Chapter 21: A Taste
Ineria drew back her hand from a steaming pile of dumplings, easily eight or nine, piled upon a plate with a pot of gravy on the side. Steam erupted out of the small knife cuts Reiss had been in charge of until she bowed out, the smell heavenly beyond measure. If the Maker’s side bore an odor it would probably be lilacs in spring, the forest after a gentle rain, and Ineria’s fresh pork dumplings with extra gravy. At least that was what Reiss hoped for.
The King sat at the lone table, eying up the treat, a knife in one hand and fork in the other. “Well,” Ineria waved her hand at him, “eat the blighted things. We must know if they are truly the best in thedas. Right, Da’len?” Ineria glanced over at Reiss who sat across from Alistair. He spent most of the cooking time trying to wipe the flour off his shirt which ended in trenches of handprints trailing down his chest.
Bristling under the scrutiny, Alistair jabbed his fork into the first dumpling. It hissed at the indignation, sending more of that tantalizing spiced meat smell into the air. Without any ceremony, the King of Ferelden jammed the entire two inch long dumpling into his mouth and began to chew. The response was instantaneous, flecks of pork and cabbage trying to escape, which he crammed back in with his mouth while talking rapidly.
“Maker’s sake, it’s so light and fluffy, but then the pork with lettuce stuff and bam spice city brings it all together for...” he swallowed obviously and then grinned, “Good, so good.”
“Shemlan!” Ineria threw her hands up, “Fen’Harel ma ghilana,” she cursed to herself before picking up the King’s hand, stabbing his fork into the second dumpling and then dropping it into the gravy. “You eat together, like this. Dip-dip, see,” Ineria spoke in broken sentences as if afraid the human suddenly lost the ability to understand her.
Alistair watched the thick brown sauce dribble off his dumpling before racing both towards his mouth and biting down. His eyes rolled back in his skull and he chewed the dumpling apart. “Sweet Andraste, okay,” Alistair placed both his utensils down so he could bring his hands together in raucous applause. “These are beyond a doubt the best dumplings in thedas, probably even past into the unmappy bits.”
“Of course,” Ineria shrugged as if unimpressed with his comment, but Reiss watched her cheeks light up as she fluffed her greying hair. She loved it.
Stabbing at another and clogging up the gravy bowl with as much as he could, those silky brown eyes darted over to Reiss, “Aren’t you going to have some too?”
“I...” Decorum said she shouldn’t eat in front of the King but standing on tradition would never apply when Ineria’s dumplings were involved. Snatching one of the hot pockets up in her fingers, Reiss dug the dumpling in the gravy like a shovel and then popped it into her mouth.
“So that’s how it works,” he smiled, giving up on the silverware and plucking up a dumpling with his fingers. While Reiss continued to chew on hers, he finished his fourth one off - the man had an appetite that would trounce most giants and they regularly ate goats whole. And yet, he didn’t show that voracious eating anywhere on that toned and taut... Reiss scrunched up her nose, trying to stave off a blush at the image of the shirtless King making elven dumplings embedded into her memory.
“You’ve stopped eating,” Ineria commented, catching on right away when Alistair slid his hands to the side.
“Well, she should have her share,” he gestured at Reiss who knew she was blushing now. “Partners and all,” Alistair grinned.
“Right, partners,” Reiss smiled while impishly picking up one of the dumplings he was willing to forgo for her.
Ineria patted him on the shoulder and slipped back, “Foolish shemlan, I can cook you up more. Eat all you like.”
Alistair’s eyes glittered at the promise, but he paused and ran his gravy stained fingers through his hair. At this rate, those strawberry locks had to be coated in all the ingredients to recreate a dumpling. “All I like? Uh, how many did I make today?”
It was Reiss who spoke, “Be careful, Ineria. He may gobble the entire tray up and then chew the bone apart for marrow.”
“That...” the King raised a finger as if to argue, when he smiled wide, “is probably true.”
“So, you come back tomorrow and make even more. No problem,” Ineria smiled wide and Reiss’s eyebrows shot up fast. It took her months to gain the Dalish woman’s begrudging acceptance. Respect required years of her continuous patronage. And this shemlan all but had her eating out of his hand in an afternoon. Maker’s sake, maybe he really was a secret mage.
Alistair scrunched up his nose, prepared to let the woman down gently that there wouldn’t be any repeats, when the door to the restaurant opened and a harried redhead strolled in quickly.
“Ah, Shiani,” Ineria spoke, rising up to stand and properly greet the woman.
“Ineria,” Shiani’s eyes traveled over first to Reiss with a curious acknowledgment and then froze at the King with gravy staining his chin.
“Hahren,” Reiss greeted Shiani with a slow bow of her head.
“Corporal Reiss,” the Arlessa said quickly, “strange to see you here out of uniform. And in...particular company.”
Alistair finished swallowing the dumpling he jammed into his mouth to try and hide. Spinning in his seat, he stuck a hand out and said, “I’m Duncan.”
“Okay,” Shinai didn’t even blink at the King giving her a false name. Instead, she turned back to Ineria and said, “I need a dozen order of your dumplings for a sit in.”
“Stirring up trouble again, da’assan?” Ineria snickered already heading back to her kitchen.
“Someone has to,” Shiani said, “and if they won’t listen, you shout louder.”
“Til you go hoarse,” Ineria answered back. “It’ll be a few minutes to fry, please wait.” She didn’t pause for Shiani’s answer and slipped into the kitchen to resume the cooking.
For her part, the Arlessa only rubbed her hands together and waited, her stance falling slack. “Didn’t think you’d be stopping by here, what with the assassins around and all.”
“I’m working on the theory that assassins like alienages as much as the nobility does,” Alistair said.
“It seems rather convenient for you to be attacked just as we were discussing the matter of overcrowding,” Shiani spun to fully face down the King who sat lower than her. “A very important matter that somehow only affects elves until we start rattling a few shemlan cages.”
Alistair groaned, his head flopping back, “You really think I wanted to be perforated with holes? Seems an extreme way to get out of a meeting.”
“And yet, now it’s been tabled for Maker only knows how long while you and your...sea friends add even more fuel to the fire,” Shiani glared at him, not about to back down to anyone. Her eyes darted over to Reiss for a second.
“Look,” Alistair stumbled out of his chair and rose to face Shiani. “You want to tell those people that it’s back to Tevinter with ’em because we’re all out of room, be my guest. It’s temporary. As in not permanent. As in I’m trying to find a blighted solution before we have to start hiding elves in closets and cellars. This is what that summit is for. We are all getting together and staying locked in that damn room until we come up with something. I don’t care if it’s discovering the power of levitation and sending people to colonize clouds, something.”
Appearing unmoved by his plight, Shiani crossed her arms and glared, “And I’m supposed to expect shems to accomplish anything.”
“Not really,” he sighed, “it’s why you’ll be there, and some of the Dalish clan. I think even a representative of the dwarven merchant’s guild is swinging by. It’s turning into a potential disaster. So, show up with your meanest face and browbeat everyone. I have faith you’ll pull it off.”
Snickering at his summation, Shiani sneered at the politics ahead, but she acquiesced to the point. “Assuming there aren’t any assassins at your little summit party.”
“Oh, I’m pretty much counting on it. I was thinking we poison the salmon mousse. That ought to take ’em right down, assassins can’t resist salmon mousse,” Alistair smiled at himself before running a hand over his face and seeming to shake the Kingly exterior away. “How’s your boy?”
The change in topic didn’t even cause the Arlessa to bat an eye, “He’s well. That toy you gave us is a lifesaver when he’s cutting a tooth.”
“Maker, that was the only damn thing that could make Spud happy when she was teething. She’d gum all up and down the legs and wooden hands, well, not the one I gave you. I think hers is on a shelf, probably coated in baby spit. But, you know...”
“In preparation for the next one,” Shiani said. The fearsome Arlessa that would bow down to no one and nothing faded to a friendly parent sharing advice with another.
Alistair groaned, “Second verse louder than the first. When your son’s older he should come up to the castle, have a play date with Spud and the rest.” It was obvious the King meant nothing by it, but the elven women shared a quick glance. Royalty only associated with the approved, beginning at a young age. No one was going to allow the princess and future Queen of Ferelden to play with a bunch of commoners, much less elves.
“I’ll think about it, your...whatever name you’re posing under,” Shiani said.
The awkwardness was happily broken up by Ineria returning with the Arlessa’s order all wrapped up in a towel. Shiani dipped her hands under and placed it into a basket before saying, “Add it to my tab.”
“Don’t I always?” Ineria smirked back before the leader of the Alienage waved and left.
Alistair blinked a moment and then turned to Ineria, “Oh right, what do I owe you for the dumplings?” He dug into a purse that probably held garnets, amethysts, and pearls next to enough sovereigns to keep Ineria in flour for a year.
“Let’s see, that was ten dumplings plus gravy in exchange for the two of you working the afternoon. Then again, you did leave globs of dough upon the ceiling, waste flour upon yourself and the floor, as well as excess filling. I’d call it a wash.”
“You want me to wash up the mess?” Alistair asked, his eyes dancing around the room as if to try and find a mop.
“Blessed creators,” Ineria cursed before telling Reiss in elvish, “He may be fine of feature but his brain is filled with bricks.”
She couldn’t stop laughing at the exasperated woman who tried to show kindness to a shemlan, as well as the fact Ineria missed the brick headed human’s obvious joke. The King shrugged, his smile contagious as it leaped like a plague to everyone in the room. A dangerous case of laughter fever was about to follow when the door opened, depositing a good ten elves covered in the vestiges of unloading off the harbor for a day.
Alistair slapped his hands together and announced, “Welp, looks like it’s work time.”
It took a special eye to find the beauty in the Alienage. Aside from the Vhenedhal tree, nearly every strip of green was drained from the brown and moldy ground. Most of the colors peeled away from old wood none could afford to replenish, but this wasn’t like the camp. People didn’t suffer here until they found something better; this was their home. While it wasn’t official chantry recognized art, various elves would use dyed chalk to craft breathtaking murals against walls, roofs, sometimes even the ground. Sadly, they only lasted until the rains came and then it was back to creating, but it gave a magic to the art. When it was fleeting it was more special, as if it was an experience as much as a thing.
While the sun’s orange and red rays bounced across the jagged horizon of Denerim, the shadows reached down along a portrait of a meadow. Where it struck, yellow popped out of the darkened colors, like fireflies springing to life. Reiss leaned forward on the edge of the roof, watching each one with a smile.
“I’m guessing you and heights get on like a house on fire,” Alistair spoke up from beside her. As Ineria’s restaurant filled to bursting with the line winding out the door, they took their leave and somehow wound up on a roof. It’d been the King’s idea, but judging by how he kept the chair stuck in the middle he seemed to not be a fan of heights himself.
“They do not bother me,” Reiss said sliding back beside the table. There’d been another plate of dumplings on it, all long since gone as they split it. Now she reached over to scoop up the tiny half glass and pour a gurgle of the thick brown liquid into it.
Alistair swirled his own full glass while staring out at the horizon of the city, his city. Maker, his entire country. Perhaps the thought struck him as well as he slung back his drink and scrunched his nose up at the kick. “What is this called again?”
“Koomtra,” Reiss said. “It’s fermented tree sap, blended together with mint and other herbs for medicinal qualities or to numb your throat before the alcohol burns it clean off.”
“You can ferment tree sap?” Alistair gasped, his voice scratchy from the koomtra doing its work.
Reiss shrugged, “When you don’t have a lot of options, you can ferment anything.” Counting under her breath, Reiss drew forth the courage to tip the glass against her lips and face her own scouring. “Gah!” she shook it off, the mint biting into her. “It’s a traditional alienage drink, brewed up in them all across thedas. And...” she placed her glass upside down on the table, aware that her vision was already sparkling, “I despise it.”
At her admittance, the King laughed hard, “It’s got a real bite to it. The kind of thing that’ll take hair off your chest.” Despite his agreeing with her, he took another shot, the man either enjoying the cheapest liquor available short of drinking turpentine, or wanting to play the part. It bothered her that she couldn’t tell.
“When I first visited the alienage they didn’t warn me about koomtra, just poured a heaping glass and all laughed their asses off when I sprayed it across the wall.”
“Visited? You’re not from one?”
“Uh,” Reiss flinched, she hadn’t meant to revel so much of her personal life to him. “No, my parents raised me and my siblings on a farm.”
“Near South Reach,” Alistair said. He drew his fingers across his vision as if chasing a fly but none was there.
“Yes, South Reach. They prided themselves on not being Alienage elves. On having their own land, a home, scraping and saving to be able to purchase something with barely enough acreage to support a goat much less a family. My mother would teach and provided washing services for other families in the area. I did too, until...”
Fire was the first sign. Not from some random lightning strike hitting the dry grass. No, smoke scoured the sky blackening it like a sickness. Everyone in the area ran together in a panic. So many of them bought slivers of rocky land off a Bann who didn’t care that no one could survive off it. But they did, they made a home and a life, until the darkspawn came.
A hand landed on hers rattling Reiss’ thoughts. She turned over to find the King leaning across the gap, his smile lost as he said, “You don’t have to talk about the Blight.”
“I...thank you,” she tried to shake off the memories but a scream rattled in her ear that would never scrub clean. It was the beginning of the end of her world. “Because of that, I’d never visited an Alienage until I came to Denerim. It was rather awkward to be surrounded by so many elves and their world without understanding any of it. I felt like...like a human who strapped on a pair of wooden ears to try and pass.”
Reiss paused in her thoughts and turned to the real shemlan. “And you come here often? Often enough the Hahren knows of it?”
“Well,” he leaned back in the chair designed for a body much thinner than his. It creaked at the weight but probably wasn’t going to break. “Not as often as I could, should. It was usually under Shiani’s watchful eye when not an official parade of the King and his merry men through the streets to keep up someone’s appearances.”
“Why?” Reiss asked, then blanched at her being so bold, “I mean, I’ve never known anyone who didn’t have to live in an alienage willingly visit one.”
“Aside from you?” he asked, a whisper of smile turning up his handsome features.
She blushed at that and absently tugged on her hair. Freed of the heat of the restaurant, Reiss let her bun down, cascades of fine gold constantly catching between her back and the chair or wafting into her face. That was why she always kept it up.
“I suppose the cat’s out of the bag,” Alistair said parting his hands, “you’ve caught on to my well guarded secret.” Reiss fidgeted as the normally nonchalant king took on an air of deadly seriousness. He scrunched forward in his chair, his shoulders tipped down in thought before turning over to her and saying, “I am complete and utter shit at being noble.”
She felt more than a laugh fluttering in her stomach. Reiss patted a hand over her cheeks and they burned at his attention, brighter by the creeping chill of a spring night. “Would it be unbecoming of me to admit I was already aware?”
“Of course not, be as becoming as you like. Becoming is a preferred state of being. I often becoming when...wow, that did not go the way I meant to say it, ah,” he slapped his hands together and turned that fully charming smile upon her. Reiss felt herself melting into the chair, the dark part of her brain wondering what it felt like to touch those pink lips always in a smile.
“Lunet!” she shouted, as if saying her name would summon her friend to act as a chaperone, “She, uh, she’s my friend in the guards and was raised in an alienage in Highever but um, never comes to the one here. As an example of someone who avoids them because that seemed relevant.” Reiss let her mouth continue to babble hoping it would cover over any stupid, libidinous thoughts haunting through her exhausted brain. This was all that koomtra’s fault.
Alistair waited, watching until Reiss didn’t just pause for a breath but stopped talking entirely. “Highever? How’d she wind up down here?”
“She was married off, in the alienages the marriages are arranged...and you already knew that,” Reiss said. Most humans upon hearing the news gasped or started up an argument about how that was unholy. The King only nodded his head gently.
“When a lot of elves move from one part of the country to another I grow curious why.”
“And you’re not going to get into a long debate with me about how that’s against the natural order and marriage should only be for love?” Reiss asked. She wasn’t even of an alienage but she still felt the need to rush to their defense.
The King smiled wide and placed his hands behind his head while leaning back. “How do you think I wound up married? I’d spent so little time getting to know the bride before the vows I wasn’t even certain which of the blushing maidens was her.”
“Oh,” Reiss folded in on herself. She hadn’t expected that answer. “That does explain why you never, um...” Maker’s sake, what are you doing? Do not ask that, do not voice it. Don’t even make him aware you noticed it. Men hate that, probably.
“Never...compose dwarven love ballads? Leap tall buildings in a single bound? Eat with my toes? Actually, I wonder if I could do that.” He lifted up his shoed foot and tried to inch it closer to his face.
“Why I’ve never been required to escort you to your lady’s chamber,” Reiss tried to phrase it in as banal a way as possible.
It took a moment for the King to catch on, the alcohol slowing the flow of words to his brain. “Ah, that, yes. Not many, we try to, um. The Queen and I have an arrangement. She stays in her rooms and I stay in mine.”
“I should not have brought it up. It isn’t my place to notice, nor care, nor notice and I already said that. Sorry, it’s, um...” Reiss sputtered to a halt, begging anything in her brain to bob to the surface to get her out of this mess. Why did she care about anyone who shared his bed, or didn’t, or would think of it and...you’re not helping now. Shit! Sorry Atisha.
Alistair watched her panic with a slow smile before he coughed and said, “You didn’t tell me why your friend stopped visiting the alienage.”
“I didn’t? Oh, that’s, well, as I said she was married off. The leaders of the Alienages pick who weds who and the one in Highever didn’t care about one vital fact about Lunet. She prefers women exclusively.”
“That would put a damper on the wedding night,” Alistair said.
“It didn’t help that the man they shackled her to was a boorish oaf that Lunet wouldn’t spit on if he was on fire. She lasted all of a month in the Alienage before running out and joining the Watch a few months prior to me.”
The King blinked his eyes slowly and he turned fully in his chair to gaze over at Reiss. “Without any sword training she was recruited straight into the guards?”
Reiss smiled at that, “Lunet is very beautiful.”
He scoffed a moment before turning back to gaze over the city. “I’m beginning to think that’s a requirement for joining the City Watch.”
She misinterpreted that. He must have meant some other guard he knew. He was King, kings knew the guards in their city. It was how it worked. They knew things because people were always telling them things, day in and day out. Lots of thingie things. Damn it, Reiss! Get a blighted grip.
“You know,” the King mused to himself, rolling the glass back and forth before picking up the half full bottle. “I’m coming around to this koomtra?”
“Right,” Reiss nodded, happy to have any change of topic. He filled another finger and a half’s worth into his glass and downed it quickly, his eyes barely watering from the fumes. “They say that only true elves can enjoy koomtra’s layered flavors.”
Hacking erupted from Alistair’s lungs and he had to cough down the resurgence of the cheap liquor before being able to sputter out an, “Oh?”
Reiss rolled her eyes, “I suspect that’s code for ‘only true elves are poor enough that koomtra’s the one thing they can afford to drink.’ Because it’s so much fun to draw lines in the dirt and declare who does and doesn’t...” She shook off her grumblings, trying to tamp down the shame and anger that rose whenever Reiss stumbled at being an elf. Her parents were proud to keep her from this life, insist that she try to blend into human existence while also watching herself with every move as if that was the proper way to live. Of course, she wasn’t exactly running for the Alienage’s next harhen either serving on the City Watch often at odds with her people and never rooming within the gated walls of the elven slum. Not even enough to be a flat ear, sometimes she felt like a shemlan hiding inside an elven skin.
“Can I ask you something?” Reiss began. Alistair placed the last of the bottle down and nodded. “Why did you agree to help make dumplings without expecting there to be any compensation, risking belittling from Ineria, and never once calling for someone else to take over?”
He watched her talk, his eyes darting across her face as if he’d never seen lips form words before. “Maker’s sake, how many noble bungschooners have you had to work for?” A giggle broke through his words, the bungschooners causing a ripple effect through Reiss’ lips.
After shaking off the laugh, she sighed, “Far too many, though not all were high born.”
“Assholes in every rung, right?” It unnerved her at how perceptive this goofy king was. Shifting on his chair he leaned forward and pinched his fingers together, “It was fun to accomplish something, to have my hard work right there in front of me all done within an afternoon. No waiting ten years to see if some choice came to fruition, and certainly without a half dozen people running in from the sidelines shouting that I completely screwed them over and how dare I think I could make a dumpling!”
“Aside from Ineria,” Reiss interrupted.
He smiled wide, “I’d much rather have one woman ordering me around than a hundred Banns, after a hard choice that they refused to deal with is made, flocking over so they can score some political points by arguing.” Sighing, he leaned back in his chair, “I really miss being ordered around. Go here, kill this darkspawn, stop that hurlock, dodge the boulder from the ogre. Life was so much simpler when everyone wisely kept the fate of nations far from my shoulders.”
“You didn’t wish to be King?” she asked.
Reiss expected him to thunder that of course he did, it was his birthright or he deserved the power, but he slowly turned to her and shrugged. One eye slipped shut to match a half smile crawling up his cheeks, the man looking uncertain about everything. “It’s not as if I ever had a say in who my father was, nor mother. They were happy to keep me hidden out of the throne’s shadow and I was happy to stay there.” He fiddled with the bottle, watching the setting sun’s orange rays warp through the amber to lance upon the table as if it lit on fire. “I took the crown because...there weren’t any other alternatives. Not really, none I’d trust to hold the door open for me at least.”
“This is a painful topic I should not have risen, I’m sorry,” Reiss raced to apologize. She heard the regret ringing through his words, every sentence seemed to carry a silent ‘If I could do it all over...’
Alistair stopped rolling the bottle around and he focused fully on Reiss, a soft smile brightening his face. “No, it’s all good. Not exactly something I’ve been hiding over the years from anyone. Get Eamon a few sour gimlets and he’ll talk your ear off about how much of a failure I’ve been in living up to the Calenhad legacy.” Picking at the table with his nail, Alistair glanced up to stare directly into her eyes as if he was daring her to call him on it. Despite having no real evidence, and the fact that they’d skipped all protocol to run off to the alienage for a day, Reiss didn’t believe him. Granted, she also had no idea what made a king good or bad in the annals of history - though starting wars for some reason seemed to put one in the latter instead of the former category, assuming they won. But in this year, this decade, this age, he seemed to be trying as much as possible to help. That had to count for something.
Groaning, Reiss flopped back into her chair and threw a hand over her eyes to block the sunlight. “I’m beginning to understand why you loved making the dumplings so much.”
That stomach flipping laugh echoed from beside her as Alistair sighed, “They are good dumplings. Thank you for bringing me. I’d have missed out otherwise.”
“You...” she wanted to tell him he didn’t need to thank her, but maybe he did. “You’re welcome,” Reiss smiled. “Ser, should I be returning you to the palace soon?” She worried about the dark shadows lurking through back alleys. It was doubtful bandits would care much if their blades sunk into elven or Kingly hides.
He groaned the same way he would after drinking the mage’s milky white potion. “I know I should, there will be a good dozen people waiting to shout at me for vanishing but...could I have a few more minutes to be Alistair?”
Reiss’ eyes wandered over the man with his eyes shut tight while he seemed to breathe in the setting sun washing the Alienage to a golden glow. “Of course.”