Kassandra Tabris fed another log into the massive hearth of the Redcliffe guestroom and watched as the flames seared black paths along the ridged bark. Her fingers trembled and she had to clench her hands together to hold them still. She was already second-guessing her decision.
At the very least, she should have consulted Alistair before she rejected the offer, but it was too late to turn back now. Morrigan had run off in a fit of pique, transforming herself into a scruffy white dog. While Kassandra stood transfixed before the fire, the witch had likely cleared the estate and scurried off into the wilds, taking her strange proposition and her wounded pride with her. Only the shapeshifter's perfume lingered in the room, the mingled scents of dried blood and spice and night-blooming flowers.
Kassandra exhaled deeply and lowered her head, a thin braid of auburn hair falling over her cheek. Perhaps it was for the best that Morrigan was gone and the temptation to cheat death gone with her. There had been something shifty in the witch's narrow golden eyes, something furtive and cat-like in her movements when she spoke of the ritual, of a salvation through ancient magic and of possessing a child with the soul of an old god. When Morrigan told the truth, she had a blunt manner and a sharp tongue. When she resorted to lies, she was cryptic, smiling and strangely cheerful, suddenly pleased to be her mother's daughter.
Perhaps Morrigan didn't intend to do much harm, just a little mischief, maybe something only moderately evil...but no. It was a risk Kassandra knew she couldn't take. So many had died already and she couldn't gamble with the future of Ferelden, not for a dream of happily-ever-after that, likely as not, wouldn't come true. Another death, a good, proud death - she could accept that, if she had to. She had survived longer than most poor souls caught up in this Blight, longer than many children of the Alienage, for that matter, and she knew that she should have been able to pay the price without flinching.
It occurred to her, too, if that she died slaying the archdemon, even the people of Ferelden, so adept at forgetting the elvenfolk, would be forced to recognize the worth of what she'd done. Certainly that option had to be better than the life that had been mapped out for her in the Alienage: years of poverty, years of hopeless waiting in employment lines or bread lines, years spent trying to avoid conceiving children (even if sex was the best way to relieve the maddening boredom) because no one could afford another mouth to feed.
Of course, she could be pure and cold and logical about it all in the abstract, but the more inevitable death seemed, the more doors she heard locking behind her, the more she wanted to batter the stone walls with her fists.
A tentative knock sounded at the door, startling her with its timeliness.
She heard Alistair clear his throat. "My dear?"
"Just a moment!" Kassandra gave herself a quick once-over, rubbing her eyes dry and smoothing her hair back behind her pointed ears.
When she opened the door, she found Alistair examining a hallway tapestry, distractedly picking at a stray thread that had worked its way loose from the back of a griffin.
"Yes? Your Majesty?"
Alistair gave a start and turned around, blushing at having been caught in the act. "Never call me that, Kass. That's an order. I should have guessed that you were going to keep giving me grief about it."
His jaw was clenched and he looked uncomfortable in the ornate garments of a king. On her tiptoes, she managed to brush his chin with her lips before he stooped down to give her a proper kiss, the kind that still felt wonderful, urgent and breathless, better than anything she could have dreamed up in the Fade.
Alistair smiled down at her, his amber eyes warm as the firelight. "Darling?"
"Would you mind terribly if I asked you a favour?"
Kassandra paused, throwing him a slantwise smile. "Depends. How big a favour are we talking about?"
"Oh, a tremendous one," Alistair said. "I don't know how to put this, but - could you please scratch me all over? This new royal get-up of mine is very grand, no doubt, but it's also murderously itchy."
She laughed. "Ah, so I've been demoted to Royal Backscratcher, have I?"
Alistair raised his eyebrows, mimicking a wounded expression with startling ease. "I rather thought you'd leap at the chance to get your nails into my flesh. You seemed to enjoy it before or have I been deceiving myself?"
"Oh, alright! Just come in here and shut the door first, will you?"
He gave a triumphant grin as she tugged him into the guestroom. Once the door was shut and fastened, she slid her hands under his shirt, raking her fingernails over the curve of his muscled back.
"Oh, yes. Yes," Alistair groaned. "That is...very, very good."
She directed her attention to his chest, more for the selfish pleasure of running her fingertips over his nipples and down towards his hard stomach than out of any real desire to ease his suffering. He gave a delightful shiver and she delved a little lower.
"You realize, my liege, that if you keep that up, people passing in the hall are bound to get the wrong idea?"
"Well, I tend to think they have the right idea. Besides, making love to the lady of my heart is a nice, kingly thing to do. Surely much more regal than sitting on my makeshift throne scratching myself bloody and cursing the royal tailor."
Alistair pulled her to his chest, kissing her throat, his free hand sliding under the hem of her dress and up along her thigh. He navigated their bodies towards the large oak bed, walking her backward with ponderous, clumsy steps that threat to topple them both. When she fell, she fell backwards onto the bed and he was upon her, the weight of his body a relief, the only burden she'd ever wanted.
They undressed each other slowly, intently, almost as carefully they had the very first time, back when each piece of clothing concealed secrets: an old battle scar, a faded birthmark, a constellation of freckles. Over time and with much enthusiastic practice, their love-making had become easy, warm and familiar as the food they ate or the heat of the campfire, and they'd grown comfortable with the intimacy of their bodies entwined beneath the sheets.
Yet on this night, a new thrill passed between them, a sense of mystery, even of ceremony, that startled her. Alistair's skin appeared golden by the flickering light of the fire and when he gazed upon her, his eyes seemed to glint with hidden meanings – whether with love or with sorrow, she did not know. Afterward, they lay together, breathing almost in unison, her head resting upon his chest as he stroked her hair.
"We haven't talked – about it. Our most recent bit of...news," Alistair said. "How are you? Holding up, I mean?"
"I'm managing, I guess. The Grey Wardens are just full of surprises."
"Yes. That they are."
"How are you?" She shifted under the blanket, burying her face in the nook between his shoulder and his neck. "When we spoke with Riordan, you were doing that thing – that thing you do when you're trying not to show any facial expression."
"A thing? What thing? I do no such thing."
"It's hard to explain, but you set your jaw like a steel trap and you furrow your brow. If I didn't know you were concentrating on not being upset, I might think you were a little constipated."
He shook his head. "Hmm, am I really so entertaining? You don't have to keep an eye on me all the time, you know."
"You're right. Someone might think I loved you or something ridiculous like that," she said. "Now stop it with the stiff upper lip routine and tell me how you are."
Alistair sighed. "Oh, very well. I'm shocked, of course. And feeling quite foolish that I didn't know. I should have known. Some Grey Warden I am. They didn't even see fit to inform me about the secret vault, for Andraste's sake!"
"I'm sure they would have gotten around to telling you. After all the drinking games and such."
He rewarded her with a rueful smile. "It does seem rather important, doesn't it? Anyway, I want to let you know - to inform you, that sounds much more official, much harder to argue with – if Riordan should fall, I will be delivering the final blow. That's absolutely non-negotiable."
"Really? That's funny, because I already volunteered to be Riordan's second and he already agreed. Guess you missed your chance."
Kassandra was about to roll over when Alistair caught her shoulders and held her fast. "Then you will go and un-volunteer yourself."
When she refused to look him in the eyes, he grasped her face in his hands until she met his gaze. "Do you hear me? Kass? Please look at me. This is non-negotiable. Other things, such as whether you want to sleep on the right side of the bed or the left, those things I will certainly oblige you in. But you will not die for me. Understood?"
Kassandra bit her lips and frowned. A tear was starting to worry at the corner of her left eye.
"May I remind you that you're the king of Ferelden. The last of the Theirin bloodline? Sound familiar? You have obligations. If you want to martyr yourself, you'll have to wait your turn, Your Majesty."
Alistair's hands dropped away from her cheeks. "Maker's breath, you can't use that against me! I never asked to be king in the first place!"
"And I guess you'd like to give Ferelden to darling Anora?" Kassandra retorted. "Just think, she'll re-write all the history books to say what a wonderful hero her daddy was. Pardon me if I don't want to stick around long enough to see that."
He stopped for a second and seemed to ponder that. "Yes, I won't deny the reign of that creature would be a dreadful prospect. But seeing you die and knowing I could have prevented it: that's a worse one for me. A worse one by far."
Kassandra placed a solemn kiss on his lips. He tried to hold her down, to kiss her longer, but she struggled free, pressing a finger to his mouth before he could utter a protest.
"I'm glad – I'm glad that you feel that way, Alistair," she said. "But let's be realistic: in the big scheme of things, you're important. Your life matters to Ferelden and its future. I like my life well enough, but in the end, I'm just another elf, maybe one with a few tricks up her sleeve, but just another pair of 'knife-ears' all the same."
"That isn't true."
"I could have died in a room or an alley in Denerim a year back and not a dozen people would have noticed. You know what people in the Alienage think a good life looks like? A decent servant's job and a shack where ceilings aren't too low and the rent isn't too high."
"And so I'm supposed to conclude that because you come from humble beginnings your life is worth less than mine?" He gave an incredulous chuckle. "You do remember who my mother was? And that Goldanna is probably still taking in people's dirty laundry by the basket? This business of royalty being in the blood is all rubbish as far as I'm concerned."
"And that's why you're going to be a wonderful king," Kassandra said. "Maybe I didn't explain myself very well. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've never had...high expectations. After I killed Vaughan, I thought I was a corpse. And then Duncan saved me."
"As he saved me," Alistair said.
"Not from death."
"From being bored to death," he stipulated. "But yes, point taken."
She paused, taking deep breaths, her hands smoothing down the rumpled blanket. When she heard her voice, it sounded like an echo, as if it were coming from over a far-off mountain. "The way I see it – as I'm coming to see it, anyway - Duncan gave me a gift, this extra time to go and see the world outside, to be a Grey Warden and change things, maybe for the better. To have someone like you. I've lived so much. After that, I think that I can be at peace with dying for a good cause."
He wrapped his arms around her, one of his hands caressing her back with slow, soothing strokes. She shut her eyes and let her body fold into his.
"I wish you would simply let me be your hero for once," he whispered. "I think dying for you is quite romantic if you look at it the right way."
She hugged him closer, feeling his pulse throb against the sinews of his neck. "You are my hero, Alistair. That's why you need to survive this and be the king that Ferelden needs."
She gave a mirthless little chuckle, a preventative measure to keep the tears from coming. "Look, I'll admit it: I'm glad you made the offer. Duty and common sense aside, I would feel a little less eager to die for you if you didn't protest a bit."
"This is my decision and for once, you're going to take orders from me. I already told you: I will take the final blow. Non-negotiable," he said. "As a matter of fact, after that pronouncement, I probably should have got up, turned on my heel and marched away."
She stared up at him, a smile twitching the sides of her lips. "Without your clothes?"
"If necessary, yes. Absolutely starkers," he replied. "Walking out on you in the nude is a much better ploy than awkwardly hanging about, arguing with you when it isn't a matter up for discussion. As you can see, I still have a few things to learn about being king and bossing people about."
"Then there's nothing for it. I guess we'll just have to see who gets to the archdemon first," she said. "Maybe Riordan will beat us both to the punch."
"It's horrid to say so, but yes, that's what I'm hoping for. But, if he falls, I think it's only right that I take his place. It's my duty, as the senior Grey Warden here and as the king, whether you'll admit it or not."
"When I said that a king could do as he pleased, I wasn't referring to killing himself."
Alistair frowned. "Oh. Yes. That conversation. I was hoping we'd forget that unpleasantness ever happened. I didn't want to end this, Kass. I was just overwhelmed. And overwrought. And very, very stupid."
"Just for future reference, your timing was awful," she said. "If you wanted to talk about our future, it could have waited until we were alone."
"Well, we're alone now, so I'll say it again: I'm sorry. I'd been agonizing about it for days. After the Landsmeet, I burst into the room, saw you standing there and I...just started talking. It was like a bad dream, actually. Although, thankfully, I was fully clothed."
She smirked at him, thinking how lucky he was that his nervous rambling was endearing. "I don't know about that. It would have been much easier to handle if you'd been naked. Everyone would have just thought, 'Oh, look, there goes King Alistair again, babbling about something. Crazy as a loon.'"
"Oh, believe me, even with all my kit on, I'm good at making a public spectacle of myself. But you've forgiven me, haven't you? You must know by now how much you mean to me."
She paused, eyeing his face, trying to decide how to answer him. It was hard to deny the resentment she felt towards the Fereldan nobility, who would never accept her as anything but the king's elven whore, an amusing kink to gossip about in the booths of the Gnawed Noble.
Perhaps Alistair had taken a risk in coming this far with her, in being this open about their relationship, but they would never wholly belong to each other. There had been a moment after the Landsmeet when she felt, with sickening certainty, that he would fold under the pressure and let her go. Despite the darkspawn threat and the prospect of death at every corner, it was funny how the thoughtless arrogance of humans could still wound her. And how odd, how cruel, that she would learn to love one of them, perhaps more than her own life.
"Yes, I have forgiven you for that," she replied at last. "Although I remember mentioning that you would have to earn it."
He clasped her hand and kissed it, grinning at his show of gallantry. "That's easy enough to do. Let me kill the archdemon. I'll lay its head at your feet."
"Actually, I was thinking of something else."
"And what task would you put before me, my lady?"
"I was thinking," Kassandra said, "that in the winter, you should go and find a lamp post. And then you should stick out your tongue and you should lick it. Do that and I will forgive you without another word."
He pounced on her, laughing, and pinned her down on the bed. "Oh, you are a cruel one, madam. But since there are no lampposts hereabouts and it's the middle of June, perhaps I could just lick you instead?"
She smiled. "I guess it's a start."
"Then perhaps will you be kind enough to allow me to stay here for the night? I fear this may be the last time we will have this much privacy. Or such a comfortable bed."
"Yes, I would like that. I would like that very much," she said. "Alistair?"
"Yes, my love?"
"Hold me for a while, just like this. I'm feeling – a little cold, that's all."
Alistair lifted his head to glance at the hearth. "Shall I see if I can revive the fire? It does seem to be waning."
"No, don't worry about that. Stay here. Just hold me for a while."
"I can do that," he said, and he was true to his word.
The flames guttered, diminished and then died out. They lay together in the darkness, their arms about each other. The room was silent except for the sounds of their breathing, the almost-imagined whisper of bodies moving under a blanket. If she kept her eyes open, if she could just stay awake, if she could hold the air in her lungs a little longer, Kassandra almost believed that she might extend the moment into hours, days, weeks, years, a quiet eternity, and the morning would never come.