Guarded Love

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Chapter 30: We'll Always Have The Kennels

“Didn’t expect to find your armored butt dusting up my chairs this late into the morning,” Renata chuckled. She stepped confidently across the stone floors, only the occasional knock of her wooden leg striking through the shoe breaking up her gait. Even the uneven and seemingly booby trapped floor covered in crates of produce didn’t slow the cook down much.

Reiss slid her breakfast away and attempted to smile while the cook eyed up what was left and asked, “Not a fan of the eggs?”

“I fear they’ve gone off,” Reiss admitted, trying to dig into her neck muscles. In truth, despite the sun having been up for a few hours, she was awake for even longer. The day began with a goodbye the King seemed to try to stretch out for as long as possible, followed by him dismissing her for the day because “I’m going to be trapped in a tiny room having every single problem in Ferelden shouted at me and for your own sake run, run as far as you can.”

She could have headed out to the alienage, found Lunet, or walked around outside the palace walls for awhile to try to get her lost bearings back, but instead Reiss threw her all into the bottles the Hero of Ferelden left for her. All of which she had no idea what to do with. The Inquisition never thought her of the right mind to learn about poisons, saving all that talk for their rogues and spies, and anywhere else Reiss served was going to try to keep a knife-ear as far as possible from something they could easily slip into a hated overseer’s mug.

By dawn’s light, she flagged down one of the accursed alchemists and asked if he could name off what was in each bottle. Barely glancing at them, the man shrugged and admitted that a few colors could be guessed at but in truth he had no way of knowing as each person’s equipment would create differing levels of opacity and discoloration. She suspected that he was acting indifferent to her because of the ears, but also got the sense that Lady Amell was accurate and all the alchemists in Denerim couldn’t find their butts in the middle of an ass storm.

Before setting out, the Hero was kind enough to organize the bottles based upon her idea of what was in each, but there were seven that she had no guess to bearing a chalk question mark. While Reiss couldn’t easily slop seven bottles around on her person without people wondering, she had a different idea and took small samples upon a piece of vellum. Seven shades of wet tan to slightly-yellow wet dried upon the parchment but offered her no better ideas of what she was looking for.

By the time she threw in the towel, her stomach was famished, and the official breaking of the fast was long over. Luckily, Reiss knew how to sneak into the kitchens and gather her own food.

At her displeasure of the eggs, Renata yanked up the plate and gave a good whiff. “Whew, rather pungent,” she said, causing Reiss to nod along. She hadn’t even managed to get a forkful to her mouth before letting the entire mess clatter back to the plate. “Wait,” the cook paused and drew the eggs deeper to her nose. “Maker take that little shit. The produce ain’t gone over, Philipe’s gettin’ fancy and done tossed that fetid Orlesian cheese into the mix.”

“You can tell?” Reiss was shocked. All she got was a sulphuric smell -- like the ripe end of a demon -- that pounded out all of her other senses until she got fresh air.

“Oh, aye, it’s a subtle note under the...gah, horror. A nuttiness most miss unless they know what they’re looking for,” Renata smiled at her. Yanking the plate up, she scraped the eggs not into a slop bucket, but the very fire itself to send them back to the void from whence they came.

“I couldn’t smell anything like that,” Reiss said.

That earned her a proud shrug from the woman, “Got me a good nose. ‘Bout the only reason anyone would put up with a gimpy cook shuffling back and forth in their kitchens. Helps me to notice when stuff’s going to turn foul before it does. Almost none ever get sick on ol’ Renata’s cooking!” She tapped her wooden leg with the ol’ shave and a haircut routine and returned to plucking up the recently received cargo to put to use for the castle’s supper.

Reiss watched a moment uncertain if she should offer to help or not, when an idea struck her. “Renata?” The cook paused in tucking a bag of potatoes into the barrel to glance over. “Do you know anything about poisons?”

“Oh, yeah, ’course. Before this job I was working in a chateau, how I met Philipe. Long story. There was this fancy Orlesian wine drinker, what do they call ’em? Somnambulists? He’s strutting around cock of the walk saying ‘well this blend has top notes of lemon berry and nug curd while this red’s clearly squeezed from grapes frozen during the winter of our Lady’s Descent.’ Blah blah blah, everyone’s all real impressed the way only Orlesians can be.

“He passes around the glass so all of us can get a nose full, which means we’re supposed to plug our ears and breathe it in like morons. Orlesians. And what do I smell mixed into that fancy, two hundred sovereign bottle? Rat poison, clear as day.”

“Maker’s breath, did you tell them?”

“Course. Not that they’d listen. The whole hoity-toity crowd split the bottle of rat poison and wound up coating the walls in vomit ’ours later. Served ’em right.” She chuckled at the memory of suffering snobs, then turned to the bodyguard, “Why ya asking?”

“I was wondering,” Reiss shifted to tug out her parchment, “if you could maybe smell any poison in these?”

“It’s paper,” Renata explained as if Reiss wasn’t fully aware. “Fine,” she willingly drug each scrap under her nose taking deep whiffs. “Mostly getting that mage potion they use, not sure what it is but there’s that earthy like mushroom smell.”

“Unexpected,” Reiss said without saying the full of it. She couldn’t make any true accusations seeing as how she had no proof and also no jurisdiction to go dragging alchemists in. If this went nowhere, at least she could turn the bottles over to Harding and let her deal with the mess while Reiss tried to not grow bored standing beside a door.

“Sorry dear,” Renata pulled the parchment away from her nose and shrugged, “I ain’t getting nothing out of it.”

“Thank you for trying,” Reiss said. She reached over to take the parchment away when the cook’s eyes lit up.

“Wait a moment!” Renata sniffed madly at one spot on the left, then another on the far right. Her eyes screwed up tight as she took in a deeper breath and smacked her tongue. An idea struck and the cook folded the parchment in half so both of the stains could reach. “Now that one I know! It’s blood bane, nasty stuff, strong odor unless you mask it.”

“Say under a mage’s earthy base potion,” Reiss yanked out a piece of chalk and quickly circled both of the stains. So, it was an accident of combining the two after all. Or, two alchemists were in on it? Two plants? “You’re certain that’s what it is?”

“As much as a woman can be in this world. Used to use it to keep bears off the land. The ones who knew the smell stayed away.”

“And the ones that didn’t?” Reiss asked.

Renata brought both of her fists together and in a quick movement snapped something invisible in half. Maker’s sake! Even if it was an accident someone should be brought in on negligent charges and kept far from their distillation equipment before there’s an epidemic. Tucking the paper safely into her pocket, Reiss nodded again at the chef, “Thank you again, for helping.”

“Always glad to, dearie,” Renata smiled at her before her head whipped up and she shouted through the door, “Oi! You burrowing pillock! Get yer useless pantaloons in here!”

Philipe’s shaggy brown head slid in with half of his body while he clung to the doorframe, “Me? What’d I do? Nothing, you can’t pin nothing on me.”

“I know you got into the private cheese reserves and wasted it on perfectly good eggs. If we have any nobles get sick...” Renata threatened, her finger drifting near his nose.

“Ain’t no one gonna get sick, it’s fancy stuff. Good for ’em, right?”

“Maker’s blighted chair,” she rolled her eyes at the mischief in the slightly ornery undercook. “Get back out there and muck up the tables.”

“Already did,” Philipe saluted as he perched upon a barrel. His wild eyes darted from his boss down to Reiss. “Nice to see you, ma’am. Did you both hear about that special healer they brought in? The one what saved the King’s life?” He didn’t wait for them to answer to dive right in to his news, “She’s already left without so much as a medal pinning ceremony. I’d thought for sure rescuing royalty deserved a knighting or somefing like that.”

Reiss glanced away at the thought of how she dubiously earned her title, while Renata banged a fist on the table, “Are you thick in the chowder? Don’t you know who that was?”

That drew Reiss’ out of her regret in an instant. In all the time the Hero was here, she kept glancing over at people wondering if and when someone would spot her, would slot it into place and give the woman that saved the world the due she deserved. But none ever did, most of the servants doing the bare minimum for the person who was the reason they had a job much less a life.

Philipe shrugged, “A little brown mageling.”

“Andraste’s udders, she’s the Commander’s wife,” Renata sighed.

“Cade’s? I thought his wife was tall, and a ginger, and mute,” Philipe stuttered, glancing around as if lost.

“Not that one, the Commander of the Inquisition.”

Reiss blinked in surprise at that. While the King made occasional jokes and what seemed to be snide comments about a templar in Lady Amell’s life she assumed it referred to her abbey and not the Commander, the one who passed down orders from on high for over two years of her life. She never saw him much beyond the occasional furrowed brow and stomping boots when he’d dart in and out of barracks for inspections. But everyone in the Inquisition knew of the Commander, many holding opinions that tended to range in respect from the soldiers to caution in the mages.

Sighing like a school girl who spotted her crush in the distance, Renata sat upon the bench beside the table and clasped her hands, “If I had that waiting back at home, I wouldn’t waste my time on some stupid medal ceremony. Shit, I’d have skipped the time it took to saddle the horse.”

“Maker’s sake,” Philipe rolled his eyes and jabbed a thumb at Reiss to add, “Women.”

“You’re just saying that ’cause you’ve never seen the man in person,” Renata fanned her face with her hands. Reiss suspected she did it as much to annoy Philipe as to emphasize her point. “Tall enough to sweep you off your feet, with that brooding, growling face that gets all the right parts throbbing.”

“Ugh,” Philipe stuck his tongue out at the description which he bore no resemblance too. “Are all of you this bad?” he asked Reiss. “Don’t tell me you’ve got the tingles for some old, ancient, crusty, geriatric army leader.”

“I...” Reiss felt a blush rising up her cheeks that had nothing to do with the Commander. She’d never gone in much for the stoic type, often finding their tendency to stay quiet unnerving. What drew the embarrassment from her was the thought of how unlike the King that sounded, and how she far preferred his light hearted take on the world.

“You ain’t gonna win this one, Philipe,” Renata argued to him. “Every lady in thedas has their own copy of that sketch of the Commander stashed away somewhere.”

“Sketch?” Reiss asked. She’d seen various portraits of the Inquisitor, a few of the advisors, and many artists adored painting Skyhold, but never this fabled sketch of Commander Cullen.

“Oh yes, eyes blazing with that amber glare, shirtless save that furry coat he wore, sweat dripping down the good bits while gripping onto a sword and just a sliver of that scarred lip lifted up. Is it a sneer of anger, or is he planning to rip off all your clothes and have his way with you? Who knows.”

“All right, fine,” Philipe leaped up off the barrel, “I’m done. I’m gone. You win!” he shouted, bowing deep at her in indignation. “Sexy sneering, sweaty, bah!” he took it not well while storming out.

“I should go as well,” Reiss said, “oh but, do you mind if I snatch up a few bites of that pork?”

“Take whatever you want,” Renata smiled while Reiss loaded up for Sylaise. She’d been unable to attend to the cat for weeks and was going to need a proper sized bribe. “And I’ll be sure to get you a copy of the sketch later.”

“Ah,” Reiss tried to not panic at the thought of her being in possession of something so perverse that happened to be of the Hero of Ferelden’s husband. Pretty much no one she wanted to impress would be happy for it. “Thank you?” she stuttered out while sliding out of the kitchen.

Outside of the stables she stumbled into the half elf who all but ran the thing. The real horsemaster was often drifting about elsewhere, making deals and doing other things that required her to be as far from the animals and their shit as possible. Apparently, she was some kind of genius when it came to breeding schemes and pricing horses but despised everything else that came with them. Whoever thought to promote her to the position either had a great sense of humor or despised the woman. Reiss wasn’t certain which as she never technically met her.

It was Jaylen who was her only connection. A few other servants on occasion were called in to deal with an overabundance of noble horse feces during the summit and if anyone really high up stopped by, but with the palace clearing of it all only he greeted her.

“Good morning,” Reiss called, stopping outside the barn proper to wave at him.

He patted the withers of a tan horse, which flicked her tail in annoyance and butted her nose into him for such impudence, but the man didn’t mind. That smile that never seemed to dim lifted higher as he waved to her. “Is it morning still? Thought for certain we slipped to afternoon,” Jaylen glanced up at the sun and stared at it as if it would grace him with the time.

“Can I head in to visit with Sylaise?” Reiss asked, trying to draw him away.

“Oh sure, sure. Got it mostly mucked, your cat’s probably nosing around with the dogs again. She seems to love swiping their food when they’re not looking.”

“Is she going hungry?” Reiss startled, feeling a nerve pinch in her stomach at the fear. It’d be all her fault in that case.

“Nah, nah, she’s a good mouser. Way better than the fat tom what’s lazing about in the sun,” he pointed at a striped orange cat stretched as far as his body could to soak in all the heat. Reiss absently tugged at the metal she in retrospect didn’t need to dress in. Summer was quick on the horizon and it was looking to be a bad one.

Jaylen snickered at the lazy cat and tipped his hat back to give his full attention to the woman standing in the shade, “I think she likes the challenge of stepping up to the big dogs and taking something they want. Just to see if she can.”

“A true elf then,” Reiss said. She meant it to be to herself, but Jaylen paused in his raking of the trampled grounds. Cursing at herself, the shame died as the man’s shoulders began to pivot with a laugh building to bursting inside.

A few giggles escaped before he shook his smiling face and shrugged, “My mam would say the same.” Reiss had no idea which in his lineage was which, though she’d often heard that human father to elf mother was more accepted. Any human woman that took up with an elf was considered desecrated and unholy, with a few other assumptions that she chased weak men because she was in denial about her true passions.

Not that the thought would do her any good, she chastised herself. The ‘more accepted’ was minuscule at best. They’d run you out of town compared to hang you from the branches of the vhenedhal tree. And yet, Jaylen never wavered from his smile, was kind to any who crossed his path and seemed most at home with the horses. Maybe because he didn’t fit in anywhere else.

“If you head in, could you close up the door behind you?” he interrupted Reiss’ musings. “Ol’ Corwoofeus has been undoing the lock on his kennel and sneaking out.”

“Corwoofeus?” Reiss sneered.

“Three guesses who named that one,” Jaylen chuckled, holding up his entire hand just in case she needed more.

“I don’t require any, and I shall,” she smiled and dipped into the empty barn. Jaylen kept the windows closed causing an impenetrable heat to buildup inside the wooden structure. Absently, Reiss shrugged inside her armor heating up fast and transferring the boil to her body below.

No horses waited inside, all of them roaming through the fenced in meadow the palace maintained. It was ten times the green that the Alienage had, a fact Reiss tried to not think about. “Sylaise?” she called out, even knowing that her cat was most likely rooming in the kennels. Was it possible for cats to have death wishes because that seemed to be Sylaise, always sticking her nose and paw in places it didn’t belong without a care for any looming danger.

Clopping over the wooden boards, Reiss stood in the doorway to the kennels where a few of the dogs slumbered away the afternoon in a pile. Jaylen must have moved the slots so they could mix between and have more room while the rest were probably out on a hunt or trailing their favorite human. It was a constant flux of which dog was where, on occasion leading her to find three or four crouching under a table in the kitchens waiting for scraps to fall.

“Sylaise?” Reiss called, trying to peer through the lumbering shadows to find her damn cat hiding amongst the lingering grey. A soft mewling broke above her and she spotted the kitty traipsing through the straw in the hayloft above all their heads. “Maker’s sake, cat, what are you doing up there?”

For her part, Sylaise lazily dipped her tail back and forth off the hang while reclining upon her side. Those yellow eyes watched Reiss as she shook her head and tried to find a way up to her cat. There was a ladder on the other end, but the heat deadening her limbs...

“All right, I’m done!” Reiss cried to herself as she felt a line of sweat drip off her shoulders and straight down the middle of her back. With one eye on the cat in no mood to move, she undid all the internal buckles upon her breast plate -- tossing it to the ground -- followed by the gauntlets, the greaves, and finally the armored boots. Dressed in the simple crimson under tunic and half calf breeches, she savored the wind ruffling her billowy clothes as a breeze broke from the slots above.

Her naked toes dug deep into the kennel floor, Reiss trying to eye up any surprise dog turds, but Jaylen was great about scrubbing it down from top to bottom. After kicking her pile of metal to the side, she stomped towards the ladder on the far side of the room while keeping an eye on her cat. “If you won’t come down to greet me, then I’m going to come to you,” she tried to make it sound like a threat but it sounded more as if Reiss was subjugating herself to the kitty. So powerful Reiss, truly it’s a wonder people don’t bow down from your glory.

That thought drew a snicker to her exhausted brain. Her nights grew easier knowing the King was going to survive, but the thought of him fluttered in her heart and she had no idea what to do with it. Was it a good thing? A bad? Should she ignore the advice of, Maker’s breath, the Queen and Hero of Ferelden in favor of doing what Reiss did best? Blend back into the shadows and embrace loneliness. It’d kept her alive so far.

She made it almost to the top of the ladder, when a scratching sound echoed from one of the kennels below. A grey furred mabari with white stripes across its back rose from its nap and began to bat at the door. Hope he’s not expecting food because Reiss knew better than to mess with the official war dog’s diet, which was also better than what most elves ate. Sometimes that included herself when it’d been a long day.

Reiss returned to climbing up to her cat, when the dog stopped pawing at the door and seemed to be licking at the lock. What in the...? Oh no! She glanced over at the door she stupidly left wide open. Reiss tried to scurry down the ladder, but the mabari was quick on his way to escaping with the use of both brawn and brains.

“Corwoofeus!” she shouted in her commanding voice. It was enough to pause the escape artist and he swung that bull nose back to watch her with dangerously intelligent eyes. “Don’t you dare. You stay put!”

The dog watched the elf frozen on the ladder uncertain if her dropping down would scare him or not. For a beat she felt herself being sized up the same way the old foreman would pick out who would work on the machines that day. A snort of snot burst from the mabari’s nose and without a care it bashed its shoulder into the door and knocked the latch up with its tongue. The cage swung wide open and proud as you please he strutted free.

“Corwoofeus!” Reiss shouted, her limbs scattering as she scrabbled down the ladder as fast as possible. A splinter bit into her foot but she ignored the pain, her brain panicking at the escapee that was all her fault. “Get back here this instant!” It never worked on her brother, why would it work on a dog?

Strutting proud, the mabari launched into a run out the open door to freedom when a pair of legs stepped in the way. “Hey there!” Reiss could only see the shadow leeching across the floor as hands grabbed onto the errant dog and began to scratch it stupid.

“I’m so sorry, Jaylen,” she finished climbing off the ladder and turned to face up to her mistake. “I forgot to close the door and...”

It wasn’t the stablehand that stood in the door but the King. He took a knee and had both arms locked around the mabari slobbering in his face. They weren’t wrestling or fighting for dominance, the man clearly losing that battle as he hugged tight to the dog before snatching onto the royal collar and trying to tug him back into the kennel.

“Ser, I...” the blush amplified as she glanced over at her armor cast off without any care. Karelle would probably succumb to the vapors if she saw how ill Reiss treated it.

Not noticing, or caring, Alistair shooed the dog back inside the kennel proper and shut the door. “Now, get back inside. You know how it goes. Cages for us all,” he chuckled at the face begging for his master’s love and affection. Maker’s sake, Reiss felt her cheeks burning at the thought that she looked the same.

After closing the dog’s pen proper, he grabbed a bundle of wire and wound it between the door and the frame. “This one’s learned how to get out and has apparently sired quite a few litters on the side. Not just with mabari either. We’re going to have some dangerously smart lap dogs in a few months.” He chuckled at the dog plopping onto his hindquarters with that ‘it wasn’t me’ look upon his drooling face.

“You, uh, are you here for the dogs?” Reiss froze in her steps as the golden light pinging through the slots in the kennel laced upon his brow. It highlighted the rare streak of red mixed in with all that yellow as he smiled upon her.

“No, not exactly I...came to find you,” he glanced up at her with the end of the sentence, a strange guilt hanging in the words.

“Oh, of course, do you require me back in uniform?” She tried to be professional even while her heart hoped he’d tell her no. But then what? What would she say to him? What would her answer be? Maker’s breath, would there even be a question?

“It’s uh,” his eyes danced down her body swaddled in cheap fabric before a blush rampaged up those pale cheeks. “It’s nice to see you out of uniform.”

“Ah,” now it was her turn to melt into a puddle, her hand digging into her shoulder as she found the sunspots on the ceiling fascinating. After steadying herself a moment she glanced over at him. While he wasn’t going to make any Orlesian’s jealous, the King usually dressed respectably with vests and the occasional elbow knot to fluff up shoulders. But while on the mend he seemed to prefer the comfort of simple tunics, this one a striking cobalt blue that somehow drew out the playful umber in his eyes. It was far finer than Reiss’ with no doubt real sliver buttons, but the lack of frippery made her feel more at ease.

“I came here to check on my cat,” she stated the fact while pointing at Sylaise who hadn’t moved an inch during the commotion.

Alistair followed her gesture and smiled, “Seems she’s doing well. Got that cat ‘I’m above you all’ image down pat.”

“Perhaps, but...” Reiss shifted on her bare toes feeling idiotic even as she finished her thought, “I would like to check on her. Make certain her fur is in shape and she’s eating properly.”

He smiled warmly at that instead of pointing out how Sylaise was a blighted alley cat that was surviving just fine until she came along. “Don’t let me stop you.”

Reiss nodded and shaking off her blush, climbed up the ladder into the loft. He followed behind, a hand gripping onto the end as if to steady it, while she felt his eyes wandering across her flat backside. Struggling to not apologize for it, Reiss had to drop to a knee against the low ceiling. “Come here, kitty,” she cooed to Sylaise who gave her one look but that was it.

“I have treats,” Reiss said, thrusting out a handful of the shredded roast she borrowed from Renata.

For a brief second Sylaise lifted her head at that before flopping it back down. “I get it, you’re mad at me for vanishing for so long. It’s...” Reiss tried to not glance down at her boss who’d been the reason for her disappearance, “it’s my fault. But I promise I can make up for it.” Slowly, Reiss scooted a few steps forward upon her knees.

That got the cat’s attention as she lifted to her own nimble feet and watched the curious elf coming for her. “Sylaise, you stay put,” Reiss threatened. “Here, food, you like that,” she tried again, thrusting her hand out for the tiny fangs to bite down on. But Sylaise was in the mood to punish her. Spinning around, the cat began to scamper a few steps away from the advancing elf, but paused from truly leaving to glare at her with an ultimatum: What will you do now?

“Ser, could you?” she tried to gesture to the lone ladder but it rested behind her. What use could he be?

“Want me to flank the cat?” he laughed, sliding under the overhang. Sounds of rummaging and rearranging furniture burst from below and Reiss tried to peer over, but she caught Sylaise watching her.

“Don’t even think of jumping down,” she ordered.

“Got it,” Alistair called as he unearthed a ladder that hooked upon the other edge of the loft. It dangled precariously but he gave it no mind, quickly scurrying up to plop upon the loft. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty...” he called while sliding nearer to the very curious Sylaise.

Reiss renewed her efforts, waving her food offering hand out and trying, “Pus, here pus pus, tasty tasty meat. The best.”

With her tail lifted, Sylaise glanced first at the elf to her left, then the human on her right. Reiss was close enough she could almost reach out and fluff up the fur. Just a little bit further to grab her and... Not caring about her concern, the cat hopped off the ledge so suddenly Reiss’ heart dropped to her stomach. Gripping onto the edge, her meat rained upon the dogs below as she peered down at the unimpressed yellow eyes perched upon the narrow sill of the kennel wall.

Maker’s sake, it’s a cat, Reiss. They can handle a jump that short. She hung her head off the edge, trying to suck in common sense, when a warm hand smoothed over her back. It drew forth such a cocoon of comfort, Reiss didn’t respond, only lay there wishing it would never stop.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” she pinched the bridge of her nose and sat up, Alistair’s fingers falling away from her. “I...I am being foolish. Which is not anything new.”

“I bet I can out fool you,” he said, sitting back upon his haunches. The ceiling was so close, his head skimmed dangerously near the beams but his eyes were only upon her.

“That may be an unwise bet to take,” Reiss said. “I once adopted a small turtle in the harbor when I was supposed to be gutting fish. Kept it with me in a box on the docks, fed it slips of greens I found, and one day it fell into the water. Which I then leaped into, to save a turtle, that can swim.”

“There was this fancy pants, I mean we’re talking gilded knickers level of fancy pants gala up in the north somewhere. Maybe Cumberland. Not important,” he waved his hands through the air as the story grew more animated. “I’m greeting, smiling, nodding, waving, all that kingly stuff, and the Grand Cleric approaches me. Not a huge deal, I’ve dealt with the one back at home plenty of times but this woman... You ever wonder what it’d look like if you gave a horse a lemon? That’d be her face, so gaunt and pinched it was as if someone literally sucked all the joy from her. I bend down to bow and be a good benedicting Andrastian when the most obnoxious gas parts through my back half.”

“Maker’s sake!” she giggled, her hand trying to hide away the smile at his misfortune.

“That’s what I shouted, as well as a few quick ramblings about how the bean and brussels sprout dinners for the past few days may have been overkill on my digestion bits. But the best part, the coup de fart as it were, standing directly behind me the whole time was the Lord Chancellor of Tantervale. Who, turns out, is an even stricter Andrastian than the damn Grand Cleric.”

“Oh no,” Reiss mused, her fingers reaching out in empathy to curl over his arm.

“They had me reciting the chant of light while balancing a book on my head for days.”

She couldn’t stop squeezing against the taut muscle seeming to flex below her hand while sighing, “Truly? They forced a King to do it?”

“I dared to demean the Maker’s Bride with my bodily functions. I’m lucky they didn’t make me strip naked and crawl through a fire ant nest or something.” He laughed at the very idea, fingers that looked as if they ached to troll his hair flexing at the side. Maker’s breath, she shouldn’t be touching him, thinking of holding him, wanting to... Reiss felt the blush beginning up her gut as it always did when she’d wander across a bawdy joke or dirty book. After stumbling upon any involved and descriptive romantic scene in a book, she’d lay the tome upon the bed at arm’s length, prepared to drop a pillow over it if it grew too overwhelming. Lunet, of course, found the image hilarious and kept waiting to see if Reiss would manage to finish reading the blighted thing.

And now her bare toes curled up as her eyes traveled down Alistair’s sunny and handsome face, across the broad shoulders she feared would be her undoing, until noticing that either due to the stance or the lack of a longer tunic, his trousers appeared to be tighter than usual. The tug highlighted the bulge she should not be staring intently at. Oh Maker.

Blushing as if she was under her own fever, Reiss glanced down at Sylaise, who’d swished her tail a few times and moved deeper to curl on top of one of the pooches. Calm down. Deep breaths. Don’t pass out. You’d probably tumble off the edge and break your nose for a second time. At the rate she was going her face would be unrecognizable by the age of forty.

“Am I, uh, keeping you from your duties?”

“I’m keeping me far, far from them,” he snickered.

Reiss didn’t glance back, but she kept clinging to that arm, savoring the swell of the muscle as he rolled his fingers back and forth over the floor. “I mean whatever you came here to do. Tend to the dogs with them.”

“Ah,” from the side of her eyes, she watched his head hang down as he struggled for a thought, “actually, I came to find you. To talk, which I should have done days, no -- weeks ago.”

“I’ve also been needing to talk to you,” she fumbled into her pocket searching for the scrap of paper to prove that he’d been poisoned. Whether on accident or not, it was a disgrace upon her either way. Reiss scurried away from the edge, her hand falling off him, as she sat upon her knees and unfolded it.

“What’s, uh? Is this one of those pirate black spot things?” he half laughed while staring at the water stains trembling in her fingers.

“I have reason to believe that one or more of the alchemists assigned to you, people that passed my inspection, may have been trying to poison you,” she swallowed down a guilty lump and tried to hand the paper over. It thudded into Alistair’s suddenly crossed arms, crumpling up at the edge. “Ser, it’s...”

“Not important,” he said. “Well, okay, give your findings to Harding and she’ll get on it, but...” reaching forward, his palm cupped against her cheek. How easily it wrapped around her, warmth enticing her to lean into it. “I...Maker’s breath, you’d think this would get easier with time. Why’s everyone else is so blasted good at it but me? I’m nothing but all thumbs and left feet. Sorry. Uh. Ahem. I have a passing, more than a passing interest in you. I find myself thinking about you, a lot. All the damn time it seems. And, I’ve been wondering, stewing about, jotting your name down a few hundred times while pretending to listen to Eamon’s droning if... Well, uh, do you like me too?”

Her eyes darted down to the parchment crumpled in her fist holding the proof she could have gotten him killed if not for the Lady Amell, and he didn’t care. No, he was asking in an endearing way if she could feel anything for him as if it wasn’t obvious to any and all that she practically panted for him. Reiss stuttered, struggling to think of something poetic and romantic, or at least coherent, but as she lost herself in his pleading eyes all she could manage was an, “Uh huh,” her head nodding his hand up and down.

A smile broke across that handsome jawline, his dimple indenting deep to the core from the force and Reiss felt all common sense in her brain vanish into smoke. Dashing forward, she wrapped both hands back through his soft, strawberry hair and tugged those sunny lips to hers. Alistair was quick to follow her lead, his hand planted firmly on her cheek as she plied him with every burning kiss that’d been floating through her imagination. Moaning at her incessant lips needing and begging for him, he opened his mouth to let her tongue find his. While their mouths attempted their own idea of sparring, his hand lifted up from her cheek to gently cup her ear. Slowly, his fingers scaled the heights, almost tickling the tender flesh. When he was about to reach the tip, still covered in scar tissue, he paused.

Reiss froze, a million fears running through her mind. Did he just realize she was an elf? That this would be unheard of? Unseemly? Unwarranted? Or was it the realization that she was a bundle of scar tissue molded and healed into what managed to be a person before him.

Unaware of her mental torment, even as his lips slipped to her cheek, both of Alistair’s hands reached behind her head to tousle through the bun. With a quick yank, he dislodged the dagger she kept pinned tight in there. It was enough to destroy the scaffolding and her hair collapsed across her shoulders, the waves easily blending in with the straw scattered beside them. His eyes shut, he softly combed his fingers through her hair, following it from the roots all the way to the tip, before returning again.

Reiss felt she should say something, maybe explain her choice in hair styles, but her tongue fell slack and the entirety of her body hummed just from the gentle tug of a man’s fingers combing her hair. Blessed Andraste! Diving towards him, Reiss kissed with the ferocity building up through her loins. The force caught Alistair off guard and he tumbled backwards, landing with a pained chuckle at the woman attempting to devour him. She paused a moment, her hands spread out upon the ground from taking the fall, before quickly shifting her weight to splay out on top of him and returning for a kiss.

Not just any kiss, her lips darted down his chiseled jawline, savoring the scratch of the stubble against them as she worked her way up to his round ears. Nibbling the lobe gently against her teeth, Alistair moaned when her hot breath shot out through her nose -- amplifying the bulge she felt against her stomach, begging to be loosed from his trousers.

“Maker’s sake, don’t stop,” his voice rumbled from deep in his chest, dropping like a rock down a well. While Reiss worked upward, nipping and cresting her teeth upon the outer ear, his hands climbed up to circle her waist. At first over her baggy tunic, he found the edge of the hem and let those smoldering fingers rake across her bare skin.

“Sweet Andraste,” she groaned, lifting her head away so she didn’t scream in his ear. Below her thighs pinning tight to his abdomen, she felt Alistair laugh at her reaction. One hand broke out from under her shirt to lay against her cheek and guide her lips back to his.

Invigorated by the invitation, Reiss yearned to tug off the shirt clinging to his body, to dart her nails across the skin, fluff up that knot of chest hair and see if it was as soft as it looked. And, most important of all, to grip onto his naked shoulders, savoring every tug of muscle and tendon below while he... A low humming began in the back of her throat at the idea, at the thought of any and all of it.

It must have thrown him off, as Alistair opened an eye to watch her trying to not collapse and explode at the same time. “Are you okay?”

“Mhm,” she nodded vigorously, trying to bite down on the humming. “It’s, that noise is something I do when I’m...uh, enjoying myself,” she was terrified that he’d laugh at her or find it disturbing enough to kick her off.

“That’s good to know,” an ecstatic smile filled his gorgeous face, “a goal to strive for.”

Reiss couldn’t shake the blush at him finding out, him knowing her weird quirk, and him...liking it? Wanting it? It was both embarrassing beyond measure and exhilarating. Would it kill her emotions to make sense just for once?

“Do you...” placing her weight onto one hand, she carefully trailed her fingers down his shirt fallen flat enough she could spot the taut silhouette of his body below, “do you wish to continue?”

“Here?” he started, lifting his head off the ground no doubt to check for any bystanders, but all that hounded them for once were sleeping mabari. Reiss’ regret returned immediately, tendrils of shame snapping around her body like the linens for the undead. How dare she try to bed the King of Ferelden in a creaking and straw encrusted kennel. She began to slide away when Alistair grabbed both his hands around her cheeks and declared, “Maker’s sake, yes!”

Having shouted his ecstatic consent loud enough a few dogs stirred in their sleep, he tugged Reiss down to resume the kissing. A pain knotted in her wrist from pushing against the wooden slats of the rickety floor while Alistair’s hands embarked upon their climb up her midsection. He circled tantalizingly around her ribs, growing ever closer to her breasts but never quite reaching high enough. Suddenly, he reined in his kisses to focus his vision upon her chest -- in particular the top as his fingers worked to unknot the first button.

This was really happening. Right here, right now and not part of a dream. Probably. Hopefully. Maker, Reiss groaned to herself as those strong fingers worked apart one button and moved to the next, if this is a dream let it last to the end. By the third, Alistair stumbled, the edges of the shirt slipping away from his cautious grip when Reiss adjusted her knees.

“Forget it, I’m terrible at buttons anyway,” he mused to himself while grabbing onto the collar of her tunic and tugging it upward. As Reiss slid out of the the shirt, she felt a warm summer breeze drift across her exposed shoulders and upper back, while Alistair’s heady gaze darted across all her skin.

Welp, time for the moment of truth as it were. Rising up away from him, Reiss balanced upon her knees, straddling even closer to his hips. With both hands she grabbed onto the tighter undershirt and, closing her eyes, yanked it off in one quick go. Fully shirtless before the King of Ferelden, she feared to take a peek for what she’d find. It was impossible for her to not know that in the game of voluptuousness Reiss had at best half an apple to bring to the party. When they first sprouted the boys in the village would call them Forgets because they were so small as to be forgettable. In general, children aren’t all that creative with their cruelty.

Trying to not tremble while so exposed, she opened one eye as a warm hand caressed the skin on her stomach. His eyes widened almost beyond the face, the knot in his throat bobbing as he glanced up and down her nakedness. “They’re, uh...” she wanted to explain as if she had any control over it, or apologize as if she should, but he cut her off.

“Beautiful,” he smiled. One set of fingers skirted under one breast, kneading the firm flesh and slowly bouncing the bit of it up. The minor movement drew a moan from the man when he grabbed onto the other. As if he was cupping a fragile trophy, Alistair’s hands both outflanked her smaller bust size. Maker’s blessing, Reiss shifted in ecstasy upon him, lost in the gentle swirl of his warm hands upon her as well as the rising dick prodding up below her.

A giggle erupted in Alistair’s throat but not the cruel kind she came to expect from the other men who’d gotten this close. It was overflowing with an unbridled joy. When his thumbs brushed against her nipples, Reiss almost tumbled forward from the jolt though her body. She wanted him to never stop, to tease them, to kiss them, to tempt her with those powerful fingers forever.

No -- she stared down at the man still fully dressed -- what she wanted was to see him naked, to touch and feel all of him. Even as Alistair continued to caress up and down her breasts, she latched onto the edge of his tunic and began to shove it upward. It froze at his arms, revealing those abs she’d spied from below her embarrassed hand that first night. Reiss paused in trying to get him naked to reach towards them, as if she was trying to pet a powerful animal. The first hill trembled when she touched it, rolling down with a suppressed laugh at a tickle, when her fingers spilled over to the middle of his body. A thin line of blonde hair ran right down below the belly button, calling out for her fingers to follow it.

Biting into her lip to shore up confidence, she fluffed the hair up -- set in the knowledge it was even softer than she imagined. Slowly, Reiss dipped lower down that small trail, her finger sliding under the waistband until it landed for a moment upon the base of his dick. Alistair swallowed deep, his hands falling off her chest as a pair of almost bashful eyes tried to look and not look into hers.

“You uh, you want to? All with me, and...okay! I mean, good, good, and...”

Her finger paused as she struggled to find a proper response. Was she supposed to say something? Something sexy? Maker no, she was so bad at it. Nodding haphazardly, her hair slipped down over her eyes. That drew Alistair out of his small panic, the final good echoing through the summer air as his fingers drew up the errant hairs to return them back behind her ear. “You are so pretty,” he murmured, his hand cupping her cheek, “beautiful, gorgeous, other words I can’t think of right now.”

A certainty bloomed through her veins unlike anything she’d felt before. She’d wanted him before and now she felt she could trust him with that want. Turning her lips to his hand, she pressed a kiss to the palm and whispered, “I need you.”

It wasn’t much, but Alistair’s eyes lit up and he shuffled below her. Nodding with a great grin, he glanced down at the scrap of skin she exposed. “Might as well get rid of all this.” Even while below her, he yanked his shirt off without a second thought and tossed it towards the straw creeping in the wind.

Blessed creators, she whimpered under her breath while honing in on those shoulders. She was wrong that first night. They weren’t perfect, they were a god’s set. Chiseled the only way a man created from the clay of the earth could be, she watched the ends bulge as he picked at his hair and gripped onto her waist. Each freckle darted along that fair acreage pleaded for her fingers and lips. Reiss wanted to scream, and squeal, and maybe pass out if she forgot to breathe. By all that she’d ever swore upon, she feared she might die if she touched them.

A soft thrum of his throat drew her to his eyes and she caught the last thing she ever expected in those soft brown eyes - doubt. Not at what they were doing but if she’d approve of what she saw. How can he be self conscious? Look at him, he’s...

Reaching out tenderly, she traced her fingers starting at his clavicle and working outward, dipping into the delectable divot she yearned to bathe with her tongue and then out. “They’re perfect,” Reiss gasped, surprised to find she could talk at all.

That got a smile from the man as he tugged her down on top of him. She barely had time to register it, a squeal eking out of her throat before her hands were trapped between their bare chests. Alistair curled his fingers against her cheek, traced down her sides following the outer edge of her ribs, dipping into the waist, and landing upon her trousers. Kissing her with all the focus he could, he began to tug upon her waistband, probably trying to find a button. Luckily, the tie must have come loose as they expanded off her hips.

Scooping downward, his hands shoved her pants off enough to expose her ass -- which his palms caressed and gently squeezed. Each playful pinch drew a rush of excitement through her insides, Reiss lost in the throb between her legs that she yearned to be stroked. Biting down upon his lip, she tugged it into her mouth which caused him to pinch harder. It should hurt, why didn’t it hurt instead of feeling so very right?

When she released her hold, so did Alistair, his fingers unearthing the waistband of her pants from between their bodies and doing his best to kick them off. Reiss helped, shaking the cursed things away until she lay fully naked upon the King of Ferelden. Did he have any idea how aroused she was? He must have had some inkling as his fingers skirted up the back of her thigh, the tips dipping down. How easily they could grace her lips, but he kept pulling up at the last second to curl under her ass instead.

“Good?” he asked, an eyebrow lifting as if he didn’t already know.

“Yes, but...” she shuddered at the thought she was about to voice. Staring deep into his eyes she whispered, “I want more.”

“Me too,” he smiled. Pushing her hips upward, Reiss gladly obeyed so his hands could knead her inner thigh. Maker, it was both intoxicating and infuriating as her body begged for him to touch her lips, to rub against her clitoris, to delve deep inside her.

Glancing up at her, he smiled so sweetly she returned to him for a kiss. While her lips pressed against his, his first two fingers circled against her lower ones. Slowly at first and uncertain in their caress, she hoped he knew about the best button at the top, when the back of his thumb rolled against her clitoris.

“Holy Andraste,” Reiss gasped, her head colliding so quickly against his chest in shocking ecstasy Alistair began to chuckle.

“I do think I found the magic key,” he said as his fingers brushed her nub with a pressure that teased but didn’t overwhelm. Reiss felt the back of her head falling numb, her shoulders burning while the rest of her body lit itself anew. He was so gentle, those gorgeous eyes watching her face as she panted next to him.

Sweat glistened upon her chest, following the fire burning from her thighs and up her back. She felt as if one touch could combust the air from how he stroked her, tenderly dipping in an inch to swirl her wetness across his canvas. That was it, she was a masterpiece hiding in the marble waiting for the right hand to come along and discover her. And now that hand caused her throat to begin to hum like a bee hive.

That caught Alistair’s attention, the sound making him smile wide as he whispered, “Did the magic key open up the extraordinary box?”

Maker’s sake, it was stupid, but so adorable and she’d probably say worse if her entire throat wasn’t too busy buzzing with the unending pleasure. She could hover there above him, letting him push her further and further along the journey, but that wasn’t fair to him. Gasping in a deep breath, Reiss tried to ply her hair back as she sat up. Alistair retracted his hand, but almost regretfully, while she searched her brain for anything to say.

Something. Be an ingenue. Or seductive. Or...stare down at him as if you’ve never seen another man before. That’s fine too.

While her brain stomped off, abandoning any hope, her fingers drew down the front of his trousers. Alistair groaned, tipping his head back as she curled her hand above the dick straining to be freed and join in the fun. Aware that she should feel silly, Reiss unhooked the buttons along his fly but kept the edges of the fabric held together trapping him tight against his stomach. He watched her with a curious quirk but didn’t race to stop her.

Shaking off the blush rising up her shins, Reiss hopped up to her feet, yanked apart his pants and tugged them down to his knees. “Ta da!” she cried as if performing her own trick. The laugh thundered through Alistair’s core, causing his dick to sway back and forth in a hypnotic fashion. Maker’s sake, it was so enticing, Reiss stumbled to her knees and with an achingly slow reach she circled two fingers around the base. That drew a deep growl from Alistair’s throat, her fingers drawing ever upward to lightly squeeze against the head.

“Frosted Maker’s Sword!” he shouted incoherently, acting as if he hadn’t been touched by another in almost as long as Reiss hadn’t. A blush bloomed across his chest, turning the almost white hair a beautiful strawberry. Sliding forward on a knee, Reiss kept one hand sliding up and down his dick hardening beneath her fingers, while her lips trailed across that fine hair.

Alistair laughed and squirmed at both at first, until her lips pressed against his nipple. Gasping, his adorable eyes shut tight while her tongue flicked it awake bringing obvious pleasure across his entire body. A quick breath began to pant out of his mouth, and Reiss almost paused for fear that she may be undoing his work to get healthy. “Don’t stop,” he spat out between alternating groans and shoveling breaths into his mouth.

This next step Reiss knew well; it was all any of her few dalliances favored. Lifting herself up, she guided his cock right next to her lower lips. Making certain it was in place, Reiss thrusted her legs down, sending the first couple of inches of him barreling through her. Sweet Andraste, the length pushed so far beyond what she anticipated, her insides felt the same vibrating thrill she only expected from outside. Alistair’s hand lifted to cup her breasts as she began to bounce upon him, savoring every deep thrust she could manage and ending it with a slow swirl of her hips.

The last part caused him to toss his head back against the floor, groaning up through his balls every time she managed it. A warmth reverberated up through her core, knocking bits of her awake she’d thought were long dead, but that explosion remained illusive. Her only hope was from that “magical key” that kept obstinately brushing against his body but sliding away before it could enjoy the contact. Putting her own wants aside, Reiss was happy to watch the man squirming below her, his fingers thrumming a beat against her breasts. Whether it was his way to match her rhythm or keep him lasting longer, she couldn’t tell. But judging by the perspiration dotting along his forehead, she suspected it wouldn’t be much longer.

Wanting to make it as best as possible, if only for the memory, Reiss reached behind herself to cup his balls. Slowly she rotated them, the fine hair tickling the palm of her skin while Alistair moaned incoherent sentences.

Suddenly his eyes flew open and in a quick move he grabbed onto Reiss’ hips and yanked her upward. His hard dick slipped out, red with rage at losing its warm partner. “What? I...?” she gasped, trying to understand what went wrong.

He released a hand off of her in order to wipe the sweat from his eyes, “Sorry, you’, but there’s something I’ve been burning to do for a long time.”

Uncertain, Reiss gave into the man tugging her forward. She walked upon her knees, waiting for his hands to release her, but they didn’t give up until she hovered right above his face. Even with her tiny breasts, she couldn’t see anything of him but a poof of the blonde hair below. What was he doing?

Alistair’s hands grabbed tight to her hips, tugging himself closer to her and she down to him. Reiss feared he was trying to smother himself, when...

“Sweet fucking Maker!” she screamed when his tongue slicked across her clitoris. An erratic rhythm at first, it lapped her lips before returning right back to the main event -- seeming to try any pattern he could think of. Reiss gasped, her hands splaying out on the floor to keep her upright as she came fully undone while he... He was?

She’d read about it, that kind of thing in books, but had never fully understood it. No man ever thought she was worth the effort and she convinced herself it couldn’t be that good. Blessed Andraste how wrong she’d been. The humming increased tenfold when he found the perfect tongue flicker followed by a gentle kiss. It was silly, and sweet, but it was also driving her body beyond any sensible measure she’d thought possible.

Wanting it. Needing it. Enraptured with everything he was doing, Reiss began to thrust again, moving with his tempting tongue. It began as a flutter in the back of her throat, then spots bursting behind her eyes as her entire body began to tremble. So close, she hung suspended upon the edge of the knife, begging and pleading. “Keep going,” she cried, willing her legs to not cramp up. Always dutiful, Alistair obeyed, his fingers curling around her ass while his tongue splayed her in twain.

The orgasm walloped her soul, barely bothering to finish off the already depleted body. This one lit every nerve in her body aflame. She didn’t realize she was crying out for joy until his hands brushed against her stomach. Tugging himself out from under her, Reiss stared down at a genuine sparkle in his eyes, a song on his lips. She felt as if she should give him a medal, two medals, a parade.

“That’s never, I...” Another shudder rapped against her muscles, causing her body to tighten as she hummed even louder to try and shake it off.

“Good?” he snickered. Wiggling out below her, Alistair’s eyes gained a deadly focus. She doubted she could speak her name if pressed, but had enough focus to watch the man stagger up to his knees. With his dick harder than steel, his hungry eyes stared up and down her body. Before Reiss could think of anything to answer with, he cupped her shoulders and guided her down onto her back.

She couldn’t stop kissing him, tangling with the tongue that...that worked miracles beyond her ken. Alistair’s hands drew downward from her cheek, cupped a breast and slowly he massaged into her thigh. Following it to the knee and calf, when he reached her ankle, he suddenly yanked it up to curl back behind his waist.

That was all Reiss needed as she followed with the other. Lining up the prize winning shot, she thrusted onto him, drawing his dick deep into her still shaking core. Alistair groaned as he hovered above her, a smile permanently stuck to his face. With a deep concentration he began to thrust faster. Harder. Reiss answered in kind, wanting to feel all of him as far as he could reach.

Lost in the pleasure, she grabbed onto his shoulders, digging her fingers deep into the flesh that triggered a thousand fantasies. Feeling them flexing beneath her while he balanced his weight upon his hands, she screamed a giddy laugh, having the best damn time she could ever remember. A moment of embarrassment and concern flipped her smile over, but Alistair grunted next to her ear, “Don’t stop.”

Laughing in joy, she kissed him, tugging those lips to hers as the final thrust pushed him into the warm abyss. His shoulders trembled under her fingers, his mouth breaking from hers so he could gasp at his own orgasm coursing out of him and into her. “Maker’s blighted, I... Oh, I think I’m seeing spots,” he chuckled. “That was, and you, and what you with me, and I...”

Reiss grabbed onto his face and pulled it down to her, peppering him in even more kisses as he struggled to tell her how much he enjoyed it. A breath from hers, he whispered, “It’s been a long time since anyone’s made me feel like that, made me want all that.”

“Me too,” she admitted. The tiny part of her brain that wasn’t obliterated in pleasure clucked that it couldn’t have been that long for him, he had a three month old. Reiss tried to smother it down while her fingers danced back and forth over those strapping shoulders.

“I’m getting the impression you like those,” he said, turning his head to watch her hands.

“Shoulders have always been my, uh, undoing as it were,” her proud blush paused and she focused fully on him, “What about you?”

She expected the obvious answers: a full breast, a round ass, plump lips -- all things she didn’t have. Alistair curled a finger around her errant hairs and sighed, “I like a woman that’s fun, and...I have to say I never looked much at legs, but these,” he drew his fingers back to circle her thighs and strained for the calves still wrapped around him, “are divine.”

“No, they’re just the bits I walk around on,” Reiss tried to wave away the compliment while blushing up a storm.

“And I damn near walked into a wall when you were wearing only that clinging under armor one day,” he laughed at himself. She missed that, missed a lot of things it seemed, the elf so certain that a human like him wouldn’t look twice at her. And now...

“Alistair,” Reiss whispered, needing to tell him something, but a great smile bloomed upon his face at that. “What?” she asked, thrown by it.

“I like hearing my name in your voice.” He was still inside her, his cheeks rusted from the exertion and glistening, but none of that seemed to matter as Alistair began to bend over to kiss her.

At that moment, a grey shadow bounded across the floor barely stirring a scrap of straw as it leaped high into the air and landed four paws upon Alistair’s back. “Sylaise!” Reiss shrieked, trying to wave the cat off, but she was having none of it.

Padding around gently, the cat kneaded her paws against his flesh before unceremoniously curling up for a nap on the King’s naked back. He strained to see what was happening over his shoulder, but couldn’t quite reach. “Is there a cat sleeping on me?”

“I’m afraid so,” Reiss admitted. She began to slide forward to try and wiggle out from underneath him. “I can shoo her off and...”

Alistair caught her lips in a deep kiss, pushing her head down to the floor and his body followed. Reiss’ exhausted legs tumbled off him as the man stretched out over her like a living blanket. The warmth wrapped around her while he placed his tousled hair flecked with straw upon her chest. As the man lay there listening to her heartbeat and only partially crushing her, she tried to flit through his hair to pull out the straw. That was enough to draw Sylaise’s attention. Upset at her treat being given to the dogs, the cat padded up to Reiss, collapsed both paws around Alistair’s neck as if she expected a piggyback ride, and then mewled helplessly.

While Reiss scratched her cat’s head and gently massaged the man trying to bury a smile against her skin, she felt a warm bliss for the first time in her life.

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