Chapter 43: Wants & Needs
She hadn’t told him. Alistair was happy to see her up and walking about, happier when she managed to get some broth down, and practically squealing in delight when Reiss said she could handle riding on a horse for a week. How could she puncture through that? He’d been miserable with so many deaths hanging over his head, a cloud of both vengeance and despair working together to drive him to great pains to work off his nervous energy. Instead of bothering the sick woman, he turned his emotional fervor upon the dummies in his room. Reiss would often hear through her door the sound of a sword sticking into wood and slicing open canvas.
She thought about talking to him, letting him talk to her, but there were certain things the man refused to broach upon. His fear of death seemed to be a pretty big one, not that Reiss was in any mood to weigh her mortality either.
It would be cruel of her to tell him that for a brief window she thought she might be carrying his child. Which, of course, assumed he’d even have wanted one from her. They hadn’t known each other long, and had been intimate an even shorter amount of time. What was she doing thinking that the King would wish anything so permanent between the two of them? He’d probably find it as great of a relief as she did.
There was no reason for him to need to know.
Reiss kitted up for the first time since her illness, taking the time to hone her blade and oil up some of the joints that grew rusty, before returning to her room for the day. She knew the last of the assassins was being led to the gallows that very afternoon -- it was over. Her entire reason for standing behind the King, for sitting in on his meetings, for being let into his life, was about to be ripped from thedas. What was to come next?
“Reiss? You home?” Alistair’s voice echoed through their shared door.
“Yes,” she chuckled, rising off the bed and throwing open the door. “I am, but where are you?”
“In here,” he said, offering no hints to where that here was. Suddenly, his blonde head stuck out through the door at the far end of the room and he waved a hand. “Come on, come on.”
It was his bedroom. Reiss had seen the King naked in so many various ways and positions, lain upon him while watching the stars, felt his punch rattle through her bones, but in all the time serving him she’d never walked into his bedroom at his whim. Laying her hands against her still fluttering stomach, she crossed the threshold and took her first great stare around the room.
She’d barely looked around when he fell ill, most of her time spent pacing back and forth outside trying to not worry the floor and herself to death. Alistair was a surprising man in many respects; on top of the shelves and shelves of books -- stocked by the Hero of Ferelden perhaps -- and a few swords and shields stuck to the wall, there were trinkets of every make and type upon shelves, desks, a few even perched upon the floor when he ran out of room. While tchotchkes were a purview of the certain type of wealthy that could afford them, these were not golden antiquities designed to gain in wealth over time. Reiss spotted a hunk of wood that looked like it was plucked out of a river before someone carved a silly face into it. That shared the exact same spot next to a mechanical wonder box where a metal boat rowed upon undulating waves of silver.
Every inch of his room was incomprehensible, nonsensical, and all Alistair. Things without any value were treasured more than the most priceless gem. Reiss laughed at the idea, knowing where she fell in that ranking according to the world.
He turned at that, breaking away from a chest cracked open on his bed. “Sorry, I was getting into the packing zone as it were and didn’t hear you come in.”
“Packing zone?” she asked, rising up on her toes to try and glance inside the chest. Reiss was surprised it was nothing but clothing. She’d figured on a few of those golem dolls making it inside.
“You know: what do I need? Will it be cold? Will it be warm? Will there be swimming? Should I fear an attack of bears? Always plan for bears, they could be anywhere. Even sitting at your breakfast table sharing a bowl of oatmeal with you.”
Reiss cracked up at the certainty in his words. “I shall remember that, though I do intend to bring this,” she knocked at the hilt of her sword, “so that should help with any bears attempting to swipe my morning porridge.”
“They’re sneaky, never know when a bear might suddenly pop up sitting in your favorite chair.” Abandoning his packing, Alistair slid a hand around Reiss’ waist. He didn’t even pause at the cold metal.
Letting herself be tugged into his arms, she gripped onto him and said, “What about when they wind up in your bed? That’s the worst of them all.”
“Nah, you never get bears in bed. That’s too civilized for them. They all lay flat on the ground and pretend to be rugs. So when you’re sneaking across one for a midnight snack BAM! Rise up and bite your foot clean off.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“A lot of living, you mean. Never gonna get caught unaware by another sneaky bear ever again,” he sounded so sincere it almost caught Reiss, but then she spotted that ornery grin and, with a foolish smile upon her own mouth, she bounced a shoulder into him. Chuckling, Alistair placed his lips to her forehead for a quick kiss. “You’ve cooled down a lot.”
“Is that so?” Reiss asked, rising up on her toes to nuzzle deep into him. With a soft peck of her lips, she darted kisses up and down the sides of his neck. Grief plus stomach flu put a damper on her libido that was now begging to be unleashed.
Alistair stumbled at her growing affection, his mouth flapping and teeth chattering as he hung in shock a moment. She moved to free herself, when his mind seemed to have snapped back into his body. Alistair tugged her close for a kiss. Simple and succinct at first, as her fingers dug through his finery to find the muscles flexing below, his lips parted open. An ache echoed up her healing stomach that had nothing to do with her illness. She hungered for him, to have his touch be more than a comforting caress. It could be so much better.
Popping away, Alistair began to chuckle in his uncertain but happy mode, “I’m getting the impression you’re feeling much better.”
“Mm, you could say that,” Reiss clung closer, her fingers skirting under the hem of his shirt.
“Good,” he bumped his forehead into her like a clumsy dog, but didn’t race to make good on her half offer. “Because we should have plenty of, uh, free time to ourselves at the lodge.”
“Free time?” Reiss crinkled her nose in confusion, which drew a sigh to Alistair. Unable to help himself, he pecked a kiss at the side of her broken nose, the man truly enjoying whatever wrinkles occurred because of it.
“You know, free time. A chance to arrange our luggage by color, or inspect the linen count on the beds, or try to mimic every pose in the Love of War book,” Alistair’s voice bobbed up and down, his eyes darting around the room to land upon this supposed tome.
It was a crimson cover, which meant it probably wasn’t meant to be a proper technical manual for -- well, depended upon what one considered technical. She felt the blush deepen on her cheeks at how adorably he skipped around voicing the hope that there’d be a lot of sex on their vacation. Sex. Right. A dread dropped back in her gut, but Reiss tried to shake it off. She had to ask or the worry would burn through the marrow of her bones.
“About that, um, I was thinking or wondering if perhaps we should use some...special timing to prevent any accidents.”
Her true meaning obviously missed the mark, as Alistair shrugged, “There won’t be anyone for miles to worry about. People go out of their way to avoid me on hunting trips. It’s rather nice actually. I don’t know why I don’t go more often.”
“No, it...that’s not what I meant. I...” Reiss bounced back and forth on the balls of her feet, trying to get the words out. It should be simple, ‘I don’t want to be pregnant.’ But as he beamed his puppy dog eyes upon her, she felt herself falling deeper inside, her inner voice scurrying in fear that she was going to say something wrong.
Staggering away from him, Alistair’s smile froze and he held his hands open. Reiss began to pace back and forth while arguing in her head. Silence decimated the easy atmosphere, dragging his hands down until they dangled limply at his side. “Reiss?”
His plea of her name froze her in place. Screwing her eyes up tight, she spat out quickly, “I thought I was pregnant.”
Nary a peep echoed from Alistair at her revelation. Popping open an eye, she watched him standing stock still staring at her. “But I’m not. It was my illness, the healer seemed to think it could be a pregnancy but it wasn’t. Yet I took the test because I wasn’t certain and I keep thinking that...that I should, um...we.”
A soft chuckle broke from Alistair and he fluffed up his hair, “Is that all? It’s no problem.”
“What?!” she rounded on him, every anxiety induced second honing her anger to a diamond edge. “What do you mean no problem? A child would be...it’s not as if it’d be your body carrying it. Or, I mean, we’d be stuck together forever because of a baby and...”
Alistair frowned at her last sentence, his eyes flaring, “Would it be so bad to be stuck with me like that?”
“No,” Reiss shouted, a strange certainty gripping her tongue, before she backed down to a whimper, “I don’t know. I mean, we barely know each other and a child, with me...” She felt tears trying to burn in her eyes and snapped her lids tight to stop them. “The scandals alone, people staring and... Where would I even go? None of your advisors or chancellors, nor anyone in the alienage would suffer a half-elven bastard.”
“Joke’s on them,” Alistair whispered to himself. The cavalier attitude rubbed her raw, Reiss shirking back from him. His life wouldn’t be little more than inconvenienced to acknowledge another child while hers would be forever changed, perhaps even destroyed and he didn’t seem to give one shit for it.
Reading in the air that something was wrong, Alistair shook his head and tried to scrub his face, “Look, I’m not saying the idea wouldn’t be a problem for us to solve in the abstract way. I just mean it’s not an issue because if you did get pregnant...it wouldn’t be because of me.”
“What?!” growled out of Reiss’ throat. Was he really saying that it was even worse than she feared? That he’d abandon her, refuse to claim the child of his own in order to avoid the stigma of having little bastards running around? He’d turn his back on one of his own children, no doubt sentencing him or her to a life on the streets? Raw fire licked up her throat, the rage bursting with an unquenchable fear at the heart. She thought he was better than that.
“That isn’t...” he slapped his hands together and began to pace back and forth. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s that...” Alistair worried his fingers through his hair and in a broken voice whispered, “I can’t have children.”
“You have two,” she sneered, “one of whom is barely four months on the ground.”
At that Alistair reared back, her truth striking him hard. Was he really under the delusion that he could make himself sterile at will? Or was he once again refusing any responsibility without flat out admitting it? Maker, were there other women who’d birthed his bastards that he turned away? Reiss felt as if someone kept yanking fresh rugs out from under her.
Drifting away from her burning eyes, Alistair pinched into the bridge of his nose and began to sway as if he was trying to console himself. “They are my kids,” he said, his words punctuated by slow breaths, “but...” Alistair swallowed deep, but didn’t look at her. “I am incapable of creating children and have been for years and years. It’s part of being a Grey Warden.”
No. That couldn’t be right. He...it was a trick, or... Reiss’ sneering paused at the stricken look marring his cheeks. They dangled off his cheekbones like wet sheets on the line, a frown dragging them further downward. “I don’t understand. Are you telling me the princess and prince are not yours?”
“They are my children!” he shouted at the air, his hand smacking into the palm to emphasize it. Reiss felt her body want to cower, but she held her place. She had to. “Heart and soul mine. Heirs to the throne, carry the name...” His thunder rolled away and he wilted a moment, “just not the same blood.”
“The Brother,” Reiss meant to whisper to herself, but the King snorted once at it. People were quick to notice the Queen’s affections for a certain man almost always in her circle, and the rumors grew more rampant after Cailan opened those big blue eyes of his. Blue eyes that neither the King nor Queen possessed, but the friendly Brother always at Beatrice’s side shared with her newest babe. “Cailan I can see, but your daughter...”
Alistair didn’t speak but he nodded softly.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s none of your business,” he rose up from glaring at the ground, the thunder ringing in his words. “It’s none of anyone’s business but mine and...”
“Your wife’s,” Reiss cut back at him with. Sweet Maker, if he really wasn’t their father then had he and the Queen ever been together?
“I won’t let anyone hurt my daughter or son,” Alistair rose up higher in his shoes, his imposing frame filling the room. It quickly reminded Reiss how much smaller she was in comparison. “Not her future, nor the Maker damn succession to the throne. She is mine, my child, and no one can alter that fact!”
Reiss let his shout finish ringing in his room, the echo pinging off the swords and shields left to rot upon the walls. After a moment, she pursed her lips and softly nodded her head. Alistair deflated at her agreeing to keep the secret. It wasn’t as if she was in some lofted position where anyone would believe her anyway.
“You should have told me,” she whispered. The tremor in her gut was building, threatening to tear apart and spill forth all the demons she kept swallowing back. So many worries Reiss didn’t even notice festered inside her.
“It never mattered before,” Alistair resumed pacing. “Before my children, the women didn’t...they never asked. They could take care of it themselves if they wanted and I...” Groaning, he scrubbed his face, “I keep forgetting you’re not a mage.”
“Do you wish I was?” Reiss couldn’t bite down the wobble in her voice.
“What? No, Maker’s sake.”
“A mage, just like all the other mages before, to play with and then cast aside,” the tears started and she felt the tarp over her fears tear open. Every worry, every doubt burst through the hole crashing up her throat.
“That isn’t what happened,” Alistair jabbed at the air. “I’m not like that. Maker’s breath, I thought you knew me better than that.”
“How can I when you won’t tell me things? About you? About me? Our future? No,” Reiss tried to stem the tears with her hands, the cold metal of the gloves pressing against her cheekbones. “No children, no possibility of marriage, not even letting it out in the open. Nothing but secret meetings behind locked doors and stolen moments. That’s the only possibility with you. Forever.”
“What do you want from me?” Alistair shrieked, his voice scratching in agony. “I’m trapped under this damn crown, okay. If I could get out I would, but I can’t, ever.”
“You wouldn’t even try for the Hero of Ferelden,” Reiss shuddered, the woman’s words finally bursting to understanding behind her eyes. She would have to fight every day for him, for his attention, for a place in his life, and... A whimper rolled up her throat at the exhaustion from it all.
Alistair cracked at her words, his anger breaking in half and tumbling away to leave behind a tremble in his lip. “This is different, what we have is different.”
“I’m blighted trying!” Alistair shouted. “Fine, I didn’t tell you about the kid thing, I’m sorry. I was too busy thinking of protecting my children first.”
Reiss winced at that, understanding his thinking but unable to shake off the feeling of betrayal festering under her skin. He should have told her, or at least thought of her and offered up ways to combat pregnancy beyond knowing he was sterile.
“But I don’t want to lose you,” Alistair grabbed onto her hand and almost dropped to a knee to beg. “It’s why I made certain you had a job here, so you’d be close and...”
“That isn’t what I meant,” he growled while also groveling, always quick to defend his honor.
Reiss shook her head, a million thoughts stinging her mind like hornets. Her heart beat erratically, the blood rushing through her ears while a single fact rang in her head. “I...I can’t do this. I thought I could, but...”
“Reiss,” he begged, both hands clinging tight to hers while his eyes tried to find her.
She could finally see her future with him, the true one without romance’s rosy glasses getting in the way. There’d be no certainty, no children, only whispered promises as ethereal as a soap bubble. Even her job depended fully upon the King’s whims, Reiss already well aware of the Commander’s opinion of her. Cade still called her Corporal to her face. The second she displeased Alistair, she’d lose everything: her job, her home, him. But this wouldn’t even be a home, with every person too afraid to either befriend or despise her. Reiss would be a ghost drifting through the halls, touching no one and nothing save the King.
Even worse than Ethan.
“I thought I was strong enough,” she whimpered, wishing her words could make it so. That somehow steel would pour through her spine, shoring her steps to shake off any fears she’d have from Cade, and harden her heart to the loneliness of a life without friends or even acquaintances. She’d survived it before, for years, but that wasn’t living. Even with him in her life, Reiss would wither away, only instinct and routine carrying her onward to death.
She tried to tug her hands out of his, but Alistair seemed frozen, his eyes staring through her. At her movement, he focused anew upon her face and swallowed hard, “Please, please don’t do this. Don’t leave me. Not now, not after...”
Tears dripped down her eyes even as she tried to suck them back into place. Crying wasn’t helping, but she couldn’t stop. Her heart was banging against its cage, begging to take back everything she said and fall into his arms. But her brain turned away from it, knowing that this was the only answer.
Alistair’s eyes burned red, his skin paling whiter than snow as he watched her grow more set in her decision. “Reiss, I don’t want to lose you.”
Her legs wobbled below her, the tremors knocking her about as she tried to mentally distance herself, “I’m certain that in time...”
“Maker’s sake, I love you!” he shouted, a single sob punctuating the sentence.
“No,” her hands slipped out of his, Alistair coming undone from his own confession. “It’s not...” She shook away his words, certain that they were nothing more than a desperate cry from a man not getting his way. “I can’t do it. I wish I could, but I’m not right for you.”
“Just like that?” he clung to himself while trying to hang on to the threads between them Reiss shredded apart. “After everything I’ve, everything we...”
She should say something, explain how the world wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t ever let them be, but her throat constricted tight. Too many sobs were crowding out her words. Tears welled up, ready to burst free and all Reiss could do was slowly nod her head. Before Alistair could reach out and beg again, let his earnest charms win her over to him until Reiss became a shell of herself, she fled out of his room to her own. The tears burst free from her eyes, already streaming down her cheeks.
Behind her she heard Alistair collapse to a knee and hiss, “Maker damn it all!”
Slamming the door behind her, Reiss fumbled for the key in her pocket and for the first time locked it between them. Not because of what he would do, but fearing that her heart would drag her back to him. After testing the latch, the keys scattered from her fingers and she plummeted to her ass. Fingers tried to cover up the tears that may never stop pouring from the wound in her soul. Rocking back and forth, Reiss tried to cling to her single shred of sanity.
Through the door she could hear Alistair moaning. In a voice to match him, she whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”