Guarded Love

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Chapter 8: New Normal

While Reiss rather enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the study, the throne room set her teeth on edge as it seemed to do to the King as well who, despite everyone eying up the chair the room was named after, couldn’t stop pacing before it. They’d invited all the nobles who’d panicked during the assassination attempt to, as the King put it, “tell them that I’m not dead yet and to cancel their redecorating civil wars.” For the first hour Reiss was on high alert watching every hand and belt for hidden blades or worse, but despite the clumps of nobles the only cutting they did was with their eyes and tongues. Either they all knew getting anywhere near the King in this state while armed was a certain death sentence or Cade and the rest of the guards were thorough, almost so thorough it was a wonder the original assassins got through at all.

“Daddy,” little hands yanked on the King’s tunic, drawing him away from an Arlessa. He glanced down at his daughter who was wandering around under the watchful gaze of their nanny or perhaps nursemaid. Reiss wasn’t entirely certain of her role but she remembered the woman during the attack; at her staggering proportions she was impossible to forget.

“What is it, Spudkins?” the King asked, trying to tug his daughter closer to hear her words.

“I...” her eyes widened as she gazed around at the hordes of people milling about. The bellowing voice of a child dropped to a squeak and she struggled to rise up to his ear.

“Didn’t get that, what’d you say?” he asked again. The princess tried to tug his arm down but that was currently full of the prince whose name everyone had been cheering and toasting once someone thought to pull in a cask of wine. Alistair groaned, but bent over. Grabbing onto his face, the princess whispered right in his ear. “Ah,” he smiled. “She’s hungry. Do we have any of those little cakes around or...?”

The nanny clucked her tongue and folded her arms across her chest, “She’s had more than her fair share. It’s the lady’s proper dinner time. I shall escort her to the kitchens and...”

Crying erupted out of the King’s arms, which cut off her offer as the prince roused from his nap. The King tried to shift the baby, rocking him back and forth but it was having no effect. It was rather impressive that he was even trying. For Reiss’ few times dealing with nobility, they seemed to view children as a necessary curse like suffering the smell off a latrine.

“Looks like Spud’s not the only hungry one,” he sighed, seeming to regret handing the wailing infant over for dinner. “How about I take you down to the kitchens?” he said to his daughter. She squealed in delight, grabbing both hands around her father’s, when Eamon stepped into view.

“Your Highness, it is best if you remain. You don’t want your guests to feel slighted given the precarious nature of certain deals.”

Despite standing behind and to the left of him, Reiss could see the King roll his eyes in such an exaggerated fashion it was surprising they didn’t fall out. “Come on, Eamon, it’ll be five, ten minutes at the most. Would anyone truly notice if I’m gone, much less care?”

“Oh, your Majesty,” the voice of Linaya carried across the floor above the din of small talk, almost as if she amplified it by magic. Somehow in the interim she’d shrugged off her more modest robes for something that cut perhaps an inch above her nipples. The acres of cream colored flesh kept snagging the attention of everyone but the one she honed in on. Alistair was too busy tangling with his daughter to look up into the never ending cleavage of the mage.

“Lady Linaya,” Teagan said brightly, “you’ve settled in well.”

“Arl Teagan,” she gathered up her robes and curtsied deep, nearly causing her barely strapped in self to spill free. The Arl’s eyes were drawn downward from the movement and he froze almost horrified for looking. It was impressive how quickly he rallied back, showing almost no strain as Linaya rose up. Beside Reiss, she heard the nanny tut her tongue once before having to slip the Prince to her other nipple. Royalty ate well.

“And this must be the princess,” Linaya squealed, eyeing the girl up as if for a snack. The princess dug into her father’s leg, a thumb popping into her mouth. “Such a beautiful lady.”

“Ah, yes, she’s not usually this shy but hunger does the strangest things to us,” the King explained, his head tipped down to watch his daughter ramming her shoulder into his knee. She wasn’t in the mood to put up with any of it.

“Quite,” Linaya smiled, all her focus on the King. “If I am not careful to eat I can succumb to fainting while casting.”

He nodded then laughed, “I once ate an entire cheese wheel on my own, only to find out later that I was supposed to take the rind off first.”

“I, uh, that’s so interesting,” she bounced back instantly from his non sequitur, her hands smoothing down her stomach.

Hands tugged harder on the King’s tunic causing it to dig into his throat. “I’m hungry,” the princess whined before popping her thumb back in.

“Right, right. I, uh...”

Stepping forward, Reiss spoke up, “Ser? Perhaps I could head down to the kitchens and round up something for the princess to eat.”

“Thank you,” he smiled wide and tried to dig her hand off of him to hand over. “Spud, you’re going to head down with Reiss. You like her, remember?”

“No!” she fussed. No amount of convincing her that she liked someone she barely knew was going to work. Alistair continued to try to pry her fingers off, but once he’d get one hand free, she’d pop out her thumb and grab on with the other hand.

“It’s all right,” Reiss said. “I’ll go and gather a few options to bring back. She can remain here with you.” At that the princess’ eyes darted up to Reiss but she didn’t smile, the two year old clearly calculating what she could get away with.

“That’s a good idea. The cook, she’ll know what Spud loves. Ah, do you know where the kitchens are?”

“Follow the smell of fire and food?” Reiss shrugged.

That earned her a belly laugh from the King, “Hopefully not food on fire, but if it’s been a long day and the wine’s low...” He moved closer to Reiss to whisper that but Linaya inserted herself.

“How delightfully funny, Sire,” she chuckled. “What are some of your favorite Ferelden dishes?” He blinked slowly in response while Reiss slipped into the crowds. In truth, she knew how to find the kitchens not by following her nose but the elves in attendance.

It didn’t take her long to find them in the lower sections of the castle as a herd of servants stood watch along the way, most of them grumbling under their breath about Lords and Ladies whose preferred method of cleaning up involved throwing unwanted food on the floor and digging it in with a heel. They flitted in and out, barely casting a glance at someone in a guard uniform. It wasn’t surprising, most guards took free food as a perk of the job and spent half their time lurking in the kitchens to guard it from any low life rats.

No one was working the blazing ovens, letting the flames fade down out of the hellscape they normally were. Reiss struggled against the heat, sweat already dripping down her back and heading towards creating a swamp in her greaves. Through a doorframe, she heard a deep guffaw followed by the sound of liquid gurgling into a mug.

“...Now that one, Maker, she ain’t subtle.” A woman sat with her leg stretched upon the table. She leaned back in her creaking chair, a sack of rice burrowed into the small of her back, no doubt to help with the problems of standing in one place on stone for too long. Perhaps fifty, if that, she was missing a leg below the knee which she kept elevated upon a melon.

“Did you see the dress she waltzed in in?” A boy sat beside her. Though, perhaps boy wasn’t accurate. With his mounds of floppy brunette hair, and smooth face that looked as if it couldn’t produce a whisker on a bet he looked at most sixteen for a human, but something in his eyes and the way they darted with a cynicism told Reiss he was older than he looked.

The woman snorted, causing wine to spritz out of her nose, ”See? Damn near every Arl and Bann and other snoot nosed lord saw. Be beating it to that tonight, for certain. Ah...shite, we’ve got guests. Whatcha need, dearie? Thought all the guards were on orders to stand at attention ’til the rest of ’em cleared out?”

“I’m not under Commander Cade, I think,” Reiss said. “I’m the King’s new personal bodyguard.”

“Oh, it’s her,” the boy spoke, jabbing a finger at her as if she wasn’t in the room. “The one I told ya about.”

“An elf, eh? Takes all sorts, I suppose. What’s his Highness want?”

Reiss tried to not take any offense at the surprise of her being an elf. In truth, sometimes she was still pinching herself to make certain this wasn’t the fade. “It’s the princess actually, she’s hungry and the King said you’d know what she likes.”

“Ah, course, course,” the woman moved to slide her leg off the melon, when Reiss raised her hand up.

“You need not get up on my account. I can gather the food if you point me in the direction.”

Cautious eyes slipped over her no doubt breaking the hierarchy code, but the cook shrugged, “Fine by me. Name’s Renata by the by. You’ll want to get a plate of cheese, down in the larder, second shelf.”

Nodding, Reiss yanked open the door and slid inside. She called out to the others, “I’m Reiss.” She spotted the cheese mounds in various colors and shapes, some cut into stars. That had to be for the princess. Snatching up a basket on the side, Reiss began to fill it.

“Ser Reiss is how I heard it,” the boy said.

“Ah, so the King decreed,” Reiss said. She wasn’t certain if that was legal without her having any connection to an army, and as there’d been no official ceremony she wasn’t pinning her dreams upon it.

“Princess loves fruit. We got some old jams in the back, plum in particular. Oh, and crackers’ll do her up good too. Adores ’em.”

Reiss followed her orders, arranging it all in the basket as best she could before slipping out of the larder and closing the door. “Is there anything else you think she’d like to eat?”

Smiling wider, the cook Renata beamed, “Still got that new job tremble in ya, eh? It’s all right, I know how that goes. Here...” She dug into her pocket and placed a slip of something clear as glass but bright red into the basket. “That’ll get you on her good side. Trust me.” Reiss nodded and smiled in eternal gratitude.

“Reen, is that really the one you should be buttering up to?” the boy interrupted.

Rolling her eyes, Renata rubbed a hand through the boy’s long hair, “This rascal’s Philipe. Orlesian born but don’t go holding that against him.”

“Me mum’s from Ferelden, so it still counts!” he insisted, jabbing a hand on his belt.

“Aye, it counts. Pain in my side, but damn fine at working the bellows, if ya make sure he don’t get too into it and take out yer eyebrows.”

“That only happened once,” Philipe struck back. He rolled a potato back and forth across the table, watching it with focused eyes. “Soooo, does the new bodyguard want to get in on the bet?”

“Bet?” Reiss asked. She should be returning to the princess as fast as possible, but getting to know the people of the castle was important as well.

“Don’t go wagging your tongue, we don’t know if it’ll even start,” Renata clipped him around the ears, but Philipe dodged it and sighed.

“Yes it will. It does every time. I say two weeks.”

“That fast?”

“With bosoms big enough to smother a dragon in its sleep?” Philipe held his hands out a good foot from his chest and rolled them over. “You could balance a ship on those things, maybe two the way she had ’em propped up.”

“I’ll give ya that one, but I dunno. Two weeks seems too fast. I’d say four, maybe five if we’re being careful.”

“And if she breaks her leg walking down the stairs cause she can’t see her feet over those gigantic breasts,” Philipe chuckled in the way only a man who’d never had breasts could.

“Ah, sorry,” Reiss butted into the conversation as Renata sucked down another glass of wine, “What is this bet about precisely?”

Philipe stopped laughing and his eyes broke into pity, “Oh, that’s right, you’ll have to suffer the worst of it. Sorry, condolences and what not.” She wanted to laugh, but he looked genuine.

Renata wiped her mouth off and sighed, “’s the King. We’re taking bets on how long it’ll be ’til he takes that newest little arcane advisor to his bed. How long did the last one take?”

“Two months, but she was...”

Renata shuddered, “Aye, I remember. Don’t go reminding me.”

“The King and...” Reiss swallowed deep, her basket feeling heavy, “oh.”

“He’s got a real thing for robes,” Renata explained.

“Especially when they’re filled out to bursting,” Philipe exercised his bushy eyebrows with his barely innuendo.

Of course, she knew that it was bound to happen. Sex was a part of life, and her job was to guard that life no matter the cost to her own. It may be awkward to have to listen to the moaning and watching Linaya stagger out of his room in the morning, but any amount of displeasure was worth it for a hundred sovereigns a month. “I see,” Reiss said diplomatically.

“Ah hun,” Renata scooted over and patted her on the hand wrapped around the basket’s handle. “It’s not so bad. He’s more discreet than most.”

Reiss smirked, “So less orgies in the throne room, more secret sex dungeon in the catacombs. I’ve served with nobility before.”

Cackling, Renata slapped her hand on the table. “You’re gonna be all right. Swing on down here whenever you need something, at least to catch up on the shit.”

“I’ll be sure to take you up on that offer,” Reiss smiled, slightly bowing. “It’s a pleasure meeting you both, Renata and Philipe.”

Reiss gathered up her basket and strode out the door. She barely slipped past the threshold before the two began the long known tradition of talking about someone the moment they leave the room.

Renata began it, “Whatcha think about her and the King?”

“Never happen,” Philipe announced certainly.

“Why not? They spend that much time together things have a way of startin’.”

“Don’t matter. She’s a no-maj.”

Renata snorted, “No-maj? What’s a blighted no-maj?”

“You know, no magic. Not a mage,” Philipe sounded certain in his pronouncement.

“Bloody stupidest word I’ve heard. Just call her normal, like you and I. There’s mages and normals. Simple. No-maj,” she scoffed, “What do you call a scout, no-sword?”

“Fine, fine,” Philipe groaned, before the sound of him dragging his chair closer echoed out of the room, “but I say two weeks.”

“Okay, put me down for four weeks, three days with the mage, and...seven weeks for the dark horse there. Sometimes men surprise you.”


By the time she made it back to the throne room half of the nobles had dispersed, which suited Reiss just fine. She caught a glance from one of the other guards stationed outside the door. Maker, she should know his name, know all of them. The longer she didn’t introduce herself the faster animosity would grow over the outsider who bullied her way in. Reiss gulped, expecting a glare or worse when his head slowly turned towards the mage leaning close to the King, her arms tucked tight behind her back. A cruel smile twisted up the guard’s lips and Reiss caught on. Rolling her eyes she sighed and nodded her head softly. That got her a laugh from her fellow guard and hopefully would work to something of acceptance in the barracks.

Passing the remaining gentry who heard free food and weren’t about to leave until someone dropped a fireball, Reiss came upon the King with his daughter in his hands. He almost seemed to be using her as a barrier against the arcane advisor but judging by the romantic talk that seemed unlikely. Perhaps he was unaware of the woman’s obvious interest. Wasn’t that how it always worked with men?

He nodded his crownless head a few times to whatever one of the nobility beside him was speaking before catching sight of Reiss. “The hero of the hour arrives, I hope. Pray. Spud’s wasting away to nothing in my arms.” To elucidate his fact, he hung her upside down, her dark pigtails trailing across the floor. She giggled as he swung her back up, then insisted he do it again.

“Forgive me, Ser,” Reiss smiled, taken in by the happy family picture.

“Whatever took you so long?” Linaya began, a purple fingernail drawing down her lips as if she was trying to hold a secret back.

“Ah,” Reiss darted to the King a moment, but he was busy trying to get his daughter to the floor. That was foolish anyway, why would she expect him to come to her rescue? “I’m afraid that there were far too many offerings in the kitchen and it took me awhile to find something acceptable.” With that she passed the basket to the King and he plucked up the tea towel to dive in.

“Look, Spuddy, jam. And plum no less. She’d eat her weight in it if given a chance.” With an expert hand, he unscrewed the lid and dipped one of the crackers through it before passing both down to greedy fingers. The jam and cracker both vanished before either could drop a mess down her clothes.

Smiling at her voracity, the King leaned nearer to Reiss to stage whisper, “I worry somedays she’ll bite a finger off. What do we say?”

“’fank you,” the Princess gasped through a pile of crackers, the crumbs spattering across the floor.

“She’s so delightfully lively,” Linaya stood closer to the King, that attention grabbing chest almost skirting across his arm.

He screwed back on the jam lid and turned back to her, “Oh, yeah, you hope kids would be. Don’t want them to be all not alive and what not...How’s it going back there, Marn?”

What would have been beyond the pale in any kingdom was greeted as happenstance here as the wet nurse sat on the throne trying to get the Prince to quiet down. His toothless mouth howled against the world. “Not well, as you can hear,” Marn quipped back, her eyes darting over the King. She was what some women could call pleasantly plump, in the cushioned shape of a plum that when enraged became a trebuchet boulder. Reiss knew a few of the motherly to a village types in her days. There was one in the Free Marches she couldn’t have survived without, even if they made it next to impossible to live with as well.

Sliding up next to the throne, the princess gripped onto the arm. She chewed on a cracker while watching her baby brother with a determined expression. No one else seemed to be paying much attention to the child save Reiss who realized what was about to happen the second before it did. Yanking her tiny hand back, the princess walloped her crying brother across the face. The slap echoed through the throne room, every voice falling silent -- even the prince’s lapsed before an unending wail erupted out of tiny lungs.

The nanny began to reach over, but it was the King who snatched up the slapping hand, tugging it away from the baby. Growling, he twisted the princess around until she faced him. “Why did you do that?!” he hissed at her, his hands around her shoulders.

“Owe,” she complained, rubbing her wrist.

“We don’t hit!” he continued, a focused anger that seemed out of proportion for the small slap. “You know that. Why would you hit your brother?”

“Don’t know,” the princess eked out. Her eyes stared at her shoes, which she shuffled back and forth under her dress.

“You don’t know... Fine,” staggering up, the King kept a grip upon his daughter and hauled her over to the corner of the room. Nobles scattered away from him like flocks of geese. His obvious anger seemed almost palpable as the haze of good times evaporated. Plopping her into the corner, he jabbed a finger in her face and ordered, “You’re going to stand here until you can tell me why you did that. Understood?”

“...”

“What?” his voice boomed across the floor and nearly every eye twisted over to the man they’d written off as frivolous.

“Yes!” she screamed back, her balled up fists dropping to her sides.

“Good,” the King stomped away from her, before turning back, “and don’t you move an inch from that spot until I say. Do you hear me?” He didn’t wait for her second yes, the girl staring dejected at the corner as she hunched her tiny shoulders up to bury her head to her chest. Actively ignoring his pouting daughter, the King reached out for the baby, “How is he?”

“It’s not bad,” Marn insisted, “a bit red where she hit, but...”

“Andraste’s flaming...” he shook off the curse into a voiceless growl while trying to soothe the baby. Something in the King’s radiating rage struck even through the newborn and he quieted down. Carefully, the King glanced a thumb across the baby’s cheek bearing a bright red mark before he sighed. Aware of the silent faces watching him, he shrugged, “Kids. What can you do?”

That broke the tension, most of the crowd chuckling and people speaking of their own heirs peccadillos, those who spent any time around their children at least. Reiss cast a glance back at the pouting princess who kept a glare at the floor but didn’t move a muscle. As the celebrations resumed, she too folded back into the party. Arl Teagan struck up a genial conversation with her, inquiring about her background and time with the Inquisition. She didn’t want to talk about it, but figured one word answers for the man she threatened wouldn’t end well.

“How was it to serve under someone like yourself?” he asked, rolling a wine glass in his fingers.

Reiss bit down on the sarcastic “Oh, I didn’t know the Inquisitor was once a woman” response lodged in her throat. She knew what he meant, people were always asking her that. It must have been so lovely working for another elf, right? They were trying to be polite, the less polite ones just spat knife-ear and went about it, but sometimes that bothered her more. In trying to be welcoming, they made it even more obvious that she wasn’t like them, as if she’d ever forget.

“In truth, your lordship,” Reiss said, “I rarely saw the Inquisitor. I answered to others in the army. On occasion he’d appear for meals but he moved beyond my station. Far beyond it.”

“Ah,” Teagan paused and blushed a moment, “of course. I only exchanged a few words with him but he seemed an introspective and quiet sort.”

She’d heard the same, the Dalish barbarian turned icy Inquisitor often striking an imposing figure in conversations during late nights in the barracks. No one, even the type to spit knife-ear and chuckle about another exalted march, ever said a bad word about the Inquisitor. Some of it was common sense as they ran a tight ship of kicking any nay sayers out instantly, but some of it was all on him. In carrying himself so aloof it gave the man a strange power that Reiss knew she could never manage. If anyone ever saw the real man below the Inquisition eye armor, she never met them.

“A few of my old crew, in the same battalion, they all went out and got matching tattoos to honor the Inquisitor after he kicked Corypheus’ ass, uh, returned him to dust,” she coughed to cover up her slip.

“Interesting,” the polite Arl said, no doubt bored by a bit of pointless trivia. “The Inquisition eye, I assume.”

“Nah, they all, uh, copied his Dalish tattoos but elsewhere on the body. Though Gregory almost got drunk enough to do it right on his face but he wanted it reversed. We talked him out of it because, Maker...” It seemed a good idea at the time, the humans making certain a few elves fell in with their crowd and even a dwarf all to honor the man who saved the world, right. Then one of them was spotted with ink across his shoulder, and it all got complicated fast. The Inquisitor didn’t walk into their barracks, but the Commander did, his face flush as he growled out that unless they planned on joining the ranks of pirates on the Waking Sea no one was to get inked without permission.

“What of you?”

“Hm...?” Reiss shook off the whispers of confusion from the memory.

“Did you have them done?” he asked, struggling to make small talk.

“Nah, no, I...” She’d thought about it, sometimes even entertained the idea of slapping on a copy just so the shems would fear her, but her parents used to call the Dalish ‘Foolish sots who’ll all die of exposure. They wander because they can’t see what’s possible in front of them and would rather pout than build something.’ “I have a fear of being jabbed repeatedly in my flesh,” she said instead as an explanation earning a smile from the Arl.

“That I can fully understand.”

A cough drew her eyes to the nursemaid who turned over a timer glass and jabbed it at the King, “It’s been ten minutes.”

He nodded a thanks at Marn, “All right, Spud, you can...” Every eye in the vicinity turned over to the corner that was missing one princess. “Maker’s sake,” he cursed, all but tossing the baby over at Marn. Raising his voice above the crashing din, the King shouted, “Spud! This isn’t funny! Get out here now or it’ll go even worse for you!” Spinning around in a circle with his hands cupped around his mouth, it was obvious the King was trying to appear comical but a grit twitched upon his jaw and his forehead stained red. He was stuffing down a strain as the princess continued to cease to be.

In an instant, everyone panicked, people jostling skirts trying to see if a girl was hiding under them. Servants checked under tables which were then canvassed by nobility dropping to knees. The King grabbed onto Linaya’s elbow and hissed, “Can you do a tracking spell?”

“I shall try,” the mage said, terrified to admit if she couldn’t from the panic in his face. While she did magical things, he stomped around shouting for his daughter and jabbing into all the places a girl could sneak off to.

“Cade!” the King cried at the guard Commander waltzing in, “Spud’s missing. Probably a game of hers, but...”

“I shall close the gates and we will detain our guests.”

“Right, good, uh...”

“And then send my people to search all the rooms,” Cade said, a hand landing upon the King’s forearm. He seemed beyond approach, horrors haunting his face which he kept trying to wipe away before anyone noticed.

“Okay, got it. I should do something to...”

Cade lifted up his thick head and hollered, “Will everyone clear out to the foyer!” It wasn’t a question and like mabari snapping at an order, everyone began to filter out of the room leaving a once bustling space bereft with tables flipped over and glasses scattered across the ground.

Reiss watched uncertain if she should follow the panicking King or search for the princess herself. Her job was to protect him, but she suspected she knew what he’d say. Shaking off the dressing down she’d probably receive later, she stepped over to the corner where the princess had stood for a good ten minutes or less. Slowly, she lowered herself to a knee and tried to see what the girl would have. Too many people were watching her, pitying, or worse passing judgment. She couldn’t have slipped out through the entire throne room without someone noticing. No, but what if...

Turning on her heel, she spotted it out of the corner of her eye. It was barely noticeable to the untrained eye, which was the point. A servant door built behind a bulge of the wall, not even a door really, but a small square window that they could quickly move things from one level to the next. Or sit and listen in as most tended to be used for. And, if she didn’t miss her guess it’d be just big enough to fit an angry three year old.

Reiss reached down to yank open the wooden door. She budged it an inch, when it stuck fast and then slammed shut. “Princess?” she said.

“No one’s here,” the girl shouted, giving away her hiding spot in an instant.

“I see,” Reiss said nodding her head. Slowly, she dropped to the ground until her back rested against the wall and she spoke to the closed door. “Well, no one, you know the King is worried like crazy about his daughter. Do you happen to know where she is?”

“No!” the voice shouted from behind the door.

Reiss tried to drown out the exhaustion in her voice. The shift change was catching up to her fast. “Are you certain?”

“Daddy doesn’t care.”

That caught her. She’d expected a long game of ‘I’m not here’ which would lead to her tempting the girl out with that treat the cook slipped into the basket. Something in the princess’ voice reached beyond the typical toddler exhaustion and rage from having so many emotions and no idea how to express them. Tears hung in the air.

“Of course he does,” Reiss began before changing tactics, “Why would you say that?”

“He only likes him now.”

Ah, right. Sliding her legs out, Reiss leaned her head back against the wall and spoke, “Is that why you hit your brother?”

A silence fell from the wall before a soft voice muttered out an, “I dunno.”

“Did you know I have a brother and a sister?”

“Are they always crying?”

Reiss tried to not chuckle at her obvious distress, “No, they’ve grown past that stage, mercifully. But, when I was little I tried to leave my baby sister in a lost and found box in the chantry.” She was five at the time and so jealous of the attention Atisha gathered the moment she hit the ground Reiss could still remember her big plans to get rid of her.

“Did your Daddy be mean to you?” the voice inquired.

“Very much so,” Reiss said. When they found out, she could barely sit down for a week, both of her parents terrified of what may have happened to an elven baby left alone anywhere, never mind within a chantry. “But, he did it because he was worried about me. Because he loved me.”

That trite response got a kick of the princess’ shoe inside the wall. She wasn’t buying that. “I hate him.”

“Your father’s doing what he thinks is best for you,” Reiss said. Maker, how did she get wrapped up into this? And on her first day no less.

The princess continued on her rant that seemed to have been building for weeks, “Don’t care. I hate him. He...he made Mummy sick and she won’t play with me anymore. He cries all the time and, and stinks!”

Oh. The King wasn’t the him she meant, the girl unable to let go her focus on her brother. Reiss dropped her head down and accepted that logic wasn’t going to work on the girl in this state. “If you stay in there forever you’ll starve to death,” she said, trying something she used to use on her own brother when she wasn’t at her wits end from hunger and exhaustion.

“Don’t care!”

“We’ll dig out your skeleton, it’ll be very sad.”

“No!”

Okay, the macabre wasn’t working. She was probably too young to understand death. “You won’t be able to play with any of your toys and...and your brother will get them all.”

Slowly, the door to the hideaway lifted open revealing a black curl and a haunting green eye. “You’re lying?” she accused.

“Nope, it’s written in the rules of the kingdom. Any princesses that live inside walls have to give all their toys to their baby brothers,” Reiss sat up straighter before holding a hand out to the girl. “Do you want to come out now?”

Her eyes haunted around the empty room before landing upon the unassuming elf. “Yes,” she said before scurrying out of the crawlspace. Cobwebs coated her black hair, giving her a strangely aged look while dust dirtied her knees. As the princess staggered to her feet, Reiss followed suit before extending her hand again. Those emeralds weighed up the woman before she gripped onto her fingers.

Reiss quickly held it tight in her own hand and began to walk her across the throne room to find her father. The princess kept up, but her head hung down.

“Is Daddy gonna be mad?”

“He...” Reiss knew it wasn’t her place to speak for the King, but she had to say something, “he’ll be very happy to see you again.”


“Maker’s sake, do you know what you did to me? Look at all this grey hair. Yards of it. I bet my beard’s gone stark white now,” he babbled while he kept his hands locked tight around the princess, both of them with tears in their eyes.

" ’m sorry,” she kept mumbling regardless of what he said.

“You scared me so, so bad, Spuddy.”

Reiss found him in an antechamber sizing up some lesser nobles while Cade prodded through their things for answers. She barely had to speak before the King ran across the floor and scooped his daughter up in his arms. Guards and nobility watched on alike as the King tried to chastise his daughter while also praising anything in sight for bringing her back.

“Where did you go?” he asked the princess before turning up to Reiss. “Where did you find her?”

“She never left the throne room. I spotted an old servant’s lift and suspected she may have snuck inside there,” Reiss explained.

A grateful smile turned up his lips and she felt one stirring across her own. “Andraste’s blessing, you’re good. You’re very good. Spud, you should thank her for finding you so quickly.”

The princess’ haunting eyes turned around and she glanced up at Reiss, who cupped a hand below her elbow and waved at the girl. “’fank you,” she muttered, her eyes boring into the floor.

“Where’s that, uh,” the King staggered to his feet and absently wiped a forearm along his eyes, “the basket of food?”

“Here, Sire,” a hand passed it over. It was almost as if they’d been leaving crackers and jam crumbs on the floor to try and lure out any princesses.

“Daddy?” The girl’s grubby hands tugged on his tunic as the King dug into the basket. He paused in his search and glanced down at her. “Am I in trouble?”

“Immense,” he admitted, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Are you mad?” those stark green eyes sized up Reiss as if the blow about to come was all her fault. It only seemed fair in the three year old’s mind.

The King surprised her as he cupped the back of his daughter’s head and tugged her tight to him for a hug. “No, I’m glad you’re here and safe. Still shaking a bit from fear, but I’m not mad. I can’t entirely blame you for finding a way to skip out. I wish I’d thought to try that servant’s door.”

“Ah, it’s at best two feet wide,” Reiss said, terrified she may have to one day yank him free of it.

He ran a hand down his impressive frame and then shrugged, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.” His almost boyish charm brought a laugh out of Reiss before she became blisteringly aware of the eyes watching her. In particular, Commander Cade was watching with a razor focus. “Ooh,” the King yanked the red candy out of the basket, “look at this, Spud!”

All her internal torment vanished as the princess snatched up the treat. Her lips suckled it deep into her mouth, red goo dripping down the sides of her cheeks in absolute bliss.

A sly smile twisted up the King’s lips and he whispered to Reiss, “Renata?” Which earned him a nod. “She must like you. Spud, don’t stick it in your hair!” The princess shoved the candy back in her mouth, but through the sugary pacifier her eyes darted up to the new bodyguard. She seemed to be waiting for her confession to land as much as Reiss was regretting that she had to bring it up.

To stall for time, Reiss pointed at the basket, “There’s also some cheese the cook suggested...”

The King yanked up two of the stars and popped both into his mouth quickly. Swallowing fast, he sighed, “Spud hates cheese.”

“So the stars were for...” Reiss buried her realization instantly and smiled, “I see.”

Sighing, the King took in the little girl who managed to streak her dress in a red, sugary glaze in record time. “Has anyone seen, Marn?”

“I have, Sire,” a servant popped up, the man as ruggedly handsome as an elf ever got.

“Good, take this walking lolly to her for a bath,” he picked up her daughter’s fingers with as light a touch as he could manage and passed her off.

“Don’t want to go!” Spud suddenly erupted, her fingers reaching out to him.

“You’re not off the hook, young lady,” he spoke certainly, but without the heat from the slap. “You will do as Marn says, head to bed, and then...I’ll talk to you about your punishment later.”

“’Kay,” she shuffled her feet back and forth, accepting the elf’s grip. “What about the book? You must read it!”

The King’s unbendable stance shattered and he picked up his daughter’s black curls, “Don’t we always? After your bath I’ll be up, I promise.”

She didn’t make it easy on the elf, but the princess fell into his tug, both of them vanishing to find the nanny. Even then, the King kept a locked focus on his daughter. He seemed to want her to go as much as she did. “Maker’s sake, I swear that kid’s gonna kill me. Boom, keel right over, not even give the darkspawn a chance,” he whispered the last bit to himself, but Reiss overheard it. Seeming to see her, he grabbed her armored hand and pumped it freely, “Thank you again for tracking the wily toddler down and dragging her back. I’m certain she didn’t make it easy. She’s got the will of an avvar warrior.”

“It’s not a problem, your Highness,” she said, trying to tap down a blush at the attention. Slowly, he yanked his hand off hers, revealing a red stain in its wake. The King winced at that, but she barely batted an eye. “Um,” Reiss sidled a bit closer, her eyes watching the nobles. “Could we speak in private?”

“Right,” he nodded, “Cade, you’ve got this?”

“As always, Milord,” Cade groaned, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the inconvenience, but...”

They wound up returning to the throne room that was only filling with a handful of servants who thought they were free to try and clean up the mess. The King paced near his throne, trying to spot the hidden door his daughter snuck into. “Was that it?”

“Yes, Ser.”

He whistled at that, “Maker, she’s tinier than I thought. Right, you wanted to say something. I hope you’re not quitting already.”

“No, no, though this has been a memorable first day.”

“At least the baby didn’t vomit on you...and now that I said that it’s probably going to happen,” he groaned, his head dropping down.

Reiss chuckled, “That I am used to, but what I wanted to say does concern your daughter.” He focused his full attention upon her, which caused Reiss’ mouth to dry out. While the King’s vision tended to hop from one shiny bauble to another, when it honed in on something it was as if the rest of the world fell away for him. “When I found her she was distraught.”

“Of course she was, she’s two and knew she was in trouble.”

“I understand, but she made mention of her brother and, um,” Reiss swallowed, aware she was wading into dangerous waters, “how he made her mother sick.”

A groan reverberated in the King’s throat but he didn’t thunder how that was none of her concern or try to toss her from the palace. Instead, he buried his head in his hands and tugged on his hair, “She noticed? Of course she did. It worries me how smart she is already. In another year, she’ll be outthinking her father and then what do I do?”

“Kids tend to notice things, change in particular is...” Reiss paused, blanketing down her emotion, “hard on them.”

“And with Marn working nursemaid duty, she was never supposed to be official nanny but Spud’s particular and...” the King shook off his own internal torment to return to Reiss, “You sure you don’t have any children?”

“I think I’d know,” she chuckled, before paling at who she talked down to. “I helped to raise my siblings.”

“Right, of course, that’s what people do with siblings, I think,” the King picked at his elbow awkwardly before nodding at Reiss. “Thank you for telling me. It’d take me days to get it out of Spud, if even then. Not that I can blame her, I’m tempted to crawl under my bed for a few weeks. Maker, why can’t the world stay normal for one damn year? Is that too much to ask?”

“Sometimes I fear what else can be waiting on the horizon,” Reiss admitted.

“It’s one hell of an age to live through,” Alistair groaned, shaking his head back and forth. “I’m gonna go check on my kids. Ah, feel free to take the rest of the night to yourself. I think there was something about Cade wanting you to meet the other guards or, oh right, your old guardhouse. They probably need to be informed and your things shipped here or somewhere.”

Reiss patted him on the shoulder, her fingers flexing into the knotted muscle below. “It’s all right, Ser. I shall handle it.”

His fingers glanced over top of her gloves and he smiled. “Thank the Maker one of us can.”

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