. Surely someone was concerned for her lengthy disappearance. Even still, her job was to protect the man from harm not throw him right into it. “Are you certain?”

“Don’t worry,” he smiled, “I’m really good at blending in. And, I’ll have my bodyguard by my side the whole time.”

Reiss couldn’t shake the small worry in her gut screaming that this was all going to explode in her face, but she nodded her head, “Very well. We should leave soon, Ineria’s known to close up shop before the sun sets.”

He beamed a smile at her and, after yanking up the pile of vellum next to his plate, raced her up the stairs to change. Assuring herself that it’d be okay, somehow, she slipped into her room. Reiss had a few options before her. She never wore the guard uniform when walking the alienage, and preferred to rely upon her tunics and trouser combo but that felt too unprofessional for traveling in the company of the King. Even if no one was supposed to know who he was, he would. And there was that burr in her stomach again, trying to embed itself as a warning that she was about to take the noblest noble into a nest of elves.

Taking a few calming breaths, Reiss selected the nicest not armored thing she owned - a simple grey dress with sleeves that cut off at the elbows. She wore one of her cobalt blue tunics below that uncertain if it would grow chilly or that the sight of elbow flesh might be a slight to nobility. It was hard to guess with some humans. After securing a dagger in her boot, Reiss patted her stomach. This was probably when she was supposed to look in the mirror and judge her worthiness based upon what glared back but she didn’t have the time nor will to bother. She only made a quick glance at her ears, the welts on the tips an angry pink but the rough skin remained. It grew more doubtful that it’d ever fully heal away.

“How’s this?” the King’s voice echoed under their shared door and she opened it to find him finishing off the last tie on a crimson doublet. There was no golden embroidery, no diamonds or silk, and she noticed a small white hand print upon his trousers. He caught her staring and shrugged, “Spud found paint and...let’s just say some of my ancestors are sporting brand new white mustache smudges.” It was no nonsense clothing, the kind one would expect to find on any worker running up and down the streets from job to home and back again. The fit cut tight to his imposing frame but not enough to restrict his airflow. He looked gorgeous.

What? No. Where did that thought come from?

Not gorgeous, just that the color worked well with his boyish smile. That was what she meant in her head. Suddenly aware that Reiss had been staring at the man without saying anything she snapped out an, “It looks fine. Doubtful anyone will notice you.”

For a brief moment a pang broke up his smile as if he was hoping for something else from her, but it sank back to the depths. Smiling, the King slapped his hands together and gestured to the hallway, “Shall we?”

Reiss took the lead towards the Alienage, certain that the King had never set his golden slipper anywhere near it. She was right about no one noticing the King in his outfit, no one batted an eye at the two of them stepping straight out of the gates past a dozen guards who should know them both on sight. Even she felt somewhat slighted at being so easily forgotten without shiny metal slapped across her chest. For his part, the King waved a cheery salute at them before turning wide down an alley.

“It’s this way, Ser,” Reiss said, trying to get his attention.

“Ah, how about we try this one instead,” he answered back with a giddy smile in place. His spirits seemed to levitate off his shoulders the second they broke from the palace gates.

Reiss knew that in order to make it to the Alienage they had to return to the main thoroughfare and then cut back across the bridge. There were only two ways in and out, but who was she to question her boss. If she was lucky, he’d get them lost and she wouldn’t have to deal with the problem of a dozen elves glaring daggers at a shem that could have them beheaded. “Okay,” she gave in, “we’ll take your path.”

He flashed his teeth once before breaking into a quick walk down the alley. The King’s path involved scurrying over a fence, climbing a ladder to leap over a few mercifully close buildings, climbing down a second ladder, leaping across boats clustered together on the river, before somehow arriving at the Alienage’s gates.

“Maker’s sake,” Reiss gasped, cranking her head around to try and get her bearings from the sun. “That worked?”

Alistair shrugged, “A man should know his city, right?”

He slowed, quick to give up his lead, so the two of them could stroll in together. Even still, Reiss naturally walked a step or two ahead, her eyes crawling for danger. A few older elves sat upon a bench outside, one of them begging for change, the other gnawing upon a rotten piece of fruit. It was so past its prime it was impossible to tell what it was.

As they passed under the gates, Reiss began to take a deep breath when she remembered the shem beside her. This wasn’t a return to home, she was at work. Remember that. The King didn’t gawp at elves hustling through their streets, children chasing each other around in the muddy paths, or even comment on the long line sitting on a porch braiding each other’s hair. She’d expected a constant stream of him pointing and asking for her to explain everything like his elven culture interpreter.

“I’m getting the impression you’ve been here before,” Reiss said, her unease cracking a bit.

“You could say that, though it’s been awhile,” he said. “Hey, it’s the big tree,” Alistair commented on the vhenedhal tree, its branches overflowing with the twists about to fan out to become leaves. “Last time I saw it was winter. Thing reminded me of a giant skeleton hand popping out to swat you to the ground.”

Reiss stepped beside him and glanced ever higher up to the elfiest thing in the Alienage. She knew she should feel some connection to it, a need to protect it against all else, but in truth she thought it was a big and pretty tree and nothing more. “I thought so too,” she admitted to him, her voice barely a whisper.

“When it’s got that blanket around it for Satinalia, that’s the sleeve of the skeleton revenant’s coat. Can skeletons become revenants?”

“You know about the Satinalia quilt?” she asked, focusing fully upon the human beside her. Even she had to ask what it was about her first year in Denerim, having never been to an Alienage before.

The King looked about to answer when a voice shouted out from the slabs of wood tossed over the mud, “Well well, if it ain’t the snake.”

“Hello Jarth,” Reiss groaned, not bothering to turn around.

“That’s what snakes do, right? They gobble up all the little knife ears and toss ’em into their big prisons,” Jarth scurried nearer to Reiss but always remained far from his grasp.

“Your metaphor needs work,” she didn’t look at him, certainly felt no need to rise to his bait. If a weasel learned how to walk upright, it’d bear a striking resemblance to Jarth and probably try to find a blood mage to alter its face because of the unfortunate association.

“You walk around here like you own the place. Well, you don’t. You ain’t even one of us, not proper like. Turning on your own people for a bit of extra coin? How many other knife-ears have you knocked about to meet your quota?”

She could feel him advancing and while Reiss would normally walk away, well aware of what some elves thought of her on the city guards, she feared what the King might do. Whipping around, she grabbed onto Jarth’s collar, her fingers knotting through the holes for a better grip. Yanking him down, Reiss growled in his face, “Got something to say to me, Rat? Cause I bet if I go poking into your business I’d find myself enough dirt I could cash out my pension right now.”

Jarth sneered, his broken lip lifting higher to reveal bloody gums, no doubt from the dragon blood that’d been flooding the streets. When it was kept to the Alienage, no one cared if the elves medicated themselves to oblivion, but once it crossed those gates suddenly mayors and commanders were calling for heads to roll. She could easily toss him into a jail cell, wait until he crashed and through the shakes get names from him. But what would that really solve? One hook off the street, maybe two at best while five crop up to replace it. It was like trying to kill cockroaches with a bow and arrow.

“You got nothing on me, flat...foot,” he smiled wide at that.

“No,” Reiss released her hold and pushed him away. Noticeably wiping the filth of him off down her dress, she answered back, “you’re not worth the paperwork.”

Without any ammo to come back at her, Jarth skittered back to his hole. If she wasn’t careful, he might try and gather up a few of his other friends to flag her down which was why she could never live in the Alienage. They were only sort of her people, when she was playing the part right. “Sorry about that, Ser,” Reiss said.

“You can’t make them happy all the time,” he smiled at her. “Believe me, I had that one hammered into me a lot over the years. Now,” Alistair slapped his hands together and rubbed them in anticipation, “you promised the best dumplings in thedas.”

“I did,” she breathed, glad that Jarth didn’t draw attention to the human beside her and that the human beside her was surprisingly understanding. Reiss found herself constantly rewriting everything she ever knew about nobility and kings in particular with him. “They’re this way.” She gestured to a tiny door that opened to an even tinier flat. Someone cut the room in half with a wall giving people just enough space to either stand beside the door or pull out the chairs and sit at the table, you couldn’t do both.

“Cozy,” the King commented. Sucking in his stomach, the stockier human struggled to move through elven space.

“Ineria!” Reiss called, her voice echoing in the tiny room causing the multitude of signs to rattle upon the walls. No one knew why Ineria kept so many, but they all bore elven names dear to them. Dirthavaren was painted in green over muddy brown wood streaked with rain water while Elvhenan rested to the other side of the room, its script with a curl to the L that required a second board hammed above it. Arlathan hung over the door so every person who left could place a finger against it. It bore no banners the way the palace dining hall did, no golden chalices nor jeweled plates but Reiss felt at home here. Even having never been raised in an Alienage, only picking up a bit of the old tongue here and there from her days in the camp and in the Inquisition she sensed a power in the words, in belonging somewhere.

Realizing what she pulled the human King into, Reiss glanced over at the man. Alistair was holding a breath to try and squeeze around, but he didn’t look perturbed or unsettled. He ran a finger down the sides of his stubble while inspecting the Elvhenan sign when the only other door in the place opened and Ineria rushed out.

“Da’mi!” she cried to Reiss, “You’ve returned. It’s been so long, too long.”

Ineria had her grey hair stuffed up under a towel to give her neck breathing room. She was always red faced from the fires which gave an even brighter burn to the red tattoos of the Dalish across her brow and down a cheek. Thin as a reed, Ineria looked like a fragile old woman but when someone crossed her they learned that reed bore a steel center. Whether that was from living in the woods as a Dalish or the spine necessary to pick up her roots and move to an alienage Reiss couldn’t say, but given her own life she’d put her coin on the latter.

The older woman dropped a bag of flour to the floor and nimbly stepped around the table to throw her arms around Reiss. She gave into the hug when Ineria’s batter spattered fingers grabbed onto her chin and twisted it around. Her eyes narrowed as she gave Reiss a through checkup. “You’ve been using the poultice for your tips I suggested.”

It wasn’t a question, but Reiss nodded anyway.

“And the other to assist with your digestive problems?”

“Ah,” Reiss cut off the string of highly personal and embarrassing questions about to tumble from the woman’s mouth. Her eyes glanced over at the King only for a second before returning to the woman.

Never one to miss anything out of place, Ineria slowly glanced over at the human in her restaurant. Those crisp eyes traveled up and down the King who sucked his bottom lip over the top and kept staring at the ceiling. “You’ve brought a guest, da’len?”

“I have,” Reiss said. “I told him that you have the best dumplings in all of thedas.” Ineria snorted at that as if it were as certain a fact as what direction the sun rose. The shemlan for his part shrugged and in the process knocked his elbow against the sign for the elven people. At that Ineria only sighed softly to herself before turning back to Reiss.

“While I would enjoy teaching the shemlan the limits of their knowledge, I’m afraid I have no dumplings in stock.” She pointed at the bag of flour and groaned, “Due to some collision out on the King’s Road I only received my allotment of flour a few minutes ago.”

Reiss’ regret at not getting to sample Ineria’s cooking melted into joy. This was the best possible outcome; no one could be upset because no one was at fault and they’d have no reason to remain in the Alienage where risk to the King or elves would increase exponentially. She threw on her best ‘damn, that’s a shame’ look, and prepared to thank Ineria before guiding the King out.

“How long do they take to prepare?”

Ineria whipped around to eye up the human who spoke. “Hours,” she said in a stringent tone. “Unless,” Ineria’s calculating tongue ran over her teeth. “Da’len, what if you were to assist?”

“I don’t know much about cooking,” Reiss admitted. She could manage scraping by, but wasn’t about to invite anyone to eat anything she ever made.

“Even better,” Ineria smiled, “no knowledge means an empty head I can fill with facts. Much easier to direct. Please, it’s doubtful I will make it before the harbor breaks for evening and the alienage is flooded with hungry and exhausted people.”

“I...” Reiss glanced over at the King and watched him shrug.

He stepped forward and spoke, “If it’ll help morale, I don’t see any reason to not pitch in.”

“Ah,” Ineria glared at him, “you intend to help as well, Sir...”

Alistair didn’t miss a beat as he stepped forward and said, “Duncan.” Extending his hand, Ineria awkwardly lifted it up and gave a shake.

Not even lowering her voice, she asked Reiss in elvish, “Do you trust this one, Da’len?”

The King posing as Duncan blinked slowly but didn’t cut in to demand they speak proper common. Nodding, Reiss whispered, “Yes.”

“Very well,” Ineria glided over to Alistair and inspected him up and down, “Dun-can.” She spoke the fake name slowly before shaking her head at the foolish human letters. “You will follow my every command to the letter, not talk back, and answer with a ‘yes ma’am.’ Is that understood?”

Reiss tried to reach over, her brain searching for all the elvish she knew to explain that Ineria was about to wake up with her head on a pike when the King smiled wide, “Got it. Wait, I mean yes, Ma’am. Sorry.”

Ineria didn’t hide her groan as she threw her head back to glare at the creators for cursing her so. “Since I have no other choice, Dun-can, lift up that bag of flour and follow me.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Alistair saluted. Ineria didn’t bother to watch as the shemlan tugged up the burlap sack and tossed it over his strapping shoulder without a thought. She yanked open the kitchen door and, with her head, directed the human inside.

“Follow quickly before all the heat escapes and I must proof the dough again,” she chastised the man who dipped his head down and scurried into the kitchen.

Reiss was quick to follow, afraid that Ineria was about to find whatever noble button there was that would send the king from lovable goof to raging inferno. He had to have one, they all did. Wait, not lovable, not like that. She meant in the abstract sense. Of course.

Shaking off that sobering mental misstep, Reiss glanced around at a place so elusive it may as well be Arlathan itself. Kitchens for restaurants were blocked off from prying eyes to keep others from attempting to swipe family recipes or secret ingredients and none ruled over her kingdom with an iron fist the way Ineria did. A small wolf carving hung over the other door to the outside alley. Perhaps a warning to anyone daring to sneak in? It wasn’t a singe great fireplace that blazed alive in the back room but three of them, each with iron grates placed atop the flames. One appeared to be out while the other two danced with a spray of red below until Reiss stretched up and noticed blue flame blazing below. Maker, how hot was that?

“Place it here,” Ineria ordered Alistair while pointing at her crafting table. It didn’t look like any typical cooking table Reiss ever knew. This one was three separate small tables locked together to form a big one with wheels on the bottom. Once the bag was in its place, Ineria flipped up one of the locks and wheeled the station towards the farthest wall, more or less trapping Alistair tight.

“This is yours, you are to sift the flour, which I hope you know how to do, and fill this bowl until I say,” Ineria spoke slowly, watching the human to see if he understood.

“Yeah, I’ve broken up a few sacks of flour in my day, Ma’am,” he caught his wandering tongue and then saluted again.

“Good,” she refused to be impressed but Alistair seemed to know what he was doing, easily unknotting the top of the bag and scooping with a gentle flow into her great metal basin. If Reiss had done it, she’d have just hauled up the sack and dumped it out in one go. Even with his skill, Ineria kept an eagle eye on him until she shouted out, “Stop!”

Without thinking, Alistair dropped the flour coated cup against the table, which sent a wave of the white powder rushing up into the air and spattering against his crimson doublet. Even with his less than finery coated in flour, the King cracked a wide smile. Shrugging at the mistake, he tugged up on his hair, coating that in flour as well. Reiss couldn’t stop the giggles from how pasty the half pastry king looked, nor how happy he seemed to be while covered in the beginnings of baking.

Ineria turned over at Reiss and then waved her near, “Da’len, come. Do you require an apron for your dress?” She glanced over pointedly at the human she didn’t offer one too.

“Ah, no, I should be okay. I’ll keep myself back from the bigger messes.”

“Yes, do try that,” Ineria cut in before she dug a hand into the flour and made a hole.

“What’s that for?” Alistair asked, his eyes sparkling as he watched the woman work.

“To make dumplings,” Ineria answered while filling a cup with water and handing it to Reiss. She shooed the elf closer to the King and Reiss realized just how little space there was in this tiny kitchen. Holding the cup tight, Reiss felt her elbow brush against the King’s floured chest. He tried to flatten tighter to the wall to give her room but there was none to be had.

Either used to it, or enjoying making them both uncomfortable, Ineria jammed a wooden spoon in Alistair’s hands and ordered, “Da’len, you slowly add the water in a continuous pour while you, Dun-can, stir. Can you handle that?”

“Yes, Ma’am!” he saluted with the spoon.

Reiss snickered and added her own, “Yes, Ma’am.” She turned to her partner in crime and raised an eyebrow, “Ready?”

“I hope so,” he admitted, holding the spoon at the ready inside the flour. Reiss tipped her hand down and water dribbled into the hole while the King began to stir the spoon clockwise which meant the handle and his hands were coming right for Reiss on the way back around. “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered as she scrabbled up on her tiptoes to let him pass under. She couldn’t stop laughing when he went again, still offering up apologies for making her stand up taller. Concentrating on his stirring as if it was the most important job in thedas, the King stuck his tongue in between his teeth and honed in on the bowl. With the last of the water soaking into the flour, Reiss yanked back her arm to let the man put his bicep-flexing-all into it.

It was hypnotic to watch him throw everything into making dough for an elven woman scouring away in an Alienage. There was no reason for it, certainly to not risk the state of his clothing or the potential burn in the muscles of his arms, but nothing could break off that smile lighting up his face.

“Stop!” Ineria shouted. Alistair’s hand paused but both he and Reiss regretted that he couldn’t keep going. The dalish woman yanked the bowl filled with lumpy, wet flour away from the King and turned her back to them onto the other table. A few interesting elvish phrases slipped from her lips as she seemed to be pulverizing the dough into shape, some of which Reiss had never learned.

The King bounced the spoon back and forth absently while watching, which caused the dough clinging to it to splatter first against the wall and then his hair. “Oh Maker, I...” he reached over to try and scrub off the wall, but mostly worked it into the wood grain. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked Reiss.

She shrugged, “Maybe put it back on the counter?”

“Do I, do I wipe it off first or...?” With his hand he cupped his palm against the spoon and swiped hard, transferring nearly all the remaining dough onto his own skin. Now that the spoon was clean, he felt safe to lay it back on the table beside the others.

Reiss leaned close to him and whispered, “What was your plan to clean your hand off, Duncan?”

“Uh,” he inspected the globs of wet flour slowly and then with a jolly enthusiasm, patted Reiss on the shoulder streaking it down her dress. “I was going to congratulate you on a wonderful job of pouring that water.”

She glanced over at the mess and without pause picked a handful of flour up in her hand. “You deserve some as well,” she snickered before tossing it all over his head, “for stirring so accurately.” For a flicker, as the King’s face blanketed in an unreadable expression, Reiss screamed at herself. Maker’s breath, what did you just do?

Then the man fully cracked up, his barely clean hand digging more glop into his hair. The joy was so contagious it didn’t just flit with Reiss’ smile, but blotted away her clinging fears. He’d been berated, stared at, threatened, and then soiled by elves and his only reaction was a genial shrug. Her stomach flipped inside out as she leaned even closer to him, fingers reaching up to knock off a small dab of dough on his cheek.

“You,” Ineria shouted, spinning back around. Reiss yanked her hand back behind her and leaned away. The dalish woman focused fully on Alistair, but she felt her eyes drift over a moment. “The dough requires rest, in the meantime we make the filling.”

“There’s filling?” Alistair gasped.

“Fenheedis,” Ineria rolled her eyes as she wiped her hands vigorously down her apron, “of course there is filling. How else does one do dumplings? Da’len, below the counter is the pork shoulder. You, Dun-can, how are you at working the blade?”

“I’m...okay at it,” he smiled, a blush baking the dough on his cheek.

“We shall see,” Ineria grumped as she whipped out a chef’s knife, snatched up the human’s hand and pressed it safely into his palm.

While Reiss diced up cabbage and minced carrots, the King of Ferelden, hero of the Blight, and once templar slowly whacked pieces of bright pink pork flesh off the bone. Ineria would cluck her tongue while watching, shouting if he made a dice too small or too large, the difference almost imperceptible. Reiss expected him to groan at the Dalish woman’s impossible demands, but he was ecstatic to be running a knife through the meat. With a great palmful he’d drop his work into Reiss’ bowl and then return to it without a glance or grumble.

It surprised her how at home this noble man -- more than noble -- royal King moved through a tiny kitchen in the Alienage. There was no command that someone replace him when he stood too long in one place, he merely dipped down to try and stretch out his knees, then began to walk back in place. About the only thing to dampen his spirits was the rising heat of three bodies trapped in a small room designed for roasting.

“Maker’s sake, I fear I’m going to melt into flesh goo and drip through the floorboards,” he muttered under his breath while scraping every last morsel off the bone and then tossing it to an eventual stock pot.

Ineria snorted at his complaining, but Reiss agreed. “I regret wearing my tunic,” she whispered to him, hoping the Dalish woman wouldn’t hear. Another wave of blistering heat wafted out of the underfloor hearth as Ineria refreshed the coals. Groaning, Reiss wiped off the sweat upon her brow with her forearm and whined, “Now I regret wearing the dress.”

“Ah...” the King’s jaw hung slack and he continued chopping the knife up and down without any meat in the way. Reiss glanced over at it, which was enough to snap him out of his momentary lapse. “Right,” he grumbled, “I’m going to hit the floor if I don’t do something.”

She expected him to slide out of the room, perhaps to get a breath of air outside in the back alley or the front of the house, but Alistair washed his bloody fingers off in the bowl, toweled them off, and began to unlace the front of his doublet. Oh shit! Reiss glared daggers at her bowl of cabbage, enthralled with the methodical movement of her arm swishing it around while the King stripped off his shirt. Maybe she was safe and he’d put on an undertunic and...nope, nothing. His skin glistened from the heat of the kitchen, and she stood mere inches away from that taut form glancing around to find somewhere to toss his abandoned shirt. With no available hooks, he gave up and added it to the floor where it was certain to be fully battered in flour and any dropped dough.

Unaware of the elven eyes doing their damnedest to not stare in rapture at him, Alistair returned to dicing up the last of the meat. His shoulders flexed, tugging out the lines of the blades along his back as he scraped down the pork bone. This was a test, the biggest test of Reiss’ rather pathetic personal life and she was failing miserably. On the plus side, she was so frozen in ecstasy it was impossible for her to even think of reaching over and touching him.

“Da’len!” Ineria shouted, snapping her out of it. The woman made stirring motions with her arm and clucked her tongue.

“On it,” Reiss waved with the spoon, sending chunks of cabbage mash splattering against the wall. The King glanced over a moment and he laughed at her mess.

After picking up the last of his job, he leaned nearer to deposit it in Reiss’ bowl. With his head bent down, he whispered, “I bet I’ll make a much bigger mess than you by the end of the day.” Then he turned his face up and those impish eyes sparkled with such delight Reiss feared she might moan.

“I fear that is a sucker’s bet,” she said, having to pinch her nose up to keep focused. You’ve seen naked men before. It was damn near impossible to keep shirts on most of the recruits in the Inquisition while waiting in the Arbor Wilds, or on training grounds. Get over it, Rat.

That seemed to work, finally breaking Reiss free of the spell of this shemlan. She finished the last of the stirring when Ineria slapped the dough down, rattling the massive bowl and she grinned at them, “Now comes the hard, boring part.”

“Yay?” Alistair quipped, sharing a questioning look with Reiss. What did they get themselves into?

“It is doubtful you will last through this, shemlan. Do try to keep up,” Ineria said, her eyes easily traversing the half naked man without a care.

Alistair snickered and bent his head, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Ineria lied. The King was enraptured with grabbing a handful of pork & cabbage mixture, dropping it into a flat ball of dough and then pinching it together like a purse. It took him a few go’s to get the hang of it, Ineria all but whacking his elbow with a spoon if he added too much or too little, but once he got it, he really got it. Reiss began beside him, but she couldn’t keep up, her barely scraping by cooking skills quickly giving way to exhaustion. Even the master chef staggered back, happy to let the human put his all into cooking.

Reiss found herself questioning if this wasn’t all some hallucination brought on by wyvern poison or a bad wine. The King of Ferelden, shirtless and glistening with sweat, happily mixing up dumplings in a tiny elven kitchen. Even Lunet’s terrible serials couldn’t conjure something so mad, though they’d probably find a way to work a horse into it.

“You’re rather good at this,” Reiss stated the obvious. She stood beside the propped open door begging for relief from the heat. Luckily, a cool breeze washed over her, winter’s final vestiges happy to provide.

The King didn’t even pause as he crimped his fingers along the top and dropped the dumpling onto a bulging tray, “I suppose.”

“You’ve done this before,” Ineria insisted. She’d slid back beside Reiss, not seeming to need the cool air, but wanting to enjoy the show.

“Not really, not exactly this,” he glanced over at them a moment, his fingers moving by themselves with that muscle memory every soldier knew well. Alistair smiled lopsidedly at Reiss, “I did a lot of random kitchen duty when I was growing up. You either learn it or it’s rulers across the knuckles and reciting the chant of light for ten hours straight. This is far more fun.”

Fun? He could be lying, perhaps trying to make her feel better for some strange reason, but she believed it. They’d been standing in one place in a leaning, claustrophobic kitchen for hours and he couldn’t stop smiling. Even the nobles who really got into pretending to be servants gave up the game once digging a lavatory was involved. If he’d melted after twenty dumplings and thrown in the towel, Reiss would have been impressed. Now, she didn’t know what to think.

Ineria jerked her chin at the man and whispered to Reiss in elvish, “Who is this man?”

“It’s a long story, Hahren,” she answered back in elvish, hopefully not too broken. Reiss had been scrabbling her own people’s language together over the years.

The old woman seemed to be aware that she was missing an important piece of information, her lips pursed as she first sized up Reiss and then turned to the man dipping a thumbprint into the dough before dropping in the meat ball. “He is cute, for a shemlan.”

She said it in elvish, but loud enough Alistair had to hear. Reiss watched him to see if he understood, trying to find a tell tale blush rising up his naked back but he continued to work unaware. Thank the Maker for that. As Reiss settled back to her haunched she felt Ineria staring through her. “I,” she tugged on the collar of her dress to try and encourage more airflow and in common said, “I hadn’t noticed.”

Barely suppressing her snort at the baldfaced lie, Ineria smirked, “All right.” For the love of Andraste, Reiss, you’re supposed to have some damn subtlety to your actions. If Ineria’s picking up on it, what would people in the castle think of some lovesick elf trailing after the King, her tongue lolling out of her mouth? She thought of the mage that seemed to consider it her duty to bed the king as much as concoct potions. That threw cold water on her libido, chilling the giddy smile in her heart. Mages, he prefers mages, which you are not. Not that it would ever be a question seeing as how he’s a human and blighted King. Why are you even thinking it? Why are you letting yourself feel bad because nothing will come of it? Stop staring at his naked back that looks like it was hewed from stone by a master carver. Maker’s sake, he even had abs that undulated with his laugh. Kings were not supposed to have that, she was dead certain. Not ones with earnest faces and puppy dog eyes and, flames, there you go again!


“Done!” he shouted, throwing his hands up wide and revealing a massive tray of dumplings all laid out for the pot.

“Well, young man, I am loathe to admit it, but I was wrong about you,” Ineria slid forward and reached out for his hand to shake it, “Not only did you last the day, you finished far enough before the dinner hour I shall whip you up a plate to try.”

Alistair’s mouth slipped open wide, his smile revealing those deep dimples that gave his cheekbones a greater chiseled look -- as if the man needed any more help. Glancing over at Reiss, he shrugged once and then shook Ineria’s hand proudly as if the Dalish woman was a Teryn.

“However,” Ineria eyed up the remainders of his work station, “You used too much dough and left behind nearly enough filling for one and a half dumplings.”

“Sorry,” he muttered, then those eyes sparkled, “Ma’am.”

Somehow his charm worked as much as any could on Ineria and she smiled. “Go and have a seat while I fry these up.”

“Do you want any help with that?” he asked even while fishing his shirt off the ground. Right, he’d probably want to put it back on before eating. And why were you thinking it would be erotic to watch the King eat messy dumplings while shirtless? Reiss wondered if when this job was over, maybe she could get the name of Lunet’s old lover and have her write a little something up.

Ineria stood up on her toes and yanked down a giant cast iron skillet without any obvious strain. “No, and any who learn my secret cooking process rarely last the night.”

Gulping at the threat, the King of Ferelden nodded slowly and slid towards the door. “Understood, Ma’am.” Without glancing back, he walked into the front of the house, already slipping his doublet back where it belonged.

Reiss staggered up to follow when Ineria’s calculating eyes narrowed to slits and she whispered, “Very cute, for a shemlan.”

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