"It is good of you to come see me, Warden," Anora said, studying the young man before her with some curiosity. During the rescue at Howe's estate he'd had a closed helm on and the only impression she'd received was that of a firm voice lighter in timbre than she'd expected for such a large man. That anonymity had certainly made it easier to slip away when Ser Cauthrien and her father's men had closed in on him.
Corin Cousland inclined his head politely. "Your Majesty." He was still in armor, though the armor had obviously been cleaned. There was a faint scent of soap about him. Without the helmet, his resemblance to Bryce Cousland was obvious, though he was considerably taller than both his father and his late brother. His hair was darker than Fergus' as well, a true black, but his eyes were all Bryce, a piercing blue. Anora could see nothing of his mother in him.
"I asked you here to discuss your possible support for my throne," she said, "but let me first of all express my sympathy for what happened to your parents. Eleanor in particular was very dear to me. It is very fitting that Howe met his death at your hands."
Something indefinable moved behind the young man's eyes. He was, in fact, dismayingly young. Anora had known intellectually that Cousland was only nineteen, but there was something disconcerting about seeing it in person, the fresh-complexioned, young face with the terribly old eyes.
"It was a very satisfying moment for me, I will admit," came the offhanded agreement, as if the carnage he'd committed in the dungeons of the Arl of Denerim's estate were a matter of no particular import.
She began her spiel, spelling out her qualifications and the advantages that would accrue to Corin as her supporter, both in his capacity as a Grey Warden and as the last Cousland, finishing with "and the return of your teynir of Highever, of course." He had not seated himself despite her invitation to do so, seemingly all too aware of what sharp-edged armor could do to delicate furniture and he stood now at his ease, hip-shot, his hands clasped loosely behind his back, his expression thoughtful.
"So you are proposing an alliance?" he inquired mildly when she had done.
"Yes. Together we can accomplish much more than either of us can alone. Surely you see this?"
"I don't know about that. These last few months, I've accomplished quite a bit. And what of Alistair?"
"Alistair is a good man, to be sure. But I think we both know that he would not be a good king. He hasn't the strength to lead. Eamon would end up ruling through him and the bannorn would know and resent it. The old squabbling would start again. Alistair may be Maric's son, but crowning him would all but insure that Maric's kingdom would fall."
Cousland shrugged. "By your own admission, you ruled Ferelden in Cailan's stead. In our very brief acquaintance, you've made this claim numerous times. I'm a bit surprised you aren't asking me to influence Alistair to marry you, Your Majesty. You'd have another, younger, possibly even more biddable Theirin to lead about by the nose. And he would give your reign legitimacy. And hopefully, an heir."
She shook her head, vehement. "I have spent long enough ruling in a husband's name. I will not be a figurehead!"
"Oh. I see. So this is about you after all, and not about Ferelden."
Anora stared at him, astonished and affronted. "You dare!"
"I do dare. If you recollect, I'm the one that got you out of your sticky situation with Howe. Your self-inflicted situation."
"What are you talking about?"
"How could anyone who is as savvy a ruler as you claim to be not know what Howe was? And knowing that, why would you voluntarily walk into his presence unarmed and unguarded? The only possible explanation is that you wanted to be caught. You knew you'd be safe enough. Howe would not dare engage in any hanky-panky with you-at least not until he'd dealt with your father in some final manner, which I'm sure was his ultimate plan. The only people who knew you were in Howe's custody were you, your maid and Arl Eamon. I went in after you with Alistair. Eamon, while he might find me a bit problematic at times, owes me too much and he certainly wouldn't do anything to risk his meal ticket Alistair. Yet somehow I'd barely wiped Howe's blood from my blade when Cauthrien, who is apparently foresighted in the extreme, just happened to show up with a large party Loghain's finest to call me to account for my crime. Which no one could possibly have known about since it had happened mere minutes before."
"Perhaps one of the guards upstairs recognized you and knew that you would kill Howe. Perhaps they went to Loghain."
"Perhaps. But there were a lot of guards upstairs. I know because I walked through them all on the way in. Why did they not just come downstairs to deal with me? That's what they were being paid for after all. There was never an alarm sounded. I don't think anyone upstairs knew what was going on." His air of diffidence dropped of a sudden and his blue eyes blazed as they bored into hers. "I think you set all of this up in advance."
"And why in the Maker's name would I do that?" Cousland took a long stride away from her and began to pace. He was graceful for a big man and looked to be fast on his feet as well.
"Because you wanted Howe gone. And you wanted me gone. I'm a threat and I think you thought that Howe was influencing your father in some way, that if you could just get rid of him you could make your father see reason. So you walked into Howe's clutches, knowing that Eamon would have to pull you out of them and also knowing that there was no way I'd pass up a chance to kill Howe. And you'd set this all up with Cauthrien in advance. Cauthrien, for all that she's a snippy bitch, has one overwhelming virtue-she is loyal to Loghain. She can't have been happy at the sorts of things your father has been getting up to. Perhaps, like you, she felt that it was Howe's influence that was making him besmirch his honor in such a fashion."
"You are speculating." Cousland spun on his heel with shocking swiftness to face her.
"Yes, I am. But it's not speculation when everything fits. You set it up so that I'll go after Howe and kill him for you. Then Cauthrien kills or takes me into custody, removing the other big threat to you and to your father. You don't know for sure that I'll take Alistair with me, but you are hoping I will because then that threat will be removed as well. You're able to slip away in the fracas, because you've arranged that with Cauthrien in advance. And because killing or capturing myself and Alistair is the true reason for this charade, Cauthrien doesn't arrest Morrigan and Leliana as accessories to the murder of Ferelden's premier nobleman. She has them cold and she lets them walk because they are of no interest to her. Not that I'm not grateful for that." He gestured irritably.
"The business about being in danger from your father was all hogwash. Cauthrien was not going to arrest you and bring you to Loghain. She was all about getting her hands on me and Alistair and taking us to him. Because you'd planned this with her well in advance. You had enough faith in me to believe that I was well capable of killing Howe," a decidedly nasty smile here, "but in the event he'd killed me instead, there was Cauthrien with her picked troops to get you out of his clutches. Howe wasn't at the point in which he was willing to oppose Loghain, so he would have given you up peacefully, claimed to have been keeping you safe. And in the unlikely event he didn't, my attempt on him would hopefully have seriously depleted the number of his followers, allowing Cauthrien to overcome him in pitched battle and maybe even giving her a chance to kill him herself. Everything fits."
Anora studied the young man for a moment, rather surprised. There is a first-class brain there to go with the first-class sword arm! But then, both Bryce and Eleanor were always clever.
"So," she said aloud. "If this conspiracy theory of yours is true and I do not say that it is, then where does that leave us?"
The young Warden resumed his customary diffident air. "That is a good question. I will be more honest with you than you have been with me-I am not impressed with your much-vaunted ability to rule. While it is true that you managed Ferelden's foreign and domestic relations ably in a time of peace, when things fell apart you let your father take over from you and act as regent. I can't imagine Celene of Orlais allowing anyone to do that to her and I don't think you have what it takes to rule this country in a time of war. And I'm not the only one. You've seen how Eamon regards you, it's basically 'be a good widow and be quiet and biddable and let the men handle things.'"
"I had noticed," Anora said dryly.
"I'll warrant most of the bannorn feels the same way. You won't be allowed to rule as Queen without a King."
"Ah, we are back to Alistair."
"I wouldn't wish you on Alistair. He doesn't deserve that."
Anora's annoyance flared. "Then what are you proposing?"
"That's certainly the appropriate word. Proposing. That's what I'm doing."
"You? You are a Grey Warden. Such a marriage would be unprecedented. Could it even be done?"
"So is Alistair and we've discussed the possibility of your marrying him. I am also the last legitimate Cousland, whose father was offered the kingship by the Landsmeet and turned it down. I was torn away from that same dying father by Duncan, who extorted a promise from him as he lay bleeding out on the floor that I should become a Warden in return for getting me and my mother safely to the King. Then my mother refused to come with us, remaining with my father so that she could share his last moments and buy us time for our escape, so my recruitment didn't even buy me her life. I can only hope that she died quickly." He closed his eyes, obviously taking a moment to master himself, then looked at her once more. "They do call it the Right of Conscription, you know, not the Right of Asking Nicely. When this Blight is ended, the Wardens will have more than gotten their worth out of me and the First Warden can go sit and spin on a pikestaff." There was no overt anger in his words, but that mildness made them all the more compelling and more than a little chilling. This is not a man to be trifled with, the Queen realized.
"I would be willing to name you Prince-consort."
"I would prefer to be King. In fact, I insist upon it."
"Then what advantage is there to me in that situation?"
"I would be willing to be a co-ruler with you. You are very good at some aspects of governance."
The young man's effrontery stunned Anora for a moment. Then she snarled, "Thank you so much for the faint praise! Perhaps you should propose marriage to Alistair, since he is so much more biddable than I! Maybe he would be willing to bend over and submit to your rule!" The crudity surprised even her, she could count on one hand the times in her life she had resorted to such remarks. And this much ire in her tone had always brought Cailan to heel in a hurry. It did not even seem to register to Cousland as a threat. He seemed to find it more amusing than anything else. A genuine smile bloomed on his face for the first time and it changed everything about him. Anora was startled for the second time in as many minutes, this time at the realization that Cousland was an extremely handsome young man. She did not regard men in such a manner as a rule, tending to rate them in terms of their threat to her.
"Oh, I seriously doubt Alistair would be interested in that!" he was saying. "But I'm more than willing to watch while you propose it to him!" His expression sobered once more. "We appear to be at an impasse at present, Your Majesty. I do not object to ruling as an equal partner with you, but I will not be your kept dog. I have other options."
"Putting Alistair on the throne and supporting him to the best of my ability. He would make me Chancellor, of course."
"And you would rule through him."
"When necessary. Hopefully it would become less so over time and I would certainly be much less self-interested than Eamon. But I would spare him this if I could. He truly does not want the throne and wishes to remain a Grey Warden."
"How convenient for you."
Cousland cocked his head to one side and gave her a thoughtfully pleased look. "It is, isn't it?" He then crossed fists and bowed, obviously ready to depart without waiting upon her dismissal. Anora gathered up what dignity she had left.
"There is still time before the Landsmeet, Warden Cousland. I will be here if you wish to discuss the matter further."
"Of course, Your Majesty." And he was gone.
Whatever else might be said about the impertinent, infuriating Corin Cousland, he did not lack for energy. As the nobles flooded into Denerim for the Landsmeet, the young Warden was in and out at all hours, taking different members of his rather oddly assorted group of companions with him at different times. Anora's connections told her that he had definitely followed up on her suggestion about the Elven alienage and Eamon showed her the slaver documents that proved her father had stooped to actually selling Fereldens into bondage to fund his army. He also informed her that Bann Sighard's son had been discovered in Arl Howe's dungeon, as well as Bann Alfstanna's templar brother, both of them in very sorry shape. Eamon asserted that both nobles were going to lay charges against Loghain at the Landsmeet, as Howe had been his closest ally and presumably these actions had been done at his behest, or he had at the very least acquiesced to them.
These things, further proof to her of her father's dissolution, did not make Anora sleep any easier at night. But they also did not distract her from finding out what information she could about the Warden who looked to be becoming a major player in the games that were to come.
The reports her people brought to her were fantastical, almost too much so to be believed. Had she not had absolute faith in her agents' competency and veracity, she might have dismissed them out of hand and recruited new ones to bring her the truth of the matter. Ending werewolf curses for the Dalish elves? Venturing deeper into the Deep Roads than even the dwarves dared go, to settle their succession problems? Cleansing the Circle tower of abominations, when even the Templars had thrown up their hands in surrender? Saving Arl Eamon's life and the lives of his family and vassals from a demonic plague of undead? All of these things simply could not be true, particularly the rumor that the Warden's dragonbone armor was from a high dragon he'd actually killed! Anora suspected that last was definitely an embellishment-people liked heroes and the best heroes were always dragonslayers.
But however he had gotten it, Cousland had obviously done well for himself and for his companions. Growing up as she had, Anora knew more than a little about arms and armor and it didn't take the envious glances of Eamon's knights and men at arms to tell her that Cousland and his people were the best equipped fighters in Denerim-and that included her father and Arl Eamon. It was an impressive feat, given that he'd left Highever with nothing more than what he wore on his back.
As for his companions themselves, they were also almost too fantastical to be believed. Alistair was actually one of the more commonplace-a lost heir to the throne was almost a requirement among any self-respecting party of adventurers. The drunken dwarf was obviously comic relief. But the others? A real golem with free will? A Quanari who wasn't, as far as her agents could tell, the usual run of Tal-Vashoth mercenary, but an actual Quanari and a Sten to boot? A very Senior Enchanter of the Circle, out loping over the countryside without a single Templar in attendance? And at the same time Cousland was also keeping company with a flagrantly apostate mage, a gorgeous woman whose wardrobe choices had caused one of Anora's most seasoned, competent agents to stop in the middle of his briefing with an idiotic smile of reminiscence on his face.
The recent discoveries of an entire dead cell of Crows in a back alley and an equally dead Bard of high status in a house off the marketplace lent credence to the intelligence that the Antivan and Orlesian in Corin's party were an actual Crow and Bard. Apparently, once you were in Cousland's inner circle, he had your back and that was that, no matter what. Which was admirable, Anora supposed. He had also apparently been behind the recent precipitous drop in gang crime in Denerim, his small handful of companions succeeding where entire platoons of city guards could not. Upon reviewing her compiled reports, Anora had to wonder if the Warden ever found time for mundane activities such as sleep! Certainly her father, selling Ferelden subjects to equip and pay his armies, suffered by comparison with Cousland, who was apparently equipping his mostly non-human allies by solving every outstanding problem in Ferelden single-handedly. And he seemingly had no vices to speak of. He was not inclined to drink or partake of more exotic recreational pursuits and he did not patronize whores, male or female. If he was sharing blankets with anyone in his party, it could not be discovered, or at least he was not doing so under Eamon's roof. Such temperance in a young man was surprising-or perhaps not, given the amount of energy he threw into other things!
The day after her extremely provoking interview with him, the Warden disappeared with Alistair, the Senior Enchanter and the Bard and did not return to Denerim until two weeks later. Watching Eamon tear his beard out in frustration in the interim was entertaining-apparently the Arl had no real control or influence over Cousland and the last of the nobles were arriving. He was going to have to convene the Landsmeet soon. What was surprising was that immediately upon his return, the Warden requested an interview with her. Hoping that time had caused him to view her offer in a more favorable light, Anora granted it.
Once again he came to her freshly washed and trimmed, in polished dragonbone. With him were two of Eamon's servants, each carrying an object wrapped in cloth. One was very bulky and one was long and sword-shaped. Cousland himself was carrying some papers and a very beautiful jar.
"Please put those on the table by the couch, gentlemen, and then leave us. Shut the door after you," he directed the servants, with his usual sublime disregard for Anora's authority. She frowned and that frown deepened when, after they had departed, Cousland said, "I mean no disrespect, Your Majesty, but you might want to sit down." When she had done so, he set the papers and the jar upon the table beside the other two parcels, then leaned over and folded back the cloth on the bulkiest parcel.
Gilded dragonbone gleamed within the folds. Anora bit back a gasp, for it was Cailan's armor and shield that lay there, all clean and polished. The long package turned out to be Maric's sword, also cleaned to mirror brightness. She looked at the jar, which suddenly took on new significance.
"How?" she whispered, her throat tight. Then in a more normal voice asked, "You have actually been to Ostagar? How could you? How could anyone? Isn't it overrun?"
Cousland shrugged. "Not so much as you might think. Or even as bad as I thought it would be. There were darkspawn there, but not anything we couldn't handle. They were more like sentries, in truth. Wherever the horde is, it's not Ostagar." He gestured to Marric's sword. "Do you remember Elric Maraigne?"
Anora nodded. "He fell at Ostagar along with Cailan."
"Apparently not. He fled the battle instead. A little while back, I was crossing Bann Loren's lands and encountered a party of his militia with a man whom they ran through as I approached. It turned out to be Maraigne. As he was dying, he said that the King had entrusted him with the key to the Royal Arms Chest and that he had been supposed to give it to the Wardens in the event of Cailan's death. Instead, he buried the key there at Ostagar. He said that Maric's sword would probably still be there and drew me a map, asking me to go find it and see Cailan's body off if I could find that." The young Warden sighed. "I had too many other things to do to get to it right away-after all, the living take precedence over the dead. But I wanted to see if I could find it before the Landsmeet, and here we are."
Anora looked down upon her husband's relics and struggled to compose herself. She said at last, "You appear, if you will pardon my saying so, Warden, to have an endless supply of miracles at your disposal."
Cousland actually chuckled. It was a pleasant sound. "I've only ever seen one real miracle, Your Majesty. Everything else is just a lot of hard work that no one else wants to man up and do."
Anora looked at the jar. "Are you sure it was him?"
The Warden nodded, grave once more. "He was more than recognizable. And actually in pretty good shape. There was a new sort of darkspawn down there, one I've not encountered before. It was a necromancer. I think it might have done something magical to preserve the King's body and of course, the cold weather down there helped. I will not lie to you- they'd put him up on poles in a sort of display, like a standard. But he wasn't mutilated or violated in any way. I looked him over very closely. His injuries were the sort you get in battle, not from torture. They didn't take him alive, Your Majesty."
Anora let out a breath. That had been one of her deepest fears, kept to herself in the reaches of the night, that Cailan might not have died in battle, but had been taken, tortured, perhaps devoured while still living. Though the romance in their marriage had not survived, he had still been her friend and she would not have wanted him to suffer. It was perceptive of Cousland to have realized that would be a concern.
"Alistair and I took him down from there, armed and armored him and gave him a proper pyre. Then I gathered the ashes for you, bundled up the arms and armor and we left."
"Why did you burn him in the armor and then take it? That seems odd."
"For one thing, it was simply more dignified. For the other-the darkspawn had had the armor-they'd split the pieces up among themselves for trophies. That's why Alistair and I did all the work of dressing him and making the pyre. There was darkspawn taint on everything." She gave him an alarmed look and Cousland spoke quick reassurance. "But don't worry, the fire burned off all of that. It's safe now. It took me longer to get back than it might have because I took the sword and armor to the smith who made my blade, to get the armor re-strapped and padded, the shield repainted and everything polished back up for you." Anora examined the armor more closely and discovered that indeed all the padding and straps were new. It was battle ready. Then she looked at the jar and stroked her hand down the side.
"You went to considerable risk to do this. It was very thoughtful of you."
"He was my king," Cousland said simply, then indicated the papers.
"Those were in the chest. I think you should read them. I will leave you now. Good afternoon, Your Majesty." He crossed fists over chest, bowed and departed, leaving her alone with her husband.
A letter from Eamon, urging Cailan to set her aside. A couple of letters from Celene of Orlais, speaking of political alliance and hinting at a more intimate one. What was contained in the papers had not been much of a surprise to Anora. In the last two years of their marriage, she and Cailan had grown apart. They had been close childhood companions, Anora always in the ascendance, but that had not translated well into marriage. She had gone to her marriage bed a virgin, while Cailan had been having his way with the serving girls since he was fourteen. Despite all that practice, he was not a particularly skilled lover, though undeniably a vigorous one. Anora found sex to be painful and not particularly fulfilling, and after a couple of years of concerted effort, Cailan had given up on trying to please his undeniably lovely but cold wife in favor of other women who were more responsive or simply better at feigning response. This was both humiliating for Anora and a relief all at once. He had settled into a habit of sleeping with Anora once a month, at the time when she was hopefully the most fertile, then leaving her alone the rest of the time to be with other companions. That way he could look Eamon and the Council in the eyes and tell them that he was making an effort to solve the heir problem without exerting himself overmuch. Cailan had not cared to exert himself in much of anything, other than in following Duncan and the other Grey Wardens around.
In a way, it was amusing, Anora reflected. Alistair the bastard was living the life that Cailan the King had yearned after. Anora was not particularly impressed with Alistair. He seemed a good man, but he was more than clueless about the realities of politics. Though he was certainly handsome enough, she found herself reluctant to consider the possibility of entering into another marriage of convenience that turned out to be anything but convenient to her, where she did all the work and got none of the credit. She was getting older by the day and no longer had the patience to deal with a child in a man's body.
But if Alistair were to become King, and she did not wed him, someone else would end by ruling through him, either Eamon or Cousland. Most likely that would be Cousland, who had the youth and drive that Eamon lacked. Would that be a bad thing for Ferelden? Perhaps not. The Warden had grown up around political realities and possessed not only his own full complement of clues but most everyone else's besides. But where would that leave her? Dead? Imprisoned? The most favorable possibility would be that she would be shunted off to a dower gift property somewhere and maintained in respectful obscurity as dowager queen for the rest of her life. The very idea horrified her.
And what if she took Cousland up on his offer? Would he hold to his word? Or would he find ways to marginalize her, trivialize her, remove her from any influence or power? Judging from the reports she'd received, he was a man of his word. And he definitely took care of his friends. Would his wife of convenience count as such? How would it be to have Cousland at her back, an ally, defending her against all foes? How would it feel to have those swordsman's hands upon her body?
Where in the Maker's name did that come from? Anora grimaced. She had already known a pair of hands much like Cousland's and they had never brought much pleasure. "Erlina!" She called to her maid. "Draw me a bath!"