Guarded Love

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Chapter 22: Scaling the Summit

“I can’t feel my teeth.” A hand grabbed onto his, another in a sea of never ending limbs snatching it up and giving it a good pump before vanishing back into the fold. “Yes, hello to you too, whoever you are,” Alistair mumbled the latter part to himself as he watched a person with a tall hat wander off. It was either someone in the chantry, a diplomat from across the waking sea, or a thief that got his hands on a long loaf of bread.

“Sire,” the woman of iron commanded him to stand up straight and act even more pleasant than usual. After two hours of greeting everyone who strolled into town for the summit, it took all his control to not flop onto the ground for a nap. Though, knowing Karelle, she’d haul him up and kick his feet under him until he stood and resumed smiling calmly and shaking hands.

“My entire face is numb,” he whined to her. She tutted at that, crossing off the names as they whispered them before wandering off to do whatever everyone was up to in the grand ballroom behind. Alistair’s itinerary that he should have been the one to set was scattered between Karelle, Eamon, Cade for a few hours, and then back to Karelle. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being treated like the near three year old passed from instructor to instructor whose best hope would be to get her to stop stuffing dirt down her pants.

“And so glad you could make it, your irrelevance,” Alistair greeted a woman who wasn’t listening to him. She was too busy making certain Karelle had her name spelled correctly on the list. He leaned over to watch the chamberlain lift up the vellum coated in crossed out names. Hoping that was a sign they were about to be freed, he couldn’t hide the groan as she revealed another even longer list of names below. “If I die on this spot, just prop my hand up and wait for rigor mortis to set in. I doubt anyone here will notice,” he grumbled, trying to snap himself awake.

“As you say, Sire,” Karelle didn’t rise to his bait. She never did. Most who worked in the castle for over a year either learned to adjust to the King’s particular style, or went mad and fled from his employ as soon as the tide came in. It was a wonder he wasn’t trapped in the palace alone pretending from abject loneliness that the lamps and tea pots could talk.

Lifting his exhausted head, Alistair glanced over the heads of the guests standing in line. He had a good view from his little dais to see down all the expanding bald spots, before landing upon Reiss running her hands over a man’s midsection to check for weapons. Pausing a moment, her fingers returned to something tucked into the small of his back where she unearthed a long sausage stick. Upon realizing it wasn’t about to maim the King beyond mild heartburn, an adorable blush burned across her cheeks.

The King’s own goofy grin at her stumbling dredged up last night’s dream, as well as a few from before, involving his bodyguard giving his own body a very thorough pat down. Maker’s breath, he felt like a giddy teenager again, having to glance away quickly so the pretty girl wouldn’t notice that he was staring. More than staring, if his dreams had any say in it. Not really the appropriate response there, Alistair. Okay, maybe you can look a little longer. He shifted on his toes while watching the woman snatch up a tendril of her errant blonde hair and stuff it up into her bun. There was nothing erotic about it, the woman all business, but the intimate moment drew his full attention as he wondered what those fingers would feel like ruffling through his hair.

Andraste’s knickers, everyone was right. It had been too long.

“Sire,” one of Karelle’s underlings poked his head out through the ballroom door. “They are ready to receive you in the conference room.”

“Too bad, there’s still a good dozen people waiting to be greeted first,” Karelle interrupted, glaring at her toady. She operated a swath of vassals under her, each young, watery eyed, and prone to yipping at any loud noise.

“I understand, but the Dalish entourage is making overtures about...um, setting some shemlan on fire,” he coughed out quickly.

Alistair rolled his eyes, fairly certain that was hyperbole on someone’s part. “I’ve got this,” he declared. Before anyone could argue, he stomped off his little prop dais and began to grab onto waning hands. There were so many people, he didn’t bother to shake and only lightly knocked palm to palm against everyone startled to find a king moving amongst them.

“Okay,” the King shouted, waving his arms in the middle of the horde, “now everyone shake everyone else’s hand and boom, done, all greeted. Time to get to the meeting.” Maker’s sake, he was actually excited about sitting in a room and being yelled at for a few hours. Glancing over at his bodyguard, he lifted a shoulder and she smiled.

Alistair swung his vision back to Karelle, who was glaring at his faux pas, in order to disguise a rising blush up his cheeks. He hadn’t felt this unnerved by a pretty face since...honestly, since Lanny when he had no idea where she stood with him even after the rose. And this one was ten times harder to read, always swallowing down an idea she had for fear of stepping on fancy slippers.

Stomping away from the group of nobles realizing they got the stick on the lolly, the King nodded once at Karelle and whispered, “I imagine you’ve got it from here.”

“I seem to have no choice,” she growled back.

Not bothering to hide his chuckle, Alistair followed the under chamberlain up to the meeting room. Normally, people in the palace might offer up an occasional greeting or wave when he passed but now everyone he bumped into bowed deeply. He heard so many ‘Majesties’ and ‘Highnesses,’ for a moment Alistair feared they accidentally invited the royal families from all of thedas. But that was impossible, if Celene was here, she’d have brought an entire wing off the Winter Palace to drop onto the “un-furbished Ferelden castle” to stay in.

The kid dropped them off in one of the better rooms. It bore a fantastic stained glass window, a circle that played out the life of Calenhad forming the country of Ferelden in vibrant colors. When the sun was setting behind, the light would streak over the eaves of the battlements to lance the pattern onto a white and gold conference table. Though, what Alistair liked was the half of a stuffed great deer. Someone, in trying to be clever, put the front half of a deer galloping over a fence in a state bedroom, which meant they didn’t know what to do with the back end. Of course, when their new king stumbled across it rotting in the attic, he insisted it be installed right away. A few diplomatic eyes wandered over to the deer’s ass, its tail held upright as if it sensed danger or was about to spray pellets across the carpet.

“Thank you for attending,” Alistair said, swooping into the room filled with a good half dozen of the more important people to the talks. He told Karelle that it was her job to keep everyone not needed busy while they actually got something accomplished. Settling into the chair placed before the stained glass window, Alistair glanced back quick to make certain there were no archers hiding behind it.

Reiss seemed to read his worry as she leaned close to whisper, “We have a few men patrolling the battlements and rooting out the towers just in case.”

He turned to thank her for that, and caught a whiff of her scent. In a room clogged with thick perfumes that could smother a nug, she smelled of honeysuckle wafting over a meadow and pork dumplings. “Good to know,” he said instead, coughing to cover up any growing embarrassment, “so, do we need to go through with introductions or...?”

“I demand you tell me why these savages have intervened into a most regal matter!” the Arl of Denerim was the first to pop up, waving his fist back and forth as if it could do much of anything. After Howe, anyone with sense made certain that Arling had as little power as possible -- a lot of its old duties falling to the crown for safe keeping until the new guy settled in. That was the strangest contest of arms for land he’d ever seen, no one with any true standing wanting it. In the end, the last two families wound up waving their fingers at each other and pretended to fall down, both attempting to get out of it.

“Kylan, sit your ass down,” Alistair said, barely bothering to look at the man. He gave his attention instead to the dalish woman sitting primly in a chair. She gave no bones about who she was, wearing the forest green leathers and tan hides of her people against all the humans dressed in wools and silks. Clinging tight to a staff, she glared at each human daring her to leave.

“Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met,” Alistair stuck a hand over to her. “Or we did and I didn’t catch it in the sea of everyone else I had to meet.”

She probably glared at that too -- her eyes seemed to be in a constant state of glowering at the world, only a slit of color evident below heavy eyelids. “I am Niala, First to the Keeper.”

“Ah, I’d hoped the Keeper herself would come.” He’d hoped a lot of people who gave him a polite piss off would be here, one elf in particular.

“There was some trouble, and we fear if the Keeper left our lands the shemlan would use the opportunity to attempt to retake it.”

“I object to you using that word within these walls!” Another Bann leapt up, this man one of the few rattling sabers near the Kokari wilds. “Shemlan is a boorish and savage word that does not belong in these proceedings.”

“Believe me, shemlan,” Niala bared her teeth, “I have far better ones to use for you and the rest of your kind that would threaten ours. Cowards comes to mind first.”

“Sire!” the Bann snapped his head over at Alistair and whimpered as if the elf just stole away his toy and he needed an adult to get it back.

“All right! Maker’s sake, let’s try to avoid the name calling even if some people might deserve it. Okay?” he glanced at the Bann first who nodded slowly and sunk to his chair but kept up a glare. The elven woman didn’t go down easily. She had the whitest vallaslin he’d ever seen, the tree tattoo glowing like the horns of a halla against her darker forehead. Tipping it to the side in a sort of deniable agreement, she also promised to curb her tongue for the time being.

“Well, with that pleasant greeting out of the way, let’s get down to the real brass tacks,” Alistair yanked up the first of a never ending stack of the problems out of the Kokari Wilds. “Item one, the attack upon the Dalish village by shemlan...sorry, human influences.”

“I object!” the Bann shouted.

“Why am I not surprised?” Alistair groaned, already flopping his head forward. “And, for the love of Andraste, sit your ass down. This isn’t a game of musical chairs. If you stand up again, I’m having someone put a tack on your seat.”

“I...” the Bann shrunk down at that. “Yes, Sire. But, that report you have is a gross misrepresentation of what occurred. For starters, that cluster of huts they have is no village. It can barely even be labeled a campsite for how little care they give to it -- naked children wandering the woods without a care, animals decaying in the lawns out front.”

“Lawns? What are lawns?” Niala asked, glancing around. An elf beside her, one who seemed to travel with her pack but without the Vallaslin whispered in her ear. She guffawed at that, “You waste precious land to impress others with grass? Shemlan truly are touched in the head.”

Rather than speak a word, the Bann jabbed a finger at the First as if he could have her ejected for using the s word. He kept waving it near her while glaring at the King. “Can we please not use shemlan, or for that matter knife-ear, savage, barbarian, and for my own sake moist. Maker, I hate that word.”

“But they...” the Bann began, when Shiani interrupted.

“Have far better manners than you do,” she chuckled to herself. She had her own stack of items to get through, and it looked nearly as large as Alistair’s which covered the past year and a half of problems. Yup, he was going to die in this seat.

“I...” the Bann turned on the other elf, when the door to the room opened and the weaseliest face to ever crawl out of a burrow it stole from a mole peeked around the corner.

“Ah, here you are, Milord,” the man bowed, showing off one of the better auburn wigs.

“Bann Declan,” Alistair hissed through his teeth.

“Someone appears to have failed to gather me for this meeting,” he oozed into the room.

Alistair glanced over at his bodyguard. He expected her to begin the usual pat down, but she stood frozen on the spot. Her eyes bulged more than usual, her lips sunk flat and he recognized an internal scream when he saw one. “Yeah, there’s a reason for that,” the King said staggering to his feet. “If you haven’t been checked by security, which I know you haven’t because...” he pointed at the knot of jute tied around the wrists of those who’d had all their weapons checked and confiscated, “you’re not welcome here. Assassins and all.”

“Of course, of course, I heard about your troubles. Such a shame. Ah, but you have a guard there. She could give me the once over and then I am free to join, yes?”

Alistair wanted to pick him up and toss him down the stairs just because of that nasally voice and the way he wheedled into shit that had nothing to do with him. Looking over at Reiss, he began to suspect she had a much better reason for hating him. He tugged her close and stood up to whisper in her ear, “Are you okay to pat him down?”

“I...” She tried to not shudder; he watched it climb over her skin and instantly regretted making it an option. But then the tenacity that drove her to leap off a roof set in. “Aye, of course, Ser.”

With legs stiff as a board, she stepped as close to the man as she needed and instructed him to lift up his arms. Using quick movements, Reiss tapped at his chest, watching how the coat cut in and out to spot any hidden sheathes. She looked about to stagger back and pronounce him clean, when Declan leaned close to her and whispered in her ear, “What about my thighs? Don’t you want to check them for anything dangerous?”

Alistair stood up and moved across the room before Declan had a chance to grab Reiss’ wrist or hand. Putting himself between the bodyguard and the walking slug that became a Bann, he patted against the man’s outer and then inner thigh, slapping it hard and glaring. “Good? Yeah, I’d say that’s fine. Nothing there to write home about. Shock of shocks,” he glared into those beady eyes daring him to say anything.

“Now,” the King slapped his hands together and began to pace back and forth. Demolished enough, Declan scurried to an extra chair at the back normally reserved for any clerks taking notes. “Let’s discuss what happened on the night of Drakonis...”


“I’m going to curl up into a ball and roll down the stairs until I make it to a bed, or ram into a wall,” the King complained, massaging the back of his neck as the various diplomats filtered out of the room. In truth, Reiss wanted to follow right behind him. While he’d spent the entire rise and set of the sun arguing across the table over every tiny detail including if soup should be eaten with lunch or not, she did her damnedest to not glare at Declan sitting awkwardly in his chair.

She was grateful that the Dalish mage acquiesced on the soup portion. Watching that weaselly toad try to balance a bowl on his lap without having it clatter across his legs or splat against his face was almost worth the rise of her bile. Almost. As the last of the diplomats vanished out the door, all of them unhappy but for various reasons, Alistair turned to Karelle and jabbed a finger at Declan. “I don’t know how that little shit got wind of this meeting, but keep him away from it tomorrow.”

“I will, Sire,” Karelle nodded. Her eyes flared as she glared where Declan had been, “I suspect some of my own were coerced into giving the information. Tomorrow we’ll put you and the others in a different room, that should solve the problem.”

“Good,” Alistair dug the palms of his hands into his eyes to try and rub them free. “Good...” He turned over to Reiss and sighed, “How’re you holding up?”

“Me?” she pointed at herself and tried to stagger up to attention. “I’m fine, your majesty.”

He snickered at that, his eyes wandering over to her hand planted on the table. “There’s nothing more from you, Karelle?” The chamberlain shook her head negative, her fingers darting across the first of a week’s worth of never ending arguments. “Thank the Maker, however, I’ve got one more stop to make. Are you up for it?”

Reiss felt Karelle watching from behind her stacks of vellum, a curious quirk to her eyebrows. Why did the King care how his hired help felt? Was she weak and couldn’t perform her job? Did there need to be a reduction in pay? Shaking off any concern, Reiss found strength wafting in her marrow and locked her face into a stern glance, “Yes, Ser.”

He didn’t lead her to meet with the Chancellor, nor Cade, or even the Grand Cleric who was offering up prayers to any and all that requested them. It wasn’t until they rounded past the statue of armor bearing a frilly pink skirt that Reiss chuckled under her breath. The King was careful to push on the door, attempting to silence any squealing as he peeked a head in on his daughter. “Andraste’s sake,” he sighed at the girl clinging to the side of the bed. Her tiny hand dangled over the edge while the other kept her anchored. “I don’t know why she does that,” he whispered to himself while gently picking up the girl’s limp body and guiding her safely under the sheets.

Taking a moment to smooth down her knotted black hair, he pecked a quick kiss on her forehead and then laid a small red feather against the nightstand beside the bed. When he returned to stand beside Reiss she asked where he got it from.

“One of the diplomats brought a flock of the damn things. They’re squawking away in the kitchen while the chef figures out how to cook ’em. Apparently the birds know a bunch of really good curse words and are screaming them out across the larder. It set off the Grand Cleric who ‘well I nevered’ for a few minutes before one escaped, flapped up to the highest beam, and mimicked her. She’d yell at it to get down, it’d repeat it. She’d swear at it in words I didn’t think a good Mother of the cloth ever learned, and it’d repeat it.”

Reiss chuckled silently in deference to the sleeping child. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

“Me too, would have been way better than when we got onto debating proper hair length for men in a village for a half hour,” he stood close to her, his head tilted down to whisper in her ear, “Anyway, Cade shot it down with his crossbow, they ate the damn thing for dinner, and Renata was good enough to swipe me one of the bright tail feathers.”

“That’s sweet,” Reiss mused to herself.

The King shrugged, “They said it tasted like roast nug.” Turning away from the slumbering daughter he spent the entire day away from, he stepped into the next room. While Reiss sometimes followed into Spud’s room, often in pursuit of the King who was in turn trying to catch his daughter, she’d never crossed into the Queen’s chambers beside. He didn’t order her to follow, nor did he tell her to remain. Fearing she might accidentally wake the child, she trailed after.

A warm firelight licked up from the hearth, highlighting the nanny who was stuffed into a padded chair. She had a thick tome up to her eyes but tugged it down at the sound of the King skirting across the floor. “What do you think you’re doing?” Marn hissed, the anger evident even through the whisper.

“I thought I’d like to see my son before I’m dragged off to the eternal void that is bureaucracy,” Alistair whispered back, his voice barely breaking above the susurrus of the wind outside.

Marn rose from her chair. Despite being of a height that barely staggered above elves, she bore a gravitas that made everyone else in the room shrink before her. Reiss felt herself staggering downward and she wasn’t even the focus of the nursemaid’s wrath. “He’s asleep,” she hissed, walking around the King like a goose about to peck out an eye.

“So I’ll hold him while he’s sleeping,” Alistair continued, inching closer to the cradle. It was smaller than Reiss expected. For some reason she pictured something nearly the size of her own bed with ornate silks and golden filigree. In truth, it was an elegant but plain wooden cradle with nary a hint of gilding and only soft bedding for the baby within. On occasion, it shifted, rocking upon its bowed legs that she realized were carved to look mabari running through the fields.

Marn glanced down at the baby, then to the King who kept inching his hands closer, “No. I only just got him down.”

Groaning, Alistair’s hands froze but he didn’t give up, “Give me this one thing, please. It’s been a long...month? Two? An entire damn season. Just let me hold the kid for a few minutes. I won’t wake him up, I super duper promise on my mother’s grave.” He looked like a child trying to wheedle for a second biscuit up until mentioning his mother, when his face seemed to sober up instantly.

Either moved by his plight, or no longer in the mood to argue, Marn crossed her arms, “Very well, but if you wake him it’s on your head to get him back down. And he’s been colicky lately.”

At that threat, Reiss expected the King to yank his arms back and let sleeping babies lie, but he snickered and curled the baby to him. “As if Spud wasn’t a rampaging monster for a good three months,” he cooed to the tiny face swaddled in a sea of azure blankets. Stars dotted it in silver, giving the illusion of a night’s sky.

While snuggling the baby closer to him, a calm washed the man clean. He always bore a mask over the true man below, one not made of iron but coated in glitter and bits of string that used japes to hide him. But as he smiled down at his son, his armor fell away to reveal something fragile inside - like the soft skin of cheese preserved below a wax seal.

Marn didn’t say a word, but she shook her head while slipping out the door. Not paying attention to anyone else, Alistair curled up in the rocking chair beside the fire. For a few breaths he only lightly tipped the chair back and forth on his toes, eyes upon the slumbering face. “It never takes long,” he sighed.

Uncertain if he spoke to her or not, Reiss shuffled on her feet. She didn’t say anything out of fear of being the one to burst this rare soft moment.

Tugging down the blanket, Alistair skirted his fingers against the baby’s cheek, “I’ve missed you, you radish. Maker, no, that’s still not right. I’ll come up with something good, I promise.”

“Sire!” a voice shouted from behind Reiss. She was so enraptured in the cozy scene, she leaped out of her shoes and spun around about to clobber one of the servants flocking through the castle halls.

The King stared down at the baby that thankfully didn’t rouse, then whisper ordered to the trembling young man, “What is it?”

“There’s a problem with the guests...”

“Then get Karelle to handle it,” he hissed back.

“She’s busy elsewhere, and I already tried Chancellor Eamon, as well as Cade, the Head Chef, and Edgar,” the poor kid’s knees knocked together like a bag of acorns.

Sighing, Alistair rose out of the chair, his son clutched tight in his arms. “Good to know I rank below the apprentice blacksmith in all diplomatic matters. Sorry,” he whispered to prince Cailan. Reiss expected him to slip the baby back into his cradle, but he extended his arms out to her instead.

“Ser?” she stuttered even while wrapping an arm under the warm blankets and taking the boy’s weight.

“Keep him warm for me. I shouldn’t be too long,” he winked at her and Reiss felt her stomach plummet before it rolled around like a wet dog.

“I...should I not go with you, to...” she began to sway with the baby in her arms, instinct taking over.

Alistair paused, two fingers running across the fine hairs sparsely scattered over his son’s head. Smiling at the boy, he sighed, “Don’t worry, I’ll do my best to not die while dealing with...what was the problem again?”

“They say there are rats in their rooms. Big ones, Sire. And something about a man with a wooden stick.”

Trying to not groan, Alistair shrugged and gestured for the young man to head for the door. Reiss felt any common sense in the world fleeing with him, the King pausing at the door to wave her good luck before he quietly closed it. She could hear him asking the young boy why they didn’t release some of the cats to deal with the rats, but the rest of his comeback was drowned out by her throbbing heartbeat.

For his part, the prince and second in line to the throne, barely acknowledged that a filthy commoner was holding him close to her plebeian chest. Reiss was the one having a hard time with the idea. Please don’t wake up, or cry, or do anything that would draw people to her. Would they give her a chance to explain, or would they see a knife-ear holding the royal infant and go right to ‘she’s going to use it for one of her elfy blood rituals?’

While her mind panicked, her body fell back to all those years ago when she’d have to watch her brother and sister. Atisha was a quiet baby, but Lorace was beyond a handful. He was tugging out hair and going for necklaces before he’d grasped any other motor movements. And he seemed to enjoy hearing himself screaming, often crying for the fun of it while his exhausted ten year old sister did every damn thing she could think of to get him to shut up.

A soft cry, like a squeaky wheel, broke from tiny lips. Oh Maker. Reiss began to pat his back end, rocking her arms to try and entice the rousing baby back to sleep. She focused up on the door, praying the King was going to run back inside and swoop him out of her arms. Another gasp was followed by a smacking of hungry lips and she glanced down to catch the bluest eyes blinking up at this strange woman.

Reiss knew it was coming; a cry for anyone with the proper authority to come and rescue him was liable to break in a second. There was only one trick she had left. Dipping into her rarely used singing voice, an old lullaby floated out of her lips.

“Elgara valla, da’len

Melava somnia

Mala taren aravas

Ara ma’desen melar.”

Pausing, she watched the prince’s wandering eyes focus up on her. It was doubtful he could see much of her at this young age, but the soothing song seemed to be working as his body relaxed against her arm. With a smile, Reiss tugged down the creeping blanket to give the prince’s fist room. He was quick to wrap around her pinkie as she began the second verse.

“Iras ma ghilas, da’len

Ara ma’nedan ashir

Dirthara lothlenan’as

Bal emma mala dir...”

Prince Cailan cooed at that, the building blocks of a smile trying to tug his slack lips upward. It was enough to draw Reiss to his little face, her own anxiety blanketing down from the happy baby gurgling in her arms.

“That’s a lovely song.”

Reiss whipped her head up and gulped at the petite woman standing in the previously closed door. With the baby in her arms, Reiss began to bow before returning to a curtsy, “My Queen.”

She’d not spoken with Beatrice before, the King rarely spending more than a few minutes near his wife aside from during meals. While people weren’t ever certain what to do with their bonhomie King, everyone loved Beatrice. People said she was kind, thoughtful, always quick to send a three page thank you note for the smallest gift given. They rarely talked about her beauty which seemed to be more striking by the cozy light of the hearth instead of the candles in a ballroom. It wasn’t tight corsets and voluminous skirts that the Queen thrived in but soft robes the better to catch up baby spit up and full of pockets crammed with the accruements of motherhood.

When the Queen crossed over to her, Reiss began to hold her arms out, expecting Beatrice to take her son back from the rambling bodyguard, but she only traced along his soft forehead. Cailan seemed to sense his mother however, those bright blue eyes popping open to watch her. She smiled so sweetly at her boy, it tugged on a painful memory inside Reiss’ heart of her own mother.

“What was that song you were singing?”

“It’s an, um, an elvish lullaby, your Majesty,” Reiss sputtered out. Maker’s sake, it’s bad enough to be caught holding the baby but whispering in some scary foreign tongue into his ear... You’ll be lucky to survive the night.

The Queen watched her son’s tiny fist clasp tighter to Reiss’ finger as she smiled, “I’d never heard it before.”

“My mother she’d, uh,” tears burned in her eyes, the grown woman come undone by the pure maternity wafting off the Queen who became mother to the whole country. Whether she wanted it or not, Beatrice wore it like a glove and while it could soothe those with happy childhoods, it kept sticking deep into Reiss’ chest like a poleax.

Blinking back the tears, Reiss spat out, “She’d sing it to us often, to get us to sleep.”

Beatrice turned away from her son to eye up the scattered elf coming fully undone by this. A soft hand landed upon her shoulder and gave a comforting squeeze, “You speak as if she is no longer with us.”

“No,” Reiss screamed at herself internally. It was years and years ago, the wound healed and stitched up by time as well as necessity. But, it was her parents... “The, uh, the blight.”

“Ah,” Beatrice nodded and bent her head low. “I lost my mother to an extended illness, not the Blight but a different plague.” Gently tipping her head, she curled her hand around Cailan’s head and he leaned into his mother’s warmth, “I wish she could’ve seen her grandchildren.”

“They watch from the Maker’s side,” Reiss muttered out.

“You are Andrastian?” Beatrice exclaimed, sounding as shocked as if a Qunari recited the chant of light.

This wasn’t the time to go into the long, convoluted backstory of how Reiss suffered eternal days in the chantry of her youth, fully abandoned it as she struggled to survive in Kirkwall, and never really opened her arms back to Andraste. Instead she smiled, “My sister is actually a Sister.” Maker’s breath, that sounded stupid.

But the Queen only smiled politely and nodded her head, “That’s good. It’s nice to have something to cling to during the darkest hours.”

“Yes,” Reiss agreed not feeling it in her heart. She wished she could, some made it look so easy while others could embrace their non-belief with as much fervor. Falling in the middle only left her with more questions and less answers.

“We have not spoken before, Ser Reiss,” Beatrice changed tactics.

“No, Ma’am, your Majesty,” she stuttered, chasing to shore up her weeping heart and stuff it down behind the armor.

The Queen smiled with the softest uptick of her thin lips. It seemed she was never far from her smile, but it didn’t brighten the room the way the King’s did. While his was like trapping the sun inside a closet, hers was a whisper of candlelight upon a dark mantle. “I assume my King placed the prince in your arms before dashing off to handle some other small matter.”

“Yes, that was what he did, your Highness.” Reiss’ grip shifted around as the sweat accumulated on her palms. Do not drop the baby. Maker’s sake, never drop the baby.

“You spend a great deal of time with him,” Beatrice said, her downturned eyes suddenly snapping with a ferocity she’d never expected.

“I...” Flames! Reiss had expected a snide comment from Philipe or Renata, anyone else that was sure to notice the love sick elf drooling over the King, but she’d never imagined that the Queen would catch on. Could Beatrice throw her in chains? Would the King try and stop her? Did he even notice Reiss’ girlish attentions? Maker’s sake, please don’t let him notice. “I do as I’m ordered.”

Beatrice leaned in close to the elf holding her baby and said, “It is a wonder you can stand his peculiarities for as long as you do.”

“He’s not that...we, I’ve had far worse jobs, my lady.” Reiss tipped her head down unable to take that calculating stare masked behind the gauze of motherhood.

“I’d imagine so,” the Queen clucked her tongue. “It is not my place to meddle in these matters, but perhaps you should be made aware.”

Reiss tried to not flinch as the woman somehow gained a foot over her and leaned closer. Even if she didn’t banish the bodyguard from the palace, or Denerim, or Ferelden itself, this was going to be the most awkward moment of Reiss’ life.

Beatrice patted her on the shoulder and said, “He possess a rather thick skull at times and requires a far stronger push than one expects.”

“Beg pardon?” Reiss sputtered, feeling as if she was just tricked by a demon. She glanced up and the Queen’s patient smile twitched higher.

“You’ll find the proper moment, but be brash about it.”

Swallowing down the multitude of questions, Reiss’s mouth fell open as she tried to find any word to make sense of what she heard. All her brain could offer up was a quiet whine through her ears, like someone was running laps around the castle while screaming. She had to fix this, convince the Queen that there was nothing, would never be anything of evidence between her and... Maker’s sake, she’s an elf!

“I don’t...? What do you...?”

Reiss’ pitiful attempts were drowned out as the door cracked open and the King appeared. He looked little worse for the wear, a bit of probable rat blood splattered across his green and tan doublet. “All fixed and I didn’t have to throw anyone in the dungeon,” he crowed. “Now, how’s about some time with my boy.”

Grateful, Reiss passed off Cailan to his father’s arms. In switching over, Alistair’s fingers wrapped across hers and for a brief second he held them tight. No, that was her imagination fueled by the Queen’s insinuations. With her head dipping down, Reiss tried to slink into the shadows to play the part of wallpaper.

Beatrice stepped near, a kerchief already in her fingers. “Do try to keep the baby from swallowing too much blood,” she sighed while wiping it off Alistair’s cheek.

“Thanks,” he smiled at his wife a moment before turning back to his son. “Wait until you’re old enough to chase down rats with a big wooden stick. Though, knowing Spud she’ll be doing that any day now.”

“No doubt at her father’s urging,” Beatrice said back. There was a dash of venom in there but she seemed prepared to acquiesce to the inevitable.

Alistair shrugged, the man at the beck and call of his children and happier for it. He placed a quick kiss against Cailan’s forehead before sighing. Glancing over at Reiss, he smiled wide, “So, what’d you two get up to while I was out?”

She watched the Queen turn to her and smile nearly as brightly as her husband, “We had an enlightening conversation. One I hope she’ll take to heart.”

With a blush brightening up her cheeks, across her forehead, and down her neck all Reiss could do was nod and pray for the floor to open up and swallow her whole.

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