“Has anyone ever told you what marvelous eyes you possess, my dear?”
He was only doing it to get on her nerves, of that she was sure, but it seemed a petty and childish thing for even him to stoop to. And as Wynne so often pointed out, being petty and childish was something he seemed to revere. Illuviel thought part of that stemmed from not actually having enjoyed a proper childhood, but for the moment she wasn’t inclined to make such excuses for him. She wanted to slap him again, her fist clenching and unclenching at her side.
Approaching the gates, she tried to tune out the sound of their flirtatious banter, instead focusing on the grind and clank of Alistair’s armor as he walked. Kathunk-kathunk-kathunk. It sometimes sounded like an anxious heartbeat—a heart encased in silverite, maybe. Okay, maybe it sounded nothing like a heart. It was probably just her own frustration and despair making her think of hearts, a thought she had very little time to focus on considering the matter at hand.
Riordan offered them so very little, promising to disclose more once the Lands Meet was over and he knew exactly where everything fell into place. It was disappointing, to say the least, and it didn’t help much that Alistair made jokes about it all the way down the stairs of the arl’s massive estate. It was a defense mechanism, of that she was well aware, but sometimes she just wished they could have a single serious conversation about a matter that was surely going to end with one or both of them dead.
“Again with the flattery? Do you not tire of these pointless exercises?” Morrigan drolled.
“In Antiva, women are accustomed to being showered with the praise they deserve.” In Antiva, Illuviel would most assuredly stab him with the pointy end of her blade and not feel the least bit guilty about it. “Men should worship you at your feet as you pass.”
“They don’t find that incredibly annoying?”
“They are goddesses receiving their subjects, just as you should be. Whatever would be annoying about that?”
That tone, the inflection, the lingering flirtation… Why did she care so much? He didn’t belong to her, as he’d so prominently made clear just hours earlier.
“I have no wish to be placed upon a pedestal,” Morrigan assured him.
“But you deserve no less. You should be admired by painters, copied by sculptors, exalted by poets! Surely, you know that yours is a beauty so exotic it—it would turn they eye of the Maker himself!”
“Well, I suppose I…”
“By the Maker!” Alistair declared. “You were right! You win, I guess.”
“Thank you, ser.” From the corner of her eye, she saw him bow almost humbly before adding, “I expect payment forthwith!”
“I hate you all,” Morrigan rumbled, picking up the pace of her step and falling beside Illuviel as they approached the open gate to the alienage. “Petty, disgusting, of all the…”
“Just ignore them,” Illuviel said. “Men are pigs.”
“Pigs, are we?” Zevran laughed haughtily over her shoulder, but she didn’t acknowledge him. “Pigs you all wish to pen up and keep in sties for your own amusements, no doubt.”
“I keep no pigs in sties,” she muttered. “They’re not worth the maintenance.”
“Touché,” he said. “Though I cannot help but wonder now if that is where the expression happy as a pig in mud comes from.”
“Yes, though it seems most pigs obviously don’t know how good they have it.”
She didn’t need to look back to know he was rolling his eyes at her, and for several steps across the bridge, the smirk she wore was almost satisfying enough to placate the turmoil that had been clenching in her gut since he stormed out of her tent earlier that morning.
“So…” Alistair saved the moment by changing the subject. “This is where you met Duncan?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “He came to the alienage looking for recruits.”
On her wedding day, of all days, and had she actually been given the chance, she might have gladly joined Duncan and his Grey Wardens if she’d had opportunity to speak with him before she met Nelaros. She hadn’t wanted to get married at all, but she wasn’t in control of her future. The match her father made for her would have changed her life forever, given her opportunities she might never have known if she’d made a stand, or run away with Soris the way they’d talked about doing. Then she’d met Nelaros, and he’d been so very sweet and kind, promising to give her a wonderful life. It wouldn’t have been enough to sate her longing for adventure, and she knew it, but the fact that he’d made that kind of promise so sincerely endeared him to her in ways she hadn’t expected.
Watching him die…
“Recruits? But Duncan said he had to invoke the right of conscription, just like me.”
“Not just like you,” she shook her head, “but yes, Duncan had to conscript me.”
“There’s a story there I want to hear.”
“And maybe one day I’ll tell it to you, but right now I just want to find out what the hell is going on here.”
“Right,” he agreed. “Though from the smell, I can already tell you we’re probably not going to like the answers we find here.”
The air did seem off, which was saying something. On a good day, the alienage didn’t exactly smell of flowers and sweet rolls sprinkled with cinnamon, but something in the air was off. It stunk of despair and lingering death, sickness and piss and every face she glanced at as she came to the end of the bridge was haggard and long, large eyes refusing to make contact as she implored their faces with silent hope they’d recognize her and see she’d come to help.
Strange puddles of blood sporadically appeared along the empty streets, and it triggered her gag reflex as they passed by a dead dog outside the orphanage. It was hard not to give into the sway of nausea, but as they moved forward she saw the vhenadahl and for the first time in a year the extent of her homesickness sunk in.
“Wow,” Alistair marveled. “That’s some tree.”
“The vhenadahl,” she told him, not taking her gaze away. How many times had she and Shianni plotted to meet beneath that tree before embarking on some mischievous deed? She and Soris sat there in the summer, reading books and daydreaming about a future neither of them would ever have.
“Vhenadahl?” Alistair asked.
“Elves plant these trees to remind themselves who they are,” Zevran interjected. “And then they pee on it. Charming symbolism, really.”
“No one’s ever peed on that vhenadahl,” she scowled.
“Don’t be so sure about that,” he shot back.
But before she could break into further argument, insist that he would never understand—having never been part of an alienage or elven community of any substance–the sound of raised voices drew the attention of everyone in the group toward a gathering of bodies outside. Her gaze immediately fell across a bright red head, a hairstyle not different from her own and a pair of stiff, proud shoulders that undeniably belonged to her cousin.
Hurrying her steps, they approached the commotion outside the hospice, the sound of Alistair’s armor clanking at her back.
“I’ve got children at home! I can’t wait out here for another day.”
“So go home!” Shianni railed. “The best thing you can do for your children is not trust these charlatans.”
“Everyone remain calm. We will help as many as we can today, so long as we can do this in an orderly fashion.”
“Oh, you’re helping us, are you, shem?” Shianni droned, the sarcasm in her voice drawing scowls of outrage from nearly everyone around her. “Like Valendrian and my Uncle Cyrion? You helped them, didn’t you? Helped them never to be seen again!”
Illuviel’s already thumping heart swelled in her chest, dread and fear swirling through her like one of Wynne’s magical storms until she actually thought she might stumble and pass out.
“We’ve explained this to you before, girl. More whining will not persuade us to let you into the quarantine to carry plague back out into the alienage.”
“Quit trying to get us all killed, Shianni. Some of us have still got things to live for.”
“If this spell of theirs works, why are half the people they quarantine healthy?”
“Shianni?” Illuviel stepped up behind the woman. “Is… is that really you?”
They hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. She should have, and she knew it at the time, but her cousin had endured such wrongs at the hands of the arl’s son, she couldn’t bring herself to face her. She felt so responsible. She’d been too late, hadn’t run quickly enough to save her.
So she left with Duncan, and though she tried not to look back, Shianni’s sorrows followed her on the road to Ostagar, weighing heavily on her soul until the inevitable hell of Loghain’s betrayal forced her to focus her attention on things so much larger than regret.
At the sound of her voice, Shianni spun around slowly, as if in dream, and remarked, “I don’t believe it. Maker’s breath. They said all the Grey Wardens died with the king. Everyone thought… Valendrian even held a funeral for you. Cousin, you have no idea…” she paused only long enough to shake her head, the scant braids rustling through her bright red hair. “The things that happened after your wedding… I’m babbling, aren’t I? I’m so happy to see you!”
She’d almost forgotten her companions were with her, until Zevran stepped up beside her and said, “A wedding,” in a tentative and uneasy voice. “So, there is a secretive side to you, after all.”
Not turning to look back at him, she said, “I was betrothed. It… it didn’t end well.”
“No?” he perked up a bit, the sly and playful sarcasm returning to his voice as he surmised, “Ah, you left him at the altar, didn’t you?”
“I… I don’t know what to say to that.”
“It’s not important right now,” she said. “We can talk about it later.”
He didn’t respond, but she swore she heard him swallow at her back just seconds before Alistair shifted his stance, filling her ears with the rattling grind of metal.
“So much has happened,” Shianni told her. “It’s good you’re home.”
Home. Yes, she was home, but it suddenly didn’t feel like home at all, anymore. She’d daydreamed this particular moment several times over the last year, always playing up the alienage in a way that made it seem a favorable place to return to. A place where she could see her father, her cousins and reminisce… but it didn’t feel like home at all anymore. In fact, despite standing there with Shianni, she felt like an alien in a strange land full of people she didn’t know or remember at all.
“What’s going on here?”
“These people say they’re here to help us. Funny thing, the people they help all disappear.”
“That’s not true and you know it, Shianni,” someone interrupted on Illuviel’s left. “Both of my sisters got protections from the plague, and they’re fine!”
“What about your niece though? And my Uncle Cyrion? And Valendrian?” she posed. “What about them?”
“Wait!” Illuviel’s hand shot out and gripped the sleeve of Shianni’s dress. “What’s this about my father?”
“The Tevinters quarantined your father yesterday. I told him not to go to the hospice. Not one elf they’ve taken in there has come out again. Who knows what’s become of them?”
That whirling sickness made her feet shift beneath her, and it was a small wonder she didn’t lose consciousness entirely. “They have my father?” she muttered, her own voice sounding so far away she wasn’t even sure she’d said the words out loud. “I’m going in there.”
“I knew you’d do something, Cousin. Maker watch over you.”