Guarded Love

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Chapter 29: Are You Two...?

Reiss tried to not stare at the woman that’d been by the King’s side for nearly a week, the woman that appeared as if by a gift of the Maker to save him and save her in the process. The woman that she knew was dead.

Alistair was quick to rebound once the mysterious mage healed and tended to him. Some of it was magic, but the way they interacted Reiss sensed that her mere presence was affecting him perhaps better than any salve could. She rarely left his side, Reiss often waking to find her already up and trying to quietly shuffle around the room without waking the snoring disaster still in bed.

For the moment, the King was all but hogtied to his throne and forced to give court. He began with a terrible flow of mucus gushing out of his nose, which the woman said could be stopped up for a few hours with a potion but he waved it away. If he was going to have to sit in front of people and listen to their complaints for hours on end, they’d have to suffer his ooey gooey body. At first Reiss stood at the back of the room, doing her best to not fall asleep. They seemed to have saved the dullest of issues for the King’s first day back. When two people were arguing over which was owed back taxes for a cart sold at a slightly higher mark up than what it should have been due to the current legal standing of things her eyelids drew ever lower. Afraid that she’d pass out on her feet and smash chin first to the stone floor, Reiss wandered out the door and spotted the mage sitting quietly at a clerk’s desk.

No one else was around, most wandering eyes skipping past her as if she was part of the furniture, but Reiss felt her mouth dry every time she spotted the woman. They couldn’t have less in common if they actively tried. With dark spirals and an even more beautiful shade of rich brown skin, the mage was the elegant shadow to Reiss’ lanky candlestick. She was shockingly short too, barely skirting above the King’s chest with the ample kind of curves that would have had Lunet saying something smart in seconds. Perhaps most debilitating of all was her mind. She was always reading, the books stacked high with titles Reiss couldn’t make heads nor tails of. If she tried to read one, it’d probably shriek at her non-understanding and slap shut, or burn her to ash, or something.

She was everything Reiss wasn’t and while that jabbed a thorn into her ego knowing who she was and what she truly meant to the King, it wasn’t what drew her tongue to a standstill every time. The jealousy was dead as dust in favor of a far stronger emotion.

The mage stopped whatever she was writing and glanced up, a smile on her face as she stared through the distance -- no doubt searching for the right words to concoct some magical potion that would save an entire village. Reiss shifted on her feet and the woman’s wholesome eyes fell right to her. Oh Maker! She tried to slide back, aware of the blush rising, when a gloved hand gently beckoned her over.

“Um, uh,” she wished she had a sword or halberd to absently work her fingers over while trying to not stare down at the seated woman, “was there something you required?”

“We’ve seen each other often, but haven’t officially met. I’m Lana,” she extended her hand and the memory snapped back into Reiss’ mind. Instead of sitting, the mage stood above the cowering elf, the girl reeking of burnt flesh and blood as darkspawn screamed their last breath around them. There wasn’t time for names then, no one barely looked over at her, but the hand was offered the same.

“I,” she grabbed onto Lana’s fingers and shook them limply, “I, of course, my Lady,” Reiss stumbled out.

“You’re Reiss, I hope.”

“Yes, Ma’am, that’s me. I’m...you hope?” she shook her head, trying to not blush herself to death.

“It’s a long story,” Lana smiled before glancing back to the chambers where the King worked, “and one he damn well better listen to me about. Ali...the King told me a bit about you.”

“He did?” Merciful Andraste, what could this woman possibly know or care about her?

“Said that you’re intuitive, notice things others don’t and put pieces together. It’s a rare skill, one that many would give their right elbow to possess.”

“I...” Reiss tried to chase after a series of quick thoughts. The King spoke of her to the woman that...? Wait, was he thinking of her still? Noticing things special about her? Oh, it was about her guarding skills and not if he found her attractive or wanted her. But, no one had ever said that about her before. Was that special? It was the quickest rise and fall of hopes she’d ever felt in a brief ten second span leaving her uncertain if she should be happy or kicking herself.

Lana inched closer in her chair and whispered, “While I made mention of it to Arl Teagan, I think you should be given awares as well.”

‘Given awares?’ Reiss hadn’t heard that turn of phrase since she left the Free Marches. Trying to not snicker at the colloquialism brought from her past, she nodded for the Hero mage to continue.

“I can’t prove it, but Ali shouldn’t have been taken down as bad as he was by that sickness. It was not good one, but he’s generally healthy and there are other mitigating circumstances that keep fevers like that at bay,” she mumbled the latter part to herself while a finger drifted around a ring on her finger.

“You,” Reiss felt the awkward giddiness fall away as the fullness of her words hit, “you suspect he was poisoned?”

She tipped her head back and forth and sighed, “Whoever did it was good enough to leave no trace. Magic can only do so much, but I’ve kept all the bottles the various alchemists were putting to his lips. Maybe you can find something in them. They’re in a box in his fighting room marked ‘daggers.’ No one notices a crate of iron daggers.”

“Does the...” Reiss tried to swallow down her shame. It was her job to protect the King, to keep the assassins at bay and while she’d tried her best to inspect all the bottles and unguents so much was beyond her. “Does the King know?”

“I told him,” she said, then rolled her eyes, “but he obfuscated the fact in his typical oh look, a pretty butterfly way. Somedays I wonder how that man managed to make it to the age of seven much less thirty-seven.” Her tone faded as those certain eyes haunted over Reiss’ face, no doubt trying to work up to blaming the person who nearly got the King killed, again. Maker’s sake, why was she so bad at this?

“It may have not occurred on purpose,” Lana said, her ink stained fingers skirting through the air. “Those alchemists were a pack of gibbering imbeciles. One of them gave him the medicinal draught to cure lick-toe fever.”

“That’s, um...”

“Which only affects druffalo,” she finished to herself before snorting. “There’s a good chance someone snuck in two innocuous bottles that on their own have no ill effects but when combined together disaster. Which again, may have been fully on accident. Maker, if I had any of those people working for me they’d be reading through Lady Windelow’s treatise on the proper distillation every five minutes they’re awake.”

“I see,” Reiss tried to break through the woman’s mutterings to herself. “So, you are saying there either is or isn’t an assassin that snuck into the King’s sickbed and may or may not have accidentally-purposefully poisoned him?”

“Pretty much, which is why I’m leaving it in your hands. And Teagan’s. Alistair’s would be the quickest to drop the entire box and shatter it on the ground,” she chuckled at the idea as if finding it endearing.

“I will take it under consideration, my Lady,” Reiss bowed her head. No one was blaming her, and it seemed as if the only people who knew about the potential poisoning were the Arl and Alistair. Maybe she was safe.

Lana smiled with a far off look, her eyes cutting through the throne room door as if she could watch him inside. Perhaps she could, Reiss knew little of a mage’s true power. And she must have...

“My Lady,” tumbled out of Reiss’ throat before she could stop it. Focusing on the elf, Lana waited patiently, her fingers folding up delicately as if she was posing for a portrait. “I...” She couldn’t look at her and Reiss’ eyes screwed to the ground, “I have in fact met you once before.”

“Oh?” It was the most emotionless ‘Oh’ Reiss had ever heard. There was no surprise, no condescension, no anger -- just a flat syllable devoid of any hints of the person behind it.

“You, um,” she swallowed and shifted on her feet, “you saved me, and my brother and sister from an attack. Darkspawn swarmed over our caravan and if you hadn’t been there, if you hadn’t stepped in...” Reiss lifted her head, aware of the tears brimming in her eyes, “we’d all have perished. I...I never had the chance to thank you at the time, and--”

She didn’t reach out, didn’t grab her hands or say that the blubbering elf was welcome. Turning back to the desk, Lana gathered up her writings quickly, closed it, and snatched up her cane. Staggering to her feet, Reiss fell back, crushed and confused. For a moment, the woman’s eye canvassed up and down her, before she said in that same empty voice, “Walk with me.”

Not waiting for Reiss to catch up, the tiny mage hobbled out towards the open foyer of the palace. She said nothing to the woman trying to solemnly march behind her while Reiss kept wondering what in Andraste’s name had she done now. Out the door, Lana kept up her slow but methodical pace -- her cane whacking into the stone with every second foot. A few of the guard’s posted at the door glanced over at her when the cane struck but none stared. None of them cared. Did they not know who this was? Didn’t anyone?

Grabbing onto a railing, Lana helped herself down the stairs until she stopped next to a statue of a mabari and sat upon its pedestal. Reiss hovered near, uncertain what to do, until Lana gestured to the other side of the statue. Folding her legs, she felt fear mixed with adulation and joy while sitting beside the greatest hero thedas had known in generations.

“The Hero of Ferelden is dead,” Lana said with such conviction, Reiss felt herself shaking her head at what had to be a lie. Not dead, that was impossible, she was sitting right there beside her. The woman rolled her cane slowly in her hands watching the crystal bounce sunbeams across the bricks. “She sacrificed herself in the fade and didn’t come back.”

“That’s what we were told,” Reiss said uncertainly, “but...”

Her hands froze and she snatched the cane up off the ground, “Would the mighty Hero of Ferelden need this to get around? People used to say she could level a mountain with a shout, and to be reduced to that. It’s unheard of, unseemly.”

“I don’t...”

She tapped her cane against the ground, savoring the rhythm of a song that she began to hum under her breath. Reiss didn’t recognize the words, but Lana seemed to be lost in it, as if she found a strange strength and comfort in the melancholy melody. A handful of the gentry in their less than finest wandered past glancing down at the strange woman taking a rest upon the statue and singing under her breath. Reiss saw the beginnings of a sneer as if the woman was some vagrant, until they spotted her sitting beside -- more accurately they saw the royal guard uniform and quickly slipped away.

“They don’t even see you,” she stuttered, at a loss for all of this. “You’re here, alive and it’s as if...”

“As if the Hero of Ferelden is dead, while a small, dark skinned mage is sitting outside on the steps of the Denerim palace,” Lana filled in for her. “I cannot deny your memory, a lot of things happened during the blight. Many people had to fight, had to flee, had to endure to survive. And perhaps, during that confusing time, a woman who looks a lot like me, who may have been the Hero of Ferelden, assisted you.”

Reiss pinched the bridge of her nose, always rubbing a finger over the permanent bump, while trying to find some sense in any of this. “Are you saying that you’re not her, not the Hero of Ferelden?”

“I am only remarking that the Hero of Ferelden is dead while I...I am lucky enough to be very much alive,” she smiled up at the sky, her eyes watching a flock of birds heading south for nesting.

If Reiss was wrong then the woman would admit it, but if-if she was her and she’d survived the fade, somehow escaped it, then why wasn’t all of Ferelden celebrating the return of their Hero? Why wasn’t she a staple at court, or working hard to... A slow realization dawned in Reiss’ mind as she glanced over at the woman who flitted in and out of the path of nobility without any of them glancing at her. She was in hiding, perhaps for some greater reason than even Reiss knew. There’d been talk that the Inquisitor and the Divine weren’t just working together to be peace keepers, but had some other far greater threat they planned to combat. It all made sense, she was a secret weapon that none would see coming.

Tipping her head, Reiss whispered to the air, “My Lady, your secret is safe with me.”

“What secret?” she smiled wide at that, a mysterious charm overpowering her face. That faded to a striking sincerity as she leaned up to the taller elf, “For what it’s worth, anyone would be glad to take the time to rescue you and your family.”

Warmth bloomed through Reiss’ stomach at that. She’d received a few medals in the Inquisition -- small things at the ambassador’s behest, which the Commander mostly ignored -- a few grumbling thanks when she pulled people out of the fires on the farm, but this was the greatest compliment she’d ever received. She mattered, even if it was only for a moment, to the woman that gave every hand in thedas a chance.

“I’m going to be leaving tomorrow,” Lana said, shaking Reiss from her thoughts. “I haven’t told Ali yet, because I’m anticipating a lot of begging, but...someone else is waiting for me and I need to get back home.” Uncertain what to say, Reiss sat back, the statue’s front paw scraping over the top of her head.

Lana turned to her, “I gave him a ring with an enchantment. I’m total shit at them, but it should at least protect him from one stab in the back. Which is hopefully enough for his old training to kick in.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because he’s the worst at remembering to wear jewelry, and I bet a daily reminder from you will keep the damn thing on his finger where it will do the most good. Assuming he doesn’t accidentally eat it.”

Reiss scrunched up her face and shook her head, “Why would he listen to me on such matters?”

At that a slow smile lifted up her lip and she chuckled to herself, “Call it a hunch.”

Oh Maker, she knew. Why did she know? Did someone tell her? Did the King? No, why would he do that? She was a mage, maybe she could sense it. Hear Reiss’ heartbeat thumping erratically whenever she stood near him or...cast a detect kissing spell. Why didn’t Reiss pay more attention to mage capabilities?

“I, um, the King and I are not, we’re not, never have, uh...”

Now a full laugh reverberated up Lana’s stomach as she curled her fingers through her thick hair to cup her face. Everyone knew about the Hero and King of Ferelden, talked about the star crossed romance in twitterpated tones while sighing dramatically and fanning themselves. It was steamy, illicit, and heartbreaking. While Reiss could have chopped a lot of the rumors up to storytellers trying to make coin, as she watched the two of them interact the care was blisteringly obvious. Perhaps even more. What are you going to do, Rabbit, if you stepped in the middle of their long term affair?

“Alistair is a person I know rather well,” Lana said, “too well, some would probably say.”

“Are you two...?” she spat out, then tried to bite her tongue in anticipation of whatever soul crushing answer would come.

“Maker’s sake,” Lana began to laugh uproariously, “no. No, no, no, we’re friends and it took us awhile to come to the realization that that’s what we’re best as. Some rather loud screaming matches, I’d add.”

“You don’t love him?”

That drew a cloud across the woman’s brow and she folded her fingertips to her mouth in thought, “I...I suppose I wouldn’t say that either. He’s been so much of my life, the good and ill, someone I count on and in turn will move thedas itself for. We are, in a way, the first family we ever made for ourselves. I am guessing you’ve heard the rumors about a certain Warden Commander and Bastard Prince?”

Reiss didn’t nod, but she glanced away guilty and that was enough.

“We never quite worked right. I didn’t want to believe it at the time but with hindsight and,” her eyes drifted towards the west and she smiled so serenely she looked like the fabled princess waiting for her love to whisk her away, “a happiness I didn’t think possible, I’ve come to realize it.”

Reiss swallowed and grumbled to herself, “Is this when you tell me that he’s a hard man to love?”

“Oh no,” she shook her head, those tight curls bouncing in the wind, “the exact opposite. Alistair may be the easiest man in Ferelden to love, even all of thedas. He’s achingly sweet, kind, thoughtful to a fault, willing to give of himself without expecting anything in return, and when he loves it’s as if there’s no one else in the world but you.”

At the you, Reiss’ cheeks flushed in embarrassment. She’d hung upon the woman’s every word, both ecstatic to hear his traits voiced, while also knowing them in her heart.

“And that rather athletic and toned body doesn’t hurt matters too much either,” Lana snickered, verbally elbowing Reiss in the ribs. That amplified the blush across her forehead and down her throat. Maker’s sake, this woman saved a nation and she had, she was... Should heroes even talk about sex?

The laughter faded and Lana stared at the empty horizon, “No, the problem is that in order to love Alistair you will have to fight tooth and nail to cling to it. Every day, with the persistence of a purloined dragon.” She sighed at herself and lifted a shoulder, “I wasn’t tenacious enough, I gave in to the title, the gentry tugging him away, and his own sense of duty. If you intend to carry on, to pursue him, then I want you to go in prepared to fight like the warrior you are. Find a way to make it work.”

“Why?” Reiss’ voice cracked and she coughed to continued, “why do you care?”

“Because I have hope you’ll make him happy. Also it would make my life a hundred times easier if he’d find someone to share his life and bed with,” she whispered that last sentence more to herself but that drew Reiss’ curiosity even more. Wouldn’t she rather keep the King’s affections for herself instead of having to share them? And there she went assuming he even had any for his bodyguard. Reiss absently patted her stomach, which was flipping over from every hope she’d swallowed down since the kiss.

“I don’t know what to say,” Reiss whispered the truth. She meant to the second woman in his life trying to push the two of them together, but Lana took it differently.

“If he listens to my damn advice, he’ll do the talking. There may be a mention of lampposts, that’s normal and doesn’t mean he’s suffering from a brain aneurysm.”

Taking a deep breath, Lana scooted back to join Reiss right against the statue. She was so short her toes dangled off the edge, unable to touch the ground. “Should anything happen to him, more assassins, poisoning, or he gets his head stuck in a honey pot, here’s where I’m located,” she passed over a small sheet of ripped vellum with the general directions to an abbey in the Hinterlands. “Arl Teagan knows how to best get in contact fast but he’s not always here. You are.”

“You trust me with this?” Reiss gasped. She’d all but revealed the hiding woman for the world to see without meaning to and now she was gifting her with how to track her down.

“I do,” she smiled, before tacking on, “and I trust that Ali knows how important my privacy is.” There was the threat Reiss expected. Nothing so overt as a dead horse’s head with the morning coffee, but she knew the King’s heart and that if anyone tried to hurt her it’d be trouble from him. And he had an army.

“I would never, ever...” Reiss wanted to insist that she couldn’t possibly hurt the woman that saved her, that picked her up and kept her going when her home and parents lay in ruins, but it fumbled into a slow shake of her head as she stared down at the woman’s handwriting. It was beautiful, of course.

“I know,” she patted Reiss on the shoulder and slid off the statue. Getting her bearings upon her cane, she glanced up at Reiss and nodded, “Keep an eye on him. He can get into some dangerous situations and often needs a cool head to guide him.”

“I’m uncertain if that’s me,” she said, aware of the monster lurking deep in the pit of her soul and how untamed it was.

She expected Lana, the Hero of Ferelden, defeater of the blight, and savior of little elven girls with nowhere else to turn to rescind her offer and snatch up the paper she gave Reiss. Instead she drew a finger across her chin in thought and smiled, “You might be even better matched than I thought. Come on, we best get back to watch him stomp out of court and declare everyone gets a free pony.”

“I...” Reiss tumbled to her feet and tried to wipe off her filthy armor with as much grace as one expected from an elf. Glancing up, she followed after the mage already climbing the stairs. Reaching her level, she said, “Last time it was a tamed nug.”

That got a laugh, “Leliana must have been ecstatic at the boom in business.”

Reiss glanced over at the guards still not giving the time of day to the women climbing the steps of power, but she felt a smile blooming in her stomach as she walked side by side with the Hero of Ferelden.

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