Guarded Love

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Chapter 41: Maybe

The sentencings began quickly, each man hauled before the King and a staple of the highest people in Ferelden to have the charges laid out. It amounted to the same: conspiracy to commit treason, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to conspire, working with a potential malifecarum. The last Harding threw in just in case nothing else stuck, but no one was rushing to defend the Zea Dogs. They were the kindling being broken in half and tossed onto the pyre people wanted to burn for days. Reiss didn’t realize so many in Denerim cared about the life of their King until she watched the citizens shift into snarling beasts in the presence of those who would dare try and take it.

Or were they just spitting their anger out on the most obvious target at the moment?

Even with Harding and Cade moving the men through without any stop in sight, it was going to take time, at least four days. They were working through the lower dregs first, which at the suggestion of everyone who had an opinion told the King to not be merciful. Excusing anyone who even got a whiff of a planned assassination would throw open the doors for more. Without any obvious recourse to counteract it, Alistair agreed, sending each man to hang on the gallows.

She’d expected a fire in his voice, he’d been living in fear not only for himself but his children, and yet every night when Alistair would seek her out he was subdued. He wasn’t a man who delighted in doing what had to be done, which broke her heart a bit as Reiss knew the next day he’d only face more dead men walking. At least it would be over soon and then they’d be off to this hunting lodge in the Hinterlands. Alistair would lighten considerably whenever she’d ask about it, giving up suggestions for what they should do first upon arrival. Apparently leaping buck naked into a pond was high on his list. Reiss was uncertain of the idea, remembering all too well the predominance of leeches in Ferelden, but figured she owed him to give it a try. At least she could enjoy watching him paddling around fully nude.

Mid-way through the rounds of trials and executions, Alistair called a break. He didn’t rise from his seat the way Reiss expected, but slumped forward. Slipping away from her post behind the throne, she whispered to him, “Tired?”

“Would it be improper for the King of Ferelden to curl up on the floor for a nap? I bet I could talk Bann Loren into it,” he laughed while waving at the pinch faced Bann.

She stopped herself from rubbing his shoulders, as much as she wanted to, “We were...awake late into the night.”

That drew a sly snicker to him as he leaned back and shut his eyes, “Yep, lots of cross-referencing going on as I remember.”

“Is that what we were doing?” There are people, lots of people crammed into this over heated room doing their best to act serious and you’re flirting with the King right in front of them? Rat, what is wrong with you?

Unaware of the tiny voice in her head screaming at her, Alistair skirted his fingers over the outside of her gauntlets and smiled. He opened his mouth to talk when a rumbling erupted in his stomach. Glancing down, he ordered, “Silence from the stands!”

Reiss laughed at his silly move, but said, “Perhaps I should slip into the kitchens and find something for you to eat.”

“Really?” he gasped in surprise as if he wasn’t the blighted King who regularly had people find and deliver things for him. “That’d be wonderful.”

Barely bowing, Reiss began to slide towards the door. From behind her she heard the King shout, “Oh, if Renata’s got any of that roast boar pudding left I’d love some!”

“I make no promises,” she called back to him. It drew a few curious glances out of the gentry, but none raced to belt her with turnips, their attention already back to something other than the elf slipping away.

Once freed of the chambers, Reiss took in a deep breath trying to shovel as much cool air into her lungs. Sadly, the day itself wasn’t helping her as the sun beat an intolerable heat across the land. It amplified ten fold inside the smaller courtroom that filled with even hotter air as the various gentry huffed and puffed for orders of importance. She feared she was about to fall flat off her feet a few times while standing at attention. Luckily, Reiss learned how to not lock her knees and did her best to wave a hand near her face when it grew worst and no one was looking.

Her own stomach gurgled, but not in the same empty manner as Alistair’s. It’d been growing vengeful during the day, the mere concept of food causing the bile to rise up her throat. It was probably the random dinners Reiss kept snatching up, her schedule thrown fully off balance by the trials and the King who only ate when he felt like it. After wiping the sweat off her brow and trying to fan out the sides of her armor, she trekked down the stairs to the kitchens.

Mercifully, the fires were low and slow, though the tempting smells of gravy bubbling inside dough traipsed through the air. Whatever Renata had on hand for dinner was going to be delectable. Too bad that only angered Reiss’ stomach more, the scent grabbing her petulant organ and giving it a good shake. Screwing her eyes up, Reiss willed herself into the larder and began to search for something Alistair would like. In truth, it wasn’t that hard. The foods the King didn’t like amounted to sprouts, fish stew -- though everything else fish was good -- and for some reason oranges. He didn’t explain that one much, just kept them far from the castle, much to Renata’s grumbling. The cook had been wanting to try an orange sauce she read about in a Seheron cookbook, but the King shot it down.

After sifting through the cheeses, breads, and a few of the grapes fresh off the vine, Reiss staggered up to her legs when another bout of dizziness struck her. Gripping onto the ledge, she shut her eyes tight even as the room spun down the drain around her. The spell passed quickly, this damn heat knocking her down harder each time, but in her clumsiness she accidentally spilled a bag of onions across the ground.

“Oi,” a voice ricocheted through the kitchen proper, “you better be big fat rats and not Philipe tryin’ to mess with my...” Renata’s tirade faded as she eyed up Reiss struggling to scoop up the onions she knocked over. “My lady.”

“I’m sorry, I was fetching food for the King and...” Reiss explained with a basket dangling off her arm and onions overflowing out of her hands.

“It’s not a problem,” Renata scooted forward, yanking the onions out of Reiss’ hands and promptly returning them to the barrel. Reiss began to slide down to pick up the rest, when the cook called out, “You don’t need to do that.”

Reiss froze, her muscles locking from that panicked voice she knew well. It was the same one she’d often use when someone with blood bluer than the sky was about to do something that’d get her in trouble. “I...it was my fault?”

“Accidents happen,” Renata smiled, her lips smiling but her eyes glared.

“Right, of course, it was...” Reiss clung tight to the basket like a granddaughter about to go visit her werewolf grandma in the forest. “Should I...?”

Renata finished stuffing away the errant onions and turned back to smile at Reiss. “Is there anything else you’ll be needing?”

She knew. Maker take her, but Renata, probably Philipe too, they all knew that Reiss and the King were... Oh Andraste. A blush burned across Reiss’ cheeks and she tried to bury her face in the basket. “No, it’s...I’m fine,” she gasped, feeling tears burning in her eyes as she scampered past the polite but distant chef. That was all anyone would be now, all her fellow guards, the servants, the coopers, the stablehand, any and all who feared potential reprisal from the King. They were never going to trust her again. Because if they let their tongue accidentally wag about something his Majesty didn’t like around the mistress, then she might use that against them.

They all hated her.

No, worse than that, they all had to put up with her because he did. It was easy to be friends with Alistair, he was the known King who bowled people over with his self deprecation, but the sidepiece encroaching upon the beloved Queen’s territory? No one would ever see Reiss again. She’d be the mistress and nothing more.

Reiss’ back clattered to the wall and she gripped tight to the stone to remain upright. Another round of dizziness hit, but instead of striking her mind, this one drove right to the gut of the matter. Upending her stomach in one quick blow, she barely had time to shift before vomit shot out across the floor. Burning up her throat with the anger against herself, most of her soupy dinner landed in a wet plorp on her shoes -- chunks of corn and carrot mocking her failure.

What was she going to do? She didn’t know where the buckets were to clean it up, and if she told someone, they’d...they were all going to look at her the way Renata did. Groaning, Reiss placed her head against the stone. Coldness bit through the heat burning up her skin, trying to soothe away the ache in her exhausted joints. Maker, if she could just stay here and catch her breath, then maybe, maybe she could think of a plan.

A high pitched whine began in the distance like a fly buzzing through the hall. Reiss didn’t move to chase it, her body only capable of keeping her upright. Gasping for air, she tried to calm the acid burn in her esophagus while a fog crept up the sides of her vision. Oh no... She managed a single step, realizing what was about to happen, when her body gave up and Reiss fainted dead away to the floor.

She woke dazed, aware that people were talking but only hearing the same buzzing whine. The back of her head throbbed from where it no doubt smashed into the ground. Someone took the time to prop her up into a sitting position against the wall. An elbow bumped into her and she turned to watch the fingers of an elf scrubbing away her vomit. The eyes didn’t lift to her as the man was too focused on his job.

“What...?” Reiss tried to speak, but every joint in her body ached.

“Hey,” Alistair dipped to a knee and picked up her hand. “You had me worried there.”

“I, uh,” she tried to move to stand, but he gripped onto her shoulder to keep her in place. Giving up on falling back in line, she groaned, “I passed out. The heat must have gotten to me.”

“Here, Sire,” Renata pressed a wet sponge into his hands, which he thanked her for while trying to dab off Reiss’ sweat. The cool wash felt so good, she moaned in appreciation, her eyes slipping closed to marinate in the sensation. It struck her how that must look and she guiltily glanced up at the cook doing her best to not watch. Maker’s breath, how much worse could this get?

“You feel hot,” Alistair said.

“I’m...” Reiss tried to wave it away, insisting she was fine, but another flip of her stomach told her otherwise. Don’t puke on him. It’d be bad enough walking it back from vomiting on her lover, but doing it to the King while surrounded by gossip hounds would put her on the pyre. Gripping to his shoulder like the edge of a cliff, Reiss groaned in agony and nodded. “I think I’m sick.”

“You don’t say. I’m guessing elves don’t regularly decorate the floor in their dinner.”

“Only for Satinalia eve and Wintersend if one is orthodox,” Reiss sighed.

“Here,” Alistair left the sponge on the ground and moved to lift Reiss off the ground into his arms.

She wanted to let him, but aware of the eyes always watching, she was quick to stagger a foot down. Maker, that flared up a bruise stretched down her side. Was it from the fall? Alistair slid a hand around her waist, trying to take some of her weight as Reiss began to limp towards some destination. She hadn’t any idea where to go aside from away.

“I am interfering with your trials. I can attempt to make it back to my room on my own.”

“And have you bash your head in again with another faint? I don’t think so,” Alistair tugged her even closer, the pair of them hobbling away from her site of disgrace and towards their side of the castle. “Besides, I’m certain Eamon’s having a wonderful time soothing all the gentry wishing for more blood right now. I left him with some juggling balls just in case.”

“You’re terrible,” Reiss gasped as she clung tight to the man who rushed to her side and was tenderly guiding her to bed.

Alistair brushed his cheek against the top of her head and in a soft voice murmured, “I know.”

By the time he deposited her in bed, a healer was already waiting outside the door. She had a heavy leather bag in hand which jangled with every drop of her arms while chasing after the King all but carrying some invalid elf to her room. Reiss plummeted against the mattress and began to crawl up it, murmuring that she just needed a few minutes of rest and then she could return to work.

“Don’t you dare even think it,” Alistair ordered. Despite the strange woman standing at the foot of the bed clicking her teeth, he drew his hand down the side of her arm. “You took a pretty bad fall.”

“It’s nothing,” Reiss tried to insist even as she had to lay on her side to avoid the rising goose egg on the back of her skull. “You need someone to guard you during the trials,” she tried to slide her feet back out off the bed, but he was quick to stop her.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “We’re nearly done and Cade’ll be there to keep me from doing something incredibly suicidal. It’s his speciality.” Those warm brown eyes all but pleaded for her to get back into bed, clear worry stinging his still smiling face.

Acquiescing, Reiss leaned down into the bed, aware that her armor was biting into her but uncertain how to get out of it now. “You win,” she groaned. “But promise me you won’t do anything that requires you to ask someone to hold your mead.” She tried to reach out to tug on his collar, but Alistair dipped down enough her palm curled against his cheek.

As it lifted with his smile, he pushed back her hopefully not vomit stained hair and said, “You have my word.” Groaning, Reiss let him walk away, her hand tumbling off his cheek to drift across the empty floor. Her body didn’t have the remaining strength to lift it. Even staying alive was on a fifty: fifty chance at this point. Reiss was uncertain which ache came from the illness and which the fall.

“Get better, that’s an order,” Alistair said beside the door to the hallway. Reiss limply waved and nodded. She had every intention of trying even if succeeding may be beyond her hope. Quietly, he closed the door behind him, leaving Reiss trapped in her room with a stranger.

“Your Majesty,” the woman bowed to the vanishing King, before focusing on the pathetic elf clinging to life. “I am Healer Orana.”

“Reiss.” Biting down on the pain flooding every vein in her body, she sat up to come eye to eye with the woman. Surprised to find Orana sitting on the bed, Reiss almost leaped backwards, but her body refused to comply -- the entirety of its energy spent getting her upright.

“What hurts?” the woman asked. She was that age where the lines and wrinkles showed more than vanished by soft light, but wasn’t to the autumn years just yet. Cracking open her bag, she began to lay out various tools. Reiss glanced down at them and felt a fresh flop stir in her stomach. They reminded her of gelding day on the farm, each clamp and cutting bit laid out neatly on a tray before the animals were corralled over for the next part.

“I’m,” Reiss began, trying to find anyway to get out of this alive.

That got her a slow glare from the woman’s left eye. It was behind a thick glass inside wire frames, while the right was milky white and stared at nothing. The refraction on the glasses made her iris pop, the grey blues reminiscent of storms on the grasslands of the south. Tutting her tongue, she yanked up Reiss’ arm. The touch was cool but not painful, calming her fevered body.

“Everyone’s so afraid of healers, I promise I won’t steal your soul in the night.”

“It isn’t that, I...” she glanced down while the woman drew her fingers up in strange measurements until hitting her elbow and yanked them back down to begin again. “I grew warm in the room filled with the gentry, and upon exiting it I...purged my dinner on the floor before fainting.” Maker, it sounded ten times worse now that she said it.

“Fever, don’t even need to feel your forehead, your cheeks are lit up with the blood spots,” Orana waved her hand to dismiss it as she tugged something out of her bag. “How’s the stomach? Been feeling queasy long?”

“Most of the day and...” Reiss struggled to remember when it began. It fell into the background of her life because she had other matters to deal with. “Some of yesterday perhaps.”

“Feel better after...how did you fancy it up? Purged your dinner?”

“Sort of,” she hung her head down, wishing to be left alone. Having to recite each of her bodily failings made her want to climb into a closet and never leave. Healers rarely bothered with elves unless there was blood spurting over their clean clothes. A lot of the alienages got by with old wives tales and idioms, which did a little worse than the average non-magic healer for humans. All she wanted was a tiny elven woman to pinch her cheeks hard, slap a wet blanket to her head, and shovel koomtra down her throat until she felt better.

“Here,” Orana fished out a small biscuit that was rectangular and dark grey. “Eat this, it should help calm your stomach.”

Nodding, and knowing she couldn’t get out of it, Reiss accepted the biscuit and took a bite. “Sweet Maker,” she gasped, “it tastes like burning logs.”

“That’d be the general idea. Charcoal will bind up all the bad stuff, but, uh, you’ll want to keep a bucket near. It has a way of ‘purging’ fast and often violently.”

Reiss nodded while trying to not be terrified. The woman quirked her eyebrow up at her no longer chewing. Accepting her fate, Reiss continued to eat the biscuit briquette, the Maker blighted taste clinging to her tongue and esophagus on the way down. It tasted as if she licked a fireplace clean -- which was probably a punishment a shem thought up for an elf at some point in history.

“Is there anything else I should do?” Reiss asked.

“Rest, a cool compress to help fight that fever. I don’t recommend blood letting for someone of your type.”

“My type?” she asked after mercifully finishing the last of that damn biscuit. Orana passed her a glass of water, which Reiss was quick to chase down her throat.

“Here,” Orana yanked up her limp hand and pointed at the wan flesh below, “the pale shade of yellow means any blood loss on your part wouldn’t balance correctly. Purging the system is the only hope. Too much bile, got to get it all gone.”

“Ah,” Reiss glanced down at her own skin as if she’d never looked at it before. She figured the inability to blood-let it was an elven thing and not because of her bile.

Orana patted Reiss’ knee, a ring clanging against the metal, before she began to close up her medical bag. “What do you think may have caused it?” Reiss asked, curiosity clinging to her.

“Could be any number of things. Been acting extra bilious lately?”

“Uh, I don’t believe so,” Reiss tried to scan through the last few days. While she’d been distraught, she’d hardly been irritable, and Atisha’s letter cleared that cloud away in an instant.

“You don’t seem the type, despite your skin hue,” the healer seemed to compliment her. “If not that, maybe something you ate, or ate at the wrong time. Food can have quite an effect on our constitutions if we’re not careful. It’s why I only eat things that bear an appearance like brains -- walnuts, broccoli, sweetbreads. The real thinking woman’s dinner.”

“That makes some sense,” Reiss nodded, aware that she’d been scrounging more than usual and at odd times. Perhaps something in there grew vengeful upon her, combined with the emotions she kept swallowing down, it all turned against her.

“Course,” Orana chuckled as she closed the latches on her bag, “there’s always pregnancy.”

“Wh...what?” Reiss blinked madly, her throat drying to sandpaper.

“Fainting, queasy stomach, vomiting, exhaustion -- all hallmark signs a little one’s on the way,” the older woman glanced up at the wall before turning to find Reiss glaring at the ground.

No. No, it... No!

Orana’s good eye narrowed, “Didn’t your mother teach you about it?”

“A little, before she died,” Reiss admitted to this complete stranger. She knew the basics of how babies were made and then came out, but even when her mother was pregnant with Lorace she made it seem like it was all sunshine and rainbows. Almost willfully hiding the bad parts under the guise of excitement so that the Maker knew she wanted the baby growing inside her. “There were a lot of stillbirths,” Reiss whispered to the air, her hands clutching tight to the empty cup of water.

“Ah, I see.” Orana licked her cracked lips and scooted closer on the bed. Despite the two of them being alone, she lowered her voice to a whisper, “Do ya have any thinking idea you might be with a wee one?”

Reiss tried to voice a no, but her lips were numb. All she could do was shake her head, as mute as the man who chopped out his own tongue.

Orana sighed, her kindly fingers patting against Reiss’ gauntlet, “When’s the last time you bled? If it’s steady, you’re good.”

“I...” Maker’s sake, this was an easy question. She knew it always fell around the middle of the month. Steady as a rock once she passed the age of twenty three. It had to have happened, right? It was so common she stopped noticing it, stopped thinking about it. Was it this month or the previous one?

Orana read her silence and carefully opened up her bag. Extracting out a glass jar, she passed it to Reiss. Clear liquid sloshed around inside, all held in place by the wax seal at the top. “If ya want to know know without having to wait ’til you feel a kick, put a drop of your blood in here and wait for a color change. Goes blue and you’re empty, turns red and...congratulations.”

Her eyes glared at the clear liquid sloshing back and forth. It moved slower than water, whatever gave it the magical abilities to sense life almost sparkling under the weak candlelight. “I don’t need this,” Reiss said, trying to pass the test back.

Folding her hands away, Orana smiled kindly down at her as she got off the bed. “Keep it, in case you ever need it, or come across someone who might. In the meantime, get rest. Your body will require it regardless of the outcome.”

“It’s not, I...” No, Maker’s breath, no. It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t be...

What have you done, Reiss?

“Do you need help getting free of the metal can?” Orana asked, still showering the scared young woman in a kindness that was shared between those who faced such a precipice.

Reiss shook her head, “I’ve gotten out of it in worse states, but thank you for helping me and...helping.”

The woman smiled and nodded, “It’s my pleasure, dearie. Rest up, you’ll not want to worry the King by fretting too much. Gives you wrinkles.” Bobbing her head once more, Orana exited Reiss’ room. On the way out she blew out two of the three candles, leaving only a whisper of orange light to crawl across the walls.

Broken into a million pieces, Reiss stared at the liquid bobbing back and forth in the bottle. Why was it doing that? Should it sway while being held? Was that a sign of...?

Oh Maker, she swallowed hard, realizing her hands were trembling. Reaching forward, she placed the bottle on her vanity, right next to the bouquet of flowers. Each one a reminder of every time she... Blessed Andraste, no. Of course not. It wasn’t possible. Sure, in the theoretical sense of the word there had been the mechanics accomplished to create a...

“No,” Reiss said aloud to herself. She worked quickly, dumping the armor on the floor. Even if Karelle saw it and yelled at her until she was blue in the face, Reiss didn’t care. Her body was exhausted from the illness working through her system, and she needed sleep. In the morning she’d feel much better and any lingering doubt would be washed away.

Digging under the covers, Reiss tried to lay down on her pillow, but the bruise on the back of her head enraged in anger. Pain burst through the headache, throbbing up into the back of her eyes. Accepting defeat, she turned to the side, her eyes drawn straight to the big question sitting on her vanity.

No.

Never.

She couldn’t be.

Reiss yanked the blanket up to hide her face away from the world and let the exhaustion digging into her body finally take claim. As sleep wound up through her, a single thought echoed in her head.

Maybe.

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