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Chapter 3 Ned

The wet cobblestones, smoothened by thousands treading feet, make the walk through the streets of Denerim challenging; nonetheless, Ned keeps wandering purposelessly along the empty streets, ignoring the few late passers-by. All he knows that he has to move, to act; the stale atmosphere of helpless waiting at Eamon's residence has become too much to bear.

"It… doesn't go well." Eamon's brow is deeply furrowed; yet another day spent in fruitless negotiations has taken its toll. "So many seem indecisive… and the disappearance of Bann Sighard's son certainly did nothing to improve the atmosphere. No one can claim it for sure as Loghain's doing, and no-one can be sure it isn't."

Have I come through the nearly impossible only to be beaten by politics?

He strides through a dark alley: in a corner, there is a glimpse of a blade being drawn. Without slowing down, Ned puts his hand on the sword hilt: the warning is heeded, the lurking shadow retreats to find an easier prey. Ned is not relieved, though: in his current state of mind, a fight would be welcome.

Caught like a fly in a spiderweb. Cannot strike, cannot fight, only wait for the spider's move.

To think that once I thought the constant fighting a nuisance

The walk does not provide the relief he hoped for when he recklessly stormed out of Eamon's estate, into the night, on his own.

I should have told Alistair. We could have had a drink in some tavern.

But it's neither drink nor Alistair's company that he desires.

Yet another struggle where I can only wait while I am losing.

Passing the lit or dark windows, he briefly ponders the ordinary lives behind them: families gathered for dinner, or preparing for bed. A life almost past his imagination now.

And past my options, as well.

But it's not the family that he misses now; it's the closeness of contact… the intimacy.

"Leave me be!"

"Maker, how long do you intend to go on like this?"

And how long can I go on like this?

A house, fully lit; the sound of laughter and music: the merriment everyone can have, for a coin.

The Pearl.

Did his feet know better to bring him here?

With sudden revulsion, Ned walks faster to get past the brothel; then he abruptly turns and enters.

Why not, after all?

"What will my lord desire?"

What I desire you cannot give. "A company."

An inviting smile, and a gesture. "As it may please my lord. We have the best selection."

They do. A tall, elegant courtesan, with gracious movements, her hair of raven black and green cat-like eyes…

Ned turns away and picks a tiny, curly blonde whose eyes glint with sparks of mischief and lips constantly curve in a smile.

Later, after he almost comes to believe that there was also some pleasure for her and not just obligation in their conduct, he realizes what he had known all along: this is no help.

But it is not the courtesan's fault, and so he holds his temper and slips a golden coin in her hand as she attends him in putting on his drakeskin armour. It earns him a more or less genuine kiss and assurance that his presence will always be most welcome.

As she accompanies him along the quiet corridor, Ned suddenly remembers something. "Who is in there?" he motions at the door at the very end.

The smile vanishes. "I… do not know."

She doesn't look in his eye and he shrugs. "Never mind. You may leave now."

For a moment, Ned stands unmoving, then quietly approaches the door. What was that ridiculous password?

As could have been supposed, there are more of them, all four armed and looking forward to a combat.

So am I. Do you really think that you could kill yourself a Warden?

Howe's men.

Here you go, for all the naïve fools whom you have lured in here, Ned thinks as he plunges his sword in the chest of the first of them even before their leader finishes the sentence.

The remaining three will be more difficult to take down. As he ferociously deflects the blows, Ned realizes that he has become dangerously accustomed to Alistair's solid presence in fight. As he bashes off the elven hireling, he subconsciously expects Alistair to step in.

Instead, a blade drives deep in his shoulder and slides out with a gush of blood. Ned staggers; his counter-attack is blocked again.

None of them notices the intruder until the leader comes down with an arrow in his throat; the rest are a matter of no time at all.

Heavily breathing, Ned turns to face Leliana – a very angry Leliana whose eyes sparkle blue lightnings. "Are you nuts?" she yells.

"What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here? What are you doing here, and what would you be doing if I didn't find it strange that the little whore returned without you and looked more guilty than Maferath himself?" She snorts. "Now, sit down, you're bleeding like a fountain."

She's not particularly gentle when treating the wound and the room suddenly swirls. "Don't you dare to swoon," she grits through her teeth, "I'm not going to carry you."

As if you could.

"Idiot. After all we have been through, you would die in a tavern brawl?"

"It was no brawl. The were waiting here for Warden supporters."

"So it was a trap – and you walked in? Maker help me or I finish you myself! Alistair will tear off your head when he learns!"

"Did he send you to spy on me?"

For a moment it seems that he is for a slap, then Leliana says very calmly: "No, he did not. I was in the library when… you had the argument with Morrigan. Then I heard you going out, alone, so I decided to keep an eye on you. There was no time to alert anyone else, I was afraid that I could lose track of you meanwhile."

Ned is beginning to feel dizzy. "So I suppose thanks should be on the way."

"No need to." She gently presses his hand. "I am sorry."

He turns his head away, from her compassion. "Everyone's been telling me what I'm up to, and look, here it's come, the fool me."

Leliana hesitates. "It… didn't quite sound like what I would have expected. I think she actually – "

"Please. No more of this, not now. Let's just get out of here."

Ned is genuinely surprised that Leliana complies with his wish, and grateful; even more so that the way back to Eamon's takes much longer than he would have preferred and when they finally arrive, he barely finds the strength to walk past the guards on his own.

Without a word, Leliana takes him to his room and fetches Wynne, who also heals him without a single word, even though a return in the middle of the night, soaking wet with rain and blood, would certainly deserve a speech on recklessness and leader's obligations. Ned is too exhausted to ponder what Leliana may have told her, and falls asleep even before the healing is finished, which, as he suspects later, was probably Wynne's doing.

When he wakes, the sun shines through the curtains at an angle telling a late morning but he does not care: the tension of the previous days is gone.

Perhaps the better weather also marks the things turning for good.

His worst problem now is facing Wynne in daylight.

Chapter 4 Alistair

Bright sun shines through the high-set windows of Eamon's library, dazing the eyes. Alistair blinks several times. "Pinch me, someone," he asks. "I can't have waken yet. We are going to… rescue Loghain's daughter? From the supposed danger in the hands of her father's best pal? At the word of an elven maid?"

Ned gives him an amused look. "A maid with the most innocent brown eyes and quite a talent for acting. 'He loved Cailan like his son, does he like Anora more? Who can tell, non?'" His imitation exaggerates both the zeal and the accent.

"Oh yes, I forget: an Orlesian elven maid," Alistair mutters. "Why, of all the people, should Loghain's daughter keep an Orlesian maid –" he pauses as it dawns on him why they keep the company of an Orlesian – right, a Fereldan by birth but an Orlesian by the upbringing. "You think she's a bard?"

Ned twists a corner of his mouth. "I can't think of any other plausible explanation." He taps the elbow rest of his armchair with his fingers, then he laughs quietly and leans back, stretching his legs. "Anyway. This most probable Orlesian bard comes with a most improbable story, gives a heart-wrenching account of how Loghain loved Cailan, and does not forget to mention that Anora's support at the Landsmeet would be a valuable asset for us." He shakes his head. "Tell me, do I look like an idiot?"

The question is apparently rhetorical, yet Alistair never misses his chance. "Well – let me think for a moment."

"Think," Ned repeats with doubtful intonation. Alistair smirks inwardly, seeing Eamon's expression – I'd think you've had enough time to get used to this. The situation acutely reminds him of Duncan's reaction – the memory is bittersweet, since it was the last time he saw Duncan alive.

"Just so you know, if the king ever asks me to put on a dress and dance Remigold, I'm drawing a line, darkspawn or not."

An unexpected sound – Ned laughs, genuinely and wholeheartedly; the very first time Alistair hears him laugh since they met. "I'll get you some fancy stockings to go with the dress." He winks exaggeratedly. "You can trust my taste."

Duncan sighs at the exchange, his thought as clear as if articulated aloud: Oh, Maker. Two of them.

I do trust you, Alistair thinks, always will. "So, what do we do? Assist the lady in distress and hope we won't be in the need of assistance ourselves?"

"It would seem so. Even if I was willing to dismiss the whole Anora-in-danger thing as mere fabrication, I still cannot afford to miss our possibly only chance to sway the nobles to our side. We all know what our support currently looks like."

Eamon, up till now keeping silent, clears his throat. "Now matter how improbable the option seems to you, if they do kill Anora and blame it on us, the consequences will be disastrous."

Alistair raises his brows. "This reminds me of a guy back in the Chantry. He used to wear a helmet everywhere he went, in case a stone fell on him out of the blue sky. 'The chances are slim but I cannot take the risk', he used to say."

Ned snorts. "Exactly. Nonetheless, this is so evidently a trap that I simply cannot believe that they would actually expect me to believe it. It looks like a trap, it smells like a trap – what am I supposed to do when it eventually turns out to be a trap, yell 'gotcha'? I mean, what irritates me most is not the fact that it's a trap – after all, I guess I'd be disappointed if Loghain did not try anything – but that I have to walk in something that looks like a badly staged farce.

"I doubt very much that –" the gnawing thought finally makes itself manifest. "What do you mean, 'I'?" Since when is it 'I', not 'we'?

"Well – " Ned raises his brows in a perfect embodiment of innocence. "Since we know for sure that this is a trap, there's no reason why we should walk in it both, is there?"

"No reason? Like, you mean that you cannot expose me to risk? If I remember correctly, the undead, the demons, the werewolves, even the darkspawn were alright, but one Loghain is too much?"

Ned rises from his armchair, the spark of mischief in his eyes gone. "Alistair. Whatever we've been through, the danger was… undiscriminating. Impersonal. Whereas now – you are the key to our success. You are now more important than anyone else. I know it, you know it – and so does Loghain. All he has to do now to secure his position is to kill you. This is the endgame, do or die."

Alistair has to breathe very slowly. "Correct me if I am wrong – but since you have been the head figure in all we've done, the trap may well be set to ensnare you."

"So it may. Let's face the truth, Alistair – I've already done what I could. You are unexpendable now – I am not."

"What?" Alistair springs from his armchair. He knew – Maker, he knew that it would come to this, sooner or later, and now the face that Ned has made tells him that Matters Are Serious and that it has come to doing What Is Right. Maker, I hate this! "I'm simply not going to let you go through with this alone!"

"Nobody's asking for your permission."

Damn it, don't you try that cold poker face with me! "Maker's breath, Ned, you claim that you are going to make me king. Shouldn't you bloody well show some respect to what I want?"

Ned stares back at him for a moment, then says very softly: "When that day comes, I'll gladly bend my knee and swear fealty to you, you know that. But until then, I am the commander here."

You are. You made that crystal clear back then when you sacrificed Isolde. Not that I ever forgot but most of the time I have no problem with that.

Most of the time.

"Ned is right," Eamon interferes in the pause. "You will have to come to terms with the changes your new status will require– the sooner the better."

Great, that was exactly what I needed to hear, thank you oh so much – but it was all your idea, wasn't it. Alistair takes a deep breath. "I am very well aware that things have changed. It's just… It doesn't feel right." He looks Ned straight in the eyes. "Nothing I say really matters, does it?" Not waiting for the response, he sighs and continues: "Do me at least a favour – do take a decent armour for a change. I don't like the idea that a piece of lizard skin is all that stands between you and a little backstabbing job."

Ned blinks. "You mean I should go for a supposedly secret mission in my shiny clinky Warden Commander breastplate? Wouldn't it sort of spoil the effect? – Don't be silly, you know that the drakeskin is actually better against blades than most stuff you find at the market." Then he grins slightly, easing the atmosphere. "I'll leave Wolf with you, he's definitely no help for a quiet break-in."

"Great. I'm to be left in charge of one fleabag of a mabari. Anything else to take care of in your absence?

"No – but I think both of you could use some supervision, so I'm leaving Wynne behind, as well."

I see – the king-to-be is unfit to remain home alone. Great.

And the next sentence makes it even worse.

"Besides, you will need some support if I don't make it back."

Alistair loudly exhales in exasperation. Add a new item to the mental list of things-to-hate-about-the-royal-business: friends taking the risk instead of me.

And he can only pray to the Maker that the risk does not turn out to be a sacrifice.