Guarded Love

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Chapter 4: The King & I

She was dead. The entire trip through the ramshackle boroughs up to the gilded palace district her handler didn’t speak a word, but she kept one eye on the road and another upon the guard stuffed into the carriage beside her. The same guard who was suddenly aware that she was dressed in her underarmor. With filthy cuffs, split hems, and trousers stained in equal parts blood and muck there was no chance she was being taken to see the King for a hearty thanks. People who met royalty were buffed and shined within an inch of their life so they could pass under the easily disgusted noble nose. Nope, Reiss was certain she reached the end of her rope. All that remained was the final snap to finish it off.

Staggering through the palace grounds, she had to keep from glancing around at the architecture that lifted up to the sky. The ceiling was so high she couldn’t make out if there were any stains on it. I wonder how they dust it, Reiss thought to herself. No hands jammed into her back to keep her moving, but a few of the royal guards in their far more intimidating armor stood noticeably close. Whenever she slowed to stare up at a statue and wonder how easily it could tip over and crush her, the guards would stop a foot behind and wait with fingers upon their hilts. No one checked her for weapons, no one thought she was of any concern. That thought almost made her snicker. How like shems to assume the elf was helpless. But, given the arms all around her and the fact she didn’t have a dagger on her person, they were accurate. This time.

Her handler paused outside a set of doors large enough to close off the alienage gates. The woman ran her fingers through her hair and tried to fluff up the peplum clinging to her hips. It seemed unnecessary as the woman bore thighs that looked like they could crush a man’s skull clean open, that fact evident even below her skirts. But there was fashion to maintain, apparently. Absently, Reiss patted her messy bun and drew away five strands of straw. Maker, how much more was stuck in there and no one said anything?

There wasn’t time for her to look as the handler threw open the doors to reveal the infamous Ferelden Throne Room. She’d only ever seen one other throne room before, but that was different. While it sat an impressive chair, the owner kept it more relaxed baring tables always stacked with food to provide sustenance to those both common and noble lingering around. This place sparkled, every breath echoed against the walls and floors. It felt as if she stepped inside a priceless porcelain vase that could crack with a single misplaced footstep. Guiltily, Reiss glanced down at her shoes to find mud and muck from the grounds had followed her tracks and now a clump of horse manure clung to a mabari mosaic embedded into the floor. She wanted to bend down to clean it off, but the handler paused in the middle of the room and shouted.

“Your Majesty!”

Three sets of heads lifted at the end of the room, none of which sat in the chair at the top of a handful of stairs. They’d been in a rapt discussion that faded quickly as the blonde one shouted, “Maker’s breath, Karelle, get over here. I’m not spending the whole time screaming across the gap.”

Karelle bobbed her head at the King’s command and without glancing back at her prisoner, stepped across a line. There was no physical barrier, but the stone bricks changed from a slightly grey to a white as if that was how far common muck were supposed to get near the seat of power. The King however seemed unused or uncertain about such tradition judging by the scuffs in the floor that paced from one end to the other.

Following her eyes, Reiss realized that the guards that stood behind her remained back at the door. She was technically alone as the handler sidled up to her King; she could escape. All she had to do was leap up the polished pillars to land upon a wooden rafter, scurry across a foot wide beam and then squeeze her body out a hole that could at best accommodate a cat. Oh, and all without making a noise and before anyone thought to glance back at her. No problem whatsoever.

She was deader than dead.

Trying to hang her head in shame, with a million apologies to the Arl clinging to her tongue, Reiss slid closer to the clump of people with blood bluer than lyrium. Over the mumbling crested the King’s voice, it bore a nasally timbre that oddly wasn’t unpleasant. Anyone else and that almost mucus sound would grate but it worked for him. Perhaps it was the lightness mixed within. If sunshine itself could have a voice, it’d probably sound like the ruler of Ferelden. Reiss snickered at herself, the mind came up with strange thoughts when one was walking to her doom.

Stopping behind the handler’s massive shoulders, Reiss lifted her head and waited for the end. After nodding at something the others said, the King glanced over at her and his lips widened. “I see you brought Ser Reiss with you, Karelle. Good job.”

“No need to be patronizing, Sire,” Karelle bit back. “It was a simple matter.”

The King didn’t lash out at his underling’s tongue, only rolled his eyes and shook his head back and forth. Karelle passed whatever papers she’d been fiddling with in the carriage ride over to him, which he flipped through at first quickly before pausing and returning to a line. No one seemed to be in any hurry to damn Reiss to the executioner’s axe, they were probably enjoying watching her twist in the wind. Strange, she didn’t spot the Arl of Redcliffe mixed among the crowd.

“Do you require me to explain the bigger words?” Karelle asked after a time, drawing the King from the papers.

“Ho, ho, see what I have to put up with?” he asked point blank to Reiss. She paled at the focus and slowly shook her head, feeling a tremble begin in her lip. Maker’s breath, just shoot me already and get it over with!

“Right, okay, Ser Reiss--.”

“That’s not accurate, Your Majesty,” she spoke up then winced at interrupting a King. But a part of her worried that it may all be some test, or his wrath could increase tenfold when he learned the truth later.

For his part, the King only blinked slowly then turned back to the papers, “What was what?”

“I...” her voice dipped lower into her throat, struggling to be heard. Anywhere else in Ferelden it’d have faded away to nothing, but in this echo chamber it reverberated across every shiny stone. “I’ve never been knighted. Your Highness. I’m only a Corporal.” She winced after finishing it.

“Oh,” he folded up the papers and banged them together in his hand. For a brief moment he glanced over at his no doubt advisors and shrugged. “Sorry about that, Corporal Reiss. Maker, that’s a mouth full. Major Reiss, that’s got a better ring to it. Sounds a bit like majorities. Major Reason...”

It was idiotic but a small chuckle broke in her throat from the King playing around with her name as if he hadn’t summoned her to answer for the unanswerable, as if she wasn’t facing a most likely swift and bloody end. Anywhere else, from anyone else she might almost find it endearing. A gruff cough paused the King’s rumination and he turned to the man hiding in the shadows. Reiss’ brief candle had the wick slit in half as the Commander of the royal guards stepped closer to the King. If Commander Cade was involved she was beyond praying to be saved. Now she could only beg for a quick end.

The King tipped his head back and forth, the humor drying up. Returning to his papers, he asked, “Corporal Reiss, you were born in Ferelden...near South Reach?”

“Ah,” she rolled her tongue, uncertain if she was supposed to respond or not, “yes, your Highness.”

“But you spent a lot of your life in the Free Marches,” he ruffled through the papers and read off, “some of it in Kirkwall, no less.”

She didn’t wince at the mention, having learned how to bury that one ages ago. “Yes, I did.” Reiss shored up her legs and rose to attention but a surprising pair of compassionate eyes lifted from the paperwork to her.

“Blight?” he voiced that solitary word that changed her life forever. Reiss found her tongue flopping over, unable to raise a response from the strange shared remorse in his face. Instead, she nodded and glanced at his shoes only to start at realizing the King was wearing boots muddier than hers.

“We lost a lot of good people because of that,” he said, his eyes darting over to Cade. Something unsaid passed between them, but whatever argument the pair had, the Commander broke and folded his closed fist against his chest in solidarity.

“Aye, Milord.”

Wafting away the cloud the moment it appeared, the King rifled through what she realized was her file. “Then one day you up and decided to work for the Inquisition.”

It wasn’t how Reiss would put it, but close enough. “Yes, your Highness.”

“Lots of accolades listed here,” he said, his eyes widening in a strange respect. “The Emprise, the Dales, even patrolling the High Plains for awhile. What’d you think of Orlais?”

He asked it casually, but Reiss noticed the hungry look bouncing from the Commander as well as the drippy, tanned man standing beside him. Swallowing, Reiss said the first word to enter her head, “Exhausting.”

The King laughed, his hand cupping his forehead as he dug fingers through to fluff up his hair. “My thoughts exactly.” In a surprise, the other Fereldens began to chortle as well, even the Commander broke for a moment, his meaty lips rising in a rare smile. Maker’s balls, what was going on? If this was how they read a prisoner their sentence before hauling them off to Fort Drakon it was beyond balmy.

After wiping a tear of joy from his eye, the King flipped back open her file. “Let’s see...awards, lauds, praise, and even a personal recommendation from...” the flippant smile fell and a terrifying darkness crossed his sunny face, “Commander Cullen.”

“Is that...?” Reiss tried to rise up on her toes to see what the Commander had to say about her, but the King held it tighter to his face. “Is that a problem?” she asked, terrified of the answer.

Snorting, the King twisted his head to the side, “No, it speaks very well of you.” He smacked his lips a few times and then rolled his eyes to her, “He’s a hard man to please.”

Reiss had no idea how to respond to that. She’d rarely met the Commander beyond spotting him a few times while on the field. In fact, she didn’t even know about the personal recommendation he put into her file. The idea to ask her about the Commander of the Inquisition seemed to be perched upon the King’s lips, but he shook it away and turned to Cade as well as the man beside him.

“Well, Cade, Ghaleb, I’d say she checks out.”

“I have a few questions first, Milord,” Commander Cade interrupted, stepping closer to her.

“You could bowl me over with a breath at how shocked I am,” the King rolled his eyes back.

Cade didn’t falter from the King’s response, those sharp eyes narrowed down at Reiss and she tried to not think of how the blade against her neck would feel. She’d come close a few times in her life, but it never broke the skin, much less her spine. “You left the Inquisition, yes...”

Knowing when she was being led, Reiss folded her hands behind her back and nodded once. Any word she spoke was dangerous and could be twisted against her. Even something as innocuous as ‘I like cookies’ could turn into ‘She despises all things cake and would see bakers burned alive.’

“To work for,” Cade spun on his heels and tried to snatch the papers out of the King’s hand, but he didn’t let go. As the Commander cast a glower at his technical leader, he stopped trying to yank and slowly let go. For his part, the King only sighed again as if it was all some stupid dance they had to go through.

Throwing them open, he drew his finger down to the near bottom of her file. Reiss pinched into the flesh between her thumb and finger trying to slot on her Wicked Grace face at the name she knew was coming.

“Bann...Declan.” His deep brown eyes shot up at that and the King mouthed, “Declan? Maker’s breath, what in thedas for?”

“He required guards, for reasons that weren’t entirely made clear. I fulfilled that role for a time,” Reiss said, doing her damnedest to not think of the time in her life that probably counted as the worst damn decision she ever made. She had to keep her opinions private because, knowing her luck, the Bann was some favored cousin of the King.

Sneering, the King scratched a nail against the vellum and whispered, “I hope you got hazard pay.” A laugh tried to exit out her nose, but she managed to turn it into a cough. “Andraste’s fiery sword, the last time that pompous, dullard was in the palace I...”

“Your Highness!” Cade interrupted.

“What? Right, fine, I think what Cade’s so inelegantly getting at is why’d you only stay for a few months. Wait, we know why Cade. I’d gladly chew both my legs off if I was trapped for more than an hour with the slime sucking, toad out of a hole Bann De...” His diatribe paused at the depths of annoyance radiating off his Commander. “Very well. What other screws do you want to put to her?”

At the mention of screws Reiss tightened up. She’d been drawn in by the King’s lackadaisical approach as if she wasn’t dangling above a shark pit with the rope slowly unraveling. The Commander eyed her up, “Tell me, Corporal, when did you leave the Inquisition?”

“9:43, Ser. Honorable Discharge!” she saluted, her voice echoing over every stone in the room.

The King seemed to track it for a moment, his finger following the reverberations to a window when he paused and turned back, “43? After Mwhahahaha, I’m your new god went splat but before they transferred power to the chantry?”

“Ah,” Reiss had never heard Corypheus summed up so, though it was accurate, “yes, Your Sireness.” She scrunched her nose up at the fumble, but the King didn’t notice.

“I knew we got a great bump after the Council decision, bit terrifying to have well trained and unemployed soldiers knocking about, but we made do.”

“Yes, Sire, I did,” Cade interrupted, smugly grinning.

“Do you want a parade in your name? I’m certain we could have one arranged. I’ll go tell Isolde and...” the King said, watching a sliver of panic part the meaty face. Shaking it off like a wet mabari, Cade fell back to his usual hating everything stance. “So, if it wasn’t the great winnowing down that pulled you out, what made you quit the Inquisition?” he turned the focus back on Reiss.

“That’s personal, Ser,” she said. “I mean, Your Highness, Majesty...”

“Whatever,” he responded back, folding his hands across his chest while finishing her sentence.

“Personal is not an answer, Corporal,” Cade thundered, stepping even nearer to her. Reiss’ eyes darted down to the hilt of his sword, cracked on the side as if it’d been hit from the left. She shook the stupid thought away. That wasn’t helping her. Maker, how could she possibly explain why she left the Inquisition without sounding incompetent at best?

“I...” Reiss began, when the King interrupted.

“Let her have a secret,” he said, shaking his head at Cade. “Personal’s as good a reason to give up on the march to war as ‘I got sick and tired of blisters bursting in my boots.’”

“Perhaps I should try that one instead,” Reiss muttered to herself and the King leaned nearer. Despite being the most royal noble she’d ever met, he smelled not of expensive oils but sweet hay and mashed up carrots?

“Make sure and give me credit,” he whispered, “I get so very little for everything else I do.”

“Of course, Sire,” she gasped, regretting her slip of the tongue. Reiss ran the back of her hand against her forehead and shook the flop sweat off onto the floor.

“Welp, there we go. Left the Inquisition because of personal reasons, and abandoned Bann Declan for the Denerim guards because an ass full of blisters is better than having to sit through one of that man’s recitals.”

Reiss involuntarily shuddered at that memory. He would have them often and required everyone at his estate to sit and listen.

“I’d say she’s good to go, more than qualified. Did you really take on a dragon?” he turned back to her.

“A wyvern, Sire. Small one, hadn’t developed its poison sac yet...” Shutting her eyes, Reiss tried to will the world to make sense, for something of reality to seep back into what had to be an accidental trip into the fade. But when she opened them again, the King, the Commander of the Royal Guards, and a mysterious stranger she didn’t know all stood before her. “What precisely am I qualified for?”

“Andraste’s girdle,” the King cursed before spinning to Karelle, “You didn’t tell her?”

The handler shrugged, “I had a lot to accomplish and I’ve found saying ‘The King needs to see you’ works better than a lengthy explanation.”

“Ser...” the King shook his head, “Sorry about that, Corporal Reiss, after your service to protect me and my family from assassins I would like to hire you to serve as my personal bodyguard.”

“Ah,” Reiss gasped, her fingers smashing into her mouth to stifle a scream. They weren’t going to hang her, or chop off her head, or even toss her into the dungeon. She was safe. More than safe, they wanted to give her a job. A job protecting the King.

“I...” the King’s eyes darted over to his Commander, “I know it’s a big decision, which I’d hoped you’d had time to mull over in the ride here but--”

“Yes,” Reiss squeaked, her eyes widening. Instinctively, she stuck her hand out and grabbed the King’s. “I mean, I gladly accept your job offer.” As the giddiness of living faded, Reiss noticed that she was clinging to the King’s hand as if someone like her deserved to touch it. Oh Maker, letting go would look bad but she was holding it too long. What was she supposed to do? Shrugging, she shook their conjoined hands up and down.

The King chuckled, nodded his head at her, and shook back. “Now that that’s settled, you...” he pointed at the drippy man behind him wearing a set of grey robes, “go and figure out who hired the assassins that came after me. Do some of that spying you do so creepily well.”

It was the Spymaster. She’d only heard a few whispered rumors of his existence, not that a castle having one was a surprise, more that people weren’t certain what to make of the man. He seemed to return from whatever far away land his mind drifted off to, shaggy brows meeting in the middle as he bobbed his head a few times. “Right, I will go and do that. We’ve got a few ideas, chatter to piece together and other things that need to be accomplished you don’t care about. I’ll go and be going that. Bye.”

The King watched him scuffle and apologize but the man didn’t actually move as if he was waiting for everyone else to leave before attempting it. Barely nodding at the strange behavior, he turned to Commander Cade. “I’m certain you know what to do.”

“Yes, Milord,” he said, not bothering to recite back his orders. Either he was already told them ahead of time, already surmised what the King wanted, or wasn’t going to listen to whatever his Majesty said.

“Good, good,” the King lifted a hand to his forehead and raked his fingernails across the skin. The specks of dirt jammed under them littered the wake, sparkling against his pale flesh. Strange. “Karelle, I assume you can get Ser Reiss...sorry, Corporal. You know what, let’s do something about that. For saving my worthless life, you’re a knight now. Congrats. We’ll have a fancy knight party later to celebrate. I think there’s a special cake or something with knives.”

“I...” Reiss had no idea how to respond. This was beyond imagination. She felt as if she should reach up and yank the tips of her ears out to make certain he noticed. You didn’t knight elves, you certainly didn’t make them personal bodyguards to a king! Maker, what if she was already dead? What if Karelle had killed her during the carriage ride and this was her afterlife? You’d think you’d imagine yourself in better attire at least, Reiss.

“Right,” the King slapped his thigh with the file, yanking her out of her flight of fancy. “If you don’t mind, I have a very important meeting to make.”

“Uh, Sire...” Reiss stumbled, certain she needed to say something, to kowtow onto the ground and humbly insist she was not worthy of his gifts.

He turned a smile pure as honey upon her, “Don’t worry, Karelle will get you all kitted up. She knows everything about everything.” The handler snorted at his assessment. “Then we’ll talk later.” Chucking her file at the Spymaster, who actually caught it, the King all but ran out of the throne room. Commander Cade snorted once at Reiss before following much slower behind while the Spymaster seemed to disappear within himself while staying rooted to the ground.

A knight. A bodyguard. In the Palace. To the King. Andraste, bride of the Maker, what just happened?

“If you’ll come with me, this is going to take some time to get you set up,” Karelle mumbled, leading Reiss to her new life.

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