She was so pale, that was what struck him the most. She usually had such a bright flush to her cheeks, especially when she laughed, but this latest blow had left her paler than a wisp and a shell of her former self.

He stroked her hair as she slept - exhausted, still in pain, bereaved. It was getting too much for both of them. When he'd said they would have difficulty, he'd never imagined the difficult would come this way - in his head it had all been attempts and no half-successes that were really worse than failures - their hopes - her hopes raised and crushed with such regularity.

He had called for Rowan. Although the court physicians were competent and they even had a spirit healer, he knew Miranda would feel better with Wynne's son there. The young man had so much of his mother about him, not just her knowledge but her compassion and understanding, that it was difficult to believe he had only known her for six months. This time he would be staying.

There was a hesitant knock at the door and it opened a crack to reveal Leliana. "Alistair," she said softly. "Eamon is here. He wishes to speak with you."

"Tell him to come back later," he said shortly.

She slipped into the room in her silent way and came up next to him, laying her gentle hand on his arm. "She's asleep," she whispered. "She won't even know you're gone. I'll stay with her."

He looked up at her with anguish in his eyes. Leliana ran a hand through his hair gently, as she would for a child and he nodded then, standing up and taking a deep breath. The bard took his place at Miranda's side, gently taking the Queen's hand and sitting in Alistair's chair.

At the door he found Zevran, on guard as usual. The Antivan gave Alistair a nod that was at the same time full of sympathy and he had a moment to feel grateful for friends before he took a deep breath and started towards his offices.

The Arl hadn't changed much in four years. His hair was tending towards white at the temples now, and there were more lines around his eyes, but he was still straight and sure. His son Connor was doing very well at the Tower, it was rumoured, and Alistair had managed to relax the rules a fair bit as far as contact between young mages and their parents was concerned, much to the chantry's disapproval.

"It's not a good time, Eamon," Alistair said as he entered.

The Arl's face softened in sympathy. "I'm aware," he said. "I'm sorry. How is she?"

"Sleeping," Alistair replied shortly.

"This is the third, isn't it?" He nodded. "Again, I'm sorry. And this isn't a good time for this, I know, but unfortunately it's not going to go away because we're in mourning."

Alistair sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Please, sit," he said to the older man. Eamon sat in front of Alistair's desk. Alistair moved to his own chair and sat, placing his hands in front of him. The desk was littered with correspondence - all of which had to be dealt with, none of which had been tended for the past two days. "What's this about?"

The Arl sighed. "Anora," he said. Alistair drew in his breath sharply. "She's petitioning for your marriage to Miranda to be anulled."

He was too tired for the news to do other than set a slow fire burning in his belly and he sighed. "You were right, I should have executed her."

"You had - and still do have very valid reasons for not doing so," Eamon said. "Don't blame yourself, son. If Anora hadn't put the petition forward, someone else would have."

"The problem remains, eh?" he said then. "Until we can have an heir, they're going to continue to blame Miranda for something that may not even be her fault."

"You said.."

"Eamon, there's no guarantee I'll be able to father a child with anyone." Not strictly true, a voice in his head said. "We really don't know whose fault it is. I won't abandon her."

"I know you won't," Eamon said then. "I'm not asking you to. But we're going to have to deal with this as a challenge to your rule."

"Why is she doing this? Anora's been named as my heir should we fail to have a child. I would have thought she would be pleased at the thought that we might not be able. Does she really think this will further her cause?"

"Maybe she's afraid you will outlive her."

He opened his mouth to say something in reply, then closed it. He knew, and Miranda knew that it was unlikely, but no one else outside the wardens were aware of their lifespan limitations.

He got to his feet and started to pace the room, his mind starting to race. "Has she put forward any alternatives?" he said. "Maker, she's not suggesting she marry me, is she?"

Eamon shook his head. "No, not yet. I only received this information two days ago and given that the queen was still..."

"You thought it might not even be relevant. Blast it all. That woman is just like her father."

"Less murderous, by all accounts, but in her desire for power over Ferelden, yes."

"How much support does she have?"

"Not enough to call a landsmeet on the issue," Eamon said. "Enough to set people talking, however."

"Have you gauged the support we have on this?"

"Teagan is looking into it. I suggest you set your lovely bard on the same task - she is most adept at judging the moods and inclinations of Ferelden nobles, and can reach people who would ignore my brother."

"She'll be happy to have something to distract her, I'm sure," Alistair said.

Eamon got to his feet. "That's really all I've come to tell you," he said. "I should get back to Isolde. Once again, Alistair, I'm sorry for your loss."

Alistair clasped his former guardian's hand warmly. "Thank you for coming to me so early, Eamon," Alistair said. "It means a lot to me that you'll stand by us."

"She's worth it, my friend," Eamon said. "I always knew she was. Take care of her?"

"Always."

When he returned to their quarters Miranda was awake and sitting up. She looked better, less pale. The court physician had said that the bleeding would continue for the better part of a week, but it was slowing. Leliana was playing for her and singing in a soft voice - an Orlesian tune, one that Miranda had always loved. The bard looked up as he entered and smiled.

"Would you leave us, Lelli?" Miranda said then. Her voice was soft but steady, he was relieved to hear. It held no trace of tears.

"My love," he said as Leliana left the room quietly. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," she said. "Still sore, but much better."

He took her hand and sat on the bed. "I'm so sorry," he began, but she put a finger to his lips.

"It's all right, Alistair," she said. "Really. I think I'm getting used to it."

It was a horrible thing for her to have to say and he felt it like a dagger through his stomach. He couldn't say anything in reply for a moment, instead he turned her hand over in his and traced his fingers over her palm. The band on her ring finger glinted in the light from the windows and he felt the slow fire of anger kindled by Eamon's news catch and burn more intensely for a moment.

"I wanted to ask you something," she said then. "Or... actually.." she sighed and looked at the window for a moment. "I think it might be time for me to give up my duties as Warden Commander," she said finally.

He had been agitating for her to do so for nearly a year, but to hear her say it nearly broke his heart. She had always maintained that being Queen didn't necessitate her being nothing else, and she was beloved by the Ferelden wardens, who called her Commander (and even Miranda) when she was in residence at the Vigil. Although they chafed at separation, he knew she relished the freedom of being in command in a place where people looked on her as an equal, not as the Queen or even the hero of Ferelden and for her to admit that she needed to give it up...

"Miranda, you don't have to.."

"It's not the duties I don't want," she interrupted him. "You know I love it. It's... being away from you. I don't want that any more. I need to be here."

He tried a smile. "If you hadn't insisted on making me king..."

She smiled with him. "It was very evil of me. I apologise."

"Do you think it's the right time to be making this decision?" he said then. "You might change your mind when you're... in a few weeks. I don't want you to do this without thinking it through."

She nodded. "I was going to give it up anyway.. if we.. had the child.." she stopped and bit her lip, shaking her head a little. "Fighting darkspawn isn't really compatible with pregnancy. As it is we need to start again and I can't afford to be running to the Vigil every couple of months if we're serious about that...."

There was a pause. After the previous miscarriage Alistair had exchanged lengthy correspondence with Rowan and the other mage-healers at the circle. He had never told Miranda what that correspondence had entailed.

"My love," he said. "Rowan.... informed me what the mages do to ensure they don't conceive. If you like..."

She squeezed his hand tightly and shook her head firmly. "No," she said. "As long as there's a chance, we keep trying."

He'd known what her answer would be. "We can hope that the information the mages gathered this time will be enough to help," he said after a pause. "I.. don't want you to have to go through this again. That's all."

She leaned forward and kissed him, cupping his cheek in her hand and running her other hand through his hair. "I know," she said when they broke apart. "But I'm strong enough. And so are you."

He couldn't say he wasn't, not when she was so determined.

But part of him wanted to.