Guarded Love

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Chapter 24: Another Taste

Only a handful of people had the gall to ask the King what happened with his bodyguard. Alistair threw on his dumbest smile and said they were playing a game of who can scream the loudest. Turns out he’s terrible at it, and she won. That earned him a few “Okay, Sires” but no one was in the mood to push it. There was a lot of wine remaining to drink, cake to eat, and a dance floor to spin around on until that wine and cake returned. While he did his Kingly duty of giving the few on the list a turn or two around, Alistair found a bit of time to slip over to Declan and have a tiny chat.

The man was practically wetting his hose in excitement at the King selecting him specifically, right until Alistair jabbed a finger at that growling worm, informed the Bann that his own made a threatening move to the King’s bodyguard, which is the same as attacking the King himself, and if he was smart he’d peddle his little feet out of the palace. Now. It took a minute for Declan to register all this, Alistair’s words having to fight through piles of earwax and idiocy to reach his weasely brain, but once it did his cheeks burned bright red. He could argue that it was nothing, little more than a friendly grip onto the woman’s shoulder, but Alistair had his own response to that. More or less in the summation of he was blighted King and because of the shiny crown he decided what was and wasn’t acceptable.

Luckily, Declan had enough sense to know when he was truly licked. Snarling under his breath, he stormed to the front door barreling though a trio of dwarves that were kind enough to let the human pass. He eyed up the King once before turning all the wrath he wanted to spend on royalty upon that guard that started it all. Feeling rather proud of himself for handling that, Alistair caught Reiss’ eye for a moment.

She’d taken up station towards the back of the crowds, her friend on her side as well as Harding. A familiar sheen of disinterest clung to her face as she attempted to guard the entrance to a broom closet, but at Declan’s stomping away in anger it broke a moment. He wished he could say he saw joy, or even relief, but her lips curled up in contemplation and what looked like pain. Why couldn’t anything ever be easy? Happiness for a start? Seems like it should be one of those 1+1=2 kind of things, but no, the Maker had to start getting all fancy by throwing in Qunari symbols where letters stood for numbers and Alistair got a throbbing headache.

“Your Kingness,” a voice coughed from beside him.

He turned to find the Dalish entourage huddling near him. They moved like a group, their backs turned to each other so they could keep a continuous eye upon the humans. It was rather fascinating to watch. “Niala, or do I call you First Niala? Does it get confusing if there’s another one in your clan with the same name?”

“Niala shall suffice, Alistair,” she said the name cautiously, her eyes canvassing the room as if expecting a number of shemlan blades to come after her for the slight.

For his part, Alistair shrugged, “How goes the party? Enjoying all the dancing?” He gestured to the floor at the hopping stage as people promenaded back and forth under arms to form a second bridge. While he learned most of the steps, Alistair knew there was a 65% chance he could wind up with a broken nose while attempting it.

Niala watched it all with a cold eye, same as the rest of the unimpressed Dalish. “It is...something. This is how all humans celebrate?”

“Not all,” he’d prefer a warm pub, a vat of stew, a crackling fire, and a dozen people who sucked at cards. But that’d probably look bad to the gentry he swindled. “How do the Dalish kick back after a week of arguing over who should get grandpappy’s best flogging stick?”

Her eyes glazed over a moment at his musings, before Niala nodded at her other silent elves. They’d barely made a peep during the talks, or at meals. He almost thought they were all mute until walking around a corner and catching two of them laughing like mad at a squirrel with a bag crammed on its head.

“We would dance by drum and fife around the fire, drink of the various fermented fruits, and in general smile more and do whatever that is less,” she gestured to the men and women lightly holding each others hands up and parading around the floor like lost parade floats.

Alistair chuckled at that, “For what it’s worth, I think I much prefer the Dalish way of celebrating.”

“You are King, are you not? You have no say?”

“Well, I’m trying to keep the tyrant descriptor out of my name as much as possible. Only for pancake day and if there’s one clean towel left,” he sighed, wiggling a finger in his ear.

Most of his people would sigh or groan, but Niala eyed him up trying to judge if he was dead serious or not. “We have decided to turn in now. It will be a long march to the West come the morrow. Are you prepared?”

“I hope so, packed too. I think. I’ll check with Karelle.”

“Good, you will see what has come of the New Dales,” Niala pronounced. She said the last part loud enough the other Banns in the room overheard her which earned a groan from Alistair. They spent half their time arguing over the name choice, the Dalish refusing to back down and the humans finding it repugnant for reasons they never fully explained. At this point he wanted to call it Elfy Land for Elves and Those With Pointy Ears, but that might crowd out a map.

Without bothering to ask for leave, much less say goodnight, Niala swept up her party and headed to the doors. Unable to help himself, Alistair waved at their retreating backs and, to his surprise, one returned it. He did need to check in with Karelle, and found the chamberlain swooping along near the fountain. She’d exchanged those fluffy skirt things she wore for one that looked like it could knock a bronto unconscious. When light burst from the back, Alistair could see the outline of a metal sculpture hiding under her dress. He half expected to find points to gouge her enemies with, but then he realized he was staring at his chamberlain’s legs and making it all awkward.

“Karelle,” he called out, waving himself towards her, “I had a few questions about...”

“Maker’s sake,” she grabbed onto his arm and spun him out towards the dance floor, “you’re so far behind schedule I don’t know if we can keep up.”

“Schedule? What are you...?” he blinked, trying to follow the woman’s lead. It was surprising she wanted to dance with him, but crazier shit had happened that day, so why not. Alistair lifted up his hands to try and tent around Karelle’s, when she stepped back.

Waving a hand, she shooed someone out of the audience. A woman grabbed onto her skirts and bustled over. Karelle glared at him, “You have a good dozen and a half dances to get through. We’re going to have to cut them short to make this and...” She turned to the band plucking along at a slow waltz, “Speed it up.”

The flautists glanced at each other, their cheeks suckered in before the drummer beat her foot on the floor and the waltz turned into the ‘get everyone the hell out the door’ dance. There was probably a special term for a faster waltz, but Alistair knew pretty much that word and nothing else. “What am I?” he blinked in confusion, when the woman latched onto him and Karelle gave a shove like kicking a boat off the dock.

Alistair went through seven dance partners in record time, not due to his own incompetence, but because Karelle kept snatching one up and replacing her with a new one. They were such a blur all he could ask was “Name, Rank, Favorite Frosting Flavor?” With the beat reaching the erratic heart throb of a man’s chest about to burst open, Alistair gave it a 54% chance he was going to die. If not from his legs ripping off at the knee, it’d be due to another couple smashing head first into him while everyone raced to keep up. Shame the Dalish left early, they’d have found this hilarious.

“Okay okay,” Karelle grabbed onto a quiet girl from out by the Hinterlands who mumbled into her hair and refused to lift her eyes. “Next!”

Used to it, Alistair froze his body in place, prepared for another rotating form to fill it, when a hand grabbed onto his and yanked it lower. “Tsk, it is a wonder you Fereldens can master the privy.”

“Ambassador Cherie,” he smiled, feeling his cheeks tighten to a rictus.

“Come, let us get this over with quickly.”

Mercifully, she kept her comments mostly to herself about his terrible posture, stance, dexterity, rhythm, and general existence. All she’d do was cluck her orlesian tongue and on occasion growl if he stepped too far beyond her reach. “If we were in Halamshiral, you’d have been cut down on the spot for crossing during the allemande.”

He could shake it off, take a break from Karelle’s madcap routine by downing a glass -- no, a bottle of wine -- but Alistair had had a long couple of weeks and the ambassador finally crossed that line. “Cherie, I dare say something’s crawled up your skirts and died.”

“What?” she snorted, her lips curling up below the mask.

“Don’t think it’s escaped my notice, nor the new Spymaster’s how close you were with Donato. You two always shared that genteel bridge game, right? Every Thursday afternoon.”

“You think you have a point?” she tightened up in his limp grip, a snarl pooling over her words.

“Well, if I were in your shoes, which would be hilarious to watch I’ll give you, I’d be rather worried that the King would see it fit to go poking into all my personal business. I mean, if say you’d known about the relationship with Ghaleb and failed to mention it, what other assassiny secrets could you be keeping?”

Her growl shook away to reveal a small laugh, “Why, my lord, you almost sounded Orlesian for a moment there.”

“I’ll take that as the grave insult you meant it to be,” Alistair joked back. They were looking, of course, but if Harding thought Ghaleb’s notes were bad they had nothing on the polite facade of an Orlesian. They were a people who could write a scathing “Get Well Soon” note that managed to cut a person’s self esteem to ribbons without using a single good curse word or balor’s taint.

“Sire, I get that you enjoy playing this little game of spies and secrets the way children do when bored on rainy afternoons, but I assure you neither me nor any in my service have connections to these amateur attacks upon your life.”

Alistair felt his steps slowing, the song mercifully breaking so he could let the woman go. Cherie seemed to feel the same, her hand sliding back before the notes finished, other dancers spinning around them. Chuckling, he shrugged, “If true, then you need not have a thing to fear, madam ambassador. If being the sticking part.”

“Humph,” she snorted, spinning away on her heels to merge back into the dance floor.

For a long time Alistair wondered what horrible things she did that got her trapped in Ferelden. It wasn’t the fact she was someone’s second wife’s daughter, or allied with the wrong side in the civil war. Nope, he was dead certain now Cherie was dog shite at playing their little Orlesian Game and the family got her as far away from court as they could before she got them all banished or killed. Orlesians...

He turned, hoping that he was finally done with this madness when five feet of mage slipped into his arms. “Uh, hello,” Alistair started, his feet scurrying around like they were on ice to keep from stepping on any ambushing toes.

Linaya smiled with only the tops of her teeth. “Good evening, Sire,” she whispered, her eyes closed to show off glitter dashed along her lashes. That was probably done on purpose unlike the time Spud threw an entire tub of the stuff at him and Alistair, in a hurry, walked through an inspection of the troops with his face glittering like the night’s sky at a brothel.

“Back at you,” he said, falling into formation with the mage. This dance he knew well, most of it being of the cling tight and spin around until one of you barfs variety. Mercifully, the band slowed, no doubt the flautists about to pass out from lack of air. Or so he thought, until he spun Linaya around and caught a smirk rising upon Karelle’s presumptuous lips. That cheeky chamberlain, he groaned to himself; she must have had whatever damn week it was in the pool. Five? Six? He couldn’t remember, though it was growing more pathetic with each passing day as people constantly tried to push the mage into his busy path. Sometimes Alistair would all but stumble out of a door to find the girl standing there bored but prepared to pursue him just to ask a few pointless questions.

It’d be one thing if Linaya was as sick of it as he was, but she seemed happy to play the ingenue to his supposed white knight. Too bad Alistair was terrible at rescuing the damsels and tended to chase after the ones causing distress. Her fingers drifted lower off his shoulder down his back, drawing Alistair from his fuming. Shaking it off, he fell into the pattern of the dance, something of the old templar training snapping back with it.

“How is the evening finding you, your grace?” she whispered but in such a way it reached over the crowd. Perhaps there was a spell that could do that... He’d have to ask Lanny about it later.

“As it usually does, only with a lot more people in fancy dress standing in my living room,” Alistair groaned. He’d expected the joke to hit, but the woman practically slipped into paradoxical spasms with laughter. With her braided and curled head tossed back, she let loose with such a giggle, he began to shift back and forth anxiously on his toes afraid a demon was about to burst from her face.

Linaya must have sensed his abject horror as she paused in her forced laughter and grimaced. “I’m sorry, I’ve never done this before,” she said, for the first time showing a bit of real emotion in his presence.

“Dancing isn’t too hard provided you don’t accidentally kick anyone in the nose or split your trousers wide open,” Alistair smiled, twisting her around on her toes.

“Has that happened to you before?” she gasped, her skirts twirling out at the end of one of those arm extend things. It was a bit more fun than pacing about in place.

“I believe I don’t have to answer that under article fifteen of ’The King Doesn’t Want To.” Very popular charter, all the nations are adopting it.”

Linaya leaned closer, her cherry red lips parting so she could whisper, “You’ve been working rather hard this past week.”

“Trying to. Kinging’s not all ribbon cutting ceremonies and cheese shop dedications -- though Maker that’d make this job a lot nicer. What of you? Heard from the College yet?”

“I’m afraid the ravens haven’t returned since I last sent them, your Highness,” she leaned closer, causing Alistair’s hand to slide further along her waist.

Barely noticing the mage closing the gap between them, he pinched his nose and grumbled, “Great, because I’m sure I won’t be hearing all about the heathen mages in the savage lands at the control of barbaric elves for the next three weeks. It’s almost like I had a reason to invite the Grand Enchanter, which she promptly ignored because...sorry, I should probably stop talking shop.”

“It would help you to relax better,” Linaya smiled and taking a deep breath to push up her chest. Someone worked overtime to get all that strapped into place, high and secure under her chin with enough flesh to draw nearly every man’s eye to it. Even Alistair wasn’t immune, the savage part of his brain gesturing down the cleavage, but most of him didn’t care. His mind was to busy trying to fix every damn problem that kept popping up across Ferelden. Was that what getting old was, watching your libido desiccate on the shelf because turning in early was preferable to...?

A giggle drew his attention away from the mage to Beatrice leaning close to Cordell. Someone talked him out of the chantry robes, but he couldn’t get far from the crimsons of the cloth, tails dangling off the coat like the hems of his cassock. What she saw in him he’d never get, but then again Alistair didn’t get what there was to Beatrice either. Sometimes there was no sense to be found in these pairings, only utter confusion that was enough to bind like glue.

“The Queen is looking well tonight,” Linaya said, doing her best to get his attention back upon her for the fullness of the dance.

“I suppose, I don’t know about that color though. I keep thinking of how bad jelly stains will pop on ivory,” Alistair chuckled to himself. Spud was carted off to bed after she got in three dances with him, someone making certain to keep the child and her dress as far from anything staining as possible. He gave it five seconds behind closed doors until she was a sticky goo monster.

“It is a shame,” Linaya’s thoughts kept puncturing through his haze. Alistair turned a confused look on her and the mage continued, “What occurred with the prince.”

“Near thing, no way around it, but...”

The girl leaned tighter to him, her chest pressing into his, both of her hands circling around his back to pin him tight. Alistair could easily break away from the tiny woman, but he was frozen, blisteringly aware of nearly every cursed eye in the castle watching. They were all hoping for him to finally end this damn stalemate and what better way than a romantic twirl at a ball with everyone cinched up tight in their chantry best?

Linaya raised up on her tiptoes, straining with hope that he’d bend over to meet her but Alistair was frozen. Instead, she turned her head to the side and whispered, “If she’d have perished giving Ferelden a son, you’d be free to marry whomever you wish.”

Her fingers began to circle around Alistair’s back, but his body locked off, every muscle tightening to stone at a rage flickering in his stomach. “What did you say?” he asked through clenched jaw.

“It’s no great secret that you and the Queen bear no love for each other. It would be the most noble way for her to exit your life,” Linaya explained with a wave of her tiny hand, laying out the logic with a dismissal as if she was some fifty year old dowager who’d played the game her whole life instead of a twenty something girl stumbling into this with half a wit and no plan.

Alistair didn’t shove her away from him, he didn’t yank her arms off or shout. He only paused, and with the full force of his body, walked backwards from her. The mage’s embrace shattered apart, her hands falling off to land with a smack at her side. “You dare,” he began, his finger lifting as if he was about to scold Linaya like she was an errant toddler. No, this was a grown woman who knew what consequences were.

“You threaten the life of the mother of my children, the Queen of Ferelden to my face,” he growled, his voice deepening to the depths of rage.

“Sire, no, I would never,” Linaya’s coquette facade shattered, her eyes whipping around as if hoping one of her handlers would rush in to save her. But no one was coming. Not after this.

“Do not...!” he thundered, about to tell her not to lie. “Get out,” Alistair hissed, glaring at the woman.

“My Lord?” she whimpered, tears threatening to tug off her false lashes.

Alistair lashed out and grabbed her arm, dragging her off the dance floor. She scurried her legs, struggling to keep up as he deposited her at the shocked feet of Karelle. “Get her out of my sight, now. I want her gone. Tonight.”

“Sire, that isn’t...” Karelle began in her patronizing voice, when Alistair whipped his face at her and glared. She swallowed back her words and shrunk into the collar of her dress.

“That’s an order, from your King. Or do you not take those anymore? Because if I need to find a new chamberlain as well as Spymaster...” He had no way to end that threat seeing as how Karelle was the one handling the job search. Alistair wasn’t thinking clearly. No, he wasn’t thinking at all. White hot rage erupted from his stomach, grabbed his tongue, and fully took over. What he really wanted to shout at the mage would probably turn every Bann’s hair stark white, and he had to get her away before worse slipped free.

“I will...” Karelle glanced down at the whimpering thing struggling to make sense of what happened, “find a solution.”

“Good,” he sneered, his fists balling up. Calm down. Everyone’s blighted looking at you. Take a breath or something. He shut his eyes tight, struggling to get air into his aching lungs. They burned as if he breathed in dragon fire.

“Please,” the mage whimpered from behind him, “don’t do this, Alistair.”

That set him off. Whipping back, he spoke to Karelle, but glared down at Linaya with tears streaking down her cheeks, “Now!” As Karelle hauled the mage up to her feet, he felt every eye in the great hall turning to him, a thousand questions about to drop on his head. But he couldn’t answer them, not now, not with his usual flippant no answers. This cut obliterated any failsafes he had in his repertoire, leaving the unloved boy exposed to the world. With stiff joints and head held high, Alistair staggered out the door and into the moonlit courtyard. When the door slammed shut behind him, he tipped his head back and screamed incoherently to the uncaring stars.


Reiss watched it all from the sidelines, doing her best to not feel anything in her gut when the mage danced so close to the King it drew fears that they needed to censor it from the more conservative gentry. But when he erupted, dragging the woman across the floor without anyone knowing why, she slipped away from Lunet and followed on Alistair’s heels. A few eyes glanced out into the courtyard, most seeming to be afraid their King was about to start smashing up the statues, but he’d remained frozen in place, both fists balled up as he glared at the sky. Cold winds crept along the ground like the skeletal hand of a rising revenant. She watched her breath slowly buffet out in front of her, almost hypnotized by the puff of smoke while waiting.

“You didn’t have to follow me,” he spoke the first words since his outburst that rattled through the dance floor. Reiss expected a dozen of the advisors to flock to the King’s side but everyone seemed spooked beyond measure.

“It’s my job to make certain you’re all right,” she said. Reiss kept her hands crossed behind her back, not moving forward.

“Your job?” he snickered, his voice ragged.

“And I wanted to, but if you wish me to leave...”

“No,” he turned to face her. By the weak moonlight his face was as splotchy as a newborns, puffy red rimming his eyes as if he’d cried a thousand tears in one go. “No, please stay. I...I don’t know, am I supposed to talk about it? I doubt you’d care.”

“Ser, for what it’s worth,” Reiss slid a step or two closer to him, “you’ve listened to me blubber on beyond measure. I think you deserve the same courtesy.”

“That...” he smiled painfully and shut his eyes, “that’s fair, I guess. I...okay, here goes.” He took a deep breath, “She...” Pausing, Alistair winced as if he bit into his lip, “she said that it’d have been a good thing if the Queen died in childbirth.”

“Maker’s sake!” Reiss cursed.

“As if that was something funny, or charming to throw around -- a dead wife, dead queen...motherless,” he coughed, repeating motherless a few times before finishing with, “children.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, having barely formed much of an opinion of the wheedling but generally harmless mage. While the woman seemed ill prepared for court life and Orlais would have chewed her to bits in a fortnight, Linaya had never given Reiss any real pause. But to think that, to say it was monstrous.

The King seemed to share in the sentiment while he kept pacing back and forth, his shoes kicking up as if trying to knock the thick air away. “Dead, without anyone to...and it’s just funny, right? What a great deal for her. Slot in whoever I want as if it blighted works that way and...” he slapped both his hands over his face and moaned something incoherent.

He stood like that for a few minutes, moaning into his palms and rocking back and forth at his core as if trying to find a semblance of balance. Slipping closer, Reiss paused near the man and whispered a single, “Ser?”

It took a beat before his hands fell down. There were no tears, but his eyes were ravaged by pain -- red as a drunkard’s with darkness circling under them. With a calm move, Reiss scooped up his hand and patted it. “I’m sorry I don’t have any carrots on me.”

A brief snicker broke through the tumult burning across his face. He looked like a man shrieking into the void beneath a mask of calm. Alistair tugged his hands back and raked up his hair until it floofed beyond reach. “They’re not fancy enough for party food. Rye crackers either, apparently.”

“I...” she blinked in surprise at his remembering, “You did not need to remove Bann Declan from the premises for my sake.”

Alistair waved his hand, “Believe me, it was a gift for me. Maybe one of the best gifts I could hope for. Every birthday I should send for Declan just to have the guards drag him away.”

She smiled and laughed at the sentiment, “But, I wanted to thank you for it. For listening.”

A staggered breath puffed out of his mouth as those playful eyes sobered up while gazing into hers. “You’re welcome, Ser Reiss. Happy to use my weight to do something good for once.”

Standing so close, she could reach over and skim her fingers along his jaw, feel that gritty scratch of human facial hair and then... Reiss shook the idiotic thought off. She was ripped apart from Ethan and Declan, hoping to find some distraction to wash the taint away. The King’s eyes darted up to the stars as a silence fell between them, not an awkward one as each prayed for the other to fill it, but a clean rinse. Suddenly, he smiled up to his eyes and he tapped his fingers against his arm, “Hear that?”

“What?” Reiss began before her ears finally caught on to the music wafting through the door.

“They’re playing our song,” Alistair chuckled. Sure enough, it was the same one Reiss trained to in her tiny music box but now with the full body of a real orchestra instead of tinny magic. She smiled along, tapping her foot to the beat notched in her soul.

“So, uh,” he ruffled up his hair and carefully extended a hand to her, “do you want to have a go?”

Reiss glanced back at the piles of gentry waiting for their King to return. None had their noses plastered to the glass, but surely someone was watching, wondering, waiting and... As she returned to the earnest face, as wholesome as a sunflower in a field, barely holding it together from the swarm of darkness creeping underneath, Reiss nodded. Alistair smiled while she unbuckled her sword and tugged off her gloves and tossed it all to the ground. Glancing over at the man in his finery, Reiss undid her vambraces as well, the metal clanking in the cold night as it bounded into the stones.

“Are you ready, Ser?” she asked, raising her fists up.

“As I’ll ever be,” he said back, quickly lashing out with a punch. Reiss blocked it, but there was a force there she hadn’t felt before. He needed this, needed to fight it out of himself so he could waltz back into the grand ballroom and be his cheeky self. It was nothing for the guardswoman to risk a few bruises here and there in service of her King.

Alistair was fully on the offensive, his fists pounding slowly but with enough force if one actually hit she’d be in trouble. “Maker’s blighted bloody,” he cursed at first under his breath, but the anger grew with each punch, “Motherless, alone, no one to muster up a care if you’ve skinned a knee, or gone hungry for two days, or fallen into the pig sty and have no idea how to get the shit out of your trousers!”

It took her a moment to catch on that he wasn’t referring to his children. Even if the Queen had perished they’d of course be coddled beyond measure by the aristocracy. But, she knew that feeling, a terrifying helplessness when the world beats against you and there’s no one in your life you can lean on anymore. Where in your heart you know you’re a child, but the world doesn’t care. None ever cared, only used her for their own gain, their own bragging rights because she was easy to bend and twist into the right shape. She was so fucking eager to please, just wanting someone, anyone to Maker damn care for once.

Her fist smashed into the King’s stomach, all her force behind it as another feral roar erupted in her throat. Alistair was quick to dodge back, but he had to take a lot of it. At first, Reiss dropped her hands about to apologize, but the man shook it off without a thought and returned for more. There was no pretense now, no polite fisticuffs and shifting feet in a circle - they were both fighting as if their lives depended on it, their pain driving them beyond thinking.

Alistair’s attacks sped up, his right hook slicking past her jaw but she felt the pain of his knuckles ringing through her teeth. Pushing back, Reiss knew she was giving up more and more territory to the mad man, retreating to a safer distance with each swing while she tried to think, to plan. To save herself. Like striking a flint, the fire inside of her erupted. Her once methodical attacks, learned and measured to the templar beat, shattered apart. She leapt forward, a fist hitting air, but another striking meat. Didn’t matter what, didn’t matter who as long as it protected them.

Survival.

Red flared in her vision, winnowing it down upon the shadow of the attacks upon her and she spun in place. Her foot knocked into his knees, a pop reverberating through the courtyard. It was enough to fell her quarry and...oh Maker! The King fell backwards to the cold ground. His head didn’t bounce against the stone, but he groaned in a hiss when his back made contact.

Reiss’ internal monster scampered away leaving her dumbstruck and terrified. “Sire, are you...? Maker, I’m so...”

A laugh rumbled up the man’s chest while he lay prostrated across the ground. He had his hands curled in fists against his chest as if afraid she might keep attacking, but didn’t seem about to rise. “I’m guessing we both needed that,” Alistair raised his head up and he beamed that sugar sweet smile upon her. She should be panicking beyond measure, she’d just kicked a King to the ground, but internally Reiss melted to a blushing maiden from the way he looked at her.

“It helped, a lot,” she admitted. “I...I should help you up.” Maker’s sake, Reiss. Focus.

Bending over, she extended her hand to the King, but she didn’t anticipate him rising up off the ground. He rose so quickly, he nearly smashed his forehead into hers. Pausing a breath away, Reiss fell adrift in his brown eyes, an amber star shining behind each pupil.

Take a chance. Be brash.

Not thinking, she darted forward and caught his lips with hers. For a moment, he seemed shocked at her kiss, his mouth falling open, but within a heartbeat Alistair melted against her. Deepening the kiss, he pressed his soft lips tighter to hers. Maker’s sake, he tasted of sprinkles, champagne, and an earthy clover. Reiss’ skin erupted in goosepimples, her eyes shut so tight she could see stars forming behind the lids, while her stomach begged her to keep going.

Sweet Andraste!

Popping away, Reiss gasped at her impetuous, foolish move. She kissed him. A King. For the love of the Maker, you assaulted the bloody King of Ferelden! What was she going to do? What did anyone do? How many people kissed the blighted King of Ferelden?! Would he toss her out the same as the mage, as Declan? Flames, how could she...?

Two hands wrapped around Reiss’ back and without a care, the King tugged her back to him for a second kiss. Both of them fell to the ground, Alistair taking all the brunt, but he didn’t seem to mind. His lips gently rolled across hers as if he was too scared to explore with his tongue. With one hand pressed to the frozen ground, Reiss pushed herself on top of him so she could rough her fingers against the prickling hairs upon his cheek. A moan reverberated up Alistair’s throat, and as his mouth opened, she risked darting her tongue in with his.

Releasing his hold on her back, the King swept both palms up her cheeks until he could bury them into her hair. He delved into her mouth with a hunger she thought only she tasted. Even through her greaves she could feel the stirrings of his lust prodding harder with anticipation and driving her own wilder. Maker, how badly had she dreamed of this? Wanted it? Hoped? Alistair’s hands shifted onto her shoulders and began to slowly drift downward.

“Daddy!”

Holy shit! She’d never leaped so fast to her feet in her life, Reiss all but launching herself away from the King, up onto trembling legs as the princess skipped across the dark courtyard to her father. Alistair sat up as all of the girl wrapped around him. “Spud,” he said, somehow his voice not quivering in fear or...other things, “what are you doing down here?”

“Seeing you,” she stated the fact as if it was so simple.

“You’re supposed to be in bed, young lady,” he pointed out the rules as if they were etched in stone.

She groaned, her tiny hand mashing into her face before she too tugged her hair up the same way Alistair would when annoyed. “I can’t.”

“Why?”

“You didn’t read me the story!” she pouted, her hand lancing across her hip.

The King sighed and tugged his daughter off him while Reiss kept staring off into the cold night, hoping it would do something to break up the bright red blush charring her skin. Rising to his feet and groaning at the aches, he picked up his daughter’s hand, “Let me guess, you ducked the queen’s maids again.” She shrugged as if skipping past women in charge of watching her was no big deal.

“Come here,” Alistair scooped her up into his arms, the girl squealing with delight from the attention of her father. “Don’t get any ideas. I am taking you straight to bed, Tater Tot.”

Her bottom lip stuck straight out far enough a bird could perch upon it, but she didn’t argue with him. Alistair chuckled at the girl’s pouting and tousled her hair, “Right after I read from your book.” That earned him a hug, chubby fingers wrapping around his neck and tugging him tight.

Reiss was frozen in place, her mind uncertain what she should do. Would he pretend nothing happened? Would they continue on as before? Or...? She turned from her gaze out at the silent and frosty gardens to catch his eye. A small glimmer shone in them and he smiled. “I have to put this little escape artist to bed. Yes, you’re going to bed, there will be no cake, nor dancing no matter how much you try to wheedle it out of me. And then...” he leaned closer to Reiss, “we’ll talk.”

Her lips still tasting of him lifted in a smile, “Of course, Ser.”

“Come on,” he groaned, shifting the princess in his grip, “Don’t tell me, you want to hear from the really, really big book of boring.”

“Yes, pwease!” the princess shouted out for the world to hear.

Absently, Reiss picked up her abandoned gear and began to slot it into place. While she knew she should be panicking over what it meant for the future, all she wanted to do was twirl in ecstasy.

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