"The schedule for today, Your Majesty." Erlina handed Anora a sheaf of parchment. "You have meetings with the Revered Mother and Arl Wulff this morning, and then we have half a dozen petitioners for King Alistair in the afternoon. I presume you will attend?"
"Mm, I think he can handle most of this without me," Anora replied, running her finger down the list of names. Two from the bottom, she stopped cold, then frowned. She turned the paper around and showed it to Erlina. "Did you know about this?"
Erlina read the name that Anora indicated with a tap of her nail, then looked back up, shaking her head. "If advance word was sent, I didn't hear of it."
"I see." Anora took back the list and sighed. She had put off this discussion with her husband for too long, she knew. This had been going on for six months; left unchecked, it could lead them all into disaster. The time had come to better acquaint him with the facts of his situation. "I need to meet with the king. If the Mother arrives before I return, please show her to the solar and see to her refreshment?"
"Yes, my lady." Erlina curtsied and left the room, and Anora took a moment to rummage through her desk. Once she found the items she sought, she went through the side door that led into the king's study.
As she had hoped, Alistair was there, alone, sitting at his desk, intent on a pile of papers. She crossed the room to stand behind him and observe him at work, marking up a treaty -- she recognized it, a trade agreement with Antiva -- taking notes, crossing out a provision here, initialing a change there. He seemed unaware of her presence until she cleared her throat, when he looked up with a start.
"Ah, Anora." He leaned back in his seat. "I wasn't expecting to see you until the afternoon. Is there something you need?"
She glanced out the window. "I hear you are receiving guests from Amaranthine today."
"That's right," Alistair replied with a nod. "Sereda will be here with a few of her men. I called the Grey Wardens here to discuss some reports of darkspawn trouble in Gwaren." Pushing his chair back all the way, he stood up and gave her a quizzical look. "Why do you ask?"
"How long will they be staying?"
Alistair shrugged. "A few nights, perhaps? Her response didn't say. But whether they decide to go back to Amaranthine first or head straight south, I expect she'll want to rest her team, provision, arrange meetings as long as she's here." He raised an eyebrow at her. "Why?"
She sighed, heavily. "Alistair, surely you must be aware that your affair with the Warden-Commander is the worst-kept secret in Ferelden."
A flush rose to Alistair's cheeks, and his eyes flicked downward. "Oh. That."
"Yes, 'that'." Anora crossed her arms. "I have been understanding, and I will continue to be so, but you must be more discreet. I will not have this matter be the subject of any more gossip than it already is."
His face turned an even brighter shade of scarlet, all the way up to his ears, and he poked at the ground with his toe, looking for all the world like a small boy caught with a fistful of forbidden cookies. "I thought we were being discreet," he mumbled. "But I suppose it's not as simple as just not spending every night together, is it?" He sighed. "I'm sorry. It's true, you have been more than reasonable about all this. The last thing I want to do is bring you grief in return."
"You haven't, yet," she said. "But I didn't bring this matter up to make you feel guilty." Well, not entirely. "I have something that might help. Here." She held up a small golden key, and he gave it a quizzical look.
"What does that open?"
She smiled. "Have you ever noticed a hidden door behind the tapestry next to your wardrobe?" He shook his head. "Take a look the next time you're in your chambers. Tonight, perhaps. Try this key, see where the passage goes." He held out his hand, and she pressed the key into his open palm; before she could move away, he closed his fingers around hers. His hands were so large, and yet he managed to be gentle, as though he carried an egg, or a small bird.
"Thank you, my lady," he said, softly. "I do not deserve your kindness."
She shrugged, but did not pull free. It was oddly intimate, his strong fingers enfolding her wrist, his expression as he looked down at her with bright eyes, and she found an unexpected feeling of tenderness rising up in her breast. The rush of emotion compelled her to kiss him, a swift peck on his cheek. "I'm not doing it only for you, Alistair. Keeping tongues from wagging is as much to my advantage as it is to yours."
"Still." He squeezed her hand again and brought it to his own lips, brushing them lightly across the back of her fingers. Then he let go, still holding on to the key. "Please, do join me with the Wardens at supper, if you aren't otherwise engaged."
Anora took only a split second to consider. "All right, I will." The Warden-Commander was an arlessa, after all, influential with the dwarves and many other factions within Ferelden and beyond. It was past time Anora got to know her better. "I'll see you then." With that, she turned and left him alone, still looking down at the key in his hand as though it would unlock his every secret desire.
It was always a strain to first meet with his love in the throne room. No one looked twice when the Grey Warden Alistair greeted Warden-Commander Sereda Aeducan with a clasp of hands and a swift kiss at Vigil's Keep, but it would not be an appropriate gesture from King Alistair Theirin, especially not with the queen standing behind him, her hand resting on the back of the throne, her gentle lecture still ringing in his ears. So, much as he longed to take her in his arms, he contented himself with a smile and the answering twinkle in her eyes, quickly hidden as she approached the dais and went down on one knee, and the five men with her followed suit. "Greetings, King Alistair, Queen Anora."
"You are welcome in Denerim, Warden-Commander, fellow Wardens," he replied. "Thank you for answering our summons."
When she rose, her expression was all business, and Alistair struggled to match it. "I would never ignore a call from you, Majesty, especially not where darkspawn are involved. We'll be heading for Gwaren in a few days, and whatever intelligence you can give me is welcome."
"Right. The reports are ready for you." Alistair acknowledged Anora by tilting his head in her direction. "Also, I've asked the Queen to dine with us tonight. As teyrna of Gwaren, I expect she'll have insights you may find helpful."
"Ah, good. I've never been to Gwaren. It'll be good to learn more from a native." Sereda nodded to Anora, who nodded back with a smile that most people would have seen as genuine. For himself, Alistair was still never quite sure. But he still thought inviting Anora to join them had been the right decision. More often than not, he went to great lengths to keep his wife and his love separated, in his mind as well as in physical space, but he began to wonder if that had been the wisest course of action. Maybe it was time to build some bridges between the two sides of his life.
But that was a train of thought best saved for later. He looked back to Sereda. "If you would be kind enough to wait in the East Wardroom, where the advance scouts from Gwaren are waiting. I'll join you there within the hour." It was a signal he had devised for her visits to the palace: had he invited her to his office, it meant that his time with her would be limited, and so he must arrange for stolen moments. But today, a key was burning a hole in the pocket of his trousers. He didn't yet know where the secret door led, but he thought it likely that his night would be free to spend as he chose.
Sereda bowed her head in acknowledgement of the order, the quick smile of pleasure that flickered across her face for Alistair's eyes alone, gone before anyone else could take note. "Of course, your Majesty. I'll see you there." She took the implied dismissal and went out the side door that led to the wardroom he had indicated; Alistair longed to watch her go, but mindful of Anora's eyes on him, he forced his attention to the next group of petitioners that approached the dais, ready to adjudicate whatever petty matter they might be bringing to his attention.
"The quarters I'm usually assigned to are in the other direction," she said with a frown. "Why have they given me different ones?"
The guard shrugged. "My orders were to bring you here, ser," he said.
Sereda glanced around her team, but none of them had ever been to the palace before; no help there. "All right, lead the way." She followed the guard down the halls and two flights of stairs, and stopped when he did, outside a heavy pair of double doors.
"These are your rooms, ser, and the other Grey Wardens will billet in the suite down the hall."
"Thanks." Sereda dismissed her men to their quarters with a wave, then let the guard push open the door to her rooms. They were considerably smaller than the ones she was used to, and she turned around, raising her eyebrows at the guard. "Okay, really. What's going on here?"
"Er, I don't know, ser. They just give me orders, they don't tell me why." The guard shifted uncomfortably to his other foot.
"I gave the order, Warden." The voice came from the corner of the parlor, and Sereda turned to see Queen Anora perched on the edge of the couch, hands folded in her lap. "Thank you, Cedric, that will be all."
The guard bowed to the queen, then to Sereda, and backed out of the room, closing the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone. Anora inclined her head, just a bit to the side. "Pardon the intrusion. But I wished to speak with you alone, and I felt this venue would attract the least attention."
"Fair enough." Sereda pulled herself to her full height and crossed her arms. "What do you want to talk about?"
"You and I -- we do not know each other as well as I would like," Anora replied. "It is a curious position we have found ourselves in, is it not?" She raised her eyebrows and shuffled in her seat, as though she wanted to stand but could not, perhaps reluctant to use the advantage of height unfairly, a gesture which Sereda appreciated. As a concession of sorts, Sereda sat down in an overstuffed armchair next to the couch, and Anora let out a breath. "As de facto arlessa of Amaranthine, you are my subject, and yet by the customs of the Grey Wardens you fall outside my jurisdiction. I confess, I'm not always sure which courtesies to observe. Are you one voice of the Landsmeet, or a visiting dignitary to be treated accordingly?"
"As your subject, of course." Sereda shook her head. "My superiors at Weisshaupt have made that quite clear: as far as the internal affairs of Ferelden are concerned, I'm just another member of the nobility. Warden business remains separate, of course, and I'm under orders to recuse myself from questions of international relations. But otherwise, you should consider me just another arlessa."
"Hm." Anora considered Sereda for a moment, then nodded. "Perhaps. But then there is your... connection with my husband. A situation of which we are both fully aware, yet it has been left without discussion since the day you arranged our betrothal."
"Now there's an awkward subject, Your Majesty," Sereda said. "I'm aware of the need for discretion, which leads me to act as though no one at court knows, except for you. But that's not true, I suppose."
Anora raised her chin, just a touch of her usual coolness slipping into her face. "Not in the slightest. It would not quite be fair to describe it as common court gossip, but 'open secret' might be accurate. In fact, I just spoke to Alistair regarding the need for greater subtlety on his part just this morning."
"And mine?" Sereda could not quite keep a tone of irritation out of her next words. "It's true, I'm not quite as discreet in my own domain as I could be, but then we don't hide our relationship from the Wardens. But as I expect you are well aware, I know how to behave myself in the public spaces of a royal court." She lifted her eyebrows and glared, as if daring Anora to say differently.
In response, Anora lifted her shoulders in a small shrug. "Does a king truly have any privacy in his own palace? There are servants everywhere. Guards, courtiers, visitors. Surely you are aware of that, as well."
Sereda forced back a scowl; given all that had happened since she was last a permanent resident of a royal palace, her memories felt dim and misty, but Anora was right: she should have thought of this, because Alistair would not.
"That is why we are here, and why I directed you to these quarters." Anora held out her hand to show Sereda the silver key she held. "Take it," she said. "It opens a secret door, hidden behind a painting in the bedchamber, that leads somewhere I think you will find to be of great interest."
"Thank you." Sereda examined the key for a moment; the head was finely wrought, and the lock it opened was probably a complex mechanism. Then she raised her eyebrow at the queen. "I think."
"You will thank me." The words had the ring of a promise, and Anora stood up with a small bow. "Please, if there's anything that can be done to make this chamber more comfortable, don't hesitate to ring. I've stationed Cedric at the door."
"All right. I suppose I'll see you at dinner?"
"Indeed. Good afternoon, Warden." Anora nodded again, this time in farewell, and left; Sereda flopped back into the chair and studied the key, wondering.
But she had made it through, and now she found herself alone in her room. With a shrug, she went to the hidden door -- now that she knew it was there, she was mildly disgusted with herself for not noticing it on her own. Examining the lock, she thought she could probably have picked it, given the right tools and enough time, but why bother? Maybe later, for practice. Instead, she pulled the key out of her pocket and used it to open the door, checking the inside for traps out of habit. Sereda couldn't see Anora realizing much profit from her death, but if she had learned anything from her life so far, it was to always be wary of royal motives.
Two unlit torches rested in brackets just inside the doorway. Sereda removed them, fired them both, and returned one to its place. Then she checked the door to ensure that it could not be locked behind her before stepping into the corridor, leaving the door open a crack. The passage was narrow, following the wall of her chamber before turning sharp right to a stone stairwell. Another door was at the top of the stairs, closed and locked; Sereda tried the key, and it turned in a lock stiff with disuse. There was a single bracket on the wall by the door, and she deposited the torch there before pushing the door open.
She found herself in a bedroom about the same size as the one she had left behind her. A sofa and two chairs were set in front of a fireplace, a four-poster bed rested in the corner. There were two other doors on the opposite wall, one locked closed, the other slightly ajar. A fire had been lit, and a bottle of ale and two glasses were on the low table in front of the sofa. There were no windows, but Sereda found that comforting as much as anything. It was a cozy space, a perfect getaway for a king and his mistress, or for a secret meeting with an ambassador, or any other rendezvous that needed to be kept hidden from prying eyes. She wondered who had first built it, and why. It had to have taken careful planning -- this wasn't like Orzammar, where extra rooms could be carved from the rock on a whim.
A key rattled in the lock of the closed door, and then it opened, revealing Alistair, looking softer and more dashing in a loose linen shirt and casual suede pants, a torch in his hand, his mother's medallion and his Grey Warden pendant hanging around his neck. After setting the torch in place, he shut the door behind him and crossed the room to Sereda in only a few steps, eyes bright and fixed on her. Without a word, he cupped his hand around her cheek and bent down for a kiss, mouth hard on hers. She twined her hands around his neck and kissed him back, opening to the sweep of his tongue with a soft gasp. He groaned in response, his hand sliding up into her hair, his other arm coming around her back and crushing her to him.
He swept her up in his arms, one around her shoulders and another behind her knees, still kissing her as he carried her to the couch, settling her on his lap. She brought a hand up his face, letting her fingertips rest on his temples and brush through his hair. The kisses became softer now, light and swift, one tumbling into the next as though they would devour one another. But not even Alistair's hands sliding up and down Sereda's back could fully distract her from her curiosity, and she pulled away and let her head rest on his shoulder. "What is this place?" she asked. "Did you know about it?"
Alistair shook his head and hitched his arm around her, pulling her tight against his chest. "Anora told me about it today, gave me the key to a secret door I'd never even noticed." He pulled a golden key out of his pants pocket and set it on the table, next to the ale. "Was there a passage connecting our rooms all this time, and we never even knew?"
"No, I was placed in different quarters today. Queen's orders. And she gave me a gift, too." Sereda extracted her own key from her belt pouch and laid it next to Alistair's, noticing that it differed from the other in both material and shape. "So, it seems that Anora has arranged this tryst for us. I'm not sure how to feel about that."
"You and me both," said Alistair with a twist of his mouth. "Rarely does my wife make any move without a deeper purpose."
A floorboard creaked behind them, and Sereda whipped her head around, launching out of Alistair's arms and to the other side of the couch, relaxing only a little as an elven servant appeared through the third door, a tray of food in her hands. "Good evening, your Majesty, m'lady Warden," the elf said with a small curtsey. "I was asked to bring refreshments, and to ask if there is anything else you require."
"Asked by whom?" Alistair sat up, the scowl on his face lightening a bit as he noticed the wheel of cheese on the tray, and Sereda couldn't help but smile. Just like a Warden, always easy to influence through his stomach.
"The queen, if it please you, sire." The elf set the tray down on a table by the door and locked her hands behind her back. "She bid me serve you tonight. The bell on the other end of that pull will call me at need." The servant indicated the white cord to the left of the door. "The black rope by the bedside will call the Guard-Captain, whose quarters are at the other end of this corridor. This room is very secure, sire, but precautions must still be taken."
Sereda sat up, curiosity getting the better of her. "Who else knows about this place?"
The elf shook her head. "It's a closely-guarded secret, my lady. The Queen, the Guard-Captain, the head steward and a few of his staff. I had never even heard rumors of it until today."
"Ah." Alistair nodded to her. "Well, I think I'm sorted for the evening, with the ale and the provisions you've brought. And you, my dear?"
Sereda shook her head. "I'm fine. But we'll call if we need anything."
"Very well. Good night your Majesty. Warden." The servant curtsied again, then backed out the door, closing it behind her.
When she had gone, Alistair stretched his arm along the back of the couch, and Sereda leaned into it, and him. "The plot thickens," he muttered. "A private room for use of the king, accessible only by himself, the Guard-Captain, and one selected guest." He popped his head up and looked around the room, brows knitted. "Unless there are more secret doors we don't know about?"
"No, it's clean," said Sereda. "First thing I looked for. If there are other doors or traps, they're very well hidden."
"You would know, my love." Alistair pulled her closer and kissed the crown of her head. "Well, now. I can think of a thousand reasons a king might need a secret room like this, but at this particular moment, I only care about one." He ran his fingers through her hair and cupped the back of her head, turning her to face him, eyes heavy with promise and need. "Therefore, I propose we take advantage of this arrangement, seeing as it provides the only true privacy you and I have ever enjoyed."
"A brilliant plan." She turned in his arms and kissed him, her hands coming up under his shirt, his own gripping her shoulders; she pulled off his shirt and pushed him back down to the couch. The bed looked comfortable enough, but it could wait. There would be plenty of time to discover its considerable charms.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
Alistair grinned at her, taking a muffin from the basket as he sat. "A man needs a reason to take breakfast with his wife?"
Anora sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. "When his mistress is visiting and presumably staying the night? Yes. He does."
Instead of blushing or stammering, Alistair only chuckled and cracked open the muffin, slathering it with butter before popping it in his mouth. He ate the half in three bites, then looked up, meeting her eyes with a smile. "Two reasons," he said. "One, Sereda got up early to train and meet with potential recruits, so she's already out for the day. And also, I wanted to thank you." He set down his muffin and held up the key to the secret passage. "Has that room always been in the palace? How did you know about it?"
"As far as I know, the secret room was a part of the palace's original design. And as for how I learned of it-- the truth is, your father told me."
Alistair stopped, the mug of tea halfway to his mouth, and he raised his eyebrows. "King Maric? Not Cailan?"
"Maric," Anora confirmed with a nod. "Not long after Cailan and I were betrothed, he showed me the room and passageways and entrusted me with the location of the keys, and asked me to tell his son, if he ever needed to make use of it." Her mouth twisted, as she thought about the purposes Cailan would have found for a secret room. "I never knew Cailan to have legitimate need for it. You do."
"Huh." Alistair sat back in his chair, wrapping both hands around the mug. He looked down into it, then back up at Anora. "I am honored, that you would share my father's secret with me." He drank, then set the mug down and picked the key back up, turning it over in his hands. "In that case, do you want to hold on to these? I can collect the other before Sereda leaves for Gwaren."
Anora shook her head. "I trust you with them. In particular, I trust her. The guest room at the other end is nearer to the practice arena, so no one will question the Wardens billeting there in the future. And there is no one else whom you might need to meet secretly in the palace." She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Is there?"
"No, of course not." Alistair closed his hand around the key again, then met her eyes with a warm smile. "Thank you, Anora. I can't tell you how much this means to me." He ate the rest of his muffin, grabbed three more from the basket to stick in his pockets, and then leaned over the table to kiss Anora lightly on the forehead. "I'll see you this afternoon."
She murmured in agreement and then he was gone, leaving her alone with breakfast and a conviction that she had done the right thing.