When Alistair is still young enough to wear buckets for war-helms and ride broomsticks like ponies, Arl Eamon tells him, "All women are princesses in their own way, lad." Then he leans in close, one greying brow raised, his look secretive and voice conspiratorial, as though he parts with a piece of information that could save or damn all of Ferelden. "Once you realize that, it's merely a matter of what dragons they need slain."
Throughout all that happens later - the arlessa practically selling him into the Chantry, his training among the templars, the conscription into the Wardens (which should be a death sentence, but instead gives him a wonderful sense of freedom) - through all of it, good times and bad, this piece of advice stays with him, a core precept of who and what he is, utterly precious knowledge wielded inexpertly in the war between the sexes. While he is still at the age when girls have some specialized gender-linked form of the Blight, it is the slaying of dragons he dreams about, the princesses a mere footnote, vehicles to knightly glory, witnesses to the awesomeness of his ability and strength. (Even as a child, he is peripherally aware of that unwritten precept, that if a man slays a dragon and no one sees him do it, was it really ever done at all?) He wonders, sometimes, if merely being a princess is enough to draw the dragons near; perhaps a dragon's diet consists solely of princesses, and that is why they always need slaying, because eventually Ferelden would find itself run dry of ladies of noble blood and then how would knights become men?
But Alistair is never sure. When he shyly inquires amongst the others, the templars who train him and later the Wardens, they laugh and make strange references to lampposts and basilisks, and he ends the conversations rather more confused than he was when he began.
As he grows older (if not exactly wiser), the dreams begin to shift in tone. The dragons fade into the background - they yet need slaying, of course, their baleful gazes and great black wings a shadow over peace in Ferelden - but the princesses become less wooden stand-ins and more... rounded. They parade through his dreams one at a time, these lovely girls, clad only in thin white gowns precisely tattered in strategic places, their lips red and their eyes sultry as they beg him to free them from the ties that bind them... and those are good dreams, but it is never the same woman twice, and something in his romantic soul rebels at the idea. It's as if his unconscious mind is cheating on itself, which is a silly notion even for Alistair, but one he cannot shake. He has always thought of himself in the knightly ideal, loyal and steadfast, a one-woman man, if you will. It makes it exceedingly difficult to come to grips with the widely variable vision of the girls in his dreams, such that he tries not to think on it while awake, else he gives himself a migraine.
He dreams of them, blondes and brunettes, redheads and women with eyes and hair as black as a crow's wing; they are skinny and voluptuous, delicate and hardy, broad-shouldered and fine of bone. They are sweet noblewomen riven from their homes, wisps of elven girls torn apart by betrayal, sturdy dwarven ladies caught in the center of dramatic coup d'etats. They are gentle and kind, or smart and sarcastic, or cheeky and bold - and this is his favourite version of them, when they are brazen spitfires who stare him in the eye and argue back when he tells them he will rescue them, for even in their direst hour, they are determined to rescue themselves. They are warriors and mages and crafty little thieves, sad and stoic and bubbly and bright, effortlessly likable, charismatic in a way that he only wishes he could be.
He finds himself wanting to slay their dragons, whatever they may be, whether it is their pasts or their precarious futures, their fears or their desires, their enemies or their own gnawing uncertainties. More than anything, he wants to free them from the rock and take them into his arms, to kiss away tears or kindle to playful fire. He wants sometimes to protect them, sometimes to stand with them. But always, always he wants them to see him as their knight in shining armor, an invincible shield, a worthy companion.
And slowly, ever so slowly, he comes to realize that it is not that she is always different, but that she is always the same, in the ways that really matter. She is beautiful and brave and a perfect fit in his arms, in each and every incarnation, funny and ungrudging of him or his quirky ways, sometimes tolerant, sometimes an active participant in his tomfoolery. Alistair finds himself in the throes of utter loss whenever the dawn must wake him, and she disappears into the stuff of dreams. It is like dying a tiny death, every time he wakes to discover that she is not real, that she has never been real.
Sometimes, when a Warden dies and he is too heart-sore to bear it, he shamefully hopes the dreams of the darkspawn will take him instead, only that he need not face her lovely visage.
And then Duncan returns from - somewhere; Highever, or Denerim, or Ozrammar, or some other place he has scarcely heard of and will likely never see. Alistair is as delighted as a puppy presented with a treat, eager to see his mentor-friend and needle him about the particulars of his journey, but much to his surprise, Duncan is not alone. As Alistair catches sight of her for the first time, he thinks his heart will explode in his chest, he will fall down flat on his face, he will say something incredibly idiotic and royally screw up his chances with this woman forever, because he knows instantly in some part of him that this is her, this is the woman who has plagued him endlessly of nights, in the mortal flesh, as though his dreams are so powerful that they called her into being.
She is at once both everything he wants, and nothing at all like he expects.
He tarries a moment too long, unintentionally gawking, and Duncan shifts and clears his throat in expectation. Say something! he berates himself in sudden shrill panic, wits scrambled to the four winds, but all he can come up with is "I'm Alistair." Way to impress her, funny boy.
But she smiles and parts her lips to introduce herself, and standing on the precipice of their future he can only think, Finally, I've got you. My very own princess.
Now, to find these dragons I've heard so much about....