"I've got something for you," Zin said, striding into the room. Alistair dropped the book he was studying and stood up. He hadn't even known Zin was going out, but now Zin was here with cool night air hanging in his clothes and hair, dragging a sack full of heavy things, and holding out a large cloth-wrapped object to Alistair.
As soon as he took it, he knew what it was by the weight and shape, and Alistair shook his head. "But I've got a good shield," he said.
"I know. But just look at it."
Alistair unwrapped the cloth, and the Grey Warden griffon insignia shone up at him. He turned the shield over, out of habit checking for identifying marks, and that's when he saw the mark scratched into one corner, a mark he recognized very well. Every report, every set of orders he'd ever seen Duncan pen had been signed like that. His breath caught in his throat.
"This is Duncan's shield," Alistair said. He stared, unable to tear his eyes away. "I mean, I didn't even know he had a shield. He never used it. But this is -- just look at the--"
"It's yours now," Zin said. "You can carry it into battle if you want, the way he didn't." He touched his fingertips to Alistair's face. "I know he'd want it to protect you."
"Thank you," Alistair said, trying hard not to choke up. And probably not succeeding very well, because Zin took the shield out of his hands and leaned it against the end of the couch, and dragged him down to sit in a tight embrace.
Alistair pressed his face against Zin's neck. Duncan's shield. It just didn't seem possible, but there it was.
"It's perfect for you, babe," Zin said. He kissed Alistair's temple and the top of his ear. "You look so much like a Theirin, especially in your brother's armor, but if you carry this shield, everyone who sees you will know that you're a Grey Warden as well."
"Where did you find it?" Alistair leaned back and surreptitiously wiped at his eyes with his shirtsleeve. He would have blotted them on Zin's collar, except Zin was in full mail, so it didn't seem like such a good idea.
"In that secret vault Riordan talked about." Zin grinned. "It's unbelievable, really -- the wardens had a secret cache of stuff, weapons mostly, and the entrance was from that warehouse across from the Wonders of Thedas, I've been in there I don't know how many times, but I never spotted the door." He shook his head. "Embarrassing, really."
Alistair grinned, and felt the urge to burst into tears fade away. Which was probably what Zin intended. "Some rogue you are," he teased. He looked at the stuff Zin had set down just inside the door. "That's it? The wardens had a secret cache, and it fit in one sack? That's not very impressive."
Zin grinned back. "No. I just wanted to bring back that shield for you, and a couple of other things. We'll go tomorrow and bring some of Eamon's men, and he can help us sort out what can be shared out among the soldiers, and what can be sold to buy the equipment we need."
A swift knock on the door was followed by Leliana's red head poking inside. "Oh, hello," she said to Zin with a bright smile, and then her eyes went to Alistair. "I believe I found what you were looking for."
"That's good," Alistair said. "That's... really good. You should come in and tell us about it."
Leliana slipped inside. She was wearing a plain green dress that left her shoulders bare, and looked for all the world like a maidservant on her day off. The illusion was only spoilt when she dropped down to sit on the rug in front of Alistair and Zin. The dress was long enough to let her sit cross-legged, its folds draped neatly around her knees, but no maid would act like that.
Next to Alistair, Zin straightened up. "Wait, have you two been conspiring?"
"Yes," Alistair said. "Leliana has helped me with a villainous plot."
Leliana gave a little gurgle of laughter. "Terribly wicked," she agreed. "I went to the chantry." She smiled at Zin. "It may not be the most villainous place in Denerim, but they keep very good records in the chantry."
Zin frowned, looking at Alistair and at Leliana and at Alistair again. "I suppose they do, but... Records of what?"
"Heir-arrangements," Alistair said. "I asked Leliana to find me some information about heir-arrangements."
The look on Zin's face was more than Alistair could have hoped for. "But," he said helplessly. "But... we can't do that. That's just a merchant custom."
"Nowadays, yes," Leliana said. "But did you know that the first heir-arrangement in Ferelden was made between a grandson of Calenhad and the eldest daughter of the bann of Rainesfere?"
"It's a legally binding custom," Alistair said. "And apparently it's a custom that comes with a royal precedent. That's really more than I'd hoped for. Thank you, Leliana."
She waved away his thanks. "I enjoyed reading those old records," she said, "and spending time in the chantry. The smell of all that clean-scrubbed wood and all those burning candles, you know." Leliana smiled. "It's so peaceful in there."
Alistair tugged Zin a little closer. "I should have told you," he said. "I know I should have told you before I asked Leliana to investigate. I just didn't want us to start having this discussion again before we had facts to discuss. I knew about heir-arrangements, but I didn't know if they were established at all outside of the merchant class."
"Surely," Leliana said, "you can't have a better example to follow than a direct descendant of Calenhad himself. I understand that heir-arrangements are mostly used by the lower classes these days, and of course they aren't frequent, but the custom exists because of that royal precedent."
"Royal precedent sounds like just what we need," Alistair said. All he'd been hoping for was a legal loophole, something that would make this possible. But being able to point to a grandson of Calenhad as an example, rather than some random importer of woolen goods, would make this much, much easier.
Leliana nodded. "Even more importantly, the law exists because of that precedent, and any children from an heir-arrangement will be considered fully legitimate and able to inherit from the parent whose heir they have been designated as. Of course. That is the whole point of an heir-arrangement, after all."
"Yes." So it was, and this information was everything that Alistair had hoped for. He just wasn't sure how Zin was taking it.
When he met Leliana's eyes, she jumped to her feet and nodded briskly at them both. "I will just fetch us some wine," she said with a swift wink at Alistair.
She went out of the room, and Alistair turned his head to look at Zin. "The one thing I never expected you to be is quiet," he said.
Zin looked back. "You really want to marry me," he said. "You've thought about this."
"Er. Yes?" Alistair said. Truth to tell, he felt as if he hadn't thought about anything but, recently. "I reckon this way there's at least as good a chance of an heir as if I married some random woman, with the added bonus that I don't have to marry some random woman. Which is pretty much the point."
"You... You found a way to have an heir, and to marry as you please."
"Leliana found it, really," Alistair said. "If it had been left to me, I would probably have fallen asleep over the chantry records."
"I would never have..." Zin shook his head. "They'll tell you it's not done, among the nobility. They'll tell you you can't follow merchant customs when you're king. Finding that royal precedent was brilliant. It's, it changes everything."
"I never expected that." Alistair leaned back on the couch. "I just thought, merchants do it sometimes, it has to be legal, there has to be a way it can work for us, too."
Zin kissed him. Alistair wasn't entirely sure why, but he kissed back, because he wasn't stupid. (Despite Morrigan's persistent comments on the matter.) "You're brilliant," Zin said, and Alistair wouldn't have gone quite that far, himself. "This is--" Zin's eyes glittered, blue and green and a glint of silver. "This could actually work."
"That's the idea,"Alistair said. Things weren't as cuddly as they could have been, because of the chainmail, but he had Zin in his arms.
"In fact, Alfstanna would probably do it. She doesn't have an heir to her bannorn, either, except for her brother, and, well, there's a reason she's the bann instead of Irminric. And now he's a templar, anyway."
Leliana came back with a bottle in one hand and several glasses in the other, the stems fanning out between her fingers. She smiled at them, sat back down on the floor, and began to pour. "Bann Alfstanna?" she said. "I think she would be an excellent choice."
"Has anyone heard," Alistair said, feeling a bit awkward about asking, "I mean, how is her brother doing now?"
"We should find out," Zin said. "It would make a good way to start the conversation. Negotiation." That look in Zin's eyes was past a glitter, it was an unholy gleam. Alistair knew what that look meant: he was plotting. "It's probably better to talk to her first, Eamon second. Present it as a done deal."
"Yes," Leliana agreed. "Otherwise, even if he agrees to the idea, he is bound to have his own, ah, candidates for the role. But he couldn't reasonably object to Bann Alfstanna."
"What about you, babe?" Zin looked at Alistair. "I know this was your idea, so I know you've thought about it. But you're the one who's going to have sex with her."
Alistair willed himself not to blush. It worked about as well as it always did. "And she's going to have to, um, with me," he said. "I think we'd better find out if she's interested, first of all."
"She'll be interested," Zin and Leliana said with one voice, then looked at each other with almost identical crooked grins.
The arl came home late that afternoon after yet another day spent with his old cronies. He made noises about wanting to talk fairly soon, to sit down and discuss their plans and progress, but since Alistair and Zin were agreed that it would be better for them to speak with Bann Alfstanna first, they spent the evening avoiding him, which wasn't difficult in something the size of the arl's Denerim estate.
They went around speaking to their companions, checking on them. Alistair was a bit concerned that perhaps everyone was bored, cooped up in the estate, but that turned out not to be the case -- neither the boredom nor the being cooped up, actually. Apparently everyone had spent a fair bit of time wandering the city, or just the marketplace. Even Shale, whose appearance was the most likely to startle the citizens of Denerim, had been out with Leliana and with Wynne, and approved of the estate's small courtyard, which was remarkably free from pigeons.
It seemed to Alistair that Zin was unusually quiet. He noticed it first when they were sitting with Oghren, and thought it was just that Zin had run out of ways to say that he didn't want to take part in a drinking contest with Oghren and some off-duty guards, but when they wandered off again, carrying a small bottle of wine as a gift for Wynne, Zin was still a little withdrawn.
Alistair took his hand. "What's wrong?" he said.
"Nothing." Zin slipped his fingers between Alistair's. "I'm fine." It looked to Alistair as though he had to fetch his smile from farther away than usual, though.
Wynne appreciated the bottle of wine, and Alistair went off to fetch her a glass, because of course they'd forgotten that. When he came back, he saw Wynne saying something to Zin that made Zin's face shut down completely. Alistair glared, but before he could ask any questions, Zin took the glass and set it down in front of Wynne and dragged Alistair away.
"What was that!" Alistair hissed; he would have shouted, but they were right outside the arl's study, and he suspected the arl's presence would not actually help.
"Nothing," Zin said again. "She just reminded me of a conversation we had before. Come, it's nearly time for dinner. We shouldn't have bothered to get Wynne a glass just now."
Once again, Alistair had to sit through a dinner at the arl's table that was much too long, and although he appreciated the food, which was good and plentiful, all he wanted was to be done and to leave, and to find a place where he could be alone with Zin for a proper talk. So of course Zin took his time, chewing slowly and adding enough to the slightly stiff conversation between Arl Eamon and Anora to keep it going. Alistair tried to work out if she was Queen Anora these days, or if she was the former queen, or what.
No, she had to be queen, still; that wouldn't have stopped just because Cailan died. If she wasn't queen, Loghain couldn't have become regent for her. But was she really and truly queen of Ferelden, with the right to rule the country? Alistair didn't know for certain. He thought she probably didn't know, either, and that did explain a fair bit.
When the dinner finally ended, Zin escorted Anora to her room, and Alistair loomed behind them, feeling very conspicuous and in the way, but unwilling to let Zin out of his sight.
"...and of course your support would be crucial," Anora was saying, and Alistair would have pointed his ears if he'd been able. "Eamon will listen to you, and no doubt several of the other nobles will listen to Eamon."
"Yes, I'm sure they will," Zin said. "I bid you good night, my lady." He handed her over to Erlina and closed the door behind them with great dispatch. "There." He gave Alistair a sidelong look. "We'd probably do better in bed, too, babe."
They tumbled into Zin's room together; for a wonder, it was empty, even Serpent having chosen to go somewhere else. Just the two of them, and a fire burning low in the fireplace, wasteful and welcome. The weather wasn't anywhere near cold enough for a fire, but at this late hour and deep inside the house, it was still pleasant.
Alistair locked the door, and they curled up on the bed in a comfortable tangle. Zin was still quiet, but he was also extremely affectionate. Alistair tried to ask him again if there was something on his mind, but the kisses were very distracting. Extremely distracting. Only the knowledge that this was, in fact, Zin's preferred method of distraction for both Alistair and himself made Alistair find the inner reserves to push back onto one elbow, keeping Zin at a distance with a hand on his chest.
"Tell me what's wrong."
Zin's hair was over his eyes. "You're not kissing me."
"Because there's something wrong. Besides me not kissing you, I mean."
Zin sighed. "Andraste's lacy apron strings, what does a man have to do to get laid around here?"
"You could tell me what's wrong," Alistair suggested.
"Or you could stop going on about it," Zin said, glancing down. Alistair realized that while his hand was still firm on Zin's chest, his thumb was rubbing gentle circles into Zin's skin, just for the pleasure of touch. "I've told you nothing's wrong, you want to have sex, I want to have sex, and I don't see why there's talking when there should be kissing. And fucking."
"Maybe because I want to know why I'm suddenly in bed with a hedgehog," Alistair said. "Are you... you're actually snapping at me for not kissing you. And, um, other things."
"Kissing's important," Zin said. "So's fucking. And listen, babe, if you ever want to have sex again--" Then he broke off and shook his head and made a dry little sound that might have been just a loud exhale, or a laugh that never really got started.
"Are you going to finish that sentence?" Alistair said after a while. "I mean, it might have a lot to do with my future."
Zin sighed. "If you ever want to have sex again," he said, "all you have to do is tell me. I thought that was pretty obvious by now." He tilted his head up, shaking the hair back out of his eyes, and suddenly he looked naked. Well, he was naked, but that had nothing to do with it. "It's just. Babe, are you sure about this?"
"About what?" Alistair tried to stop stroking Zin's chest, because that stealthy little caress didn't fit with the conversation, or at least he didn't think so. It was difficult, though. "About ever wanting to have sex again, yes, I'm pretty sure about that, and about wanting to know what's wrong, yes to that too. There is a reason I asked so many times, you know."
"No, I mean." Zin gave him a crooked little smile. "This heir-arrangement thing, with Alfstanna. Or with anyone. If you got married to someone else, you could make an excellent alliance--"
"Better than Highever?" Alistair broke in. "Are you telling me I could marry someone fancier than a Cousland, because I'm not sure I believe that."
"Well, you could always marry Anora."
Now Alistair did stop touching Zin. "She was married to my brother," he said. "She's Loghain's daughter. And she hates me. And I want to marry you."
"It would unite the country," Zin said. "Give a sense of stability and continuity."
"It wouldn't give me a sense of stability," Alistair said, "it would give me a sense of complete terror." He tried to imagine being married to Anora, but he just couldn't do it. Also, a feeling of cold unease was starting to grow, slowly, in the pit of his stomach. "I know I kind of sprang this on you," he said slowly. "I mean, the marriage thing and the heir-arrangement thing. But I thought you agreed to it. That it was a good idea."
"Yes," Zin said. "Well. It is a good idea. But it'll take a lot of fast talking to get everyone to agree. It would be easier for you if you chose a more conventional alternative."
Alistair fell back on the wrinkled sheets, sending up a puff of herbal scent, whatever they used to store with their linens here, something dry and bitter but not unpleasant. "You're the last person I'd expect to tell me to be conventional," he said, staring up at the ceiling. "What did Wynne say to you, to make you think like this?"
"It wasn't... She just reminded me of things," Zin said. "Of who I am, of who you are. And if I marry you, it will look as if I'm only doing it to benefit the Couslands, to advance my own interests."
"Oh, and Anora would marry me out of the goodness of her heart, would she?" Alistair rolled onto his side so he could see Zin again. "Or this unknown highborn bride that the arl would suggest, I'm sure she'd be in love with me already and it would have nothing to do with her family name."
"She'd fall in love with you," Zin said. "I don't see how--"
"I don't see how anyone could not." Hair in his eyes again, and Alistair had never felt such an urge to cut it short. He needed to see what Zin was thinking. "I did."
"So marry me," Alistair said, voice rising with the desperation of it. "Stop trying to, to foist me off on someone else, I don't want someone else, that's the whole point here. I know this probably isn't-- You're a Cousland and I'm dragging you into some merchant custom that you never imagined would have anything to do with you. I'm sorry, but it was the only thing I could think of that would let us be together." He shook his head helplessly. The cold unease was spreading through his entire body now. "And I thought you thought it was a good idea. I want to marry you, Zin. More than anything."
Zin shook his head. "No, I-- Babe, I'm so proud of you for coming up with that, I'm entirely humbled by the lengths you're willing to go to. It's just that the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it's the best thing for you. You deserve something easier, something better, and--"
"No, shut up," Alistair said. "You're the best thing for me. Zin. I love you. I want to marry you. Or are you saying," the bottom of his stomach dropped out, "that you'd rather not--"
"No, of course that's not what I'm saying! I just--"
Someone scratched on the door, followed by a bit of vigorous knocking. Alistair froze. Zin got up and wrapped something around his waist -- Alistair rather thought it was his shirt -- and stalked over to open the door. Alistair himself sat up on the edge of the bed and dragged the sheet over his hips. Something large and furry charged into Zin's legs, and then Serpent was bounding around the room while Zin staggered against the doorjamb.
"He insisted on coming in here," Leliana said apologetically. "Also, I think you should know..."
"My dear warden," Zevran said smoothly, and Alistair clutched the sheet tighter, "I think perhaps the two of you should be a little more quiet. Anyone passing through the hallway could hear what you were saying."
Alistair felt himself flush, starting at the toes.
"I don't doubt you could hear every word," Zin said.
"Mm, no. Only about every other word, but I believe that would be quite enough even for the not very perspicacious arl."
Alistair reached down and scratched Serpent between the ears. "Oh, I'll bet. Did you do that on purpose?" Serpent barked at him, not too loudly, and sat down on Alistair's feet. Alistair sighed and went on with the scratching.
After some more muttered conversation, Zin closed the door and came back to the bed. He dropped down next to Alistair and took Serpent's head in both hands. "You're never going to let me hear the end of this, are you." Serpent rumbled happily, then lunged up and licked Zin across the face. "Oh, now you're just being smug."
"I suppose we'd better..." Alistair looked at Zin, feeling tentative and awkward.
"Sleep," Zin said. "We'd better go to bed and sleep. Got to be well-rested and sharp tomorrow when we see Alfstanna."
So they got back in bed again, and Alistair didn't know whether to wrap himself around Zin or not; before he could figure it out, Serpent landed heavily across their feet, pinning them in place. They were close enough that their bodies were touching, and Alistair tucked the tips of his fingers underneath Zin's hip.
Waking up the next morning, they were all tangled up, and Serpent was still sprawled on their feet. Alistair liked waking up like that, close and warm, but as soon as he was awake enough to think, he remembered what they were going to do that day. He could see the awareness in Zin's eyes, too, and then Serpent woke up and made it clear that he needed to be let out right that moment.
They'd agreed ahead of time that it would be best to talk to Bann Alfstanna in her Denerim home, rather than ask her to come to Arl Eamon's estate. The Waking Sea house in Denerim was small compared with the arl's, but situated in a very respectable part of town, not far from the royal palace itself.
The tricky part was getting there without telling Arl Eamon what they were about to do. He mentioned over breakfast that he wanted to introduce them both to his old friend Bann Jessco and her daughter Dian. Her very eligible daughter, Alistair thought. It wasn't Zin who needed to be introduced, here.
They ended up grabbing Riordan for camouflage and saying that they were going out on Grey Warden business.
"So what is this business we have?" Riordan asked as they crossed the courtyard together. "It doesn't actually involve me, does it? The pair of you are being remarkably secretive."
"We'll have to go on being secretive for a while yet," Zin said. "You should take the opportunity to go have a drink somewhere. Somewhere that doesn't have Oghren challenging you to a drinking contest every time you pick up a glass, I mean."
"As long as you watch it being poured," Alistair said, half-forgotten warnings coming back to him. "Don't take it from a stranger. I know we're not dealing with Howe any more, but that's what happened to both you and Oswyn, and I don't want to find out that he taught his favorite trick to Loghain."
"It's a bit early for a drink. But I will keep a low profile," Riordan said. "Falling for the same trick twice would be shameful. And wherever you two are off to, I trust that you will be careful, too."
"Oh, there's no need to worry about us," Alistair said. He looked at Zin. "I think."
"No." Zin smiled. He was smooth as glass today. "No, we won't be in any danger." His smile grew a little more genuine in the face of Riordan's polite skepticism. "Warden's word of honor."
"I will not disbelieve that. Though I trust Duncan taught you that the warden watchword is usually expediency, not honor." Riordan nodded at the pair of them. "I'll see you later, then," he said and sauntered off in the direction of a back alley that had a quiet little alehouse.
"Oghren says that place is about to go out of business," Zin said. "Nobody goes there any more." He nodded decisively. "That seems like the best choice."
Alistair fell into step beside Zin as Zin started to walk. At this hour, Denerim was still very nearly cool in places, especially in alleys so narrow that the sun never reached them. Still, the city-smell was thick between the houses. Alistair appreciated the heap of refuse they passed, because the aging cabbage leaves kept him from smelling the open sewer entrance.
After a little while, and a few alleys, he cleared his throat. "I know this didn't really work last night, but... will you tell me what's wrong? And does it have anything to do with why we're taking the stinkiest way possible to get where we're going?" Alistair frowned. "It's not that I think Bann Alfstanna is fussy, exactly, but she might not even listen to our proposal if we turn up smelling like two middens."
Zin slowed down, then stopped. He tilted his head forward, and his hair fell down across his eyes in a defensive mess. "I'm sorry," he said, but he didn't quite sound it.
"What about?" Alistair asked cautiously.
"I shouldn't have taken us this way. Andraste's rotten leftovers, I know what the back alleys of Denerim are like. I was just--"
The low chink of a weapon being drawn had them both spinning around, so they stood back to back when they were attacked. Alistair growled, and the bandits around him fell back a few paces before one, bolder than the rest, charged forward with his axe held high. Anyone could have told him that was a bad idea. Alistair cut his head off.
One of the bandits, at the back, broke and ran at the sight, but two others jumped into the fray side by side, which was a much more sensible choice. They fought like a team, too, used to guarding each other's side. Alistair knocked one of them down with his shield and attacked the other on that suddenly undefended side, the point of his blade sliding in through a chink in armor that wasn't as good, or in as good repair, as it could have been.
No one was shouting any demands for their blood, specifically, or that of any of their companions. "Just out to rob us, then, you reckon?" Alistair asked over his shoulder.
"Sergeant Kylon was right," Zin tossed back. He didn't even sound out of breath. "The market district is enough excitement for anyone, really."
They went down what looked like a quieter and more respectable street next, though Alistair didn't trust any part of Denerim to stay quiet. He squinted up at the sun, or at least the sky, what he could see of it, and tried to make a map in his head. "Are we really going the right way?"
"We'll get where we're going," Zin said, which wasn't really an answer. "Or... Babe, we could go back, you could go out with Eamon and meet this Dian, forget about all this."
"When you say all this," Alistair said, "do you mean the heir-arrangement idea, or do you mean-- I'm not exactly going to forget about you."
"I'd still be there!" Zin wasn't looking at him, though. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm yours."
"That's what I want you to be," Alistair said. "Mine." He shook his head, trying to fend off a rush of uncertainty, wondering if he'd got all of this wrong. "But if you don't want to be--"
"No, I do, I mean, I am. I just--"
"The two of you are complete fools," a familiar voice with an Antivan accent said from behind them. "Clearly you can not be let out on your own."
Alistair groaned. "Zev, what are you doing here?"
"Saving you from your own folly, I hope," Zevran said. "I could not help but notice, last night, that you never finished your conversation."
"We could have talked quietly," Zin said.
"Yes, because it is quite obvious that you have resolved all your issues." If a voice could roll its eyes, Zevran's voice was doing it. "My wardens, you are not fooling anyone. Come with me, if you please."