It was disconcerting to say the least to be back on a horse for the first time in ten years, and I'll admit to a little jealousy at how elegant Nalissa and Leliana looked on horseback. It was obvious they were both much less out of practice than I was. I had the distinct feeling I looked more like a housecat trying to cling to the back of a hound.
When we first started off for the tower, I asked if we should go back to camp for Morrigan and Sten. Nalissa said that there was no time and we had no horses for them anyway, and then that was all she said. The dog scouted ahead like it understood the danger, something I was long used to, but it seemed Leliana was not talking to Nalissa, and Nalissa was not talking to me, and all the silence started driving me mad within a quarter mile.
"All right, you're angry at me, right?" I asked when I couldn't stand it any longer. Leliana looked confused but Nalissa just shook her head, still looking straight ahead, and finally heaved a sigh.
"I'm not angry, Alistair," she said. "I suppose I'm just... a little hurt. I've never lied to you, and while you weren't exactly lying..."
"I just didn't want you to think of me any differently," I admitted, trying not to notice how hard Leliana was eavesdropping and trying to figure out what we were talking about.
Nalissa's eyes were stern as she looked at me. "Well, you're right. If that had been the first thing you had said to me, I probably would have formed an entirely different opinion of you. But by the time Ostagar fell, the only thing still important was that we were the last Wardens in Ferelden." Her eyes softened and looked like a calm sea again. "I understand what you were afraid of and I forgive you, but tell me, do you really think of me as a teyrn's daughter before all else?"
I very nearly said something else, but in an effort to lighten the mood, I joked, "Only when you give people that look like you've settled nine worse disputes before breakfast this morning. See, there it is."
Nalissa shook her head, but I saw the corners of her lips turn up despite her best efforts. "And that's what I mean. Your humor and your spirit make you who you are, Alistair. That's how I think of you and that won't change even if you became King of Ferelden."
"I don't think there's anyone less suited to that," I muttered.
Nalissa chuckled and looked up at the overcast sky. "You might be surprised how many people would think that humility and all the more reason you should be."
"Hold, hold; what are you talking about?" Leliana cut in, and it was written on her face that she had been dying to burst in for some time now. "Alistair is a king?"
"I'm not a king!" I objected, throwing my hands in the air.
"But your father was," Nalissa said gently.
This time, it was Leliana's turn to look indignant. "Are you joking? Are all of you Grey Wardens nobility?!"
"Only the really new ones," Nalissa quipped. "We're not very good at our jobs, either. Just can't seem to die properly."
Leliana shook her head. "I thought I was following warriors, but you're a prince and a teyrna that both missed your true callings as court jesters."
Nalissa burst out laughing, and I gave her a strange look. She shook her head. "It's nothing. I just had this absurd thought of what my mother would have to say about all of this. 'Darling, tramping around the country in dirty armor with a bunch of renegades isn't at all ladylike. Now put on this Orlesian gown while I make the arrangements for a salon or I'll never have any more grandchildren!'"
I didn't get the joke, but Leliana laughed. "So strange, Ferelden. In Orlais, your marriage to a nobleman would have been arranged as a child."
"No, that's usually how it's done in Ferelden, too," Nalissa said matter-of-factly. "My brother and I were no exception."
That caught me off guard and I actually reined in my horse to a stop dead in its tracks, nearly sliding out of the saddle but barely noticing. "Wait, you're betrothed?!"
Nalissa stopped her mount much more gracefully and gave me a strange look. "You shouldn't sound so surprised. No doubt you would have been the same, had you been raised in court."
With a shrug, she said, "I was betrothed once. To the son of the arl of South Reach, one of the men my father fought beside in the war. I don't think I ever met the boy; it's a long way south from Highever. All this was agreed shortly after I was born, but when he was around nine or ten years old, it was discovered he had magic and of course sent away to the Circle. Arl Bryland's only other child was a daughter a little younger than I, so there was no substitute. Maker, was Mother furious when she she started trying to arrange another engagement and realized I was old enough to say no and spoil her plans!"
She laughed and for some strange reason, I felt relieved. Leliana however just looked curious. "You didn't want to marry a nobleman? Such a thing is unheard of in Val Royeaux."
Nalissa shook her head. "Trust me, if you had met any of these louts, you would understand. The younger sons of the Bannorn are an insufferable lot, overall. Spoiled idiots that have never done anything more strenuous than pull their own boots on in the morning, if they can even manage that themselves. One even swore he would win my hand from my father just to show me my place."
I found my fists clenching at that even though she only scoffed at the notion. "Coddled fool probably wouldn't even know what to do with a woman but strike her and die on her blade for the trouble, not that my father didn't see through him a mile away. Regardless, I couldn't stand for the idea of being bound to someone just because our fathers shed blood together." Her grim expression melted into a sad smile as she added, "Father used to laugh and swear one day I would be teyrn and teyrna both."
I didn't know what to say to that and apparently neither did Leliana, because aside from the sniffing of the warhound, we fell back to riding in silence.
The sun was already waning when we finally saw the Circle tower in the distance... and then we had to convince the ferryman to take us to it. He seemed convinced he shouldn't, mentioning trouble in the tower, and that worried me. We had no time for trouble.
It proved worse than I had feared when Nalissa finally talked our way inside. Demons and abominations had been set loose inside the tower, the knight-commander said; they were only waiting on the Right of Annulment to be authorized. If the mages all died, I knew, it was hopeless. Connor or Isolde would have to die, and my stomach turned at what that choice meant, for the arl and for us.
Nalissa didn't sound so convinced, however. She asked to enter the tower anyway, at least until the Right was granted, to see if any of the mages could be saved. The knight-commander insisted that he would accept none of the mages as untainted unless the First Enchanter survived and swore to it, and Nalissa just set her jaw and said she would find him then.
This sounded like a suicide mission to me, but Nalissa just headed toward the quartermaster, muttering under her breath that one day without a crisis was just too much to ask for. As she bought up his supply of health poultices 'just in case,' I watched her uncertainly. This could very well be the death of us all if we couldn't prevail, and maybe even if we did and walked back into a trap in Redcliffe. Suddenly I realized I wasn't willing to die and leave anything unsaid, no matter how scary it might be to ask out loud.
A little uncertainly, I caught Nalissa's eye and asked if she would miss all of these crises once they were past. She gave me that same strange look again and then said slowly, "I think there will always be battles to fight, Alistair... or do you mean to ask if I'll miss fighting them with you?"
I tried really hard not to let my ears turn red. Of course she would have figured out what I was trying to ask, but that didn't make it any easier to try to find the words to tell her I cared for her. And then as soon as I did, I started fumbling to offer her an excuse in case she didn't feel the same. I couldn't walk to a very likely death without knowing, but I was also afraid of what she might say.
I wasn't sure if I was more worried she might think me the bastard son of a scullery maid and beneath her, or the bastard son of a king and untouchable.
Then Nalissa's eyes softened and she fixed me with the same smile she had given me on the road earlier and I dared to hope. I almost couldn't hear her over my heart pounding in my chest, but when she said she felt the same, I thought those might have been the sweetest words I had ever heard.
I don't know how exactly my arms got around her; I can't seem to remember meaning to do that, but I remember clearly the overpowering desire to kiss her and the lightning crackling in my chest when my lips caught hers. It was ridiculously forward and brash and I hoped it wasn't a mistake, but then Nalissa was kissing me in return, standing up on her toes with her arms around my neck, and the rush of feeling was incredible. It was worth it to die in an impossible attempt to cleanse the tower, I thought, for the chance to feel so completely and intensely alive in the arms of a woman so fierce and beautiful.
The kiss slowed and I pulled back. I felt so light headed I was nearly giddy, but as the electricity from her touch faded, a surge of worry replaced it. "That... wasn't too soon, was it?" I would never forgive myself if I had just gotten too caught up in the moment and made a mess of things.
Then Nalissa smiled, and it was the clearest smile I had ever seen on her face. As her sea-green eyes danced at me, I thought I must be looking at her as she had been before her family was attacked and her world thrown into chaos.
"No, I don't think so," she said gently, but then her smile turned a little... wicked. "I might need a little more practice to be sure, though."
I laughed, hoping it didn't sound too nervous. "Maybe I'll have to arrange that."
Nalissa grinned, and I swear Andraste herself couldn't have been more beautiful. After I coughed awkwardly and suggested we move on, she chuckled and said, "You realize of course now I can't possibly let you die in there."
"Aha! Yes, that was my plan all along!" I joked. But as we faced down the sealed doors of the tower, though all my templar training told me this would be a nightmare come alive, I had never felt more powerful.