"Absolutely not!" Alistair's hand slashed down in an emphatic gesture.
Arl Eamon sighed and folded his hands on the desk. "Alistair, it's your duty to marry and produce an heir. You know this."
"I was only crowned a month ago. She only d… "Eamon saw Alistair's mouth shut tight around the grief; the young king swung round and strode to the window, struggling visibly to regain control of his emotions. He stared blankly out over the courtyard, and when he spoke again his voice was softer. "The funeral procession won't even have passed out of Ferelden yet, and you expect me to court a bride?"
For a moment the Arl was tempted to give in, to give the lad more time. He squashed the impulse; Ferelden needed stability, and after the events of the last two years it was going to take more than a glittering coronation to provide it.
"Alistair, no-one is expecting you to get married immediately. The arrangements will take time; a suitable bride must be found, agreements drawn up with her family, and this is before we even begin to plan the actual celebrations. I would anticipate that a royal wedding could take a year or more to bring to a conclusion." Eamon carefully kept his voice neutral, he knew the boy could be led but not driven. "All I am asking for is permission to begin the process of finding you a suitable queen."
Alistair's rigid posture slumped slightly. Without turning from the window the king conceded the argument. "Do as you must."
"Very well then, I will write to our ambassador in Orlais asking for his initial assessment of the most likely candidates."
Alistair swung round to face Eamon, clearly astonished by this development. "Orlais? Why not seek a Ferelden girl?"
Not for the first time Eamon regretted Maric's decision to hide Alistair from public scrutiny. The boy was a political innocent. If Maric had allowed his son to be fostered by a noble, as befitted a royal bastard, then his upbringing would have given him some exposure to the polite, subtle, vicious world he now stood at the centre of. "Highever's line is in ruins, Gwaren's is ended," he explained patiently. "The Arlings have no suitable females to offer – Denerim's line is wiped out, Amaranthine given to the Wardens, and although I dearly wish I had a daughter to offer to you, I do not."
"What of the Bannorn? Surely some of them must have sisters or daughters."
Eamon was shocked. "Alistair, you are the King of Ferelden. If you had a desire for a particular noble lady it might be possible to accommodate it, but we won't look for an arranged marriage for you among the Bannorn. There is no advantage to be gained from it."
Alistair grimaced distastefully. "Advantage... so, am I to be sold to the highest bidder?"
"Nothing so vulgar; if that was the intention, then I would be approaching Antiva and Rivain also." He saw Alistair wince at the brutal statement, but steeled himself against it. If the new king was to survive court politics he must begin to develop a thicker skin. Although he cared for the boy a great deal he could not afford to coddle him. "No, the intention is to try to undo the damage Loghain caused to our relations with Orlais during the Blight. We are the only country to have been heavily affected by this Blight, and it will take time for us to become strong again. We cannot afford for our nearest neighbour to perceive us as their enemy at this time."
"Oh… yes, I see what you mean" Alistair's posture relaxed a little more although the frown marring his face displayed his dislike of the entire subject. He picked up an ornamental dagger from the desk and turned it restlessly between his hands.
Eamon pressed his advantage. "Taking as your queen the daughter of a high born noble, one who is in favour with the Empress or, even better, a relative of the Empress herself, will offer us additional security at a time when we desperately need it."
He left his seat and walked quietly over to the man who stood scowling ferociously down at the inoffensive ornament he held. The hand he placed on Alistair's arm was tentative, and his tone a little gentler than before. "I'm sorry, my boy, I know this is hard for you. Please believe that if I could spare you this then I would, but I can't."
Alistair took a deep breath, released it and rolled his shoulders to try to ease some tension. He put the dagger down gently, looked up at Eamon and made a poor attempt at a rueful smile. "I was always going to have to do this Eamon, I knew that. Melissa and I…" He choked and looked down again. "Well, as you know two Wardens can't make an heir. Neither of us expected to be able to marry." Alistair's anguish was etched in his face. "But, this whole thing, being king I mean, I never thought I'd have to do it without her." He straightened and his face closed up tight. "Enough, I don't want to talk about this anymore. I need to hit something; I'm going down to the training ground."
"Very well, I will see you at dinner no doubt." Eamon bowed and watched his king bolt from the chamber as though a pack of mabari pursued him. He sighed and spoke aloud to the empty room. "Well, that went better than I expected."
Smash - shield to the face. Swipe - sword to the exposed body. Slice - shield cut downwards to stun. Assault - triple sword swing to finish.
Sweat was dripping off him, his shoulders burned and the training dummy was definitely looking worse for wear.
Smash, swipe, slice, assault.
Two decisions she had left him to make. In the whole time they fought the Blight, two decisions.
Smash, swipe, slice, assault.
Decision One: Yes, I will be King
Decision Two: No, I will not impregnate The Witch.
Two decisions had been enough to kill her.
It's all my fault
I killed her
It should have been me. Merciful Maker why wasn't it me?
He scowled and threw down his sword. It hadn't been him because she had made damn sure it couldn't be; had given him a direct order to stay with the defence at the gates.
"You have to be king," she'd said. His last sight of her living face had been of determined resignation. "We both know how this has to end."
He unbuckled his shield, stripped off his gauntlets and slumped down on a fence rail to mop his streaming face with a cloth. If there was more than sweat being wiped away, anyone watching could not know. And now I have to marry some snooty Orlesian noblewoman; someone who will look down her nose at the poor muddy little country offering her a crown. And also at the poor muddy little king no doubt.
He groaned at the hideous mental image, stood and slowly gathered up his gear to take back to the armoury. A squire tried to take it from him; he shook his head, waved the boy away and set off back to the palace.
It should have been me.
"Pardon, Mademoiselle. Her Highness requests your presence in the Blue Salon."
Henriette looked up apprehensively at the footman, soft grey eyes wide with alarm. "Mama? She…she wants to see me?" She hurried to set aside her needlework, stood and smoothed her dress and her pale hair with nervous hands. "I'll come at once."
She followed the servant out of the sunny sitting-room and through the marble-clad halls. As they walked she sifted through the events of the last few days, trying to establish what fault or omission on her part could have instigated this summons. Her days were circumscribed, her pursuits unexceptionable; her only guilty pleasure was the time she spent in the palace chantry poring over the ancient and beautiful copies of the Chant her family was fortunate enough to own. Sacre Coeur d'Andraste, please do not let Mama have discovered the secret of my heart. Her blood ran cold at this idea; her Imperial Highness Violetta, Princesse d'Arlesans, sister to the Imperial Empress herself, would not look kindly on such a lowly ambition for any of her children.
Ahead of her now were the imposing doors to the Blue Salon, her mother's preferred receiving room for informal occasions when only family was in residence. The footman opened the door, entering the room to announce her. "Mademoiselle Henriette is here to see you, as you requested, Your Highness"
He bowed and withdrew, leaving Henriette stranded on what felt like an ocean of expensive pale blue carpet. She set off towards an island in the centre of the room, where her mother sat bolt upright on one of several uncomfortable-looking couches, her eyes on a letter held in one exquisitely manicured hand.
Henriette kept her eyes lowered and her hands clasped in front of her. "You wished to see me, Mama?"
Princesse Violetta looked her daughter over and managed a thin smile. "Yes, sit down, child."
She seated herself on the edge of a couch opposite her mother and tried not to fidget. Her mother appeared quite pleased about something, and this made her even more nervous.
"I have received a letter from my dearest sister Celene requesting our presence at her Court in Val Royeaux in the spring. She has foreign dignitaries attending for the Rite of Spring and wishes us to assist with their entertainment."
"Our presence, Mama?" asked Henriette in confusion. It was not unheard of for her mother to attend the Empress at Court, but the invitation had never before been extended to her. There are always foreign dignitaries at Court, she thought perplexed, why would the Empress want... oh. Oh, no.
Her blush betrayed her and her mother offered her an uncharacteristically fond smile. "I see you have divined the reason for yourself. Dearest Celene is entertaining a delegation from Ferelden, including their ruler, King Alistair."
She looked for a moment as though she had tasted something disagreeable, "A backward country I believe, and by all accounts the new king is illegitimate. However, it pleases our Empress to offer him all the entertainments befitting a royal visit and it seems that Celene is desirous of arranging a bride of the Imperial blood for him."
Her pleasure at the prospect of ingratiating herself with the Empress was apparent and her gaze hardened somewhat as it travelled over her daughter. "I understand that several members of the family are invited to bring their offspring to meet the Ferelden King and his retinue. It is my wish that you do everything necessary to ensure that you are the one who meets with the approval of this King Alistair. This alliance would bring us great favour with the Empress and I shall be extremely displeased if it does not occur. Is that understood Henriette?"
Henriette kept her eyes fixed on the floor. "Yes, Mama"
"Good. I will have my Dresser inspect your wardrobe and ensure that all the necessary new clothes are arranged in good time for our departure. You are dismissed"
Henriette rose, curtsied and made her way back across the blue ocean to the door. She let herself out quietly, walked sedately up the staircase and traversed the several corridors required to reach her own room. She turned the handle, entered the room, closed the door with a quiet click and promptly dissolved into a weeping puddle of misery.
Her Imperial Highness Odette, Princesse de Val Chevin was disturbed at her morning toilette by strident shrieks emanating from the quarters of her daughter Eloise. Her face powder fell from suddenly nerveless fingers and she muttered, "Oh Maker, what now?"
The shrieks were followed by crashes horridly reminiscent of breaking china. Her superior dresser Mlle Valard moved with stately dignity to close the two intervening doors. Her disapproving posture made plain her opinion of such an unseemly interruption. Peace descended, and Odette gave herself over to the expert ministrations of this Genius who presided over her clothes and hair.
Before her nerves could even begin to recover, the peaceful interlude was shattered by the tempestuous entry of her daughter, blue eyes flashing with fury. "Mama! You will not believe what that… that salope has done!"
Odette gestured hurriedly to Mlle Valard to leave the room. She well knew that, when in a temper, Eloise could not be relied upon to be at all discreet.
Only once the door had safely closed behind the servant did Odette speak, picking with fretful fingers at the fringe of her shawl. "Really, dearest, you should moderate your language. I do wish you could show some regard for my poor nerves. With all this noise before breakfast, I swear I shall not be able to eat so much as a morsel."
"At a time like this you speak of food?" Eloise moved from tempestuous to something approaching incandescent and her mother shrank in her seat. "I am to be hauled away by some barbarian and you can only think of your breakfast?"
"Hauled away?" said Odette, a vague frown furrowing her brow. "No dear, I'm sure that can't be right, the palace guards would prevent it for certain. Where did you get such an absurd notion?"
"From my dear, darling Aunt Celene, may her poisonous soul fester in the Black City for eternity," raged Eloise.
Odette gave a nervous start and her eyes shifted to the wall then the window. She made a feeble and fruitless attempt to shush her daughter. "Dearest you really shouldn't say such things, it isn't safe. Certainly not right here in the Empress' own palace."
"I don't care. She's sending me to rot in some mud-ball backwater with a man who probably still eats with his knife. Why would she do such a thing? I've been one of her closest companions for years."
Over the next half an hour, with much ranting from Eloise and feeble protestations from Odette, the whole story emerged. Despite the fact that Eloise was one of Empress Celene's noble Ladies-in-Waiting, and had enjoyed her favour for some considerable time, she was apparently now expected to entertain the King of Ferelden with a view to potentially becoming his bride. As both Eloise and Odette enjoyed a substantial suite of rooms in the Imperial Palace, and detested provincial life in all its forms, they were in agreement that this was a disaster.
"But my dearest, what can you possibly have done to have earned the Empress' displeasure?" moaned Odette. I'll have to move back to Val Chevin, she thought, I can't bear it.
Eloise flushed and some of her anger drained away. "Well… I made the mistake of wearing the same colour as the Empress at her rout last week, perhaps that upset her."
"That is very bad of course, but is it enough to merit such a dire punishment?" Her daughter's sudden cessation of hostilities made Odette instantly suspicious. "There is something more isn't there? Something terrible; quick, tell me."
Eloise shrugged and turned to face the window, giving her mother a charming view of her slim figure, long neck and elaborately dressed black hair silhouetted in the morning sunlight. "Well," she began with a fine show of carelessness, "it might be because of Raoul..."
"What!" screeched her mother, "The Empress' favourite? Are you out of your mind?" Her nerves, her breakfast, all were forgotten in the face of such monumental idiocy. "This isn't a punishment! This is our dearest Empress offering you a chance to save face, you stupid girl. Oh my, I cannot thank dear, dear Celene enough for her leniency. If she was punishing you then we would already be on our way back to Val Chevin… or I would be at least. You on the other hand, would be lucky to still live."
Imperial Princesse Odette gathered up her frayed nerves and tattered dignity, stood and tottered to the window. Her entire lifestyle was at risk and she would not go down without a fight. She seized Eloise and swung her round, selfish determination giving her plump foolish face unexpected strength. "Young lady, you will make every effort to engage this Ferelden King. Then, Maker willing, perhaps our dearest Empress may still forgive me and allow me to remain here at Court."
Her Imperial Highness Madeleina, Princesse de Ghislain, youngest sister of Empress Celene, sat in the crook of her favourite tree, legs dangling and frowned thoughtfully at the immaculate garden below. More Agapanthus and less Achillea, she decided finally, the Achillea is getting pushy. I'll need to get it done before the ground goes colder. She affectionately patted the bark of the magnificent oak, tucked her legs up and got comfortable. Despite the lateness of the season it was too hot today to actually put her decision into action, snoozing in the shade seemed a much better idea.
Time passed peacefully until a rude interruption came from the ground below.
"Hmm?" Madeleina stretched, yawned and peered down to where her brother Philippe stood frowning up at her, apparent displeasure belied by his mocking blue eyes. The sunlight gleamed on auburn hair and smooth pale skin so perfectly shaved it almost appeared as though he was a boy who had not yet got his beard growth. Her brother was an almost impossibly handsome man and the despair of all the noble ladies in the district.
"Lazing the day away, ma chérie? Bestir yourself, I have news for you." He waved a letter, apparently hoping it would entice her.
Green eyes narrowed in amusement in a pixie face, tanned nut brown and dusted with freckles. "I doubt it's anything exciting. What's in it for me?" She began stripping a handful of acorns off the branch next to her, feigning total disinterest in her brother and all he may have to say.
Philippe put his hand on his heart with a look of despair. "Alas, if only I had leaves or petals I'm sure that you would grant me the filial devotion I crave."
A firm nod from above confirmed his view. "You can have some acorns, if that helps," she offered, dropped them on him, one by one.
"Ouch! That one hit me! Stop funning Maddy and come down. I have a letter from Celene, she wants us to go to Val Royeaux in the spring."
There was silence from above, followed by slithering sounds. Madeleina slid to the ground, dusted off her hands and said ominously, "Oh? And pray why?" She barely knew her elder sister, who had seized the throne when Madeleina was still in the schoolroom.
Philippe spent a moment picking twigs and leaves out of his sister's tangled waves of long brown hair, avoiding her eyes. He sighed and finally gave her a direct look. "You know why. You and I are the only ones of our generation who remain unwed. She was bound to cast her eyes towards us sooner or later."
Madeleina perceived a faint ray of hope and pursued it. "So which reigning toast of the Imperial Court is she hoping to attach you to?"
"Ah, I am spared on this occasion. Sorry ma chérie, it's you she has her hooks in."
"Why would she take an interest now? She's never bothered about me before."
"Politics, of course; the King of Ferelden seeks a bride and only one of Imperial blood will suffice apparently. Take heart though. I hear Violetta and Odette's daughters are also in the running. If you don't want the match you just need to run the slowest." He gave a wicked grin, but with a great deal of sympathy lurking in his vivid blue eyes.
"Ferelden?" Madeleina made a moue of disgust and added cryptically, "Acid clay and too much rain."
Philippe had no apparent difficulty interpreting this statement and looked deeply amused. "There's more to life than horticulture, my dear one. I'm told that this King Alistair is young, outrageously handsome and a fearsome warrior, and by that I mean muscular. And also a Grey Warden; I can't imagine why they stuck one of those on the throne but…" He shrugged to indicate the impossibility of deciphering the non-Orlesian mind.
Madeleina was patently unimpressed. "If you think he's so great, you marry him."
The unholy glint in her brother's eyes spoke volumes about why he yet remained unwed.
Alistair looked up from his correspondence as Arl Eamon entered his study. "Good morning Eamon, I hope you slept well?"
"Yes, thank you. Did you?" Eamon doubted it; the king looked as drawn and tired as always.
"Um, some I guess. I've been catching up on paperwork; it piled up while we were in the Bannorn."
Alistair fished a letter out of the heap on his desk. "I have received a disturbing letter from Warden Commander Leonie at Vigil's Keep. She tells me that the Chantry made an attack against a Grey Warden mage. The templars claimed that he was an apostate and that the Chantry would not allow him to…" he skimmed the letter looking for the correct phrase, "…hide in the Grey Wardens."
Eamon took the proffered letter but made no immediate move to read it. "Surely this incident is between the Wardens and the Chantry. Why is she approaching the Crown with this matter?"
"I was present when the mage, Anders, was conscripted and I specifically told the templar who was attempting to take him into custody that I would permit his conscription. Commander Leonie states that, according to the templars who attacked the group of Wardens, the authority of the Chantry supersedes the Crown in this matter." Alistair drummed his fingers on the desk, looking annoyed. "I can't say I'm very happy about that suggestion either as a King or as a Warden. As I understand it, once a mage becomes a Grey Warden they are no longer subject to Chantry control. I will not tolerate the Chantry operating under the mistaken belief that the Right of Conscription, gifted to the Wardens by the Crown, is something that they can set aside when it suits them to do so."
Eamon handed back the letter. He was pleased to see the king so decisive; he had made a great deal of progress in the last seven months or so. However, he would have preferred this determination to be applied to a less touchy subject. "Perhaps we can take it up with the Revered Mother, but I would advise you to tread carefully Alistair, the Chantry is a powerful force, as you know."
Alistair grinned ruefully, "Funnily enough, I do realise that. It may have something to do with spending several of the dullest years of my life under their thumb. Nevertheless they are bang out of order this time; but I'll make sure that my suggestion is merely that the templars concerned were rogue rather than upholding the actual views of the Chantry." He shrugged. "It might even be true."
The King yawned and stretched. "Anyway, I assume you came to see me for some reason of your own, not to hear me prattle on about wardens and templars. What do you need?"
"I have received a letter from our ambassador in Orlais, enclosed with it is a note addressed to you sealed with the Imperial crest." Eamon passed it over to Alistair, who took it and turned it over in his hands looking a little panicky.
"From what the ambassador tells me I expect so. Open it and see."
Alistair broke the seal and unfolded the thick embossed parchment. He ran his eye down it and threw it on the desk. "Her Imperial Majesty Celene cordially invites me to attend the celebrations in Val Royeaux for the Rite of Spring." He folded his arms and set his jaw against the rebellion rising within. "Which means what, exactly?"
"According to Ambassador Cameron, the Empress has also specifically requested the presence of several young ladies of the Imperial family at the Rite of Spring celebrations. This is more than I had hoped for Alistair; not only is she implying that she would be happy to see you allied to a member of her family, it seems you also may have the luxury of choosing from a number of eligible young ladies."
"Lucky me," said Alistair sourly
Faced with the Arl's reproachful expression he quickly relented. "I know, I know. Sorry, I'll try not to be childish about this." He tapped his finger on the invitation. "I assume we will be taking a full entourage on this junket?"
"Yes, of course. The Empress will expect us to turn up in style and will make suitable accommodations available."
"In that case, I want Leliana to go with us. If I'm to be thrown to the Imperial wolves I want someone there who knows the Court, and that I am certain I can trust."
Eamon frowned. "Leliana? Alistair, I know she's a friend of yours, but I fail to see how a Chantry lay sister, a minstrel or an archer can help you even if she is Orlesian."
A mischievous grin smeared itself across Alistair's face. "Did I never tell you? Sorry, I thought you knew. Leliana used to be a full-blown Orlesian bard; it was kept quiet because it was her wish, but in this situation she's the most useful person we could have with us."
"Oh." Eamon did not appear terribly happy to have had this information withheld. "Then I shall enquire as to her whereabouts and send a letter summoning her to attend you here in Denerim. Hopefully she will receive it in time"
"Not a summons, Eamon," exclaimed Alistair horrified. "She's a friend and I need her help. Maker's Breath, let's make it a simple request shall we?"
Leliana was having just the best time.
Alistair's note had caught her in Amaranthine where she was hanging out with the Wardens after one of her periodic Deep Roads fact-finding missions. She set off for Denerim immediately, curious to know what had got Alistair in such a flap and arrived there shortly before the mid-winter celebrations.
The fun started when she flung herself into his arms and kissed him soundly in front of his advisors. Making Alistair blush and stammer had always been one of her favourite games. His babbled protests were fun too, but things got even better once he ushered all the grimly disapproving men from the room and told her what was in the wind.
Orlais in spring! Balls, routs, and Court politics! Dresses and shoes! Alistair had laughed at her and said that only mice should squeak when they are excited. Oh, but it was going to be such fun…
Alistair was wondering what he had got himself into. Leliana was practically bouncing up and down in her seat, ticking off on her fingers a whole list of things he really didn't want.
"There is so much to do before we can leave, we must begin immediately. Alistair, you must have a whole new wardrobe of course; your Ferelden doublets and hose will not do for the Imperial Court, they would be considered plain and shabby and you must be every inch a King."
"Um, some of my clothes are quite nice..."
"You must have Grand Ball dress and fine dancing slippers, which goes without saying."
"Does it? Because I don't think it does go without saying, and... erm… Leliana…"
"Do you have a good valet? Care of your clothes will be essential, you can be sure that a crushed shirt will instantly be noticed."
"Yes Alistair, what is the matter?"
"I... er... can't dance."
"Can't dance? Maker's breath, we must find a dancing master at once!"