Guarded Love

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Chapter 52: Epilogue

Eighteen Months Later...

Wiping the sweat off the brow under her hat, Reiss closed the file that’d been sitting in her case box for the past month. Raising her voice to be heard in the small but packed room, she spoke, “I’m pleased to announce that the City Watch has just accepted the confession of one Mr. Derick Larner and we have officially solved another one.”

A smattering of applause broke out as Reiss jammed the closed case file onto the sword she was gifted for preserving the King’s life and foiling Cade’s dastardly deeds. He actually had “dastardly deeds” engraved onto the hilt, the alliteration striking him as hilarious. Over a dozen other case files were already wedged onto the blade, each one plucked from the streets and once declared unsolvable by the Watch, but Reiss and her company proved them wrong. It was growing so heavy, the brackets that held the sword on the wall were beginning to bow. Either it was going to fall off, or they’d run out of space to store them. That was a dragon they’d slay when they came to it.

“All right everyone, get back to work. We’ve still got a good three open ones to put to the sword,” Reiss called to her crew. It took awhile for Denerim to warm to this ragtag group of outsiders, no one certain what to make of the elf skimming in and out of places where dead bodies landed while another jotted down everything Reiss told her to. But when they began to get results, the City Watch and other organizations with questions no one could answer turned to them.

They didn’t have a name to begin with, Reiss too busy scrounging to bother with something so trivial, leading Denerim to name them the Solvers. It was silly and not really accurate, but who was Reiss to argue. The Solvers rested in the bottom floor of a small building just outside the alienage sharing the corner with what used to be a tanners turned avant garde painter’s saloon, and a bakery that kept them all well stocked after the great croissant caper. Three desks crowded around a barely working stove for warmth, which used to be more than enough space for the tiny group until their ranks began to swell. Now they were often working in shifts just to give everyone a chance to sit down. Above the agency, Reiss rented her own little room for an apartment. It wasn’t much more than one open room and she’d often wake to find rats cuddling up on her pillow but it was hers.

Knocking her hat back in place, Reiss swung around the desk, her new coat flapping in the always leaking breeze. She moved to sit, her backhovering in the free air and discovered that that would be impossible.

“Where’s my chair?”

Lunet cranked around from her own desk and jabbed a thumb towards the dwarf twins, “Jorel’s got it.”

“I have not!” he shouted before running his fingers under the seat. “Ah, shit, I think I do. Where’s my blighted chair then?”

Reiss collapsed an elbow to her desk and began to massage her forehead, “Let’s not have a repeat of this summer’s ‘chair war’ please.”

“Some of us still limp when it snows,” Lunet shouted as if she hadn’t been one of the driving forces behind it.

Rather than get into a long fight of trading chairs, Reiss grabbed some of the boxes that were always stacked four or five high around the place and dragged them over to sit on. She had work to do, they all did.

The sound of the bell jangling above the door drew all the eyes but Reiss’ to it. Hidden in the back and behind one of the weight bearing posts, she couldn’t see anything but the back of her friend’s head and the gold polished horns of their newest Qunari investigator and lunch fetcher.

Lunet spun in her chair, about to rise to her feet to greet the customer, when she cracked a grin and rolled back to eye up her boss, “Oh, it’s just Reiss’ sidepiece.”

“Hello to you too, Lunet,” Alistair’s voice chuckled as he navigated around the maze of work. “Maker’s breath, it’s cold out there.”

“Aye, there’s this new thing they’re trying called winter. Think it’ll catch on?” Lunet razzed him. She shifted the lolly in her mouth around before jabbing it at the King. It was a strange habit she picked up while they were on cases, needing something to do with her hands while Reiss was being, as she put it, noticey.

Alistair shook his head, scattering snow out of his hair, “Never. Give it a few months and then it’ll be back to blazing heat. Mark my words.” Scooting around their second lead investigator/secretary/filer/whatever else they needed’s desk, he stood framed beside the open doorway into Reiss’ alcove. It could hardly be called an office as there was only one wall.

His fingers scritched along Sylaise’s head, the office cat purring in rapture from the attention, before Alistair slid across her desk. Reiss looked up from the work just as his lips met with hers. Every damn problem she had on her docket faded away at his touch. Folding tight to him, Reiss stumbled to her feet to get a better grip around his shoulders, losing herself in those arms she craved with every waking moment. Alistair seemed to feel the same, his fingers frozen from the cold curling up through the underside of her hat to rifle apart her hair.

“Oi, you two,” Lunet shouted. “You’re making Kurt feel awkward.”

“Are not,” the quieter of the dwarf twins glanced over, his cheeks burning as hot as the crackling wood on the fire.

Reiss didn’t apologize for the kiss but she did break from it, her eyes staring deep into Alistair’s sweet ones. He wore the same smile she saw every time he’d wander into her neck of Denerim, the kind that looked as if he shook off every worry in his life at the door and slipped into bliss.

“You’re late,” Reiss said, unable to turn her smile off. Sliding back off her desk, she began to gather up her mounds of work to its designated piles.

“Yeah,” Alistair dug at his hair, causing another tuft of snow to plop free, “sorry about that. Got caught into one of those ‘Your Majesty, I have to get into a long, drawn out argument about unimportant matters because I wasn’t hugged enough as a child.’ Took an hour to get away and it only worked because I hid inside the kitchen until he vanished.”

Reiss chuckled at the image, well aware of some of Alistair’s current issues. She may not be in the palace but he’d write to her damn near every day and replay his work for her when together, often with funny voices and sometimes shadow puppets. “Ineria won’t hold the door for anyone.”

He shrugged, “Not even her favorite dumpling maker?”

Reiss rolled her eyes. She wanted to say no, but in truth, Ineria probably would make an exception for that shemlan she kept nudging Reiss about and telling her was cute. Ineria still bullied him around when in the kitchen, but she practically purred when he sat down to eat. While Reiss struggled to get all her open files back in order for tomorrow, Alistair glanced around.

“Hey, where’s your vase?”

She looked up, blinking a moment in the sea of chaos. “Oh, it’s over there.”

Twirling a bouquet of four flowers and a strip of greenery in his fingers, he unearthed her vase always overflowing in colors. After placing the ritual offering in, Alistair carried every reminder of him and his visits back to her. Reiss tried to act unattached to it while working for productivity’s sake, but when the fire dipped low, she’d said her goodbyes for the day and had locked up shop, she’d run her fingers over every petal and reminisce about his last visit.

“I see how well loved my foolish token of affection is,” Alistair mocked.

Rolling her eyes, she glanced up to the ceiling, “It was only temporary. I ran out of room while I was working on this.” She gestured to the three boxes that’d been taking up her space because they ran out of storage a month or so back.

Alistair twisted his head at the first box and asked the question she knew was coming, “Just so we’re clear, you do know they’re dollhouses?”

“No, they’re crime scenes.”

He scrunched his adorable face up while spinning the first box back and forth. “Let me guess, it was Talky Tina, in the cornfield, with a knife!”

Reiss pointed at the furthest diorama, a near perfect replica of one of her first cases where the door and windows were all locked on the inside and a traveling merchant trained a pack of nugs to scurry down the fireplace to murder two brothers. A tiny butcher’s cleaver covered in nug prints was just visible under the little dresser. “I use them for training purposes. It helps new people get used to how we do things.” It’d been easier when it was just her and Lunet, but as they brought more on they had to teach the recruits skills beyond rounding up anyone in the area and picking someone at random as guilty. Looking beyond the superficial was key, as well as notes. Everyone working for her had to be literate, and if they didn’t start that way they were learning fast.

Alistair scrunched down so he was eye to eye with the second and stared through the window bearing a tiny bloody handprint, “I like the little wallpaper. It’s even got a small tear.”

“Yes, that’s where they stashed their murder victim’s clothing.”

“This is why you don’t babysit Spud. She’s already prone to running around the castle waving her wooden sword, ten minutes with Aunt Reiss and she’d be the new Princess of Death.” He tried to look horrified at the idea, but Reiss knew better. While lots of voices were trying to get the headstrong princess to behave like a proper lady, her loving and doting father was encouraging her to be herself.

Placing down a rock they at first thought was a murder weapon but turned into a paperweight, she properly inspected the vase Alistair returned to her desk. “Holly and a strip of evergreen, but where did you get these?” Reiss twirled a pair of daisies that should not be surviving the winter.

“Ah, funny story. Turns out the new arcane advisor is big into plants. Got a hothouse going and I may have maybe stopped in and swiped a few before anyone yelled at me.”

Reiss glanced up from the vase into his eyes, “A new arcane advisor, huh?”

“Before you start in,” Alistair waved both hands for clemency, “this one’s over fifty, on the portly side, and a man.”

Chuckling at his admittance, Reiss abandoned her gift to curl both arms around his neck. “So you’re saying the pool’s still on but the odds are long.”

Alistair leaned against her, his forehead knocking her hat back but not off. When his cool skin glanced across hers, he began to speak, “Philipe’s hopeful because that kid’s...” His self denigrating speech died as Reiss caught his lips in another kiss. The year had been a lot of work, many sleepless nights and 16 hours days trying to get her toe in the door, but it was everything she never thought she wanted. She was doing something that relied upon her talents, and best of all, some nights she could curl up in the arms of the man she loved...and caress up and down his shoulders while he kept asking what she got out of them. It wasn’t the life of luxury and royalty she could have had, the King’s love spending her days knee deep in sewer water to chase a lead instead of in parlors, but she couldn’t ask for anything better.

“Okay,” Lunet coughed, “now you’re making me uncomfortable. Don’t you two have to be going so the rest of us can get back to work?”

Reiss pulled away from him to call to her friend, “You really expect me to believe you get any work done while I’m out?”

“Anything’s possible, boss,” her friend shrugged before yanking out her pad and beginning to copy out the notes into longhand.

She was right though, Ineria might hold the door for an hour or so for her favorite dumpling maker, but it wouldn’t be much past. Reiss turned back to Alistair only to find the King’s eyes focusing on her hat. It was a simple thing, a good rim to keep the water out of her eyes, dark tan from a deer hide, with a black band running around the middle. Yanked up from a street vendor who couldn’t give the things away, Reiss went from wearing it to keep the rain from slogging her out, to it becoming her symbol. Of course Alistair was damn near obsessed with it.

“What is it?” she asked, trying to push her hat back into place.

“Is that new?”

“Nope,” she sighed, shaking her head. The coat was. She’d been eyeing it up for weeks, tanned hide, oiled to filter out the rain and long enough to keep most of her warm without dragging through the gutters. But what really sold her on it were the pockets, deep set on the hips so she could stash an entire book if the need arose, with another smaller one on the breast to hold her small quill and ink bottle set.

“I thought you’d be more interested in this,” Reiss tugged on the edge of the coat. She never buttoned it, letting the chest plate she always wore glimmer as a small warning that the elf wasn’t just some nobody.

Alistair glanced up and down it a moment, but he returned back to her hat. “There is something different,” he skirted his finger over the dip to the brim.

“Right,” Reiss remembered now, “I cut holes in the side so my ears would stick out.”

He blinked a moment before smiling, “No tape this time?”

“No, they weren’t rubbing, it...funny enough it turned out people were asking about the elf. The investigator elf to help fix things, solve their problems, but when I wore the hat no one realized I was an elf, so...”

Alistair laughed at her ingenuity, his hands locking around her back. He looked as if he wanted to kiss her, and Maker did she want him to, but the office had been saddled with enough of their affection. Reiss placed her fingertips to his lips instead, softly tracing up and down the tiny bow.

“How long did you get off this time?” she asked.

“I was a very good boy who did all his homework. Two days,” he smiled wide.

“Two days? You know I have work to do during that time?” she gasped, even while silently excited for every potential minute together.

“So I’ll sit there watching you do all that work people keep gushing to me about.”

Lunet twisted back to shout, “You’ll be sitting on the floor, all the chairs are claimed.”

It warmed Reiss’ heart how quickly Lunet came to accept the strange arrangement between King and city elf. As Lune put it, “If he’s willing to sleep in rat infested apartments with nearly no heat and spitting distance to the alienage just to make you happy, then...who am I to hate him?” It moved from a begrudging respect to, dare Reiss even think it, a friendship. At least Alistair gave back as good as Lunet did, which endeared them both to each other.

“People were talking about me?” Reiss asked, wanting to hear the latest gossip about her little group.

“Oh Maker, yes. Shianni was going on and on about that one you solved with the alienage underground nug fighting ring. Had to tell me all the details and I happily pretended I didn’t already know them, but she kept smiling in her not really smiling way to say ‘That woman’s sure sharp.’”

“She’s just happy that it turned out to be the work of the shem gangs. If I’d had to have pointed the finger at the elves instead...”

“Reiss,” Alistair grabbed onto her hands and pinned them close, “you’re doing good work, amazing work. I...I’m damn proud of you. Which I mean in a sincere way and not a ‘I have no idea what you painted but you got most of it on the parchment, so good job’ way. Denerim’s been changing, improving with your little group here toiling away. People don’t say it, but there’s trust in the air. And that’s a very good thing to have.”

She smiled, his words swaddling her like the fuzziest blankets, but she cocked an eyebrow up and smirked, “How long were you working on that speech?”

“Four days, pretty much since the last second I saw you. Oh,” he yanked his hands away to go rifling in his pocket. “Here.”

Alistair plopped into her hand what looked like a desiccated apple core nearly picked clean of fruit that someone then sewed a small kerchief too. Reiss let it rest in her palms, slightly terrified it was a new clue in a case involving cultists. At her confused look, he explained, “Spud’s learned how to make dried apple dolls. Well, being four she thinks taking the time for someone to carve a face and wait for it to dry is boring. So she eats the apple, then insists one of us tack on a dress. I’ve got a good five in my office. She wanted you to have this one.”

“That’s sweet of her,” Reiss smiled, happily placing the apple core doll down beside the vase on her desk. “And we should be going,” she grabbed onto his arm, tugging him through the maze of desks. So much work waited for her, the city teeming with problems that used to get kicked under the rug. It was both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. “I’m off, probably won’t be back ’til nightfall.”

“When we’ll all be long gone, trust me,” Lunet shouted for the others trying to politely not watch their boss and King make out.

“Lune, can you lock up?” Reiss asked, already knowing the answer. At her slow nod accompanied by two raised fingers, Reiss tugged Alistair to the door. Outside, Denerim bustled through the snow, the slush in the streets turning a dingy grey but white flecks cleared away the rot to reveal gleaming hope below.

She reached behind her to tug on the door, the damn thing always sticking, when her eyes caught a sign dangling above her head. It read “Solvers: Investigators Into Affairs and Crimes Thought Impossible” with the address for “221 on the street with the Baker” below that. Reiss turned over to Alistair who was trying to fish a scarf out of the folds of his layered clothing’s pockets.

“Did you do this?” she asked, jabbing a finger at it.

“Nope,” he admitted, which caused her to cross her arms, “I swear. I didn’t think you were sold on the name. It must have been one of your other loyal fans.”

“I...” Reiss gazed up at it, noticing that while the lettering wasn’t perfectly crafted, the cheap paint flecking off already, it was just right. “I guess so.”

“Told you, you’re having an impact,” Alistair bowed his arm out, which Reiss gladly took as they walked towards the alienage. “And, about Satinalia...Please say you’ll come. I know, you’re busy, but Bea’s bringing her entire family. I think she’s got a good five dozen sisters. I tried counting them all once, but I ran out of toes. I really need backup, an excuse to slip away before the constant clucking of how I’m failing my children by breathing wrong overwhelms me. You should know, I’m not above begging.”

“Okay,” she pressed tighter to him, savoring the warmth from his body that embraced her soul. “I’ll come. It’d be nice to see the kids again.”

“Spud’s moved from despot tyrant to evil Empress, thank the Maker for four. I thought three would nearly kill me. But then Cailan...”

“Uh oh, what now?”

“Did I not tell you? He’s finally figured out that those stumpy legs can do more than walk. I think Spud pretty much moved from rolling around to running without any stops in the middle, but that kid loved nothing more than to sit and watch. People feared maybe there was something wrong because he wasn’t up and running.”

“People like you?” Reiss prodded her elbow into him, and Alistair released his arm so he could curl it around her hip. They moved as one down the side of the street.

“I worry about everything, especially when it comes to my kids. But Bea was like ‘It’ll be fine, and even if it’s not we’ll find a solution.’ Some solution. Kid gets up to his wobbly legs, takes a few steps, then out of nowhere bolts out the door. We’re all in such shock, no one thinks to chase after him. He was damn near down the palace steps before anyone tries to stop the prince from rushing headlong under the horses. Now he’s got every nanny and handmaiden in the palace chasing after him, and laughing at the top of his lungs at their misfortune.”

“Sounds like a handful, that you wouldn’t change for a thing,” Reiss smiled.

Alistair slowed his steps so he could stare deep into her eyes, “Not a lick. Not Spud, not the speedy baby shattering every wobbly vase in the palace, and never you.”

“I know it’s not easy, my being out here instead of...” Reiss began. There were nights when she ached for him, days when she missed seeing him across her tiny table and she knew he felt the same.

His fingers smooshed against her lips, stopping her apology, “You’re happy, and so am I. It’s working. Maker take me, but somehow it is, and I am so grateful for it.” Dipping to his knees, Alistair moved to kiss her, when his forehead banged into the rim of her hat.

Playfully, he tipped it back giving him the room to press his lips to hers, his hands swooping around her back. People shifted around the two idiots kissing with their whole hearts, no one giving a second glance at the King madly in love with an elf that couldn’t imagine anyone else at her side. As Alistair broke away from her, a giddy smile in place, his fingers tugged Reiss’ hat back in place. She laughed at the move but he kept running the tip of his finger back and forth over the brim.

“Oh for all the,” Reiss yanked off her hat, the fabric tugging on her ears as it went, then plopped it onto Alistair’s head. His face lit up in an instant, the man obsessed with hats. Which seemed particularly odd as he never wore one. “You know, I really thought it’d be the coat you’d want to wear instead? Did you see these pockets?”

He twisted his obsession around, the hat too small for his head, but Alistair wasn’t about to give up. After gazing skyward at it for a moment, he stared down at Reiss. “I only want to see that coat on you,” leaning closer to her ear, his warm breath washed over it as he whispered, “preferably with nothing else on.”

“That...” the blush she should have gotten over but somehow never left her always butterflying stomach rampaged her cold cheeks. Touching her fingers to it to warm them, she smiled, “that can be arranged.”

“Good,” Alistair tucked her tight to him, “now, to dumplings because I am starving!”

In the years of her scrounging life, Reiss never thought she’d want to spend her days staring at knife wounds, asking dock workers if they saw anything shady the night in question, or telling a widow that she knew who killed his husband. But now she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

And after all those lonely nights, Reiss never imagined she could be with someone so sweet, kind, hilariously goofy, and...Maker, those shoulders. It may not be perfect, but it was right.

Hand in hand, the two of them walked down the street together to the promise of a warm future full of dumplings and whatever else may come.

THE END

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