tagSci-Fi & FantasyThere and Back Again Ch. 105-106

There and Back Again Ch. 105-106

byElyssaCousland©

Chapter One Hundred Five: Waiting Game

After a bit more discussion, Theron put his helmet back on and disappeared back into the Barracks. Nathaniel followed him because, despite his status as an Arl, he wasn't willing to evict any of the current occupants from their rooms, especially the women. I suspected he was trying to avoid Kallian entirely, and while I couldn't blame him, it was going to be awkward eventually. Might as well get it over with now.

After that, waiting several days for the Landsmeet was...really, epically, boring. We went out to the taverns and estates of sympathetic nobles so Aedan and Alistair could meet with them again, with several of us posing as guards. Alistair, Aedan, Duncan, Theron, Nathaniel, and Eamon met several times to iron out their plans. In contrast to their first official tavern visit, Alistair remained largely sober, to my relief.

Oghren, Bel, and Faren asked permission to leave Denerim and head to the Calenhad docks; I was surprised the ginger dwarf had convinced his fellows to go along with it, but perhaps they were just bored, or being supportive friends. Despite their initial dislike for the Casteless dwarf, Bel and Gorim had actually become friends with him; Faren was such a good-natured guy, it was hard not to like him. And Oghren had never cared about Faren's social status, only whether he could swing a sword. Once Faren understood he'd been accepted, his bitterness receded and a solid friendship developed.

I contemplated warning Oghren off of Felsi, but wondered if having a child wouldn't actually be good for him. His drinking had moderated to some extent, so he wasn't so often passing-out-drunk, but I still doubted he was stable emotionally. I did, however, threaten him to within an inch of his life before he left.

"Listen, Oghren. You go and impregnate that girl and then leave her, I'll personally kick your short ass from here to Orzammar and back. If I hear about a little dwarven baby with no father near Lake Calenhad, you'd better hope you can run faster scared than I can mad."

He laughed loudly and belched in my general direction, but I saw Zevran hand him a suspiciously familiar little vial of contraceptive powder before he left, and I hoped that meant he'd at least thought about it.

Anora stayed stubbornly in her room, apparently angry with Aedan and unwilling to face us, the unwashed masses. Zevran tailed Erlina, and was quite convinced that she was using a drop site to pass messages, but he wasn't able to intercept any of them.

"She's good," he stated, almost looking impressed. "I can't be sure exactly where the drop happens, and all of the possible locations are protected from snooping."

"She's a bard," Leliana agreed. "Well-trained. The thing I don't know is whether she is working for Anora, or against her."

"I'd hope Anora would vet her inner circle well enough at least to be sure she isn't working for Orlais," Aedan mused.

Theron just glowered.

She did call me in to talk to her a couple of days into the wait. I went in determined to act the meek, unassuming, stupid noblewoman, while simultaneously sidestepping any direct questions and avoiding anything resembling the truth. The invitation was for me alone, so I wouldn't even have Aedan there to help out. Eamon was positively piddling in his drawers, convinced I'd mess up and give away everything.

Leliana helped me dress up as a proper noblewoman, in a dress with a corset – which I hated – and my hair braided in an ornate style. I took Kallian with me as my 'handmaiden', after double-checking with her that she didn't mind the ruse; I hoped she could help me if I ended up in too much trouble. Just having a friendly face around would hopefully help, and Kallian seemed to hold no deep respect for the Queen after her experience with Fereldan nobility, which couldn't hurt.

It was with significant trepidation that I knocked on the door to Anora's room. Erlina answered and ushered us in, and I stepped inside and then curtseyed to the best of my ability – which admittedly wasn't much. Erlina frowned, but Anora seemed to ignore my fumbling attempt at courtesy. She held out her hand, which I briefly touched without squeezing, as Leliana had shown me.

"Lady Cousland," Anora murmured. "Thank you for joining me."

"Your Majesty. It is my honour. Please, call me Sierra. Lady Cousland is how I think of my mother."

I kept my head down, avoiding eye contact, instead glancing around the room. Anora's room was larger than the one I theoretically shared with Solona, even bigger than Alistair's. Somewhere she'd found two small tables and some chairs, and there was tea set up at both – a fancy set at one table, which also boasted a silk tablecloth with a beautiful floral centerpiece, and a plainer set at the smaller table clearly meant for 'the help'. I stifled my grimace and turned my attention back to Anora, who was watching me closely.

"Yes, your mother. Dear Eleanor. She and I were friends, did you know that? She helped me greatly after I came to Denerim as a girl. I was very sad to learn about her..."

"Murder?" Anora flinched, and I winced. "Sorry. It's a touchy subject, your Majesty. I never got to meet my parents before they died."

"So you said." She gestured to the table, and we both sat down while Erlina and Kallian fussed with our dresses and poured us tea. "I admit, I'm curious how that came to be?"

"I don't honestly know, your Majesty. The people who raised me either didn't know, or never said. I only knew I was the Cousland's daughter and that I had a twin brother." I took a small sip of tea as an excuse to keep avoiding eye contact.

"And do you have proof of this bloodline?"

"No. Not that it matters for Aedan or me."

She gave me a strange look, but changed the subject anyway. "And where were you raised, did you say?"

I wasn't fooled; Anora knew I hadn't said, but was hoping to catch me in a lie. "I didn't say. Far away from here. I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say exactly where."

"Not at liberty to say? Why ever not?"

"The people who raised me would prefer to remain unknown. It could be dangerous for them if someone sought to use them – or me – against my brother or, since he joined, the Grey Wardens." I wonder if she has any idea that I'm lying through my teeth? Hopefully she puts it down to evading her questions.

"Or Alistair."

I glanced up, surprised she was so forward, but looked away quickly. "Yes, your Majesty." I cursed internally as I felt my cheeks flush.

"Theirin men can be charming, no? So handsome, so sweet."

I looked up again to see Anora watching me with a hint of amusement behind a predatory smile. "As you say, your Majesty."

"My Cailan was like that, as was Maric. They could charm the birds from the trees when they put their minds to it. Though Cailan preferred charming the smalls from young, vulnerable women instead. A trait it seems he and Alistair share?"

I opened my mouth to deliver a scorching reply, but stopped at a panicked look from Kallian. I closed my mouth again and hummed noncommittally.

Anora chuckled. "Oh, ho, it seems he was more successful than I assumed! Could it be you actually care for him?"

"I do, yes." It wasn't like she couldn't tell; admitting it didn't really hurt me.

"And yet, Aedan insists you have no interest in being his Queen."

"I would be terrifically unsuited to it, your Majesty."

"Interesting. Some may not believe that to be true – if you are, as you say, the only daughter of the Teyrn of Highever, some may think just your bloodline would make you quite suitable."

"I'm not much for believing in the power of blood. I think we should earn positions of power by proving our ability."

"And glad I am to hear that! As such, I'm sure you can see the benefit to supporting me. My bloodline may not be what traditionalists such as Eamon believe to be necessary, but clearly it would be a better bet than placing poor Alistair on the throne, unprepared and untried?"

I was taken aback by her blatant campaigning for my support. She'd been blunt in game, of course, but I thought they couldn't possibly have portrayed her right. It was almost laughable. "I don't-"

She cut me off. "And there are benefits for yourself, as well, of course. If he were safely removed from the succession, Alistair would be free to be with you, instead of giving you up for the Crown. Surely you can see I am the better option."

I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to hide my grin. Kallian, worried that I would give myself away, ostentatiously spilled her tea, causing Erlina to cry out and scurry for towels to soak up the hot liquid. By the time that was cleaned up, I'd managed to control my expression.

"I could not oppose my brother, your Majesty. I believe he knows what is best. If he thinks a Theirin should be King, I'll not disagree with him."

"Even to your own detriment? Even given a better alternative? You seem an educated woman, Sierra. Do you truly believe it takes a man to rule a country? That some mythical connection to Calenhad and dragon blood makes a good leader? My husband had the same bloodline, but he was a well-meaning fool. This country does not need more well-meaning fools. Platitudes will not drive Ferelden to recover."

I was getting angry at her constant disparaging of Cailan and Alistair. I shouldn't have been surprised – I recalled her in game saying something about Alistair being 'biddable' but essentially useless – but the audacity of saying so in front of someone who'd already admitted to having genuine feelings for the man was more than stupid. And I really, really couldn't leave her with the delusion that I thought she was unsuitable because she was female.

"I think you didn't hear my entire statement from earlier, your Majesty. I do not believe men are better suited than women. I do not believe an accident of parenting defines who will be good at a job. I judge people based on their own merits – their accomplishments, and their abilities."

She opened her mouth to interject, and I held up one finger to forestall her. "Please, let me finish. I cannot judge Cailan's actions, given that I wasn't present to see them for myself. I have, however, seen both your actions and Alistair's. In the few months I've known him, Alistair has distinguished himself in battle, helped gather the armies that will defeat the darkspawn threatening this country, has befriended the Queen of Orzammar, and earned the friendship and loyalty of all of those around him. He has proven himself a man of action, someone who will suffer great personal risk and loss for his loved ones and his country."

I stood, stepping away from the table slightly, putting my cup down gently on the saucer. "During that same period of time, with many times more power and influence than the 'unprepared, untried bastard' you've been complaining about, you have allowed Rendon Howe to slaughter my parents in their home and then take over the Arling of Denerim, not only tacitly allowing his treason but rewarding him for it. You allowed the son of the former Arl of Denerim to kidnap, rape, torture, and kill dozens of citizens from your city, and then allowed him to be captured in turn and killed in his own dungeon.

"You watched as your father abandoned your husband on the battle field, watched again as he began a civil war to grab for power, weakening Ferelden's defenses against the Blight, watched as he hunted and tried to kill the last remaining Grey Wardens in Ferelden. You watched him close the borders to the other Wardens, poison any political figures who could challenge his power, and in the end, you betrayed those who tried to rescue you when your inaction failed to keep you safe from either Howe or your father.

"In what way have any of your actions shown any ability, whatsoever, to lead? To be the Queen this country needs? You have no accomplishments to boast of, beyond that the administrative functions of the government ran well during Cailan's reign. This country does not need an administrator, your Majesty. You say you could stop none of what happened – but with your power, your influence, how could you not? Ferelden will need a strong hand, some serious reforms, and a leader willing not only to get her hands dirty, but also to stand up for her citizens and protect them from within and without. And I'm afraid you just don't have a record of proving you're capable of or willing to do any of that."

Anora stood, face flushed with anger, eyes flashing. Her voice was surprisingly level when she replied; I almost expected her to screech in her rage.

"And you think you are capable of doing what you believe I have not?"

"No, your Majesty. I told you. I know I'm not. Which is why I will never be the Queen of Ferelden. This isn't about power, not for me. I grew up without any, and I don't want it now. The only thing I want is for the country I have come to love to be free from the Blight. For its citizens to be protected from anyone who wishes to harm them, be they Orlesians, darkspawn, or entitled nobility who see them only as pawns to be used for personal gain. Power isn't what's important."

"Power is always what is important."

"And that's why you don't deserve it." I turned away, and then turned back, repeating my awkward curtsey from earlier. "Your Majesty, with your permission, I find myself feeling quite tired. I believe I shall go have a rest."

She nodded stiffly, and I turned and walked out the door, Kallian at my heels. Before I got two steps down the hallway, she hurled an insult at my back. "Enjoy that 'nap' with your bastard while you can. Even without the throne getting between you, it's only a matter of time before he tires of you anyway."

I paused, briefly, before resuming my walk. The door slammed behind me, and I heard a muffled scream, followed by the crashing sound of china being thrown. I heard a chuckle from behind me, and whirled to see Zevran emerge from the shadows in a corner.

"Ah, cara mia, I'm not sure Eamon will be so thrilled with your little monologue to our illustrious Queen, but I found it enjoyable. It seems the tea set may have taken it personally, however."

I laughed. "I hope she threw the cheap one, not the fancy one. Isolde isn't going to be happy if Anora wrecked her favourite tea pot." Kallian snickered, and then excused herself and walked away, leaving me with the Antivan.

"Are you all right?"

I sighed. "I should have known better than to lose my temper. You have to give me credit, though, for not spilling too much truth about my origin or what I know...she just really pushed my buttons."

"Your...what?"

"I mean she just poked at me until I was so angry I lost it. Do you really think she believed I would side with her?"

"I don't think she discounted the possibility, Bellissima, but no, I don't think that was her goal."

"Then what? What would she gain from pissing me off?"

"People who are angry often reveal more than they intend. I suspect she hoped to learn more about you, as well as Eamon's – or Aedan's – strategy for the Landsmeet."

"All she had to do was ask for that. I'd have told her – totally discredit Loghain, and her, if she betrays us. It's not rocket science."

"Rocket...?"

"Apparently when I'm upset I revert to Earth jargon. I mean that it isn't complicated."

"Everything is complicated for a politician, my dear."

I sighed. "I suppose. Now I'm going to go take a bath. I feel icky after that conversation."

"You certain you don't need someone to wash your back, bella donna?" He winked at me.

I giggled. "I sure do. Have you seen Alistair anywhere?"

Zevran groaned and theatrically clutched his chest in mock pain, and I chuckled all the way to the dining room, where I found Alistair and dragged him away from his card game amidst good-natured ribbing.

When Aedan and Eamon questioned me later about our meeting, with Theron in the room, I thought Theron would choke, he was so angry. "A well-meaning fool?" He paced back and forth, running his hands through his long blond locks in agitation. "I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, because it's what she needs everyone to believe in order to take the throne alone. But isn't there supposed to be some sort of prohibition about speaking ill of the dead?"

None of us had any answer for that.

Eamon was unimpressed about my rant, as predicted, but Aedan brushed it off. "Anora knew I had no intention of supporting her at the Landsmeet. She may not know our true plans, but that doesn't change anything. If Sierra's correct, she was going to betray us from the moment I refused to support her. Nothing that Sierra said will affect any of that."

I was relieved he wasn't angry, even if Eamon still hadn't said anything pleasant or looked at me with anything more than a disdainful frown on his face since my wedding.

No one but the servants saw Anora again until just before the Landsmeet

Two days before the Landsmeet, Riordan, Dougal, and Conrad returned from scouting. They thought they had located two Deep Roads exits the darkspawn were using in the Korcari Wilds, and had seen some of the horde massing south of Lothering. The town had been razed and then abandoned, and while there were roving raiding parties into the bannorn – presumably stealing women to turn into broodmothers – most of the horde had spread out in the Wilds and to the southwest of Redcliffe. There had been no sign of the Archdemon.

With Duncan, the Wardens had chosen an area in the Southern Bannorn to face the might of the horde as it marched on Denerim. A contingent would be left outside of Redcliffe to defend the town and castle from the feint, but the rest of the combined armies would amass on the plains, completely blocking the main Imperial Highway – the only decent pass leading to Denerim that wouldn't require several days extra travel to go through the Brecilian Forest. A group of Dalish would scout to the East, however, to send for reinforcements in case the Brecilian was targeted. And Theron planned to evacuate Denerim anyway, just in case the horde broke through.

The three men blended quite seamlessly with our group, settling into bunks in the barracks without complaint and spending most of their time training, sparring with each other or Eamon's soldiers, or playing guard like the rest of us. Dougal, by far the oldest in the group even including Eamon and Duncan, became the unofficial grandfather, good-naturedly teasing everyone and sitting with Wynne to talk about 'the old days' and complain about the young'uns. Conrad picked up where he'd left off flirting with Morrigan, Leliana, Solona, Erlina, and anyone else who caught his eye, though I noticed he left both Kallian and me strictly alone. I was grateful, not wanting to have to deal with a jealous Alistair, and I wondered whether he was clever enough to realise any advances towards Kallian would be unwelcome, or if someone had warned him off. Either way, I was pleased, though Anders was less so when he caught the red-headed Warden hitting on Solona.

Anders and Solona seemed to have worked something out between them; I didn't think they were sleeping together, but the two were inseparable during the day. Anders' hovering had become actual interaction, and the two were sickeningly cute, staring at each other all day long, all moon-eyes and sighs. Apparently almost getting killed really is the key to forgiveness. I thought of Aedan and Zevran, who were equally besotted, and smiled.

Kallian tried hard to seem unobtrusive as much as possible at the estate, constantly around Wulf or at least one of the women. She acted subservient when anyone else was around, but came out of her shell in small groups of familiar people, and I thought she might eventually be okay. She avoided spending time with any of the human men, though Theron did manage to pull her into a long discussion about the conditions in the Alienage and what could be done to improve the lives of its residents. I was happy to see her animated responses as she made suggestions, gesturing widely as she made a point. I wonder if she knows who she's talking to like they're equals. I certainly wasn't going to tell her.

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