Guarded Love

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Chapter 23: Ghosts of Pain

Reiss had no idea if the talks were going well or not. To her it was nothing but chaos as the same ten or so people gathered together in a room to yell over top each other, punctuated by friendly dinners of the fanciest vittles Karelle could scrounge up. But then the King would give an occasional thumbs up from across the table or, as they stumbled off to their beds for a night, say that they’d actually gotten something done. All she saw was indecisive discord but maybe that was the general state for politics. While the days were long, some of the longest she could remember since being a foot soldier for the Inquisition, it felt strangely worthy. The Dalish would sometimes look over at the elven bodyguard and not quite smile. The First even struck up something of a conversation with Reiss across the dinner table about squirrels.

It also helped that Bann Declan was kept far from her, not that the man seemed to have any memory of her having worked for him, nor the way he acted. She tried to pretend none of it ever happened, that it was all an overreaction on her part in order to preserve the delusion that Reiss was strong. But having him exhale near her, with that sucking sound and his breath tinged with clove drops wafted over her sick skin, it came crashing back.

No. Reiss shook it all off. That was not a part of her life anymore, and thanks to the King’s help it would never have to be. He’d been generally happy, as happy as one can get while trapped in a chair supervising grown men and women about to call each other ‘booger face.’ There were only a few times when a dour mood stampeded out the smile, usually whenever the College of Enchanters was invoked. The newest arcane advisor was brought in for talks as the Banns feared all that evil magic the dalish were casting on their lands.

Whenever Alistair would quiz Linaya about what if any failsafes the college had in place for mages that either didn’t want to study there or were about to go all abominiationy, she didn’t have much of an answer beyond promising to look into it. That’d set him off, the man all but throwing his chair back to stomp around the table. With a set jaw, he’d growl about how it’d be so much easier to have the damn answer right now if their Grand Enchanter could be bothered to reply to a letter beyond her curt dismissals.

But even that would waft away, the King shaking his head and trying to steer the conversation back to elves and who belonged where. Reiss expected to stumble into the King’s bedroom and have him challenge her for some sparring to work off that excess energy, but all the man wanted was to yank off his boots and collapse into bed. He would manage to get them off about half the time before succumbing to sleep. After three days of talking around in circles, it was agreed upon that the King, a few of the others in his entourage, and the Banns would all visit this disputed land to see just what horrors did or did not exist there.

While Reiss was prepared to head out the next day after the decision was struck and shook upon, the King sighed and told her, “Sadly, we have one more fancy pants thing to get to before we can revive the real work.”

There had to be a ball.

No one informed her of it, the rest of the palace in more of a tizzy to decorate and prepare for it instead of taking the time to tell the newest bodyguard. Reiss expected to be fully forgotten about to the point the other guards tried to throw the elven beggar out into the streets, but when she woke she found her armor was polished to the nth degree. She didn’t even have to use her fogged up mirror to see her own haggard face staring back.

That was the extent of her getting ready for the coming dance, though she did hear a constant stream of people fussing over the King while he paced back and forth in his rooms. Reiss kept their shared door open while she honed her blade, the steel slicking down the edge. On occasion she’d look up to catch a blonde blur all but running back and forth. He had a scroll or two in his hands, double checking on some other attempt at a new agreement from the Banns or Dalish. The piles of servants managed to get a dashing velvet doublet upon him - midnight blue with buttons of silver glittering down the middle like stars. However, no one had managed to stop him in time to finish off with trousers. The inner shirt, stark white, frilled out over the tops of his thighs like a tiny skirt and Reiss did her best to not watch the man’s pale and very naked legs as he made another lap.

“Sire, please stop.”

“Why?” he paused, finally turning up from his work.

“You must wear pants to the ball, for...everyone’s sake,” the servant pleaded, the poor kid looking about to break into tears. It’d been a stressful week for all.

“I thought I already was,” Alistair yanked the vellum away from his chest and glanced down at his skin on display to the world. He laughed at the mess and then quirked his head up, “Wait, how did I get my shoes on?”

“We don’t know, Sire,” the servant groaned, dropping to his knees to tug the polished leather off the King’s feet before finally getting him into the trousers he’d been streaking past all night.

Reiss watched the servant quickly moving to dress him, too amused by the spectacle now that it was over, when she felt eyes land upon her. Glancing up she caught the King smiling at her having watched him walking around pantsless. A blush burned up her cheeks and she flipped her shield in the way because it was suddenly very necessary that she check the strap for any wear and not to cover herself from his Majesty’s wickedly handsome smirk.

“Have you ever been to one of these things?” Alistair asked.

“Yes, Sire. Numerous ones.”

“No kidding, Ortal, but I wasn’t talking to you,” the King smirked down at the servant who was trying to jam the royal foot back into the shoe.

Peering over the top of her shield, Reiss met Alistair’s eye and she admitted, “No, I haven’t before.” The command was that only humans would be able to sneak into the Winter Palace due to anyone else either being confused for servants or dwarves being fully out of place. Reiss was serving in the Emerald Graves while the ball took place, most likely twirling with those freemen as the best of the Inquisition danced with the duchess.

“It’s not so bad,” Alistair said. He nodded down at Ortal who stepped back and then dashed off to find something else to add to the man’s wardrobe. Stepping closer, the King stood in the doorway before Reiss’ room. “There’s a lot of people standing around in a room that will feel hot compared to falling into an open lava pit. Small talk, larger talk, louder, violent small talk, a handful of people twirling in circles in the middle of the room. One guy who’s dead certain he’s the Maker’s gift to the world flailing around like his back’s on fire and calling it dancing.”

“Why do people do this?” Reiss struggled to understand.

“Because it’s tradition,” he smiled, “and the food’s pretty good. There’s this mushroom they cram full of cheese and spices.” A cravat swung up behind the King, cutting off his words. Reiss leaped up off her bed, her hands reaching behind to try and yank it off, when the servant swung a haphazard knot back around and ruffled it properly in front of the King’s attire.

“There, that should be up to snuff,” Ortal sighed, not so much proud of his work as abandoning it.

Reiss caught the servant’s disinterested eye wander up to her with the question of what the hell she was doing in his face. Without an answer, she absently reached up and patted her bun into place when a laugh echoed from the King. He must have caught on to the play and found it hilarious. Without drawing any attention to his bodyguard about to lay the servant out flat for adding a decorative tie to him, Alistair adjusted the knot of silver until it dangled in whatever way was fashionable.

Sliding back into his room, he hunted out a mirror and made a vague pass at his hair. Someone took a long time to try and grease it down into the more popular wet look, which the King promptly obliterated as he absently lifted his hair up and back. Nodding once at the striking figure in the glass, he smiled over at Reiss. “Shall we?”

On an average day the great hall was not so impressive. The scale of it more than lived up to its name, providing enough room for a jousting tournament should someone become very drunk and delude themselves into thinking it was a good idea. But that was about all it held, room. Vast space was filled with more space, the walls decorated in banners associated with Ferelden and the Theirin bloodline, but little else.

As Reiss descended the stairs behind the King her breath caught in her throat. The entire hall glittered with thousands of candles struck upon golden chandeliers dangling off the beams. Crystals focused the light in prismatic rainbows across the dance floor where men and women twirled in erratic but precise movements to a full orchestra roped off where the gentry would stand during landsmeets. A sweet song echoed above the trill of flutes and Reiss spotted those crimson birds swooping through the chandeliers, dusting the dancers in their molting feathers. Karelle found a use for them after all.

Every corner and inch of the great hall teemed with the richest colors, the most vibrant fabrics, and the most precious jewels. Reiss felt herself flinching whenever a shoe of gold or feathered pauldron festooned in diamonds would catch the light. Positively everyone glittered from head to toe in decadence, the men -- regardless of how they’d been screaming each other raw not a day earlier -- appeared the epitome of a gentleman class in their tailored suits. It was the women that caught Reiss hardest of all. Dresses with both modest and daring necklines skirted around the floor, every woman at the peak of feminine beauty as the full skirts amplified that hourglass figure. She spotted Karelle towering over most of the people, her imposing edges softened like butter left on the stove by the frills of her skirts and the ruching along the bodice’s top.

“You still back there?”

Reiss shook her head, realizing the King was speaking to her. Maker’s sake, how long had he been trying to get her attention? “Ah, yes, Sire.”

“Good,” he snickered, “I was afraid you might have run out the window on me.”

He stood at the top of the stairs alone, the far more drab bodyguard standing behind in the shadows. While Alistair appeared to be waiting for something, Reiss had no idea what she was meant to do. “Um, if I may, what precisely should I do during the ball?”

Abandoning waving at his people, Alistair turned and smiled at her, “Trail me down the stairs, I’ll have to say something to get the official party started, and then try to enjoy it. Wander around, maybe attempt dancing, oh and be certain to get to the dessert table fast. That’s always picked clean in five minutes flat.”

“I...” she dipped her head down and felt a blush rising up her cheeks. “Thank you, Ser.”

“Not a problem, Ser,” he smiled back before turning around and beginning his descent to the people.

After coughing out a rambling speech about nothing in particular, the King clapped his hands to get the party started. Despite Alistair giving her his leave, Reiss haunted beside him uncertain where she should go. The various dignitaries and gentry she’d come to pat down all formed their own clusters. It reminded her of the gangs that would pop up either in the camp or when she was working in various smelting factories and the docks. People loved nothing more than to form groups just so they could have somewhere to belong against others. Exclusivity ran deep with blue blood.

Alistair shook a few hands, his arms always returning to a gentle cross, until the other side of the staircase parted to reveal the Queen descending down the stairs. A hush fell over the crowd which raced all the way back to those who couldn’t even see Beatrice. While some of it may have been a deference for the Queen, Reiss was certain a lot of it had to be what Beatrice wore. The ivory bodice was tight and conical, lifting the nursing woman’s breasts up high until they looked like a pair of waxing moons. Normally, the bones that provided the structure for the corset would be hidden away, but these were polished to an opalescence shine and left exposed to glitter by the candlelight. Her skirt flared out in a full circle and bore the Ferelden seal embroidered with golden thread continuously circling around the bottom. She looked like the very heart of the country descending down the stairs with the prince in her arms. The baby’s blanket matched his mother’s dress, the same embroidery evident from the scrap positioned to hang in front of her.

As Beatrice stepped down to the final stair, she reached a delicate gloved hand out to the King, who happily picked it up to help her down. With an obvious show for the people, Alistair leaned forward and plucked a whisper of a kiss against her cheek. That drew a smattering of applause from the crowd, everyone shifting their glasses around to free a hand to not be caught failing to celebrate their royal couple’s marriage. The King moved to slide back from his wife, when a pink burst of energy shot out from behind Beatrice’s skirt.

He laughed as the princess leaped up into the air, Alistair easily catching to swing her around. Her dress bore the kind of ruchings that made all little girls wish to be princesses, white roses stuck to the indentations. But the girl didn’t seem to care for any of the fancy lace, nor the silver shoes dangling off her feet. All she wanted was her father to spin her around, which he kept doing until someone asked him to stop.

“Sire, you should begin the dancing,” Arlessa Isolde told him.

“Right, got it,” he nodded at her, and then placed the princess on the ground. She began to stick her lip out but he tugged her close and whispered loud enough half the ballroom had to hear, “You get the second one, Spud.” Extending his hand to his wife, he said, “Ready?”

Beatrice passed the baby back to Marn, who was also dressed like a dream. Maker’s sake, was someone handing out dresses to every woman in the castle while Reiss was busy bathing or something? She shifted uncomfortably in her armored boots, feeling even more aware at how she stood out -- always the sharp, rough edges in a sea of softened silks. As the King guided his wife out to the dance floor, a slower song struck up and the pair of them began to gently turn around. If it was to try and convince the gentry that the pair were madly in love, they were doing a terrible show of it. Alistair and Beatrice left enough room in between them, the princess could have easily slipped in the middle. Neither truly smiled, a painted on look of ‘let’s get this over with’ gracing both their faces. But neither sneered nor glared at the other. They moved like two strangers that neither hated nor liked each other.

As the song continued, the royal couple twisting around the room, Reiss sunk deeper into the midst. The King gave her leave to enjoy herself, but what was there for an elf to do at such a party? She knew people, sure. For example, there by the pickle tray was Arl Teagan, the man she’d threatened with his life. Or there were all the other Banns Reiss would watch with an eagle glare to make certain their hands weren’t carrying weapons. It seemed impossible to think anyone else was armed, the heavy skirts making it impossible for women to fish anything out and the men all in tight suit coats that’d bulge in strange ways from a sheathe hidden below. Perhaps a tiny dagger might slip through, but Cade and his men were guarding the entrance.

There was nothing Reiss could add to the ball, her job being handled by everyone else. She was completely useless in the cavalcade of rich humans. While no one actively painted a target on her back, she could feel it growing exponentially as the King finished his first dance with the Queen and let her retire off the dance floor. He looked about to leave, when the princess darted around skirts to grab onto her father’s legs and tug him back. That drew laughs from nearly all the gathered dignitaries, everyone clapping in joy at the little girl guiding their towering King around as if she had all the power. Granted, after what Reiss saw, she suspected the princess did bear nearly full control of the man.

Drifting deeper into the crowds, Reiss noticed this mythical dessert tray and began to head towards it. A handful of shemlan moved out of her way in deference to the uniform and not the person in it; barely anyone glanced to her face. They maintained a small island for the Dalish group, all of which stood in a locked off stance watching the proceedings with a small terror drawn across their faces. The true elves in their midst had no idea what to make of all this human celebration, but a few found comfort in a massive meringue cake they guarded. Reiss wasn’t in the mood to be called a flat-ear for the entire night and she turned away from the dalish retinue.

Gleaming across the way, her back to the window, stood a woman baring a near on likeness to Lunet. Same black curls, in this case a cascade down her back instead of tied up in a knot, same darker coloring that set her apart from the paler Fereldens. Reiss began to laugh at the idea of a shemlan looking exactly like her friend, when the woman turned to her side revealing a pointy ear prodding through the glittering midnight hair.

“Lune?” Reiss gasped, stumbling over to her like a drunk about to have their pockets picked. The elf paused in whoever she was talking to and turned, that perfectly plucked eyebrow lifting in amusement.

“Well, well, I was wondering how long it’d take you to find me. Good job, Rat,” she lifted her champagne glass in a toast and then downed it all.

As the tunnel vision of shock wore off, Reiss realized that it wasn’t the typical tans and clears of the fancier liquors but something bright pink and bubbling in her glass. There was only one person in thedas who would drink that. “Maker’s perforated colon, what are you doing here?” Reiss hissed, before slapping a hand over her mouth for such a blaspheme. Luckily, everyone else was too enraptured with their own celebrating or their King’s antics to pay her any attention.

“I believe I am drinking whatever this concoction is and eating some cheese that smells like rotten feet after a week on the beat,” she smirked, her perfect little nose curling up at the cheese square clutched in her painted fingernails.

“But...but, you’re here. At the palace?” Reiss couldn’t stop the stutter, her entire world thrown off its axis.

“As are you, and, Andraste’s calluses is that what you’re wearing?” she sighed pointing at the uniform Reiss pathetically looked down at. Lunet was dressed properly for this fancy dance, her emerald dress bearing an asymmetrical neckline which exposed one shoulder, while the other did the work of keeping her bodice from falling off her curves. It didn’t have the gold and fine jewels of the rest, but the fabric was of a fine make, far finer than something Lune could afford on her salary.

Still waving at Reiss’ abject failure of dressing pretty, Lunet tugged at one of the centerpieces on the table and unearthed a sprig of blue flowers. She knotted the flowers around the emblem bearing the Ferelden crest upon Reiss’ upper arm. Now it looked as if the twin mabari were leaping through a field of forget-me-nots. “There,” Lunet declared, “much more festive. Did you think to do anything about your hair?”

“Maker’s sake, I’m working here. I don’t need to, why are you here? Are the rest of the guards in the palace? Is there more help I...?”

Lunet chuckled at Reiss’ ravings, “I forgot how hilarious it is when you go in full bore and half cocked. No, I’m not here as a guard. Be a right prig if I tried to arrest someone wearing this contraption. Did you know it’s got metal bars jammed up through the corset bits? They said it’s to flatter my form, but I think it’s to keep women from being able to bend over.”

Not in the mood for Lunet’s thoughts on ladies fashion, Reiss crossed her arms and glared at her best friend. That earned her another laugh, one almost powerful enough to snap one of those metal bars.

“All right, all right, I’m here with someone. You know as in a couple, as in she invited me because she thought it’d be all romantic,” Lunet snickered and tipped her glass to her lips. Before taking a drink she whispered, “As if I need more than a ‘You wanna?’ invitation to go routing through her trousers.”

“With? Someone here, at the palace? The only elves are the Dalish, and Shiani’s family...” Reiss struggled to puzzle this out while Lunet watched with her eyebrow lifting higher and higher in hilarity. She was always doing that, giving Reiss just enough information to drive her mad.

Spinning around, Lunet placed her glass upon the table behind and then waved her fingers, “That’d be my lovely lady right there.”

Reiss almost cracked her neck whipping it around so fast to catch Lace Harding, who’d been in deep conversation with one of the Bann’s. She nodded politely at the man before catching sight of Lunet and gently lifting the ends of her fingers to return the wave. “You!” Reiss sputtered.

“Yes, that’d be me.”

“And...for the love of the Maker, you’re involved with Scout Lace Harding?!”

Lunet snickered, “I rarely call her scout, unless we’re trying to hunt down a pair of missing knickers. What? Don’t act surprised. You know I’m helpless against freckles, in particular on redheads.”

“But, she’s a dwarf,” Reiss couldn’t understand this. Despite her staying far away from the Alienage, Lunet preferred to keep to her own in nearly all matters. She even walked halfway across Denerim to get her swords sharpened because there was an elf who did it.

“So,” Lunet shrugged, “I’m not in any danger of polluting the elven bloodline regardless and anyway, it’s not like she’s a shem.”

A dwarf, not just any dwarf but the scout for the Inquisition with Lunet. Reiss didn’t realize she’d plucked a wine glass off a tray until half of it was down her throat. Nope, still not enough. She finished off the last of it and then grabbed onto her friend’s shoulder, “And the fact she’s our new Spymaster? Maybe you didn’t hear out there in guardhouse 12 but the last one nearly got his head chopped off for messing around on the side.”

Lunet rolled her eyes, “Rye, up there in her ivory tower aloft from all of us working stiffs. Of blighted course we heard. It’s been the juiciest gossip since the last assassination attempt. What’s he at now, five?”

“Two,” she interrupted, needing to defend herself.

“Whatever,” Lunet waved it away, “Your need to mother me to death is forgetting a few key ingredients. One, Lacey’s only an acting Spymaster. She’s just holding down the fort until they pluck some new thief of shadows out of obscurity. And two, I ain’t someone with ties to foreign titles in far away lands. No one gives two cheese coppers about what some run down elf guard from a backwater alienage does.”

“I...” Reiss felt her anxiety crack but not fully cede. She knew how close Ghaleb came to losing his life, and Lunet didn’t have the protection the ambassador did. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Lunet rolled her eyes, “Surprise surprise, the rat’s running in to put out the fire before realizing it’s in the bloody hearth. Don’t worry yourself to death over it. It’s why I’m here anyway. Lacey was upfront about us to your boss and he suggested inviting me along to the fancy party. Seemed to think it’d smooth over any concerns if they see how gentle and sweet I am.” At that she grinned wide, showing off her canines before snapping them in a false bite.

“My boss?” Reiss shook her head, trying to catch up, “The King, he knew before I did? Why didn’t you tell me? Oh, right, because it’s so much more fun to make Rye run around solving all of Lune’s little puzzles instead of giving her a straight answer.”

Lunet shrugged, “That’s the long and short of it.”

“I hate you,” Reiss grumbled, but the last of her anxiety finally faded. She was at a fancy dress party with her best friend, no requirements ahead of her, and the two of them were free to snark upon all the humans they liked. Settling in beside Lunet, Reiss gestured to Harding and asked, “How in the void did you land that? She’s more than above your pay grade, you know.”

That got Reiss a small shrug and a bigger smile, “Maybe. We find ways to even that one out. Step-stools help.”

“That wasn’t what I...”

“One day I was out on patrol and find a cart with a downed wheel blocking up the road. Lots of angry villagers waving their pitchforks and what not. Instead of yanking out the manacles and threatening to throw someone in jail, I helped this sweet dwarven woman lift up the carriage and hold it. We get to talking while her mother slaps on a replacement wheel. Seemed she just arrived in town to help settle her mother, would be around for awhile, oh and was incredibly hot and thought I was too.”

“Just like that?” Reiss sighed, “How do you do it? It’s so damn easy for you. Swoop in, smile, make a few cheeky remarks, and you’ve got Scout Lace Harding eating out of your hand.”

“Hand isn’t my preferred venue,” Lunet quipped, earning a groan from Reiss. “I don’t know. I’m me, I smile politely when I feel like, and snap back when I don’t. Putting on the facade was never my strong suit, unlike you.”

“Me?” Reiss curled up her nose. “What facade? I don’t do that.”

“That armor’s the thickest in thedas,” Lunet said cooly before snatching up another one of the pink drinks. There seemed to be a lot of them circling through the crowds. Apparently she wasn’t the only one in Denerim who liked the strange mage brew.

Reiss watched her drink, uncertain what to say. She could argue that she had to wear the armor for her job, in both the literal and figurative sense, but Lunet was right. Reiss never took it off and the few times she found a chink in it, she patched over the hole as fast as possible. Folding her arms tight, she grumbled, “I have my reasons.”

“Please don’t pout,” Lunet groaned, “because we happen to have a room full of the fanciest food in Ferelden and I may have snuck a bag in under my skirt.”

“You are aware you are talking to a royal guardswoman who answers to the King,” Reiss said, her hand falling to the grip of her sword.

“So are you going to help me steal that giant cake or just planning to play lookout?” her friend giggled.

“Depends on if we can nick it before the dancing ends,” Reiss said standing on her tiptoes to try and see over the mighty hats. A cluster of the chantry gathered near the edge, effectively blocking everyone’s view -- which felt like a very chantry thing to do.

Her friend snickered at the idea, then she drew a very shrewd look across Reiss’ visage. “Why are you suddenly of the mind to ask me for advice on the dark arts of romance? It wouldn’t happen to be because someone has caught your eye? Someone in this very castle perhaps?”

“What?” Reiss gasped, “No, of course not. No. Don’t be silly. No. Never, not, no.”

“Uh huh, I believe you said no a dozen times there.”

“Well,” Reiss felt her shoes constricting against her ankles and wished she could elegantly yank both off. “That’s because it’s true.” Right? It wasn’t as if she’d sometimes let her mind wander down a fantasy road that could only end in impenetrable brambles. Which sometimes translated into dreams about a man that the bodyguard would never dare have any interest in because it was improper and against a law, probably. There were lots of stupid laws for things. Ignoring the fact the Queen all but...

She broke away from the spots of light on the dance floor Reiss had been glaring into. As they melted away, she realized it was caused by her screwing her face up so tight in trying to seem unperturbed that she looked like a raving lunatic. Lunet patted her on the arm and then gave her good friend soft slug along the chin, “Buck up. What do they say? Be yourself, say something witty, and he’ll be certain to be eating out of your...wherever soon enough.”

“Fenheedis, Lune,” Reiss cursed to herself, falling back on the elven swears whenever more polite ears were nearby. A few turned back at the foreign tongue but none raised a fuss. Her friend only chuckled at that. Of course it was all easy for Lunet. Not only was she beautiful and shapely enough to enflame the curiosity of damn near every species that liked women, she was herself. There was no facade, no playing hard to get, no flitting about like an errant butterfly hoping the right hand would pluck her from the sky. If Lunet wanted someone she made it obvious and quick. Reiss wished she had an iota of that certainty in her veins.

Ignoring her friend’s deep jealousy, Lunet tried to wave at Harding. The move drew Reiss’ eyes over and she soured instantly at Bann Declan attempting to ooze into the new Spymaster’s circle. Of course he’d be here, everyone was, and even if the man wasn’t invited he probably bribed a guard to let him in. He stood on the outside, dancing back and forth on his shoes like a puppy needing to relieve itself. When nothing would work, the man turned to another standing beside him and began to whisper.

Reiss was about to turn her back on it all, when the crowds parted enough and she got a full look upon the man Declan spoke with. No. She stumbled back, the air rushing from her lungs at the metaphorical kick to her gut. Lunet caught her shoulders and she tried to ask if Reiss was all right, but she couldn’t hear her for the pounding in her ears.

No. Not here. Not now. Not ever.

“Rye, Reiss, Rat!” Lunet shouted closer to her ears. The last broke through and Reiss whipped to her, a snarl lifting up her lips. “What in the Maker’s ballsack is wrong?”

“It’s him,” she swallowed. Her blinking slowed as she tried to follow the man’s movements. Lunet watched Reiss’ line of sight and caught the same man dressed in a simpler guard uniform, far more generic than even the ones they wore in the watch. He was that dashing kind of handsome that made an instant impression but washed away quickly with time. Pretty but forgettable. At least he should be.

“Him who?” Lunet asked.

“Ethan,” Reiss wanted to hiss his name, to sneer and scowl with an anger that could shatter the mountains, but she felt herself slipping away. Fading inward, she clung tight to her own arms as the years yanked her backwards, leaving her as emotionally raw as she’d been when it all went so wrong. Lunet managed the scowling, her pretty eyes glaring at him as she tried to shield away Reiss sinking into the floor.

“Forget him. He’s of no consequence, yes.”

“Why is he here? He shouldn’t be here,” Reiss whispered to herself, wishing that logic would somehow fix the world and make it right.

“Toads tend to gather in groups,” Lunet sneered. “Ah shit,” she grabbed onto Reiss and tried to turn her around to face the dancers. “I think the little prick saw me.”

The women held their breath but they didn’t need to wait in fear long as that smooth voice called out from behind Lunet’s shoulder, “Fancy meeting you here, Reiss. Never expected to see an elf in the Denerim palace.”

Maker no. Go away. Just go away and don’t do this.

Lunet snapped around, “More than one.”

He should have burst into flames from the glare Lunet worked, but Ethan used his charms to easily slip past it unharmed. Barely even bothering to look over, he honed those sharp blue eyes on Reiss and smiled, “How are you?”

Go away! “Fine,” she mumbled, glancing up anywhere but in his direction.

“It’s been a few years since we last spoke,” he tried to lean closer to her, but Reiss shifted back.

Not fucking long enough! “I suppose.” She wished she was strong enough to spit in his face, to upend him out the door, to challenge him to a Maker damn duel. Anything but the fumbling little girl who felt herself trapped in quicksand. It was her fault, all of it.

“A little birdie told me that you’re working for the guards now,” Ethan stepped into Reiss’ bubble. As she gasped for breath, his cologne punched into her stomach dredging up a hundred painful memories -- and worst of all -- a dozen happy ones. Reiss shuddered, attempting to find air that didn’t smell of him, when Lunet leapt to her defense.

“Not just any guards, she’s working in service to the King.”

Oh no. Lunet meant well, Reiss knew it. She wanted to pound the pathetic turd down into the tiny hole he belonged in, but that was what he hoped to hear -- a way to weasel back in. Ethan’s eyes lit up, and he flashed the entire top row of his teeth. She knew that smile; it was the one he’d beam on her when he wanted to get something from her. But never the other way around. Not even when things were good.

“What delightful news,” Ethan oozed, his hand landing upon Reiss’ shoulders, “because my good Bann has been trying to get a private meeting with His Majesty for some time now. I’m certain you know how busy the King is. Perhaps you could facilitate something between the two?”

For a brief moment the pilot light in her gut lit. How dare he walk into her life as if nothing happened, as if he didn’t twist her mind around like a pretzel and shatter her self esteem until she had only pieces to pick up. After all that she did to scrabble together a new life, months walking the streets in sole-less shoes because she couldn’t afford to replace them, her ears scrapped raw every day on the beat. And now, now that she was someone, had access to someone important, suddenly he needed her again. He wanted her. Fuck him and his grabby Bann!

Ethan’s false smiled twisted up to a sneer, “You can do that, can’t you, Reiss?”

His words snuffed out the fire in her belly, casting her into darkness. Those same ones he’d use to belittle and bully her into warping herself to being something to prop him up. She was never right, too tall for his tastes, too small breasted, too thick thighed, too brash, too smart, too better skilled in the field. A woman who was brave and powerful would have shouted him down, she’d find the steel in her spine and throw off the chains of her oppressor. The fact Reiss couldn’t, even now, all these years later, drew her deeper into the pit.

She lifted her head, about to agree to the worst possible decision -- one certain to make the King not only hate her, but question her competency -- when a new hand landed not upon her body but Ethan’s arm. It picked it off Reiss and with an extended pinkie tossed it to the side. Ethan snapped up, his snarl in place to shout down anyone that dared to touch him, when it faded in an instant, “Your Majesty.”

“The one and only, in here at least,” Alistair quipped from behind. Reiss wanted to turn back to look at him, but whatever she felt radiating off him -- anger, disgust, curiosity -- she couldn’t tell. He tilted his head down and spoke to Reiss, “I was wondering if you had a chance to try the pie yet? Renata said it was going to go lightning quick, which may mean she put wraith juice in it now that I say that.”

“I...” Reiss gasped, her breath staggered as she attempted to shift to the competent professional mask she tried to wear.

Ethan leaped forward, all but plowing Reiss to the side, “Sire, if I may while you are here. I’d like to take a moment to discuss a few important issues with you.”

Seeming entirely unimpressed with the man, Alistair slowly blinked, then returned to talking to Reiss, “And the cake’s to die for. Not literally, food taster made certain of that.”

“Your Majesty, please,” Ethan continued to wheedle, the man barely aware he was talking over royalty.

Something in the tone finally snapped through Alistair’s attempt at being nice, “Are you blind or did you ram head first into the door? I’m talking to my bodyguard at the moment. If I think you’re worthy of attention I’ll try and pass it along later.”

Reiss knotted her fingers together, praying that was enough to send Ethan scampering away with his tail between his legs. Then she heard the scoff building in his lungs, “For what purpose? She’s nothing more than a refugee knife-ear?”

She felt the King seize up behind her, a finger coming near Ethan’s face, but it was Reiss who snapped. Knife-ear? Knife-ear?! You think that can cut me, Ethan?! That I haven’t heard ten times worse words, been watched and followed since I was a child? Had grown men threaten to fix me by lopping off my ears because I dared to exist while not human? It wasn’t any of that that came out of Reiss’ throat.

All she could manage was to pivot up on the tips of her toes and with hands extended scream as loud as possible in Ethan’s face. No words, no witty retorts, nothing but pure primal rage in that smug, human face. The raw power of it was enough to knock him off his pedestal, real fear rippling across his cocksure features. Ecstasy flooded Reiss’ veins from having finally struck back at him, when she realized every sound in the great hall died from her scream. Even the band held its beat at the mad woman shrieking her lungs off.

“Oh Maker,” she groaned, cold dread choking out her gut. Blinking in agony, she took off on a run through the hall. People were quick to leap out of the way, everyone watching the crazed elf hell bent on ruining their evening escaping into the night. She didn’t wind up where she wanted to be, which was on a boat far from Denerim, Ferelden, every damn inch of her embarrassing display. Somehow she found herself in one of the antechambers, a small one with a clock that no longer worked. It hung silently at five minutes ’til midnight, a few candles giving the flickering illusion that the minute hand danced back and forth in anticipation.

What have you done?

A third time? You blighted well went and destroyed your life a third time? How many chances do you think elves get in their lives? Certainly not as many as the Maker keeps gifting you, rabbit. Reiss felt herself sinking to the floor even as her fingers clung tight to the mantle with the dead clock. Worst of all, Ethan was back there with a no doubt confused King telling him all about how Reiss was unstable, she couldn’t be trusted in the Inquisition. Or worse. Sweet Andraste, what would he say about why she left Bann Declan’s service? What lie could he concoct that, of course the King would believe. He was a decorated soldier who became the head guard for a Bann and she was...she was a crazy knife ear.

“Are you okay?”

Maker, no. Reiss’ stomach dropped at the King’s words wafting through the air behind her. He sounded like he was approaching a feral animal about to lash out from its den. Then again, maybe that was apt after her actions.

“Forgive me for that frightful display,” Reiss mumbled out. She should stand, should rise up and accept her punishment like an adult, but her legs were custard, the muscles refusing to budge from her squat.

To her surprise, the King didn’t stomp his foot at her crumbling but squatted down to her level. He remained a few feet away, his mouth opening and closing as he swallowed down the words. “I spotted you looking terrified from across the room.” Reiss groaned at that, she didn’t wish to make it obvious, to make it his problem or anyone else’s. “I don’t know what happened, but if you want to talk about it, I’m here. Or, I could go get your friend. She went the other way. Maker’s sake, you are fast.”

He had to want to know, was most likely making up his own wild theories without her offering anything to combat them. Trying to shake off the tears in her soul, Reiss whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“I’ll admit, that was surprising,” the King said. “Not the most shocking thing to happen at one of our parties by a long shot. Maybe in the top ten. I dunno. Where would you put having a halla leap through an open window, scatter around the dance floor, lap up alcoholic punch and then crash on the throne?”

It was stupid, but a giggle broke through her throat -- the solitary laugh swaddled in pain. She wanted to give in to the madness, curl up on the floor and roll around with laughter, what she really wanted was for none of it to have happened. Not just her outburst, the very reason she did it, her never ever having met Ethan in the first place. “He’s why I left the Inquisition,” Reiss gasped, her breath jagged, the words feeling like broken glass wedged in her throat.

She expected the King to turn around and leave, or interrupt with a dozen questions, but he waited, his hands splayed out across the ground for balance. Struggling against the embargo she’d put on herself, Reiss begged herself to not let loose on the secrets in her life certain to damn her. But she couldn’t stop it any longer.

“Ethan, was, is... I’d always been little more than a pair of hands before. Hands to smelt the iron, arms to cart the cargo, feet to thresh the wheat, a body in a sea of others that filled workhouses, as replaceable as any other broken cog. No one had ever looked at me before, it was always through and then...” Maker’s sake, Reiss. Stop blubbering. You have no excuses for your actions. Boo hoo, you’re far from the first elf to have a sad backstory, much less a refugee from the blight.

Her arm began to burn from the stretch but she ignored it. “I loved serving in the Inquisition, it was a home of sorts, but I left it because...because Ethan said we would do better serving in the watch for a Bann, together.”

The King groaned, his eyes screwed up tight as he pinched the top of his nose. Reiss waited for an admonishment from him for wasting his time, but none came. There was still time to stop, to laugh it off and bury her heart back in its grave, but no, this had to come out. All of it.

“I was such an idiot, because I...” no, not the tears. Not now! They came, no matter how hard she pinched into her side. “I thought he loved me.” She saw it now with hindsight blanketing the rosy glow of youthful lust. Ethan didn’t care about her, he liked the idea of her, of someone on his arm to shine but never brighter than him. No, that was when he’d snap and snarl. Some of the others in the group tried to warn Reiss but she’d excused it all away. He was tired or maybe she did do something wrong and it was right of him to correct her. Foolish little rabbit trusting in the farmer’s hand without noticing the other holding a hatchet.

Wiping at the tears, Reiss spoke instead of Declan, “When we arrived at the Bann’s holdings I realized what a mistake I’d made. The Bann he...he is a man who thinks he can take whatever he wants, and deserves it all.”

She tried to be vague because voicing any real accusations against gentry, in particular from an elf, would be disastrous. Her bringing them to the King...she couldn’t imagine what they’d do with it. Most men would think that meant Declan was brutish or perhaps gruff with his people, rough yet forgivable, but Alistair gnashed his teeth together and hissed, “Did he...hurt you?”

That word, hurt, was a placeholder for a dozen more darker options; all of which the gentle King seemed unable to voice. Reiss shook her head, “No, not that. He’d reach out often with his hands, where they need not be, but...” she wanted to say it wasn’t so bad. It could have been worse. But it was; in all those moments she felt paralyzed and filthier than when she washed ashore as a refugee outside Kirkwall. The cruelest cut came from Ethan, the man she followed because she thought he loved her. If she brought up any mention of the Bann’s wandering hands, he’d either laugh at it or insist she was wrong, that her memories had to be false because the Bann was good to him. How dare she demean someone so great to him?

“I left because, because I was fired,” she sneered. It wasn’t the firing that was her greatest shame, but the fact she hadn’t been strong enough to go on her own. “The Bann resented the fact I made a fuss, and Ethan...he preferred to side with the man keeping him in coin.” Reiss knew it was wrong, it made her sick to her stomach to wake every day not knowing what awaited her for work. If the Bann finally felt bold enough to push his attentions further than she feared. A rash began to cover her body wherever the uniform touched her skin, as if it was trying to warn her, and still she couldn’t go. She feared the unknown more than the hell of her own choosing.

“I’m...” she collapsed into her lap, her arm plummeting off the mantle. It bounced against the floorboards, pain trying to echo up her arm but her mind was too numb to feel it. “I’m sorry, Sire. For not...for being...” Every word crashed to an incoherent whimper.

The King gulped and dug his fingers through his hair, yanking it ever upward where it spiked from the pomade left within. “Reiss, I...” he began to surge forward, when his knee popped. Groaning, he sank to the floor and sat hard upon the stones. With one hand he tried to rub the aching joint, while gesticulating to her as if afraid she was about to fly out the window like a scared bird.

“You never have to apologize, not for that. Ever. It’s...uh,” he breathed deep, his eyes wandering around the room at the severity of her words. “I’d like to pull out the old drawing and quartering leather wraps for Declan right now, but that’s not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?” she turned to face him, the tears glittering in her eyes but refusing to fall. Sometimes her stubbornness won.

“Blaming yourself,” Alistair sighed, nodding his head up and down as if to a slow song, “I get that one. Know it rather well, you could say we’re on a first name basis, but...I don’t hold it against you. I don’t think lesser of you for it, either.”

Reiss scoffed, whipping her head away from him. Even Lunet asked her a few times why she didn’t leave, if not after the first time Declan’s hands wandered, then when Ethan disavowed her? She had no answers, her own brain screaming at her for not doing it. The guilt wore a hole in her gut down to the void itself.

The menial King, gentle and unassuming, lifted his head high and in a voice that could crack mountains thundered, “I mean it. You weren’t chosen on the assumption that your personal life was perfect, which would be an odd way to pick any guards. You saved my children’s lives, my sorry life twice, and...I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. Which was not the time to say that, sorry,” he winced and pawed at his shoes, but the sincerity made Reiss snicker. It caused her few tears to drip down her cheeks, one pooling at the side of her laughing mouth. Maker’s sake, she was a mess.

“I was weak,” she whispered.

“We all are sometimes,” he said so certainly it broke through her fog. “Flames, you’ve watched me break down on occasion. And, I happen to know even the great Hero of Ferelden makes mistakes. Not often mind, but there were a few.”

She wanted to reach over and hug him, to curl up into the embrace of someone willing to brave the filthy cold floor for her. Instead, Reiss wiped at her tears and tried to summon up her guard facade. “I’m sorry, Ser,” she said. Alistair looked about to argue, when she tacked on, “for my outburst dragging you from the party.”

“That’s all right, it saves on me having to dance with the Arlessa of Guerrin. Maker, the woman moves like a horse wearing armored boots five sizes too big.”

Reiss giggled at the image, her heart lightening. It wasn’t cleansed, not by a long shot, but she felt the invisible corset she always wore loosen a tie or two. Breathing in, she staggered to her feet. After checking her sword, she dropped her hand to the King. He gazed up at her with what appeared almost like adulation brimming in his eyes. Before a blush at the thought could take hold, he gripped to her hand and she helped him to his legs.

After patting off the invisible dust upon his breeches, Alistair turned those warm brown eyes upon her. “If you’re not up to it, you don’t have to go back in there. It’s not much of a party anyway, and I think the only one trying to kill me in there is Isolde for accidentally breaking the foot off her ice sculpture.”

Reiss swallowed at the kind offer, “Thank you, but...I’d prefer to do my job to the best of my abilities.”

He looked as if he wanted to argue, but the King closed his eyes and slightly bowed his head, “As you wish, far be it for me to keep you from the sight of Teagan slipping a sconce on his head and dancing a waltz with one of the stuffed bears.”

Out of all the elaborate stories the King painted, that was the one that caught Reiss. “ cannot be serious.”

Snickering, Alistair leaned close to her ear to whisper, “He doesn’t do well with wine.” Reiss turned her head at that and found his face barely a breath away from hers. Sweet Andraste, her stomach did a full cartwheel as his lips lifted in a gentle smile, those eyes sparkling. How easily it would be to press forward and taste him in a kiss.

Before she did anything incredibly stupid, Lunet came skittering through the room. Her friend didn’t even stop to check, just barreled through causing both elf and human to slide apart. By the time Lunet thought to turn back, she found Reiss a good few feet away from the King absently checking her sword’s sheathe. “Maker’s jangling coin purse, here’s where you are.”

“Jangling coin purse,” the King mused to himself, “have to remember that one.”

Lunet cast a quick eye to him and gave a wide berth before reaching over to pick up Reiss’ hand. “Are you all right? Do you need to talk or go somewhere else?”

“I’m fine, don’t fuss, please,” Reiss tried to shake it off, doing her damnedest to be a professional. She shifted her eyes over to the King and back to Lunet, hoping her friend would get the hint. Either catching on, or not in the mood to argue, Lunet staggered back, her hands lifted.

“I should probably be heading back myself before the whole castle comes looking for me,” Alistair said, his eyes fully upon Reiss. “I trust I leave you in far more capable hands,” he glanced a moment at Lunet before returning to his bodyguard. Adjusting the cuffs of his doublet, the King sidled to the door and turned to say, “Hope to see you soon,” before walking through it.

“What in Mafarath’s tiny pecker happened?” Lunet gasped.

Reiss was glad she saved that one away from the King. Wrapping her arm around her friend’s, Reiss began to follow Alistair back to the great hall, “I’ll tell you along the way. And please, try to refrain from killing anyone after.”

“Fine, but no promises.”

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