Chapter 34: Math of the Stars
She didn’t realize she fully worried the drawstring out of her tunic until it flopped onto her lap. Growling at the idiocy of having to spend the time stuffing it back into the loops tomorrow, Reiss focused all her anger upon it instead of the gloom hanging over her head. She acted pleased but aloof while delivering the good news to Harding, doing her damnedest to not think anything about how Lunet was going to spill the beans the first chance she had to her girlfriend. Or how her once good friend would convince Harding of her same thoughts. Lune had the kind of charm that would bowl a person over to her side whether they wanted to be there or not.
Freed of the armor, Reiss should feel lighter and able to breathe, but a weight pressed upon her chest that had nothing to do with pounds of steel anchored to her. How dare she! How dare she stomp around assuming things about Reiss’ life, a life she barely knew anything about. They never even spoke about...okay, that was all on Reiss because she’d been putting her all into this job. Into this job that was now inexplicably tied to her heart.
Rocking back and forth on her feet, her ass barely sunk into the waning mattress. It was plummeting deeper to the floor with each night, not used to two people spending so much vigorous time on it. What was she doing? This wasn’t some fairytale where the prince spots the hardworking and kind woman in the city dregs and plucks her out of the gutter to wear frilly dresses and take tea with Dukes for the rest of her life. Reiss wasn’t a fan of ruffles anyway, her torso too long to support the wide hip trend. It made her look like a stick jammed onto the top of a cupcake.
She wasn’t beautiful enough to capture a King’s attentions. All her knowledge amounted to was serving in the lower barracks in an army, how to do various menial labors, and the collective readings of the most mind rotting books produced in thedas -- things royalty couldn’t give two shits about. Her charm could at best be compared to a mabari leaping onto a table in the middle of dinner, snatching up a roast, and giving chase out the door. Chapped skin, pockmarks courtesy of childhood illnesses left to run their courses, bathed regularly in the perfume of sweat and blood, they were all things that had no chance of keeping a noble man’s notice for longer than...than what? A few weeks? A month? Two?
Maker take Lunet for putting these thoughts in her head! She’d been so certain with Alistair, the man, but add in the weight of the crown and Reiss felt herself buckling in an instant. When she’d slipped down to the armory to strip the uniform off, she left him at his desk, reading through one of the stack of private letters he received. In retrospect, most likely from the Hero of Ferelden. There was an educated, beautiful, and charming woman who also happened to save the entire world and even she couldn’t keep a hold of him. What chance in thedas did Reiss have?
Glancing up at her flower bouquet, her eyes gazed past it to the woman staring back at her. The filthy mirror didn’t give much away, but she could see the marks of the road clinging to her cheek. Licking her finger, Reiss tried to rub the dust away but only managed to smear it around. She could rise and attempt to properly wash it off, but she feared standing while waiting in anticipation for the knock on her door. Any mood she felt was long obliterated by Lunet, Reiss wanting to bury herself under her covers and read the trashiest tomes she had to forget, but how would he respond? Would he be upset if she declined? Could she?
That fear hovered over her head like a dark wraith, tendrils snapping out of the cloak to drag her frown deeper. If it was just Alistair...but it wasn’t. It would never be. Boss and monarch in one. What have you done to yourself, Rat? Reiss groaned, her face plummeting into her lap, fingers digging into her forehead.
A gentle knocking against their shared door crashed through her haze and she sat up fast. Glancing once at the betraying mirror, Reiss tried to wipe the pain out of her eyes and forced on a smile. “Come in,” she called. She never locked the door.
It rattled open and Alistair stood there with a bright grin on his face and a small spray of rosemary in his fingers. “Sorry,” he said gesturing to the herb on offer, “they were low on flowers today, but I thought it might make your room smell better. Like roast pork.” Chuckling at his own joke, he dropped the herb into her water glass. Reiss stood up, uncertain what was to happen. Should she say something? But, that wasn’t what mistresses were for. They buoyed the beleaguered monarch, they didn’t weigh one down with their own problems.
After carefully arranging the rosemary to fall in with the rest of the flowers, he turned and wrapped his hand around one of hers. Reiss looked up into his eyes and her heart skipped from the enraptured way he stared at her. Absently, his thumb rubbed back and forth over her hand as he whispered, “Have I told you how pretty you are?”
“A few times,” she blushed, her shot dead libido lifting one hand out of its grave.
Alistair tugged her towards him and she scooted forward, her hands wrapping around his neck while he closed off the hug on her waist. Pressing his cheek to her forehead, he mumbled, “But what about today? Because you’re looking exceptionally pretty today.”
“What makes it so different?” She tried to not stew on his words. He felt warm against her, his body locking tight to hers, but she couldn’t shake the burrs of doubt clinging to her skin.
“How about you solving the great mystery of the squiggly lines and putting Harding and the rest of her merry band of stabby spies on the trail to solving this?” Alistair leaned back to stare into Reiss’ eyes but she had trouble lifting her head. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, of course,” she swallowed, nodding her head.
“You forgot to include the dreaded fine in there so I know something’s really not fine.”
“I...” Reiss tugged herself tighter to him to burrow her cheek against his neck as if she could find strength there. “I’m rather tired today, from all the traveling and was hoping, I’m not certain if...”
“If?” he chuckled, totally lost. Suddenly the silly laughter broke into gasping awkwardness. She could feel the blush burning up his neck as he rocked back and forth with her. “Oh, that if. That’s all right. Good, I mean. I really like to if with you, but, you know, sometimes one has to take days off for fear of uh... Don’t want to strain any muscles.”
She couldn’t help herself as he waddled around admitting that she had nothing to fear. Laughing at the panic in his voice, Reiss broke from her hiding place to kiss him. As he pressed those surprisingly soft lips against hers, a wave of calm washed against her wall of anxiety. It didn’t tear it down, but it smoothed it out, slowly wearing away at the foundation. Why did she fear he’d press her? Reiss gulped at the thought. She knew why and she had to stop thinking all shems were the same.
Slipping away from the kiss, Reiss folded her body against his and felt a prod through his trousers. Alistair blushed brighter and tried to work his hips back, “I swear I have no control over that thing.”
“So I’m learning,” she smiled, happily curling back into his arms.
He was quick to lock both back into place, the man she was supposed to guard forming a blockade around her. Protecting her. Or was it soothing her? To Reiss it was one in the same most of the time. The jabbing bit of him pressed against her stomach, but she was polite enough to ignore it in favor of the lure of his serene presence.
“There was something I wanted to show you, if you’re not too tired, I mean,” Alistair said suddenly.
“Of course,” she staggered out of his arms, uncertain what he was about to produce. Instead of guiding her to the bed, he gripped onto her hand and tugged her into his rooms. Past the graveyard of unwanted furniture, Reiss asked, “Where are we going?” Her heart beat faster at the idea he was about to tug her into his bedroom, both terrified and fascinated with the idea, but Alistair turned her towards the small balcony. The curtains remained closed, under orders of the Commander who feared another attack, and the King who despised the glare one got in the early morning from the summer sun.
Throwing open the door, he dropped Reiss’ hand and tugged the curtain back. “After you, Ser Reiss,” he smiled while bowing his head.
Uncertain, Reiss stepped gingerly out onto the balcony. It wasn’t a grand one by any means, little more than an extra set of stone jutting off the wall with a railing put up to keep royalty from accidentally killing itself. A chair always sat outside, worn from various Kings of Ferelden doing their best to escape duties on their secret veranda for a few hours. Beside it, someone set up a small table with a bottle and two glasses.
She eyed it up cautiously, then turned back to the man stepping out to join her. Closing the door, Alistair scooted a hand around the small of her back and held her near. “It’s to celebrate.”
“Your big break in the assassins, tracking ’em to their lair and fighting off giant bats,” he pretended to swing a sword through the air while Reiss nodded. He probably read her sigh at being for his elaborating upon her story, but Reiss felt the surge of Lunet’s vengeful ghost rising up. The cynical part of her brain wondered if this wasn’t all some plan to get her drunk and have his way... No, no, stop that.
Pointing at the bottle sitting in the near dark, she said, “Please don’t tell me that’s koomtra.”
“Sadly no, regular old champagne. It was the only thing I could sneak out of the cellar before the wine steward turned around the corner to catch me.”
Reiss paused in inspecting the bottle to glance over, “You set this up?”
“Course, it’s not that hard. Get bottle, make certain there are two glasses and...I forgot a wine opener,” his exuberant face drained instantly while he began to curse himself under his breath.
“It’s okay,” Reiss said. Yanking at the dagger in her bun, her hair collapsed under its own weight. Alistair was quick to part his fingers through it, tucking most back behind her shoulder while Reiss jabbed the tip of the blade into the cork. “The trick is to slowly work it up. Here,” she handed him the bottom of the bottle to hold so she could winnow her hands back and forth, carefully dragging the dagger and impaled cork up against the pressure of the bottle. She had to pause a few times, inching her face close to make certain she wasn’t about to split the cork in twain when finally a pop reverberated out the neck and she emerged victorious.
Alistair clapped his hand against the bottle, “How did you learn how to do that?”
“Oh, easy,” she yanked off the cork and laid her dagger upon the table. “No right thinking noble lets elves anywhere near bottle openers, so when we’re taking our Satinalia bonus as it were, we’d have to get creative. I knew one that would impale a tiny hole into the cork. He’d pour enough out for a glass and somehow seal it over with a wax that matched the color. The employer wondered if he was going mad as the prized wine kept slowly vanishing.”
“Did you tell him it was evaporation?” Alistair laughed, already filling one of the glasses.
Accepting it, Reiss took a small sip and found it surprisingly crisp and light on her tongue. Blonder than most wines she rarely got her hands on, the bubbles made her snicker as they burst in her mouth. “I believe we convinced him that rats were somehow stealing his wine. He had us putting out traps for days.”
“Rats, oh Maker,” he found the grunts screwing over the man in charge hilarious. Either he forgot that he was currently the man in charge of all, or wished he could return to being the grunt. “Here,” he extended his glass and Reiss paused in drinking to hold hers up. “To you going beyond your duties and finding those no good, cowardly assassins in their den.”
She clinked the glasses together, but paused before drinking, “I didn’t exactly find them, only hints and it’s not as if they’ve been finished off.”
Alistair waved a hand through the air, “Not the point. Take the little victories when you can. Maybe I’ve been stuck at this for too long, but I’ll all but insist Karelle throw a party when I can get two people to agree to something.” Placing his glass down on the table, he cupped both hands around Reiss and stared into her eyes.
By the starlight, she could only see a hint of his skin and the shine of his teeth as he smiled for her. “We’ll get them, because of you.”
“And then?” She hadn’t expected this job to last forever, but she didn’t want to give it up so soon.
“Then you get fitted for a proper royal guard uniform. Tailor made, no more shoving batting into the crooks so it fits.”
“You noticed?” she started.
“Some of it was molting out of your elbow before. Looked like winter came early in your wake.”
“I...” she felt a stupid blush rising on her cheeks at being caught, but he scooped her tighter to him and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
“We used to do that during the blight, taking whatever armor scraps we could find and then hammering them or padding them to fit. Make due and all. I looked like a right twat running into battle with my shins exposed after having to suffer a set designed for dwarves.”
A giggle escaped from Reiss like the bubbles popping in her glass at not only the image, but the way he waggled his eyebrows to enforce it. Turning to her drink, she paused and the realization struck her that Alistair was champagne. Bright, bubbly, an effervescent self that built up so slowly it wasn’t until you truly got to know him you saw the full body within. Or realized how much it clung to your mind and soul. Shaking her head at the idiotic metaphor, Reiss sighed.
That snagged his attention away from the stars, Alistair’s mouth whispering against hers, “Getting tired?”
Placing down her empty glass, she ran her palm against those scraggly cheek hairs and guided him, “Not yet.” With a kiss as sweet as the champagne swirling in her system, Reiss felt another wave knock against her concerns. She wanted him, what did it matter if this couldn’t be permanent? It was fun and he was...not at all what she ever thought possible in a man. His tongue darted into hers, the champagne tasting more earthy in his mouth. Digging her fingers into those shoulders, Reiss couldn’t stop the moan in her throat as they flexed to stone. Maker’s sake, he had to know what that did to her. Probably did it on purpose, in fact.
Roaring out of its grave on stampeding horseback, Reiss’ libido demanded that she pull Alistair back inside. Or just mount him out here, barely anyone was looking. It was he who stepped back, brushing his lips against her forehead as he tugged her tight to him for a hug but no more. He seemed to be taking the tired excuse literally, or wasn’t in the mood to push for more. Reiss tried to not jump to any outlandish conclusions with him, but what little she’d known and seen of men seemed to break down entirely with Alistair. It was the caring that disturbed her most of all.
“Oh look,” he gasped, the hand around her back dislodging to point a finger up into they sky.
Reiss twisted out of his grasp to watch as a white line flitted across the night sky. “A shooting star!” she exclaimed, trying to follow its trail that vanished almost as soon as it appeared.
“I used to wish upon them,” Alistair said.
“Every child did,” she turned an eye to him and got an unexpected bashful smile. While he dipped his head down to stare at his feet, Reiss caught another star dashing in a hurry across the sky. Padding towards the edge, she gripped onto the railing and peered up. A warmth spread up from her bones as his body folded in behind hers, Alistair’s hands locking around her stomach as he dropped his chin onto her shoulder.
“Look, another two,” she exclaimed, pointing to where the stars had been.
His sweet lips pressed to the side of her neck before he joined in staring up at the sky, “Should be a ton more coming soon. One of the scholars, the sky watching one, told me that it was a comet shower tonight. Dozens and dozens of shooting stars all dashing off to wherever they go.”
“Really?” Reiss tried to glance over to see him snuggled behind her. “How can they know that? Magic?”
“No, there’s some way they can tell with numbers and based upon the length of day, or the fall of sand down a cliff. I barely understood it. Seems this one happens regularly,” Alistair began to sway with Reiss in his arms, both their bodies rocking to the rhythm of the sky bursting alive with splendor.
“I didn’t realize one could study about the stars, or predict when they fall,” Reiss stuttered. There were so many mysteries in thedas she didn’t understand, her education stunting at around age eleven or so as work built up. Reading and writing were impressive for a little elven farm girl. Forget math, or medicine, or whatever allowed one to anticipate the stars falling from the heavens.
“You should see when she predicts an eclipse,” Alistair chuckled. “That woman must have been a bard before. For the last one she stood in the middle of the town square, hopped up onto the fountain and shouted ‘Now shall come the hour of darkness!’ And sure enough in that moment the dark spot shifted over the sun, blanketing Ferelden in shadows.”
“What happened?” Reiss gasped.
“People panicked, a few tried to call her the next prophet, but as an entire retinue of enchanters was in town at the time, they all snickered and calmed down the masses until the eclipse passed. It was kinda funny though, I had to give her that. Can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I knew half the magic numbers she does.”
A chill climbed up Reiss’ arm, darting through the thin linen to wrap around her exposed skin. Alistair must have felt it as he tucked in tighter around her, trying to transfer his heat. “You must know much about...I can’t even imagine.”
“What makes you think that?” he chuckled, his chin digging into her skin.
“Well, you’re King. Don’t people teach Kings things like philosophy or...that math of the stars.”
“Not particularly. I learned some things in the templars. There was philosophy. We spent two days debating if shadow puppets were real or if we were the shadows being cast by the puppets. The knight instructor was less than pleased when I pipped up during the discussion with my interpretation of ‘Little Peter Cottontail.’” His hand lifted off her stomach to form the small rabbit, but with no light to cast the shadow it looked as if he was giving a rude gesture to the people in the east.
Reiss cupped both her hands around the little fake rabbit, trying to smooth over the skin while she sighed, “I don’t know anything about this shadow idea.”
“I’m afraid I don’t much either,” Alistair wrapped his hand back around her, tugging Reiss to lean flatter against him. She felt oddly comforted by the move, certain that he’d hold her up. “The way I remember it, all philosophy broke down to was man’s a jerk and would be an animal without the Maker’s interference.”
“But the Maker left us,” Reiss scrunched her face up, regretting starting this conversation. She didn’t stop to think about how much more knowledgeable all of his previous love affairs were until dealing with alchemists talking over her head. The mages were taught from a young age for free because of what they were, knowledge distilled deep into their bones. Reiss knew she wasn’t smart, but she was pretty good at faking it when it was called for. Did Alistair expect the same level of intelligence from her as with all his other...mages?
“Now you see why I’d do shadow puppets on the wall and then get kicked down to the kitchens to scrub the larder with a hairbrush. If there’s sense to be made in all the talking around each other I never found it.”
“I find myself almost envious,” Reiss admitted. “There were no instructors on the farm. You learned enough to make certain no one would screw you over in legal documents and then got back to work. I’m not,” she curled her arms tighter around herself and hugged, “I’m afraid I’m not very clever.”
“Are you kidding? You were able to get the cork out without a second thought, which we’re drinking because you put all the pieces together on the sort of deadly, mostly crappy assassins.”
“But that’s just...” It came easy to her, memories often sticking to her brain like paintings. If she closed her eyes and concentrated she could see it all as if still there before her. It felt like cheating to be praised for something so simple. “It’s nowhere near as impressive as this,” she gasped, extending her hands to the sky overrun with the rapids of stars colliding against the indigo beauty.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I’m a complete idiot and it hasn’t stopped people from looking to me when the shit’s launched out of a catapult.”
Reiss giggled at the idea, her head dipping down as her fingers skimmed against his holding her so tight, so lovingly. She began to speak, when a yawn broke through her words, which infected Alistair. His exhausted breath washed against her skin and he shook his head, “Maker, now I’ll never stop. Good call on the sleepy, exhausted. How are you holding up?”
“Getting more tired, but...” she gazed up at the sky, “this is impossible to leave.”
Alistair turned his head away from her to glance behind and he said, “I’ve got an idea. Hold tight.” Locking his hands around her, Alistair lifted Reiss up off the ground. She felt the giggle begin first, while another part of her worried she was far too large for him to carry her around. He seemed unaware of her concerns, his arms rock solid as he inched himself backwards. Reiss watched the railing fading away, until the back of her leg met his knee and in one quick movement, he sat them both down into the King’s balcony chair. Alistair leaned back in it, while Reiss perched upon his knee.
“Am I?” she glanced back at him to see a silly smile and nothing more, “Am I hurting you?”
“What? No. That leg’s been dead since the blight,” he chuckled before knocking a hand into it. Reiss’ weight bobbed from the move when Alistair winced, the pain reaching him. “Okay, maybe not as dead as I remember.” Abandoning his show of bravado, he wrapped his hands around her stomach and tugged Reiss further into his lap. She gladly gave in, resting her head back against his chest. “I’m being a stubborn bastard right now because...I don’t want to stop holding you yet.”
Turning away from the night’s sky, Reiss stared into his umber eyes nearly black without proper torchlight to highlight them. Ruffling up the scruff along his chin, Reiss drew him away from the stars to her so she could kiss him with a purity she didn’t think possible. Sweet she expected from the man, light hearted and even she dare think kind, but it was his unwavering need to prop her up that kept surprising Reiss. Drinking deep from the waters she’d never thought possible, she was certain that all of Lunet’s fears were beyond foolish. Alistair was never that kind of man.
Slipping away from his lips, she smiled, “I don’t want to stop holding you either.” Wrapping her hands around his neck, Reiss nuzzled against his taut skin. Comfort. In all her life, she feared she’d never again know that feeling. She’d lived her life upon the tip of a pin, waiting with fear for when her newest job would dry up, wondering where she’d find her next bed, or terrified of what mood she could expect from Ethan. But here, with this man who shouldn’t work at all, she felt safe for the first time since the blight took it all away.
Cuddling deeper into his arms, Reiss turned to watch the night sky playing to the Maker’s tune.