Much to Chancellor Benneit’s dismay, Prince Sebastian Vael paced in front of Starkhaven’s open wrought iron gates. Wringing hands clasped at the small of his back and head cocked toward the growing visage of two riders on the road ahead, the prince’s stomach felt like twisted, rising dough—both airy and light, but equally agonizing.
His wife was only mere moments from meeting him after months apart. His wife. The years he spent sequestered in the chantry put all such thoughts from his mind, though Andraste herself knew the wickedness and impurity of his daydreams of the raven-haired rogue who aided him in avenging his family. He prayed a lot after he met Hawke, for guidance, for peace of mind and stillness of fluttering heart. Still, he never imagined those daydreams would come to pass. He was committed to the Maker’s work, had given up all worldly ambitions, titles, and goods.
And then he met Hawke.
Aggravated in his pacing, he kept his eye trained on the distance and internally fretted over the number of ways the entire thing could go wrong before it ever even started.
Hawke always made him nervous. Since the moment he first met her in the chantry, still covered in dust and the blood of the Flint Company Mercenaries she made short work of in the Vael family name, the mere sight of her was enough to light fire inside him. A fire, Elthina used to say, would burn his soul to ash if he entertained its flames.
Elthina had been wrong about so very many things, things Sebastian himself still had trouble coming to terms with. The Grand Cleric, beloved as she was to him, was both stubborn and blind, and her refusal to take action despite the evidence brought before her cost the woman her life in the end. She would not approve of the course his life had taken after Anders decimated the chantry, but he could no longer sit idle while the world destroyed itself.
Hawke felt the same way. As a woman of action, she would not stand by and ignore injustice. She’d been right about the mages, on point about the Templars, and she tried to warn the Grand Cleric, but Elthina wouldn’t listen. Hawke convinced him he could do more from a throne than he could ever do as a priest, and he believed her. So far she’d been right, but then she usually was. Still, she made him nervous at times. Her spirit was unpredictable, and she was easily provoked, but he understood how well he needed that kind of nerve in his life. She lit a fire in his soul, drove him to do great things, and together they would do so much more than rule Starkhaven.
Never had there been a woman more worthy of a throne than Marian Hawke. She liked to say she was hardly suited for it, but who better to watch over his people and stand beside him than a woman who lived to serve and protect. She could do with a bit more faith, but it would come in time; he was sure. All things considered, she was far more suited than she wanted to believe, and he would be the man to give her all she deserved; a throne and so much more. As she took her place beside him in Starkhaven at his coronation, any who opposed the validity of their union would quickly come to understand exactly who it was they rivaled.
His only hope was that she didn’t kill anyone to prove her point. Her soul was already troubled enough.
His stomach lurched again, the nervous anxiety making him momentarily dizzy, but he composed himself as best he could and ignored the burn he felt in his cheeks as he contemplated how best to greet her.
Should he take her in his arms as he helped her from her horse, brush lips to hers in front of the Maker, Andraste, and all the kingdom? Would she be happy to see him? Of course she would. He wasn’t sure why he fretted that. Every letter she sent since their separation three months earlier overflowed with as much fondness as it did naughty promise to do more than make him blush when next she saw him. The mere thought of her in his arms again, the slow, near-desperate writhing of their bodies in the dark reminded him of the heat that gave away his shame.
Or perhaps it was just exhaustion. Every night since she’d departed for Kirkwall after taking back Starkhaven was restless without her in bed beside him. Tossing, turning, praying for her safe return to his side, he feared the Maker turned deaf ear to those prayers since he’d forsaken his vows and his renewed chastity for a woman who’d never had much faith. Night after night bad dreams wracked his slumber, horrid visions of his love in ruins before they could reunite again, but that morning brought a raven at last and promise of her arrival by horse shortly after the noon hour.
Maybe the Maker was not so cross with him after all. Maybe He believed His faithful servant would lead Hawke to His Light and give her something to believe in at last. He would certainly do his best to renew her faith, to show her there was light and beauty in the world only because the Maker willed it. Together they would make a life and a home, and…
It struck him then, a flourish of happiness stirring within. Home. Hawke was coming home.
Would she think of it as such? The number of times she told him during their years of friendship she would give anything to feel at home again inspired him to strive to make Starkhaven a place she not only felt comfortable in, but never wanted to leave.
Beside him, Chancellor Benneit cleared his throat and held the spyglass to his eye, his tongue clicking the back of his teeth in disgust before he lowered the glass and shook his head. “No escort,” he noted, distaste ripe in his tone. “I thought perhaps a host of Templars would see her here, even those wretched mercenaries she left behind to help maintain order in her absence, but no. She’s come completely alone.”
Sebastian took the glass from him and squinted through the lens, his first view of her in months a glorious vision to behold. She wore a Champion’s armor made from silverite and dragon scale colored bold as blood by a shining weave from Highever. From her spiked spaulders to her boots, she was sharp as the blades she bore on her back, and every bit the menacing figure.
“That will not bode well for her reception, Your Highness, especially considering the numbers she brought with her to take down the usurper. A viscountess without a full retinue of guards will be regarded as weak.”
“Bite your tongue, Chancellor,” Sebastian warned.
Midday sun glinted off the shaggy, shoulder-length ebony locks of her hair, inspiring a blue hue that shimmered as she tilted her head. She did not slouch in the saddle, but sat upright, shoulders back and chin aloft—the perfect picture of a proud and fearless leader. Her countenance paler than he remembered, he narrowed his eye further and noticed faint, bruise-like smudges beneath both eyes. Exhaustion, and yet she was still the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
A chestnut halflinger jounced beside her, the dwarf in its saddle scarcely a speck on the horizon, though there was no denying the monstrous crossbow strapped across his back. A thing of beauty, that crossbow, though at times Varric’s attachment to it was more than a little disturbing.
“There is nothing weak about milady.” Lowering the glass, he clapped the chancellor on the shoulder and added, “The power she wields is well within her. That woman,” he boasted, “and her dwarven companion are as strong as, if not stronger than, the soldiers at my back. In fact, I wager she could single-handedly take out the lot, and what few she left staggering in her wake Master Tethras would gladly dispose of.”
“As you say, Your Highness,” he conceded, but Sebastian heard doubt in the man’s voice.
Starkhaven had no idea who she was about to welcome within her walls, but the people would learn quickly enough the irrefutable force that was his blushing bride, their princess. With Hawke on the throne beside him, Starkhaven married to Kirkwall, his country and his rule of the Free Marches would know no denials.
Royal guards lined the ramparts and the streets halfway to the palace, their presence alone enough to keep the common folk from bombarding and rushing their new ruler, but it did little to stop the people from searching the road for the promised signs of their princess. They knew well of her triumphs and deeds, the Champion of Kirkwall, who vanquished the Qunari in single combat with the Arishok and restored order with Kirkwall’s Templars after the chantry fell. She alone kept them safe from the usurper’s soldiers when her Red Iron Mercenaries stormed the keep.
“Bring me my horse,” he gestured over his shoulder. “I should ride out to meet her on the road.”
“Your Highness, it is hardly…”
“My horse,” he commanded, an edge of authority in his tone that prompted a sigh of concession from the chancellor. The stable boy brought his charger to the gates and held the beast steady as he climbed into the saddle. If his advisors had their way he’d stand slack at the gates to welcome her, or better yet, await her in the throne room, but if Sebastian had learned anything on his journey to take back Starkhaven it was that he couldn’t waver in his rule. Authority must pervade his every action and order, or the tenuous and unstable hold he had over the city would falter and he’d lose everything all over again. The true Vael line would not be denied; not ever again.
He dug his boots into the armored destrier’s belly, nudging her forward so he could ride out. He didn’t wait for the guard to fall in line behind him, but held his head high and increased his pace from a trot to a canter. He could gallop out, rein in before them and drop down to sweep her off her horse well away from curious and prying eyes to kiss her hello, but he didn’t want to appear entirely unrestrained. Especially not in front of Varric, whom he was sure did not approve of their relationship or their nuptials.
At his back he heard Chancellor Benneit call after the guard to fall in behind him, but he didn’t look over his shoulder or pay them any mind, not even when they caught up to him and flanked him on both sides to provide protection. Down the hillside they rode, the pleasant scent of mountain laurel and damp earth from last night’s rains mingling with the scent of the river and rushing against his face, cementing the moment in his memory as he drew close enough to see the cockeyed grin he’d fallen in love with long before he should have.
“My lady, you are a sight for sore eyes.”
“Your Highness,” she called out. “Is that… My word, have you grown a beard?”
“Just a little one.” Transferring the reins to one hand as he drew back and slowed to a trot, his gloved hand rising to stroke through the short, bristly hair of his auburn goatee. “Do you like it?” Maker, he must have been grinning like a fool, the way the dwarf moaned in his saddle two paces behind her.
“It’s very dashing.” When she laughed it was girlish and simple, the most beautiful sound he’d heard in months. Drawing on her reins, she came to a complete halt, patted her mare’s neck, and then slid out of the saddle to stretch her legs. “Almost roguish. I can’t wait to run my fingers through it later.” she added as she walked out to meet him.
“Hawke, not in front of the men,” he chided, a gust of heat burning his cheeks.
Ignoring him, she began to peel off her gloves as she walked. “I didn’t expect you to meet us on the road.”
Climbing down, he reached for her wrist and swept her close. Nuzzling his nose to hers, he closed his eyes and murmured across her lips, “Now what kind of knight in shining armor would I be not to ride out and meet my love upon the road?”
Mouth soft, a breathy sigh grazed his lips as she surged inward to taste him. “The men are watching, darling.”
“Let them watch,” he growled and squeezed her even tighter against him.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered, her hand lingering against the stubble on his cheek. “More than you will ever know.”
Smiling as she pecked the corner of his lips and drew back, Sebastian glanced up at the dwarf and lifted a hand in greeting. “Welcome back to Starkhaven, Master Tethras.”
“Yeah,” Varric grumbled, “great. Please tell me there’s at least going to be a feast in our honor.”
“Of course there will be,” he chuckled. “Only the best for my bride and her friends. Shall we ride into the city together?”
“Could we walk the horses?” She tipped her head, stretching her neck before perching both hands on her hips to twist her torso. “I’ve been in that saddle for days and I just want to feel my legs again.”
“As you wish, milady,” he tipped his head toward her, and behind them Varric groaned.
“I don’t suppose there are Antivan assassins waiting for us at the gate, something we can kill?” The dwarf struggled to dismount his halflinger, dropping to the ground with a graceless grunt. “I’m already bored out of my mind and we just got here.”
“No assassins, I’m afraid. My spies keep me well informed.”
“You… have spies?” the dwarf marveled as he readjusted the crossbow on his back.
“Any prince worth his salt has spies, Varric. You taught me that much.” He chuckled and gathered the horses together, passing the leads on to his soldiers and ordering them with a gesture to trot ahead and give them privacy. Without protest, they did as he instructed and put distance between the three of them so they might catch up on the walk, but two of the soldiers took up the rear, following at a slow trot to watch their prince’s back. “There is still unrest in Starkhaven, but for the most part I am slowly bringing as much normalcy as I can back to the city.”
“Have you seen much fallout from the mage rebellion here?” Hawke slunk her arm through his and fell into step with him as they walked.
“Starkhaven’s circle tower was destroyed right around the time my family was assassinated, but those mages we do have within the city walls are well guarded. Our chantry and her templars are at full strength. They patrol outside the gates regularly to keep maleficarum from seeking sanctuary within the walls.”
“Good.” The breath that left her was light with relief. “I’ll be only too happy to never see another mage so long as I live.”
“There are mages housed within the chantry, only a handful and most of them healers,” he corrected her, “but as I said they are under very strict supervision.”
“That worries me nonetheless.” She fretted her lower lip between her teeth a moment, then added, “I’ve heard rumors of a much larger rebellion, thanks to… that business in Kirkwall. Templars abandoning their posts at the chantry to hunt down the mages destroying their towers and rebelling. They are only rumors, of course, nothing concrete, but it still terrifies me to think…”
“We’ll see no such rebellion here, Hawke. I promise you. The Templars in Starkhaven are as righteous in their devotion to the Maker as they are to their duties and their prince.”
“Can you truly promise that?” She slowed her pace, then stopped to look over at him. “All those years with Fenris, and I understood where he was coming from, but I could never quite bring myself to fully agree with his opinions. Mages are people. My sister… our father, magic runs strong in my family’s blood, and yet I cannot think of a single thing magic has touched that it hasn’t spoiled.”
Varric snorted on her other side, a glimpse of his head shaking back and forth. “You’d think we battled our way through angry hordes of apostates to get here.”
“It’s true, we haven’t seen a mage in weeks, but it worries me how out of control everything has been in my world since the disaster we couldn’t avert. It’s all well and good to say the rebellion will not touch us here, but I don’t believe that’s a promise anyone can make. Not even you, Sebastian. Kirkwall is in ruins. Knight-Captain Cullen is doing the best he can to hold it all together, but more and more Templars flee service with each passing day to hunt down the apostates. Leaving him behind with that madness worries me. Most of the other Templars were all too happy to see me go.”
“Hawke.” Lifting a hand to touch her face, he stared into the shimmering pools of her brilliant blue eyes. “You’ve been on the road for days. Just looking at you I can see you’re exhausted. These are all problems we cannot run away from, but perhaps we can take a moment to bask in each other’s company before we begin purging magic from the northern Free Marches.”
The corner of her mouth twitched, a slow grin rising toward her ear before she let loose another sigh. “I’m sorry. I’ve been very…”
“Prickly?” Varric threw in.
“…agitated since we left Kirkwall.” She shook her head. “I’ve got a lot on my mind, and this whole journey I’ve wanted nothing more than to see your face.” Bringing her hand up to rest on his cheek, it lingered there as she stared into him. “There’ll be time enough for politics and the unending fight once I’ve had a change clothes, I suspect.”
“That there will, love,” he agreed. “Come on. People lined the streets the word moment of your coming spread to catch a glimpse at Starkhaven’s heroic princess. Let’s give you the proper welcome home you deserve, Lady Hawke.”
“Careful, Choir Boy. Talk like that’s bound to go to her head.”
“Quiet, Varric,” she snapped playfully over her shoulder before they resumed the road for her grand entrance into the city.