A/N: Sorry for the late update, but the chapter and RL both wouldn't cooperate. Many thanks to Crisium and Lilith Morgana, betas and hand-holders and sounding boards extraordinaire. All remaining mistakes are my own.
Please note: as of this chapter the story is rated M.
So this was how you got married to a king.
It all got arranged for you. There were no white horses.
The past flipped straight into the future, carrying you with it.
Terry Pratchett, "Lords and Ladies"
"This is probably the point where you should be getting cold feet and having second thoughts," Fergus said from the settee.
"Hmm, yes," Elissa murmured in agreement, and moved the candle closer to the letter she was writing. "Do you want some more tea?"
"No. Yes. I used to hate tea," he said absently.
Elissa didn't point out that there were a lot of things Fergus used to hate, such as spending a mostly silent evening lying on a settee. Before, he'd been a whirlwind of energy: hunting, training, playing with Oren, teasing Oriana, drinking, laughing; anything but sitting still. Now, he was slower and quieter, lost in thought when there was nothing to occupy him. She'd even seen him with a book a few times, while the Fergus of old had never, to her knowledge, set foot in the Highever library unless forced by Aldous or the teyrn.
Putting her quill down she poured two fresh cups and walked to the settee and looked pointedly at Fergus until he swung his legs down to make room for her.
"I don't have time for cold feet," she said when they were sitting down side by side. "Arl Eamon is insisting my coronation should be delayed until Parvulis, my seamstresses are in hysterics, and every other note is from the palace cook, asking if I want this or that served at the banquet."
Fergus frowned, lowering his cup. "Until autumn? Has he gone mad? It's bad enough when the entire Landsmeet has to come here for Summerday while half the country lies in ruins; they won't stand for coming here again during harvest season."
"Which is exactly what I wrote him, and Alistair, only I phrased it differently each time," Elissa murmured into her tea. "Maker, I wish it was all over. I haven't gotten a decent night's sleep in weeks."
"And it's not like you'll get much sleep on your wedding night, either," Fergus said with a wink over the rim of his cup.
Elissa would have elbowed him, if not for the danger of spilling their cups. "Will you stop making jokes about my wedding night? It's bad enough as it is."
Fergus looked suddenly uneasy. "I thought you and—should I ask Hulda to—?"
Elissa looked sideways at his suddenly pale face and dissolved into giggles. "Oh, your expression just now! What do you think we were doing all those times you caught us?" She sniggered and took a quick gulp of tea to calm down. "If you want to get down to the sordid details, it just feels strange to think about bedding somebody I barely know." Another, less welcome, memory intruded, but Elissa pushed it away and locked it down tightly.
Fergus looked uncomfortable enough that she thought she had her revenge anyway. "Can we not talk about you bedding anyone, please?"
"You started it," Elissa pointed out and leaned back with a sigh. "Maker, I can't wait till it's all over. There'll be still so much to do, but at least I'll be able to do a lot of it out in the open, and won't need to smuggle notes to Alistair through the palace servants."
Fergus was silent for so long that eventually she turned her head to look at him. He was frowning. "I keep thinking, you know," he said eventually. "Wondering if this or that is what Father would have wanted, or if I'm doing right by you and by the teyrnir. Whether Mother would have agreed—"
"We can't," Elissa said gently, putting her cup down and reaching over to squeeze Fergus' shoulder. "I was like that when I was first trying to put the castle back in order, but then I realised that I'd go mad if I only went by what I imagined they would have wanted. Besides, I think the first thing they would have wanted is for us to be happy, and not to look over our shoulders at the smallest decision."
"It's not exactly the smallest decision, you becoming queen of Ferelden," Fergus said with a sigh.
"No. But it was Alistair's and mine to make, not yours, and not our parents'. And they trusted you to do the right thing," Elissa said. "They had complete faith in you."
"I keep thinking," Fergus repeated as if he hadn't heard. "What if I'd left the next morning? What if I'd sent Oriana away? What if—"
"What if I'd stayed behind with Mother to defend my liege-lord and not allowed them to push me out of the door?" Elissa asked quietly.
Fergus turned to her, frowning. "What kind of stupid question is that? You'd be dead."
Elissa held his gaze for a long moment. "Yes. And you couldn't have left later because Father ordered you to leave when you did. Fergus, it's no use to dwell on things we can't change any more."
He stood up suddenly, his cup hitting the coffee table so hard it overturned, spilling the dregs. "How can I not dwell on things?" he asked without turning around. "My wife is dead, my boy is dead; I didn't even get to burn them! Our parents are dead, and now—" he broke off suddenly but Elissa was already on her feet, coming to face him.
"You big oaf," she said, putting her arms around him. "Remember what you told me in Highever? I'm not leaving you, Fergus. In fact, I was just thinking how to talk you into staying in Denerim for a few weeks after the wedding. You're not losing me as well."
He drew a hand over her hair, before pressing her head into his shoulder so roughly that she was glad she couldn't see his face. "I couldn't face Highever on my own," he said hoarsely.
"You're not facing anything alone. Not while I'm alive," Elissa said. "And let me up, I can't breathe."
He held her a moment longer before letting go and looking down at her, his eyes wet but his lips quirked in a half-smile. "I know that look. What are you up to? You'll be busy; the only way I'll get to talk to you would be during an audience."
"I have an idea," Elissa said, walking back to the settee. "But I need to talk about it with Alistair first."
"I'm not going to like it, am I?"
"If you absolutely hate it, I'll find somebody else. But there are only so few people I can trust."
Fergus sat down next to her with a sigh and righted his cup, wiping the spilled tea with his sleeve and ignoring Elissa's subsequent wince. "I'm really not going to like it, huh?"
Elissa smiled. "We'll talk after the coronation. I'll send word as soon as I've spoken to Alistair about the whoel thing." She stood up, stretching. "Maker, I still have so many letters to write, and tomorrow the dress should be ready, and I bet it isn't, and if it rains on Summerday I'm going to have to—"
"You," Fergus said, "are scaring me. I'm going to bed." He watched her walk back to the desk.
"Good night," Elissa murmured absently, her mind already back on the letter in front of her. "Oh, Fergus?"
He paused at the door, looking over his shoulder. "Hmm?"
"I love you," Elissa said, looking straight at him.
He blinked, surprised, then smiled at her. "I love you too, brat. Remember to sleep before the wedding. It's only two days away."
"Oh, did you have to remind me?" Elissa moaned, looking back at the letter.
"This is ridiculous," Elissa muttered under her breath.
"Yes, but it's very expensive, so everybody will pretend it's beautiful," Fergus replied, scanning the courtyard.
"Not the dress!" Elissa took a deep breath and fought to keep her expression calm. "Also, wait. Pretend? You were praising it just ten minute ago!"
Fergus stopped and turned to her. "Do you really want my honest opinion on your dress? Today?"
Elissa looked down at the stiff embroidered brocade and the yards of lace and stifled a sigh. "Just imagine, the ambassadors of Orlais and Antiva and everywhere will write home how ridiculous the Queen of Ferelden…" she trailed off, the thick lace at her collar suddenly too constricting.
"Ah, it's finally sunk in, has it?" Fergus asked, stepping closer. "Breathe."
"Can't," Elissa said, pulling at her collar, pressed so carefully by the maids. "Fergus, I—"
"No, we can't call it off," Fergus said, squeezing her shoulders. "It's going to be all right, brat. Just breathe. Do you remember my wedding?"
Elissa blinked. Of course she remembered. It had been a loud and boisterous affair, with Oriana looking faintly self-conscious and Fergus being toasted by everyone, from their father down to the least important lord; it had seemed like every noble in the North had come to pay their respects to the Cousland heir and his exotic bride. They'd had to put up trestle tables in the courtyard to accommodate all the well-wishers, and there had been music and dancing and—
Fergus let his hands fall. "Better now?"
Elissa swallowed and nodded. "Thank you. It was a lovely wedding, wasn't it? Was Oriana very scared by the uncivilised Fereldans?"
"A little, but she enjoyed the fuss everybody made. Until then, I don't think she'd realised what being a Cousland entailed," Fergus said; his smile more fond than wistful.
"Getting married in this parody of a dress, for once," Elissa said, consciously straightening her shoulders.
"Every lady in there will be dressed in the same fashion, so what does it matter?" Fergus said absently. "Ah, there's the carriage."
The horses pulling the unwieldy vehicle were decked out in Cousland colours and not looking too happy about it. The Cousland coat of arms on the carriage itself had been freshly repainted and the whole gilded monstrosity looked suitably impressive – if only as an example of what one wouldn't want to be driven in.
Fergus looked at the carriage for a moment before turning back to Elissa. "You were saying about something being ridiculous?"
Elissa stared in fascinated horror before she could tear herself away. "Ah. Yes. I was thinking about us taking… this… to ride to the cathedral, through streets and alleys that were built long before carriages of this size were first manufactured; streets and alleys squeezed full of people. Then, after the marriage ceremony, everybody will be stuffed back into the carriages, which will be dragged back through the same narrow alleys again – still full of people – to the palace, where the coronation will take place. With, may I remind you, the very same people in attendance who will be at the marriage ceremony."
Fergus sighed. "Yes."
"Well," he shrugged, "yes. You are right. It's bloody ridiculous. What else am I supposed to say?"
"How about, 'let me help you into the carriage before we are late'?"
The Teyrn of Highever muttered a curse entirely unbecoming his station and offered Elissa his arm as a page swung open the creaky carriage door and let down the steps.
Elissa adjusted her dress, mindful of the splinters in the old wood and winced as the carriage jerked into motion. Moving back so she wouldn't be seen through the windows she looked up and met Fergus' eyes. Wordlessly he took her hands in his.
"It will be fine, brat."
"It needs to be better than fine," Elissa said, licking her dry lips. Outside, people were shouting and cheering. "Maker, I hope we don't kill anyone with this thing."
"That would be a slightly inauspicious start, yes," Fergus said.
Elissa rolled her eyes. "Just a bit."
Fergus smiled slightly. "Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide."
"Maker, though the darkness comes upon me, I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm. I shall endure." Fergus's smile grew.
Elissa blinked, startled. "Why are quoting the Chant at me?"
"Because you need something to hold on to." He squeezed her hands. "When I learned about Howe… you know I don't care about the Chantry much."
Elissa nodded; Fergus' reluctance to attend services had been always very vocal and didn't even stop when Oren had been old enough to understand. "So what—?"
"So, it's comforting. The one thing that never changes, even if I fall asleep listening to it. Let all repeat the Chant of Light. Only the Word dispels the darkness upon us."
The shouts outside were growing louder. They were approaching the cathedral. "You want me to pray?"
"I want you to find comfort in whatever you can, brat," Fergus expression was unusually serious. "There is little enough of true comfort around. What does it matter what shape it comes in?" Her expression must have been telling, because he laughed, briefly and loudly. "I'm not about to join the Chantry; don't worry. And I wouldn't want you to. It's not even about the Chant itself. Just remember, whatever makes you happy. It can be the oddest, strangest thing, but don't let that stop you. Grab it while you can."
"I…" Elissa smiled, confused but appreciative. "As fraternal advice goes, you could have done a lot worse. Thank you."
Now it was Fergus' turn to roll his eyes. "I'm overwhelmed by your gratitude, truly." The carriage jerked to a stop and he fell back against the upholstered wall. "Well, this is it. Your kingdom awaits you, my lady."
On an impulse, Elissa leaned forward to give Fergus a quick peck on the cheek, just before the heavy door was wrestled open and he jumped out, offering her an arm down the wobbly steps.
The square in front of the cathedral was full of people; nobles in colourful clothing milling about as well as commoners standing around the edges of the square, held back by the city guard. With the arrival of the Cousland carriage a hush fell over the crowd and people stood aside to form an empty space from the carriage to the cathedral doors.
Elissa felt very alone, slowly and stately walking the gauntlet of curious nobles, despite Fergus at her back and pages in front and behind them. She wouldn't have recognised her own mother in that crowd, she thought, her heart hammering in her throat. The silence and whispers felt oppressive, as if people were waiting for her to trip or do something outrageous.
Within the cathedral, light was falling through the stained glass windows, painting dust motes all colours of the rainbow, and the air was thick with the stink of sweat and the heat from the candles. At the dais Fergus stepped away, touching her hand briefly, and she took her place between two priests, to wait for her bridegroom.
Normally Fergus should have stood with her, but as the king had no immediate family and had refused to name Arl Eamon as a substitute, they had decided on standing in front of the Maker and His Bride's statue alone. Like two beggars, something nasty whispered in Elissa's mind, and she sought out Fergus in the front row before the dais. He gave her a reassuring grin.
Finally there was a commotion at the cathedral entrance and, carried in by the wave of nobles, the king entered. He was wearing gilded and sculpted armour that wouldn't have lasted him a minute on a battlefield, not to mention that it would have made him a prime target, but among the velvet and silk clothed nobles it did look make him regal and striking.
He walked through the silent crowd, alone, head held high and face expressionless, until he reached the dais, which he climbed with a single step. Elissa barely had room in her head to notice that he seemed different in armour, perhaps more comfortable, if such a thing was possible, before he was standing next to her and nodding to the Grand Cleric to begin the ceremony.
And then all she knew was the hush and the Grand Cleric's lined face and the shine of Alistair's armour by her side.
"In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in whose name we say the Chant of Light…"
She came to, like emerging from sleep, or deep water, when the king was escorting her through the now cheering crowd out of the cathedral. She must have given all the right answers, and there certainly was a wedding band on her finger, but all she could remember was the smell of beeswax and the fear and Fergus' pinched expression.
Outside, still without a word and blinking a little in the sunlight, both she and her husband – Maker help and preserve her – waved briefly to the crowd and were hustled into a carriage, bigger and proudly bearing the Theirin coat of arms.
She was a Theirin now, Elissa thought vaguely. How odd.
Despite belonging to the king, this carriage wasn't any more comfortable, and Elissa winced as a ribbon on her dress snagged on a nail head. Alistair was arranging himself across from her, wincing as well as his armour clashed and clamoured even against the upholstered benches.
"Remind me why you wanted me to wear the armour, again?" he muttered, trying to find a position that didn't require him to twist like a caterpillar on a grass stalk.
Elissa crashed back into her body. She was in the royal carriage, she was on the way to her coronation, her feet hurt, she was married to Alistair and he had just asked her a question.
"It would take only a single lucky assassin with a good crossbow," she said, looking up at him in the velvet-lined gloom. "You are more visible this way, but also less vulnerable."
Alistair made a face at her. "Such a cheerful thought for our wedding day; thank you." He sighed, turning to look out of the tiny windows, where the crowds, pressed against the sides of the streets, were cheering their carriage as they drove by. "King Cailan wore something like this at Ostagar. I think he even fought in it."
"Maker, did he really?" Elissa asked, surprised.
There was a clang as Alistair shrugged. "My… brother was not famous for his… foresight. Else I wouldn't be here." He leaned his head back against the wall and grimaced. "The armour reminds me of him. Maker's breath, everything reminds me of him. I rule his kingdom, I sleep in his bed, and I all but married his wife. Would have married her, if Eamon'd had his way."
"Alistair," Elissa said and waited for him to look at her. "You rule your kingdom. You sleep in your bed. And you married me."
The frustrated dejection disappeared from his face and he gave her a guilty but genuine smile. "Oh, I know that. I could barely sleep last night. I mean, I was looking forward to it for weeks, and don't get me wrong, I'm glad we did it. But still, it was…"
"A rather big step?" Elissa suggested wryly.
He snorted, trying to disguise it with a cough. "Yeees. Something like that."
Elissa pondered several possible answers, and decided on the truth. "This morning I was this close to taking the first horse from our stables and just riding off somewhere far, far away. Fergus, of all people, had to calm me down."
"I definitely like your brother," Alistair said with a grin, but there was also something else in his expression, something that made Elissa remember that he had travelled across Ferelden for a year with companions who were now either dead or gone or unapproachable for a king.
The noise from outside was getting deafening; they must be near the palace now. And indeed, a moment later the carriage came to a stop and the roar from the crowd crested, and then abruptly faded into an expectant silence.
Alistair gave her a pained smile and pointed to the carriage door. "My lady?"
"Only two days of this," Elissa murmured.
Alistair's eloquent look said that those two days were two days too many, as he jumped out of the carriage and offered her his hand. The spectators, barely held back by the guards, cheered and called.
Tipping her chin up, Elissa took Alistair's arm, waited for the pages and the maids to arrange her dress and walked slowly to the entrance of her new home.
Just inside they were met by a bowing Chantry official. "Your Majesties, that is, Your Majesty, Your Highness, the Grand Cleric's carriage was delayed, I'm afraid, my deepest apologies, the crowds, you see, and—"
"Take a breath," Alistair said helpfully.
The official attempted to obey the royal order, inhaled deeply, and was promptly silenced by an uncontrollable bout of coughing.
"We shall wait in a private chamber until everybody is assembled, I think," Elissa said, with a glance up at Alistair, who nodded. "If you would be so good to send someone once the nobles are assembled and the Grand Cleric is ready?"
They watched the spectacle of the official trying to cough, bow, nod and thank them at the same time for a moment, before Alistair steered her through a side door and into one of the many waiting rooms off the throne room.
"Do you know that having the Grand Cleric crown a king or queen is an Orlesian custom?" he asked idly, examining a tapestry. "Apparently King Maric adopted it after the occupation because he wanted the Chantry's support. It's in the archives."
"Were you bored?" Elissa asked with a smile, sitting down on carved wooden bench.
Alistair turned back to her, smiling as well. "Hiding from Eamon. But there's a lot of really interesting stuff in the archives, you know? I never thought… We always speak of Maric as if he was created a perfect king the moment he was born. But he and Queen Rowan and," he winced, "Loghain, they had so much to do, after the occupation. They had to learn how to… how to rule Ferelden, I suppose."
Elissa nodded. "They had to learn, and they did so well that their names won't be forgotten for generations yet. You – we – can take comfort in that, can't we?"
"And what if it goes wrong?" Alistair asked, turning away again. "Maric was schooled to be a prince since his birth, and Rowan was—"
"And Rowan was not schooled any differently than I was, except on the battlefield," Elissa said sharply, before regaining her composure. "And, forgive me, but King Cailan was also schooled from birth to become a king. And he—"
"He was betrayed on the battlefield by his father's best friend!" Alistair said. His fists were clenched.
"I'm not talking about Ostagar," Elissa said gently. "I am talking about the five years of his reign. Or rather, Queen Anora's reign."
Alistair's lips tightened, but he said nothing.
"Cailan inherited much from King Maric," Elissa continued, standing up and crossing the room. "He was a good, kind man. I don't know how well you knew him…"
"Not at all. I met him once as a child, and then saw him briefly at Ostagar," Alistair said with a sigh. "I didn't even know he knew about me. Guess I should've been suspicious about how quickly he learned my name."
Elissa took his hand; it was sweaty like her own. "Cailan was a good man. But he was a bad king."
"So what are you saying?" Alistair asked roughly. "To become a good king, I will have to—"
"No," Elissa said quietly. "I'm saying you can be both. But I'm also saying that it won't be easy."
"What part of all this," Alistair's angry gesture encompassed the palace walls and the country beyond, "has been easy?"
"We promised each other that we would try hard and do our best, did we not?" Elissa asked.
Before Alistair could answer there was a timid knock at the door. "Enter," he said with a sigh.
A maid opened the door and curtseyed low enough for them to see the top of her head clearly. "Your Majesty, Your Highness, if it pleases you, the Grand Cleric is ready."
Elissa dismissed the maid with a nod and took Alistair's arm again, her fingers leaving sweaty fingerprints on the polished armour. Without a word they walked the corridors to the king's entrance of the throne room, where Alistair disengaged himself gently and gave her a shaky smile.
"See you on the other side," he said and took a deep breath, opening the ornate door and stepping through.
The rest was easy enough. Elissa waited to be announced as the king's wife and Ferelden's future queen, Alistair's voice carrying clearly through the door, before entering and kneeling in front of the throne. The ceremony itself was simple, if not quick, and her knees and back were aching by the time the Grand Cleric spoke the last prayer and Elissa could rise and turn to the assembled nobles.
"My lords and ladies of Ferelden," Alistair said loudly behind her, "I present to you your new Queen!"
The banquet was served in the big formal dining room, on several tables that were groaning under the weight of the dishes. Elissa was hungry enough, but mostly she was grateful for the opportunity to sit down and do nothing more strenuous than be toasted and smile. Alistair, who had changed out of the gilded monstrosity into embroidered brocade, looked similarly glad to be sitting down.
"The armour was almost more comfortable," he muttered to her, adjusting his collar. Then he looked over the spread of the food in front of them and his eyes lit up. "Ohh, there's some Anderfel Blue! Do you want any?"
Elissa silently blessed the palace's overworked cook who'd told her about the king's not-so-secret weakness. "No, thank you." She watched as Alistair cheerfully served himself, ignoring the nervous servants hovering in the background and smiled at one of the terrified maids as the woman offered her a serving or roast venison.
There were toasts, and then yet more toasts, and despite only wetting her lips each time, Elissa found herself dizzy. It was all too much, too loud, too important. People came up to the main table all the time, bowing and congratulating the new queen, and if Elissa Cousland could have been forgiven a slight mistake in address or the wrong shade of expression, Queen Elissa – Queen Elissa! – had no such freedom.
At some point she dismissed the Orlesian ambassador with her most charming smile and caught herself staring, almost rudely, as a delegation of mages approached their table. She was not afraid of mages, of course; Aldous had taught her better than that, but it still paid to be cautious when people who could kill you with a mere thought were about. And then Alistair, to her surprise and shock, almost stood up before remembering himself, smiling widely at one of the mages, a gracefully aged woman with wispy silver hair and a striking figure.
Rumour has it they were travelling with an apostate and assassins and a Circle mage, her memory supplied in Hjordis' voice. This would be the mage, then. Elissa looked at the woman carefully and found herself the object of equal, if polite, scrutiny.
"Wynne!" Alistair said happily. "I'm glad you could make it. It's so good to see you!"
"Your Majesty," the mage said, bowing. "May I congratulate you on your marriage? Your Majesty," this to Elissa, "my most sincere felicitations. It is an honour and a privilege to be representing the Circle at this occasion."
Elissa inclined her head and murmured an appropriate response, watching from the corner of her eyes as Alistair visibly deflated, his face falling. Of course; he would have expected a different reaction from his friend. But this Wynne had had enough political acumen not to greet the king of Ferelden like a friend, especially not in front of his wife. Which meant… Elissa hastily tried to decipher the cut and symbols of Wynne's robes. "Senior Enchanter, tomorrow after I receive our subjects' oaths, there will also be private audiences. I would be very pleased if you, as a representative of the Circle of Magi, were able to attend."
The mage, Wynne, bowed. "It would be an honour, Your Majesty." She gave Alistair a quick look and a smile, almost too fleeting for anyone to notice, and yet enough to make him sit straight and smile back.
"Thank you," Alistair murmured when the mages had withdrawn. "I… she is a friend, and I keep forgetting…"
"You can talk to her tomorrow," Elissa whispered back. "We'll send them a note to come in late, and if they're the last ones, you'll have the time. Unless… is there anyone else you want to offer a private audience?"
He shook his head, looking down at his plate. "I've barely seen any of them since the battle. And it's not like I can just walk into a tavern and ask if anyone's seen a red-haired dwarf recently, can I?"
"A red-haired—" Elissa checked herself and smiled into her water glass. "I feel like a child, asking you for stories."
At that he looked up again, with a smile that felt just a little too forced. "I will be happy to oblige, Your Majesty."
Smiling back briefly, Elissa had to turn away then, as yet another couple of well-wishers were approaching. To her relief it was merely Bann Alfstanna and Ser Hjordis, both looking slightly out place in their elaborate dresses. Hjordis, towering behind Alfstanna's shoulder, looked both very beautiful and very annoyed.
"Congratulations, Your Majesties," Alfstanna said, curtseying at them both, but her smile was just a bit too ironic for Elissa's liking. Elissa was very aware whose idea her marriage had been in the first place, but there was no need to make a public spectacle out of it.
"Bann Alfstanna," she said a shade cooler than outright cordial, and watched Alfstanna's smile change from ironic to rueful and then to merely pleasant.
"My most heartfelt wishes for your long and successful reign," Alfstanna said quietly enough not to be overheard. "If there is any service I can offer to the crown, it would be my honour and my pleasure both."
Elissa nodded and smiled; apology accepted. "Ser Hjordis, your dress looks lovely. Might I inquire about your dressmaker?"
Hjordis' glower intensified a notch. Alfstanna bit her lip quickly in a last-ditch attempt to suppress a smile. "Do not tease her, Your Majesty, I beg you," she said very quietly. "She cannot bear to be parted with her sword, and the dozen daggers she is carrying do not make up for it, it seems."
Elissa's tired mind presented her simultaneously with the image of Hjordis wearing a sword strapped over the dress, and the question of how many daggers Alfstanna herself was concealing upon her person. She nodded at the ladies and took a fortifying sip of her wine as they withdrew, curtseying.
The next people to appear in front of her table as she looked up were more welcome. Hulda was all but sniffing, radiant, and Bryland was beaming widely.
"My darling g—Your Majesty!" he said, fortunately quietly enough. "Please accept the very best wishes of my family."
"Your Grace," Elissa said, smiling sincerely for what felt like the first time during the banquet. "Your ladyship. I will miss your support. I hope to see you at court often."
"My love, of course," Hulda whispered. She curtseyed, taking Bryland's arm and glided away.
"You do it so well," Alistair said next to her, and Elissa almost jumped. "I don't know what to say to half of them, and you just… look at them and they behave."
"Private agreements need to stay private," Elissa whispered back. "Alfstanna was on the verge of being impertinent, even if she was one of those who persuaded me to come to Denerim in the first place."
Alistair nodded, but before he could say something, a familiar figure loomed in front of the table.
"Your Majesties, may I offer my deepest congratulations," Fergus said smoothly, which didn't stop him from winking at Elissa.
"I'll need you in the private audience tomorrow afternoon, after the oath-taking," Elissa said without bothering with a reply or a preamble. "Perhaps while His Majesty is talking to the envoys from the Circle of Magi?" she asked, looking at Alistair, who nodded, looking slightly dazed.
Fergus sighed quietly. "Brocade and politics twice in one day; Elissa, have mercy!"
"What was it about stone's throws?" Elissa said sweetly.
Fergus turned to Alistair. "Your Majesty, from the bottom of my heart, I wish you happiness and good luck in your marriage."
"Was that an implied 'you'll need it'?" Alistair asked, deadpan.
Fergus bowed deeply in lieu of a reply, his shaggy hair almost swiping across the table's edge, and withdrew.
Elissa fought the urge to sigh and smiled brightly at the next person to approach them.
Alone, finally, mercifully alone in her dressing room, Elissa contemplated her options. Her new maid, a quiet and discreet girl hired through Hulda's endless connections, had helped her out of the thrice damned dress and combed out her hair, and had been dismissed with the most grateful smile Elissa had managed.
This was it. No turning back; night was fast approaching.
Her wedding night.
Despite what she had said to Fergus, Elissa felt more than slightly apprehensive. In all probability this would be quick and not too unpleasant, from what she had seen of Alistair's character, but men could be the strangest creatures in bed, sometimes.
Fortifying herself with a deep breath and wiping her suddenly sweaty hands on her nightgown, Elissa pulled on a heavy silk robe on top of it and stepped out of her dressing room into the royal bedroom.
It was dark and, not surprisingly, quite cold, despite the blazing fire. Alistair, similarly attired in a tightly belted robe, was standing by the fireplace, looking uncomfortable.
"Good evening," Elissa said to break the ice, and feeling rather silly. "It all went rather well, didn't it?"
Alistair nodded, the firelight turning his hair red. "Good cheese, not a single assassination attempt – nice wedding, right?"
"Not a single implied insult from the nobles, and less overall hostility than I'd expected," Elissa agreed, and, paying heed to her aching back instead of to the propriety of it, sat at the edge of the bed. "Yet you don't look happy."
He looked up quickly. "It's not that! It was a nice wedding, and I'm very glad you're here, believe me. It's just…"
"Rather tiring?" Elissa asked with a sigh, stretching her legs.
"No, I mean, yes; Maker, those endless ceremonies… but, well. It's…"
Elissa blinked and raised an eyebrow in polite, if honest, confusion. "What is it?" Her mind whirled. Was he too drunk? Too tired? Was there perhaps more to the damage from those Grey Warden rituals that he'd told her about?
Alistair crossed his arms and looked away. Even in the faint light from the fireplace, Elissa could see that he was blushing. "I," he began and took a deep breath, "I haven't actually…"
"Yes?" Elissa prompted him after several moments of silence.
"I haven't ever done… you know… it. With anyone." His face was bright red.
Elissa blinked. "But surely…" No, a man would never lie about such things. "Why ever not?" she asked, baffled.
He finally turned to face her. "What do you think? I was raised in the Chantry since I was ten, and then I was trained as a templar, and then I became a Grey Warden and whoops, there was suddenly this thing about a Blight and, well," he seemed to run out of breath and sarcasm both. "So you could say I never had the opportunity." He ran his fingers over the mantelpiece. "Have you? Done it, I mean?"
Elissa closed her eyes, trying not to remember either the fear or the joy. "Yes," she said in a voice that felt foreign to her.
"Was it nice?" Alistair asked in a small voice.
"Nice?" Elissa looked at him again and saw the uncertainty in his expression. "Well," she said, "it wasn't... It's a bit complicated."
Alistair seemed to deflate without moving a muscle. "I know women don't… I don't want to hurt you," he said quietly but firmly. "Heirs be damned."
"Oh!" Elissa smiled involuntarily. "No, you misunderstand. It can be… very pleasant for the woman as well. It was just that the circumstances were somewhat… unusual, in the end. Or too usual, I suppose." When he opened his mouth she held out her hand. "Come sit with me."
He came closer, as slowly as a spooked cat, and finally perched as far away from her as possibly while sitting on the same side of the same bed. "Complicated how?"
Elissa pulled her knees up under her nightgown, sitting back against the bedpost. "There was a knight in my father's household," she began tentatively. "Probably the best fighter we had. We… we were friends and we liked to… Well. He never deflowered me because we didn't want to risk me getting with child, but I think we have… we tried pretty much every other thing."
Alistair's blush hadn't abated. "That sounds… fun?" he said uncertainly.
"Oh, it was," Elissa said with a smile. "He was… a good man."
Go! Man the gate! Keep those bastards out as long as you can!
"He didn't survive the attack on the castle," Elissa said simply.
"I'm sorry," Alistair said, sounding sincere. "What happened then?"
Elissa frowned, surprised. "Then?"
"Because you said it was complicated. This… friend of yours, that wasn't the complicated part, was it?"
"No," Elissa said slowly. "I… may I tell you… afterwards? I don't really want to remember it when we…" She felt the heat of a blush on her own neck now. Alistair's perceptiveness was both unexpected and, at the moment, unwelcome.
"Of course," he agreed hastily, and they looked at each other in silence across the length of the bed.
Elissa felt at a complete loss. When she had allowed herself to imagine her wedding night with the king, which didn't happen often and only when she was too tired and scared to chase the thoughts away, she'd always assumed it would be a brief, impersonal affair; quick and not too painful if she was very lucky. She certainly hadn't imagined this.
"Well," she said slowly, forcing her hands to loosen their death grip on her robe. "May I join you?" She nodded towards the pillows, where Alistair sat huddled.
"I… yes. Of course," he said hastily, his blush coming back in full force. "You… will you show me how to..? Maker's breath!" He ran a hand through his hair. "I haven't been this embarrassed since the thing with the Grand Cleric and the knickers."
Elissa opened her mouth to ask, but then thought better of it. Instead she crawled up the bed, trying not to get tangled up in her nightgown and contemplated her new husband. He seemed not unkind and apparently willing to learn. It would make things considerably easier.
"Rule one," she said, shifting closer so that they were almost touching and reaching up to brush hair away from his forehead. "No mentioning the Grand Cleric in bed."
He snorted, still nervous but breathing easier. "I like that rule."
She reached back, tangling her hand in his thick hair and gently pulling him closer. "Rule two," she whispered against his lips, "relax."
The kiss started out gentle and light, at least on Elissa's part, but it appeared that either Alistair was not entirely ignorant in these matters, or he was a very quick learner. He let Elissa take the lead first, but soon he was kissing her enthusiastically and pressing close, his hands uncertain on her shoulders.
"Wait," Elissa said, drawing back, and smiled at his sudden panicked expression.
"Did I do something—?"
"No, but we're overdressed," she said, pulling at his sleeve.
"Oh." There was unmistakeable relief in his voice as he sat up and tugged at the belt of his robe. To Elissa's surprise and amusement he wore his smalls underneath. There were scars everywhere on him, she noticed absently, both deep and shallow ones. It made her a bit less self-conscious about her own, gained through years of sword and archery practice.
Taking a deep breath and feeling absurdly awkward, she sat up as well and pulled her robe and nightgown off.
Alistair's gaze went immediately to her breasts and Elissa wished for one brief moment that he should be so interested because he thought her beautiful or desired her, instead of her being merely the first naked woman he was allowed to see and touch.
His hand hovered and with a sigh she moved closer, taking it and settling it on her breast. "Go ahead."
"I'll be careful," he promised fervently. "Uh, the book said I needed to make sure you—"
"The book?" Elissa asked, startled into a smile. "The royal archives are that… extensive?"
"The palace library," he said, all attention focussed on the breast he was gently cupping. "I was… the books are…" Against her hip, even through the fabric still separating them, she could feel the reason for his distraction. Good; no apparent damage there, then.
It wasn't that bad, just lying there and letting him explore her, but Elissa was tired and impatient and while Alistair was quite handsome and by no means unpleasant to be with, he wasn't her lover and a slow exploration was probably not conductive to the business at hand.
Rolling on her back she took his free hand and raised it to her mouth, giving it a thorough lick and smiling at his startled gasp. Then she drew his fingers down along her body. "Like this," she murmured, "here."
He was attentive and careful, letting her guide her fingers, and with his lips hot on her lips and neck and anywhere else he could reach, Elissa was swiftly reaching the point where him entering her would not have been painful.
But then Alistair surprised her, stopping his clumsy exploration and sliding lower, his tongue unexpectedly hot and rough against her breast making her shudder, her first unanticipated response. Somehow he must have felt the difference, returning with renewed vigour to explore her breasts with his tongue and teeth and using his free hand to stroke her shoulder and back, maybe too roughly, but not painfully. His other hand, still guided by Elissa's but also by his own initiative was doing things that made her wonder, for a moment of breathless surprise if she could actually reach… but no, the thought broke into her body, slicing through her pleasure like a knife. He was her husband, her ally, but not her lover. There was no need to prolong this.
Not trusting her voice Elissa pulled at his smalls and he wriggled impatiently out of them, his flush now one of arousal instead of embarrassment. He rolled on top of her as soon as he was naked, and Elissa wasted no time for further thought, wrapping her legs around him and guiding him in.
Alistair froze above her, his face frozen in amazed wonder, staring down at her. "Don't—don't move," he pleaded when she tightened around him. "Please, I'm going to—"
"Well, yes," Elissa said impatiently. She longed to reach down and continue what they had started, but she could just as well do it later, in the privacy of the bathroom.
"No," Alistair said stubbornly, breathlessly, and before she could ask what he meant he reached down himself, applying everything she had just shown him, and then she was shuddering again, trying to hold the pleasure at bay, because this was pointless and wasted time and she was… she was…
"Yes," she heard herself whisper, appalled at her loss of control but not really caring because there, just one more flick of his fingers, just a little more—
And he was moving above her now, unable to keep still and moaning, shuddering with her and it was natural to keep him anchored with her legs and, giving up patience and practicality, she reached down as well and that was enough to send her into the spasms of completion, over and over again; by no means her best, but unexpected enough to be a pleasant shock, despite her misgivings.
Alistair groaned loudly, his breath coming in harsh, stuttering pants as he thrust again and again, losing all the control he had been displaying – somewhat to her surprise, Elissa had to admit – and then he tensed and she felt the warmth of his release, accompanied by his choked-off gasp.
He didn't fall on her, as she had been half-expecting, but braced himself with one arm against the bed, looking down into her face, worried and flushed. "Did I hurt—? Was—were—?"
"Everything is fine," she soothed him, smiling, and making an effort to control her own breathing. "Did you enjoy it?"
"Enjoy—? Oh, Maker." He disengaged himself with startling gentleness and collapsed on the bed next to her. "Did I hurt you?"
"No," Elissa said, still smiling. "It was…" a pleasant surprise. "It was very… nice. Thank you." She reached down onto the floor, for the handkerchief she had put into her robe for just this purpose, and cleaned herself up quickly.
"Sweet Andraste," Alistair said, still breathing heavily. "That was… I didn't imagine…"
Elissa chuckled. "No?"
He grinned at her, apparently still too afloat on the rush of it to be embarrassed. "Well, yes, of course I did, but I didn't expect it to be so…"
"Different?" Elissa asked mischievously, surprised to find herself in a good mood.
Now he did look embarrassed, but he was still grinning. "Er, yes."
Elissa yawned and pulled the covers up, wriggling underneath. They had been quite tidy, all things considered, and— "Damn," she said. "Damn and blast. I didn't think."
Alistair raised himself up, alarmed. "What? Is something wrong? Do you—"
"No, no," Elissa said with an impatient shake of her head that sent her loose hair flying. "But I almost forgot… damn." She reached to her discarded robe again, pulling out her pocket knife.
Alistair eyed it uncertainly and edged away on the bed. "Er. Elissa?"
She pulled the covers back down and examined her hip. "I didn't think about the… complicated bit," she said without looking up. "We need to preserve the appearances because the servants will gossip, and we can't risk any rumours about the paternity of the child if we can prevent it." She put her knife to her skin, having found a likely spot that seemed to have no dangerous blood vessels running under the skin.
Alistair's hand closed over hers before she could slice her skin open. "What are you doing?" he asked, sounding in equal parts surprised and angry.
Elissa looked up. "It was over a year ago, so there is no risk I could be pregnant by him," she said, sighing. "Thank the Maker for small mercies. But if there is blood on the sheets, the servants will assume I was a virgin before tonight. And my personal maid is discreet, so it—"
"Who was he?" Alistair asked with a gentleness that almost frightened her.
She looked away, fighting the urge to fidget. "A merchant on the road to South Reach. I had very little to sell to make my way there from Highever, and I had to persuade him to allow me to ride in his cart. He, well—"
"I'm sorry," Alistair said. His response was so unexpected that she looked up, startled and frowning.
He was looking down at their entwined hands that still held the knife. "Tonight was so… you were… I don't want to imagine you having to do this because you lacked money or shelter or…"
"He did not get me with child," Elissa said, "nor an illness, else I would never have—"
"No!" Alistair said, looking up at her with a frown. "No, that's not it. I… I hope it was better for you tonight than—"
"Oh." Elissa felt a surge of warmth, sweet and surprising, like so many things about him. "Oh, Alistair, that's nonsense. You were… it was very good. Truly, I didn't even think it would be as pleasant."
"Oh, ouch, thank you so much," he drawled, smiling crookedly. "And you didn't even use the knife."
Elissa flushed, mortified. "No, I'm… I apologise, that's not what I meant at all. I just meant that I never expected it could be so pleasant to be with a man who wasn't… because with Rory it took us years until we were… oh, Maker's breath!" She exhaled. "I apologise, Alistair; truly, I did not mean to slight you."
Alistair was grinning, to her relief. "I've never seen you flustered before. Good to know; I was starting to feel scared."
"Good to know I can make a fool out of myself with the best of them?" Elissa asked dryly. She tugged her hand away. "We do need to do this, you know. There will be wild rumours whatever happens; just look at what they said about Anora and Cailan. But this is a precaution I will take in any case."
He hummed absently, and then pulled the knife from her fingers before she could stop him. Without any warning, he drew the knife over his own leg; a long slice that immediately welled with blood.
"Alistair!" Elissa exclaimed, shocked. "You can't—"
"It's over a scar, look," he said calmly. "It doesn't hurt, and it'll have healed in the morning." He turned sideways, so that the blood dripped onto the bed sheets.
"Oh." Elissa said stupidly, then scrambled out of bed and went to the bathroom, to wet a cloth with a tincture of elfroot. Alistair sighed but let her wash out the cut before climbing under the covers. Tossing the cloth into the fire, Elissa joined him, suddenly almost dizzy with exhaustion.
"G'night," Alistair mumbled into his pillow.
"Good night," Elissa replied absently, watching him. She was a little sore, a little confused, but mostly simply tired.
Her hand encountered something hard under her pillow, and after a second she recognised it as her pocket knife, folded closed. Clenching her hand around it she smiled at the back of Alistair's head and closed her eyes.
All things considered…
Sleep claimed her before she could finish the thought.