Chapter 36: Fire
“Milord,” a man bowed so low to the ground his forehead brushed across it, “I beseech you for an answer to my conundrum.”
The King surprisingly sat in his throne, some of the court milling about while Reiss stood guard near the big chair. Alistair cast a quick eye to her and she smiled at the attention. “I believe,” the King spoke to the man dressed simply and now flat out laying upon the floor, “that the answer to your problem is the...left passageway.”
Beatrice softly coughed beside him.
“Right passageway?” he tried again.
Now it was Karelle who stomped a foot and rocked back and forth on her feet.
“Bloody hell, what other doors are there? You go left, you go right, either way there’s always monsters down them,” Alistair complained while picking at a small red stain upon his cuffs courtesy of a day with his daughter attempting to make jam. Reiss was uncertain where it all sloshed down her armor, and poor Brunt bore the, well, his namesake of it across his face and hair. True to his nature, he said not a word while scooping the squealing girl up to her room for a much needed bath even while scarlet jelly wobbled on the top of his head.
Shaking off her memories, Reiss focused back on Beatrice calmly finishing off a knot in her embroidery. “It’s a riddle, dear husband.”
Alistair puckered his face at that, “I hate those even more than giant spiders. Don’t tell me, you’re actually the day, or time, or lost youth, or a goat. There should be more riddles with goats in them.”
“Ah...” the entertainer lifted up from his nap-bow and yanked off the field workers hat to worry it in his fingers. Reiss had to give him the costume was close to accurate, even with patches sewn up and down the worn joints, but the pale face couldn’t hide a lack of tan. He was a man who never set foot in the sun. “I’m afraid I don’t know any with goats in them.”
“See, we are seriously lacking in goat entertainment,” Alistair continued as if anyone was listening to him.
Karelle unearthed a small poster off her side desk and said, “There’s a performing goat group, they do tricks and what not. Leap through fire, jump on people. Supposed to be funny.”
“Not that, well, actually that’s not a bad idea for whatever state function we have next. In particular if the Orlesians are showing up,” Alistair smiled his ornery twist in the direction of the ambassador. She, in turn, paid it no attention. He’d told Reiss that with Harding on the true tail of the assassins Cherie went from being almost amenable to a total snake in record time. She wondered how he could put up with it all, but he’d shrugged and then claimed it was easier to face the challenges of the crown knowing at the end of the day he had her. It was silly, but it made her smile like an idiot to herself for days past.
Lunet’s dire warning faded away to nothing more than a whisper on the cold wind. Her life was good, she had a future working with the guards, the potential of a real home, and -- Maker help her -- the care and attention from a man who seemed excited to give it. It wasn’t perfect, but what in her life ever was?
“Sire, should I abandon this riddle or are you going to guess it?” the entertainer asked. He plopped his hat back on, but in the process smeared the thick red grease paint off his forehead. The once strong diamond pattern now looked more like a strawberry swirl.
Alistair waved his hand and then bounced up and down in his chair, “I don’t know. Do whatever you want. I wish Ghaleb was here, that man was ace at puzzles, riddles, that stupid color box that you twist and turn until you want to throw it against the wall.”
“He caught you painting the sides you couldn’t get to line up,” Karelle said from her side. She rarely looked up from her work, but managed to stay focused on the King’s words in the off chance they were important.
“What?” Alistair shrugged, “How else is it supposed to work? I thought I was being rather clever.”
“By cheating,” Karelle finished for him.
“It’s all in your perspective,” he smiled, and for a moment his eyes shifted over to Beatrice. Reiss felt uncomfortable at the bare fact hanging in the air, but the Queen didn’t glare at him for dragging his infidelities below her nose, only lifted up her work and smiled back. Her attentions broke from her husband to canvas the various clerics stewing away in the throne room. They’d wanted to hold court in the garden, but when the impenetrable heat beat down upon everyone’s bones regardless of age, they all raced to the cooler shadows trapped inside stone walls.
“Sire?” the entertainer tried again, obviously needing an answer.
Alistair imparted his wisdom, “Yes, fine, what are you? Or what should you do?”
Sticking his hat on tighter, the entertainer and occasional poet in his downtime (not that it was paying the bills at the moment) banged a walking stick down on the stones and in a booming voice commanded, “I am the land, fallow and empty, tilled and broken by uncaring hands. I waste all who cross it, desiccating their flesh like tanned leather until naught but bones remain.”
“And the only way to fix the problem is...?” Alistair continued, rolling his hand in the air.
“To die,” the man honed in on the King. “To give back what was taken, to enrich the soil. That from which came the food that built a body, in death will feast the worms living inside it.”
“Well,” Alistair slapped his hands on his knees, the court falling silent at the man daring to tell their King to die. “That took an unexpected and morbid turn. Not bad, good effort with the creepy bits, but might want to tone down on all the death and dying parts. Startles the locals.”
“It was very popular post-Blight,” the entertainer rushed to defend his creation.
“Yeah, imagine that,” the King rubbed the back of his neck and tried to shake off the lingering hand of death slicing through the air. It didn’t help that with so many people crowded into the room, the hot air threatened to overwhelm any and all. Even Reiss had to take the occasional sip of water for fear she’d pass out on her feet. Throw in the perfumes and holy oils clinging to the air, and she couldn’t shake off the idea that this was a holy tomb about to be sealed off and lit aflame to cleanse the bodies lain inside.
“How about you try juggling instead?” Alistair suggested to the man. Smiling, the entertainer unearthed a pair of balls stashed in his pockets and began to rotate them in the air. That drew a few gasps and claps from the crowds, while the King used the distraction to wave Reiss over.
“Yes, Ser?” she asked, dropping to a knee beside his chair to look into his eye.
“Is there any chance I have the authority to kick everyone out of court and take a nap?”
“Why are you asking me?” she stumbled, doing her best to not get lost in his eyes.
“Because I know all the handlers will say no, and I was hoping...” it was subtle, but in seeming to grip onto the arm of his chair, his fingers glanced across hers, “you’d join me.”
“I...uh,” her throat dried from the pressing heat, Reiss trying to not look over at the Queen who had to overhear this. “Ser, it’s...”
She was saved by a horn blargling in the doorway. It was difficult to describe how the horns of Ferelden sounded. Most others in thedas were of the one or two note bellow like an ox about to charge, but here it was more like a frog caught in a drain pipe. A very angry frog growing more so at its being interrupted from attempting to mate. Sliding to her feet, Reiss moved away as a messenger raced around the clumps of crowds awed by the juggler.
“Sire,” the messenger didn’t drop to a knee or even bow before the throne. She wasn’t wearing the obligatory poofy hat the rest of them wore, this one all in traveling leathers. A serious messenger. “I have news.”
Alistair sat up higher in his chair, his eyes darting over the woman gasping for breath. She unraveled a sheet of parchment wadded up in her fist, but didn’t bother to read it. “What is it?” he prompted.
“It’s Jader, Sir. It’s burning.”
Atisha! Reiss doubled her grip to the sword on her hip, as if that would give her some strength.
“Burning how? What happened?”
Reiss felt his eyes dart over to her once, but she couldn’t look over, couldn’t move. Her lungs were being compressed down to a solitary breath, unreachable air circling around her strangled body as she watched the messenger hobble to the King and hand him her note even while speaking.
“They say it was an elven riot, started in the night so it caught them unaware. Despite a lack of evidence, the blame’s been put upon the alienage. With summer’s dry season the fire’s been going for two days. Numerous deaths, too many to count now, lost almost half the east side of town.”
“Sweet Maker,” Alistair gasped. Even the Queen beside him dropped her work onto her lap and began to silently pray. Reiss was broken, her mind fracturing away from what had been the happy party. On one edge of her vision it was a typical day for those in the court, with the general amount of merriment and wonder. Inside her she felt as if a glass bottle shattered in her stomach, every jagged shard shredding through her innards as it reached upward to gouge apart her brain.
“The Divine has requested aid from Ferelden, due to the closeness of the town to our border,” the messenger continued, only focusing on her King. She said the words with urgency but devoid of any pain. The deaths were nameless to her, just bodies stacking up in the street void of faces or...family.
“Divine Victoria? Why isn’t Celene coming to us first?”
“It apparently began in the chantry,” the messenger said with a nod as the shrapnel barely contained inside Reiss exploded against her mind. Her vision went nearly black and pain seared behind her eyes as she stumbled forward, willing away the scream echoing in her throat but unable to burst free.
No, no, no.
Through a piercing whine circling the room, Reiss heard Alistair tell the messenger to send all the aid they could. She tried to focus on his voice, but everything began to wash away like blood drifting back and forth on the shore. It never vanished the way it was supposed to, crimson blooming with the foam of the waves, always coming back to stain the sands because it couldn’t be scrubbed, wouldn’t be forgotten.
Scampering away on her burning legs, Reiss turned towards the side door and ran headlong through it. Her hand snagged upon the wood, knocking back her wrist at an odd angle, but the pain felt good. The throbbing forced her away from the real agony stampeding up her throat and begging to be let free. She couldn’t, not in front of so many people.
Barely able to see through the veil of tears begging to fall, Reiss bashed her shoulder against the stone walls like a bouncing ball until whatever force drove her legs flooded away like the tide. Tumbling to a knee, the cork on her throat broke free and a scream shredded her vocal chords.
No! Damn her!
She shouldn’t have been there, not where they could find her, hurt her, hate her. Atisha...
Reiss glanced up to find her fist pounded against the wall, blood trickling out of the rivets above her knuckles as they impacted against the steel of her gauntlet. It should hurt; the seething, bone shearing kind of pain that most soldiers tried to avoid. But there was nothing, her heart dead in her chest. It burned to a crisp in her fury and then burst to ash. Just like Jader, just like...
She heard his voice echoing down the empty corridor. Struggling to get to her feet, she began to apologize for her display, when Alistair wrapped his arms tight and tugged her face to his chest. That broke her anew, tears falling to bury her anger in crushing despair. Gripping tight to him, Reiss bawled like an infant against the royal finery worth more than her life.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered to her, his fingers rubbing calming circles against her back.
This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be looking to him for comfort. He was King, and she was... Maker, take Him and His Bride, she didn’t care. Curling even tighter, Reiss felt her legs wobbling below her. Alistair was quick to pull more of her weight to him, his strong arms propping her up as her body gave in. It wanted to house her spirit about as much as she wanted to keep suffering in this world.
“I’m here, and...I wish I knew what to say,” Alistair whispered, his lips pressing into her forehead from how tightly he hugged her.
“What...?” the words knocked against her ragged throat, but when she tried to voice it again only tears answered.
He kissed her again, tugging her upward on her wobbly feet, “They don’t know anything more. They don’t even know what started the fires.”
“I do,” Reiss hissed. She’d warned Atisha, told her of all the rumors stirring up anti-elf sentiment across thedas. People were angry and needed to hurt someone, anyone, but did her sister care? No, she was following the Maker’s call and knew He’d protect her. Damn it! Damn Him for giving so many false hope!
“Don’t tell me it’ll be all right,” she sneered, not mad at him but needing her anger if only to feel something.
“I won’t,” he said. “Ferelden has an outpost near there, and a fort a days march away. Help will reach them as soon as they can.”
“And then word of survivors.” Reiss dare not hope for Atisha’s survival. Pinning so much of her sanity upon that dream while knowing the likelihood that it’d be stomped from her body would end her. Elves didn’t survive disasters, their bodies built the levies to hold back floods. Hope for a happy ending was idiotic. But she begged the Maker to not be so cruel as to let them suffer. Please.
Andraste take her, but let it have been quick.
“You’re not alone,” Alistair said. “I’m here.”
But she was. No other elves in the guards, barely any in the City Watch -- certainly not enough to make any difference. She was cutoff from her people and...some of it was her own doing. Reiss’ thoughts trailed back to Lunet causing a fresh burr to land into her stomach. She ached to tell her friend, to drink with her until Reiss passed out with a bloated liver, but Lunet hated her now. All she had was him. He came running for her, comforted her despite leaving a room full of his people behind. It was the kindest thing anyone had done for her, but she couldn’t shake the thought rattling around in her head. Reiss gave up everything for one man. Would that be enough?
Blubbering for too many losses to count, Reiss buried her face back into his shoulder. Alistair began to sway softly with her, their bodies moving through the funeral dirge while he butted his chin into her hair. “I’m so sorry,” he kept whispering as if he could erase what happened, as if he could take away all the fear and hatred with those three words. There was no magic in thedas that could make a person stop hating like that. It was bone in bred.
“Your Majesty, we still have other matters to discuss about...” Karelle skidded to a halt as she slowly eyed up the King clinging to the sobbing guardswoman.
He didn’t release Reiss, only glanced over at Karelle and in his least guilty voice said, “She knows someone in Jader.”
“I see,” Karelle stretched out the spacing between those two words enough to hint that she knew more was going on. “Shall I escort her to her quarters then fetch you a different bodyguard in the interim?”
“No,” Alistair’s chin rotated upon her head as he shook his. “Give us a few more minutes, I can handle it.”
“As you say, your Majesty,” Karelle dipped down and began to slide out.
“Oh, Karelle, can you send for Harding? I need to hear everything she knows about Jader.”
“Of course, your Highness,” the frosty tone of the Chamberlain drifted away as she had real business to work through. Keeping her eyes upon the pair of them for longer than was necessary, Karelle backed out of the corridor leaving them alone.
Reiss should be blushing at being caught in such a compromising position, but her cheeks were already burning from her never ending tears. She should be angry at herself for failing to maintain the decorum she insisted upon but her mind was numb -- all emotion, all thought drained from her. All she could focus on was the pair of arms supporting her.
“I’m sorry, I...”
“It’s okay,” Alistair whispered, “it’s not a big deal. And if anyone asks, I’ll tell ’em the truth.”
“Right,” Reiss sighed. The truth that the King of Ferelden is such a kind soul he’ll leap to the rescue of wailing women in his employ at the drop of a hat. Nothing untoward going on between them, not at all. The entire palace will all know before morning.
“Reiss, do you want to head up to your room?”
She didn’t want to do anything, not now, maybe not ever. Reiss tripped back to her survival instincts, a year of no wants, only needs. Flea bitten skin, salt stung eyes, eternal hunger for a year all to keep her siblings alive and now some knife-ear hating bastard might have taken her sister away forever. Damn them all!
“I should...” she released her hold on the King who had a country to return to. Alistair followed suit, but before she slipped away, he cupped his hands against her cheeks. With his thumbs, he softly wiped at her tears while those sweet brown eyes stared into her soul.
“I can go with you,” he offered.
She wanted him to, to sit beside her for the entire day while she bawled her eyes out, but that wasn’t an option. “No, I...I’d prefer to be alone.”
“Okay,” he nodded. His face bothered her, the lines wrong, the cheeks flat and off. Everything was off.
Smashing her gauntlet against her nose, Reiss tried to wipe up most of the snot while she limped away from him. Alistair seemed to regretfully let her go as he remained rooted in place watching her step down the corridor. Glancing back over her shoulder, it struck her what was wrong. His face, there was no smile to it, no light. She’d never seen him frown this deeply for so long before.
“I’ll check on you later, all right?” he called to her. By the shift in the sun, she could see the number she did to his doublet -- water streaks pooling upon the shoulder.
Reiss waved at him, putting on the last vestiges of her armored face before it would all collapse at her feet. Barely aware of where she was walking, Reiss staggered her way to her room to collapse onto her rickety bed and cry herself to sleep.