Guarded Love

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Chapter 40: Prepare for the Weird

Maker’s sake but he needed a holiday. A proper one without ten dozen handlers flocking around him insisting he needed to wave at the exact moment to a certain bald spot and act gobsmacked at a rug. No politics, no Banns, not a single damn person from the court. Actually, not another living soul for miles and miles...save one.

Glancing over from his seat, Alistair’s eyes wandered dreamily to the woman picking through a stack of papers. While he’d been given a “thank you for trying” with the evidence, Harding put some faith in Reiss and let her sift through a box on her own. As he’d sit through the typical daily requirements to keep the crown on his head, she’d be reading and making notes upon pages, quick to learn the special filing system. It was fun to have her sitting near, hard at work doing something that didn’t involve waiting just beyond his sight and glaring at people.

She seemed to enjoy it too, so deeply focused while flipping over a finished sheet to not notice the King’s fingers curling over hers. A smile lifted away the concentration frown and she gripped back. It was foolish, and silly, but he liked having her close. Alistair kept telling her that it would be best if she remain in her post until all of the assassins were dealt with. Now he was thinking a little longer wouldn’t hurt, for the sake of transition and all.

“Shouldn’t his Highness be finishing off those notes the clerks left on your desk over an hour ago?” Reiss asked, her eyebrow perched high as she picked up a new sheet. But even with her admonishment, she kept ahold of his fingers.

“As if I don’t know they rewrite the entire things once I’m finished,” Alistair sighed at the stack of ‘From the King’s desk’ he was meant to send out to make certain important nobility felt special. “I once filled out one of those blighted things so the first word in every new line spelled out ‘Sod off.’” He expected a sigh, or shake of her head at his childishness, but Reiss chuckled and her eyes lifted a moment from her work to shine in his.

Maker’s breath, she was cute. The sitting at a desk part didn’t seem to agree with her, but chasing a suspect down this puzzling and twisting path drew a brightness to her eyes and almost skip in her step. Alistair ached to kiss her, but the best he could hope for was some secret hand holding as more of the clerks bussed in and out of the study.

“Not sure if anyone ever caught that one,” he mused to himself while watching her draw out a quill and tap it against the rim of the ink bottle. She must have not been aware, as when Reiss went to make another line, she found she’d accidentally knocked all the ink off it. “I was thinking,” Alistair said, trying to be subtle and quiet, “when the whole assassin issue is finally laid to rest that I...we could use a vacation.”

“Oh?” Reiss didn’t glance over from her work.

“There’s this hunting lodge near Teagan’s estate, very nice. Nothing like camping, there’s a roof, and thick logs for walls, and it’s right near a hot spring no less.”

She placed the quill down and turned to him, a soft smile breaking through the weary exhaustion that came from staring at scribbles to try and decipher words. “Sounds nice.”

“And I, I’d love for you to come with me,” he began to fluff up his hair before forgetting there was a bunch of wet ink dribbled across his fingers. “I, uh,” Alistair glanced around his desk uncertain if there was anything to try and blot the black out of his hair. “You’d be seen as a bodyguard, but I mean, I guess I’d hope that we could spend time as...more.” Abandoning his quest for a towel, he swallowed deep and turned to her.

Reiss’ expression didn’t shift, her eyes seeming to glance through him. Was that a good thing? Bad? Probably bad. It wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had, not by a long shot. He just... “I’d like that,” she said. As her eyes trailed off to the side behind him, she reached forward and with her fingers tried to draw the ink stains out upon her pale skin.

Darting forward, Alistair grabbed her fingers, now a mess because of him, and slowly dragged each one down the front of his shirt. Reiss giggled at the stains setting deep into the linen, then slowly shook her head. “The launders don’t think much when I show up covered in Maker only knows what.”

With her eyes closed, she whispered so softly Alistair could barely hear, “I wish I could kiss you.”

“Me too,” he added back. That was the point of getting away from judgmental eyes, prying lips, and wagging tongues. From hands yanking him this way and that for the sake of whatever fresh problem arouse in the time he was taking a piss. To just be Alistair for a few weeks with her, none of the crown crowding it out.

“So I’ll, uh, contact Teagan and get things arranged,” Alistair said, trying to slide back to business.

“Will there be much hunting?” she asked as that sheen dropped in front of her eyes. He was coming to know that was her way of trying to look excited about something she hated for fear of disappointing someone.

“No, Teagan’s a sit by the fire with a good book type and...let’s just say the royal hunt masters tend to keep me as far from their blinds as possible. I may have once accidentally sat upon a wasp’s nest and run shrieking right into a stand of deer. Which then stampeded in rage towards the hunters because of all the wasps. It was a long day of swabbing stings with ointments in sensitive areas and no one making eye contact.”

Reiss’ shoulders shook from her stuffed down laughter, but he caught a trace of her smile in profile. “That’s good to hear, about the hunting. And to keep you far from wasps.”

“Oh, I can recognize their evil homes quite well now. Damn near professional at it.”

Despite her wary eyes trailing the people moving through the study, Reiss leaned even closer to him across the gap between their desks. Alistair found himself matching with her, the want ratcheting up to an ache for her lips. He was about to touch her cheek, when a polite cough startled him awake.

“Yes, what? I...something’s gone wrong!” In his panic, he stood up, forgetting the desk in the way and smacked both knees hard. “Maker, damn it!” Alistair groaned, his hands trying to massage away the great bruises he no doubt just gifted to himself for Satinalia.

“Sire, I didn’t anticipate your reaction. I’m so sorry,” the man dressed like all the other spies flocking around Harding panicked, then began to try and rub Alistair’s thighs.

“Yes, it’s fine,” he batted away the man’s hands, aware that his cheeks were lighting up both from being nearly caught and having someone he didn’t know fondle his thighs. He was a good little chantry boy who saved that action for the third date. “What do you want?” Alistair gasped, shaking away the pain and awkwardness as best he could.

“Spymaster Harding, Sire.”

“Yes, she’d be the only person I’ve spoken to in the past three days,” Alistair said. It was hyperbole, but it felt like the truth as the dwarven woman would sit in for breakfast, hold a meeting with his Highness until afternoon, run with him on the way out to the kennels, and sometimes sit outside the door of the water closet to give updates. He grew so tired of seeing nothing but Harding’s face he began to discover constellations hidden in her freckles. Maybe he should tell her about the angry golem about to punch a dragon one.

“As you say,” the spy gave the ‘I’m acknowledging I heard your words but find them idiotic’ signal the rest of the castle used. “She’d like you to sit in on her latest interrogation, your Highness.”

That got his attention, as well as Reiss’. Harding took her job seriously enough she’d shoo the two amateurs out and promise to give them summaries later. Sharing a look with Reiss, Alistair turned to the spy. “Why?”

“One of the ringleaders is finally willing to talk.”


Harding had a certain way about doing things that didn’t fit with Cade’s punch everything until it gives up or is dead philosophy. Rather than drag each prisoner to the back room, knock out their teeth, and toss ’em back into the rat infested cell until they talked, she took the humane approach. There was no blood splattered upon the walls, no dank seeping through molding stones, not even a tray of torture implements -- all rusted nearly shut. Nope, the room was blank, starched and polished to a hope destroying dingy white. It reminded Alistair of the under tunics used in harmony with cheap ass armor -- the kind of shirt that was as scratchy as burlap and somehow less warm at the same time.

He winced at it instinctively, and focused on the dwarf sitting confidently in a chair. Her target wasn’t chained to the wall by his wrists, the flesh bulging as the body strained from the reach. He too sat comfortably on a slightly wobbly chair across from Harding. Manacles were all that kept him tethered to a simple table sporting a carafe, two water glasses, and those dreaded boxes of information.

“Ah, Sire, glad you could make it,” Harding said, a hint of annoyance in her words. He’d hustled as quick as he could, but moving through the castle while King took twice as long as it should anyone else. “And you brought your bodyguard,” she lifted her chin up at Reiss who haunted the edge behind him.

“Was I not supposed to?”

“I didn’t request it, but assumed you would,” Harding nodded before turning to the Zea Dog in question. He looked like the kind of man you’d expect to find rattling through your rubbish bins at three in the morning, not to find food but because he was about to take a dump in them. Drink made its mark the only way alcohol could, leaving his cheeks bloated, nose puffed out, and the eye sockets hollow while he rocked back and forth on the rickety chair. It was exactly the kind of man Alistair would have dispatched without a second thought during the Blight. Even now he was having trouble thinking of a reason not to end his suffering quickly.

“This is Mauro? Marto? I can’t read this. M,” Harding gestured at the man with her jaw held tight. Judging by the glare she probably didn’t get even close to pronouncing his name right, but it didn’t matter. He was one of the ‘evil cultists’ set on murdering the King. It was doubtful he’d be needing his name or the head attached to it for much longer.

“Your man said that he’s willing to talk,” Alistair filled in.

“Yeah, about that,” Harding snorted.

Mauro (or whatever it was) opened his teeth to reveal a bloody stub where his tongue should be. “Maker’s breath,” Alistair groaned, rearing back at the macabre sight. He’d seen broodmothers, ogres, gotten up close and personal with darkspawn on a regular basis, been near the archdemon when its guts coated every roof through the palace district but this was unnerving beyond measure. Mauro slammed his jaws tight again and glared.

“How are we going to get a confession out of that? Can he write?”

“What do you think?” Harding groaned. “I’d give up and focus on the others with their tongues intact but the guards said he was insistent in speaking to me.”

“And you wanted me here for moral support,” Alistair filled in.

The dwarf shrugged, a hand digging into her shoulder as she worked out a knot. “I don’t see the point in talking to the mad. Bastard who cuts out his own tongue...”

Mauro banged his fist into the table, causing Alistair to jump back. He glanced over to find Reiss’ hand drifting to her sword. She didn’t make any solid moves to unsheathe it, but her eyes narrowed upon the potential threat. Having snagged their attention Mauro whipped his head back and forth like a mad bull.

“What?” Harding tried to interpret his rage, “Are you saying you didn’t cut out your tongue?” His head bobbed up and down. “That’s the biggest load this side of a landsmeet. I was there, I watched you do it.”

“You were there?” Alistair gasped, a shudder climbing up his spine at the idea.

“Yeah, skulking in the underbrush no one ever thinks to check. Believe me, I’m adding it to my bill.”

Chains banged on the table and Mauro rolled his head back in obvious disagreement. Leaning forward, Harding all but grabbed onto his mutilated beard to get his attention. “What then? What cut your tongue off?”

Mauro grunted under his breath, his curled hands bouncing up and down against the table as he rubbed them together. In a quick move, he flipped around his palm to show a quick scratch openly bleeding. The crimson washed down his filthy skin, which the man barely acknowledged.

“Pain hand?” Alistair guessed.

“Blood. Blood mage?” Reiss threw out, her eyes narrowing even further at the idea.

Great, that was high on the shit they didn’t need to add to this mess, right below dragon and above plague carrying nugs.

At her guess, Mauro jerked his chin up and down like mad.

Harding was the least impressed. “Every two bit con man screams ‘A blood mage made me do it’ when he’s caught. It’s the first excuse they go for.”

“If they can’t pin it on an elf,” Reiss whispered more to herself, but Alistair heard it.

Growling at the back of his throat, Mauro slammed his wounded hand onto the table smearing the blood around to make his point. What would it hurt to humor him?

Bypassing the two women, Alistair leaned forward, “Let’s say it was a blood mage who used magic to get you to cut out your own tongue.”

“Not likely,” Harding whispered to herself.

“Why? Do you know...?” Alistair staggered back off the table. “You suspected an inside source in the castle, right?”

“It was possible, best to keep things to as few as we could just in case.”

“What if...?” he tipped his head down at the tongue-less man’s hand.

“Oh come on, you think someone with enough power and influence hired a cabal of low-life thugs to make a play on your life, and when the heat was getting too close, hired him or herself a blood mage to get them all to cut their tongues out so they couldn’t talk. That’s the most convoluted play for the throne I’ve ever heard,” Harding groaned while pinching her nose. “And if this mystery person is so gifted at corralling these shits, why not hire proper professionals in the first place?”

Alistair withered from Harding’s ‘use your brain’ stare and he kicked at the floor. “I don’t know, it’s just an idea. Maybe it’s wrong but it’s something.” Risking a quick glance up he stared at Reiss. Her lips were twisted in a thoughtful pout, her eyes trailing far away as she was probably weighing just how idiotic he was. Thank the Maker for his cute ass, or she’d probably have dumped him weeks ago.

“Mauro,” Reiss addressed the prisoner, “did someone hire the Zea Dogs to attack the King?”

His head nodded wildly.

“Do you know who it was?” she continued.

Mauro glanced over at the King doing his best to not be too offended at so many people wanting him dead, before slowly shaking a no.

“But there was a blood mage that you claim made you cut your tongue out.” That got a vehement nodding of the head. “Did you get a good look at this person?” Reiss was fully taking over the investigation now, her brain whirling with ideas. Alistair staggered back from the display and was surprised to find Harding watching as well.

Mauro shrugged and his lips opened as he tried to form a sound but the sucking noises of saliva sloshing through that empty jaw unnerved everyone in the room. Glaring at his lot in life, Mauro banged his fist on the table in anger.

“Okay, this is doable,” Reiss grabbed at the chair and spun it around so she could straddle it from behind. Alistair had to admit it was a bit of a turn on to watch her ratchet straight to can-do-anything. Her eyes beamed in on Mauro, “This blood mage, can you remember what he or she looking like?”

That got a long nod and then Mauro drew his fingers across his throat in an obvious threat. If this blood mage was real, he obviously intended to rip ’em limb from limb for that was done to him, what he was made to do. Alistair trembled at the damn horrors malifecarum could conjure.

Reiss ignored the outburst and tried to catch Maruo’s eyes, “Was the mage a woman?”

He shook his head.

“A man. Short?”

Another negative.

“Tall?”

No

“Average height,” Reiss guessed because that was all this was. It was like dropping a bunch of sentences into a bucket of water and the one that floated to the top was your future. Who knew if he was lying, or if he was even capable of knowing if he was lying. The man cut out his own tongue! Hard to walk back to sanity town after you do that.

“Hair color? Blonde?” But damn was she not about to give up on this idea. Reiss plucked at her hair as if afraid the man didn’t know what blonde looked like.

Mauro gave a quick shake.

“Brown?”

Yes.

“Any identifying marks? Tattoos, scars?” Both questions got negatives, Mauro quickly realizing how little he had to add to this.

“Do you by any chance know where this mage lives? Frequents? What did his voice sound like?”

The first two got no’s, but at the last question Mauro flipped his wounded hand around and drug his nails across the wood. The gravely and bitter sound bit deep into Alistair’s ears and he raced to try and cover them up when Mauro stopped. Reiss grimly nodded at it and pinched the bridge of her nose, “Got it. So we’re looking for an incognito mage, male, average height and brown hair.”

“That would give you about 40% of the Denerim population to go asking ‘Excuse me, but are you a blood mage?’” Harding groaned. She seemed to have no faith in this mage idea.

“Ah, I forgot,” Reiss flipped back to Mauro. She swallowed a moment before asking, “Was it an elf?”

That got her a quick shake of the head, which she responded to with a grateful sigh. “Well, a human male so that should knock off 5% in the search.” Groaning, Reiss staggered away from her attempts at cracking the case wide open.

Alistair pulled both women further from Mauro, who he kept a very close eye on while they huddled in the corner. “Well, ideas, suggestions? Accusations on how it was the butler the whole time?”

Harding groaned at his pathetic joke, but Reiss’ fingers skirted over the tip of his elbow before she retracted them away. “This is idiotic, you’re assuming a massive conspiracy based upon a man shaking his head a certain way and the patented shoving the blame onto bogey blood mages.”

“It is possible,” Reiss said, but even she didn’t sound convinced.

“So’s dragons bursting through the ground and eating us all alive, doesn’t mean it’s likely. One thing I’ve learned over the years in the Inquisition, prepare for the weird but expect the mundane.”

“What about all the times the cult seemed to have the upper hand?” Alistair threw out, trying to keep in on the conversation.

“Luck. Okay, three parts luck to one part no one expected an assassination attempt so they didn’t plan accordingly. If you want anyone to blame, it’d be your guards slacking off on the job,” Harding muttered before she dug the heels of her hands into her eyes and groaned. How long had she been working on this problem?

“When did you last sleep, Harding?” Alistair asked, throwing her off balance.

“Caught a nap a few...” she pointed towards the narrow window where the sun was already dipping to the horizon, “I’m fine.”

“You’ll do no good to anyone exhausted,” Alistair said, then blinked. “Maker’s sake, I sound like an ol’ biddy about to insist you all wear sweaters.”

“I’ll be sure to pin my mittens to mine, for your sake, your Majesty,” Harding snarked back. He was going to miss her when she had to go back to Skyhold; the dwarf was one of the few who’d call him on his shit to his face. Rolling a shoulder, she yanked up a mug and drowned the sludge in a quick toss of her head.

“Look,” Harding flattened her hand into her palm, “Cade’s right. This many in here’s a gaatlock barrel ready to blow. The best thing is to round up the obvious dirt they’re carrying, drag ’em in front of court, and finish it off. If there are any lingering conspiracies involving dark cloaks and evil blood mages, we sniff it out later.”

“That...” Reiss whispered, seeming to want to disagree.

Harding gestured at her, “I doubt you’re going anywhere anytime soon.”

“Wh...why do you say that?” Reiss’ cheeks lit up bright red but she didn’t glance over at Alistair.

For her part Harding only let her hand hang in the air a few beats longer to emphasize that she knew exactly why. “Unless his Majesty’s orders are for me to go beating down every door in Denerim to find this fabled blood mage, I think my time is best served here getting more answers out of Tongue-less Mo here.”

Alistair watched Reiss glaring at the ground, her fingers limply knocking together. She looked as if she wanted to say something, to defend herself, but Harding’s insinuation about their close ties seemed to have drawn the wind from her sails. Maybe it was best to put his faith in the acting Spymaster, she seemed to have a quick grasp on things.

“You do what you think will get the scum out of here, Harding. But first, get some damn sleep. I don’t want to find out you broke a tooth passing out face first onto the ground.”

She stuck her chin out, those freckles flaring red in the torchlight. Alistair braced himself for a dressing down, but instead Harding tipped up her hand and limply saluted him, “Yes, Mother.”

Snickering at the response, Alistair leaned closer to her to whisper, “Also you should eat more vegetables, and would it kill you to keep your hair out of your face?”

That got him a full on groan, Harding all but shoving the King out of her domain as she turned back on the man to ask her important questions. He focused on the dwarf playing bad guard, but for a brief second his eyes flickered to Reiss and that same vengeance flared in them. Mauro didn’t care about whoever hired them to kill the King, he just wanted that blood mage to pay for what he did.

Reiss went first down the long corridor of hissing and angry mercs about to meet their end. They knew it, the very air stank of death, which meant any semblance of humanity long fled from their veins. A few tried to throw things, most of the shit thankfully missing, and some hooted and hollered at the pair of them walking past. Alistair sneered, an anger stirring in his gut, but Reiss didn’t even flinch.

By the time they exited the cells, he needed a hug of support from her, but a few of the royal guards she was about to be serving with milled around. It would probably not endear her to them. Still... “You okay?” Alistair asked, referring to the walk of shit she had to endure.

But Reiss wasn’t even thinking of that. “I know it’s a long shot, but...something’s off. Things don’t add up the right way and what if...? What if he’s telling the truth?”

“More like nodding the truth,” Alistair cut in, then winced as she deflated.

“Aye, it’s preposterous. And perhaps I am seeing things that are not there. It is best to leave it in Harding’s capable hands.”

“Reiss,” he whispered her name, always forgetting the honorific to keep them distant, the one she earned.

She however always remembered, save that one time when she feared he was about to get himself killed. How Alistair adored and wished he could somehow preserve for later every time she whispered his name. “I know my place, Ser.”Her head tipped down as she seemed to genuflect, but the voice brimmed with something other than adoration for her King. “It is by your side,” those sparkling green eyes met his a moment before she stood tall to tack on, “as your bodyguard. Of course.”

The other guards didn’t seem to be giving them any attention, their own meal far more fascinating, but Reiss snapped in an instant at the fear of being caught out. Alistair chuckled, “Come on, bodyguard, I’ve probably got a stack of work that needs to be pushed from side to side. Hopefully you can protect me from any errant paper cuts or accidental cuticle tears. Those are the nastiest of them all.”

He wanted to hold her hand, to skirt his fingers through her hair and tuck back those free tendrils, to kiss her and say it’d be okay. Instead, he cracked open the door, letting her fall back into place behind him.

“I shall do my very best, Ser,” Reiss said, back to business. But, for a brief moment, he felt her eyes caressing his ass while he walked.

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