Guarded Love

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Chapter 5: Parentage a Trois

He played the King all day, ordering people to do things while standing regally beside the throne and - more often than not - glowering. Normally people would stagger up to attention and maybe give a hearty wave at Alistair as he sauntered past through the halls of the palace. Sometimes, when in a cheeky mood, he’d stop a servant and ask where the bathroom was. Now, he blew past everyone, barely bothering to say a word. A few guards milling on the stairs leaped back as their King rounded on the staircase, muttering apologies for not anticipating him, but Alistair didn’t have time for any of that. He had one last important meeting to get to, the one that he’d been aching for the entire day.

No one stood guard at the door, though Maker knew how long that semblance of serenity would last. In fact, the door was left wedged open, a strange green and blue light wafting through the gap. Smiling to himself, he remembered when the merchant presented the balls to the King as a gift. They lasted about five minutes in his possession before someone else discovered their amazing ability to alter the color of fire.

Leaning into the door, Alistair stepped into the nursery. There used to be a crib right by the closed window, but its occupant grew too big and the newest addition was too tiny to be trusted inside it. He glanced over at the partition that was supposed to hide away her trundle bed, but the blankets were all tucked into place, nary a toy scattered from the pile on her pillows.

As he stepped further in, he turned a corner to spot the fireplace roaring to an eerie purple as another color took hold. Marn kept a tight grip on the princess’ arm so she wouldn’t lurch forward and try to make friends with the flames. Smacking her chubby hands together, they missed in her eternal joy as the toddler bounced up and down from the fire’s pretty colors.

“Again!” she commanded, turning to look up at Marn who sighed, and in reaching for one in the basket on a shelf, caught Alistair lurking in the shadows. Spud followed suit and a squeal broke from her throat. “Daddy!”

He didn’t actively fall to his knees, his body folded in half plummeting him towards the ground as his daughter dashed forward to wrap her sticky fingers around him. Whatever gooey substance was digging over his shoulders with her hug also coated the little cheek burrowing into his chest. Alistair pulled her so tight to him there was no way anything bad or evil could get in.

Maker, he nearly lost her. Lost everything.

During every damn meeting to prove the King was fine, that the throne was secure, that they were on it to find the culprits and bring them to justice or at least drag them behind a horse for a few miles Alistair would glance up at the second floor and ache to scoop his daughter into his arms. They kept telling him she was fine, Teagan reported she fished out a quill and took to doodling, even Marn wandered by at one point carrying dinner for Spud -- who decided a few weeks past she would only eat red foods. But none of it felt real, he didn’t believe them until he could hold her tight and know in his heart that she was safe.

“Daddy?” she whispered against him, caught up in the hug.

“Yeah, Spudkins?”

“Can I play?”

A laugh broke through his throat, and Alistair started at the realization he was crying. Releasing his hold on Spud, he staggered up to stand and tried to wipe away the evidence quickly. “Sure, sure,” he nodded, his breath shaking every word, “go ahead.”

“There will be no playing tonight,” Marn spoke up, defying the rule of her King.

Spud spun around and glared at her nursemaid. “But Daddy said...”

“Young Lady, you have been given ample excuses tonight. We’ve even put Mister Tibbles to bed,” Marn gestured at a taxidermy frog from the library Spud took as her own, currently tucked cozily beneath one of her mother’s kerchiefs. “It is time for you to sleep.”

Her quibbling bottom lip stuck out, but it had no bearing on Marn who batted it away with an easy swipe of her mother bear paw. The one who couldn’t stand it was Alistair. “Come on, Marn. After the day she’s had...”

“It is best she return to her routine,” Marn insisted, crossing her hands over her chest.

“I wanna play wif Daddy!” Spud insisted in her outdoor voice. Being two she didn’t really have an indoor voice; there was her typical bellow and then a true wrath of a volcano scream when something set her off.

“She’s right, Tater Tot,” Alistair said, stepping up to bat for Marn. The nursemaid turned a surprised eye on him, as if he had the same temperament as a toddler. “Come on, I’ll put you to bed. Okay?” He asked that last part at Marn who opened her hands and shrugged. There had been a contentious battle over the years with the nursemaid of the opinion that fathers were best kept far from their children unless the fruits of their loins were cleaned, pressed, and starched to a nameless perfection while Alistair would often be the one coating Spud in jelly.

He expected a fight this time because he never got the putting to bed part right, but Marn acquiesced her power to the ass on the throne. Nodding once, Alistair turned to Spud and asked, “Do you have your jammies on?”

She picked at the play dress someone slipped on her after they left the square and shook her head violently.

“Why don’t you go and get them?” Alistair asked, causing Spud to smile wide while nodding in excitement. Dashing off to her chest, she tried to heave the lid open but it stuck. Before she had to say a word, Alistair lifted it up to help her and held it steady.

While his daughter all but climbed inside to find her pajamas, Marn clapped him on the shoulder.

“I shall attend to the baby under the Queen’s care.” Her eyes cast over Spud who was half buried in a pile of socks. “It was a near thing.”

“Yes,” Alistair tried to shake off the sob building in his head. He had a training dummy in his room that was going to lose a few limbs tonight. “Yes it was.”

“Good luck,” Marn said as she slipped towards the middle door that led to the Queen’s chambers.

“We’ll find the ones who hired the assassins,” Alistair whispered while watching Spud dig deeper into her pile of clothes, trousers scattering through the air. Maker, two was far too young to learn what an assassin was.

“I was thinking more good luck in getting my Lady dressed for bed,” Marn said. A smug look permeated her face as she slipped through the side door and slowly closed it.

“What...?” Alistair began before hearing Spud pop out of the chest and shout.

“I’m done!”

She had a pair of bathing trunks on over her chest, yanked a skirt up under her armpits, and then topped it all off with a pair of socks on each of her ears. “Andraste’s flaming sword,” Alistair groaned. Heaving his shoulder into the lid, he dug into the chest. “Spud, you can’t sleep in that.”

“Why not?”

“Marn’d skin me alive for starters,” he said. They had to be around here somewhere. In her digging, Spud completely obliterated any sense of organization there ever was. His daughter found the predicament she put him in hilarious as she jabbed a finger at her stomach protruding above a tight waistband before turning to poke at him.

Alistair barely noticed the child’s finger jabbing into his forehead and cheek as he finally found what he was looking for. “Ah ha!” he pronounced, unfurling the fabric as if it was the flag of Ferelden. “How about you wear these instead?” One piece, with socks sewn onto the bottom for a princess who kept losing hers, these jammies were special because someone took the time to mimic the look of armor with fancy stitching giving the illusion of mail below a chest piece and greaves. They were the only trump card Alistair had in his deck and thankfully, Spud adored them.

“Yes!” she squealed, already ripping her bathing shorts off.

While Alistair helped his daughter into them, he said a silent prayer of thanks to the one who gifted them these magical pajamas. Spud would wear them every day all day if she could, parading back and forth in her special armor just like Daddy. Marn objected, and even Bea insisted she needed to appear like a proper lady in front of the gentry, but on occasion Alistair would secret her out in them to sit on his shoulders while they inspected the troops together. It wasn’t any big surprise that Marn kept such a tight watch on him.

Kitted out properly, Spud happily crawled under her covers and then yanked out a book she insisted Alistair read. It was over a foot thick on some magical theory involving thaumatic energy and the splitting of a headache or that was as far as he understood it. Somehow, it also became Spud’s favorite. He suspected it was her way to try and draw out their time together, but she would squeal in laughter whenever he did the funny voices.

“According to acclaimed mage Tiberius Numbertity Bumbersnatch,” Alistair said, bouncing a finger under his nose to mimic a mustache far more impressive than his wispy thing. “Thaumatic energy can be harnessed in only one form, as lyrium. Due to the,” a yawn broke as he turned the page to follow the dry sentence. Spud copied it, her own fist -- bundled around a dolly’s armored hand -- racing to cup her mouth. He was getting close. “A hem,” Alistair shifted in his seat, trying to blink away his own urge to fall face first onto the floor and not wake up for a good ten hours. “Due to the resonance of lyrium upon its extraction from various veins below the surface of the earth, there are questions as to the validity of Tiberius’ theories. Item one, if mana can only be derived from...”

He paused, glancing over the top of the leather bound mole smasher to catch Spud’s eyelids drooping. She shook sleep away, trying to rise higher, but it had a tight grip upon the girl. “Can only be derived from the source of lyrium,” Alistair continued, making certain his voice drifted to a whispered monotone. “...then we must question why is it capable of being harvested in both liquid and, and...”

The book didn’t skip, he wasn’t reading the boring sentence anymore as he watched Spud’s head fall flush against her pillow, her emeralds sealed off tight behind her eyelids. Alistair waited a few breaths, watching his daughter snuggle deeper into the fade. Silently closing the tome and placing it on its reserved spot upon the nightstand, Alistair slid out of his reading chair. He began to inch away, when he paused to watch the serenity of the picture before him. It wasn’t the princess sleeping blissfully in her perfect pink dress while various woodland creatures watched in awe. She was his daughter, hair plastered and misshapen with a cowlick rising from the back, holding tight to a doll that came with her own set of wooden swords, and the special fireplace powder coated along her cheek.

Risking waking her and having to delve back into lyrium theories he’d never understand, Alistair inched closer to the bed. Dipping down, he placed a soft kiss against her forehead and then tried to gently wipe away the glittering green dust. He mostly smeared it around, but there’d probably be a wash in her future soon. Spud smacked her lips but didn’t awake. “I’ll come back for you,” he whispered to her, “always.”

With his daughter down and safe in her dreams, it was time for the even more awkward part of his day. Opening up the side door, he followed Marn into the Queen’s chambers. This was an entirely separate world for him. While most of the palace was functional in that down home, maybe we sanded out most of the splinters kind of way, Bea had an aesthetic that was all her own. It wasn’t Orlesian, not by any means, but it felt priceless, antique in the good way instead of trying to spin something that was a mouse infested dresser into gold. He hated coming in here because he was afraid he’d breathe on a vase from the Calenhad days and shatter it. Even the few times he’d venture into Redcliffe castle proper as a child he didn’t fear scuffing a rug as much as he did padding through his wife’s bedroom.

A few handmaidens sat beside the fire, prodding into it with a poker as if they had nothing else to do. Though, that was probably true. They glanced over at the King and scattered off the ground like song birds, but he waved them away. “It’s okay. Just here to see the missus.”

“As you say, Sire,” the redhead said. He should probably know their names. Bea only had two to carry her dress and do other things handmaidens did but they slipped through his mind like sand out of a colander every time he tried.

“Is she...?” he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the bedroom with the bed part in it.

“Yes,” the muted brown one spoke up. “She is with your son.” He’d figured that, be a bit weird to keep the baby in the stables. The handmaidens shared a look before adding, “As well as Brother Cordell.”

“Ah, good,” Alistair said, he’d been hoping the good, no-longer-a-Brother was around. The handmaidens both blushed a moment, their hands covering their mouths as if they had some terrible secret they were keeping from him. He tried to not take it too personally, the whole situation was a bit confusing if you stopped to think about it.

Pausing at the door, he knocked thrice before saying, “It’s Alistair, mind if pop on in for a minute?”

Some shuffling sounds occurred before Bea’s patient voice answered, “Of course, please enter.”

While the sitting room was lively with a fire and candles reflecting off silver mirrors, this was a tomb. Darker than the Nevarran catacombs, only a single candle lit upon the nightstand, its wax pooling in an old saucer. Marn stood to the side, her arms wrapped around the baby as she tried to pat all the gas out of him. The Brother sat at the head of the bed with his hand wrapped around a book. As Alistair stepped closer he could see it was one of those Swords & Shields serials. More than likely Cordell snatched it up quick to try and cover for the awkwardness. The final person in the room, the one it was meant for, tried to lift up off her pillows.

“My King,” Beatrice said, her more muted green eyes focusing fully on him. She wasn’t unattractive by any means; certainly some men loved that mousy, quiet, darns your socks and hums a sweet song by the fireplace type. With yards of wavy black hair she always kept pinned in place, Bea cut a fine figure that all but screamed patient and kind mother. Even before Spud was born, Beatrice was the one to quietly tut her tongue and insist everyone get along and play nicely. That was her right down the middle to the very quick -- nice -- and it drove Alistair bonkers.

They’d had little choice in the marriage. Okay, he had none and he suspected that she had little as well seeing as how she wound up married to him. They needed a Queen to pop out heirs and it didn’t matter if they liked each other, never mind were attracted to one other. For the first years of their marriage Alistair only saw her during court, sometimes at meals, and holidays which was more than enough as far as he was concerned.

Now, things had changed in his life and Maker, he was trying. Beatrice tried to sit up higher, but she groaned at an internal pain. “Hey, no need to rise on my account,” Alistair said. She bowed her head, always the proper one, while Cordell dug a washcloth out of a basin and pressed it to her forehead. Even by the dim light he could see how her normally pale rosy, skin turned to ash, circles darkening under her eyes. On the plus side, she did look better than when the baby first came out.

Alistair turned to find his son nestling back down to a sleep everyone in the castle needed. “May I hold him?” he asked Marn. She didn’t balk this time, and passed the bundle to his arms. Alistair skimmed his cheek above the boy’s forehead, savoring the warm skin still smooth as Teagan’s bald head. “Sorry we didn’t give you a name yet. Things got a bit...dicey out there. What do you do when you don’t finish the naming ceremony anyway?”

He glanced from Marn to Bea, who was taking a slow sip of water. It was Cordell who answered, “Traditionally, another is planned but given the delicate situation...” He was concerned, as concerned as Alistair about the safety of the children. That fact should probably cause some jealousy to rise up in his gut, but after two and some years of this arrangement he felt a strange calm that he had someone to share in this mess with.

“Why not simply send out a crier to announce the name?” Beatrice said.

“That should work,” Alistair remarked, patting his son’s mercifully empty nappy while rocking back and forth, “I can’t think why not. Or we call him baby until he’s eighteen. Prince Baby. Think that’d warp him?”

Beatrice gave him that patient ‘I’ll wait for you to stop being an idiot’ look she’d perfected in their years of marriage. Then her eyes melted to pure motherly love as she glanced over at the tuckered out face poking out of the blankets. “Cailan Maric Ozgood Theirin.”

He tried to not frown at the name choice having little to no say in it and unable to fully elaborate why the first two bit into him. Alistair also wasn’t a fan of Ozgood but it was Bea’s father’s name and who was he to argue, even if sounded like an order given to a mabari. Oz...good! Oh well, give him time and he’d find an acceptable substitute for the boy as he did for Spud. Then he wouldn’t have to shout for his dead half-brother to get back in his room and put pants on before the Orlesian dowager has a heart attack on the salmon mousse.

“Not sure if Cade told you the news, but he’s got a bodyguard for the children. Supposedly the best in his bunch.”

Beatrice tipped her head, “He did inform me of Ser Brunt and I spoke with the man briefly.”

“He can talk?!” Alistair gasped, “I assumed he communicated through a series of grunts and leaving a dead deer outside your door.”

He got that look again, which meant Alistair was already treading on thin ice. Well, may as well get the worst part over with. Glancing over at Marn, Alistair said, “Could you give us a few minutes alone? I’ve got some private matters to discuss with the Queen.”

Marn’s eyes only darted to Bea for a moment, but he knew she was waiting for the queen to give her the go ahead. Shrugging, the nursemaid headed towards the door. Cordell rose up, but Alistair shook his head, “No, you’re gonna want to stay for this part.”

“Ah...” the once Brother to the chantry glanced over at Bea before nodding solemnly, “As you say, Sire.”

Alistair winced at that. Okay, maybe he wasn’t entirely over their weird situation. As Marn shut the door behind her, he began to pace back and forth trying to drive up the ability to begin this conversation. “Okay, so, here’s the thing. I...Maker, why is this so weird?”

“Perhaps prayers to Andraste will guide your tongue,” Cordell said. Despite his having to leave the chantry, it never really left him. He all but acted like a spiritual advisor to the Queen’s entourage when a Mother or Grand Cleric wasn’t around, always leading the group in prayers, songs, the occasional snippets of the chant. It reminded Alistair of his days in the templars when everything, no matter how mundane, was always tied back to Andraste or the Maker, as if either of them cared how you fold your socks.

“Bea, you can’t keep doing this,” Alistair focused on her.

She frowned at the shortening of her name, before her eyes darted over to Cordell. “Doing what?”

“Having children. Don’t get me wrong, I love these squirts to pieces but this little one nearly killed you. All the healers are saying another would... Let’s just say I had to sit through a very long and very detailed talk with one about how I needed to do everything in my power to keep you from getting pregnant.”

“Ah,” she said, folding back to the pillow.

“I didn’t elaborate with him on how little effect I could have by pulling out...not the point worth talking about.”

“Sire, I...” Cordell glanced over at his lover before eyeing up the King. “Am uncertain what to say.”

“I’m not saying you have to stop doing, uh...because I don’t even want to be involved with any of that, but there are potions which the apothecary can brew up or something for Cordell to do with needles jammed inside and... Okay, I blacked out at that point.” He paused, feeling the prince stir in his arms. The boy who was his but wasn’t in that technical sense of how biology worked. Awkward, so damn awkward. Maker, he’d been having this conversation in his head for a week. Beatrice had a hard time with Spud but she bounced back relatively quickly. This second time was a nightmare, and there was a moment when Eamon was suggesting they bring the Grand Cleric in just in case. Alistair had Spud in his lap while they waited on the news, and he had to cover her ears while hissing at the man who’d served as an advisor for his whole reign to shut his fat gob.

“Sire,” Cordell spoke up, breaking Alistair’s thoughts, “I do not know how to continue this conversation.”

“Yeah, I feel like that a lot,” he admitted. “Ferelden it’s, we’ve got two little butts to fill that potential future throne now and that’s enough. Right? An heir and a spare, and...” He thought after Spud was born they’d shut up about his needing to produce children as if they could burst fully made out of his thigh or something, but if anything it got worse. Heir and a spare echoed through every bell tower and hallway in Denerim until finally the second one came along. If anyone insisted they needed a third, Alistair was going to put them through a wall.

Bea’s eyes wandered over to her lover, the secret father of their children, and they shared a moment. Her paper thin hand lifted off the bed to caress down his always clean shaven cheek. Cordell blushed at the contact before placing his lips to her palm. More than an awkward blush rose in Alistair at the crystal clear intimacy. Jealousy at what they had clung too. It’d been quite a few years since he’d felt that doe eyed way about anyone, certainly anyone who’d want him too.

“I shall do as you say, my King,” Beatrice said, softly bowing her head.

“Good, good,” Alistair nodded melting into the floor with each moment, “um, probably not needed now but I can work the potions into your rotation without anyone the wiser seeing as how...” He let that sentence trail off, not wanting to think about any of the mechanics.

“But,” Cordell spoke up a moment, “is it not sinful? To use magic in order to prevent a gift from the Maker.”

“Oh for the love of...” Alistair began, glaring over at the good, chantry boy who got the sweet, pious Queen knocked up. What a time for him to start throwing around what the Maker did and didn’t want.

He wanted to rant in his face, but Bea ran her fingers over that round jawline and whispered, “Magic should serve man, not rule over him.”

“Ah yes,” Cordell smiled, “I understand your meaning. You are correct, of course.”

“Thank the Maker,” Alistair sighed, relief flooding his exhausted veins. What he wanted was to curl up to sleep inside a giant marshmallow and then eat his way out of in the morning. Too bad he had more to accomplish before he could even pry his boots off. “If that’s done and over with, I need to be seeing to my own new bodyguard.”

Turning to leave the two love birds alone, Alistair stepped to the door when Bea’s soft voice called out. “You’re forgetting something in your hands.”

He startled, realizing he still held the prince nestled in the crook of his arm, the baby amazingly dozing for once. Alistair tugged back on the fold of a blanket to stare down at the spotty red and white face. Spud had a muddled look to her but it passed quickly. This one seemed to intend to keep looking like an underripe radish for as long as possible.

Bea struggled to sit up, her heavy arms lifting to reach for the baby. He paused a moment, almost wishing he could hold the little radish a bit longer. “Unless you intend to breastfeed your son, I think it best if I keep him,” she said, and he turned in surprise at the joke the Queen made. He’d thought she was incapable, like a witch cursed her or something.

“Here,” Alistair passed the boy back to his mother’s waiting arms. Bea melted instantly as she cuddled him to her nourishing breast. For all their cold distance she never faltered on calling them Alistair’s children, not even in private. It was a strange threeway of parentage but they were doing their best to make it work.

Dipping his head lower, Alistair turned away from the two that created the baby. He had an entire damn country to father.

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