Chapter 42: The Test
Reiss lay crumpled in bed the rest of the day, when she wasn’t curled over the edge clearing out her stomach of that disgusting black biscuit and everything else left inside. After wiping off her mouth and rising up, her eyes would linger over that ominous clear bottle mocking her from the vanity. It was foolish to worry, this was a stomach bug, something she ate like she guessed, or one of those illnesses that prey upon elves. They seemed to succumb easier to some of the really un-fun ones, while humans passed by fine. Shaking off any idea that she might be...it was foolish.
Sleep came in spurts, the exhaustion slinking away for an hour or so until it ravaged her system and once against dragged her back down. In the middle of her non-dreaming state, Alistair checked in on her. She tried to wave him away, aware of not only that she looked like the diseased liver of a bronto left to fester in the dirt, but smelled of it too. But he didn’t mind her state, his hands trying to brush apart her matted hair as he sat upon the bed.
“This is dangerous, what if you catch this?” Reiss tried to argue. Turned on her side, she tried to glance up at his handsome face, but her eyes kept trailing back to that bottle. A fear gurgled in her gut that he had to know what it was for. Oh Maker, what would he say? Or do?
“I’ve had worse, and the healer seems to think it’s unlikely to leap around,” Alistair waved her concerns away.
“Of course she’d say that,” Reiss muttered to herself. She thinks I’m knocked up, little hard to go passing that off to someone else, in particular a man. Aware she was stewing to herself, she broke away from glaring at the blanket to find Alistair’s eyes crinkling at the edges.
“Something gnawing on your thoughts?”
“No,” Reiss gasped out quickly, “I...the trials?”
He accepted her change of topic easily, still not giving a single look to the bottle Reiss couldn’t stop watching. “Going well. As well as condemning a bunch of men to their death can go. No one’s raised themselves back from the dead, so plus in that column. Harding thinks they’ll be done tomorrow, and Karelle agrees.”
“Karelle? I thought Chancellor Eamon was coordinating the effort.” She was trying everything she could to not think about the contents of her stomach or any unwanted passengers therein, which seemed to be working on Alistair. His fingers paused in brushing through her hair so he could shrug, the hidden politician rising up to the surface a moment.
“He is, in that ‘I’m going to stand here and read a bunch of words while being extra important’ way. Karelle’s doing the grunt work, making certain next of kin are notified, putting out official criers, all the nitty gritty bits that have to be done or else. I have no idea what comes after the or else part, but it’s probably bad.” Groaning, Alistair mashed the heels of his palms into his eyes and tumbled to his ass upon the bed.
Reiss ran her cold fingers up and down his back, trying to soothe him, “You’re exhausted.”
“Me?” he peeked out through the fingers, “I’ve been sitting on my backside all day while everyone else runs around. What about you?”
“I believe I’ve been in bed doing nothing but vomi...” she trailed away the word, while mentally kicking herself. Way to be romantic there, Reiss. Why not discuss your bowel movements as well? That’s sure to win him over. “You must have far more important matters than checking in on me in my sick bed.”
“Probably,” Alistair’s warm eyes drifted over her, “but I’d rather be here.”
Trapped below the heavy blankets that barely cast any warmth as she struggled through the fever, Reiss had never felt so fragile. Her body all but vanished in the middle of the bed, that sallow skin that couldn’t afford to be blood-let clinging tight to bird-thin bones. She knew she cut a pathetic picture, but it wasn’t right of her to usurp the King’s time and attention so. Especially with so many people talking about them.
“Tell you what,” he scooted a bit closer, “you owe me one.”
“Next time I drink filthy river water, or break a bone and wind up bedridden, it’s your turn to take pity on me. I should warn you though, I’ve been told I’m terrible when sick.”
“Really?” Reiss felt the stirrings of a laugh in her acid roughed throat.
“Oh yes, constantly whinging, damn near at throw myself on my own sword to end the agony levels. And all because of a small cold. It’s near on impossible to put up with me. Everyone runs as far as they can. I once sent a healer all the way to Antiva just to avoid having to deal with me.”
Giggling at the inanity, Reiss butted her flaming forehead into his chest while her limp arms struggled to reach around the back of his neck. Alistair stopped talking long enough to return the hug, his hands scooping around behind to pin her close. Why couldn’t it just be this? Two people sharing moments together, building upon one another, and...caring for each other? Why did duty, and whispers, and rumors, and what was proper have to get involved? Even while buried in his arms, Reiss’ eyes darted over the bottle full of a potential future that was beyond her understanding. She should tell him, or no. Not tell him. Did mistresses tell their lovers when they suspected or wait until they knew? Maker’s sake, why wasn’t there a book on all this?
“Do you think you’ll feel up to making the trip out to Teagan’s place?” Alistair asked, his voice breaking through the stillness.
Reiss nodded her head instantly, not even taking stock in if it was possible. That drew a slow frown to Alistair, and he dragged three fingers over her fevered forehead.
“Are you saying that to make me happy or because it’s true?”
“I...I think with rest this should pass. I am feeling much better since I...fainted. Andraste, I can’t believe I did that.”
“Scared the garters off Renata. She was practically in tears when she ran to find me.”
“Oh?” Reiss pinched her nose in surprise after the cook had been so distant before.
“Seemed to fear I’d think she was poisoning you or some other nonsense.”
“Oh...” No one wanted to be nice to the mistress, but no one wanted to be cruel either. Just treat her like she’s furniture, a credenza that comes with the castle and hope you don’t piss off your boss. Reiss thought they were at least becoming friends, and now...
“What is it?” Alistair interrupted her dark thoughts.
“I should return to resting,” Reiss smiled up at him, aware that it was forced. She hoped he’d read it as her overcoming her illness and not the pain in her heart.
It seemed to work as Alistair nodded, “You’re right. I’ve bothered you long enough. If you need anything...”
“I’ll be certain to contact Karelle,” Reiss said quickly.
Laughing, Alistair nodded, “Exactly so.” His lips placed a cool kiss to her forehead, dampening down the fever where they touched, and he staggered up to his feet. “Get better,” he smiled before his face panicked, “That’s not an order or anything, I just, you know, don’t like seeing you sick. Not because you look bad -- well, you do, anyone would after hitting the floor, but...”
Reiss held up a hand to stop his panicked babble. Nipping her lip with her teeth she sighed, “I’ll do my best, Ser.”
“Good, I’m certain your best will have it licked in an hour,” he nodded, already slipping out the door back to his room.
“Alistair,” Reiss sat up higher. Her eyes focused on him turning back, but out of the corner she spotted the bottle. “Thank you for checking on me.”
A smile dawned upon his cheeks, that dimple denting like a crater. Placing two fingers to his lips, he blew a kiss at her and quietly closed the door behind him. She tried to return to sleep, her eyes screwed up tight while mentally willing herself to health. Without anything in it, her stomach did calm, and while some of the fever knocked her bones about, it too was parting. Reiss should be on the mend, but a toxic guilt darted in and out of her clinging conscious. Even shutting her eyelids as tight as possible, she could still see that damn bottle.
Giving up in a rage, Reiss threw the covers off her and rose to her feet. She blinked in surprise to find her candle burnt a good two or three hours lower, not having remembered falling asleep. All her mind kept playing over was the possibility that there might be something growing inside of her, and it was all her damn fault. Of course she knew the mechanics and what went into baking a baby, but it didn’t seem important. The Inquisition was good about providing any necessary supplies to its soldiers, no one wanting to have to build a nursery beside the armory. It was an interesting meeting when they gathered nearly every battalion to the great hall and the Commander, red faced and sweating, tried to explain what the little pink bottles were for and how any and all had access to them. No questions asked, he was very specific on that part before dashing away in a panic.
But, there was no way the King would know of them. Why would he need to? And if she’d inquired of Karelle or anyone else in the castle their very first question would be “Who’s the not-potential father?”
Those are all excuses, Reiss, excuses that aren’t going to turn back time and fix things. She picked up the bottle watching the liquid slush back and forth like the foamy waves of the sea. Right. She had to know, if only to come to a decision one way or the other.
Uncorking the bottle, a strange herby smell wafted free off the cork -- a bit like thyme mashed into lemon grass. Blood, it needed her blood. The potential mother’s...Maker’s breath. Shaking off the urge to run and hide under her bed, Reiss placed down the bottle and inspected her finger. It wouldn’t take much to prick, but Alistair would notice and wonder.
Wait, was she not going to tell him? If it was no, then there was no reason to. It wasn’t as if a no would have an effect on his life. And if it was a yes...?
Reiss shook her head, she’d slay that dragon when she came to it. An idea struck her, and she ran her finger up the healed scar tissue on the tip of her ear. It had faded to a scabby pink but it wouldn’t take much to slice open again. She could blame it on the fall. Yanking out the dagger in her hair, Reiss tugged her ear tight and slit open the edge of her skin.
Pain nipped at the wound, but the superfluous kind destined to fade quickly. Holding the edge of the dagger to her skin, Reiss squeezed up her ear, trying to worry a drop of blood onto the steel. Crimson wobbled upon the tip, her blood, an answer to a question she never thought to ask. Screwing up her courage, she dipped the dagger into the bottle and swirled it around. Her blood twirled through the clear liquid like a dancer of the veils spinning upon the tip of her toes before vanishing from the stage.
With one hand clinging tight to her wound, Reiss placed the bottle down onto the vanity and waited. Blue and she was safe, red and...and what? There were other answers, certainly. Maker knew plenty of other women when faced with such a choice did what was prudent and best for themselves. But...
Curling her knees up under her chin, Reiss watched the clear liquid the way a hawk trails a field mouse. If she carried a child of the King it would change everything in her life. She wouldn’t be Reiss, the guard who served in the Inquisition. People would only know her as the whore that birthed the half-elf bastard. And, there’s no reason for Alistair to even...
No. Reiss shook the idea away the second it took. He adores his children, all but worships them much to the nanny’s consternation. He’d probably love whatever grew inside of her too, but would it be as much? Or would he grow to hate her for bringing a threat to his real children into the world? Maker, and she didn’t even think of the Queen. It was one thing to push Reiss into filling up the King’s dance card as it were, but she’d have their affair rubbed in her nose every day.
Stupid, it was stupid to even consider the thought. A child? One known to be half elven, even if it came out the spitting image of the father, would be ridiculed by the gentry, questioned as being unfit for nearly anything that would normally befall someone with half royal blood in him. And what would become of the mother? People already kept their distance, if she began to bulge with obvious child -- a royal baby no less -- they’d kick her out of the guards. Then what? Would she be the aimless ghost drifting through the castle with only a child to keep her company?
She glanced over at the bottle that remained stubbornly clear. How long was this supposed to take? Merciful Andraste, what if it needed hours? Her fingers were already digging welts into her knees; any longer and she’d probably be able to get blood samples off her shins.
The very idea of living under the scrutiny of the palace, of having her entire life upended because of half of her blood mingling with the King’s terrified her. And yet... He was so adorable with his children, even the baby that seemed to humor his father. Alistair was right there rocking a crying Cailan and on occasion changing filthy nappies. He even had a few opinions on which clothing worked best for his son based upon how cold out it was. Mittens seemed to be a special focus.
Out of any man she could accidentally find herself pregnant with, he was perhaps the best she could ever imagine. Reiss’ hand wandered away from her knees, the palm cupping over her fluttering stomach as she tried to focus away from the bottle. It was foolish but she couldn’t stop picturing a little boy with blonde hair, bright green eyes, and a hint of a tip to his ears, toddling along after a father that kept slowing to let the child wrap his arms around the back of his legs. She knew two things with certainty: the gentry and the noble house would despise any child she could produce and also that Alistair would adore it.
Something began to flicker within the bottle. Her eyes honed away from this rosy future to the rocky present. A color undulated through the clear liquid, impossible to tell at first but as it began to grow stronger it looked like gold flecks sprinkled into the mix. What did gold mean? Was it inconclusive or...? Gripping tighter to her legs, Reiss inched forward off the bed. The gold began to twirl, creating a vortex within the bottle. Bubbles rose and burst at the top of the neck, popping more of the lemony scent into the air as it worked whatever magic powered it.
She practically pushed her face up to the glass as she caught rising up through the middle of the vortex a small speck of color. Catching a breath in her throat, she waited until she counted one, two, five, twelve specks gaining in momentum as the entire cylinder of the vortex turned blue.
There was no child. No baby.
Thank the Maker.
Reiss collapsed to the ground, her face pressing into the cool stone as she cried every prayer she could think of. She’d been rescued, the problem lifted from her shoulders in an instant. No baby to draw every self assured eye to her. No child rattling the line of succession the way...the way Alistair did.
As Reiss staggered up to her knees, she spotted tears streaking down her copycat in the mirror. Wiping them away with the back of her hand, she tried to smile at the good news, but it flipped over. Unable to reach her eyes, her cheeks sunk in and a dour yellow bloomed across her skin. No, don’t be foolish.
She shook it off, sliding back into the bed. She needed to heal. This was the best possible outcome, it was so obvious it was practically written across every inch of her skin. Having a child with the King of Ferelden would be a disaster for her life. Blinking, her eyes darted over to the bottle that was now half blue -- the color of a cloudless sky in summer. But, having a child with Alistair would be...
Would be what?
Snuggling deeper under her covers for warmth and something else, Reiss’ hand skirted over her empty stomach. She didn’t fall asleep right away, she was too busy making certain that the entire bottle turned blue. Waves like the sea washed over her vision as sleep began to knock against her. Bluer than the deepest ocean, the bottle’s vision soothed her with assurances that everything would be all right, but mixed in there was a sandy blonde with eyes as green as the seagrass.