Thanks to ulicpav, Bloodsong 13T, mille libri, Ventisquear, david9999, ShebasDawn and Eva Galana for the reviews last chapter. And additional thanks to ShebasDawn for the nudge!
We're back in Denerim this chapter. Demon-slaying in the next. But I did manage a little Alistair/Lhaine goodness of a sort, because I'm clever that way.
"So. How old were you when you decided that you liked girls?" Alistair asked Alfstanna. They were dining alone in his quarters. As a betrothed couple, a chaperone was not necessary. Eamon at least was probably hoping they were engaging in all sorts of bedroom gymnastics already. But these dinners not romantic; rather, they were just a way to unwind after a long, oftentimes frustrating day and get to know one another.
"I was actually thirteen when it first occurred to me," the Bann of Waking Sea replied, swirling her after-dinner brandy in its glass and sniffing it appreciatively. "I started having feelings. You know the ones. Only instead of having them about the squires in the courtyard, I found myself eyeing Mother's ladies-maids. The boys left me unmoved." She sighed. "I wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but even then I knew it wasn't what was happening with everyone else."
"Did you…ever try anything with a boy?" Alistair's ears got pink.
"I did. Mostly because it was all the girls wanted to talk about and I was odd enough as it was, what with the archery and all the classes I had to take because I was going to be Bann. Irminric was supposed to be the heir, but then he got a vocation and went into the Chantry and I had to step up. He's six years older than I am."
"So what happened? Were you betrothed to someone?"
"Well that's where being the heir to the bannorn saved me, at least initially. A girl who was going to have to make a noble marriage needed to keep her legs locked. A girl who was going to call the shots in the bannorn had a little more freedom. So when I was fifteen, I started seeing this squire named Rolf." She chuckled. "Poor Rolf! He was a good fellow, really, but always conscious that if he went too far, Father would have his balls for breakfast. Still, we got up to some stuff, petting and kissing and the like. Did pretty much everything but the deed itself. And Rolf left me totally unmoved. I'd sit there while it was going on, trying to hold up my end of things and thinking, is this what the fuss is all about?"
"So when did you first sleep with a woman?"
"Right after Rolf and I broke up. One of mother's maids, Lilian. She'd been giving me the eye and figured out what was going on, so she made an excuse to bring me some of my clothes one evening and put the moves on me. And it felt so right and it was so good! That's when I knew I was really in trouble." Alfstanna set her brandy down, plucked up a little frosted cake from the dessert platter, and started nibbling. "All right," she said between bites. "Your turn for a while. When did you realize you were interested in men?"
"I don't know that I am, in general. I do like women, and I have been attracted to them. I think I might just be interested in Lhaine."
"Or maybe you just have a certain type of man you like," Alfstanna suggested. "But what you're saying is that you'll go either way."
Alistair's blush, which had subsided, returned. "I guess so." A thought occurred to him then, and he shuddered. "Maker! I guess in that respect I'm as bad as Zevran!"
"I don't think you're quite as bad off as that."
He inclined his head to her gratefully. "Thank you, my lady!" Taking up his own glass, he continued. "The Chantry wasn't big on encouraging feelings of either sort. It was a sin either way. So I tried not to think about sex at all, really, and just did a lot of wanking off when I couldn't help it." Alfstanna chuckled.
"At least they don't ban that! It would be pretty damned cruel if they did!"
"I'll say! So anyway, I spent a lot of time trying not to think about it at all. Then Duncan conscripted me into the Wardens and there I was, spending all my time with a bunch of Warden brothers who were basically living life to the fullest and talked of nothing else when they weren't actually doing it. I had almost worked my way around to the idea that maybe it would be all right to go be with a woman, just to shut everyone up. Virgin harassment was the preferred Warden sport after I came along. They even took up a collection to get me laid."
Alfstanna, who'd just been sipping her brandy, snorted a laugh, then cursed in a clogged voice when the liquor shot up her nose. Alistair winced and handed her a napkin.
"Sorry about that, Alfstanna!" The bann pressed the napkin to her face and spoke through it, her voice muffled by the fabric.
"It's all right. Just warn me in the future." Blowing her nose, she folded the napkin over and laid it on the table and looked at him, cocking an eyebrow. "So-did you use this collection they gave you?"
"I was going to. Then Duncan showed up with Lhaine, and the end times were upon us." Alistair's face darkened.
"What did you think of Lhaine when you first saw him?" Alfstanna asked quickly, hoping to divert the subject from the tragedy at Ostagar. It worked. Alistair brightened immediately.
"That he was scary. He was like no elf I'd ever met before. The others were all servants. They were servile. Lhaine was a warrior. You could tell that it would be worth your life to try to get those knives away from him." The King's voice softened. "And I thought that he was beautiful. It startled me. I'd never thought of a man in those terms before."
Alfstanna smiled. "So what happened? Did you get anything going with him?"
"Maker, no! Or not for a long time. After Flemeth saved us from Ostagar, we were on the run. And I hate to admit it, but I wasn't holding my end of things up." Alistair grimaced. "Duncan and the Wardens-they were the first thing I'd ever had that resembled family, even if it had only been for a few months. I was the senior surviving Warden and I should have been the one in charge. But I was too busy wallowing in grief. I deferred to Lhaine, who had lost his own family he'd known his whole life. I made him make the decisions, when he'd had next to no experience of human society and culture."
"From the sound of things, he did all right."
"More than all right. But it was a strain on him. I think it was maybe four, five months before he was at ease enough in his role and I got my head out of my arse long enough that we could worry about things like attraction."
"And then?" His betrothed had finished her cake. She poured herself another brandy and settled back attentively.
"Well, then I found that I was watching Lhaine and thinking about him all the time. Particularly at night and in the privacy of my tent. That was a bit of a shock, I must admit!" Alfstanna chuckled at his expression of reminiscent dismay. Alistair gave her a rueful smile in return.
"Lhaine, who had had both male and female lovers-did you know he has a daughter he's never seen?-could tell that I was interested. So he was sounding me out, without my even knowing that was what he was doing. And he found out that I was a virgin. He says that he was considering working around to being with me very slowly and carefully. But then we went to Redcliffe and I told him who I was. As far as Lhaine was concerned, that meant things were over before they began. Two Wardens loving as they pleased was one thing, but he wasn't going to get me involved in a relationship with an elven man, if I had to marry a woman for the sake of the kingdom."
"That was very principled of him. But wait-Lhaine said you weren't being intimate presently. Are you telling me that the two of you have never really slept together?"
"We didn't then. We were just really close friends who wished they might be something more. It was damned frustrating for both of us. And of course, after Drakon, there wasn't anything…" Alistair blushed. "We did manage to get up to a little something before Lhaine set off to Kirkwall."
"That's good to know! Was that the first time?"
"Not exactly. We've always hugged. And we kissed once."
"Your first kiss?"
"Yes. And for a while, I thought it would be the last…"
They'd fought their way to the city gates, had cleared them of darkspawn completely. Some of the Fereldan soldiers were fanning out to deal with the stragglers, but the Wardens and their companions congregated in a group before the gates, taking a bit of a rest.
"Morrigan," Alistair heard Lhaine say softly. Just one word, but the witch was with him in an instant, uncorking a potion bottle that wasn't healing or any standard potion Alistair had ever heard of. He suspected there was poppy in it-certainly there was some sort of pain-killer and a potent one, for the pain lines in Lhaine's face began to slacken almost immediately. He would still have been in bed, had there been any justice in the world, but the Archdemon had risen at last and so therefore had Lhaine, marching with the army all the way down to Redcliffe and back on those barely-healed legs. And he was even managing to fight, only the least bit off of his usual extraordinary best. It was astounding.
Wynne went over to speak to him, her expression one of disapproval. Alistair could just barely hear them.
"Lhaine. This is not wise. You just had some of that a couple of hours ago. If you keep taking it like that, you'll be addicted."
Miraculously, something resembling genuine amusement came over Lhaine's face then. It startled Alistair, who'd become accustomed to the grim reserve that had been his mien since Drakon. The elf lifted his gauntleted hand gently to Wynne's wizened cheek.
"A possible addiction to painkillers is so far down the list of my concerns that it doesn't even register, Wynne," he said softly. "Come now. You know that it doesn't matter. I've only got to get through the day. And I need this to do it."
"Oh, Lhaine!" she exclaimed. Alistair thought that she might actually be crying.
"I regret the possibility of undoing all your hard work," he said, with a ghost of his usual courtesy, "but who was it who kept telling me all those tales about Wardens getting obliterated in order to save mankind?"
"Don't be. It may be that I needed to hear them." His gaze passed over Alistair then, with none of its usual warmth, as if his eyes had met a stranger's. He turned to Riordan. "Senior Warden, what is the plan?"
When Riordan had laid out his strategy and asked Lhaine to choose his party to accompany him into Denerim, the elf looked around at his companions, assessing, as he had always been wont to do before starting a mission.
"Dagger," he said at last, the mabari responding with a happy whuff. "Morrigan. Zevran. And Sten."
"And who will command the others?"
"Alistair, of course." Alistair watched in stunned disbelief as Lhaine exchanged farewells with Wynne, Oghren, Leliana and Shale. When his attention finally turned to Alistair, his face was closed off, distant once more, as if he were already listening to that Falon'Din fellow, the one that guided the elves to their afterlife.
"Lhaine, you can't do this! I'm a Warden! I need to be with you!"
"You are also going to be the King of Ferelden," came his cool reply. "I will not deprive your people of their Hahren if I can help it. If Riordan and I should fail, then it will fall to you to see things done. Give us some time and if you can clear the gate, then follow us into the city. Farewell, brother. Creators keep you safe." He turned then, and without saying anything further started to walk away, his chosen few falling in behind him.
It was if he were walking into his Beyond, out of Alistair's life.
The cry that burst from Alistair then was primal, filled with all the want and need that he'd been holding back for months, and it brought every head in both parties swiveling around to stare at him. But he didn't care, for the one person that mattered, Lhaine, had stopped, his own head cocked up and a little to one side as he apparently considered for a moment.
Turning around, the Dalish stripped off his gauntlets and handed them to Zevran, who was closest. Then, ever so deliberately, he began to pace back to Alistair. And his face as he did so was no longer distant, his green eyes brimming with regret and remorse and resolve all swirled together.
He reached Alistair and looked up at him. "Forgive me, emma lath. I thought it would be easier for both of us that way." His hands reached up. Alistair could still see the knobby places where the bones were mending. They touched Alistair's dragon bone cuirass, slid upwards upon it and curled about Alistair's neck. Then he went up on his toes and pressed his mouth to Alistair's.
Alistair had wondered what it would feel like for months. He'd worried that, despite his attraction to Lhaine, he would be repelled when kissed by a man and would hurt his dearest friend. He was not and what came over him then was a sense of incredible rightness, of completion, which he savored even while his innermost heart was beginning to wail, knowing that he was in all likelihood losing it forever.
Lhaine's lips were warm and soft and even now, after marching from Redcliffe and fighting all day, there was still hint of pine and forest in his hair. Alistair's body had lit like a torch at the contact and part of him wanted to throw arms about Lhaine and crush him close. But he knew better than to do that now. Instead, he made himself twine them slowly and carefully about the elf. Lhaine suffered it well enough. Alistair wondered if the potion wasn't at least partially responsible for that.
He wasn't sure exactly what to do, but Lhaine knew enough for both of them and soon his mouth was open and their tongues were tangling together and Maker! it was good, despite Oghren's cackling and his "So that's the way of it! Heh!" in the background. And it went on for a very long time. When the kiss was done, Lhaine's hands slid down from behind Alistair's neck and rested on his chest, his head being tucked beneath Alistair's chin. Another thing that felt absolutely, completely right.
They stood like that for a couple of minutes before Lhaine sighed and stepped back. He looked up at Alistair, the stranger banished forever.
"Thank you for everything, emma lath,"he said gently, before turning once more and rejoining Zevran and the others. Blinking tears back, Alistair watched him go. It was easier this time than the first in some ways, and worse in others.
"Dareth shiral, Lhaine," he called after his love. Who stopped once more again and nodded, before moving on without looking back.
Alfstanna reached for the already-abused napkin on the table and blew her nose again. "That is so incredibly romantic!"
"Oh yes! You don't think so? I'm surprised your bard-friend hasn't written a song about it."
Alistair shrugged. "Leli might very well have, but let's face it. Unless the spots are knocked off, it wouldn't be very good for my very tentative rule to be spreading it about that the King is a pervy elf-boy fancier. It might call into question the legitimacy of any children the two of us have. So if she did write it, I suspect she's keeping that one to herself."
"So-how would she do it?" Alfstanna asked, amused. "Knock the spots off, I mean. Put that gorgeous apostate that was running with you in Lhaine's place?" At the look on Alistair's face, she threw her hands up. "Sorry! Oh, so sorry! I didn't mean to offend!"
He waved his glass in her general direction. "It's all right. I actually did sleep with Morrigan. Once. Creepy in the extreme. I kept wondering when the fangs were going to come out and she was going to chew her way through my neck and decapitate me." He took a big drink. "Ugh. It's going to take more than brandy to get that memory out of my head. You owe me for putting it there. So-how did you and Shaura have your first kiss?"
"It was much more workaday than you and the Warden."
Shaura was sick for weeks, and even after she finally fought the fever down, she was bed-ridden for a couple of weeks after that. Getting back on her feet took more time and to approach her former ability with sword and dagger longer still. Alfstanna was her primary sparring partner, since she didn't think Shaura needed the temptation or trauma of sparring with the bannorn guard. And as the elf recovered, she began presenting quite the challenge to the young bann, whose sword-work had always taken a back seat to her archery.
The sword-play was not the only challenge Alfstanna was facing. As Shaura got better and filled back out, the bann became aware that she was strongly attracted to the elven girl. Not only was Shaura beautiful, she possessed a resilience of spirit and innate dignity that Alfstanna found admirable. Shaura's descriptions of life in the alienage alternately outraged and impressed the young bann. The people of the alienage, downtrodden though they were, were stronger in many ways than their human counterparts knew. Certainly they seemed to care for each other more than humans would have under similar circumstances.
And as humble as their circumstances were, they were capable of an odd and prickly sort of pride. Shaura, she suspected, possessed more of that than most, which made any sort of romantic move something to be approached with extreme care. Alfstanna had no idea about how elves felt about same-sex relationships. Even if they didn't have any problems with it, the sense of obligation Shenly was feeling might very well make her agree to a relationship in recompense, which was something Alfstanna did not want. Alternatively, it might also offend her to the point that she fled Waking Reach, something Alfstanna also did not want.
Finding young women who shared her tastes was a rare enough thing. Not to mention young women with her tastes who were discreet and intelligent. Alfstanna was used to going without. She decided that it was up to Shaura to make the first move. If she ever did…
When the forged mercenary papers arrived, Shaura Tabris became Shenly Quicksilver. Alfstanna offered her employment as her bodyguard, and the new-made Shenly, realizing that this was her best opportunity to keep a sword in her hand and actually get news of her father as well, agreed. A couple of months passed as she settled into her new role. Alfstanna insisted that since she was moving about in Ferelden's highest society, that she needed to acquire a bit of polish. Shenly grudgingly agreed to comportment lessons, which Alfstanna oversaw in part herself, and left in part to the family's aged butler, a kindly man who had served the Ayersleys since before Alfstanna was born. His disposition was so truly sweet and obliging that even Shenly's most truculent moods did not affect him. In fact, it turned out to be the best way to manage her, as even shemlen-hating Shenly felt ashamed of snapping at such an unobjectionable person and moderated her behavior accordingly.
Her new bodyguard was also a woman of keen intelligence, and Alfstanna was amazed at how quickly she picked things up, how hungry her mind was for knowledge. The young elf could read, she'd been taught by her father, but at a very basic level, and the young bann quite enjoyed finding books that would both intrigue and challenge her. Shenly was under orders to write down the words she didn't understand and Alfstanna would discuss them with her after dinner. Those discussions became the high point of the day for both of them, for they often moved beyond vocabulary to a mutual sharing of their pasts and their very different viewpoints about the society they both inhabited.
Alfstanna's restraint became sorely tested during those conversations. They usually took place in the library, with brandy, and the alcohol and the privacy only made amorous thoughts more difficult to resist. She tried to repress them as best she could, and thought she had succeeded, until one night Shenly looked straight at her and said, "Are you wanting a lick-and-tickle or what?"
Startled, Alfstanna asked, "I beg your pardon?"
"You've been making eyes at me for weeks now. You wanting some girl-on-girl action?"
Maker, yes! Alfstanna thought. But aloud, she asked, with what she thought was commendable control, "Do elves do that sort of thing?"
"Don't know about the Dalish," Shenly admitted, taking a sip of her brandy. "But city elves? Sure. After all, we're supposed to go pure as falling snow to our wedding beds. But we're young and horny and hot-blooded, and sometimes the matchmakers take their time setting things up. I've been to my share of slumber parties. What about you?"
"Once or twice. It's not something to approve of, in human culture. Are you honestly saying elves don't care?"
"So long as you're old enough and not married yet, then no. After you get married, you're supposed to set that aside, cleave to your husband or wife and get down to seriously cranking out little elf babies. Now boy and girl-no way! You're supposed to wait for your arranged marriage. We can be as harsh as shems about girls who get knocked up sleeping around. Girls raped by shems are another matter. We know that's not their fault."
"What happens to those children when they're born?"
Shenly shrugged. "More often than not, the girl gives the baby to the Chantry or finds a home for it elsewhere. They look like humans. They wouldn't have an easy time of it among us. And they're more likely to have a better chance with the shems." She cocked her head curiously at Alfstanna. "What about your lot?"
"Noble girls are supposed to keep their legs closed until they are married. Noble boys…I don't have to tell you what happens there."
"No, you don't," Shenly agreed, her tone suddenly flat. Silence fell, broken only by the crackling of the fire for a few moments. Then she spoke again, more brightly. "Does that mean you're a virgin?"
Alfstanna shook her head. "A bann who is a woman has more freedom. I've taken precautions-and a young man a couple of times. I wanted to see if I fancied men at all."
"And do you?" Shenly's eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed from the alcohol. Alfstanna thought she looked gorgeous.
"No. After some consideration, I find that I don't care for cock at all."
"Sucks to be you, then," the bodyguard noted, taking another drink. "Given that you have to get married to a guy at some point."
"Yes, I'm not looking forward to that. I really worry about disappointing someone." Alfstanna gave Shenly an inquiring look. "Does what you said mean you're a virgin then?"
"Yes, at least as far as guys are concerned. Nelaros would have been the only one." She assumed a lofty expression. "I am a very good elf."
Alfstanna snorted. "You are not! You're a very bad elf as far as humans are concerned! You killed three noblemen!"
"Got me there," Shenly admitted, without showing anything resembling remorse. "Okay, how's this? I'm a very pure elf."
"That I will give you."
"That's awfully nice of your ladyship. But you've still not answered my question. Lick-and-tickle or not?"
"Not unless you wanted it. As in really wanted it, not just pretending to do so because you think you owe me or something. Because that's something I don't want you to ever feel you're obligated to do."
"Huh. How am I supposed to know if I want it or not without a sample?"
"Yes. A sample. Something to give me an idea of what I'd be missing."
To her horror, Alfstanna immediately blushed beet red. Cursed red hair! she thought, as she had had cause to do many times in the past. Shenly chuckled to see it, got up, came deliberately over to her chair and settled herself into Alfstanna's lap in a leisurely manner. But her lips, when they came down on the bann's, were anything but leisurely, warm and flexible and tasting of brandy, and Alfstanna felt her whole body heat.
The kiss went on for a very long time. Eventually, Shenly broke it off and grinned.
"Nice sample, your ladyship! I'll certainly consider it!" And with that, she got up, drained her glass and left the room as if nothing at all had happened, leaving a totally flummoxed and very aroused Alfstanna sitting in her chair.
Alistair was a little flushed when Alfstanna finished her story and she chuckled to see it.
"What is it about guys that they find two women doing each other so very entrancing?"
"I don't know," he said ruefully. "But it was hot." His brow furrowed as he considered his next words carefully.
"If you need Shaura to be with us, when we…you know, when we do our duty for Ferelden, then I'm all right with that. I know that it is going to be hard for you."
A bit surprised, Alfstanna said, "I think that that is rather up to Shaura, don't you? Though I appreciate the thought, Alistair. I know that you are trying to be as accommodating as you can, in what is a difficult situation."
That goofy, disarming grin spread over his face. "Difficult? This isn't difficult, Alfstanna! Now being married to Habren Bryland, that would be difficult!" He shuddered theatrically. "Or Anora. Brrrrrrr!"
His much more amiable betrothed laughed. "You've got me there! Of course, if you're going to be accommodating, then I should be as well. If you need Lhaine around when we do our duty, then I'm all right with that!" Her smiled turned a bit wicked. "In fact, if you're being generous so that you can watch Shaura warm me up, then I should mention that the idea of watching you with Lhaine is not…displeasing to me as well."
Alistair promptly turned crimson. "Maker!" he said after a moment. "I don't know that I'll ever be able to get Lhaine to go all the way with me, much less in front of an audience!" But he obviously wasn't offended, and perhaps even found the idea stimulating, given his reaction. "And I think I'd need to get a bigger bed first," he said after a moment, and Alfstanna exploded into laughter. Alistair joined her and they both laughed until their eyes were watering.
"Perhaps we should leave off planning the mass orgies until we've settled our own marriage a little better," Alfstanna remarked at last, wiping her eyes, and Alistair, still a bit overcome, nodded agreement. "While we're on the subject though, there's something I've been thinking about and I'd like to discuss it with you. Will you promise not to be offended until you hear me out?"
"I should like to think we would be able to talk to each other about almost anything," the King said earnestly. "I don't see how this is going to work otherwise."
Alfstanna nodded. "All right then. The one thing that bothers me about my relationship with Shaura is that it's not fair to her in some ways. She won't ever have children if she stays with me exclusively, and I think that's a shame. Shaura is an extraordinary individual and I would like to see that passed down. And it's a very important thing to the culture she grew up in, that you have children."
"Are you suggesting that I sleep with her? I mean she's really pretty and all, but I don't think…"
"Not you. I wouldn't ask you of all people to have a bastard child. It wouldn't be good for your reign and I don't think Shaura would be interested in having a child with a human."
There was a moment's silent thought before Alistair frowned. "I can't say that I like the idea of Lhaine being studded out at all, Alfstanna. And that's certainly up to him."
"You've not heard me out yet, Alistair," the future queen chided, holding up a hand. "Of course it's up to him and Shaura! And it may never happen. What I am wanting to know is-would it bother you if it did happen? I'm all right with sharing Shaura in that way, but I'm not sure about the dynamics of your relationship with Lhaine. And its possible that, thrown together in close proximity as they would be while dealing with us, that some affection might grow between them as well."
"I want Lhaine to have whatever helps him heal," Alistair said, with a sudden firm authority. "If he needs to go home and just stay with his clan to heal, then I'd accept that. If it turned out that he loved someone else and was happy with them, then I'd accept that as well and let him go. If he was able to sleep with Shaura, and wanted to, and that helped him, I'd be all for it. If he wanted children…like you are about Shaura, I think Lhaine is extraordinary. He's got the one daughter, but he can't be with her. I'd love to see him with children. I think he'd be an awesome father. And he's got the same problem I have-if he's going to be able to have any, he has to do it soon. But wouldn't they have to be married? And how would they go about doing that? I don't think Lhaine would want to be married by the Chantry and I'm not sure if Shaura would feel she was married if she only had a Dalish ceremony."
"That's a problem to be sure," Alfstanna agreed. "And it's one that would only need to be discussed if they were interested in each other. I won't deny the fact that benefits would accrue to us from this. It would be easier to hide what was going on between the four of us if Shaura and Lhaine were married as well. But both of them are very honorable in their ways and I'm not sure that either of them would care for a marriage of pretense." She shrugged. "It just occurred to me that I would love for Shaura have children of her own and that's what came to mind." A smile came over her face. "Can't you just see it? Their children and ours playing together? Growing up together? It might help to change things."
"You do take the long view, don't you?" Alistair expression was bemused.
"As much as I'm unlike other women in a lot of ways, the dynastic viewpoint comes easily to us girls. And as a bann, I have to take the long view." She got to her feet and moved around the table. Leaning over from behind Alistair's chair, she draped her arms about his neck and kissed his temple. "Thanks for hearing me out. I think we are going to become great friends."
"I do too," Alistair said, tipping his head up a little bit to give her easier access. He took one of the hands wrapped about him, kissed it, and was rewarded with a second kiss on the cheek. Smiling, he said, "You ought to get back to Shaura now that I've riled you up talking about first kisses. I'm quite envious."
"Lhaine will be back very soon, I'm sure," Alfstanna soothed, as she released him and started for the door. "And just think! He'll be well rested from all that quiet time with his clan!"