Guarded Love

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Chapter 46: A Turn

Everything hurt. Reiss would lift up her sleeves expecting to find gouges shredding apart her skin and bruises popping up like mushrooms after the rain. But there was nothing. All the pain she felt ransacking her body was on the inside.

And it was her fault.

Karelle had been quiet and asked few questions of her. She had to wonder who drew first blood, wanting to supply that ever churning gossip mill that Reiss once had access too. Then again, perhaps they preferred to make up their own tales and not have the far more mundane truth to weigh it down. After returning the armor to the stand and handing the chamberlain her sword, Reiss’ decision smashed down against her head. This was it. She’d given up on everything in her potential glass future, pretty but forever cold and untouchable, for a gaping unknown. It was too late to go back even if she wanted to. Alistair...the King was already a days travel out of Denerim. And it was doubtful he’d want her back anyway.

She could feel the glares and impolite whispers trailing her, everyone who’d poked fun at their King suddenly railing to his side against this heart breaking interloper. Reiss didn’t fight it, in truth she deserved it. She’d been the one to kiss him, to pursue what they had between them and at the last second balked. Everything was on her. Maybe if she confessed it all to the chantry Mother, Reiss would receive the proper lashings she had coming.

Clutching tight to the trunk holding her few belongings, Reiss slowly inched down the hallway. In her room she’d left everything gifted to her by the chamberlain and...him -- toiletries, towels, even the bandages. For a moment her fingers had lingered over the flowers, their petals fading with age but still clinging to the stem. A painful reminder of each time when he’d slip a hand over her back, kiss her with his full heart, and then happily plop another into the vase.

Unable to toss the flowers out, Reiss laid each one upon the vanity to dry. Moisture would leech from the petals, crackling them to a dead brown but preserve something of what had once been, just like her heart. She felt the tears struggling to come out again at the thought, but the stomp of boots bouncing up and down the hallway paused her. Cade was leading a batch of the guards through the palace for no good reason beyond keeping them fresh.

He didn’t even glance at the woman who almost worked for him, clinging to her chest on the stairs. What did he care of her? It was one less knife-ear cluttering up his job. The disciplined guards hoofed it through the atrium, the clicks and clacks of their boots echoing in the wake. Reiss didn’t realize her legs were shaking until she moved to take a step and almost tumbled the entire way down the stairs. Maker, she couldn’t do this. Where was she even going to go? She tried to think of who to press upon until she could get her feet back, but every picture of her cowering away in someone else’s home drew forth another crying fit. It didn’t matter which building she wound up in, whether it was in the alienage or the fanciest tavern in Denerim -- every single one didn’t have him.

Maker, damn her!

Too late, she already did it to herself.

Reiss wiped at the tears with her hand, growing used to the never ending stream, before gripping onto the railing and working her way back down. Beyond the door was the second set of stairs that led her out of the palace proper and out of his life for good.

“Excuse me, you’re not allowed entrance in here,” one of the guards spoke up, shifting quickly to fill the entryway.

“Says who?” the voice of Lunet drew Reiss instantly to try and peer over the guard’s shoulder. She had to stretch, but sure enough the dark haired elf stood with hands on both her hips glaring at the man. “I happen to be with the City Watch.”

“Is that so?” the guard drawled, in no mood for a random knife-ear’s shenanigans.

“What? You think every elf nicks themselves a watch uniform just to go waltzing up to the King’s bedroom to rifle through his knickers?”

Reiss winced at the sarcasm, knowing how well it would go over, but nothing would stop Lunet. Not even the guard groaning while sliding a hand towards the sword on his hip. “Ma’am, do not make me tell you again to exit these premises.”

“But you’re doing such a delightful job at it. I’m here for someone, okay.” Lunet continued to badger him, her persistence wearing on even Reiss’ nerves. If she came for Harding, she was using the wrong entrance and approach. What if...? No, Reiss shook off the idea the second it entered her mind. She didn’t know if she should stay rooted in place and wait for Lunet to leave or find her own back exit.

The guard gripped onto the sword and sneered, “Who are you here for?”

“My friend,” Lunet stated with certainty.

“It’s okay,” Reiss spoke from behind, her soft voice turning the guard inward to reveal her to Lunet. Those dark eyes blinked at the pathetic sight before her, but she held her tongue. “I can vouch for her.”

The guard knew Reiss, everyone blighted knew her thanks to...her failing, and he was quick to tip a head down as if afraid the King’s ex-mistress had any power left to wield. “I didn’t realize, please move on inside,” he gestured to Lunet, but Reiss walked past him, the case dragging against the ground as her arms gave in.

She slid towards Lunet to whisper, “You can probably head in now.”

“What the shit for?”

Reiss swallowed down her rough words and tried to smooth them over, “To talk to Harding.”

“Maker’s breath, Rat. I’m here for you,” Lunet cursed at her before she wrapped her arms around Reiss and tugged her close. The tears wouldn’t stop now, salt burning across her broken skin as each new pain stung her even harder. She buried her head into Lunet’s shoulder and tried to grip back with one hand clinging to the chest.

“I thought you, you hated me. Yelled at me.”

Lunet clucked her tongue as if she was trying to guide an errant horse. “Come on, let’s get you out of here first.”

Reiss offered up no resistance to being manhandled out of the opulent palace she’d nearly thought of as a home. After a few steps, Lunet released the hold on her, but kept a hand up behind her back as if fearing Reiss was about to turn around and rush back inside. Few people paced up and down the thoroughfare just beyond the palace gates, the day too hot for those who didn’t need to be in it.

It would have been proper if the guards rolled the gate shut after she stepped past it, but it rarely closed. Instead, Reiss was left to stare unimpeded without bars blocking the way back at the open door letting any and all walk inside -- at least until coming to a guard wondering why someone needed to be near the royal quarters for. Knots twisted up and down her guts, as if someone was wringing each one to try and bleed her dry. This was her choice, damn it. Why did she hate it so much?

“How,” Reiss struggled to speak, finally turning away from the castle and him, “did you know to come find me?”

“We got the order today that you were being transferred back to the guard station,” Lunet sighed.

She was? Alistair didn’t say anything about that, he couldn’t even look at her after what she did. Reiss assumed that her old life would be gone, and she’d have to rebuild again from scratch.

“And I knew what that meant. If he was kicking you out of ‘Arlathan,’” Lunet waved her hand at the palace, “then you were going to need me.”

“I...” Reiss tried to fight off the despair circling her like fog on a moor but there was no hope. The chest tumbled out of her hands as she dug both arms around herself. Lunet was quick to snatch up the nearly empty luggage and then try to hug her friend. “Thank you. I thought I...that I messed everything up. Ruined it all for...”

“We’re in this together, Rat. A little punch drunk idiocy isn’t going to scare me off,” Lunet smiled at her, then her eyes gazed back at the palace. “It might take a bit of work to form an angry mob, but do you need us to rattle our sabers outside the King’s bedroom?”

She was trying for a joke, but it stung so hard against Reiss’ aching heart. Burying her head tighter to Lunet’s shoulder she spat out quickly, “It was me, not him. I...I stopped it, broke it off before...”

Lunet sighed, her eyes watching the tears streaking down the side of her uniform. “Good to know there’s some brains rattling around in that head of yours. Do you...want to talk about it?”

Everything hurt.

Breathing hurt. Thinking hurt. Living hurt.

She’d had this happen before but her being the one to throw the dagger somehow shattered her more than Ethan turning his back on her ever did. Reiss did this to herself, because she wasn’t made of the good stuff, she couldn’t fight against everything she’d lose at his side. She was a coward. Every thought of him bit back at her twofold, because she caused it all.

“No, not now,” Reiss shrugged out of Lunet’s arms, aware that more than a few very curious eyes were wondering about the two elven women hugging each other. How many others in Denerim knew that she got close to the King? How long would those rumors trail her? To the pyre?

Passing over the chest, Lunet adjusted the dagger stuck in Reiss’ hair. She didn’t even remember knotting it up in there this morning. It was such a reflex that her muscles did it without thinking, without reminding her that there was no point. Her life was a broken road, the next step on it so far in the distance she couldn’t make it out in the fog. Reiss glanced over at her friend and felt the tug of a smile in her heart. At least she didn’t have to do it alone this time.

With a slower gait than normal, Reiss began the long walk back to her district. It was doubtful she’d ever again set foot here. Silence fell between the two of them, Lunet taking up the rear as if she needed to watch Reiss out of fear of fainting or suddenly leaping to her death. On that she need never worry; Reiss’ survival streak always kept her digging her claws into life.

“How long do I have to wait for the ‘I told you so?’”

Lunet chuckled at her assessment. “I’ll give you awhile to wallow. Maybe a few weeks.”

“Thanks for small favor, I guess,” Reiss mumbled. She couldn’t fall back into bed out of heartbreak. For starters, she didn’t have one. Nor could she afford to give into the frozen abyss nesting in her chest. They’d need her in the guards, probably right away. The Captain wasn’t known for overlooking time off, even if it was in service of the King. Shems could afford the time and energy to be sad, but not her. Emotions were too expensive for the poor and downcast. Alistair could...

No, Reiss shook her head. Arls, Banns, the various rich merchants that flocked in and out of the palace -- they could all take weeks or months in bed bemoaning a great loss, but they’d have him smiling and waving to all regardless of how terribly she hurt him. The Elven King was one of many nicknames for him, strangely the latter coming both from those who tossed around knife-ear without thought, as well as the alienage elves. It was just who said it that determined if it was a good thing or bad. She hadn’t considered the nickname much for him; even the Shems who liked to pretend they were elves and really embraced the culture wouldn’t set foot in the Alienage at night. But he had, and he loved koomtra for some Maker damn reason.

He was the Elven King, and an elf broke his heart.

Oh no.

“Lune, do you think there’d be a...that he’d...”

“Can’t read your mind, Rye, no matter how hard I stare at the back of your skull.”

Reiss slowed to a halt and dug her fingers into the handle on her chest, “Because of what I did, would there be a purging of...” She couldn’t say it aloud, couldn’t even think it.

“I dunno,” Lunet shrugged. “I’ve heard of purges for pettier reasons. What do you think?”

No. He wouldn’t. He cared. Even if she stole his heart away, Reiss wasn’t the one to make him notice elves. He did that all on his own. “I’m tired,” she groaned, her body swaying as the lack of sleep caught up with her.

“Come on,” Lunet was quick to catch her, “I need to get you back to the guardhouse for check in.”

“Is that what you were sent to do?” Reiss squinted at the official armor Lunet never wore off duty. Not for any official protocol reason beyond she hated the cheap shit, and corsets worked better to her advantage.

“Psh,” Lunet blew air up through her lip, scattering her hair backwards, “you think Fatain gives two copper plated shits about you, or me, or anyone under his command.”

“But you’re on the beat,” Reiss pointed down her chest as if her friend forgot she was in uniform.

“I can see you’re sharp as ever. They found a body floating in the ditch and it’s got the entire guardhouse in a tizzy. Barricaded off sections of the street and everything. Figured no one would notice if I nipped off to find you.”

Reiss was grateful that she’d risk repercussions to help her, but that good girl that clung to rules was about to scold Lunet for doing it. She wasn’t worth a dock in pay or potential firing. “I’m hardly an...wait, a body. Since when does anyone on the watch care about a single dead body? Now a dozen, sure, but just one?”

“Aye, bit weird, eh? Saw some crimson down there too.”

Not just city watch but the royal guards as well. Reiss’ mind whirred far from the pain nestling in her gut, grateful to cling to this new mystery.

“Not like the dead guy’s got anything interesting to him. Average height, average frame, average hair color, in an average death. Cut across the throat.”

“A man with brown hair and neither tall nor short,” Reiss repeated, the back of her mind blaring at her.

“It’s what I said.”

“Was there any identification on the body? A name, address, a tattoo?” Reiss whipped around, already beginning to pace back and forth as the thoughts burst behind her eyes.

“Noo, nothing. Though,” Lunet tapped a finger to her chin, and Reiss all but froze mid-twist hanging upon her next word with rapt attention. “There was these burns on his fingertips and up his hand. Not like normal fire neither. I overheard some people mention magic.”

“But magic doesn’t burn mages, and if they used it to attack someone they wouldn’t aim for their fingers.” Reiss ignored the dozen of people glancing in the crazy elf’s direction. No doubt they were about to flag down a guard to cart her away for displeasing their view of the district, but she didn’t care. “It wouldn’t make those marks unless it was blocked by a shield!”

Lunet seemed less than impressed by Reiss’ thoughts. “How do you know that?”

“I’ve seen it before, when fighting against the Venatori in the Inquisition. Their fire would reflect off a shield if one got close enough and scorch back upon the mage. It wasn’t an across the battlefield move, usually came up from surprise attacks.” Reiss remembered having to scrub the magic ash off her shield where it burnt in even at a few dozen feet. That up close and personal against a mage and you’d have to practically replace your shield.

“Rye, I’m starting to worry about you. Your eyebrow’s gone all twitchy like,” Lunet pointed at her, but Reiss didn’t listen.

This could be the big break, what Harding was looking for. A link back to the assassins that... Reiss’ momentum tumbled off the cliff, her body slumping as she stopped. It didn’t matter to her. If the royal guards were there then Harding already knew. She’d consult with the King and track down the last threads she could find. Reiss had nothing to contribute, no help to give beyond trying to weasel her way back into a life she turned away from.

Accepting her place in life as a glorified statue that could growl on command, Reiss hugged her chest tighter and glanced over at Lunet. Her eyes watered a moment, something off. It wasn’t until she glanced down at her hip that Reiss asked, “Where’s your sword?”

“Oh, that blighted thing. So,” Lunet waved her hand, trying to get Reiss to move along. She fell in, the stares of the rich breaking through the armor her excitement put up. “Don’t know if you know, but my little Lacey hired our watch house to take out the assassins.”

“She did? Why?”

Lunet shrugged, “Figured we didn’t have any possible attachment to any fancy pants assassins, us being the ones to bring in all the Zea dogs before. And needing supplemental bodies to go through the smoke cause we ain’t worth as much as real guards. Anyway, in raiding the place, grabbing people, heading back in, I smashed my hilt in that Maker cursed rock. You know the one that jutted out in the most annoying place. I ignored it, but the cheap thing finally broke so it’s off at the shop getting repaired.”

That rock caught her too, Reiss having to dodge quickly away. Something in the curve of the tunnel made it impossible to see on the way down, causing anyone who hadn’t been in the tunnel often to bang into it. A person larger than her would probably crash into it more often, denting up even the...

Color drained from Reiss’ face as a memory waved itself in front of her eyes. Spinning in place, Reiss dropped her chest to grip onto Lunet’s armor. “Which side was it?!”

“What are you on about?”

“Your hilt, which side of your hilt was damaged?”

“The left,” Lunet warily eyed up her friend, afraid she was about to snap.

The memory flared back of the left side of a hilt smashed up, as if it were rammed into something by a person stumbling into the Zea Dogs cave. He wasn’t used to it, failed to adjust the few times he had to be there right before the naming day assassination attempt. No one would think much of it, swords were often getting damaged, and there hadn’t been time to fix it until after. Oh Maker.

“I have to go!” Reiss shouted, she began to run down the street, leaving the chest holding all her belongings in her wake as well as Lunet. Luckily the latter was wise enough to haul up the former and give chase.

“Hey! Where are you going?” Lunet tried to flag down Reiss heading back to the palace.

“To warn someone, they have to get a raven out to...” He was alone, almost as alone as a King ever got and it was unlikely that he’d be the first to see her message. If they knew that someone was on their trail then she’d be as good as ordering his death.

Reiss skidded to a halt, her boots digging into the cobblestones as she tried to pry apart her brain for an answer. Think, Rat. She couldn’t let this happen, couldn’t send him to his death without trying.

“What in Andraste’s boob sweat are you doing?” Lunet gasped, grabbing onto her arm and trying to throw the luggage back into Reiss’ arms. But she wouldn’t take it, her eyes trying to see through a couple hundred miles.

“The King,” Reiss gasped.

“I know, Rye, I get it. It hurts, and it’s gonna hurt for awhile...”

“No,” Reiss waved her hand, trying to buzz away any doubt clinging to her. She could be wrong, her evidence was as thick as a single strange of spider silk, but if she was right and didn’t do anything... “Lune, his life is in danger right now.”

“Oh Maker, I thought we’d have a few days until you slipped into the delusional stage,” Lunet groaned.

“Listen,” Reiss grabbed onto the collar of her armor and yanked her closer, “If I’m right, there was a conspiracy to get someone close enough to the King to kill him and either blame it on a common street thug gang or make it look like an accident. Except that failed, and they were scrambling to find a new plan when I... Shit. Shit, shit, shit!”

“What?”

“I let them,” Reiss sobbed. Her guilt tried to drown out the determination but she wouldn’t let it. Not now. “I walked away and that left an opening. Shit! Who knows who’s...Lune, I have to get to him.”

“Get to who? What the void is going on?” Lunet stuttered, her eyes marking everyone watching them.

“Alistair,” Reiss gasped, “he’s in trouble, please. I know you think it’s me being stupid and maybe it is. Maybe I’m so lovesick I’m not thinking clearly, but if I’m right, Blessed Andraste, he could die. Please Lune.”

She blinked slowly, “Where is he?”

“On his way to the Hinterlands, with a two day head start,” her heart began to sink. What if she was too late? What if they pulled him into the bushes, murdered him, and blamed a bandit? “I have to get a horse,” Reiss spun around, trying to remember where any of the stables were located.

Breaking into a run, Lunet trailed behind trying to get her friend to stop but there was no time. She’d wasted too much already crying in bed. If she was too late...? Reiss found not the royal stables, but one of the high class ones where the horses ate oats that were hand milled by courtesans or other such nonsense.

A shemlan wearing a broad rimmed hat was patting the nose of one. He didn’t even look over at the elves dashing into his stable until Reiss, with punctuated breaths, gasped out, “Your fastest horse, how much does it cost?”

The man tutted his tongue and slowly drew his arm away from the black filly. Turning to her, he placed a hand on the stable door and clucked his tongue, “Seventy five sovereigns. If you’re looking for something in your price range I believe we may have a mule out back. It’s unbroken, but...”

Reiss dug into her satchel and, barely needing to count, dumped a pile of gold into his greedy hand. “There’s a hundred, I expect the horse saddled and ready to go now.”

He blinked madly, his eyes practically bulging at all the coin weighing down his hand. “Ha, ma’am, do you expect me to...these coins could be counterfeit. I could be caught breaking the law.”

Lunet stepped forward and tapped her shiny chest, “I am the law, now get the lady her horse or you and the law are going to have a little talk. We clear?”

Nodding at Lunet’s vague threat, he dropped the coins into a chest -- which he locked tight as if afraid the elves were about to steal it -- before rushing off to prepare a horse. Reiss doubted she’d get the best, but anything was better than her having to hoof it by foot.

“You’re supposed to report in today,” Lunet said. “I could explain away a one day absence, tell Fatain you were there the whole time he just forgot, but Reiss, if you do this you’ll be gone over a week. There won’t be a job waiting for you here.”

“I...” Her head dropped down. She knew that if she got this wrong, it would look to Alistair as if she was making a pathetic ploy for his attention -- which he’d probably reject, and there’d be no reason to return to Denerim. But if she didn’t try and he died... “I have to, Lunet,” Reiss begged her friend. “If he dies, if I lose him to that...”

“Okay,” Lunet nodded, her lips lifting in a hard smile.

“You...you’re okay with it?” Reiss couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This was the same woman that shouted her hoarse when she found out about the relationship. Lunet shrugged, her lips pursed in contemplation, when the man tugged a horse forward. She was a beautiful bay with an almost auburn mane. Instinctively, Reiss patted her nose, earning her a nuzzle.

“I assume you know how to ride one of these,” the man glared at her, still in denial he had to service elves any of his goods.

Reiss nodded and without a second thought saddled up. Her legs strained to reach the stirrups but there wasn’t time to adjust. She had to chase after the King’s caravan. Plucking up the reins, Reiss turned the horse around and aimed out to the road.

“Be careful out there, Rat,” Lunet ran up beside the horse and tugged at Reiss’ fingers. “The world’s not gonna like it if you fail.”

She tipped her head, well aware that there were a dozen ways this could destroy her life. Even going would end some of her future, but she had to. She couldn’t lose him like this. “I will, Lune.”

“You said lovesick, you know,” she said, her eyes darting across the picked clean stable ground. “It’s why I think you should go. So...get to it. I’ll keep your stuff safe. Go and save the King already.”

Smiling once at her friend, Reiss dug in tight with her legs and the bay broke into a run. The dust of Denerim quickly faded to flying dirt of the road as she raced across country to save the man she tried to leave.

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