Guarded Love

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Chapter 38: The Letter

The next few days both flew by as well as crawled. True to her word, Reiss served for as long as the King required her -- Alistair maintaining his usual work throughout the castle and risking the occasional trip to Denerim proper. That gave Reiss a new challenge as she’d have to scout ahead to make certain that no one too suspicious was lurking around the perimeter. They feared that with Harding on the case, the assassins might get spooked into trying something even more daring than before, but also for the sake of cover it was vital the King act like, well, himself.

Today’s challenge away from the bureaucracy and sitting quietly in a room while people yelled at him involved visiting a small woodworking shop and forge. It was a curious husband and wife team up, the woman stripped to nothing but an undershirt and leggings while she stoked the coals and the man with fancy spectacles perched upon his nose was chiseling a tiny fleck off a hunk of wood. When Reiss officially marched in, they glanced up from their work a moment but neither moved to greet her.

They saw the ears first.

She’d been getting through the days by ignoring what happened, trying to forget that she was even an elf, but Ferelden itself did everything in its power to remind her this wasn’t her world. Coughing into her fist, she stood up tall and exclaimed, “I come on behalf of the King, and if you don’t drop your tools now we’re going to have an issue.”

The threat, while severely limited by her lack of power, was enough to startle them to attention as Alistair strolled in. A few of the easier handlers trailed him, always asking questions because the advisors seemed to fear leaving the man truly alone for long.

“Your Majesty,” the pair of crafters bowed, rushing towards him.

“Hi,” Alistair waved in his disarming way, a smile full on his face from being free of the confines of the palace. There was no concern for his wellbeing in his movements, but for a brief moment he glanced over at Reiss. She shrugged a shoulder, having nothing nefarious to report, and he focused fully on the pair. “So, I heard from Karelle that you’re some of the best woodworker & blacksmith teams in town.”

“We’d be the only one in Denerim,” the blacksmith said while running her bare forearm against her sweaty forehead.

“That narrowed my choices a bit as well,” Alistair was quick to rebound.

“What my wife means is we are delighted to have the royal house showing an interest in our wares,” the woodworker raced to cover for the unimpressed woman. “Whatever the crown requires we will be happy to provide.”

“Assuming it’s possible,” she snorted, very unimpressed with the King’s long shadow or well aware of Alistair’s peculiarities.

“It’s not anything fancy,” Alistair said, his eyes dancing from one to the other. “I know it’s a bit early, but I’m thinking of a Satinalia gift for Spud.”

“A, er, potato?” the man stared at his wife, a sign of real concern flitting across his face. He feared the King was truly mad after all.

Laughing, Alistair shook his hair, “No, that’s...I mean my daughter. Seems one of her cousins has those ridey horses on the springs and Sp-- the princess adores the damn thing. Every day in and out about the magical ridey bounce horse.”

“Of course, Sire,” the woodworker spoke for his wife who was already turning away to return to her forge. She had no interest in the conversation and Reiss had to say she felt the same. “It should be no problem, though I believe some of the local toy shops would have one in, uh...” visions of all the coin the man was about to talk out of his pocket flashed through his mind.

“Yeah, I know that,” Alistair explained, “but I was thinking of something other than a horse.”

That caught the woodcarver’s attention, “Such as...?”

“Here,” Alistair waved his royal hand at one of the clerks trailing him. A slip of paper passed over, which he unrolled on the desk, “I drew a basic idea.”

“And was kind enough to label the drawings as well,” the woodworker commented while pointing at the drawing. “Is that fire?”

While the two of them knocked their heads together in thought, Reiss paced back in forth in the shop. It seemed to be split right down the middle to highlight the two crafts -- one half was all logs, sanded and varnished to a glossy finish while the other rough stone to protect the fires of the forge. It was a wonder none of the sparks ever leapt to the wooden side, but maybe that’d be grounds for divorce should it occur.

Unable to stand still, Reiss picked at the horseshoes nailed to the wall. Most were inelegant and designed for function but a few bore filagree and some even had gold laid into them. Hopefully, they were never nailed to a horse’s hoof but people with more coin than they knew what to do with tended to find strange ways to burn it off. Not by feeding the hungry or clothing the freezing, that would be foolish, but golden horseshoes that’s the real answer to solving life’s problems.

That was one of Atisha’s favorite topics of conversation right after the amazing things Andraste did, and how great the Maker is. If the wealth was merely shared equally somehow everyone would be happy. Reiss rather doubted it was that easy, seeing as how people had a habit of being selfish bastards any chance they could, but Atisha was so damn certain in her belief. That was her sister; if it required a leap of faith, she’d cling to it with all the power in her body even when everyone else trudged on home because supper wasn’t going to make itself.

Lorace used to joke that when Atisha fell ill the virus boiled her brains like pudding, pushing her to accept the tripe of the chantry without question. Reiss would scold him, as much as she thought he’d bother to read, but silently suspected he might have been right. Something in her nearly dying from a plague the chantry didn’t have the compassion to care about or minister too, pushed Atisha right into Andraste’s arms. Which always struck Reiss as funny seeing as how it was actually an apostate that saved her life and not the Bride of the Maker.

Things were supposed to be getting better. The new Divine threw open the chantry doors, invited all she could to join in. When at first no one took her up on the offer, the humans were content at the message with no intent, but as elves began to trickle in to places previously unavailable to them the fires burned hot. Why did everyone get so upset? Why didn’t everyone hold hands and sing happy songs together? Reiss knew, but dear, sweet Atisha -- Maker save her, but she believed in the good of people. Truly, fervently thought that if she gave every person a chance, a hug, offered up the clothes on her back and the blood in her veins she could save them all. It was foolish, and naive, and got her killed.

But...maybe thedas would be better off if there were more people like Atisha and less like Reiss. The Mother’s words to her rang through Reiss’ head often: “Everything happens for a reason.” If that were true, if Andraste was pleading for people, or the Maker had some long stretched plan then wouldn’t he have rescued his true daughter of the faith? Why did she have to-to burn while Reiss...while she...

Blinking off the thought, Reiss glanced up from the horseshoes to feel the blacksmith staring hard and long at her.

“Know much about horses?”

“Not in particular,” Reiss admitted.

“Unsurprising, given the...” she gestured at Reiss’ ears with her flaming hot tongs before scooping up a chunk of metal and bashing it with a hammer.

“Some elves, we...” She wanted to defend her people, to mention all the knife-ears she knew who were experts on horses and riding, but no names to came to mind. There had to be someone, right? A famous breeder or racer that defied the odds of being poor and ill educated to climb the sawed off ladder and make a name. The only one to dart though her mind was the stablehand in the palace, but even he was a half elf. For some people it didn’t count for anything good, but mattered greatly for everything bad.

“Miranda,” the woodworker called unexpectedly.

“Yeah?” the smithy answered back. While her husband spoke, she quenched the blade, steam hissing over his words and fog blanketing her from him. Chuckling at the move, she returned the metal to the fire to begin again.

“We have a job for the King himself, as a gift to the princess. Can you behave for two Maker damn minutes?” he sighed, the exasperation evident.

Reiss began to suspect that the spark to burn down their shop wouldn’t be an accident.

“Possibly,” the smithy laughed again. “Get yer ass over here and show me the plans.”

Groaning, the woodworker picked up the King’s hand and kissed the metal ring as if it was important. Alistair blinked madly at the move but didn’t yank his fingers away. “Thank you, Sire for thinking of us.” After bowing a few more times, he scurried away from royalty to confer with his wife who looked about to dunk his head into her quench bucket.

Alistair watched the pair for a moment while absently wiping the back of his hand across his trousers. When Reiss returned to his side, he leaned over to whisper, “True love, it’s a thing to be admired.”

“I’d put it at good odds that one or both of them is going to wind up murdered,” she whispered back as the woodworker’s arms began to flail madly at the woman ignoring him.

“Maybe,” Alistair said softly which caused Reiss to eye him up. He didn’t really think this was a healthy or normal relationship, did he? His fingers softly graced the edge of the armor across her upper arm. “It’s amazing how stubborn some people are. You can’t have that, it’s bad for you? No, well now I want it even more! Also, screw you for thinking of me.”

He chuckled at the end but Reiss faded behind her eyes as Lunet’s cursing her out echoed in her mind. Was she being stubborn or...?

“Your Highness!” one of the bushier of the handlers dashed into the small shop. Alistair devoted as much of his rapt attention as he could to the man. “You are required back at the palace immediately.”

“Why? Did Eamon catch a spider and fear for my health? He hates the things,” he directed the last part at Reiss who smiled grimly. She wasn’t a particular fan either.

“No, Sire, it’s the assassins.”

That cut off Alistair’s goofy grin. It was probably Reiss’ imagination that every ear in the shop leaned in closer as their King turned upon the man blushing below his beard. “What about them? Have they made another move?”

“Uh, no. Harding, your Majesty.”

“Skip the bloody titles and get to the point.”

“She’s caught them, Sir,” the handler watched Alistair digest the news slowly before adding, “All of them.”

It was the fastest return trip to the palace they’d ever made. Normally the King would take his time, trying to scrounge up any excuse he could find to avoid heading home but he was practically backseat coach driving. With his head stuck out the window, Reiss had to keep tugging him back in so Alistair wouldn’t smack his face on passing sign posts. Leaving behind horses spitting steam in the stables, the handlers in their fussy robes hustled to keep up with the King’s elongated gait and the elf keeping at quicktime behind.

Alistair didn’t even ask where the assassins were being kept, he didn’t need to as they caught the pitted remains of caged wagons cooling on the grounds outside the guard’s cells. It seemed as if all the royal retinue were there, the crimson shining in the sun to discriminate them from the plate grey of the city watch. A few were manhandling the kind of slime one dug out of a drain at the bottom of a tannery, those wave tattoos evident along with a bright array of cursing. The rest of the guards leaned back, exhaustion evident from what must have been one hell of a morning.

One of them jabbed another and soon all were staggering to their feet to salute their sovereign monarch. Alistair gave a small wave at the attention, as well as a “Good job, everyone,” while passing the rows of men and women saluting. At the end of it, as the last of the prisoners vanished kicking but not screaming down the hole, Alistair grabbed onto the arm of the lieutenant taking down whatever information they could on the prisoners.

“Where’s Harding?”

“Down there, Sire, with the Commander,” the guard pointed into the hole without a second thought.

Nodding his thanks, Alistair glanced back at the pile of exhaustion sunning itself on the grounds. Through the groans and people trying to unhitch exhausted muscles were smiles and secret bottles slipping in and out. They won.

He glanced back once at Reiss, a look of dread in his eye, before it all vanished away. Summoning an inner strength to protect himself, the King marched with head held high down the stairs into the pits. What had seemed like the cursed realms of the forgotten buzzed with sweat and anger as dozens of men hobbled back and forth like caged animals behind the bars. Eyes glittered in pain through the darkness, daring their King to draw closer. This wasn’t poor Ghaleb and the ambassador tossed into a straw pile. These were the real horrors of the street; men who’d found within each other a shared desire to take whatever they wanted and hurt when it suited them. If there was any soul worth saving, they long ago traded it away for drink or worse.

Reiss didn’t look over at them, but she could feel the hot breath snorting from their noses. It felt as if it crawled down the back of her neck into her armor. Did they know she was the reason they’d been found out? Would it matter to them either way if any ever escaped?

Circling down to the second level, they spotted Harding with daggers drawn, hissing in rage as she punched one man in the gut. Before he could think to slide back, she drew the dagger up under his dangly parts and moved to slice it upwards. That froze him in an instant, his eyes bulging as she dared him to try anything and face his new life as a castrato. After lifting his hands, one of the guards punched to the ground in the scuffle rose to unsteady legs. He manacled one wrist and then the other before knocking the man into a cell.

“Remind me to not piss you off,” Alistair said while clapping in appreciation for Harding’s efforts.

The dwarf spun on her heels to eye up the King. Blood was spattered across her cheek, which she wiped upwards to mash with dirt and sweat already upon her face. A smile lifted and she shrugged, “Make sure to pay me on time and you should be safe. Sorry about that one. We had damn near everyone secured but he got one look at the Commander here and went berserk.”

Cade sneered from behind as he quietly slotted his sword back in place. If not for Harding’s quick thinking, the Commander would have beheaded the prisoner without a second thought. “Fear will do that to a person,” he grumbled in his bass, all the teeth flashing at the man glaring in his cell. Shaking it away, Cade turned to Alistair and said, “Milord, it’s not safe for you to be here.”

“Seems as long as I stick near Harding I should be good,” Alistair said, rocking back and forth on his heels. Ignoring Cade’s grumble at forgoing his safety, Alistair focused on Harding.

She slotted her daggers away and yanked up mounds of paperwork that spilled across the floor in the scuffle. “We’ve got them, your Highness.”

“All of them?” he glanced around at the cells full to bursting as if in disbelief that there could be more out there trying to kill him.

“Every last bastard. Took a lot of reconnaissance and critical timing, and I won’t lie, we got damn lucky in the end. But this is every last member of the Zea Dogs, all thirty two of ’em.”

A whistle echoed out of Alistair’s tucked in cheeks at that number. “Thirty two?” he flipped through the paperwork Harding passed over, “That’s a lot of people who want me dead.”

“Only taking into account the ones in Denerim,” Cade sneered.

“Add in the rest of thedas and we could probably have our own jousting tourney,” Alistair added on to Cade’s tactless comment before glancing down at Harding. “Have you begun interrogating them yet?”

“What in the blazes for?” Cade interrupted, needing to make it all about him. “They’re assassins.”

“Can we prove that?” he asked.

“Only the Maker’ll care what to put on their tombstones. We know they’re mercenaries, ‘n’ that’s bad enough for a good stretching.”

Groaning at the Commander’s one size fits all solution, Alistair focused on Harding instead. “Not yet,” she answered, “it’ll take time to get the right interrogators in, break them down, and there’s another problem.”

“This is going to be something disgusting, isn’t it?”

Harding sighed, “Some of them seem to have...cut out their own tongues.”

“Sweet bloody Maker!” Alistair gasped, staggering back at the blow.

“It was part of a ritual to swear themselves to a secret order. I’m not sure, seemed to have been thought up after bad drink and worse blood dragon. We caught the first few doing it to themselves while babbling in nonsense.” Andraste’s sake, it sounded barbaric. To try and cleave themselves to some ignoble cause by mutilating themselves? Why?

“So all these idiotic attacks and piss poor assassinations came down to a secret cult they invented with the sole purpose of murdering their King,” Alistair summed up.

Cade intervened, his mass trying to shove the dwarf aside, “I’ve heard of the scum on the streets dreaming up stupider shit.”

“Commander, Ser!” a voice echoed from behind Reiss all but startling her out of her boots. She took a calming breath as the Commander shouldered past everyone including his King. “There’s a problem with one of the prisoners.”

“Aye, I’ll get to it. We ain’t got the space to deal with so many,” he grumbled to himself before turning to Alistair, “You best be stretching some necks fast before we get a real break on our hands.”

The King’s heavy brown eyes followed the man sweeping past them all as he ambled quickly up the stairs. There was no hiding the power in the man behind the girth to his body, fat certainly didn’t slow him. Reiss watched Cade, a dark feeling sinking in her stomach that he may soon be her superior. She’d have to answer to him and even knowing she was favored by the King it seemed doubtful the Commander would think well upon that.

“Harding?” Alistair prompted, dragging Reiss from her thoughts. “You have some thoughts?”

“Hm? I dunno, the cult thing seems likely. And they weren’t faking the tongues being cut out, I was there myself. It’s just...” she tipped her head back in forth in thought, “people like that tend to leave behind manifestos. A reason to be balmy enough to go leaping off the deep end and we haven’t found anything like that.”

Alistair tipped his head back to glare at the roof. “Can anything be easy just once? I’m asking nicely here, Maker. One simple go here, take out these bad guys, then go home for celebratory pie kind of quest. And nothing involving escorts!”

“Sire,” Harding jerked her head back towards the interrogation room. “We do have some papers looted from the hideout as well as what seemed to be the higher ranking...” she paused before saying the name to steady herself, “Zea dogs homes. Would you like to read through them?”

“I doubt I can do more than color inside the lines, but I’ll give it a go,” Alistair agreed, following her into the guardroom. Stacks of crates overflowing with parchment sat perched in corners, on the table normally reserved for eating, and in two chairs. “This is going to take awhile.”

Harding lifted the first file she found and dropped it into the King’s hands, “I’d say start here, but we have no idea.”

Nodding with eyes glazed over in a silent scream, Alistair slumped into a chair and began to paw through the first of a never ending folder of documents. Harding left the room to attend to her own business, but people would enter to add even more to the bulging pile. Uncertain if she should have anything to do with it, Reiss stood beside the wall doing her best to not think about what came next. She’d performed her duty to the best of her ability, and thanks to Harding’s work the main threat seemed to be dealt with. Perhaps he’d keep her on until the punishments were doled out if only for the sake of appearances and to discourage any of the assassins from breaking free and finishing the job.

Then what?

Reiss glanced over at the man with a crust of bread jammed in his mouth as he accepted another scrap of paper. Seemingly unaware that he was gagged by the food, Alistair kept trying to speak around it to the various guards slipping in and out. His gumming grew so intense, the bread tumbled free from his mouth to plummet right onto the top of a stack of crates. Barely caring, he swooped it up into his mouth and finished the food off in two quick bites.

He must have sensed her eyes canvasing him as Alistair looked up from his stack of work. Those sweet, doe eyes honed in on Reiss before ticking off to the side. Certain that no one else was watching, he puckered up his lips and blew her a kiss. Maker’s sake it was stupid, and foolish, and it made her smile all the way from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. She wasn’t ready to give up whatever this was. Not yet. Not while he looked at her like that, not while he’d comb through her hair and hold her as she cried. What would some time serving under Cade be? She’d done hard and often unfulfilling work without a reason her whole life. At least now there’d be someone waiting for her.

“Excuse me, your Highness,” another face entered into the room, this one dressed more plainly. Probably one of Harding’s spies. She passed a letter to the King while Reiss turned away to stare at the wall. Aware of the blush crawling up her cheeks, she was doing her best to hide it by appearing to be very interested in the ceiling.

After glancing at the latest missive, the King dumped the pile of folders out of his lap. His eyes devoured it, darting quickly to and fro when a great smile broke upon his lips. Stepping forward, he held an envelope out. “Actually, this is for Reiss.”

“What?” she turned away from the wall and stared at the tan envelope without a mark to hint at what was inside. Oh Maker, was it something from Lunet? Did she tell someone about Reiss and the King or somehow make things worse? Plucking it from his fingers, Reiss turned the envelope over and over in her hand.

“You may want to read it now,” Alistair whispered to her.

Nodding, she slit off a simple seal and slid out a single piece of parchment. There wasn’t more than a few paragraphs, which seemed a waste of sending anything. When her eyes fell upon the first line, all the breath in her lungs escaped in one gasp.

“Dearest sister,

I have been gifted this opportunity to inform you that I am well and very much alive. Jader is in a state of fear I have not experienced since the Blight itself, but the people are strong and bonding together to overcome some poor fool’s misbegotten anger and wrath.

In truth, I was not at the chantry when the fires began. I was praying for the souls of the elves marching through the city streets, begging Andraste to fill their hearts with her love and hope. When smoke appeared above the skyline, every man and woman walking for acceptance raced to the river to help form a bucket line. It was all for naught as the blaze quickly took our beloved chantry from us. So many of my fellow sisters perished that day. It is difficult for me to comprehend the reason but I must trust to the Maker. Whatever drove that poor, wretched soul to douse Andraste’s house in flame must have been consuming him his whole life. It is pity I gift him, even as we scrabble through the wreckage of our home and attempt to rebuild.

Efforts will be slow and I shall not be able to write to you for sometime I’m afraid. The people of Jader are letting demons spill lies, fear the most powerful of them all. Many are trying to point fingers any which way they can but I have faith that they will see the light. It is a lucky thing you have friends in the army or I do not know how I could have contacted you so quickly.

Be well in Denerim, and your newest endeavors for the crown. I know you will wish for me to return to Ferelden, to settle down somewhere safe but Reiss, you cannot understand what it means to have such a guiding purpose in my life. Even as the flames devoured the place I considered my sanctuary, I felt the ashes renewing strength from the people who folded around me, who came to me for help, for prayer, for salvation. This is my home for the Maker, for Andraste, for my soul, and I am at peace.

I love you, and believe it or not, worry for you as well. I’m not the only elf in the family breaking new ground.

May you forever walk in the Maker’s light,

Sister Atisha"

Reiss’ hands trembled in shock, tears dripping down her cheeks as she read over the words a second, then third time. They were real, they were hers, she survived. She lived. Maker’s sake, she was alive. Glancing up at Alistair, Reiss gasped, “Atisha’s okay.”

“Oh thank the Maker,” he folded an arm around her, tugging Reiss tight to his chest even as she clung to her sister’s letter like a life preserver. It was her proof that she was still out there. Smug as always, but alive. Alistair pressed his lips to her forehead while he whispered, “From the look on your face I feared it might be bad news.”

“I don’t understand. How...?” Reiss didn’t have any contacts in the army. She couldn’t even think of who to send a letter to in Jader to inquire about her sister, so she spent the days staring at a blank sheet of vellum too terrified to pick up the quill and begin.

“It wasn’t too difficult to have a few of the people sent ask around for an elven Sister. I guessed she looked like you, but there was only one elf in the chantry so...,” Alistair said, his arms locking tight against her.

“You...” He did it. He took the time and cared enough to search for Atisha. No, he had other people do it. He used his power of the crown to find her sister, all for Reiss -- his mistress. A thud landed in her stomach and she fell deathly quiet while clinging to him.

“Reiss?” his voice floated above her, catching on fast to her change in mood. He probably expected her to be leaping in joy, or...or to offer up her gratitude in a more carnal form. The idea stung against the back of her brain like a jelly fish bite, burning through her nerves with a bitter anger.

Sounds of the door cracking open caused Reiss to scurry out of his arms to the safety of the other side of the small room. It was another of many guards come to pick up a stack of crates. His eyes honed in on the King, but for a beat he glanced over at the elf trying to melt into the floor. “Did I come at a bad time?”

“Nah,” Alistair spoke up for Reiss. “I needed to stretch my legs before they fell fully dead while sitting in that cramped chair.”

The guard glanced over at where the King had sat most of the afternoon away and sighed, “We dubbed that one the back breaker.”

“I’d call it ass-flattener first,” he chuckled, the laugh so uproarious it screamed fraud. But the guard, no doubt on his own high from such a record day for them, smiled along. Tipping his head to the jolly King, no one wondered why their monarch was pitching in to help, the guard yanked open the door and vanished down the dungeon cells.

Reiss stood uncertain, her ears straining for the clip of boots knocking against stones while she drew her fingers against the divots in the wall. After they faded, she said, “I should-- ”

“Not here,” Alistair shook his head, “not with...” he gestured around the piles and piles of work ahead of someone. Most likely not the King as much as he was willing to dig his elbows into it. Everyone out there knew he was going to get bored soon and wander off, but if it gave them a break why not let him tire himself out?

“You know the old bell tower, which doesn’t have a bell in it anymore?”

Reiss nodded. She’d seen the structure in passing around the edge of the castle.

“Meet me there. People think it’s haunted so no one’s ever up there,” he whispered the fact under his breath as if he was sharing state secrets.

“Is it?” she asked, rocking back and forth on her feet.

“The veil’s not particularly happy up there, but I’ve never seen any real ghosts, or demons, or skeletons walking around playing a folk song with catgut strung through their ribcage,” he said, which brought a soft snicker to Reiss. Alistair seemed to read something was off, but had no idea what to do. She wasn’t certain what he could do either.

Reaching over, he plucked up her slack hand and curled his fingers over it. “I’ll talk to Harding and tell her all of the nothing I’ve found so far and then we can talk in private without having to worry about guards tramping in and out and causing such a terrible draft.”

“Okay,” she nodded. His eyes searched valiantly through hers as if he could find the magic words to fix whatever was weighing on her heart. Reiss wished she could tell him, but the spell seemed to have bound her tongue as she was unable to voice whatever was eating her alive inside.

Bowing her head in deference to him, Reiss yanked open the door and entered the cells crammed with people who were most likely never going to see the sun again. Clutched tight in her fist were the words from her sister which should make her happy, but only drew a deepening gulf within her stomach.

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