When she reported back to him the next morning with the details about what they found in the alienage, Arl Eamon was appalled. Of all the evidence they’d gathered to tarnish Loghain’s name, discovering he’d funded his campaigns with coin earned through the slave trade seemed to be the most disturbing to the Arl of Redcliffe.
“Slavery,” he repeated in a low tone, his head shaking as he dipped it down in shame that shouldn’t have been his to bear. “I just can’t believe he would do this. Any of it. It’s appalling.”
“It is as I told you, brother,” Bann Teagan interjected. “You are too kind in your questioning of Loghain’s treachery. He did, after all, poison you and send a dangerous maleficar to corrupt your son.”
“You speak as though I’m prepared to let Loghain walk away from all of this with little more than a slap on the wrist, Teagan. You couldn’t be further from the truth in that matter. I simply cannot fathom…”
“Well, the proof is all right there,” Alistair said. “Every last implication.”
“This will work in our favor, but believe me when I tell you, Illuviel, I take no pleasure in it having come to this.”
“I know, ser.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, ser. You didn’t know.”
“So, how do we proceed from here?” Alistair prompted. It was as if he knew the focus on elven slavery was making her more than just a little uncomfortable. The fact that she’d have to use such an awful thing to make headway with the nobles and win them to their cause was deplorable.
“I will need a few days,” he determined after several minutes of careful thought, during which he tugged the hairs of his beard. “To confer with Teagan and make all of the arrangements for the Landsmeet. Bring Alistair to the palace on Friday morning, and we will go forward from there.”
Friday morning. That gave them three days to sit on their hands and fret over the outcome and the future. There were jobs to be done, plenty of less-than-savory tasks in need of doing, but for the most part she really didn’t think anything was going to pass the time quickly enough. She just wanted to get it over with.
“As you wish, ser.”
The two of them left the arl’s estate together, Alistair clunking like an old tin can beside her as they stalked through the streets, the last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden. Technically, there were three Grey Wardens in Denerim at that very moment, but she wasn’t counting Riordan.
He was from Ferelden, yes, and if they all made it through the Blight, Riordan would most likely be the one to help them restore the glory of the Wardens, but he was from the unit in Orlais, and it still felt very much to her like she and Alistair were on their own in a big way.
“So,” he started, “you’ve been quiet all day.”
“Is that so unusual?” An uneasy laugh scuffed through her throat, nearly covered by the sound of her boots scraping through the drying mud slicking the streets of Denerim.
“Well, no, but you’re rarely quiet with me. I think the only time you’re quiet is when you’re asleep,” he jested. “What happened yesterday…” Maker’s breath, did everyone know she’d been an idiot in the privacy of her own tent? “At the alienage, I mean,” he went on, “that really affected you, and I just wanted you to know that if you need to talk about it, I’m here.”
“It was disturbing, to say the least. Seeing my people in that state after having been away so long. It’s easy to forget, to overlook how bad it really is when you’re embroiled in it, but that distance I was given… I don’t know. It seems more awful than ever. And I’m upset that Valendrian couldn’t be saved, but I am grateful my father and my cousins will be okay, or rather, as okay as they could possibly be, considering the circumstances.”
“You started to ask me something before we left, about when I’m king…”
“Oh, that, right. Don’t worry about it, Alistair. I know you don’t want to be king.”
“I don’t, not really, but sometimes I wonder if I could do something… Anything. I don’t know. Maybe I could make things better. Our friendship has opened my eyes to a lot, the friendships we’ve built with everyone we travel with have all mean a great deal to me, and on this journey I’ve seen so much unnecessary darkness, you know? Things that could be avoided if someone just… I don’t know…”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“Sometimes I just think, what if I could do something… good. I don’t know, maybe that’s foolish of me. I mean, who am I?”
“You’re the son of a king, for starters,” she pointed out.
“Well, yes, but just a bastard, and what does that really mean anyway?”
“A lot of people seem to think it means everything.”
“But just because my father was King Maric, that doesn’t mean I was born knowing how to be king. Do you know what I mean?”
He was so insecure sometimes, so naïve and frightened of a world that never stopped pushing. He was always asking if she knew what he meant, if she agreed or didn’t agree, and sometimes when she didn’t agree, he wavered in his viewpoint for fear she’d think less of him, leaning toward her thoughts even if deep down he didn’t quite agree with them.
She’d tried during the last year to be there for him, while also showing him that the world wasn’t going to stop being cruel just because he asked nicely. She told him countless times he had to stand up and take action if he wanted to change things. He had the perfect opportunity to do just that, and yet he simultaneously shied away from it.
“I don’t think anyone is born knowing how to be a king, Alistair. I think anyone could be a king if they sat down on the throne, but the difference between a good king and bad king would be the choices he made. The people he allowed to whisper their influence in his ear. A smart king wouldn’t let anyone whisper in his ear, but mull over everything in front of him and make his own decisions.”
“I guess so,” he thought. “Maybe you should take the throne.”
“Ha! No. No thank you. I don’t want it, and I wouldn’t know what to do with it if it was offered to me. If it makes you feel any better, I think you would be a great king.”
“Absolutely. I don’t think you should marry Anora though.”
“Eww, no,” he agreed. “Every time I think about it, it makes me feel a little sick. Her and Cailan and… Ugh… Anyway, who knows what will happen in the end? If I am king, who’s to say it’ll last? We could both die, and then she’ll get her throne anyway.”
“That is true.”
“I know you’re pretty tough. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone take out an ogre the way you do, but doesn’t that scare you? The fact that we’re probably going to die? Does it frighten you even just a little bit?”
Illuviel laughed, “All the time. Sometimes I talk to Wynne about it. About life and regret and all that. She told me last week that if one lives a life they feel good about, if we have no regrets, there is no reason to fear the end.”
“Right, I’ve heard that said before. But how do people our age rack up regrets? I mean, we’ve barely begun to live, not really, if you think about it.”
“I don’t know about you, but I have a few things I’m a little… regretful about.”
“Zevran, for one.”
Alistair’s brow furrowed as he cast a look down at her. “What do you mean? I thought the two of you were getting along famously.”
“So did I, but I think I ruined everything, and now I’m about to go to my death and I’m not so sure he’ll be beside me when I do.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He followed you into the Deep Roads. Nothing’s going to stop him after that.”
“Don’t be so sure about that.”
“So you allegedly ruined everything? How exactly? I’m having a hard time even picturing such a scenario.”
In the beginning, she and Alistair thought they’d had a connection. They’d been through so much together, so it only seemed natural to cling to each other. It hadn’t gone beyond innocent flirtation. Then Zevran happened, and she put a stop to it before someone got hurt.
Alistair, sweet as he was, was not the kind of man she could imagine waking up to for the rest of her days, and while she certainly didn’t know why she thought Zevran could be that kind of man, she hadn’t put much thought into it after they started sharing a bedroll. They just sort of carried on as they were, something growing between them that had gotten out of control at some point and began consuming her heart.
“Was it that whole ‘Surprise, I was almost married,’ thing? Because I have to admit, that threw me for a loop, as well. I had no idea.”
She chuckled, “No. We got into it before we even left camp yesterday morning, though I’m sure the whole almost wedding thing didn’t make matters any better on my part.”
“Ah, yes. I remember. Yesterday was one big ball of ice on so many levels, it’s hard to keep track of, you know?I blame Morrigan. when things go wrong, it’s usually her fault. But now that you mention it, it was awful quiet in camp last night… A little too quiet.”
“I’m sure everyone got a much better night’s sleep for it,” she moaned and rolled her eyes.
“I just kept waiting for it. I’ve learned to tune it all out, but truth be told I actually think I had trouble sleeping for lack of…”
“Am not!” He shrank away from the threat of her playful, shaking fist. “And even if I was, we’re not talking about me right now. We’re talking about you.”
“Ouch!” The sound of his laughter trailed behind them as they passed through the gates of Denerim. “Now that you’ve wounded me more deeply than you’ll ever know, tell me what happened.”
“I don’t know. I think I pushed him too hard, asked him for more than he is willing to give and now he will barely even talk to me.”
“More than he’s willing to give?” he ducked back in disbelief. “You know there was a part of me that once thought you could do so much better than him when the two of you first started… carrying on together. I was a little jealous, I guess, but as I’ve gotten to know him, after seeing the two of you these last few months, I don’t know that there isn’t anything he wouldn’t give you, Illuviel.”
“He gave me something yesterday morning,” she noted. “An earring that meant a lot to him, and I asked him if it was because I meant something to him and he completely shut down. I don’t know why, but I pushed him. I just wanted to hear him say I meant something, and he lost it.”
“And I thought I was clueless when it came to relationships,” he teased. “Look, I can’t guess what’s going through his mind, or even begin to imagine why he wouldn’t tell you how much you mean to him, but everyone else can see it from a hundred miles away. why can’t you? He adores you, Illuviel. I’d even go so far as to say he’s in love with you.”
“Then why won’t he say it?”
“Does he have to say it? Being a man, I can tell you firsthand we are strange beings. Quite possibly from another world. Talk to him.”
“I tried to talk to him last night, but he told me to leave it alone.”
“Of course he did, but now he’s had time to think it all over and come to his senses, so don’t leave it alone. He might come around eventually, bear his soul without you pushing him to, but we might die in a few weeks’ time,” he shrugged almost nonchalantly as he pointed that out. “Do you really want to wait? To die with a regret like that hanging over your head?”
“Then talk to him, right now. As soon as we get back to camp.”
“And if he tells me to piss off?”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well, I can’t, not really, but do you really want to take a chance like that and meet the archdemon with that kind of regret on your soul?”
“And there you have it. Problem solved. We can get back to our regularly scheduled martyrdom, and all will be well in the world, right?”
They walked several paces in silence, and then she said, “Wynne thinks I’m being incredibly selfish. She thinks as a Grey Warden, I shouldn’t feel anything at all on a personal level, especially not for someone with such base morals.”
“We’re not Templars,” he laughed. “Wynne grew up in the Circle. All that tension and depravity just oozed from the walls, I’m sure. But there’s no Grey Warden vow of chastity, and there are certainly no rules about having a heart. Some Wardens have even been known to get married and have children… Well, the men, anyway. It’s not entirely unheard of, just rare.”
“Good to know.”
“So, now that we got all that out of the way, can we get back to talking about me now?”
“You’re such an egomaniac.”
“With really amazing hair.”
“And it never fails to astonish me just how humble you really are.” Nudging into him as they walked, she chuckled. “Thanks, Alistair. You’re a good friend. Quite possibly the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“I do my best.”