Wicked Graces: Chapter Eleven

It was very late when Sebastian staggered up the stairs and into bed. The kind of late that evolved the sky beyond the palace windows from pitch to smoky amethyst and promised sunrise was only a few blinks away. He’d gotten roped into philosophical and spiritual debate with an old friend once destined for Chantry service just as he was, but who managed to convince Lord and Lady Kenric his talents would be better utilized at the University of Orlais.

Sebastian had been too hot-headed for such negotiations at fifteen, an attribute his father assured him was not behavior suitable to a young man who wanted nothing more from life than the position his eldest brother was born to serve. He only got to introduce Bram to Hawke when she meandered over, looking exhausted beyond recall, to let him know she was heading up to bed and would see him in the morning.

When the party died down, save for a few stragglers engaged in conversation of their own, Sebastian and Bram snuck down the stairs to his study for a harder drink, only to discover the decanter on his desk contained little more than a single swallow.

“My beloved wife,” he let loose an exasperated sigh, shaking the small amount of liquid in the bottom of the bottle for effect, “and her dwarven companion, no doubt. One of them alone is trouble, together they are an absolute menace.”

“Forgive my saying so, Sebastian, and do feel free to call me a meddlesome old fool,” Bram settled into the chair opposite the desk and leaned back to cross a leg over his knee before going on, “but should a woman in her condition really be drinking? By no means am I a medical scholar, but many of my colleagues have devoted their careers to the scientific humors and the art of healing without magical aid. Studies out of Orlais support the occasional glass of wine throughout, but hard liquor is hardly conducive to the child’s health, especially at this early stage.”

“I beg your pardon?” He’d been bending down to dislodge a secret compartment in his desk drawer to produce another bottle, his hands stopping mid-press of the button as he lifted his head.

“Your wife,” Bram stammered. “I meant no offense, of course, I just…”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh,” the professor brought a hand up to cover his mouth sheepishly, “you didn’t… Perhaps even she doesn’t… Andraste, forgive me. It’s just like me to open my mouth when I’ve no right to do so. I’m sorry, my friend, I just assumed you were aware…”

“My wife…” He drew the bottle out and lowered it onto the desktop with a heavy clunk. His head was already a little fuzzy from so many congratulatory glasses of champagne, so the revelation took several long moments before it sunk in completely. “Maker’s mercy, that explains a lot. I never even considered…”

“Again, I’m so very sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize. If anyone owes me an apology, it’s Hawke,” he chuckled, “though in her condition it would hardly be fair to wake her and demand one at this hour.”

The unlikely emotional outbursts, the fatigue and occasional bouts of nausea, her insatiable sexual appetite, even complaints of her gown being too tight just days after her final fittings… She’d been refusing wine at dinner, which in itself was strange, but he never thought anything of it. Her body had become almost as familiar to him as his own since their wedding night, and he’d missed it. And worse was that she knew. As he reflected back over the last few weeks, scaling back into the months of their separation, even her letters—lovely as they were to read—were filled with hints and allusions and secrecy.

“It would seem,” he poured them both a finger of whisky, “my powers of observation are embarrassingly lax.”

“Well, you did just take back your kingdom,” Bram excused him, “and I imagine restoring order has kept you very busy.”

“Not half as busy as my wife has kept me since she returned from Kirkwall.” He cocked a suggestive brow, surprised by how loose his own tongue became after a few drinks. He should have been flabbergasted, making such an obscene insinuation, but when Bram snorted into his snifter, Sebastian laughed too and relaxed as best he could into more casual conversation.

It was hours before he climbed the stairs and fell into bed beside her still wearing his party clothes and crown. He meant to take them off, the metal was most uncomfortable as it poked into his head, but he was tired and more than a little drunk, and he was going to be a father. He was going to be someone else’s father. Maker’s bones, how had he missed it?

There wasn’t sense enough left in his mind to continue questioning her secrecy over the matter. He’d have plenty of time to demand answers come morning—assuming he woke up with all his senses. His head spun, or maybe it was the room. “Maker’s breath,” he mumbled, trying to dislodge the quilt firmly lodged under her weight so he could draw it across his body.

Hawke slept hard beside him, barely even stirring when he finally willed himself to roll over onto his side and reach for her. Drawing her body close to his, a clumsy arm rested on her hip before his curious hand slid along the bone and across the warm, hard muscle of her midriff. The swell was scarcely noticeable before, but now that he knew he felt the fool for not paying closer attention. Impossible as it was to manage his thoughts, he attempted to work out the timeline in his head, pinpoint the exact moment of conception, but the best he could guess was during the siege of Starkhaven, or shortly thereafter, their final night together before she returned to her duties in Kirkwall, perhaps.

Which meant she was just over three months along at the very least, and more than likely well aware of the life growing inside her.

Why hadn’t she told him?

He rarely dreamed, though the combination of liquor and worry must have done a number on his mind that morning. He tossed and sweated, plagued by dark shadows, and only coming awake when one of the servants stirred him from slumber with a sharp knock on the door. The abysmal sound echoed through his hollow skull, making him groan and bury his face even deeper into the pillow to avoid it. The half-cocked crown still nestled on his head scratched across his brow, and he reached a tired arm up to tug it off.

“Your Highness, Chancellor Benneit asked me to wake you. You’ve a ten-thirty sit down with the king of Ferelden, and it’s already half-past nine.”

Ugh, he couldn’t cancel such an important meeting.

“I’ve brought a hearty breakfast,” the mere thought of food was enough to draw attention to the uneasiness in his stomach as the pounding in his head grew louder, “and a pitcher of fresh water. He says you’re to drink every last drop and finish the tray, then get dressed.”

“Come in,” he still hadn’t pulled his head out of the pillow, so his muffled command did not reach the servant’s ears.

“Highness?”

Lifting his face, he rumbled, “I said come in.”

“Sorry, Highness.” The door rattled open, the well-oiled hinges still too squeaky for his hungover mind. The serving boy swept into the room, a teeming tray in one hand and a large pitcher in the other. He waited for Sebastian to situate himself in bed, then lowered the tray into his lap, took the cup and began filling it with liquid.

It was only as true consciousness found him he realized he was in bed alone, Hawke’s side of the bed unmade and with no signs of her anywhere in the room. “Where’s the princess?”

“She went to the chantry early, Your Highness. Would you like me to lay out your clothes for the day in your apartment?”

“Yes, thank you.”

He waved him off, groaning as he pressed his back into the headboard and surveyed the more than ample offerings in front of him. Sausage eggs wrapped in breading before frying in lard, thick slices of dark-toasted bread slathered in butter with a pot of ginger-orange jam, greasy chunks of seasoned potatoes and a rasher of salt pork. On a normal morning he would be more than grateful for such a spread, but the thought of food was almost too much for his unsettled stomach to bear. He gulped down several swallows of water, ignoring the foul taste in his mouth and reminding himself he was getting far too old to overindulge in that fashion—no matter the cause for celebration.

Celebration… not just his crowning, but raising glasses with an old friend to toast his good fortune and the continuation of the Vael family line for another generation. Hawke… pregnant. He needed to talk to her. Maybe if he forced down breakfast and hurried through getting dressed, he’d have time to walk over to the chantry before his meeting with King Alistair. No, there wouldn’t be enough time. The last thing he wanted was to abruptly inform her he knew her secret then tell her they would discuss it in greater detail when he wasn’t so busy. They needed to sit down uninterrupted and get to the bottom of it all together.

As hard as it was going to be carrying those unanswered questions around all day, talking to Hawke was going to have to wait. He took his time with breakfast, choking down every last bite for fear of invoking Benneit’s scorn. By the time he crossed the hallway to dress in his own apartment, his headache was only half as cruel as it was upon waking, and then little more than a harsh whisper when he informed the household staff he and his wife would be dining alone together in the upstairs apartment at promptly seven o’clock. He sent his page to hunt down Hawke at the chantry and tell her about dinner, then made his way into negotiations with Ferelden’s king at half-past ten.

It did make him feel slightly better to realize he wasn’t the only one with a terrible hangover. King Alistair was guzzling down water when he walked, moaning and swatting Arl Teagan Guerrin’s hand away when he reached over to take away the cup.

“Good morning, gentleman,” he greeted. “I apologize for the early hour of this meeting. Had I known last night’s festivities would carry on so late into the evening, I would have insisted we schedule our negotiations well after lunch.”

“No worries,” Alistair insisted. “My responsibilities quite often inspire headaches, so it makes no matter to begin with one already in full swing.”

“Honestly, Your Majesty,” his advisor scolded.

“I would offer a toast to your sentiment, Your Majesty, as I am definitely sympathetic to the headaches brought on by such negotiations, but I’m sure neither my body nor my chancellor would forgive me if I attempted the hair of the dog now.”

“Who do our advisors think they are, ruling their rulers with such staunch devotion and far cooler heads than we?” Alistair attempted a menacing glare in Teagan’s direction, but Redcliffe’s arl barely seemed to notice. “In any case, I’ve had time to look over your proposals this morning, and I have to say for one so new to the weight of a crown, you’ve certainly put a fair amount of thought into your terms. My only issue is your insistence upon Chantry involvement in the affairs of Ferelden’s Circle of Magi.”

“A concern I am most passionate about after events in Kirkwall, Your Majesty.”

“Your concerns are not unfounded, Prince Sebastian, but in analyzing the reports on Kirkwall’s rebellion, it worries me deeply the Chantry takes little to no responsibility for the uprising. If the stories are true, the Templars in Kirkwall were out of line in their treatment of the city’s mages, and Maker rest her soul, Grand Cleric Elthina did little to staunch the flow before the city itself bled out.”

Well, he was a witty one, wasn’t he? The kind of man Hawke should be dealing with, Sebastian thought. The two of them could banter back and forth for hours, completely understanding one another’s full meaning before arriving at an agreement and shaking hands. Sebastian wasn’t stupid, but he did know his limits.

“You were raised in the Chantry, Your Majesty, trained as a Templar. Have you no loyalty to its purpose?  Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him.”

“Transfigurations 1:2,” Alistair nodded astutely, “a verse of the canticle which paints magic itself, and those who are born with its taint in an abominable light when read through to completion. Not all mages are maleficarum, just as not all Templars are fair in their treatment of their charges. I never took vows, but enough of my training was spent discovering a circle tower was no place for me, any more than I was suited to putting mages in their rightful place. I was there eight years ago when Ferelden’s tower of Magi was under siege during the blight. I slew abominations, and saw many a Templar corrupted by the same temptations that drew demons from the Fade to wreak havoc and torment on all who crossed their paths. It is my opinion the astringent nature of the circle itself, the Chantry’s tight-fisted grip on the mages, was the very cause of that disaster, just as it was in Kirkwall. Fear, Prince Sebastian, is a cruel ruler, and the mages of all circles are trembling with it after what happened in the City of Chains. Even now, eight years later, Ferelden’s circle still struggles to get back on its feet, with very little in the way of aid from the Chantry sworn to protect it. Save for its Templars, who remain staunch as ever in their fight to maintain control over a group of people who had no control over the powers they were born with.”

“Then you see my point, Your Majesty. Order must be restored, and only the Chantry has the power to—”

“I’m afraid you misunderstand my meaning,” the king interrupted, raising his hand in a gesture meant to silence him. “After my careful analysis of both circumstances, I find myself wondering if the Chantry’s not to blame for the chaos, and while I praise the Maker in his light, believing fully Andraste herself watches over us and weeps for all our sins, I simply cannot allow so firm a hand in Ferelden’s circle again. As it stands, Chantry involvement in our circle has waned over the last few years, sending no new recruits from the order since Knight-Commander Gregoir’s retirement in 9:35. In fact, it’s almost like there’s no circle at all in Ferelden, and our mages have been quite amicable.”

“Don’t you worry about the dangers they pose? Moving freely outside the tower without Templars to rein them in? You have no idea if they’re practicing blood magic, summoning demons…”

“The state of my kingdom would be far more tenuous were that the case, I’m sure. As it stands, if you are willing to waive your demands regarding my country’s circle, I feel it would be most beneficial for our two nations to reestablish several of the trade routes that have fallen idle since the blight.”

“Well said, Your Majesty,” Teagan praised him like a child.

“I will have to consider,” he decided, “sit down with my advisors and discuss our options. I stand firm with the Chantry, Your Majesty, and believe in the nobility of its function. It may not be a perfect system, but mages running around unchecked is dangerous business. Let us withdrawal for private discussions and reconvene tomorrow to conclude discussions.”

“As you wish,” Alistair conceded, “though I can already tell you I won’t budge on this, so unless you come up with an alternative solution that doesn’t involve the shackling of Ferelden’s mages, perhaps it’s better we conclude negotiations now, rather than waste one another’s precious time.”

“I will keep that under advisement as I review my original terms and search for a way around this blockade. Perhaps an extra pair of eyes will help. I’ll consult with my wife on matters.”

“Where is Her Highness this morning? I was sure she’d be here for negotiations, considering our talks will likely affect Kirkwall as well.”

“She helped draft negotiations, and reviewed the final terms before their presentation, but I’m afraid she had other business to attend to this morning and was unable to join us.”

“Ah, yes, her meeting with the Wardens.”

Sebastian worked hard not to give away that he had no idea what the king was talking about. Hawke said little more than goodnight before heading up to bed, and certainly nothing about a meeting with the Grey Wardens who arrived with Alistair for the coronation. He glanced over at Chancellor Benneit, who looked quickly away to hide his knowledge of said meeting.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea what it’s all about, do you?”

“Me? Ha! No. While I am still equipped to battle darkspawn if need be, I gave up my status as a warden when I took this crown, and the Warden-Commander never lets me forget it. She may be at the head of my army, but when it comes to Grey Warden matters, I’m no longer privy to their plans. Whatever it is they’re up to, I only hope it… never mind. I’m sure it’s nothing. Nothing of consequence, anyway. If it makes you feel any better, she did assure me wasn’t a blight, so we can all breathe easier for that.”

“Indeed,” Sebastian chuckled, though the merriment of it was forced.

As King Alistair and Arl Teagan excused themselves, the prince tried not to give in to the suspicious machination his wife was deliberately keeping secrets from him, but considering the one he’d only just discovered without so much as a hint from her, it was impossible not to harbor anxiety about what else she might be hiding.

Hawke was a free spirit long before he ever knew her; it was just her nature. In fact, her willingness to throw up her hands and say sod all was one of the traits he’d fallen in love with, but if they were going to rule two of the most prosperous and prestigious city-states in the Free Marches together, and bring a child into the world, they were going to have to start communicating a little better.

About erica

Erica North is the fanfiction pseudonym for fantasy/romance author Jennifer Melzer.
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