Guarded Love

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Chapter 33: A Big Break

The days were long, but the nights even longer as Reiss found herself studying every line of Alistair’s body. The taut muscles that curved into flat plains, fluffy white blonde hair across his body that was both exotic and enticing to an elf. He had a strange mole on the top of his right buttock. When she informed him of it, he spun around fully naked to try and get a glimpse, while asking if the damn thing was a crown or other portent sign of his birthright. Reiss wasn’t 100% certain what it looked like, it kind of reminded her of a bear with a credenza crashed on its head.

She also learned more about herself in their exploring. In particular, she found she far preferred to be below, all of his best bits striking the perfect chord against hers with each thrust. Ethan had considered it a rudimentary and worthless position, preferring her on top doing all the work. Seeming to have no opinion, Alistair always clapped his hands in joy and dove straight in, ecstatic to be doing anything with her. Her first time taking him into her mouth, he began to giggle in total excitement before a never ending moan replaced the laughs. It continued so quickly, he began to sway and nearly passed out from lack of air. Reiss wasn’t certain if that was the kind of thing she should be proud or ashamed of.

Every night, after she’d stored away her armor, he’d knock upon her door and present her with a new flower. By eight days she had a bright bouquet of no two alike flowers blooming in her water cup. Whenever she was getting dressed she’d glance over at the spray of green, yellow, blue, and purple petals all competing for space and remember each moment that came after. The dark part of her that silently counted down the days until this stopped pointed out that the flowers would begin to die and all she’d have to stare at were dried out stems. Then how would she feel when the luster wore off and nothing fresh would replace the desiccated husks?

But Reiss shook most of the dour fears off, a dangerous skip in her step as she finished knotting her hair around the sheath and inserting the dagger. The King had another of his Chancellor meetings, and he entrusted her to meet with Spymaster Harding. After revealing her findings on the poison, Alistair suggested Reiss be the one to keep working close with Harding on it. They seemed to be the only two in the entire palace taking it seriously.

She found Harding not in the old Spymaster’s tower -- she cursed out the steps in four languages after scaling it to comb Ghaleb’s records and refused to return -- but down by the salon. It was colloquially called the blue room because whoever put it in fashioned nothing but bright blue windows against the eastern wall. When the sun was high, it cast a crisp azure glow to everything in the room. To amplify it, all the stones and furniture were white. Coincidentally, when the sun was blocked by clouds, a dark and morose color overtook the room -- rendering it down to a depressed mess. That was what Reiss walked into, greys merging into every corner while Harding sat upon a table that on a good day glittered like sapphires. Today it looked as if it grew so morose it intended to throw itself onto a lumberjack’s axe.

Reiss barely stepped into the room before Harding tossed down her paperwork, “Glad you’re here. I’ve got some interesting developments.”

“So the King informed me of,” Reiss said. She stood at full attention above the dwarf, her arms behind her back.

Harding eyed her up and down before snickering, “At ease there recruit, we’re not about to be set upon by a horde of red templars.”

“Maker’s sake, I hope not,” Reiss breathed while sagging down.

Harding laughed at that and unearthed a yellow sheet. Seemed she kept some of Ghaleb’s coding system after all. “I looked into the two alchemical reagents you caught on to. Confirmed that combined they made a nasty poison. Oh,” she paused at running a finger down it and smiled, “it’s not that I didn’t believe you, just having to be thorough to have something to toss into the tall ones face when we raid their home to go searching for any ingredients to brew poisons.”

“Of course,” Reiss nodded. She didn’t realize she’d looked perturbed by Harding checking her work, but she tried to shake off the foolishness at being caught thinking it.

“The first alchemist we had a very long discussion with insisted that he had no idea the potion he brewed up to present to the King could be altered into a poison.”

“What was it supposed to be then?” Reiss asked, trying to peer overtop Harding’s shoulder and read ahead.

“A drink designed to open a man’s airways, or so our shaking chemist claimed. It seemed he’d overdosed on an herb rarely added, which was part of our in question poison. However, it was hard to prove this was done on purpose as after talking to the man for a few minutes it became difficult to disrepute his alibi.”

“How so?” There’d been enough potion left in the bottles mercifully not fully finished off to at least threaten the man and see if he’d panic.

“Well,” Harding passed over the yellow paper and then began to dig back through her desk. “Claims of stupidity and not realizing what he was doing, while likely to send him to the gibbet if the King had died, are not also proof of a vast conspiracy.”

“You think he did it on accident,” Reiss summarized for herself, even while her eyes circled down the paper to see ‘Accident?’ written, followed by ‘Maybe. Probably. Moron.’

“I can’t prove he didn’t. While trying to scratch his nose, he forgot to lift up both manacled hands and accidentally smacked himself across the face with the chain. My bigger question is who let someone that clearly addled anywhere near the sick and dying. He’s too stupid to even handle peddling snake oil as he’d be the first to try it.”

“Maker’s sake,” Reiss dug a gloved hand against her forehead, trying to exorcise an oncoming headache. She thought she had something, a way to tie the assassins back to someone in the palace. An inside job? While the old Spymaster turned out to be an entire different color of herring, this seemed to be the proof they needed. And the alchemist was a moron the entire time who accidentally stumbled into nearly killing the King.

“So it was all for nothing. Wonderful. What about the other alchemist with the second potion? Don’t tell me, this one claimed that a gust of wind accidentally mixed up the King’s potion with a secret hair tonic.”

Harding unearthed a file with a seal overtop. Breaking off the secret eye, she smiled wide, “Don’t know, because when we went to confront her, she was found dead in her living room.”

“What?!” Reiss tried to not stagger back.

The dwarf’s only hint at this turn in the bend was a gleam in her eyes; she was enjoying the twist in the tale. “Two knife wounds took her down. In the back, so probably not suicide and if it was an accident the Maker truly despised that woman.” Harding passed over this classified report and Reiss clutched it tighter to her eyes realizing she was being let in on something very important.

“We went digging through her things, most of it picked clean of course. The body was a good day or more dead. Seemed the killer probably knocked her off while we were dealing with the first alchemist, who’s been warned but took the news without any concern as he headed home.”

“Another dead end?” Reiss groaned.

“Not quite,” Harding shifted on her feet and struggled to rise up on her toes. Her eyes barely skimmed above the paper in Reiss’ hands as the dwarf pointed at a scrap of parchment. Ripped down the middle, there was nothing to it aside from a series of three lines etched in ink and all sloping at an angle downward to the left.

“I may be new to Denerim, but I know a gang symbol when I see one. Cheap, crude, but you get the point. This was why I called you, hoped you might have some idea who it belongs to.”

Reiss twisted it around, trying to remember. It struck a soft chord but nothing was rising out of the background. “I’m afraid not. Have you tried asking anyone else?”

Harding settled back to her feet and puffed out her cheeks in thought, “Can’t. Murder of a suspect before we have a chance to interrogate her looks bad, really suspicious like. I’m not officially trained to do this spying stuff but doesn’t that all sound a bit...”

“Like an inside job, like someone in the guards or the spy network tipped them off,” Reiss answered.

“Exactly, and the King did insist we keep this as much between the two of us as possible. He’s put a lot of faith in you.”

“And you,” Reiss said, doing her damnedest to fight off a blush rising to her cheeks. No, other people can’t already know. They’d been so careful.

“This is our only lead, short of setting the King up as bait and hoping someone’s dumb enough to take it,” Harding shrugged.

“I’d prefer not, those plans always have a thousand ways to go pear,” Reiss groaned. She kept twisting the symbol back and forth hoping that it’d make some sense to her. The three lines washed up and down like... Shit, that was it! Like a wave. This wasn’t the only half, there was always a match because they were...

“Your face just lit up like the Grand Cathedral for Wintersend. I’m guessing you’ve got an idea,” Harding chuckled, her eyes canvasing Reiss.

“Ah, yes, sort of, but I have to confer with someone. She knows a lot more about them than I do,” Reiss admitted.

“Is that wise? Is this someone we can trust?”

Reiss shrugged, “You’re sleeping with her so...”

“Oh, well, uh,” Harding’s freckles burned like a beacon against her cheeks at the insinuation of Lunet in her life. She snatched up a few piles of papers and waved them in front of her face until getting ahold of herself. “Yes, you’ve known her for sometime and it seems doubtful that she’d have any connection to assassins in the palace.”

“A random elven guard in the city watch,” Reiss said, as if she hadn’t been the same plucked from relative obscurity to guard the King, now with special emphasis on guarding his body. “Besides, if I found out she was working for a gang of assassins, Lune knows I’d throttle her myself,” she smiled to herself. “Mind if I...?”

“No, please take it. I’ve got a few copies already,” Harding said, officially allowing Reiss to pocket the piece of evidence. “Should I inquire of Sugarbelle, er, Lunet, Corporal Lunet?” Harding coughed and shook her face around like mad as if that could stampede over the private pet name sneaking in.

“I can handle it,” Reiss tried to not smile at the sweet discomfort. “Lune’s more likely to remember when I’m around.”

“She’s certainly going to be able to focus on work more easily,” Harding mused to herself while cupping a hand against the back of her neck.

“That...” Reiss began, before becoming uncertain how to tell the Spymaster it was why she suggested it in the first place. Her friend was a good guard, but it didn’t take much to distract her off the beat. Especially if freckles were involved. “Can you tell the King where I’ve gone?”

“Sure, I’ve got a meeting with him and the council after this. Ah, pebbles!” Harding cutely cursed while staring at the magic clock, “If I wait any longer it’ll have to be during lunch. Sorry!” She began to scoop all the files she could into her arms and raced out the door.

Reiss didn’t even have a chance to ask why lunch perturbed her so, Harding scampering as fast as she could. Waving a hand in the air she shouted, “Good luck.” It seemed unlikely Reiss would need it, she was going to spend the day talking with her friend while the dwarf had to explain to a round table of humans why one of the suspects was found dead. Reiss had the far easier assignment.

Lunet propped up a wall beside one of the viaducts down to the underside of the city. Below her, sewage and the occasional bit of water sloshed through, the elf barely noticing as this was part of her typical beat. She didn’t glance up at the pair of men trying to step closer to her, a whistle beginning, when Reiss drew up fast on her horse. Scattering from hooves sparking against the streets, the men only caught a glance of the royal steed and uniform. They didn’t have time to see it was another elf wearing it as they hightailed it far from whatever mischief they had planned.

“What are you doing here?” Lunet called, sounding both surprised and exasperated that Reiss was bothering her at work.

Dismounting, Reiss grabbed onto her horse’s reins and tugged it with her towards the woman slowly breaking from the wall. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“What? That lot?” she jerked her thumb towards the retreating shadows. “I see those dung licking jackareses once a week. Thinks it’s fucking hilarious to whistle at the lone elf on duty and sometimes throw shit. Literal shit.”

“Since when?” Reiss staggered in her tracks, having never heard this before.

“Since always. You know what complaining gets us, or should I say, gets me, what with you being gifted a fancy fairy godmother that granted you the shiny new ballgown and a coach to the palace.”

A burn started at the back of Reiss’ neck at how quickly Lunet turned her problems back on her. “Way I remember it you were in the ballgown, I was in full plate armor.”

Lunet only shrugged haphazardly at that. “Bet it fits better than this,” she said before lifting up her elbow and slowly rotating the squeaking gauntlet overtop her forearm.” Locking it back into place, she focused on Reiss, “Whatcha doing here anyway? I ain’t off the job for another half the day.”

“I didn’t come to catch up, Lune. I’m on the job too.”

She staggered up to glance behind Reiss into the fog crawling across the ground, “Don’t seem to have your charge toddling along behind you.”

“For the Maker’s sake, I’m not his babysitter,” Reiss groaned, a raw anger rising from how quickly Lunet dismissed Alistair.

“You sure about that? How many times has he asked you to carry his things?”

“Never,” Reiss said, silencing Lunet’s mocking tone in an instant. Her friend’s eyes narrowed at that, no doubt already calculating how many airs Reiss had gained in her time away. “Look,” she struggled into the pack across her waist, feeling like a heel for reacting so, “it’s about the assassins, okay. This is kinda the whole reason I got hired.”

“A’right,” Lunet shrugged, “It’s important palace stuff. Whatcha need a random city guard for?”

“Did Harding happen to mention the lead we’ve been running with the alchemists?”

That got her a long eye roll and Lunet shaking her head, “We never talk business, when I can see her. She’s been squirreled away up in that palace for days. I couldn’t even talk her into coming down for the nug races. So no, no idea what makes these alchemists special.”

“It...” Reiss realized that wasn’t the important part and maybe there was a reason Harding kept things from her bed partner. “It doesn’t matter, but while searching through their things, they came across this symbol,” she dangled the scrap of paper before Lunet and leaned back.

Lune picked it up and, like Reiss before, began to rock it like the waves. “Oh, this, I remember this.”

“Thought it looked familiar,” Reiss said.

“Aye, those blighters had it tattooed across every damn random inch of skin they could think of. We were pulling ’em in for days. Stupidest damn name too. Zea dogs. Seemed someone told them the z made it sound more badass but they were all too short on brains to figure out which z to replace.”

Lunet stopped reminiscing and glanced up at Reiss, “What’s the assassins got to do with the old Zea dogs? We ran most of them out of Denerim ages ago.”

“Apparently not all,” Reiss pointed at the symbol again.

“Could be coincidence, or your alche was part of them. Though seems weird for a bunch of second string pirates who couldn’t stand the bounce of waves would attract a potion brewer. Rum brewer certainly, but not a frilled potion distiller. Maker, how many nearly boiling over stills did we have to confiscate? I stank of yeast, honey, and vomit for weeks.”

“I was there with two of the other assassins, took them down,” Reiss said. “They both had tattoos that almost but didn’t quite match that symbol.”

“Three lines but in different...” Lunet waved her hand up and down like the sea.

“Exactly, I didn’t think of the connection until Harding found the paper.”

“My little squish pie’s on the case?” Lunet mused, giving Reiss her second sugar induced coma of the day.

Shaking it off, and also tucking it away to tell Alistair later, Reiss turned to her friend, “Do you remember anything about where the...Zea dogs met?”

“Most of it was broken up, other gangs moved in,” Lunet kept shaking her head back and forth, “I don’t even see why they’d up and take to wanting to murder a King. Doesn’t seem like their...”

“What?” Reiss leaped upon her silence. “What is it?”

Snapping her armored finger, Lunet thrusted the scrap of paper back into Reiss’ hand. “I think I know exactly where they’re hiding. It’s a bit of a walk, unless...” She gestured up at the royal horse that impetuously stamped its hoof. “Mind if I borrow your ride?”

“All right,” Reiss tucked the scrap safely into her satchel and climbed into the saddle. Offering a hand to Lunet, the smaller elf struggled up behind her, her arms locking around Reiss’ stomach. “But I’m driving.”

Lunet wasn’t the best at giving directions. Being a true tried and born city dweller, she didn’t know streets so much as landmarks -- often relying upon trees and shops that no longer existed but once had. It took her reaching forward to grab the reins and turn the horse under Reiss, but they finally made it out of the city and further north along the coastline. Luckily, the rains had slackened but the grey fog remained, casting a deathly pallor over the normally verdant ground. The clinging humidity was goaded along with the summer heat, causing Reiss to sweat in places she thought were impossible. Of course, Lunet never sweated; she only glistened.

“There!” she shouted, jabbing her finger through the air as if pointing at some important statue.

“What there?” Reiss shouted back even as she tugged the horse down to a trot and guided him towards nothing.

“Get off the blighted horse and I’ll show you,” Lunet groaned. She didn’t even wait for Reiss to stop before sliding off and stomping towards nothing. The seas pounded against the cliffs, stirred up from the weather shifting across them, and all looking the same dingy grey. A few gulls shrieked against the fog, but even those specks of white vanished into the clouds.

Tugging the horse to a stop, Reiss dismounted herself, trying to act dignified but knowing she looked like an idiot. Her time spent riding was always short, with her doing her best to hang on until they got wherever they were going and she could get far from the saddle. Crunching through the wild grass and weeds clinging to the cliff’s edge, she glanced down at the bone crushing drop to the water. There was no sign of boats skirting near the coast, no sign of anything but the white foam washing back and forth into the rocks below.

“Why are we here?” Reiss asked to thin air. A grunting noise caused her to flip around and she caught Lunet half inside the earth itself. It took a second for the fogs to clear and Reiss to recognize her friend was clinging to a trap door that’d been hidden under the ground with summer’s fresh grass growing upon it.

“Told you it was here. This was one of the blighter’s smuggling caves. We shut ’em all down and buried most in rock, but this one was too close to the shore. Woulda caused an, uh...” Lunet tapped her thumb against her cheek, smudging it with fresh dirt, “something bad. Are you coming or not?”

“Sorry,” Reiss dashed to her friend’s side and peered down the dark hole. A rickety ladder clung to the side but she couldn’t see anything down below. “Is it safe?”

“It’s a gang’s smuggling cave, I’m sure they made certain to put in every safety precaution they could think of,” Lunet rolled her eyes skyward and groaned.

Luckily, Reiss had an answer for the darkness. Reaching into her satchel she unearthed one of the crystals the Dalish had. Giving it a good shake, a bright green light hissed from the middle. She held it over the edge and found the descent wasn’t as steep as she feared.

“Oi, where’d you get that nifty thing from?” Lunet asked. She began to reach a finger out to touch it, when the trap door shifted lower.

“From the elves, the Dalish elves we helped to...” Reiss shook it off. “I’ll go first.”

“Bloody do something before I throw my back out,” Lunet groaned.

With one hand holding tight to the green crystal, Reiss scurried down the ladder. Her foot touched bottom and she was about to tell Lunet, when a loud whoomph reverberated from above, scattering dust down upon her.

Sputtering to get most of the dirt off of her tongue and face, Reiss shouted, “You coulda damn well warned me!”

“Hey, fancy pants royal guard, I’m gonna drop the door,” Lunet snickered, her fingers working her quickly down the ladder.

Reiss didn’t bother rising to the bait as she began to inch along the cavern. It wasn’t wide by any means, but thankfully she wasn’t claustrophobic. Most humans would probably fit one at a time at best down here. She felt Lunet bump into her back and tell her to get on with it.

The walls were carved quickly and cheaply, most likely by magical explosives one could find on the black market. Dangerous but effective. Reiss began to slide quicker down the hole, her eyes following the green light, when something smacked into her left hip. A loud ding echoed in the cavern from her hilt smashing against a lump of rock jutting right into the path where it hung.

“Maker damn it!” she cursed, trying to feel it to see if there was any damage. Luckily, she didn’t hit it head on and was moving slow enough it’d probably buff out.

“Are you certain I shouldn’t be the one leading? For starters, my head wouldn’t be drowning out all the light,” Lunet shouted from behind. She sounded a bit panicky and Reiss restarted walking.

“You wouldn’t have brought a light to begin with if you were in charge,” Reiss said, trying to distract her friend from the walls.

“Psh, if I was in charge we’d be knees up in a tavern,” Lunet grumbled. Reiss’ hands skimmed both sides of the walls, feeling for anymore lurching surprises but none came. Stepping quickly, Reiss felt a blast of air waft over her face and the sound of water dripping into rippling pools. Space radiated off her and lifting up her lighted arm she could see the proof around her. It wasn’t a grand ballroom sized area, but one could easily stack an entire ship’s worth of cargo down here and still have space to run an illegal gambling operation.

“Sweet Andraste,” Reiss whistled, staggering into the middle of the cavern. Jagged edges of the ceiling reached downward to try and take a bite out of any who passed under, while a small river of water dribbled through the middle. She noticed someone took the time to lay planks of wood overtop sections of it to keep from having to stumble into it.

“Here,” Lunet jerked her head. By the eerie green light, she took on an otherworldly glow, her best friend appearing like one of those evil spirits lurking in a forest. The not-spirit and probably not-evil woman pointed at a wall.

Staggering up a few creaking boards that made a set of stairs, Reiss drew the light across the flattest part of the cavern to reveal three lines undulating like waves. There were four sections, each broken up to represent the various tattoos scattered across the gang. Right there in the middle was the one found inside the dead alchemist’s home. She had her answer, it was the Zea dogs. The next challenge was finding wherever they scattered to. “You’re right,” Reiss nodded while glancing up and down the wall. “I’ll be certain to tell Harding about this, to shore up our findings and...”

“Rye, try not to freak out or anything,” Lunet whispered through the cave.

Reiss spun away from the wall to find her friend crouching next to a dusty table. “What?” her voice followed Lunet’s command and softened.

Without answering, Lunet lifted up a half empty bottle and shook it.

“So, it was an old smuggler’s cavern. There’s bound to be some contraband left behind,” Reiss groaned stepping closer to her friend.

Lunet rolled her eyes and picked up something else to the light, “With a mug still holding some of the poured...” she took a sniff and winced, “paint thinner in it?”

“Flames!” Reiss whipped the crystal around, noticing on all the dusty barrels she ignored sat stacks of cards, books left open, and a piles of kindling to light the fire. Where was it? She had to check for ashes to see if they were warm...

“Uh,” Lunet called from the corner.

Reiss dashed off towards a pile of what she suspected was an abandoned fire and stuck her finger in. They were ice cold. “What is it?”

Lunet kicked a box from which echoed the sound of knives clattering against each other like a jammed cutlery drawer. “They’re armed to the teeth.”

“We need to leave, now!” Reiss shouted. “Put everything back where you found it.”

“It’s disgusting down here, I doubt anyone will notice,” Lunet whined before sighing, “Fine fine. Clearly no one’s here, so I don’t get why it’s...”

Reiss ignored her as she tried to memorize the size and layout of the cavern. It’d be hard to attack, but sieging with smoke bombs would get them out fast. The trick would be waiting until they were all there. “Come on!” she shouted, already at the cavern’s entrance and waiting for Lunet to catch up. Making certain to avoid the jabby rock on her right side this time, Reiss reached the ladder and scurried up. She had to hand down the crystal to push open the trap door before emerging into the same grey day.

Breathing in the dank sea air, Reiss gave out a gasp and a sigh. No one was watching them. She didn’t spy any glasses glinting in the distance, but would they in this cloud cover? Perhaps they got lucky and the fog hid their delving. “Come on, come on,” she kept repeating, waving Lunet to follow her as fast as possible. Reiss ran off to grab the horse’s reins, not bothering to mount. They had to move fast.

“What are you doing?” Reiss hissed as her friend hovered near the door.

“Making certain to disguise the entrance again with the sod, you idiot,” she whispered back. Returning to her work, Reiss knew she was cursing under her breath at her stupidity, but she couldn’t make out Lunet’s best work under the pounding of the surf. After tapping it with her boot, Lunet chased after her friend and with both holding tight to the horse’s reins they walked as fast as they could without appearing in a hurry towards the city.

More of that dreaded sweat dripped down Reiss’ shoulder blades and directly towards her butt. She began to regret wearing her full armor on this trip, or potentially any if the summer sun was going to keep up like this. Trying to wipe as much off as she could by inelegantly reaching between her backplate and skin, Reiss paused to glare into Lunet’s chuckling eyes.

“What? It’s hot,” she explained feeling strangely self conscious from the other elf walking beside her.

“Uh huh,” Lunet nodded. They both tugged upon the horse’s reins, who snorted on occasion but enjoyed the slow amble down the packed dirt road. No one else seemed to be out and about today, probably wisely all camped inside thanks to the heat. “You’re smiling.”

“Am not,” Reiss snapped back at, fairly certain she wasn’t. Even then, she ran her fingers up against her lips to find them flat. Caught in her lie, Lunet gave a hearty bellow that belonged in a tavern and not from the tiny elf. Growling at her, Reiss tugged harder on the reins, pulling the horse out of its stupor into a slower trot.

“I know that smile,” Lunet continued, “starry eyed, sighing under your breath, practically skipping in your steps.”

“Here it comes,” Reiss said, trying to shore away her emotions that seemed to be leaking free of her armor.

Jabbing an elbow into the crook between armor and elf, Lunet snickered, “You’re shagging, and I’d guess on the regular from the little strut in your walk.”

“That, how can?” Reiss gasped, glancing around at the grasses without a care for her private business. “It’s not what...”

Lunet, of course, trampled over Reiss trying to disarm the situation without lying. “Is it that tall, dusky elf who works in the secretary pool?”

“What?” Reiss stumbled back at her question and shook her head, “No.”

“The thatcher’s apprentice? I heard he’s got eyes like a stormy kaleidoscope.”

“Stormy kaleidoscope? What does that even...? No, not him.”

“Okay,” Lunet had no intentions of giving this up, “the more rotund one that hooks rugs. Sometimes he’s seen near the palace repairing things royalty break.”

“Maker’s sake, do you know every damn elf in the palace?” Reiss gasped. She’d rarely seen any of them aside from an occasional flit of a pointed ear in her passing.

Shrugging, Lunet smiled, “When you were sentenced to your imprisonment behind the castle walls I thought I’d do a little digging. I’m starting to run low though, not many male elves serving up there. Unless...” She paused in scratching her chin to glare at her friend, “You better not be chasing after the ladies without coming to me first.”

“No, Lune, it’s a man.”

“So there is someone honing your sheathe,” she grinned, the sly fox proud of its hard won chicken.

“Damn you,” Reiss somewhat fake cursed, waggling her finger at her friend. But under the anger at being found out so quickly, she felt excited. She’d been wanting to tell someone about how good it all was. Maybe not any details on the sex bits, but the way he’d fold his body around hers, how he kept pecking kisses against the silliest of places on her, and that for being King he gave damn good foot and calf massages. But she swore herself and Alistair to secrecy, she wasn’t about to go breaking it now.

“You’re never going to figure it out,” Reiss said, zipping her lip and tossing away the key.

“Oh, you forget just how tenacious I am. There’s another male elf that works for the grocer, red hair, kinda scraggly but...”

“Nope,” Reiss shook her head, savoring each swing of it.

“Maker’s taint,” Lunet groaned, raking off her helmet to comb her hair up off her forehead. The white of the tape upon her ears glared by the bright sunlight. “I’m running low on options. I think there’s a dwarf that serves as part of the merchant’s guild to supply the castle with flatware...”

“It’s not a dwarf,” Reiss chuckled, bouncing back and forth on her feet now. She was acting like a child with a great secret that no one could guess.

“Shame, there are certain...advantages to the height differential,” Lunet sighed, her eyes wandering off to the horizon. Denerim waited on the edge, the parapets of the city walls glancing over the top of the hills. “Can you give me a hint?”

“No, that’s not fair.”

“Ha, you’re hardly being fair either,” Lunet simmered, no longer happy to be the one with something held over her.

“I already told you,” Reiss hummed, “you’re never ever gonna guess it.”

“This shouldn’t be so hard, I mean,” Lunet paused in her steps and began to laugh, each breath snorting out of her perfect nose, “it’s not like you’re sleeping with the King or anything like that.”

Reiss skidded in the ground, her boot missing a divot and nearly causing her to face plant. She kept her focus downward, not able to meet the suddenly piercing gaze of Lunet.

“No, no, no, Rat. Do not tell me you are fucking the King of Ferelden.”

“Lune...” Reiss began, trying to wave the rising burn of shame away in a syllable but Lunet shrieked.

“Maker’s sake, you fucking are! Of course, how did I miss it? He was sure quick as shit to give chase after your little screaming match in the ballroom. And then you two spent all that time outside ‘talking.’"

“It isn’t...” Reiss glared, her feet coming to a standstill while Lunet kept sweeping back and forth across the road. “We weren’t even anything then. He was being kind.”

“But you are now. You’re something with-with him! With the King of Ferelden. For fuck’s sake, he’s a shem!”

“And you’re with a dwarf!” Reiss shouted back, her legs beginning to tremble.

“Last I checked the dwarves didn’t chase us all from our homes, round us up into the shitholes they call alienages, and on occasion murder half of us as something to do for Satinalia. Shems, remember. By the ballsack on the Maker, you’ve already been down this road before!”

“He’s nothing like Ethan!” Reiss’ voice cracked, the anger filling her marrow like hot lead. She was frozen in spot, but feeling more and more invulnerable with each verbal attack from what she thought was her closest friend and best ally.

“How do you know that? How do you know all shems ain’t the same? Cause they are. You didn’t grow up near ’em, don’t know,” Lunet jabbed a finger in the air as if she kept making a salient point instead of letting her internal hatred show.

“I grew up with nothing but humans, I know the depths they can reach. You’re not imparting some great ancient elven wisdom upon me oh alienage knife-ear,” Reiss hissed, lashing forward to get into Lunet’s face.

“Really? Cause you’re always the one going on about how we should be nice and understanding as they butcher us in the streets,” Lunet mocked, curtseying with her words.

“I never...”

“Or what? Do you think you’re like Orlais’ official whore? Get just good enough in bed and maybe you can steer the man to fight for elven rights. Because that’s so how it works, Rat.”

Dread and pain rolled up Reiss’ gut, her face flinching as her once best friend all but called her a whore. That wasn’t it at all. “You don’t understand, you won’t even listen,” she tried, attempting to steer Lunet back to her side.

“I know he’s married. How’s that gonna work out in your little love story?”

“You’re married!” Reiss threw back at her.

“Right, to a pig fucking arsehole that I never gave two craps about. I don’t see that shitallope ever. How are you gonna deal with sitting down to breakfast with his wife glaring right across from you? Or has he already convinced you that he’ll ditch the Queen for the knife-ear that’s already sucking him off?”

Her fists squeezed together, the knuckles popping out of her flesh. Both screamed at Reiss to let them smack Lunet across her pretty and perfect nose, but instead she shook them at the air and screamed, “Stop it! Stop doing this! Why are you doing this?!”

“Because I’m trying to get through that thick, always certain she’s right skull how royally fucked up this is,” Lunet reached over to try and tap into Reiss’ head in an almost playful manner but she jumped back. A fist swung near Lunet, which she was quick enough to dodge. “Is that how it’s gonna be?”

“You’re the one being unreasonable. You won’t even listen,” Reiss gasped.

“What’s there to say? You’re screwing a married human who also pays you. Is that why your salary’s so high? He expected some extra work put in after dark?”

“Fuck you!” Reiss screamed, her face bright red and spittle flying from her mouth. Cracking, she shouted the curse a few more times, not caring what Andraste, or the Maker, or anyone else thought. Not even Lunet’s opinion mattered. “You don’t understand! You won’t even listen! You just want to stick me into your play house to dance about like a puppet to your whims!”

“Is that what you think?” Lunet slid away from her and glanced up at the sky. “Shit, you’re more gone than I thought.”

“You don’t know him.”

“Maybe not, but I know shems. He’s gonna chew you up and spit you out when he’s tired, or bored, or something better comes along. It’s how they work, how they all do.” Lunet shook her head madly before squaring her shoulders. Jamming on her helmet, she began to walk down the road towards Denerim. Reiss watched her, a sneer stretching her face to the breaking point while Lunet continued her set march back to the same guardhouse they used to share. Why didn’t she understand? Why couldn’t she just be happy for her for once? He was different, Reiss knew it in her gut.

A good thirty feet away, Lunet turned back to Reiss clinging tight to her horses reins to shout, “We’re not people to them, we’re little trinkets they collect on their shelves. You’re gonna learn it the hard way, Rat.”

Cursing under her breath, Reiss mounted onto the horse, yanking so hard on the bridle he whinnied in anger. Barely noticing, Reiss dug into the flank, spurring the horse into a frenzied gallop. Pounding down the lane, she left Lunet in a literal cloud of dust while tears of anger burned in Reiss’ eyes.

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