‘Someday,’ thought King Alistair with an indulgent smile. ‘Some blessed day I will spend time with Rutherford where we ride, or spar, or do literally any other thing besides play a boring game of chess. But alas, today is not that day.’
Cullen was surveying the board, considering his next move. Alistair leaned on the edge of the table, tapping his chin idly as it rested on his hand. And he waited. His right knee started bouncing, more or less without his conscious input. And he waited. He discovered the stool he rested upon turned back and forth, and made an interesting squeaky noise each time he shifted direction. Cullen looked up.
“Maker’s breath, man, can’t you hold still for five seconds?”
“Cullen. You’ve known me since I was ten. Have I ever, in any of that time, given you the impression that I could hold still for five seconds?”
“Well, there’s your answer then!” The king smirked cheekily at his friend, whose disapproving head shake was belied by the amused glint in his eyes. Finally, he moved a pawn, and leaned back in his chair.
“I’d have thought Anora would have civilized you at least a little by now,” Cullen teased, but the king could sense the question behind his words.
The circumstances of Alistair’s wedding to Anora had been abysmal, and as a templar fresh from the horrors of Kinloch Hold’s collapse, Cullen hadn’t been much better off. For a while, the letters between Denerim and Kirkwall were one of the few bright spots either of them had to look forward to. Cullen was one of the few people Alistair felt safe telling about his struggle to become a proper king, and the templar’s calm, thoughtful perspective helped. And though Cullen didn’t speak often of Kinloch, Alistair liked to feel he had been of some help in return, by reminding his friend that he was a good man, despite all that he’d endured.
The only time the king had managed to visit Kirkwall, nearly a decade later, he’d intended to spend some time catching up with his friend. But they’d barely begun the obligatory chess match when Cullen’s boss, Knight-Commander Meredith, had interrupted. The woman was such a crazy zealot that both Alistair and his uncle Teagan had deemed it wise to leave quickly. And of course, Kirkwall had gone straight to the Void after that, followed by the rest of the world. They’d seen each other a few times during the Mage-Templar War and the whole mess with that ancient darkspawn magister, but never with either the time or the privacy to have an in-depth conversation (although Rutherford had managed to corner him into at least one game of chess in the busy garden of Skyhold).
But now, the world was finally, slowly, edging back toward normal. King Alistair had invited Inquisitor Lavellan and her military commander to Denerim for a celebration of their victory, and in his own castle, he could be sure of at least a few places for uninterrupted conversation. He’d chosen his favorite, a sunny rolling meadow decorated with scattered trees. Too uneven for riding, and too remote for much else, it was just the place for a king to escape and breathe the open air.
Now, he could tell his oldest friend about how things had changed with his wife. He hoped Cullen wouldn’t judge him. Some days he still judged himself. He realized he’d been staring into space…but unlike Alistair, Cullen was capable of waiting patiently for him to continue.
The king grinned, albeit nervously. “Well, my friend…Anora is a remarkable woman, but she’s not a miracle worker; it would take more than even a queen to civilize a bastard raised by dogs, after all.”
“That’s fair,” said Cullen dryly.
Alistair glanced down, then back up at his friend’s face. “She’s…made a pretty good job of it, though, I have to admit. And once I settled down a bit and got over myself, it wasn’t really so bad.” Cullen tilted his head, encouraging him to continue. ‘Okay, Theirin,’ he lectured himself, ‘stop being an idiot. He’s your friend; he wants you to be happy. Take a deep breath and spit it out.’
“So, you know I was always horrified at the idea of being king. Even when Neria told me I needed to start standing up for myself and taking action, I couldn’t fathom it. I didn’t…well, you know; I told you in at least a dozen letters. I loved her, and I didn’t want to do anything other than be with her. When she made the Landsmeet agree to Anora and I ruling together, I was angry and afraid, but I vowed I would never, ever let her go. That I didn’t care if the nobles gossiped about the king’s little pet elf witch; I wouldn’t abandon her. And then…”
He glanced away for a long moment. Even after more than ten years, her loss was still painful. “Then, after Neria d-…after the Blight ended, I was destroyed. Forced by the only woman I’d ever loved into being the one thing I never wanted, married to my dead brother’s wife, who I barely knew and who’d never had a kind word for me…Cullen, if I hadn’t had your letters, I think I might have thrown myself from the top of Fort Drakon. I almost did anyway. But then, the strangest thing happened.”
“I was out in the hedge maze one day with a bottle of Golden Scythe, headed for this out-of-the-way spot I’d discovered, where I could get well and truly drunk. Except, someone was already there, and to my absolute astonishment, it was Anora. With her own half-empty bottle. We stared at each other in shock, and I heard myself say, ‘Nice place for a binge, isn’t it?’” He chuckled, remembering. “Not exactly the sort of thing one should say to his queen, let alone his supposed wife. But she just gave a hint of a smile and said, ‘Yes, I’ve always thought so.’”
“And before I knew it, Anora and I were getting drunk together, and she told me how she missed Cailan, and I told her how I missed Neria, and it…it was nice. We were able to mourn them as themselves, not as the dead king and the Hero of Ferelden. There was nobody telling us we should move on, let go, and do our duty for the good of the country.”
“It’s ironic,” Alistair said with a smile, “because eventually that’s exactly what we did. We started to become friends, surprisingly enough. Talking about how Neria wanted me to improve the lives of mages and elves made me want to quit moping and do it, and Anora knew how. For her, talking about Cailan’s easy charisma made her notice how I interacted with people; she said I was able to connect to them in a way she couldn’t. We knew we could do more as a team. And then it was natural to appreciate each other’s contributions, and…” The king flushed slightly under his golden tan, “Well, she’s a beautiful woman, and she seems to think I’m not altogether hideous, and…”
Cullen regarded him with barely suppressed humor. “Alistair, are you trying to tell me that you have fallen in love with your wife? Andraste’s flaming knickers, what a scandal! How could you keep such a heinous sin hidden all this time??” The sarcasm dripped from every word.
Alistair’s blush grew until it suffused the roots of his copper hair, and fidgeting, he moved one of his chess pieces at random. “I just…listen, okay, I know I went on and on in my letters about how much I loved Neria and how I never wanted anyone but her. And it was true, I swear it was. But she’s gone. And even though a part of me still feels guilty, like I betrayed Neria’s memory, I do love Anora. Despite her father, and how she was trained to hide all her thoughts and feelings behind some perfect shell. Underneath all that is a good and kind woman, who held up gracefully while every clueless arse in the kingdom shouted what they thought of her, her father, the fact she hadn’t produced an heir, and anything else they had opinions on. I don’t know how she survived it, to be honest. But she makes me stronger, and I give her the chance to be softer. We’re better together.”
“That’s wonderful, Alistair. Truly. I am glad beyond measure that you’ve been able to find a bit of joy after everything you’ve been through.” Cullen glanced away, smiling at his thoughts, and then looked back at his old friend. “I understand. Meeting Ellana Lavellan was a revelation to me. After Kinloch, Kirkwall, quitting lyrium…it felt like a gift from the Maker himself when she and I became close.”
Cullen barely glanced at the chess board, a sweet smile of reminiscing on his scarred lips as he moved a piece and met the king’s gaze again “But I do have one question. Why did you tell me this as if you were confessing some terrible secret?”
Alistair shrugged sheepishly. “I don’t know, I guess it’s stupid, I… I don’t really know how to say this, so I guess I’ll just muddle through awkwardly like always.” He ran a careless hand through his hair and began. “You aren’t just my oldest friend, Cullen; you’re one of the few true friends I have, and probably the only person alive besides Anora that I can be myself with. You’ve literally saved my life. And despite everything you’ve been through, you somehow remained the good, strong, honorable man you’ve always been, even if you sometimes forgot it yourself. I just…didn’t want you to think ill of me. To think my promise to love Neria forever, or my word in general, was meaningless.” The king studied the ground uncomfortably. “I didn’t want you to think I’d become some useless noble who traded out women on a whim and valued nothing.”
Cullen’s amber eyes were serious. “Alistair. I would never think that of you, never. If you have a flaw at all in that regard, it’s that you’ve always cared too deeply, been too willing to help others despite any risk to yourself. I was…not a good person in Kirkwall, not by a long shot. And I could’ve grown numb to it…but you, you kept writing me, and you cared so much, you were so certain that I was a man of honor, a protector of the weak, a…a Champion of the Just, even. I hated the thought of having to tell you it wasn’t true. So the only choice was to start climbing out of the abyss and become that person again.”
“I barely knew Neria Surana, but she never struck me as a person who’d take joy in the misery of others. I think, and I suspect she would agree, that it’s fantastic you’ve found happiness at last.”
The two old friends shared a smile that stretched decades into the past, from the first time a grinning copper-haired boy had interrupted the studies of a serious golden-haired lad, by elbowing him and saying “Watch this!” before slipping a live frog into a Revered Mother’s sleeve.
“Oh, and your majesty, there is one other thing,” Cullen said, with false solemnity.
A sudden grin lit Alistair’s face. “I see. Well, there is one good thing about being royalty, Cullen.”
“Oh? And what is that?” the Commander smirked.
“You can’t win a game of chess until you can capture the king!” Alistair snatched the piece off the board and took off at a run, his friend’s helpless laughter erupting behind him.