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Previous chapter: Necessary Things 19,20
Next chapter: Necessary Things 23,24
Chapter 21 Alistair
"Heck!" Alistair grabs the bloodied towel in yet another vain attempt to ease the damage, then sighs in resignation. Just like me, making a mess of my face right on the day when every single damned aristocrat of Ferelden is going to stare at the infamous bastard of Maric's. Great.
There is but one option. Making sure that no-one is passing by at the moment, Alistair darts across the corridor and knocks on Wynne's door. "Er, Wynne, could you…" he gestures at the bloody results of his shaving.
The corner of her mouth twitches only slightly as she invokes a healing spell. "Wash your face properly, my dear. We don't want our future king all smudgy."
Even greater. Thanks so much.
The breakfast takes place in grave silence, without the usual banter. Alistair can feel Morrigan's ironic glances on himself: What is it, Alistair, run out of jokes?
Suit yourself, he thinks angrily as he nibbles at the oatmeal. Definitely unappetizing. Where is that damned Grey Warden appetite when one needs it?
"Alistair, are you listening?"
"What?" he startles.
"I said, 'stop staring at that oatmeal as if it was genlock excrement, the rumbling of your stomach won't secure any votes at the Landsmeet'."
On mornings like this, I really, really hate you, Ned Cousland!
Though, when he takes a closer look, Ned's plate is also considerably fuller that it should be by this stage of the breakfast. "Just following your example, oh fearless leader."
The sour look he receives in answer definitely improves his mood, for a few seconds.
As he puts on his silverite armour, polished to blinding sheen, his hands tremble so much that Leliana's assistance comes more than handy.
When he tries to fasten an uncooperative buckle for the tenth time, Leliana laughs softly. "Oh, come on, Alistair, it won't be so bad. You're to be crowned, not executed."
"The other option is almost more appealing."
It's definitely past him why she laughs even more but he doesn't protest as she stands on her toes to kiss him.
The kiss would have been much more reassuring if her hands were not ice-cold.
They're the last to join the others in the entrance hall and Ned gives them an impatient glance. Why, you insisted on setting out after Eamon, didn't you?
Ready, oh Warden Commander. As ready as I can be – and I do hope that I won't throw my breakfast on that pretty breastplate of yours. Though, it has definitely seen much worse defilement. Not that I'm particularly picky about taking equipment from the dead, but putting on something worn by the dead who walked and talked while happily rotting –
Remembering Sophia Dryden's decaying face was not the brightest idea and Alistair takes deep breaths, grateful for the fresh air as they leave the estate.
The royal palace is much closer than he would have preferred, and as they approach, Alistair's nervousness reaches unknown peaks. With every step, he grows more and more certain that the oatmeal will see the daylight again… right before the gathered nobles of Ferelden.
Politics. Of all the beasts and monsters he has faced, this one scares him most.
They pass the gates, unhindered, unattacked. Ned doesn't look left or right, simply marches on, as if no-one and nothing could ever stop them.
That is, until they enter the ante-chamber.
Ser Cauthrien, and not alone.
I knew this was all too easy. Seeing her, and the oncoming fight, Alistair suddenly realizes that his nervousness is gone.
The goal is clear.
There is but one obstacle to be removed.
"Ned Cousland. I am not surprised it has come to this."
It keeps mystifying Alistair what a sweet, girly voice the woman has; it makes her somewhat less detestable and he has to remind himself hard that she is simply another lackey of Loghain's…
Not just 'another'. The one who caused Ned all that misery.
Probably drawn by his glance of hatred, she shifts her attention to him. "And you, Alistair… if you were even remotely worthy of being called Maric's son, you would already be in the Landsmeet, now wouldn't you?"
Hey, it wasn't me who desired a special entrée!
It seems, though, that the question was purely rhetorical, as Cauthrien's eyes immediately return to Ned. "You have torn Ferelden apart to oppose the very man who ensured you were born into freedom! Do not think you will get past me to desecrate the Landsmeet itself. The nobles of Ferelden will confirm my lord as Regent and we can put this to rest once you are gone."
And we put this to rest once you are gone.
"Do you really not see what Loghain has become?" Ned asks, very softly. Alistair holds his breath: he already knows that intent, hypnotizing gaze, and its impact on those who stand in the way. Cauthrien is no different: for all her bravado, she briefly averts her eyes, and before she can regain composure, Ned continues: "But of course you do. What will you do about it, Ser Cauthrien – will you just close your eyes like you have so far?"
"I… have had… so many doubts of late." She bites her lip, struggling with herself, and sounding even younger. Watching her, Alistair almost finds himself sympathetic: the shell of the confident warrior has broken and revealed a woman full of uncertainty. "Loghain is a great man, but his obsession with the Orlesians has driven him to madness." Her voice breaks. "He has done terrible things, I know it, but I owe him everything. I cannot... Don't ask me to!"
Yet still she defends him…
"All I ask is that you let me stop him. You know there is no other way. This cannot be allowed to continue. For the sake of Ferelden."
Now you've got her.
"I never thought duty would taste so bitter..." Cauthrien is definitely holding back tears but she has come to a decision. "Stop him… stop him from betraying everything he once loved." She falls on her knees, her eyes never leaving Ned's. "Please, show mercy. Without Loghain, there would be no Ferelden to defend!"
"He will have the mercy he deserves." Ned's voice shows no emotions and he keeps looking at her until Cauthrien lowers her head.
"Go, then," she whispers barely audibly.
As they approach the large, ornamental door, Alistair's heart slightly speeds up again. The final reckoning has come, and whatever else awaits behind that door. My own fate. And Loghain's, who deserves no mercy at all.
He exchanges glances with Ned, and together they push the door open.
Chapter 22 Loghain
Traitor. You will also be reckoned with, Loghain thinks as he listens to Eamon, welcoming the nobles at the Landsmeet. You used to be a fine warrior, a trustful ally, a worthy opponent – until you married that Orlesian whore who poisoned you with her scheming.
What a shame that I have to let you try and poison the ears of others; but I cannot interfere with the one who called the Landsmeet.
It was a mistake to be merciful with you.
So far, Eamon says nothing of importance, as can be expected from an introductory speech but even so, it pains Loghain that he has to tolerate this farce. Meanwhile, he makes use of the time to watch the reactions of the audience. From his position near the dais with the throne, Loghain can see almost all the faces of those present, and also of those accompanying Eamon.
Neither Alistair nor Ned Cousland are there.
Loghain can barely contain his fury. To think that he already had the insolent pup! When the trembling captain reported that the prisoner had escaped, he nearly had all the guards executed on the spot. Incompetent fools!
He does not know why the bastard and Cousland are staying back; however, when the guards reported that Eamon arrived without them, Loghain made his precautions.
Whatever it is that you plan, I'll thwart it.
Kind of unpleasant if your precious pretender does not turn up, Eamon, what do you say?
He would much like to think that young Cousland has turned tail but his messing with the Tevinters shows that he has not learned his lesson. Undoubtedly, you are going to use that unsavoury business against me, as well as my association with Howe – well, you are welcome to try your luck; after all, I have a thing or two to say your way, as well.
Anora. What have you done with her, you bastards?
Finally, Eamon's speech is coming to an end, and he receives mild applause.
Time to act. Loghain joins in, clapping exaggeratedly. "A fine performance, Eamon, but no-one here is taken in by it." As he speaks, he notices some commotion as the entrance and with disgust he recognizes its source. So Cauthrien has failed… The disappointment mingles with a surprisingly acute sense of loss – she'd never let him past while alive – but he cannot dwell on it at the moment. Pretending not to notice the newcomers, Loghain continues: "You would attempt to put a puppet on the throne and every soul here knows it. The better question is, who will pull the strings!"
By this time, Ned Cousland and his suite are almost half-way across the chamber – just in time to focus the attention on them. "Ah! Here comes the puppeteer!" Taking a full look at Cousland, Loghain almost scoffs, seeing the griffon emblem on the bluish dragonbone. You dare to display the sign of your betrayal? And you have put the bastard in silverite to mimic Maric? How cheap of you! He is somewhat puzzled, seeing the draped objects, carried by an old mage and a red-haired young woman. What is it that those lackeys of yours are carrying, baskets for your heads when I'm done with you?
As they come closer, Loghain uneasily notices that there seem to be no marks of fight on their armour: has Cauthrien failed so much?
Or has even she betrayed me?
Later. I will deal with this later. Loghain musters all his derision and contempt to continue: "Tell us, young Cousland: how will the Orlesians take our nation from us? Will they deign to send their troops, or simply issue their commands through this would-be prince? What did they offer you? How much is the price of Fereldan honour now?"
Cousland does not respond immediately; instead, he walks with his suite to the dais. The old mage take off the drape from the object that she is carrying, for everyone to see. Loghain feels the breath catch in his throat, and the ranks of the gathered noblemen murmur like trees in the wind.
A burial urn. With the royal insignia.
How dare they for such a fraud?
The woman, kneeling, places the urn on the dais with the throne. The red-haired girl also uncovers her load, and Loghain is barely surprised to see the familiar glint of gold of Cailan's breastplate and helm. He knows he has to act, and quickly, to shatter the effect of this unbelievable forgery, but as he opens his mouth to do so, Maric's bastard unsheathes his sword and places it next to the urn and breastplate, provoking yet another wave of awed whispers.
Everyone here knows and recognizes the glistening blade with the blue-glowing runes alongside. It's become a legend, as well as the one who wielded it.
Lost with Cailan at Ostagar.
So, if they have the sword…
The Landsmeet chamber is dead silent as Ned Cousland turns to Loghain, his voice ringing clear: "I am not the one who betrayed Ferelden!"
In response, Leonas Bryland stands up at the gallery. "Some of us are curious, Loghain, about precisely what happened at Ostagar!"
Loghain swallows hard, struggling to regain his composure. You or me, Cousland. I have to turn this against you. He raises his voice, in a tone of disbelief: "So, one of Cailan's murderers would dare to speak of betrayal?"
Their eyes clench in each other's as the fight of words starts, with equal determination. There must be a way to beat you. Loghain tries to bring up the image of the sobbing, next to broken boy in the fetters; to uncover the trail of weakness which must be there, to rip open that seemingly smooth shell of confidence… to no avail.
All he sees is the reflection of his own eyes.