Guarded Love

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Chapter 7: First Day

Adjusting to a bodyguard was going to take some time. In the back of his head Alistair knew that, but staggering out of his bedroom in search for anything to pry open his eyes and nearly running head first into an armored chest was a bit unexpected. It did wake him up a treat though, fear of death was far more efficient than a bucket of cold water dumped on your head. She seemed about as uncertain as he did with the whole situation appearing to have dressed, breakfasted, and probably read the entire works of Brother Genetivi before dawn. While he wasn’t a sleep ’til noon and stumble into the throne room with a sheet knotted around his waist kind of King, mornings and Alistair weren’t friendly. If you took a wyvern and made it square off against a shark while a giant hurled a massive boulder into the arena...that metaphor went nowhere, but Maker, that’d be fun to watch.

After dressing on his own and trying to not seem too proud that he managed to get the boots on the right feet in the first go, Alistair waved off the itinerary guy. He had an official title with lots of frilly letters attached at the end but Alistair didn’t much care. Every morning the slope headed, fuzzy cheeked man coughed at his bedroom’s threshold, placed his hat upon a hook beside the door, bowed once to the king, and then told Alistair everything he had to do today.

For the first few years it worked spectacularly, Alistair terrified of this tiny but potentially dangerous bureaucratic man ordering around the King. Now, he’d humor the itinerary man if he had nothing better to do. You know, before someone sent assassins after him and his children. That previous life was far more likely to include instructions like ‘Appear in rose garden and have brief ten minute discussions with visiting dignitaries from Nevarra.’

What he needed far more than making small talk about aphids was a very frank discussion with his Spymaster. Rounding up the twisted staircase two at a time, Alistair pulled a bread roll out of his pocket and jammed it in his mouth. Realizing his lacking manners, he turned to shoot a glance over his back at the woman struggling to keep up.

“Sorry, would you like one?” he asked with his lips around the food he snatched off the breakfast table. Alistair held a second roll out, after having absconded with a good five. It was a habit he picked up as a child uncertain if anyone could be arsed to remember to feed him. And there had to be five or more swiped each time because the dogs refused to share.

“Ah,” Ser Reiss shook her head slowly. “No thank you, Ser.”

“Your loss,” he shrugged, mashing down the last of his roll with his teeth and swallowing, “they’re actually good this morning.”

“Yes, I had a few earlier when they were fresh,” Reiss admitted as they resumed their climb. Why Ghaleb insisted on living in the tip of the stupidest tower was beyond him. The old Spymaster before him, prior to throwing in the towel, had a salon on the first floor so she could keep watch over everyone that came and went. This one preferred to be as far from people as possible.

“Maker’s breath, how early did you get up?” Alistair paused, letting the bodyguard catch up. The narrow, twisty staircase was hard enough to manage, and he was used to the damn thing.

“I...” She’d rolled her hair back into those knots that women sometimes made on the top of their head before jamming fancy needles and the like into ’em. Though Reiss seemed to have a stiletto hilt sticking out of hair, the grip glittering by the sun. It was such a bardish hairstyle he was surprised Leliana never tried it. “In truth, I tended to work the third shift and my body isn’t used to sleeping at night.”

“Gotcha.” Alistair sighed, “Maker, I remember that one. It’s brutal.”

“Ser?” She twisted her head to the side almost like an inquisitive bird. One of the cute ones though, like a wren or sparrow, not like an evil goose.

“Having to stand guard outside the camp. I was always drawing the short straw and wound up getting the fun of being bored while freezing my ass off. Sometimes I’d see how far I could toss small rocks...right until I slipped and had one smack into the qunari. Forgot about that.” He smiled at the memory when he streaked through the underbrush hiding from a wrathful Sten. His only saving grace was when Lanny stepped in to distract their big, scary qunari friend. Though he did get a ‘Don’t do that again’ look off her.

Alistair came back from his trip down memory lane to find Reiss staring through him as if searching for a lie. “Why so surprised?”

“I...I didn’t think Kings ever did their own guarding.”

He chuckled, his head dipping down, “Don’t worry, I’m not about to steal your job. This was before the fancy hat and,” Alistair sighed, “fancier chair.”

“The blight,” Reiss whispered, her eyes hardening.

It was a rare Ferelden who wasn’t in some way touched by the Blight, but as the years faded people sort of stopped caring. Maker save him, he’d once had to sit in on some Bann near the northern border convinced that it was all a hoax concocted by the secret dragon people living amongst them. Alistair’s guards tried to pry him away to avoid an incident, but he found it all hilarious, until the man started talking about how Lanny was a doddering puppet put forth to make mages seem sympathetic. After that, it was a wonder the Bann made it out of there with all his teeth.

“Templars too, boy did the Grand Cleric hate me,” Alistair said, trying to waft away the pain rising through the air.

“You were a templar?” she asked, brandishing the full green fields of her eyes upon him. He tried to not gawp, well aware that it would probably look bad, but there was such an intensity burning in her verdant gaze he had to pinch himself a moment.

“Maker, why doesn’t anyone know about that bit? They seem to know everything else about me including the mole on,” he swallowed, feeling a tug of a blush knotting up his cheeks. Rolling a hand through his hair, Alistair shrugged. “Me, a templar, sort of. Not so much the mage watching and or killing part. I was only into the studying, training, and then being reprimanded on the regular when the Revered Mother’s voice was up to it.”

“You’re kidding,” she chuckled, her hand coming to rest on the sword dangling off her hip.

“Nope. In fact, I doubt there’s a pot in the entire chantry here that hadn’t at one point been scrubbed by me.” He placed a hand to his mouth and whispered, “She really didn’t like me.”

A smile lightened up his bodyguard’s face, and Alistair felt an urge to run away and blush himself to death. He got as far as failing to step higher, his heel cracking against the stair causing the edge to scrape his ankle. Andraste’s flaming sword! He managed to curse internally while spinning back around to try and shake some sense into his mind. You’re a thirty seven year old man, for the Maker’s sake. Oh yeah, and King. Kinda in charge of a whole country. Stop acting like a gibbering idiot!

Slowly he stepped upwards again, but as he turned the corner he glanced down and saw the same entrancing smile upon Reiss’ lips. Okay, so she’s cute. Your bodyguard is attractive. You can admit that and keep it professional without being creepy. Probably. Hopefully. He made plans to strangle his libido later while finally reaching the long lost holy land that was the Spymaster’s door.

Rather than waste time knocking, Alistair pushed on the latch and heaved his shoulder into the sticking door. It wasn’t a rookery filled with shitting ravens that met him, nor some glittering storage for daggers lining the walls. Ghaleb kept his workspace impeccably clean. There were three desks, Maker only knew how he got any of them up this high, each with color coded vellum sitting in pin straight piles upon the desktops. Along the wall stood his thinking board, as the Spymaster described it. Names coated the space the way towns would fill out a map, scattered across the landscape in a way that only made sense to the man who did it. Once Alistair asked Ghaleb to explain it, and by about the third sentence he begged him to stop. Whatever it was, it worked to an almost hose wetting degree.

“Ah, Your Highness, I didn’t hear you make an appointment,” Ghaleb said rising from his chair. A cup of tea sat perched upon the footstool and not the desk right beside it. For a moment Alistair thought to wonder, then remembered who he was dealing with.

“Yes, life’s full of surprises like that,” he smiled at the man whose watery eyes trailed back behind his shoulder. That was normal, but instead of staring into space they seemed to be focusing. Alistair spun around and spotted Reiss slotting into the doorframe, her own eyes wide in surprise. “This is my new bodyguard, Ser Reiss. You met yesterday. Remember?”

“Reiss. Inquisition, Fifth Infantry under Lieutenant Commander Addley. Two siblings. One in Jader. Curious. Kirkwall not a concern. Some talk of the Viscount, but with connections to the crown...” Ghaleb faded off, his thoughts tripping back.

“You know me?” she said, her eyes honing on the man as she stepped forward.

Ghaleb snapped back from whatever far reaching problem he solved. A puppy dog smile curled up his lips and he shrugged, “No.” Without any subterfuge, he extended his hand for her. Reiss’ eyes darted over to Alistair for a minute with obvious concern.

“It’s okay, he doesn’t bite,” Alistair vouched for his spymaster. Smiling, Reiss took his hand and gave it a good, strong shake.

“But she’s known to,” Ghaleb pronounced.

Snarling, Reiss dropped the hand and glared at him. “What?”

Before his new bodyguard hauled the Spymaster up by his robe and dangled him out the window, Alistair stepped in between. “Which she are you talking about, Ghaleb?”

“Hm...? The Duchess of, no, she’s no longer, because of the war. Well, will be because of the war. Papers take time to move.” Having struck at whatever was puzzling through his mind, Ghaleb picked up a quill and returned to his name map. Some woman in Orlais must have been fascinating him.

“Ghaleb, I didn’t come here to listen to the bedroom proclivities of half of Orlais.”

“The sheep population has suffered a decline due to foot and mouth disease,” he repeated, his eyes wandering over the big map.

Alistair cracked his neck as he glanced over at his bodyguard with a look of disgust and confusion etched across her face. Damn, he should have remembered how the man did around new people. “I’m here to see what you’ve found out about the assassination attempt. Do we have any names yet? Leads?”

“No, no, pockets stripped bare, no one’s laid claim. The Crow’s coffers remain the same.” Ghaleb didn’t turn away from his board while his teeth chewed apart the feather on the quill. This was why no one ever borrowed any from him.

“What about the Antivan diplomat?”

“No connections to be found.”

“To the Crows? He’s Antivan,” Alistair snorted, “everyone there’s blighted related to the Crows. I think it’s fashionable to host one for Satinalia.”

“Cousin, once master assassin, killed on job. Aunt, informant but not official. Again, no connection to the assassination attempt in Denerim. No talk whatsoever of agents in Denerim. Most strange.”

It all sounded right, an almost instant summation to prove that Crows weren’t involved told in Ghaleb’s special way, which was what had Alistair’s hair tickling. Life wasn’t that perfect. “Right, good, okay. Tell me again, what was the Baronet’s alibi during the attack?”

“He was...” Ghaleb paused and yanked up the green sheets off the middle desk, his eyes keeping far from Reiss. “‘Attending a play in the chantry gardens.’”

“And let me guess, he didn’t want to reveal that before because it’d look bad for the diplomat to skip out on an important royal prince celebration.”

Ghaleb rolled his head around in neither agreement nor disagreement. He knew people before they walked into a room but didn’t understand them, which made for a fascinating man that also caused a splitting headache at the best of times.

“Fair enough,” Alistair agreed. “Focus on Orlais. I know we don’t have the same connections to the House of Repose.”

“Cherie, second cousin to Gaspard, displaced after Inquisition stopped assassination. Always dangerous, don’t trust her smile.”

“Right,” Alistair nodded, “that’s true of all Orlesians.”

Something in his tone traveled through Ghaleb’s fog and he focused on him. “Why is that?”

“I have no idea,” he said truthfully.

“Hm,” Ghaleb spun back to his board, stretching a blue thread across all of thedas to knot around the pin where he wrote down his own name.

“Good, glad we had this chat,” Alistair said banging his hands together. He nodded his head at Reiss and twisted it to the door. She slid out first, seeming to be glad to be away from Ghaleb. “Hey, did you ever find the head of the tattooed man?”

The Spymaster’s hand paused and he slowly shook his head no. “Did not know of that. Curious.” Blindly reaching down, he unearthed another dozen pins and began to jab them into areas all across Ferelden.

“Well, if you make any more headway, be sure to climb out of your exile and find me,” Alistair said. Ghaleb didn’t even bob his head to acknowledge the king’s order. It wasn’t much of a surprise that he didn’t survive in anyone else’s court. Reaching the door, Alistair turned over his shoulder and as haphazardly as possible asked, “By the way, where were you during the naming ceremony?”

Ghaleb’s fingers paused in writing out ‘Tattoo? Dalish?’ before he turned to look over his shoulder at the king. “Here. In my tower.”

Alistair smiled at the answer and slid out of the room, shutting the door on a man he suspected could take down all of thedas for breakfast and then Par Vollen over lunch if he had half a mind. For the years he’d served as Ferelden’s spymaster Alistair never thought he would. There was a staggering amount of empathy there. He once rescued a baby pigeon with a broken wing and nursed it by hand to health. Despite everyone else rearing back at the strange hermetic man, the King trusted him, even enjoyed his delightfully quirk approach to life. But in his gut Alistair knew Ghaleb was lying and it had something to do with Antiva and Donato. The Spymaster could spin yards of fragmented sentences over minor disturbances in the baker’s flour supply and all he got for an assassination attempt was ‘Nope, it’s all good.’ That was beyond strange. Maker, just what Alistair needed, assassins at his door and his spymaster most likely in their pocket. Even if he was wrong and Ghaleb was merely put off by someone new in his room, it seemed smart to bring in a new set of eyes to spy on the spymaster. The question was who could be smart enough to pull it off.

“Ser,” Reiss struggled to look up at him from below the stairs. “Is that man well?”

“Ghaleb doesn’t do well with new people. How did he explain it to me? For him it’s like stepping from a pitch black room into the sun. Too much information too fast and he skitters back into two word sentences. Sorry, I forgot about that. Should have warned you.”

“What all does he know about me?” Reiss asked, sliding back and forth on her legs.

“I have no idea. He can look at someone and know that their great aunt regularly pinched coppers out of the chantry collection plate.”

“That is...overwhelming to think upon,” she struggled, no doubt fearful that her past would rear its head.

“He’s a bit scattershot at times, but can work miracles without a single dagger having to be drawn. I can’t argue with the results even if it means trudging up a good hundred stairs to talk to him.”

His bodyguard swallowed, those...Maker, the color reminded him of a gem but he couldn’t think what it was called. Started with a P. Pearl? No. He clapped her on the shoulder, trying to steady her nerves in a friendly way but found his lips lifting in a smile from the warmth below the armor. “We should probably get out of here. I’m sure itinerary guy’s gonna have a ton of stuff for me to do.”

“As you say, Ser.”

Working for the King was going to take time for Reiss. Impossible demands made at all hours, expecting everyone to smile politely and/or growl on command was normal to her. This man was beyond understanding. People would walk up to the ruler of all of Ferelden to berate him and he’d take it. More than take it, he’d either laugh, shake his head with an ‘oh you,’ or stare blankly until they left. Already he’d gotten into an argument with Karelle, Cade twice, and one of the passing merchants who must not have recognized him and not once did he call for someone’s head. Reiss kept flinching, waiting for the ‘be respectful’ shoe to drop but none seemed to be forthcoming.

After having finished whatever needed to be done with the Spymaster, the King had a few meetings with various members of the court and all the while he kept up a polite chatter giving Reiss a tour of the palace. It wasn’t until they walked the long way around the kitchens, with the King seeming to know nearly every member of the staff, that she realized he was doing it for her benefit. That was both surprising and terrifying, the move playing up her natural aversion to being singled out. People paying attention to an elf was like spotting a rat in the larder. If the elf wasn’t quick down came the cleaver.

After the tour, he settled into an antechamber off the throne room. Cozier than the lofty grand hall, a hearth blazed despite the warming spring air. Desks were scattered against the walls, framed by bulging bookcases that only broke up to allow a chair here and there. Most were filled with clerks jotting down things the King said or asked them to while he sometimes sat in an overstuffed armchair. It was ragged beyond imagination, faded to a tan grey. Reiss quietly flicked up a folded section of the back to note it had once been crimson. Claw marks bigger than a human hand were dashed down the side, which the King on occasion picked at when he was supposed to be paying attention.

“What do you think, Alistair?”

“Huh?” he sat up, wood chips snagged under his nails. “Yeah, you should do what you were saying, Eamon.”

The once Arl now Chancellor sighed in his chest. He wore a proper elder gentleman’s overcoat and leaned onto a silver cane. Despite the abundance of chairs, he refused to take one, preferring to lean back and forth on his slippered feet. Most everyone else in the study wore soft shoes save the armored bodyguard and the King. Eamon shook his snowy head, “Were you even listening to what I said?”

“Bannorn upset, something something, talk of treason, all die, giants riding dragons into battle, bandits stampeding, cattle attacking travelers on the roads...The usual,” the King responded with a shrug.

“By all the...Your Majesty, this is important.” Everyone else treated the King like someone play acting as the ruler except Eamon. Even when he seemed to be seconds away from wanting to wring the King’s neck, he always fell back to a station of deference.

“I am aware, and you also are aware that I have about as much control over the...price of grain being sold in southern markets as you do darkspawn.”

Eamon blinked in surprise that the King was listening to his words after all. Rising to his feet, the King began to pace back and forth, a finger tapping against his chin. “So, unless you can raise up an archdemon that I didn’t know about I’d say I’m doing all I can right now.”

“There are measures,” the Chancellor began.

“Roger,” the King shouted to one of the clerks doing their damnedest to not overhear what seemed like an important meeting. “What’d we do the last time some Bann was trying to inflate grain prices?”

“We...” Roger began to squeak out before the King interrupted him.

“Do that. Now, if there’s anything else...?”

“Not on my docket for the moment, however--” Eamon began before Alistair tried to shove past him towards freedom like a boy escaping school at the end of the day. He made it across the carpet, with Reiss trailing behind, when the door opened. A woman dressed in teal robes with white trim stood there primly, and the man beside her caused Reiss’ heart to sink into her boots. Oh Maker. She tried to slide back hoping he wouldn’t recognize her.

“Teagan,” the King greeted the Arl with a bob of his head, before glancing over that the woman, “and our mystery guest for the day.” She smiled wide, an honest to the Maker finger twirling through her pin straight black hair before she curtseyed deep enough to nearly come to his waist.

“Your Majesty,” she breathed.

Alistair’s eyes darted down her voluptuous form before he turned back to the Chancellor with an obvious question knotting up his brow. Eamon sighed, “I was about to tell you our new Arcane Advisor has arrived.”

“Ah,” he tipped his head back and forth before turning back to the mage who’d at least risen back up to her maybe 5′2" stance. Reiss felt like a giant beside her and she was an elf.

“I am Linaya,” she giggled extending the tips of her fingers to Alistair as if she expected him to scoop them up for a kiss. For his part, the King grabbed her whole hand in his and pumped it up and down. The gesture looked jolly, but he seemed perturbed, his eternal smile wilting when she announced her name.

“A gift from the Mage’s College, I’m guessing,” he dropped her hand and staggered back to Eamon. “For doing such a good job of letting them have a bit of land to mess around on.”

He said it all to the Chancellor wearing a particular grin upon his face, but it was Linaya who stepped forward, “I was chosen by Grand Enchanter Fiona herself to try and aid the crown in any magical matters.”

The mention of the Grand Enchanter caused the King to snap up straight, his eyes chewing through Linaya. “She did? I...oh, okay. Well, that’s good then. Um. I, uh...Do we have any magical stuff that needs to be...? Eamon? Karelle? Right, she’s not in here.” He whipped his head around hoping for anyone to take over.

“Come,” the Chancellor stepped forward picking up the young woman’s slack arm. “I have matters to attend to and can deliver her to Karelle’s hands.”

Alistair smiled, and patted Eamon on the shoulder for stepping up. This got him close to Linaya who whipped her hand out faster than a snake’s strike to grab up his fingers. Lifting her striking blue eyes at him she curtsied again and smiled, “It was a pleasure meeting you. I pray we can become well acquainted with time.”

“Ah, um...” the King wilted in her soft grasp, a blush charring up his cheeks. The move was so bold everyone else in the room awkwardly shifted in their seat. Judging by the petrified glances out of the sides of their eyes it either rarely happened that women were so obvious with him or occurred so often they grew tired of it. This was what you signed up for, Reiss. It was either standing in a warm, gilded room watching two people awkwardly flirt, or stamping through the wet, frozen streets chasing after a mugger about to break your nose. At this point it was a toss up for her.

Eamon tugged on the woman, pulling her towards the door. Regretfully, she released her hold on the King - who, once freed, staggered away and stared at his hand - and slipped away with the Chancellor. The only one remaining in his wake was Teagan, the man Reiss threatened a day ago. She felt his eyes wander over to her as he took in the room. Trying to bite down on a tremor crawling up her spine, Reiss shifted her stance and stared at the ceiling waiting for the Arl to call for her head.

“Well, that was a thing that happened,” the King interrupted the Arl’s scrutiny of her.

Blinking, Teagan turned to the King and smiled, “She seems very certain of her position.”

“What is it they say, subtlety only counts in farriery?”

“Ah, close enough, Sire,” Teagan said shaking his head at the King’s runaway metaphor. “It has been awhile since we had an official mage in the palace.”

“All of ’em stomping off to war kinda did that in,” Alistair loudly whispered to his uncle whose eyes were once again tripping over Reiss. He knew, he had to know who she was. Maker, there was only one chance she could try and fix this...

“Forgive me for interrupting,” she spoke, taking one step forward.

“Okay, no problem,” the King chuckled, “you weren’t interrupting much.”

“I would, need to apologize to the Arl,” she lifted her head and took in his face. Most said that the Arl of Redcliffe was a kind man, beloved by his people to a degree that seemed almost fanatical for his contributions during the blight. He bore the lines that hinted at more smiling than frowning and she prayed that the rumors were true.

“To...” the King jabbed a thumb at the Arl, “to Teagan? Whatever for?”

“During the troubles yesterday, I failed to recognize him when he came to collect the children and may have inadvertently,” don’t say threatened. You cannot admit you threatened an Arl’s life, “ah, held him at knife point.”

She didn’t risk looking up, doing her best to appear completely heartbroken by her actions, until the King let out a braying laugh and slapped Teagen on the shoulder. “Did she really have you at sword point?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Teagan sighed, seeming to be unimpressed with the joy the King found in this.

“For how long? Did she make you prove you were the Arl of Redcliffe? Have him recite a code or maybe show off a royal birthmark?”

Reiss had no idea how to answer him, her cheeks burning as the King twisted her mistake into something monumental. It was Teagan who spoke up, “Nothing so...amusing. Marn was recognized by the princess and--”

“Oh, right, no one can say no to Marn. At least none who’d live to tell the tale.”

“Please,” Reiss leapt in before it grew even more awkward, “forgive me, my Lord.”

Teagan looked over at her, his eyes falling back to her ears before he sighed, “There is nothing to apologize for.”

“You were doing your job, and doing it spectacularly from the way it sounds. Protecting my children, even if it was from their mean ol’ uncle who sometimes makes Spud eat all her vegetables,” the King spoke the last sentence in a funny voice at Teagan who rolled his eyes.

“She does act more and more like her father with each passing day. I fear what a decade shall turn her into.” The Arl took in Reiss and a soft smile lifted his lips, “You are to be the King’s bodyguard, then?”

“Yes, your lordship,” she answered, still feeling the need to apologize to him.

Teagan leaned closer to her and in a staged whisper spoke, “You have my condolences.”

“Why’s everyone keep saying that?” the King asked spreading his arms wide and knocking over an ink bottle. Black oozed across the desk, pooling in what had been Roger’s day long work. “Ah, sorry, sorry, um...” he snatched up the drapery and, yanking it to the edge of their coils, dabbed at the ink with probably hundred year old curtains.

Teagan groaned, “I shall fetch someone to clean this up. Make certain he doesn’t accidentally kill himself.”

“Yes, Ser,” she said, saluting. As the Arl slipped out, Reiss glanced over to find the King with papers stuck to his hand and shirt, black ink pooling across it all. With a shrug, a bright smile beamed across his face and she couldn’t help but laugh before trying to help free him.

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