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The Bloom After The Blight

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Chapter 1: Alistair's Dilemma

A week had passed since the official ending of the Fifth Blight, and the city of Denerim was tentatively venturing back towards normality. It was a great tribute to the character of the people of Ferelden; that they had suffered through the worst and most terrible threat that any nation in Thedas could face (and it had to be said, Ferelden was hardly the most capable country when compared to its neighbours) and come out with a dogged sort of optimism. There may have been the odd smouldering crater where the Darkspawn siege weapons had made their mark; the refugee ships still set sail with Fereldans determined to seek better fortunes in the Free Marches; yet the majority of citizens were determined to roll up their sleeves and just get on with it.

It was common knowledge that their poor nation – poor in every sense of the word, since Ferelden had never been wealthy even during more peaceful times – had been grievously wounded by the Darkspawn horde. The teyrnir of Gwaren was all but destroyed, as were a dozen smaller settlements; including the new general's own seat at South Reach. The Archdemon's army had cut a swathe from south to north, razing crops and tainting land as they went. Acres of valuable arable land had been left polluted and unusable, the animals either poisoned or consumed by the horde.

Yet, the people of Ferelden were a doughty folk, fiercely proud of their ailing homeland and unafraid of the hard work that it would take to restore it. Already, refugees were forming small collectives that they named restoration committees; planning strategic returns to their devastated hometowns. Those men and women who had served as soldiers in the great Ferelden Free Army and fought in the final battle against the horde, now turned their minds to the future.

Fortunately, the people had a firm foundation upon which to build their hopes. They had a new Theirin on the throne, one cast so strongly in the vein of Maric that the elders of Denerim swore blind that Alistair Theirin was the very reincarnation of his father. Like Maric, Alistair had proven his worth in battle; risking Royal life and limb to partake in the final fight against the Archdemon.

Located on its high rise overlooking Denerim, the Royal Castle had managed to avoid any superfluous damage from the Darkspawn attack. The servants had been safe within the thick stone walls, which had been bolstered after retaking the land from Orlais. Now the palace resembled more fortress than Royal residence; but as a result, it had managed to withstand the stray trebuchet volley launched towards it by the oncoming horde. There was some minor damage to the east tower and part of the sewerage system needed repairs where the Darkspawn had tried to tunnel their way through solid bedrock, but on the whole it had survived the Blight relatively intact.

The threat of civil war also seemed to have dissipated with the ending of the Fifth Blight. The new king appeared on civil – if not particularly cordial – terms with the disgraced former Teyrn Loghain; who had been horrendously maimed during the final battle. Mac Tir had taken the Grey, but, due to said injures, it was uncertain whether he would continue to follow the calling. The King's Council had been reformed with the new Teyrn Cousland at its head, alongside the Arl of Redcliffe, the Banns of Rainesfere and the Waking Sea, and the commander of the Royal Army, Leonas Bryland.

In addition to a Theirin king, and a reconciled peerage; the people of Ferelden also had another cause for hope. The armies of men, elves and dwarves - which had been so instrumental in defending Denerim - had not been assembled by a member of the established peerage; but by a girl barely out of adolescence, catapulted out of obscurity to make an indelible mark on Fereldan history. This same girl – a hidden scion of the Cousland family – had also been the one to strike down the Archdemon; ultimately ending the Fifth Blight and saving their nation from destruction.

Chantry priests across the city led services in Florence Cousland's honour – exalting how the Maker had compensated her for her bravery by purging both the taint and the touch of the Fade from her body. The removal of the young Cousland's magic was thus recast as a heavenly reward; that she was now forever free from the Fade's insidious influence.

Yet it was not so much this that gave the people hope, but the lady Cousland's swollen belly. The teyrn's sister was quite visibly with child, and the king had publicly claimed parentage. Alistair's acknowledgement was not strictly necessary; there were already a plethora of tavern songs that portrayed king and Cousland as lovers. These ranged from romantic ballads to lewd refrains that no retainer would dare utter in earshot of his liege-lord.

However, those who assumed that the strife within Ferelden's peerage was mended would have been sorely surprised at the scenes transpiring in the Theirin bedchamber; exactly one week after the Blight had been ended. It was the same evening that Florence Cousland had appeared at the great entrance of the Royal Palace, proving her survival to both her army and the curious townsfolk of Denerim. Those civilians who had made the trek up through the hunting grounds were the first to bear witness to the lady Cousland's swollen stomach, and enjoyed the consequent smugness of delivering the news to enthralled crowds in the taverns below.

After the young Hero of Ferelden had set out her twin arcs of burning remembrance on the turret roof, she had professed herself to be weary; still raw and shocked from the news that her spirits had departed forever, her connection with the Fade severed. The soul of the old god had purged her of extraneous influence; she had entered Fort Drakon as both mage and Grey Warden, and had departed as neither.

Alistair, in his new protective role as father, immediately dismissed Eamon's suggestion of a meeting of the Royal council; instead overseeing his beloved companion's retirement to bed with hawk-like vigilance. After only an hour, there had come an insistent knock at the door: the core of the Landsmeet had come to king when king would not come to them.

They were greeted with Alistair nursing a simmering rage over his dozing lover's bedside, his anger expanding until it reached the wood-beamed ceiling. Unlike most Theodesian Royal quarters; the Theirin bedchamber was sprawling but austere, the furnishings relatively plain, if well-made. Murals of Mabari and warhorses had been daubed onto the plaster walls, interspersed with the occasional stuffed trophy. The most prominent piece of furniture in the room was the bed; raised on a stone step, with four dark posters of wood reaching up to the ceiling. Wide enough to house four, it was covered with a mismatched array of blankets and animal furs.

Florence Cousland – colloquially known as Flora – now lay snoring in the midst of a tangle of bedding, curled up against a tawny fur with a cushion clamped to her cheek. Alistair stood over her like a mother bear defending an injured cub, his handsome olive features flushed with anger as he turned his wrath on his uncle.

"No," he hissed towards the Arl of Redcliffe, nostrils flaring and Maric's characteristic temper evident in the twist of his mouth. "Absolutely not. Out of the question!"

"Alistair, " started Eamon in placating tones, starting forward. "Son- "

"Don't 'son' me!" retorted Alistair a fraction too loudly, then made an effort to mute himself with a glance down at his snoring companion. "I can't believe you'd even suggest it. Flora has saved this country – and your life, uncle, and your town, and your son – and you're suggesting we lock her back up?"

The king's nostrils flared indignantly and he paced an angry circle about the bed, lifting the golden band from his head and letting it drop onto the furs.

Eamon shot a meaningful glance towards the others, who were standing a safe distance away near the hearth. These consisted of Ferelden's most influential peers – including the only remaining teyrn, Fergus Cousland – and a handful of Flora's companions.

Fergus took a deep breath, stepping forward to face Alistair square-on. He raised his palms to show amiable deference, attempting to snare the king's gaze with his blue-grey stare.

"No one is suggesting that we lock her up, Alistair," he murmured, bravely standing his ground as Alistair turned a predatory green-flicked glare in his direction. "But the Grand Cleric has agreed to officially confirm Florence's non-mage status – after she spends a month under constant surveillance by the Templar Order, in their nearest monastery. Revanloch is only a short ride from the city walls."

Alistair sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb Flora as she mumbled bleary and incoherent. His sister-warden no longer dreamt – a consequence of her severance from the Fade.

"But, a whole month," he said, bleakly. "I can't be without Lo for that long. I need her, Fergus."

"You could visit her every day," Fergus replied, with a quickness that suggested he and Eamon had already discussed the subject extensively. "Besides, I don't imagine that she'd want for company. I think visitors will be queuing up to see her; myself and Finn in the front of the line."

"Aye," Leonas added quietly, the arl standing stiffly beside the hearth. "The lass is like a daughter to me. I'd happily go and read with her of an afternoon."

There came general grunts of agreement from Flora's companions; all clustered on the other side of the bed, save for Sten and Morrigan.

Alistair passed a tired hand over his face, rumpling the hair at the top of his head. He glanced down once more at Flora, who was now flat on her back with her mouth open, the blankets tangled around her swollen waist. Reaching down, he moved one of the heavy furs up to her chin, tucking it in around the edges.

"I don't understand why it needs to be publicly endorsed by the Chantry, anyway," he muttered, bitterly. "It's obvious that Flo's lost her magic. The Circle has confirmed it, the Templar Order has tested her blood. She's less susceptible to the Fade than you or I in her current state."

There was an elongated pause, during which Fergus glanced at Leonas, and Eamon at his younger brother. The Arl of Redcliffe gave a slight nod, and Teagan spoke up, quietly.

"Because if the Chantry confirms it, then the Landsmeet will corroborate it," the bann explained, his green Guerrin eyes focusing steadily on Alistair's own.

"So?" retorted Alistair, belligerently.

"Well, don't you want to make her your wife? To sit beside you as queen, rather than simply as mistress?"

There was another long silence, which expanded to fill the room like a thick, portentous miasma. Wynne glanced swiftly at Leliana; both women had predicted and extensively discussed this potential series of events.

Alistair blinked for a moment, his pupils expanding and constricting in rapid succession. His mouth twisted, and he dropped his gaze to Flora's limp, bandaged palm as it lay motionless on the blankets.

"Of course I do," he said at last, bleakly. "I've wanted to marry her since last Satinalia. I just… I just never thought it would be possible."

"Well, Alistair," replied Eamon, his voice soft and persuasive. "If you agree to this, it will be possible. The Landsmeet would approve, you could take Florence as your bride, and your child would be born legitimate."

A Theirin on the throne, and one in the cradle. The dynasty would be secure. And the country's stability would be ensured.

"But would mi florita even desire this path?" Zevran interrupted, his voice shadowed. "You talk about her as though she has no choice in the matter. She hardly embraced becoming a Cousland, why would she want to become a queen?"

The elf was leaning against the hearth, arms crossed and a scowl writ across his tan, tattooed face. The assassin had mastered a peculiar duality of gaze; where he could focus on one aspect within his purview, while simultaneously keeping an eye on something in the background. In this case Zevran's stare was trained hawklike on Arl Eamon's lined face, yet he was continually glancing down to where Flora lay snoring in bed.

There was another long silence; and this time, it was Alistair's turn to flinch.

"That's my fault," he said eventually, voice raw. "I can't help this bloody parentage of mine."

Wynne cleared her throat, moving her wrinkled fingers absentmindedly over the notebook she kept hanging on a chain at her waist.

"If Florence becoming queen would give hope to Ferelden," the senior enchanter mused, in measured tones. "I believe that she would do it, despite her reservations. She has a sense of duty second to none. And she'll need a task to perform now that she cannot heal."

Alistair, still perched on the edge of the bed, turned to face his former sister-warden. He leaned down and kissed Flora tenderly on the edge of her forehead, lips brushing her hairline. One hand went to settle on the curve of her belly, prominent enough to be visible even through the thick furs that covered it.

"If she's in a monastery outside the city, I can't protect her," he said, throatily. "She can't shield herself any more, and she's got no type of… no combat skills. She can't even wield a dagger. How am I supposed to defend her and our child if she's not by my side?"

"Well, she'll be surrounded by church soldiers," Finian said, reasonably. "I've visited one of those monasteries before. You can't move without a Chantry Mother breathing down your neck."

"I know," snapped Alistair, uncharacteristically harsh. "I spent ten years in one. It doesn't mean that she'll be safe- "

"What if I stay with her?" piped up Leliana, her musical Orlesian tongue standing out above the native Fereldan tones. "They'll permit me to stay, since I'm a lay-sister. If I promise to stick to Florence's side like one of her Herring limpets, would that help to assuage your fears?"

Alistair's gaze moved appraisingly over the bard, whose innocuous smile and demure Chantry robes masked one of the most skilled fighters that he had ever known. Leliana, to his knowledge, had never been bested in combat – had not permitted even a scratch to mar her creamy, perfumed flesh – and a keen intelligence lay behind the earnest blue stare.

There was a tense pause; Eamon glanced at Leonas and Teagan at Fergus. Finally, Alistair let out a long sigh, his face crumpling.

"Fine. But I'm going to tell her."

Wynne cleared her throat, the pointed sound interrupting Alistair's hand before it could settle on Flora's pyjama-clad shoulder.

"Alistair?"

Alistair stared at the senior enchanter, his handsome face creased with weariness and guilt.

"What is it, Wynne?"

The old mage grimaced, pale eyes settling on where the snoring Flora lay tangled in the blankets.

"I wouldn't mention to her the possibility of becoming queen yet," she murmured, quietly. "Florence has enough to cope with at the moment, with the loss of her magic. Let her work through that first."

Alistair gave a tight nod, before waking his former sister-warden with a soft kiss to her mouth, cupping her cheek against his palm.

"Sweetheart?"

 

Chapter Text

 

Flora yawned into the cushions, lifting her bandaged hand to her head sleepily. Seeing Alistair's handsome, concerned face hovering over her, she gave him a reflexive smile; then remembered the disappearance of her spirits and flinched, the loss still a raw and painful wound.

"It's so strange, not going to the Fade," she whispered, registering no one's presence save for that of her best friend. "When I sleep now, there's just – nothing. I suppose it's peaceful, but… I'm not used to it."

Alistair leaned his face down to hers, feeling a sudden lurch of sadness deep in his gut as he gazed into his former sister-warden's wide, unsuspecting grey eyes. In an attempt to assuage his guilt, he pressed a kiss first to her forehead, then to each cheek, then to the end of her nose.

"I love you," he said, the words emerging as earnestly as they had done when he had first uttered them; in a draughty bedroom at Redcliffe Castle. "I love you more than the world, Flora of Herring."

Flora blinked at him, finally registering the presence of the others crowded around the walls of the Royal bedchamber. None of them looked particularly happy, but it was Alistair's grieved face that disconcerted her the most.

"Flora- "

"What's wrong?" she asked in a small voice, pushing herself up on the cushions and kicking the furs from where they were wrapped around her legs."What's happened? Is it more Darkspawn? I'll run after the armies and get them back- "

"No, sweetheart, nothing's wrong," Alistair hastened to reassure her, his hand smoothing down a thick strand of sleep-rumpled hair. "I- it's just… the Chantry says- "

He trailed off helplessly, the words tangling together on his tongue. Eamon stepped forward, clearing his throat and snaring her wide eyes with his steady Guerrin gaze.

"Florence, the Chantry needs to put you under observation for some time before they can publicly announce that you've been cured of magic- "

"Cured?!"

Flora sat up a little straighter in indignation, nostrils flaring. Eamon pressed onwards; already envisioning the stability that a popular queen and legitimate Theirin heir would bring.

"The Grand Cleric and Knight-Commander have agreed to house you in the Revanloch monastery, during which time you will be kept under close observation by Templars. After that, the Chantry will- "

Flora sat bolt upright, her eyes widening in dismay.

"You're sending me away?" she croaked, red blotches quickly rising to the surface of her cheeks. "You're sendin' me away and lockin' me up?"

Visions of the Circle flooded Flora's mind and she scrambled out of bed, clearly agitated, ducking Alistair's entreating arms.

"Darling- "

Alistair immediately rose to his feet and headed to the other side of the bed; Flora avoided him with surprising agility considering that she was five months weighed down with child. Her voice rose in hurt and confusion, indignity writ stark across her fine-hewn Cousland features. A sudden hormonal surge accompanied this distress, and tears began to well in the corners of her eyes.

"You want to send me away because I'm useless now! Because I can't cure the taint!" Flora wailed, entirely missing the point. "I don't want to be locked up again, I can't, I won't- ! I'm goin' away, I'm goin' back to HERRING- "

With a melodramatic toss of the head, Flora sailed out of the room with her dishevelled ponytail streaming behind her; despite the adolescent angst, there was a genuine poignancy to her diminutive pyjama clad figure as she scuttled barefoot down the Royal corridor.

Alistair swore under his breath, shooting Eamon a dark look as he made to follow his distraught companion. Wynne reached out a hand to intercept him, lined fingers curling into his leather sleeve.

"Wait, Alistair. You're hardly the best person to reassure Florence, since you didn't even want this confinement to happen in the first place. I'll go after her."

Alistair's eyebrows rose as he took in the senior enchanter's thoughtful expression, indignity infusing his own voice.

"You surely don't approve of this idea, Wynne?!"

"I think that the girl has the opportunity to be in a very unique position," Wynne retorted, her sky-coloured eyes giving a flash. "I think she could do a lot of good as your wife, and it would be nice to have a leader sympathetic to mages, for once. It's only for a month, Alistair. Doesn't Ferelden deserve the best possible Queen?"

Alistair gave a defeated half-nod, reluctantly grasping the enchanter's argument.

"Of course Ferelden deserves the best," he muttered, sinking down onto the edge of the bed. "And Lo is the best. But she won't do it, Wynne, you saw her just now- "

"Oh, she will do it," replied Wynne, her tone sharpening a fraction. "I'll talk some sense into her."

"I'll come with you," offered Leonas Bryland, a rueful and humourless smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. The arl – who was the only one in the room with an adolescent daughter – was well-accustomed to handling bouts of feminine distress.

Flora had burst from the Royal bedchamber so quickly that the guards did not even have time to open the doors for her. Careless of her dishevelled appearance, she stormed down the corridor; caught halfway between distress and indignation.

She passed pairs of soldiers clad in gold and crimson Theirin livery, who scrambled to do the pike-shift from hand to hand to mark the approach of a Hero of Ferelden. The portraits of the great rulers of Ferelden loomed up on either side – Maric, Moira, Brandel – and Flora duly ignored them.

As she neared the portrait of the hunted halla at the top of the staircase, she sensed someone with a longer stride rapidly gaining on her. It did not sound like her former brother-warden – this pursuer was heavier on their feet, and they sounded slightly out of breath.

Despite this, they had no issue in catching up with her – a relatively simple task, considering that their quarry was only a handful of inches over five foot, and carrying an extra sixteen pounds of weight on their abdomen.

"I'm going back to Herring NOW!!declared Flora tearfully, catching sight of Leonas Bryland out of the tail of her eye. "Don't try and stop me!"

"I'm not going to try and stop you, child," Leonas said, and she shot him a suspicious glance. "You're perfectly entitled to go wherever you please."

Flora wiped her nose on the Theirin-crested pyjama sleeve and eyed Leonas, slowing down a fraction as they approached the halla portrait together.

The Arl of South Reach bore his usual faintly disgruntled expression, one hand still heavily bandaged after a Hurlock had taken several fingers during the final battle. He wore a Chantry amulet bearing Andraste's seal on one side, and the emblem of his doomed seat on the other.

Once he saw he had her attention, Leonas reached into his tunic and pulled out a small leather-bound book, with a pencil attached by an unravelling string.

"Now, what supplies will you require for your journey back to Herring?" he asked, his voice mild. "I'll be happy to provide whatever you need, Florence, as well as an escort. I won't have Bryce's daughter travelling alone and unprovisioned."

Flora blinked, coming to a stop just beneath the hunted halla. Its wide, mournful eyes and miserable expression mirrored her own, as she stared at Leonas Bryland with abject forlornness. Abruptly, she sat down on the top step of the stairs, resting her chin on her knees and staring gloomily at her bare feet.

Grunting slightly as his stiff limbs protested, Leonas lowered himself onto the step beside Flora. They sat together in silence for several minutes, with she giving the occasional hiccup and he quietly offering her his handkerchief.

"I'm not really going to go back to Herring," said Flora at last, in a small and tearful voice. "But why are they putting me in jail? I haven't been on the rob or nothing."

Leonas wisely stifled a chuckle at her northern patois, taking back the square of linen.

"Of course you've done nothing wrong, pup. And it's not jail, it's a Templar monastery. Not the most entertaining of places to be sure, but it's certainly no dungeon."

"And only for a month, Florence."

The senior enchanter manifested from the shadows of the corridor, kindness and sternness breaking even in her voice. Wynne did not deign to also sit on the step beside Flora, but she did brush her hand kindly over the rumpled, dark red head.

"One month at the monastery, and then the Chantry will publicly announce that you are no longer a mage. No matter what happens in the future, no Circle – or Templar - will ever lay claim to you again. Think of the peace of mind that will bring to those that love you, child."

Flora twisted her head to gaze up at Wynne, her grey eyes damp and miserable as rain-clouds.

"Everyone keeps calling it a miracle," she whispered, rubbing at her nose with her sleeve. "The fact that my magic is gone. It doesn't feel like a miracle. It feels like part of me is gone. It's painful."

"It will be painful, Flora, but even painful wounds heal without magic, with time," the senior enchanter replied, softly. "One day you will wake up and it will hurt a little less than the night before; and then that will happen again and again, until the pain is but a quiet sigh in the back of your mind."

Wynne's voice was distant, and she seemed to be speaking of something other than the removal of Flora's magic.

"You promise it will?"

"Yes, child."

Flora nodded, swallowing her fear as she had needed to do so many times before in her short life.

"Alright," she said with only the slightest tremor to her voice, lifting her chin slightly. "I'll go to the mon- the monisturgy. Arl Bryland?"

"I've told you a thousand times to simply call me Leonas, pup, but – yes?"

"Arl Leonas, I'm sorry that I can't grow your wife's arbour-garden again, like I said I would," Flora said earnestly, remembering how she had coaxed forth blossoming life in the South Reach garden "Well, I can still help you with it, but… it'll need to be the old-fashioned way."

Leonas let out a half-bark of laughter, to hide how touched he was. He dropped his hand to Flora's head and gave her hair a rough tousle before pushing himself awkwardly to his feet.

On the way back to the Royal bedchamber, Wynne reached out to touch Flora's arm; the young Cousland instinctively dropped back to walk alongside the elder mage.

"Take this month of confinement as an opportunity to learn who Florence Cousland is without her spirits," the senior enchanter murmured, her clever blue eyes moving over Flora's face. "You're a very beautiful girl and men will fall over themselves to make life easy for you. Don't rely on anyone overmuch, until you...re-learn... your own self. Do you understand what I mean, child?"

Flora gave a vague nod, biting absent-mindedly at her lower lip.

"I hope they don't actually fall over," she replied at last, solemnly. "I won't be able to mend any broken bones from now on."

Inside the Royal bedchamber, Alistair was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands, Teagan perched beside him murmuring assurances into his ear. Two servants were discretely piling more logs onto the great hearth; despite it being a mild summery night, the royal palace was perpetually cool and damp.

Flora entered with Leonas and Wynne at either side, her head bowed with embarrassment at having made such a dramatic exit. At Zevran's delighted exclamation of mi florita!, Alistair looked up with naked hope scrawled across his olive features.

"Sorry for making a fuss," muttered Flora, not quite able to meet anyone's eye. "I'll go to the mon- monister."

"Monastery," corrected Finian under his breath, flashing a quick smile at his sister.

"Monastery," repeated Flora, immediately before being swept into Alistair's desperate, affectionate embrace. He clutched Flora tight to his chest, feeling the firm swell of their child between them; burying his face in the untidy abundance of red hair and inhaling her scent.

"My love," he murmured, desperate to provide some reassurance for the both of them. "Leliana has volunteered to stay with you, so you won't be alone. I'll have guards patrolling the perimeter of the monastery day and night. I'll make sure that only the most experienced and devout Templar are set to watch over you. You and the baby will be safe, I swear to the Maker."

Flora had stopped listening after Alistair had mentioned Leliana; needing no further guarantee. Twisting her neck slightly, she smiled across at her fellow redhead, who waved elegant Orlesian fingers in her direction.

"I look forward to a month of quiet contemplation and giving thanks to our Maker for our redemption from the Blight!" chirped the bard, indomitable as always.

"And I'll come and visit you every single evening, darling," Alistair continued, eager to compensate for this added burden on his already grieved lover. "Every evening, I swear it. It'll be what keeps me going through all the eight hour council meetings."

Flora knew that Alistair was feeling horribly guilty – she could see it writ plain across his face – and suddenly wanted to alleviate his dismay. She reached up and touched him, tracing the line of the Theirin jaw with the tip of her thumb.

"I'll look forward to your visit," she said, pulling Alistair's head down to her own so that she could press a kiss to his cheek. "I can practice my reading and writing while I'm there. I'll set myself the goal of learning how to spell my own name."

A relieved Alistair smiled anxiously, then bent to press his lips against hers.

"My lovely Lola," he murmured, quiet enough for just her to hear. "Andraste, I'm a blessed man."

Finian added his own guarantee of frequent visits, promising to bring her some easy written exercises that they could work through together.

Flora's gaze moved sideways, to where Zevran and her brothers were standing near the hearth. For a split second, before the elf noticed Flora looking, Zevran looked tired and older than his near-three decades. Flora narrowed her eyes at him; Zevran spotted her and immediately blew over a little kiss, accompanied by the characteristic wink. Flora was not fooled by the elf's quick masking of emotion, especially since she had relied on her own solemn mien to hide her feelings more times than she could count – literally, since she found it hard to count beyond twenty-nine.

As the others drifted out in small clumps after Alistair's pointed cough, Flora sidled over to where the elf was adjusting the buckle on his glove.

"Zevran?"

The surface smile returned, quick and bright as lightning across a summer sky.

"Yes, my buxom beauty? Ah, your bosom looks so ripe and full in that tunic, carina. Being with child suits you."

Flora refused to be distracted by Zevran's lechery, knowing that he was prone to use it as a diversionary tactic.

"Is there something that you're not telling me?"

"Many things, mi amor," the elf purred, immediately. "But many of them involve what I should like to do to you, and we are in polite company."

"Zev-raaaan…"

Flora pulled a face at him and the elf relented a fraction, darting her a quick look.

"Nena, just promise me one thing- "

Her brows drew together and she focused on him, giving a solemn little nod.

"Eh?"

"That – that no matter what position you hold in life, you'll always be able to spare a minute or two for your Antivan elf companion, hm? I count you as a… as a good friend, and I should be sorry to lose you."

"Of course you won't lose me," Flora retorted, perplexed. "Why would you ask such a thing? What position am I going to hold?"

Zevran shot her a wistful smile, then dropped into an exaggerated bow.

"Ah, no reason, mi sirenita. Tell me, will you be adopting Chantry dress during your residence at the monastery? Full length robes and ornamental headpieces?"

"No!"

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After everybody else had taken their leave, king and mistress sat side by side on the Royal bed; his arm slung protectively around her shoulders. The candelabras had bled down to waxy stumps, leaving the room cast in a faint red glow from the smouldering hearth. The fire spat and hissed as it shot sparks up the chimney breast, rolling forth waves of cedar-scented heat into the bedchamber.

Flora, to distract herself from the prospect of a month spent under intense Templar scrutiny, was counting the Mabari painted around the border of the hearth. These plaster hounds were interspersed with crimson Theirin lions; some depicted as frolicking about and others lying down peacefully together.

"I don't think that's very realistic," Flora said at last, frowning up a loll-tongued Mabari paw-in-paw with a Theirin lion. "I think that the lion would eat the dog, not hold hands with it."

"Have you ever met a lion, my love?" Alistair replied in half-distracted tones, focusing on the profile of his sister-warden as she gazed up at the painted murals. The firelight brought warmth to Flora's pale skin and lit lustrous filaments in her dark red hair, bright skeins running through her braid like copper wire fresh from the forge. The golden fleck in her iris – a memento of when Flora had been able to breath life as easily as air – was illuminated by the reflected heat, a fragment of gilt against a watercolour background.

"I've never met a lion," Flora said, stifling a yawn. "I think that they must be like the… the sharks of the land."

Alistair stifled a laugh, then felt his gut constrict in sadness at the prospect of parting from his best friend for an entire month. He wrapped his other arm around Flora, lowering his head to her shoulder and burying his face in the familiar texture of her hair. Her scent was as comforting as a hot meal and a soft bed after an arduous journey; and he took a long, unsteady inhalation.

"Maker's Breath, I'm going to miss you, Lola."

"You'll see me every day," Flora reminded Alistair, running her fingers across the broad, muscular expanse of his back as he pressed a kiss to her hair.

"Yes, but- " Alistair broke off, his mouth having discovered her earlobe buried in a tangled mass of scarlet. He nuzzled his face against it for a moment, then kissed the lobe gently, teasing the outer curve with his tongue until he heard her breath catch in her throat.

"We'll have Templars and Chantry Mothers breathing down our necks," he murmured, his thumb dropping down to caress the delicate line of her collarbone. "We won't have a moment of privacy."

Flora inhaled, feeling something deep within her instinctively respond to her brother-warden's low murmur. She tilted her face up, letting her fingers trail over his leather-clad chest.

"You could always get some winches," she said, then blinked as Alistair gave a snort of humour. "What?"

"Wenches, sweetheart. Who told you what a wench was, anyway? Don't tell me, the blasted elf!"

"No! Bann Teagan was talking about them. Wenches."

"Teagan?!"

"He didn't know I was in the room," Flora explained, tracing a line from her brother-warden's heart to his abdomen. "I was sitting in the corner and being quiet."

Despite no longer having the healer's sight, she could still easily remember each vital organ's location.

Heart, lung-bags, stomach pouch. Kidneys.

Alistair let out another soft grunt of amusement, his palm dropping to cup Flora's breast through the linen of her pyjamas.

"Anyway, I don't want wenches. I want you, my beautiful girl," he murmured thickly, brushing his calloused thumb over where he knew her nipple to lie. "And I won't be able to have you for another month. Unless…?"

He gave her breast a gentle, suggestive squeeze; circling its stiffening tip with his thumb. Flora gave an experimental wriggle, and her body responded with a dull throb, limbs still sore from the final battle.

"I think I'm too achey," she said reluctantly, and Alistair immediately withdrew his fondling fingers; substituting groping with a chaste embrace and a kiss on the cheek.

"Of course, my darling," he breathed, hand dropping to rest protectively on Flora's swollen abdomen. "Let's just have a cuddle instead. Besides, I've got lots of fond memories to reminisce over in the meantime."

Alistair winked at her and Flora smiled back at him, resting her head contentedly against his shoulder.


 

Both awoke in melancholy mood the next morning, curled up warm in a tangle of entwined limbs. Alistair sat yawning on the edge of the bed, watching his best friend pack up her scant belongings in the battered leather pack that she had owned since Ostagar. Despite the optimism of the sun, gleaming with bright hopefulness through the leaded windows, neither one of them were in the mood for its cheerfulness.

"It's only for a month," Alistair said out loud, as though trying to reassure himself. "Four weeks. And I'll see you every evening. Every evening, Lo, without fail!"

Flora let out a little grunt, having packed Exotic Fish of Thedas out of habit. With slight astonishment she took it out again, placing the leather-bound tome on the blankets.

"I'd like a new book to read," she said, wistfully. "Do you think Fergus or Finian might ever buy me another one? I could pay them back … somehow."

Alistair refrained from mentioning that the Landsmeet had promptly agreed to grant the arling of Amaranthine to their new Hero of Ferelden; and that a bank vault within Denerim was already beginning to receive customs duties in Flora's name.

"Flo, say the word, and I'll have a whole library sent down to the monastery," he replied, impulsively. "Anything you want, just say, and I'll get it for you."

Flora shot him a slightly appalled look, nostrils flaring as she tied up the laces of her pack with a fisherman's knot.

"I'd need to live as long as a Par Vollen sea-turtle to finish reading a library."


 

As promised, Flora's companions - both noble and common - gathered on the palace forecourt to escort her on the road to the Revanloch monastery. It was a beautiful summery day, the salt-taste of the sea drifted lightly on the air and the city of Denerim spread out like a storybook town on the banks of the estuary below. It was hard to envision that the Darkspawn horde had been baying for blood outside the city walls only a week prior. Denerim Castle rose up like a protective guardian over the Theirin seat, stoic and sprawling; not the most attractive of Theodesian royal palaces, but certainly one of the most formidable.

The stable-boys led out a selection of thoroughbred Ferelden Forders, each one groomed to a glossy sheen The largest one naturally went to the tallest man present; the new Theirin king. As the others mounted up around him, Alistair – for the first time in his life – experienced a flash of anxiety as he gazed up at the lofty saddle.

"What's wrong, lad?" Teagan, sporting the ochre and cream colours of Rainesfere, nudged his own steed over with an expert knee.

Alistair gnawed on his lip, then glanced over at his pregnant mistress. Flora was standing on the gravel, talking earnestly to the mounted Finian – possibly entreating him for another book.

"Maybe Flo should ride in a carriage, or something- " he began, hesitatingly. "If she falls from the horse…"

Teagan, who had once seen his elder brother equally protective over Isolde, reached down and clapped Alistair's shoulder, reassuringly.

"You can call for a carriage if you wish," he murmured, in a low enough voice not to be overheard by Flora. "But I don't believe that you'd ever let her fall. Have some faith in yourself, Alistair, you're one of the best horsemen in Ferelden."

"Not as good as you, uncle," replied Alistair, smiling reflexively as Flora wandered over to him.

"Finian says he's going to see if there's a sequel to Exotic Fish of Thedas!"she breathed, eyes wide with awe. "Imagine! More fish of the world!"

Alistair grinned at her, forcing down his fears and assuming a cheerful expression.

"Right, darling, up we go- careful now- "

Gripping her around the waist, he propelled her gently upwards onto the saddle. Flora looked slightly confused – usually, Alistair mounted first and then hauled her up behind him like a sack of potatoes.

To Alistair's relief, Teagan reached out to grip Flora's elbow as she perched astride the saddle, keeping her firmly in place while the king planted boot in stirrup and lifted himself up behind her. Once seated squarely across the leather seat, Alistair immediately clamped a protective arm around his sister-warden's swollen waist.

"Why are you treating me like I'm made of GLASS?" hissed Flora indignantly in his ear. "Last week, we were galloping along the city walls with a giant dragon breathing fire at us, remember?"

Alistair went a shade paler: he remembered only too well.

"I'm not going to apologise for wanting to keep you safe, Flora," he replied, with a thin vein of Theirin steel running through the words. "You can't summon your shield anymore."

Flora slumped slightly, the loss of her spirits still a raw wound. Alistair sensed her sadness and pressed a kiss to her hair, seeking out her ear with his lips.

"I'll be your shield, sweetheart," he replied, softly. "You've spent almost a year protecting me: let me do the same for you."

Flora swivelled around as best she could in the saddle, reaching her arms up to wrap around her handsome brother-warden's neck. Alistair embraced her back as tight as he dared, kissing her on the forehead, nose and lips in rapid succession.

"Whenever you're ready," Eamon called out across the cobbles, no rancour in his tone.

At the boundary of the Royal hunting grounds, a pair of soldiers approached to inform them that there were throngs of people lining the streets. The city guard had managed to clear a path, but the party should be prepared for crowds. This caused a slight delay as additional Royal Guard were summoned from the barracks, in sufficient number to form a steel blockade around the king's company.

Fergus saw that his sister was looking slightly apprehensive, and called out to reassure her.

"They're not expecting an attack, Floss! They're supposed to keep the people from crowding around you. Don't worry about it, petal."

As the guards had warned, the streets of Denerim were indeed thronged with people who wished to see both their new king, and the girl who had slain an Archdemon. Additionally, they wanted to confirm with their own eyes the rumours that had sprung up yesterday; that the lady Cousland was heavy with a Theirin child.

Several of Flora's companions enjoyed the attention – Oghren was basking in the reflected glory that came with being one of the mighty heroes who had gathered Ferelden's free army; and expected to never pay for a drink again in his life. Leliana, who was wearing her most demure and elegant Chantry robe in preparation for the monastic confinement, accepted the praise of the crowd with refined grace.

Zevran, meanwhile, was keeping as unobtrusive as possible near the back of the company. He had formulated vague plans for the immediate future, and they did not involve having his features emblazoned upon the memories of every citizen in Denerim. Wynne also did not relish the attention, although it was nice – she mused quietly – to have the people cheering at her, as opposed to glowering with suspicion.

The party meandered down on horseback through the noble district, the wide cobbled avenues affording plenty of space for the crowds to gather. The various households had come spilling out onto the streets; a rainbow myriad of retainers clad in the different colours of their liege-lords. There was green for South Reach, ochre for Redcliffe, violet for Calon; and the men of Highever marched proudly behind their teyrn and his battle-scarred brother, who had gone up a great deal in their estimation. These crowds managed to restrain themselves, since most of them had seen both Flora and the new king either during the Landsmeet, or up in the royal palace.

Once the company crossed the canal into the market district, the nature of the crowd changed slightly. It was now made up of ordinary Denerim townsfolk; who were fiercely loyal to their home-grown Theirin dynasty and equally proud of their unlikely, solemn-faced young Hero. Rumours spread like wildfire around the various neighbourhoods as people slowly recognised the lady Cousland as the girl who had spent hours down the docks healing refugees; who had offered her services free of charge to anybody who required mending. They had already been told in the Chantries of the 'Maker's miracle' that had purged both taint and magic from their young commander's blood; and were eager to congratulate her on this dual deliverance.

Now they called out for Flora's attention, waving and cheering; and if not for the silverite ring of Royal Guard, they would have pressed forward to surround the king's horse. Instead, they tossed scarlet ribbons and posies of flowers in the company's path, thrusting Chantry tokens onto the pikes of the guardsmen.

Alistair, the gold band of Landsmeet-granted authority placed prominently on his head, smiled easily down at his people. The Theirins had always had the gift of charisma, it ran strong in their ancient Alamarri blood. He raised a hand to acknowledge the calls, keeping his other arm tightly anchored about Flora's swollen abdomen.

Flora was used to riding amongst crowds, since they had made frequent appearances on horseback before their army. However, she was unused to being the target of such unanimous applause – she did not even cope well with individual praise – and felt deeply uncomfortable.

It wasn't even me who ended the Blight. It was you. And you're gone.

You're gone, aren't you?

She paused, heart in mouth, but – as expected – received no reply.

Alistair felt his former sister-warden slump on the saddle before him; and assumed that it was merely due to her discomfort at being amidst so many people.

"We'll be through the city gate soon, my love," he murmured, resting his chin for a moment atop her head. "Then it won't be so crowded."

Flora let out a small sound of miserable acquiescence, still brooding on the loss of her spirits.

Alistair let the reins drop for a moment, using his strong thighs to control the movement of the horse. Turning his best friend in his arms, he kissed her squarely on the mouth; stroking the soft peach-fine hairs on her cheek as tenderly as if they were alone in the bedchamber.

The crowd gave a ripple of excitement, a smattering of applause breaking out at such a public display of affection. A little elven girl ran forward with a determined expression on her narrow, fine-boned face, darting past the guards and thrusting something up towards Alistair's boot. The king reached down a gloved hand to retrieve a long crimson ribbon, reminiscent of the scarlet banners that had been tied to the pikes and sword-hafts of Ferelden's first free army.

Alistair gazed at it for a moment, explicitly touched, and then swiftly tied the skein of crimson silk in a bow around Flora's high ponytail. The crowd demonstrated their approval loudly, with hands and feet and gaping mouths.

Eamon shot a quick glance towards Leonas and Fergus; both men returned the pointed look with brief nods of acknowledgement.

The people want her with Alistair. The Landsmeet wants her as queen. All that needs to be done now is to convince the lass herself. It's a long way from a fisherman's village to a throne.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: En Route To Revanloch Monastery

As predicted, the crowds began to wane once the mounted party reached the city walls. To everyone's relief, the road from the south west gate neatly skirted the Alamarri plains, where they had all spent far too much time over the past six weeks. Instead, it followed a pleasant, if windswept, grassy route along the clifftop that stretched south from Denerim. The sky was as clear and bright as a blue jay's wing; the occasional wisp of cloud hanging over the placid expanse of the Amaranthine Ocean.

"What a beautiful Justinian day," Leliana enthused; by some miracle managing to appear cool and serene despite the warm temperatures. The bard was cloaked in the full garb of a Chantry lay sister – complete with delicate white finger gloves – and yet not a single bead of sweat rose to mar her unblemished forehead. "It is as though the Maker Himself approves of our journey today. What a blessing it is; to be able to enjoy such fine weather without fear of the Blight! Zevran, does this weather not remind you of Antiva?"

The elf, riding near the rear of their party, took longer to reply than was normal. Finally, Zevran lifted his white-blond head and returned a dazzling smile to the bard; though his eyes were still mired in thought.

"Ah, it cannot compare to my beloved Antivan sun, yet I will admit that it is far better than what I have come to expect from the Fereldan climate!"

"Those outcrops are known as the Teeth of Angmar," Teagan called over his shoulder to Flora, who was swivelled in the saddle to gaze at the ocean. "Legend has it, a giant named Angmar once used to come here to sharpen his teeth against the rocks."

The bann made a gesture towards the irregular basalt outcrops that punctuated the otherwise sheer and even white cliffs.

"We used to get the occasional giant in Herring," Flora replied, solemnly. "They'd wander down from the Storm Coast. They'd leave you alone, as long as you left them alone."

An odd sense of melancholy had settled in her stomach, as though she had eaten something sour and disagreeable. For a moment, Flora could not diagnose the cause of this sudden sadness; and then they passed a half-rotten tree stump that tugged at her memory.

"I came down here with Riordan," she said, suddenly. "When we went to get the Darkspawn blood for Loghain. We rode this way."

Behind her, Alistair fell silent and Flora knew that he too was picturing the same terrible image: the senior warden, broken on the cobblestones of Fort Drakon, bones pulverised and organs damaged beyond even Flora's precocious ability to mend.

"We did him proud," Alistair said quietly after a moment, gripping the reins in one experienced hand as he steered the horse around a pothole. "The… the funeral is this Sunday."

Flora twisted around in the saddle, an anxious question already forming on her lips. Alistair went to reassure her, shifting his weight forward to kiss her mouth.

"I've already organised for it to take place up at Revanloch," he murmured, watching the relief suffuse across her face. "I know you want to pay your respects, Lo."

Flora tried to smile gratefully at him, but her mind was still bloodied from the aftermath of Riordan's fatal leap. Instead, she leaned back against her brother-warden's chest and he enveloped his arm about her; pressing affectionate lips to the back of her head.


 

They rode onwards, following the grassy trail that surmounted the gently undulating cliffs. The seagulls cried and wheeled overhead, casting an appraising eye over the small company and deciding that they were not of interest.

Before the hour had passed – as Eamon had promised – Revanloch monastery came into view. It was perched precariously on a rocky outcrop; a formidable building constructed from grey basalt, weathered so extensively that it appeared almost as ancient as the cliffs upon which it rested. It was low and sprawling, with small windows, and was dominated by a vast central spire. The entire structure was as stern and uncompromising as the Chantry itself.

Alistair felt Flora flinch, and tightened his grip around her waist; trying to stop his own stomach from dropping.

"It looks like a prison," Finian announced in horror, succinctly voicing the thoughts of his sister. "Andraste Herself would want to jump from the cliffs if She was confined there, I think."

Fergus shot his younger brother a pointed look that said - very clearly - shut up. Finian did not get the message, and continued blithely.

"In Orlais, I once went to a party at a monastery named Fleureval. Nobles who didn't want to split their fortunes sent their second sons and daughters there."

The teyrn was about to snap at his brother, but then noticed that their sister was listening; turning round in the saddle to stare at Finian with her mouth slightly open.

"I'm afraid that the atmosphere there wasn't exactly devout," Finian continued, with a conspiratorial wink from his sole eye. "I remember – vaguely – some very questionable parties taking place up at Fleureval. With company of a most dubious nature."

Flora blinked; not understanding what Finian was referring to.

"I mean, orgies," her brother informed her, the word carrying on the wind to the rest of the party. "Wholly unwholesome behaviour for men and women of the cloth!"

Alistair shot Finian an appalled look, spreading a protective palm across Flora's burgeoning stomach.

"Finian! Don't say that in front of the baby," he hissed, hazel eyes wide and accusatory. "I don't know if it's got ears yet, but if it does, I don't want it hearing anything… inappropriate."

"Then you ought to bind the elf's mouth for the next few years," Finian retorted, and Zevran let out an indignant squawk.

"The cheek! I said not a thing!"

Alistair felt Flora tremble against his chest. For one horrible moment, he thought that she was crying, and then she let out a muffled giggle. Seconds later, she was laughing so hard that she was slipping from the saddle. Alistair tightened his grip on her, suddenly feeling tears prickling at the corner of his eyes. He could not remember the last time that he had heard his sister-warden laugh – it must have been weeks ago – and now he was inordinately grateful for the sound.


 

The road up to Revanloch widened as they drew near, and the Chantry banners draped over the monastery gates came into clearer view. The closer they came, the more formidable the crenellated walls seemed; the entire place seemed like the architectural embodiment of a particularly severe Chantry cleric.

"How can a building seem to scowl?" Zevran murmured, nudging his pony alongside Finian's. The younger Cousland gave a shrug, his remaining grey eye wide and appalled.

"I don't know, but it looks like we've got a welcoming party."

Sure enough, there was a small contingent of Templars and Chantry officials waiting outside the gates; a crowd of people clad in either cream or silverite. All were stern-faced and stiff-backed, though the Templars had removed their helms in honour of their esteemed visitors.

"How do you tell them apart?" Flora whispered to Alistair, knowing that her brother-warden had spent ten years in a monastery similar to the one looming before them.

"The taller the hat, the more important they are," he whispered back, only half-joking.

Templars and priests dropped into deep bows as the horses came to a halt, the Chantry stable-boys creeping out with far more solemnity than those residing at the palace.

Alistair dismounted first, boots crunching onto the gravel of the forecourt. Immediately, he turned and reached up for his sister-warden, lifting her down as though she were made of crystallised glass. The others also dismounted; although only Fergus, Eamon and Alistair would be accompanying Flora and Leliana into the monastery itself.

"Your Majesty," murmured the Knight-Commander, a man with a lurid burn-scar distorting the entire right side of his face. "My lady Cousland. The Templar Order of Ferelden is grateful for your actions in ending the Fifth Blight."

Alistair let out a soft grunt, barely heeding the man's words as he mentally ran over his list of demands once again. Flora wondered if she should reply with you're welcome, but elected to remain quiet instead; bowing her head politely.

After dismounting from his own steed, Eamon glanced briefly at Alistair; ready to step in if the new king needed any assistance. Alistair, however, was already striding forward with a determined expression, the green flecks in his eyes standing out like fragments of cut glass.

"Right," he said tersely, gaze moving from Knight-Commander to Grand Cleric. "There is a great deal to be discussed before I even consider leaving the lady Cousland here, so I suggest we go inside and find somewhere comfortable to sit. Ideally, with refreshments."

Since only a few would be accompanying Flora inside Revanloch, she parted from the majority of her companions at the gates. Each one promised that they would come and visit their former Warden very soon, if not tomorrow, and whispered their own assurances into her ear.

Oghren declared that he would try and smuggle in a bottle of rum – since the monastery did not appear to be the most convivial of accommodations. Wynne gripped Flora's elbow between her own elegant fingers; struck by a sudden sadness that they would never again be senior enchanter and junior apprentice.

Leonas ran a brief, paternal hand over Flora's hair, his eyes soft and reassuring. Teagan attempted to emulate this fatherly demeanour but was unable to carry it out with such ease; his enduring, slightly shameful desire for the young Cousland manifesting in a half-dozen small tells.

Finian embraced his sister as heartily as he dared, squeezing her shoulders rather than her swollen waist. He promised grandly that he had planned a surprise for her; one that she had to be a little patient for. Flora, who had never had a surprise that she had liked, shot him a look of mild alarm.

Zevran also embraced Flora, drawing her close to his chest. The hug, however, was more of a ploy to bring her ear within range of his whisper.

"If you change your mind and wish me to come and free you from this prison, let me know," he hissed urgently against her hair, breath hot on her ear. "I swear it, carina. Say the word and I will liberate you."

"I will," replied Flora gravely, then smiled at him. "Thank you."

Expecting the usual bold kiss at the border of cheek and mouth, she was startled when the elf's lips landed softly in the centre of her forehead, tender and wistful.

"I'll see you soon, mi florita."

In the end, Eamon, Alistair and Fergus accompanied Flora and Leliana into the shadowy, damp coolness of the monastery interior. The inside of Revanloch was no less stark than its outer appearance suggested; segmented into small and sparsely decorated stone chambers.

The Knight-Commander showed them into his office, which had an empty hearth and a large, graphic depiction of the Martyrdom of Andraste hanging on the southern wall. The Grand Cleric took off her tall, ponderous headpiece and wiped some sweat from her forehead, making an offhanded comment about the summer heat.

Flora sat on the wooden bench and wondered whether a mage had given the Knight-Commander the burn scar emblazoned across his cheek. The Grand Cleric had a sonorous, undulating voice that probably sounded impressive when leading prayers in the Chantry; yet was rather grating in close quarters. Flora did her best to listen to the conversation, but the little creature drew her attention by shifting impatiently against the confines of her belly.

She rested her fingers on her stomach, stroking the firm mound absent-mindedly. Alistair glanced over, attention caught by the motion of her hand, and his face went through a cluster of small changes in rapid succession. His expression softened at first, eyes bright with affection; then quickly hardened to a steely, uncompromising resoluteness. Turning to cleric and head Templar, he cleared his throat pointedly.

"Right," the king said, cutting abrupt across the old priestess. "I'm going to set down a few ground rules; which I want you both to listen to very carefully."

Such was the vein of Marician steel in his voice that the Knight-Commander and the Grand Cleric of Ferelden turned immediately to their new king.

"When I leave here today," Alistair began, quietly. "I am entrusting the two most precious things in the world to me, into your keeping. Oh, and Leliana- sorry, Lel."

The bard rolled her eyes with a small, don't-worry-about-it snort.

"So, believe me" the Theirin continued, darkly. "I won't be setting a single foot out of here until I'm reassured that my requirements have been met."

The Knight-Commander gave a slight nod, his eyes watchful.

"And these requirements are, Your Majesty?"

The immediacy with which Alistair responded suggested that he had been going over the demands many times in his head, prior to this moment.

"Lay-Sister Leliana is to accompany the lady Cousland everywhere, without exception, and she is permitted to carry whatever weapons she deems suitable. Royal Guardsmen will be posted at each entrance and exit to the monastery. The lady Cousland will have whatever she needs to be comfortable – warm quarters, and good food. I'll not have her served any of the bland pottage that I lived on for a decade. She's your honoured guest, not your prisoner."

Alistair grimaced, recalling years of draughty bedchambers and tasteless gruel. The Knight-Commander gave a small nod; none of the king's demands were unexpected.

"Is there aught else you require, King Alistair?"

"I want to meet the Templars you've assigned to watch her," Alistair replied, expression grim. "These soldiers had better be your best, ser knight."

The Knight-Commander nodded, gesturing towards a young aide discreetly waiting in the corner.

"Bring them in."

 

Chapter Text

Moments later, two soldiers walked into the Knight-Commander's study with a militaristic precision to their stride. Many years of hard service were writ across their faces, and their blades hung at their sides as comfortably as an extra limb. Alistair surveyed them through narrowed eyes, attempting to assess their competency through appearance alone.

Flora gazed up at the new arrivals with slight wariness. She had become familiar with many types of Templar during her four years at the Circle – the officious type, the bullying type, the type who didn't avert their eyes when standing guard in the wash-chamber. Yet there had also been kinder ones – the ones who had brought her fresh buckets of water when she was mopping the flagstones; or who didn't tell her off when she was caught creeping back from the kitchens after curfew.

The elder of the two – a man in his fifties, with a roughly cropped greying beard and eyes like chips of blue glass, gave a perfunctory bow towards the king.

"This is Knight-Captain Gannorn, your majesty," murmured the Commander, quietly. "Be assured, we have no better soldier of faith in our ranks."

Leliana gave a little flutter of recognition from where she was sitting beside Flora.

"The Knight-Captain Gannorn? The one who uncovered that maleficar plot in the Marches? Who single-handedly defended a group of pilgrims from Qunari mercenaries in the Rivaini desert? Who once deflected a blow meant for the Divine Herself?"

The man gave a stern, taciturn grunt of acknowledgement at each comment; as Leliana clasped her hands together in delight.

"Where are you from?" Alistair asked warily, wanting to gain some measure of the man.

"A village on the north coast, Your Majesty," the Templar replied in a thick, northern brogue. "By the name of Skingle."

Flora had hardly reacted to the Templar's litany of accomplishments, but at the sound of both familiar village and familiar accent, her head snapped upright.

"Skingle!" she squawked, enthralled. "Skingle is the next village over from Herring! That's where I'm from! Oh, and also Highever," she added, remembering Fergus.

"Aye, milady," the man replied, his throaty shaping of the word-sounds fundamentally similar to her own. "I left the coast decades ago, but I remember your pa. Pelegrin, eh? Believe I bought some fish hooks from the man. Good hooks, too."

As a proud Flora beamed from ear to ear, Eamon shot a quick and pointed glance towards Alistair.

See, the look chided. You need not have worried. I would not have entrusted the mother of your child to simply anyone.

His fears somewhat assuaged, Alistair turned to the woman. She was in her forties, slender and hollow-cheeked, with dark hair shorn close to her skull and piercing violet eyes. Her bow was neat and perfunctory, a complement to her regimented stance.

"And you are?"

"'All heads bow! All knees bend! Every being in the realm pay homage!'"

Alistair let out a soft groan under his breath, shooting the Knight-Commander a dark look.

"A Chanter," he muttered, one eyebrow rising. "Really?"

"Ser Devotia was a Chanter before she joined the Templars," the Knight-Commander replied, placatingly. "She's never lost the – ah – habit,but I assure you that she is one of our most impressive soldiers."

Alistair let out a grunt, reaching out for Flora's hand and clasping it tightly within his own. His thumb ran over her knuckles, slow and tender; the affection of the gesture in stark contrast to the menace emerging in his voice.

"They had better be as skilled as you say, Knight-Commander," he murmured, a thinly veiled threat draped over the words. "I promise you, the Rite of Annulment will look like a picnic compared to what I'll do if a single hair on her head is harmed."

Flora shot her brother-warden a slightly awed look, unused to such blatant wielding of the royal hand of authority.

"I swear upon the Ashes of Andraste that the lady Cousland will come to no harm under Revanloch's roof," the Knight-Commander assured, remaining admirably calm in the face of Alistair's intimation.

As the Templar suggested that they go to see the quarters that had been assigned to Flora and Leliana; Flora almost piped up with the fact that she had seen Andraste's Ashes in person, and that she had actually carried them in her boot for safekeeping! She had WALKED on them for nearly fifty miles!

Leliana, who had the uncanny ability to read the words off Flora's tongue before they emerged; shot the young Cousland a pointed look and shook her head silently.

The Knight-Commander ushered them from his office and along a high-ceilinged corridor, lit at regular intervals by candle sconces set into the basalt walls. Gannorn and Devotia followed unobtrusively in their wake, stares directed rigidly forward. The atmosphere was hushed and contemplative; they passed the occasional pair of Templar, but the residents of Revanloch seemed to have learnt the ability to step silently in plate boots.

After a few minutes they emerged, blinking, into the sunlight of a courtyard surrounded by pillared terraces. A neat set of two dozen training dummies were spaced in even rows, while a stern faced instructor oversaw pairs of sparring recruits. These young Chantry initiates were clad in simple training cuirasses, and clutched basic iron swords with the ends filed blunt. They ranged in age from thirteen to eighteen, and were all male save for one belligerent-looking girl.

"Ah, memories," Alistair whispered in Flora's ear, remembering hours spent in similar training at Bournshire. "I don't miss these extended drill sessions."

As the Knight-Commander led them through the pillared gallery, several of the more curious and less disciplined of the recruits craned their necks to see who the visitors were. Their eyes moved over Alistair, noting the gold band atop his head, passed over Fergus and Eamon without pause; hesitated briefly on Leliana – who was beautiful, but slightly intimidating, and clad in Chantry robes – then settled on Flora.

Although those who ran Revanloch attempted to limit all outside influences and distraction; news of the Blight had seeped through the tall basalt walls like rising damp. In addition, many of the Templar had been assigned to guard the Circle mage camp on the Alamarri plains.

Thus, many of the recruits were aware of the Warden who had summoned the armies and smote the Archdemon: a girl only a few years older than they were themselves, who had risen from obscurity to be named the first Hero of Ferelden.

They had hoarded what little information they had been able to glean from eavesdropping on senior officials conversing in corridors; they knew that she was a Cousland, that she was red headed, that she was rumoured to be the lover of the king (due to a certain tavern song that had earned one recruit three days of penance when a Chantry Mother overhead him singing it. They knew that the Hero had been a mage, but that the Maker had rewarded the young Cousland for her heroism by severing her connection with the Fade, allowing her to keep her emotions. It was also whispered that she never smiled.

Now they saw the girl herself standing beside the well-dressed peers of the realm, her dark red hair caught up on top of her head and a solemn expression writ across her face. She was smaller than they expected, and far less intimidating; let there was no mistaking the cool arrogance of a sea-grey Cousland stare as she swept it across the courtyard.

The recruits whispered to each other in excitement, nudging and gawping; ignoring the perturbed calls from their instructor.

"Maferath's Balls, it's the Warden!"

"No, is it her? Really? She's not very strong-looking."

"Look at the hair, of course it is. That's the new king she's with."

"Maker, look at the mouth on her. Back home, we'd call that a - ."

"Mm, and those bosoms! Bit chubby, though."

"You idiot, Barney, she's got a babe in the belly. Wait, she's got a babe in the belly?!"

"Who's got his leg over the Hero of Ferelden? The king?"

Flora had been gazing out across the courtyard in a vain attempt to locate the kitchens, not seeming to notice the gaggle of adolescent boys staring at her like she were a stuffed peacock on a dinner table. Alistair, however, did notice, and a scowl spread across his handsome, olive-hewn features. The stubble on his jaw was growing in dense; he not only looked, but felt, far more mature than these initiates who were only a handful of years his junior.

Before he could voice his displeasure, Fergus had already spoken up. The teyrn's voice – well-bred, with only the barest hint of northern inflection – rose up in mild consternation.

"I hope you have some strategy for keeping those recruits away from my sister," he announced, bluntly. "I won't tolerate a crowd of youths trailing her around, with tongues lolling from their mouths like sun-stroked Mabari."

"They will be told," the Knight-Commander assured, gesturing them towards a low flight of stone steps that led back into the interior of the monastery. "Helpfully, they're all rather terrified of Chanter Devotia."

As they passed a life-size oil painting of Maferath's Betrayal, Flora thought to herself that she was also slightly terrified of Chanter Devotia. The woman had said nothing to her by way of greeting, just fixed Flora with her strange, violet eyes and murmured 'now her hand is raised, a sword to pierce the sun'.

The Knight-Commander led them along a wide stone corridor, lined with stern-faced busts of previous Divines; then gestured towards a wooden side-door.

"I've assigned the lady Cousland these quarters," he explained, retrieving a large ring of keys from his waist and searching through them. "Ah, here- "

Unlocking the door, the Knight-Commander gave it a perfunctory nudge, revealing a spacious and neatly appointed chamber. Although the walls were plain plaster, decorated only with a handful of Chantry symbols; the furniture was well-made and the furnishings cut from expensive cloth. A large bay window was framed by violet curtains that hung to the flagstones, and a hearth smouldered away in one corner. A tiled wash-room was just visible, tucked away to one side.

"Lovely," announced Leliana brightly, her keen eyes taking note of a narrow pallet beside the door. This would presumably accommodate their Templar guardians as they slept on alternate shifts. "I foresee many hours of thoughtful contemplation spent in this chamber!"

The lay sister dropped her pack on one side of the bed, smoothing admiring fingers over the embroidered coverlet.

"This is the chamber we assign to Royal guests," explained the Knight-Commander, blithely. "So it should be suitable."

Flora, who had been wondering in what direction the kitchens lay, looked mildly confused.

"But I'm not- " she began, and then Leliana cut delicately and skilfully access her.

"Ma petite, come and look at the view! The Amaranthine Ocean is spread out before us, in all of its Maker-created glory!"

Fortunately, Flora never failed to be distracted by the sea. Abandoning her query, she went to join Leliana on the window seat.

While they occupied themselves with identifying the flags flown by the distant trade ships – Leliana had sharper eyes and a more incisive guess, while Flora just claimed that they were all from Ansberg or Kirkwall, the only Marcher cities she knew – Fergus lowered his voice and took a step closer to the Grand Cleric.

"Ideally, we want the wedding and the coronation to take place on the same day," he murmured, watching his sister rap her bitten-nailed finger on the glass to scare off a seagull. "How quickly can this public confirmation of Flora's lack of magic take place?"

The Grand Cleric lowered her voice, peering out from beneath the brim of her tall hat with clever, lined eyes.

"A letter from Divine Beatrix is already on its way from Val Royeaux," she replied, her voice soft as the whisper of crumpled leaves. "As you know, our Seekers have their connection with the Fade severed, without cost to their emotion. What's happened to your sister is not unheard of, though of course the circumstances are much different."

Fergus frowned, glancing quickly to one side to check that Alistair was preoccupied. The king was standing at Flora's side, listening as she embarked on some inane nautical tangent.

"Then why this month of confinement?" he asked, bluntly. "I don't see the purpose in it, if the Divine already corroborates Florence's state."

Fergus, although a teyrn, had not been playing the political game for as long as Eamon. The Arl of Redcliffe gave a slow nod, his lips tightening.

"Publicity," he said, shortly. "The Fereldan Chantry played no role in the defeat of the Fifth Blight, and the people know it. Has attendance at local chapels been in decline over the past week?"

The old woman gave a nod, confirming with her shrewd eyes what her mouth would never shape.

"And if you associate yourself with the Hero of Ferelden, you'll be able to reclaim some of those numbers," the arl continued, his own voice soft. "They'll all want to know how their lady Cousland is doing; and you'll be the ones with the weekly news."

Fergus scowled, discontent brewing in the depths of his blue-grey irises.

"I won't have my sister used as a pawn in your bureaucracy," he began bluntly, then lowered his voice as the three figures at the window turned to look at him. "She's not used to any of this: the propaganda, the politics- "

"Your Lordship, this way, both of us get what we want," murmured the Grand Cleric of Ferelden. "We reclaim some of our misguided sheep, and- "

"And we gain a queen, and legitimate heir," finished Eamon, quietly.

When it came time for their party to depart Revanloch – without the two redheads – Fergus drew Leliana to one corner, his grey eyes shadowed.

"You swear that you'll never leave her side?" he asked, for the third time that morning. "Even when performing ablutions? I know she might chafe at the lack of privacy- "

"Oh, Florence has never had a shred of privacy in her life," Leliana replied, the cheeriest one in the room. "This will be nothing new to her."

"And you'll ensure that she's – sufficiently defended?"

Leliana slid up the sleeve of her demure Chantry robe, just enough to reveal the glittering blade of a knife strapped neatly to her forearm.

"I have more about my person," the bard purred, with a devilish flash of white teeth. "But it would be improper to show you in the company of others."

Fergus let out a bark of laughter, then accidentally caught sight of where Alistair and Flora were tangled in an enthusiastic clinch beside the window.

"Oh, Maker's Breath!" Fergus hastily averted his eyes, teeth gritted. "You know, you are seeing her tonight. It's not as though you're being separated for a year."

Alistair was well-aware of this but equally did not care, he was too preoccupied with his best friend's eager lips. On its men, the traditionally full Cousland mouth manifested as expressive; whereas on women, it translated as sulky. There was nothing that Alistair enjoyed more than seeing those petulant lips part, rosy and swollen, in response to the demands of his own tongue.

"Alistair," said Eamon, patiently. "Whenever you're ready. The Council is waiting for you."

Alistair thought that he would never be ready to leave his beloved sister-warden. He was hoping that something would have been fundamentally flawed at Revanloch – that the room would have been unsuitable, the assigned Templars incompetent, or his lover too distressed – which would allow him to return with Flora to Denerim. Unfortunately, the room was comfortable, the Templars proficient and Flora herself had assumed a mantle of dogged stoicism.

Drawing back a fraction, Alistair gazed down at her flushed and desirous face; wanting nothing more than to pick Flora up and put her back on his saddle.

"I'll be back at sundown tonight, baby," he said finally, eyes shadowed.

"Yes," Flora replied, trying to mask her forlornness.

"And at sundown every single day, Lo."

"Mm."

He kissed her once again, hard and longing; hands dropping to cradle the rounded swell of her stomach.

"Look after our child, sweetheart."

"I will!"

Flora was about to add I always have, then realised that taking it into battle against the Archdemon probably did not quite constitute looking after it.

With a final agonised glance over his shoulder, Alistair departed; following on the heels of Eamon.

There was silence for a long moment. Leliana gazed at both Gannorn and Devotia, who stared ahead with absolute neutrality of expression, flanking the doorway like suits of armour. Flora dropped her gaze to her feet, miserably; wanting nothing more than to run down the corridor after her departing brother-warden.

The bard, catching sight of the gleam of impending tears, clapped her hands together brightly.

"Right!" Leliana declared, eyes shining. "We've several hours until lunch. Shall we explore our new temporary home? I believe I saw a fish pond in one of the side-gardens."

"Oh!" Flora immediately perked up.

 

Chapter Text

Bard and Cousland spent several hours exploring the confines of the Revanloch monastery; which sprawled for a decaying acre atop the cliffs. Leliana was horrified at the sheer ugliness of a building supposedly devoted to the Maker. The basalt walls loomed menacingly overhead, casting a shadow over the inner courtyards; the archways and terraces were crumbling away through sheer decrepitude.

The interior was no less sombre than the exterior, a warren of passages and chambers cast in perpetual gloom by the narrow, shuttered windows. Candles burnt from every surface, though they made little headway against the darkness. There was a great chapel large enough to house two hundred, dominated by a vast and unforgiving effigy of Andraste. Several libraries and reading rooms branched off another corridor, near the Knight-Commander's quarters. A dining room, austere and without decoration, was located in a separate wing.

As they wandered about, Leliana reminisced in unsubtle tones about the Grand Chantry in Val Royeaux. She enthused fondly on its peach-marbled walls, gilded ornamentation and floors intricately tiled with onyx and ivory mosaic. There had always been singing drifting lightly on the air, and each perfumed chamber carried a different scent of floral incense.

Not this heavy, throat-clogging stink! the bard whispered derisively in Flora's ear, turning her nose up at the pungent, waxy odour wafting from oil burners fixed on the walls. The Maker does NOT look on this hideous building and smile, I know it!

Strangely, Flora felt far more at ease in this austere heart of the Fereldan Templar Order. The stark ugliness of the basalt rock reminded her of Herring, as did the gloomy, cramped chambers. The missing tiles in the roof meant that she could hear the constant cawing of the seagulls overhead, along with the occasional waft of salt-edged breeze. The highest ramparts of the monastery provided an unparalleled view of the Amaranthine Ocean; far better than any that could be gleaned from the Royal Palace.

I think I'll be alright here, Flora told herself, as they approached the dining hall for lunch. Everybody watches me, but everyone has had their eyes on me for months anyway. Years, going back to the Circle.

Even the stern, constant presence of Gannorn and Devotia had not disconcerted her. The two Templars had followed them around at a short distance all morning, without initiating a single dialogue. Leliana had attempted to begin several conversations with the Knight-Captain, only to receive monosyllabic grunts in response.

To Flora's alarm, once they entered the dining hall, they were ushered to the top table. Rows of wide-eyed recruits followed their progress to the raised platform at the front of the hall, where Flora took a tentative seat beside the Knight-Commander.

"Can't we eat in our room?" she hissed in Leliana's ear, self-conscious at the stares of nearly two hundred gawping adolescents. "Everyone's looking at us."

"No," replied Leliana sternly, spreading her napkin over her thighs. "You should be used to this from dining at South Reach!"

"That wasn't this many people! There must be at least…"

Flora trailed off; her literacy and numeracy practice had been neglected in recent weeks, and she had no idea how many recruits were crowded on the benches before her.

"At least… a lot," she said inanely, taking a gloomy sip of water.

"Ah, but you must get used to this, ma petite," Leliana replied, slightly enigmatically. "Being in the public eye."

Before Flora could ask Leliana what she meant, she felt her stomach give a low roll of discontent. In alarm, she looked up to see platters of meat being carried out by young initiates: whole roasted pigs skewered on iron rods. Their flesh was blackened and apples had been wedged into their gaping mouths.

Immediately, Flora felt her belly curdle as the little creature lodged within objected violently to the smell of the meat. She had rather naively assumed that the top table would be served the same vegetable stew as the masses below.

The pig was placed on the table, and looked sadly up at Flora, its glassy eyes meeting her own. Flora stared back at it; and for a moment she saw the corpse of a human soldier charred by a Darkspawn necromancer's flame.

Taking a deep breath she picked up her fork, and then hastily put it down again as a Chantry sister rose to her feet and cleared her throat.

"O Maker, this meal is a symbol of Your enduring love for us; bless us and bless our homeland; preserve us so that we may glorify You, now and forever."

The Chantry sister continued in similar vein for the next fifteen minutes, while Leliana smiled and nodded. The sad-faced, cooling pig congealed before Flora; she slunk down an inch in her seat and tried not to vomit across the table.

Why don't you like meat? Every true Fereldan likes meat. I'm Fereldan, and your papa is Fereldan.

If you ever turn against fish, little creature, we're going to have a real problem.

Finally, the Chantry sister sat down and there followed a period of murmuring as the initiates tucked into their vegetable stew.

Leliana used her knife – the table knife, not the blade secreted up her sleeve – to expertly carve into the pig's flank. Flora watched the bard fork several pieces of meat onto her plate, then glance sideways.

"Ma petite, why are you not eating?"

Flora made a face, and understanding dawned on the bard's finely hewn features. Leliana leaned forward and made a swift gesture to one of the servants. A quick exchange of words later, and a bowl of tepid vegetable stew was placed on the table.

Flora beamed at Leliana, and was surprised to see a frown contorting the Orlesian lay-sister's creamy forehead.

"What did I do?" Flora asked, anxiously. "I'm sorry- "

The bard reached out and put a finger on Flora's lips, her expression stern.

"Don't apologise! You must stop apologising for everything, Florence, like some pandering sycophant."

"Pan- panda- sick panda-"

Leliana continued, her eyes bright and earnest.

"And you mustn't just sit there if something is not to your liking. You must speak out, and ask for it to be changed!"

Flora blinked, the spoon motionless in her hand.

"Oh, you're trying to make me authoritative!" she said, in eventual realisation. "Aren't you? You're trying to make me into a proper Cousland."

"Not just a Cousland, ma crevette," murmured the bard, deftly carving the pork slice in two. "Now, try not to speak with your mouth full, s'il vous plait!"

"I don't do that, do I?"

"You're doing it right now!"


 

After lunch, Leliana took Flora into the Templar library, which – impossibly – had an even more funereal atmosphere than the rest of Revanloch. It was a quiet, hallowed hall, lit by great stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Andraste. The walls were lined with bookshelves, with more valuable contents protected by gilded cages. The entire space was lit by hanging candelabras, suspended spiked iron wheels that seemed more torture device than source of illumination.

Various young recruits were tucked into study carrels, pouring over texts with varying degrees of diligence. Many of them had positioned themselves on wooden benches that provided a direct eye-line to where the lay-sister and the lady Cousland were sitting.

At first Flora had chosen a reading table at random, then realised that it was located beneath the gold and crimson glass depiction of Andraste's martyrdom. With trepidation, she raised her eyes to view a mournful, eight-foot tall prophetess being burned on a Tevinter pyre, directly above their heads. The sacrifice of Andraste had always terrified the younger Flora – especially when combined with the knowledge that apostate mages had been burned by angry villagers in the past.

Before Leliana could sit, Flora had shot upright as quickly as her belly allowed. She moved several desks over, relocating to a table beneath a far more harmless depiction of Andraste and Maferath getting their marriage blessed. Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia followed silently, unobtrusive as shadows.

The recruit sitting on the opposite side of the table – a ginger boy of perhaps sixteen – immediately pinkened and buried himself in his work, occasionally daring to dart little glances above the textbook.

Flora, reminded of when Alistair had been a similar recruit, smiled kindly at him. This only made the boy flush a deeper shade of crimson, clashing with his auburn curls.

"Right," Leliana breathed, settling on the bench beside Flora and rummaging in a leather satchel. "Happy with this seat?"

Flora nodded, resting an absent-minded hand on her stomach as the little creature rotated itself within her.

"Mm. Are we reading or writing?"

"Neither."

Leliana pulled out a sheaf of codex cards, crafted from thick vellum. Each one had an ornately calligraphed title, a sketched illustration and a small paragraph scribed near the bottom. Flora frowned at them in slight confusion; they looked more like playing cards than academic materials.

"I don't think I can read that writing," she said, doubtfully eyeing the ornately inked text. "It's a bit… swirly."

"The purpose is not for you to memorise the names, cherie," murmured Leliana, retrieving a folded square of parchment from the inside of her robe.

To Flora's surprise, this final item turned out to be a map, which Leliana proceeded to spread out across the desk.

It was a map unfamiliar to Flora, who had only ever seen a cartographer's depiction of Ferelden. She could recognise an outline which appeared to be similar to Ferelden, but it was smaller and tucked away to the south east. Other outlines crowded to the west and north, dotted with small and barely legible labels.

"Oh," said Flora, in sudden realisation. "Is this Thedas?"

When Leliana nodded, Flora gazed down at the map in fascination. She recognised certain place names – Waking Sea, Highever, Denerim – based on the shape of the words, but the vast majority were unfamiliar. She touched a finger to Highever, then slid it west to the cove where Herring lay.

"Alright, Florence – are you watching? I know you have a sound memory, and you must memorise this."

Leliana pointed to each crooked outline on the map in turn, her slender finger moving with slow purpose as she recited the country names.

"The Anderfels – Tevinter – Nevarra – Orlais – Ferelden- "

"FERELDEN!"

"Yes, indeed, Ferelden. The Free Marches – Antiva – Rivain. Can you point them out to me?"

Flora did as the bard requested, moving her finger from country to country.

"The Anderfels – Tevinter – Nevarra– Orlais."

She broke off, gazing with fascination at this oldest enemy of Ferelden. It sprawled out lazily across the south-western portion of the map, like a dozing lion.

"That's where you're from. Where's Vally-roo?"

"Val Royeaux. Here, just by the lake, see? Keep going."

"Ferelden – Free Marches – Antiva… oh! Zevran is from here. Is the climate better because it's further north? He always talks about the Antivan sun."

Leliana gave a little shrug, shifting her position on the wooden bench.

"I'm not sure. Parts of Antiva are very arid, and Rivain – just to the north – is all desert. So, possibly?"

Flora fell into melancholy silence, thinking on her old commander. Duncan had Rivaini parentage; evident in his rich ochre skin and coal-black eyes, as well as the golden ring looped through one ear.

"Show me one more time that you know where each country is, ma crevette."

After Flora had complied, Leliana reached for the sheaf of codex cards. With meticulous care, the bard proceeded to arrange them across the map of Thedas. Each card was inked with an illustration of an imperious looking face, either male or female; many of them clad in some sort of regal headpiece.

Flora recognised the face on the card set within Ferelden, feeling a twinge of sadness in her gut. She did not need to decipher the title to work out who this individual was: she recognised both the eager, enthusiastic stare and the characteristic Theirin jawline.

"This is King Cailan," she said softly, and Leliana gave a small nod.

"Oui, these cards are a little out of date – although still accurate, for the most part. They show the current ruling monarch for each country in Thedas. Let me show you."

Over the next few hours, Leliana meticulously introduced Flora to the great ruling houses of Thedas, and the countries under their domain. Flora recognised only one, Empress Celene of House Valmont; who had been the subject of some incriminating letters that they had discovered at Ostagar. Other dynasties – such as the Pentaghasts of Nevarra – were entirely unfamiliar to her.

Still, Flora listened dutifully to Leliana as the bard elaborated in hushed, purposeful tones, and did her best to memorise the flood of new information the best she could. To compensate for her illiteracy, Flora had developed an excellent memory, which she deployed now to assist her.

After Flora had correctly named the leading families of the Free Marches – from Aurum to Vael – Leliana decided that enough was enough for one day. Flora helped her to gather up the cards, a slight frown creasing her forehead.

"Thank you for the information," she said, earnestly. "But why am I learning about all the important families of Thedas?"

Leliana shot her a quick, darting glance; then flashed a similarly evasive smile.

"Because the world is far larger than what you know, Flora of Herring," the bard murmured, skilfully avoiding a direct answer. "And it's important that you learn about it. Who knows who you'll be meeting in the future?"

"Well, I hope someone with a nice, easy name," Flora said, gravely. "Like Vael. Not Pin- Pant- Pant-gust. PANTY GHOST."

"Pentaghast!"

 

Chapter Text

After dinner, Flora and Leliana were sitting up on the high ramparts overlooking the ocean. At their backs, the sun was inching itself towards the Bannorn, leaving the sky in a blended smear of pastel hues. The deep glass-green of Amaranthine was desaturated by the lowering light, the horizon melding with the distant water until it was not clear where sea ended and sky began.

Leliana had her nose buried deep in a song-book; the evening service would begin in an hour, and she did not want a single erroneous word to emerge from her lips. Flora was resting her chin in her arms on the ramparts, gazing thoughtfully out at the unbroken expanse of water. There was a small flotilla of Marcher trade ships taking advantage of a westerly wind, and she squinted to see their flags.

"That's Kirkwall," she said with reasonable confidence, more to herself then anyone else. "The one with the red flag. Kirkwall's opposite Herring. I don't know what the others are."

Leliana gave a little shrug, immersed in her text.

"The navy banner on the end is Ansberg," came a gruff, northern voice from behind them. "The chequered one belongs to Ostwick."

It was the Templar Gannorn who had spoken; his eyes still sharp despite the iron-grey of his beard and close-cropped hair.

"Ansberg," breathed Flora, the name sparking recognition in her memory. "Oh, that's where Arl Eamon and Bann Teagan were raised! They have good horses there."

"Yes, their Margravane is well-known for possessing the best stables in Thedas," Leliana added, eyes still fixed on her prayer book.

Just then, there came the sound of hurried footsteps ascending the rampart stair; the distinctive thud of a man taking them two at a time. Instinctively, the Templars both turned around to face the steps, and Leliana's gaze lifted from her prayer-book, fingers sliding imperceptibly towards her dagger-concealing sleeve.

Flora, however, had other ways of recognising her former brother-warden's approach, despite them no longer sharing the connection of tainted blood. She knew the sound of his tread intimately; could identify his footfall from a crowd just by the sound of his boot striking the ground.

Sure enough, Alistair soon burst onto the monastery ramparts; face flushed and with the golden band of kingship lopsided on his head. His eyes swept the basalt walkway, focusing immediately on Flora as she beamed at him, visibly delighted. Immediately, relief crashed across the king's face, and he raised his arms as he strode across the flagstones.

"Sweetheart."

Flora scuttled, crab-like, across the ramparts and Alistair folded her into his arms, exhaling unsteadily.

"Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Flora replied, as he drew back just far enough to look her up and down, anxiously. "How are you?"

"My brain feels like it's leaking out of my ears after sitting in a room with eight other men all day, but apart from that, I'm fine too. I've missed you."

Flora gave a little grimace of sympathy, reaching up to touch the dark shadows beneath her best friend's eyes.

"Poor Alistair," she whispered, thinking in some ways, you're as trapped as I am now. "You look tired."

Alistair smiled down at her, cupping the back of Flora's head and rubbing a thumb over her ear.

"I feel like I'm awake for the first time all afternoon, being with you. Hello, Lel - how's it been?"

Leliana smiled, waving at him over her prayer-book.

"How refreshing, to be so immersed in the Maker's bosom! I feel my faith revitalised, even during the few brief hours of our residence here at Revanloch."

In the distance, a great bell began to swing back and forth on its hinges, sending out an imperious summons into the dusk. Alistair continue to stare at the bard expectantly, and Leliana relented.

"And, of course, everything has been fine. Florence and I have spent the afternoon in the library, pouring over the great dynasties of Ferelden."

"Valmont, Pen- Pentaghast, Valisti, Vael," Flora repeated, dutifully. "Why do so many of them start with vuh?"

Both Alistair and Leliana waited – with baited breath - for her to augment the question with, and why do I have to learn about them?

But Flora had launched herself on a tangent, trying to remember how to spell Celene.

"S-A-L-I-N-E-"

"Not quite, ma petite. Ah, it is almost time for Complines."

Alistair grinned, and suddenly seemed a Templar initiate of fifteen again, instinctively turning his head towards the clarion call of the bells.

"Maker, it's just like the old days," he breathed, peering down into the inner courtyard to watch columns of young recruits streaming towards the main chapel. "I still remember all the prayers. Come on baby, Eamon said we should show our faces."


 

The main chapel of Revanloch was high-ceilinged and commanding; with flying stone buttresses and a massive stained glass window depicting the prophesied return of the Maker. The effigy of Andraste reared up at the altar like a particularly stern schoolmistress, the eternal flame blazing away in a sculpted iron brazier.

The entire populace of Revanloch had piled into the Chantry for Complines prayers; from the lowliest kitchen-servant to the Knight-Commander himself. The initiates were crowded on cramped wooden benches in the back, all craning their necks to see towards the Royal pew. This separate stall had been reserved for the rare occasion when a Theirin would grace the Templar monastery with his presence. This had happened from time to time with Maric; never with Cailan.

The Royal stall, however, was not particularly comfortable – especially considering that it had to house the Knight-Commander, Leliana, Flora and her two Templars, and Alistair with his four Royal Guard escort. Two more Royal Guard had been relegated to the back benches, sitting uncomfortably amongst a horde of snickering adolescents.

The Chantry Mother began the service with the traditional incantation; which called upon those present to prostrate themselves wholly to the Maker. The congregation were expected to kneel, with exception being granted to those too ill, aged, or otherwise unable to descend to their knees.

Flora duly sunk downwards, gazing assiduously at the flagstones. Her weak knee gave a twinge of pain and she scowled, internally willing it to behave. Alistair narrowed his eyes sideways at her, mouthing something that she couldn't quite decipher.

"You don't have to kneel," he whispered, trying not to be heard above the Chantry Mother's sonorous tones.

He then said something that was drowned out by the general murmuring of the congregation. Flora blinked, unsure if she had heard him correctly.

"'You're too fat'?" she repeated, indignantly. "FAT?"

Alistair gaped at her for a second, then shook his head vehemently.

"No!" he replied, wide-eyed; his response muffled by the congregation as they rose to their feet. "I said: 'you can stand'."

The king looked affronted as he reached down to help haul his pregnant mistress to her feet.

"I'd never call you fat, Lo," he whispered indignantly in her ear as the Chantry Mother held out her arms, raising a beatific stare to the heavens. "Not in this Age, or the next. You're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen."

Leliana narrowed her eyes at both of them, managing to glower pointedly without moving her head. The Chantry Mother then turned her arms towards the vast effigy of Andraste, her heavy cream sleeves hanging down like wings.

"O, Maker's Bride!" she entreated, voice echoing to the vaulted ceiling. "As we prepare to read Your words, help us to decipher their true meaning so that we might serve You better!"

She turned around with hands outstretched expectantly, waiting to receive the Chant of Light, from which the reading would be taken.

A Templar emerged from a side passage, carrying the heavy tome reverently on an intricately-carved presentation board. Aware that the eyes of the congregation were on him, the young Templar raised his curly blond head and strode with militaristic precision towards the altar.

As Lieutenant Rutherford approached the Chantry Mother, his attention was diverted by the gathering of unusual guests in the front pew. Glancing sideways, he caught sight of a pair of pale grey, Mabari-hound eyes: meeting his like lightning arcing through a summer storm. As she recognised him, the girl with the storm-coloured eyes smiled; the wide mouth that he had dreamt about for so many months curving upwards.

The young lieutenant dropped both tray and tome, the heavy leather-bound book falling to the flagstones with an echoing thud that could have roused the Maker Himself. The initiates in the back rows snickered, nudging each other as the Chantry Mother hissed like an albino bat. Flora, who had not expected her smile of greeting to go so awry, looked anxious.

Now a luminous shade of scarlet, Cullen Rutherford scrambled to pick up the Chant of Light, fumbling to return the book to its correct place on the tray. He presented it with head bowed to the Chantry Mother, rigid with contrition. She took it with a snort of disgust, silencing the giggling initiates with a sweep of her scathing glare.

"He's still infatuated with her, then," murmured Leliana, fondly. "Ah, the first tender follies of the heart can be enduring."

Alistair searched his memory, placing the blond Templar as the one who had been assigned to guard Connor during their stay at South Reach. He also recalled the lieutenant helpless in a desire demon's clutches in Kinloch Hold; and how Cullen had confessed a secret and hopeless passion for a certain young red-headed apprentice, who kept being expelled from class to clean the corridors. The lieutenant had known that Flora frequently broke curfew to sneak down to the kitchens, and that she used to regularly climb up onto the Tower roof, and had not reported either misdemeanour to his seniors.

Cullen, retreating to stand beside the brazier, darted another glance at the Royal stall. His stare moved discretely from the swollen-stomached Flora, to Alistair standing tall and crowned at her side. On the last occasion that they had parted, Cullen had rode back beneath the South Reach portcullis in a clatter of hoof-beats, dismounted haphazardly, and pressed an impulsive kiss to a gawping Flora's mouth. The young lieutenant had been convinced that he would never see this object of his youthful desire again; hence such uncharacteristic boldness.

Now, to Cullen's mild horror, Flora – or the Hero of Ferelden as she was now known – was standing before him, alive and healthy. He knew that she had killed the Archdemon, and had been told that her connection with the Fade had been severed. He had also heard the rumours that she was carrying the Theirin's child; gossip which was now quite obviously confirmed.

Alistair narrowed his eyes. Leliana made a rare error of judgement, patting him on the elbow.

"You don't need to be jealous of young Lieutenant Rutherford, Alistair," she whispered, reassuringly. "He wouldn't make advances on land already claimed by the king."

"No, no- "Alistair replied under his breath, his reply partly drowned out by some enthusiastic preaching from the Chantry Mother. "That doesn't bother me – Maker knows I'm used to people lusting after Flo – but wouldn't this Rutherford make a good guard for her while she's here? If he cares for Flora, he'd never let a shred of harm come to her."

Meanwhile, Flora knew full well that she owed Cullen both for his discretion at the Circle, and for his instruction in how to resist a silencing spell. The latter had saved her life during an attack by a Darkspawn necromancer, and she had never had a chance to thank him properly. She tried to catch his eye, but Cullen was now gazing fixedly at the vast, stern face of Andraste, his cheeks still pink.

The Chantry Mother finished her reading and made the gesture for a hymn, clearing her throat as she prepared to launch into the opening verse.

"Alistair, that would be tantamount to cruelty," Leliana retorted, turning her hymn book to the correct page. "You can't make the boy watch the object of his desire sleeping, undressing, washing herself in the bath. How is he ever supposed to overcome his longing if you flaunt her before him?"

Alistair grunted, reluctantly admitting that the bard had a point. The opening bars of the hymn rang out, and he duly joined in with Leliana's soaring soprano vocals.

Flora listened to her former brother-warden's rich, clear baritone and admired how well it melded with their bard's crystalline tones. She knew that nobody wanted to hear her frog-croak of a singing voice, and so opened and closed her mouth at random intervals, unable to decipher the words of the prayer book fast enough to mime correctly.

She was relieved when the hymn came to an end and the congregation sat. Her lower back was aching where the child put pressure on it, and her feet also had a tendency of swelling up in her boots when she stood still for too long.

The Chantry Mother advanced once more to the pulpit, her eyes burning with sacred fervour.

"Before we adjourn with a closing prayer," she began, clasping her hands so that her sleeves hung down like cream-coloured altar-cloths. "We must thank the Maker for His superlative generosity, with regard to our own dear Hero of Ferelden."

Still not used to the title, it took Flora a moment to realise that the priestess was talking about her. She looked up with mild trepidation, feeling Alistair stiffen against her arm.

"The lady Cousland once suffered from the terrible affliction of magic, constantly at risk from the malevolent forces of the Fade. As reward for her great service to our nation, the Maker purified the lady and purged her of this… abnormality. Let us all give thanks for His benevolence!"

 

 

Chapter Text

The Chantry Mother continued in similar vein for the next ten minutes, exalting the great generosity of the Maker for purging the contamination of magic from their Hero of Ferelden. Flora listened in silent horror as her beloved spirits – her Silver Knight and Golden Lady, who had sacrificed their own ancient existence to preserve their mortal ally – were described as a disease to be cured, an abnormality to be surgically removed.

If Flora had been raised at Highever, she would have raised her voice in indignation; interrupted the Chantry Mother with a loud and vocal objection, secure in the knowledge that she was a Cousland and therefore impervious to repercussion from squawking clerics.

Yet Flora had spent her childhood in Herring, where she had been expected to bite her tongue and defer to her elders. So, instead of protesting at the cleric's misguided sermon, she bowed her head and tried – in vain - not to sniffle. Tears began to run down her cheeks in silent, continuous streams, and she bit down on her lip to stifle a sob before it could emerge.

Alistair glanced sideways at the odd noise, eyes widening as he took in Flora's wet cheeks and damp lashes. Reaching out, he anchored her hand tightly in his, clasping their fingers together in the old fish-rope ritual.

"Sweetheart," he whispered, wishing fervently that he could embrace her. "My darling."

The service ended after the thanksgiving prayer; rows of relieved initiates filing out to retire to their dormitories for the night. The Chantry Mother disappeared with the Knight-Commander in a waft of cream linen and imported incense, with a gaggle of sisters following in her wake like geese.

Now that the vast majority of the congregation had departed, Flora let loose the plaintive wail that she had been struggling to suppress. Alistair drew her against his chest as she huddled on the bench beside him, wrapping his arm around her shoulder and murmuring in her ear. The Royal Guard and Flora's Templar guardians stood to one side, slightly awkwardly.

"My spirits weren't like a disease,Flora protested tearfully, as Alistair nodded and murmured soothing placation. "They've saved more people than… than I can count. They've saved your life."

"On many occasions, my love."

"They saved Ferelden. I couldn't have killed the Archdemon without them."

"I know, baby."

"And they've gone! They've left me."

"I know." Alistair kissed the side of her furrowed forehead, using his thumb to brush the tears from her lower lashes. "I know, my darling. They don't understand, you know how the Chantry is."

Flora sniffed, accepting a square of perfumed silk from Leliana and mopping at her eyes and nose.

"I wish I were still a mage," she whispered, glumly. "I was useful as a mage. I healed people. I cured the taint. I could've helped Ferelden recover!"

"You still can, love," Alistair said thickly, hating the sight of his best friend and lover so distressed.

"How?!"

Alistair shot a quick glance at Leliana, who shook her head a fraction. She's not ready for you to propose, the bard's blue stare whispered. She's still grieving the loss of her spirits.

"Well, by helping me with this… being king," Alistair said instead, bringing Flora's fingers to his mouth and kissing her bitten nails. "It helps me to understand things better when I explain them to you. In fact, can we go over what the Council discussed today? I want to hear your thoughts on the refugee situation."

Flora wasn't sure how valuable her contribution would be, but sniffled her acquiescence; after all, she did always want to help. Alistair drew her face up to his and kissed her on the mouth, heedless of their sacred surroundings and assorted observers.

There was one unsanctioned onlooker who was still hovering awkwardly near the pew, gloved hands tucked behind his back. He had waited patiently, shifting from one foot to another, as the Theirin comforted his pregnant mistress.

"Lieutenant Rutherford," Leliana said, a catlike smile in her tone as she rose to her feet. "My, it's been a while since we saw each other at South Reach."

Cullen nodded, swallowing his nerves as he bowed before the king and the girl who had risen from commoner, to teyrn's daughter, to Hero of Ferelden in the time that he had known her.

"Your Majesty; Flor- Lady Cousland," the young lieutenant corrected quickly, raising his face to hers. "May I have permission to… say a few words?"

"Lieutenant Rutherford," replied Flora, wiping her nose unceremoniously on her sleeve. "I asked you at South Reach to call me Flora."

"But- "

"You've known me since I was fifteen," Flora continued, patiently. "You've seen me dressed as a lemon for a Satinalia ball. You don't have to call me Lady-anything."

Cullen opened his mouth to protest, then his face contorted oddly as he realised that he was about to try and argue with the Hero of Ferelden; which seemed distinctly worse than just calling her by her preferred name.

"Flora," he said eventually, coughing to hide his embarrassment and gazing up at the moonlight filtering through the stained glass window. "I just wanted to congratulate – thank you for your bravery in killing the Archdemon and ending the Fifth Blight."

Flora smiled up at him, still slightly damp-eyed.

I made a promise to Duncan, in the Korcari Wilds. I kept it.

"You're welcome," she said inanely, for want of anything else to say.

Cullen glanced behind him, then lowered his voice and took a step forward. Heedless of the stares of Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia; when he spoke, the words emerged low and sincere.

"And… I'm sorry for the loss of your magic," the young Templar said, quietly. "You had a great – a great gift. I still remember that ship you created for the Guerrin lad. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw."

Flora swallowed, remembering how she had summoned a simulacrum of the Peraquialus in the courtyard of South Reach. It had been misting a fine drizzle, the real stars veiled by cloud; yet the cobbles had gleamed like they were cast from gold, reflecting the light from her counterfeit constellation.

"Thank you," she said, touched that this embodiment of the Chantry had dared to voice sympathy for the loss of her spirits. "I appreciate it. I hope I can visit Connor soon. How is he?"

"Doing well, my la- Flora. He's enjoying his studies, and the company of other children."

Flora smiled, suddenly feeling tears of a different sort prickling at the corners of her eyes. Seeing the Templar looking alarmed, she hastened to explain.

"Sorry. I'm not sad, it's… this." She pointed vaguely in the direction of her stomach. "It puts my body all out of balance."

Cullen glanced down at her protruding belly, then across at Alistair, then back at Flora.

"Congratulations, Your Majesty," he said dutifully, and Alistair seemed to swell an inch with pride.

"Thank you."

The young lieutenant made his excuses, stating that he had to supervise the younger recruits in the dormitories. As Cullen disappeared down a discreet side-passage, Alistair reached out to grip Flora's hand; squeezing her fingers affectionately between his.

"Let's go back up to your chamber."


 

A pair of Tranquil servants had been assigned to attend Flora in her quarters. Seeing Flora quail at the thought of being waited on, Alistair dismissed them both and built up the fire himself; having had months of practice while travelling around Ferelden.

Leliana perched herself at the writing desk in the corner, scribing the first of many letters that she intended to send during the month's confinement. This particular one was to Wynne, who was planning to visit the monastery before the week was out.

Alistair's Royal Guard were stationed in the corridor outside, glowering at passers-by though the thin slits in their closed-face helmets. Within the chamber itself, the two Templar conversed briefly before reaching agreement.

Knight-Captain Gannorn quickly and efficiently removed the outer layers of his armour, revealing a thin set of linens beneath. Without ceremony, he lowered himself to the pallet beside the door and closed his eyes. Chantry Devotia, who was apparently on the first shift of night watch, continued to stare impassively across the chamber.

Alistair and Flora sat together on the bed, he propped up against the cushions and she with her legs resting over his lap. Their boots stood neatly side-by-side on the flagstones, so not to mark the clean linen bedding.

Alistair was recanting the events discussed in the council meeting, while rubbing the day's stiffness from Flora's knee with expert thumbs, the leather strapping curled on the mattress. He had the notes he had taken during the meeting to one side for reference; glancing down at them on occasion to check certain points. Going through the items discussed – and simplifying the material so that someone with Flora's lack of political acumen could comprehend – helped to consolidate them within Alistair's head; aiding his own understanding.

Flora asked the occasional question for clarification; her brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to keep track of Ferelden's intricate statecraft.

"The frustrating thing is, baby, the Blight is over," Alistair said, grimacing as he reached for the leather strapping. "Yet the refugee ships keep leaving. How are we supposed to rebuild our country if half our population has fled to the Marches?"

He let out a short sigh, tying the strap around her knee with a quickness borne of long practice.

Flora, who had been down to the docks on several occasions to offer her services as a healer, remembered the miasma of bitterness and despair that rose from the huddled masses as they squabbled to earn a place on one of the departing ships.

"A lot of them are from Gwaren and Lothering," she said, recalling fragments that she had picked up from the queue of people waiting to be mended. "They have nothing to go back to. The land is poisoned."

Alistair gave a nod of acknowledgement, his fingers resting idly on her knee.

"I know, love. Wynne seems to think that the land will recover, based on previous Blights. But, it'll take years."

Flora gave a little frown of sympathy. Alistair, who did not want to overburden his sister-warden too much whilst she was dealing with the loss of her spirits, flashed a smile and leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek.

"Anyway, darling, have you thought any more about your feast? The armies have had their celebrations now, as have the nobility – soon, it'll be your turn."

Flora blinked: she had almost forgotten about the only boon that she had requested on ending the Blight successfully.

I don't want a parade, she had said, half-joking, months ago. I don't want a big party. I want a FEAST.

"Is that actually going to happen then?" she asked, wide-eyed, and Alistair smiled at her.

"Of course, Lo! The Knight-Commander has already given permission for you to visit Denerim to attend, under escort. The castle chef is coming here to discuss your ideas, so start thinking about how many courses you can fit in that stomach, my love."

Flora bit absent-mindedly at her thumb-nail, brow furrowed. In the background, Leliana's quill scratched away at the parchment; the bard utterly absorbed in her own missive.

"Huh!"

Alistair pressed his lips to his sister-warden's ear, inhaling the familiar scent of her tangled, dark red mass of hair. She instinctively leaned into the kiss, tilting her head back against his shoulder.

The king's fingers, resting on his lover's strapped knee, inched upwards towards her thigh. Flora tended to favour knee-length tunics with boots and bare legs; especially in this summery eastern climate, where she found herself overheating rapidly. Alistair, on the other hand, simply favoured any outfit of Flora's that allowed him to gaze at her legs unimpeded.

Flora watched the progress of his hand with mild fascination, wondering when propriety would overcome desire. Alistair inhaled unsteadily as his fingers brushed the bare skin beneath the woollen hem of her tunic, then withdrew his hand with great reluctance.

"Give me a hug," he murmured in Flora's ear, glancing towards the stern face of Chanter Devotia. "Nothing improper about that."

The Templar was murmuring quietly to herself, eyes closed, clearly in the middle of some obscure incantation. Leliana was still scribbling furiously away at her letter to Wynne, facing towards the hearth to gain the best light.

Alistair leaned back against the headboard, holding out his arms expectantly. Flora eyed her brother-warden dubiously, but allowed him to manoeuvre her onto his lap; a shift in position made more awkward by her swollen stomach. Once she was settled on his thighs, he reached out to clasp his hands around the small of her back, thumbs kneading instinctively into the sore muscles.

"You're unique, Flora of Herring," he murmured, as she went as pink as the lieutenant from the Chantry. "It's no wonder that Rutherford chap is still infatuated."

"Actually," Flora informed him, solemnly. "There's another Flora who lives in the village, it's quite a common name up north. So there's two Flora of Herrings."

Alistair leaned forward, resting his chin gently on her shoulder. When he replied, his lips brushed slow and deliberate against her ear.

"But no one like you, my love."

Flora felt his breath hot against her skin, and was suddenly very conscious of her position straddling his thighs. When he kissed her, council notes discarded to one side on the blankets, she could taste the desire tart and longing on his lips. Against her better judgement, she let her former brother-warden's tongue gain entry to her mouth; where he proceeded to steal the air from her lungs within moments.

As they kissed with the slow, languid ease of familiarity and long practice, Alistair's fingers caressed her throat, tracing an arc over her throbbing pulse. His thumb moved down to stroke along her collarbone, edging aside the woollen neckline. Relying on her upper body to shield his actions, he reached discretely for the neatly tied bow keeping the front of the tunic closed. With Flora's guidance, Alistair found the correct lace and gave it a subtle tug, mouth still working hers; biting on the lower lip and suckling the tongue.

With the laces sufficiently loosened, it was relatively simple for Alistair to slide his hand inside the richly dyed lambswool. Flora inhaled unsteadily as calloused fingers stole over her naked breast, testing the ripeness of the newly swollen flesh with a soft squeeze.

He broke off the kiss just long enough to whisper in Flora's ear, unable to resist pulling gently on the lobe with his teeth.

"Let me know if I'm being too rough, baby," Alistair murmured throatily; recalling how she had told him that they were tender. "I just want to touch you for a little bit. Maker, you're gorgeous."

Alistair was as gentle as his word; and his care and discreetness awarded him several precious minutes of being to fondle his lover without interruption. It was the first time that he had touched her since before the final battle.

"Aha, perfect! I'll send this off with a servant," declared Leliana suddenly, holding out a wax stick close to the flames in preparation to seal her letter. "I wonder where the raven-coop is?"

Alistair, who had been enthusiastically tonguing his sister-warden's flushed nipple, reluctantly lifted his head. He pulled the laces of the tunic tight just as the bard turned around, waving the sealed envelope between elegant fingers.

"I have no idea," he replied evenly, remarkably composed considering the circumstances. "Any suggestions, Lo?"

"Nnnh…"

Leliana immediately squinted in suspicion, seeing Flora slumped back against the blankets with a vague, slightly dazed expression scrawled across her face.

"I hope you two haven't been engaged in anything improper," the bard hissed, her duck-egg blue eyes wide and accusatory. "Florence is here for purposes of reflection, prayer and chastity. Not to be groped."

Alistair raised his eyebrows down at Flora, who assumed her best devout expression and gazed back up at him piously.

"Exactly," she said airily, with an air of virtue that had Alistair stifling a snort of amusement. "No improperness, please."

"Well, then," he replied, grinning and reaching for the abandoned council notes. "I'll leave you to reflect, pray and be chaste in peace, my little pilgrim."

At the prospect of her brother-warden departing for the night, Flora sat up anxiously; her pale eyes seeking out his. Alistair leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead, murmuring assurances that he would be back tomorrow evening.

"Promise?"

"I swear, Lo. Not even a Sixth Blight could stop me."

"Aah, don't even say it!"

Chapter Text

A short while later, the Chanter blinked and cleared her throat, standing up a little straighter. Flora offered the woman a slightly tentative smile, grimacing as her hairbrush worked through a fist-sized tangle.

"'The Imperium slept. In their lofty palaces, they dreamed of the Maker's Palace, golden and shining,'" replied Devotia, her strange violet-hued eyes gleaming in the firelight.

Nonplussed, Flora looked to Leliana for an explanation. The lay sister was massaging some perfumed Orlesian unguent into her skin with her fingertips, a small hand-mirror balanced on her knee.

"Yes, we are planning on retiring now," Leliana informed the Chanter, with a slightly irritable toss of the head. "Give us a moment."

Flora smoothed Alistair's shirt down over her thighs, settling back against the bed-cushions and yawning. Her brother-warden's spare tunics had been her nightclothes of choice during their travels; and wearing such now made her feel oddly close to Alistair, despite the four miles of distance between them.

Leliana moved about the chamber a few moments more, clad in a demure linen night-robe with a subtle lace trim. Once finished with her evening rituals, the bard dropped to her knees before the bed and began to murmur her prayers. The Chanter gave a small nod of approval from her position beside the door, arms folded across her armoured chest.

Flora listened absent-mindedly to Leliana's quiet devotions, feeling the little creature shift position within her belly.

Don't start getting too energetic now, she thought sternly to her own stomach. It's bed-time. Go to sleep.

Something – a rounded skull or the curve of a shoulder – nudged against her from the inside. Flora instinctively dropped her fingers to the firm mound of linen-covered flesh, returning the pressure.

I'm sorry that I denied your existence for so long, she thought remorsefully as Leliana clambered into bed beside her. I'm sorry for putting you in danger, though I don't regret it.

I'm sorry that I didn't want you for such a long time. I thought a lot of bad things and wished that you were gone. I'm sorry.

The creature nudged against her palm and Flora slid her fingers further down to cup her stomach, feeling a sudden and unexpected surge of affection for the little creature lodged within her, which had – against all odds- clung so fiercely to life.

Leliana flashed Flora a brief smile, leaning across to blow out the candle.

"Goodnight, ma cherie. May the Maker watch over you as you sleep!"

Maker and Templars.

Flora smiled back at the bard, sliding down into the cushions and pulling the blanket up to her chin.

The fireplace gave forth a constant, low crackling; the splitting of wood and spitting of sparks forming a gentle accompaniment to Leliana's snoring. In the background, a westerly ocean wind howled through Revanloch's decrepit ramparts, whistling about the crumbling towers and rattling the windows in their loose-fitting frames.

Flora listened to Leliana's soft, even breathing as the lay sister slept curled beside her. The gleam of a silverite blade was just visible beneath the bard's pillow, and Flora resolved to thank Leliana once again in the morning for volunteering to join her during her confinement. Impulsively, she reached out and stroked the curve of Leliana's skull, smoothing down a stray strand of hair. Leliana grunted in her sleep, shifting slightly in response to the feather-light touch.

To Flora's annoyance, her body seemed to be conspiring with the little creature lodged in her belly, their joint aim to keep her awake. The baby kept nudging impatiently into her kidneys; her lower back ached and her neck was so stiff that she could barely move her head without a twinge of pain.

Too uncomfortable to sleep and missing her brother-warden's solid presence, Flora stared up at the wooden ceiling beams. She decided to count as high as she was able – Finian had once told her that he used to number horses jumping over a fence to encourage sleep. Unfortunately, she had forgotten what number came after twenty nine – threety just sounded wrong – and gave up shortly afterwards.

Instead, Flora gazed up at the ceiling; mentally projecting the map of Thedas against the plaster and beams.

The Pentaghasts of Nevarra. The Valmonts of Orlais. The Vaels of Starkhaven.

By the time that Flora had finished recalling the name of each dynasty memorised earlier, the midnight change in watch was taking place.

Suddenly, there came the sound of footsteps from inside the room, and the shadows shifted against the wall. Flora squinted into the darkness, only to see Knight-Captain Gannorn advancing across the chamber.

Leliana, whose eyelids had sprung open on hearing the approaching steps, stayed awake just long enough to confirm the Templar's identity. Retrieving her hand from where it had slid beneath her pillow towards the blade, she rolled over and immersed herself in dreams once again.

Gannorn came to a halt next to Flora's side of the bed. Divesting himself of a glove, he reached his hand towards her face. With short, efficient and long-practised movements, he leaned forward to check her pupil and her temperature. Flora allowed him to touch her face unimpeded, more than used to these variant of Templar checks.

It's pointless, anyway. My connection with the Fade is gone. I've as much magic as a dwarf.

Once finished, the Knight-Captain gave a businesslike grunt and withdrew his hand. He made as though to return to his station beside the door, then paused abruptly.

"You weren't asleep."

Flora shook her head, then realised that it was dark and replied instead in the negative.

"Are you not tired? You were yawning throughout Complines."

"My back hurts," she replied, slightly glumly. "It aches too much to sleep."

Gannorn paused, something indescribable flickering across his face. The next moment, he had retrieved several cushions from the foot of the bed and instructed her to lean forward.

The curious Flora obeyed, bending over as far as her swollen stomach would allow. The Templar positioned the cushions carefully at the base of the headboard, then requested that she return to normal position once more.

Flora did so, and was astonished at how the pressure on her lower back had been relieved.

"Oh!" she whispered, shifting against the cushions. "That's better, thank you. How did you – how did you know?"

The Knight-Captain made no reply for a moment, his gaze shifting towards the moonlit window. At first, Flora thought that the Templar would not deign to answer; then at last he spoke, his voice carefully neutral.

"I had a family, once."

A single, clean note of sadness rang through the seven syllables. Flora stared at the man for a moment, unsure what to say. Then the Knight-Captain gave a soft grunt and turned away, striding back into the shadows beside the door.


 

The next few days quickly fell into a similar pattern; Flora and Leliana both establishing the routine that they would follow for the next month. After breaking their fast, they would spend much of the morning in the draughty library, sitting at the reading tables and practising a variety of skills. To avoid raising suspicion, Leliana interspersed the study of the various Theodesian dynasties with more basic numeracy and literacy.

The bard need not have worried; Flora had never been formally tutored before, and was so delighted at the novelty of being educated that she did not deign to question why she was learning about the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden, alongside how to count to one hundred.

Lunch each day took place within the great hall, before two hundred whispering initiates. The novelty of having the beautiful Hero of Ferelden – a girl only a handful of years older than themselves – staying at the monastery, had not yet worn off. Hawk-like eyes followed Flora and Leliana's every move, from their entrance into the great hall to the setting down of forks at the end of the meal.

On the first day Flora had found this constant scrutiny desperately uncomfortable; by the third, she found it mildly disconcerting; by the fifth, she was able to mostly ignore it. Once again, Leliana waited with baited breath for Flora to enquire as to the reason why she needed to become so used to dining in public, yet Flora accepted it as she had done so many other changes in her life.

She and Leliana had also quickly grown used to the silent, constant presence of Knight-Commander Gannorn and Chanter Devotia. The two Templars followed ceaselessly in Flora's footsteps, flanking the doorway of whichever chamber she happened to be in, treading the corridors a handful of feet behind her. After a time, Flora barely even felt the heat of their stares; willingly submitting to their checks of her temperature and pupil-size. Each time that they confirmed that she had no connection with the Fade, a pang of sorrow twisted in Flora's gut.

Every afternoon, without fail, one of Flora's companions would arrive at Revanloch to spend several hours in her company. Knowing that Flora was confined within the walls of the monastery – and, unlike Leliana, would not be immersing herself in prayer and reflection – they often brought something to pass the time together.

One such bright and sunny day, Teagan arrived at Revanloch monastery with his saddlebag tucked beneath his arm. He passed the Royal Guard posted at the outer gate, and then the second pair flanking the internal doors; taking a deep breath of sunny, sea-scented air before stepping into the cool dampness of the monastery interior.

A young initiate showed the bann along the labyrinthine corridors, past a plethora of small study cells. Their footsteps echoed for dozens of yards down the corridors, the sound oddly muffled by the thickness of the stone walls.

The initiate gestured Teagan through an archway into an external courtyard; a small patch of sunshine within the musty enclosure of Revanloch. It had a small water fountain in one corner, and was lined with bushes half-wilting in the summer heat.

Leliana, clad in leathers rather than Chantry regalia, was perched on the edge of the water fountain and sharpening her blades. Flora was sitting at a small table in the shade, peering studiously down at a series of pebbles that she had arranged on the surface before her.

The bard, who had identified Teagan by his stride before he had even ducked out into the sunshine, greeted him with a regal Orlesian wave.

"Did you have a good journey, Teagan?" she called, not looking up from the whetstone gliding silkily over her blade.

"Aye," replied Teagan, glancing over to the two solemn-faced Templars posted several yards away. "Maker's Breath, this place is a soulless pile of rocks."

"Au contraire!" murmured the bard, with amusing piety considering the blade that she was currently sharpening. "It is full of soul, and devotion to the Maker!"

Teagan let out a dubious snort, crossing to Flora's side. She smiled up at him, squinting slightly against the brightness.

"Hello, poppet." Teagan ducked his head to kiss her cheek. "How are you?"

"Tired," Flora replied, honestly. "I'd forgotten what it was like to be woken up every few hours. It used to happen all the time at the Circle."

Teagan's brow creased as he took a seat at the small table, darting a pale green Guerrin stare across at the two impassive Templars flanking the doorway. They gazed back, silent and motionless; their gloved hands clasped before them like pious statues.

"Well, we can't have that, can we?" he murmured, resolving to mention it to Alistair on his return. "How is the babe?"

Flora reflexively glanced down at the swollen mound of her stomach, stretching the tunic's grey lambswool.

"It keeps nudging me," she said, slightly bemused. "Is it trying to... tell me something?"

Teagan, who was equally clueless when it came to such matters, gave a shrug.

"I'm not sure, petal."

"It means that the babe is large," Leliana called from across the courtyard, drawing her knife in an imaginary slash across an unfortunate opponent's throat. "It's growing quickly."

"Theirins do tend to produce large infants," Teagan added, reaching down to the leather saddlebag at his feet. "Maric was the size of a Mabari pup when he was born, and Rowan took a week to recover from the birth of Cailan."

Flora blanched several degrees, envisioning the additional months of growth that the child still had to come. The bann saw her eyes widen a fraction, and hastened to distract her.

"Anyway, I've brought this. Do you remember how to play?"

He lifted a polished wooden case onto the table, opening it up to reveal an ebon and ivory chessboard. The individual pieces were stored carefully in a carved holder to one side; their gleaming faces reflecting the afternoon sun.

"Oh," Flora breathed, reaching out to run her fingertip along the ridged surface of the counters. "I think I remember. These prawns are my favourite."

Teagan hid a smile, deftly arranging the pieces in their correct places on the board.

"Pawns."

They played several games as the sun inched its way towards the hills of the Bannorn. It soon became abundantly clear that Flora had no idea how to play – she slid her Chantry Mothers forwards instead of diagonally, and repeatedly tried to capture Teagan's king with her pawn.

On one occasion, she claimed to hear a dog barking in the passage and sent Teagan to investigate, only to quickly steal all of his most important pieces when his back was turned. Teagan returned to find half of his counters missing, and a small pebble where his queen should have stood.

"Where've my knights gone?" he demanded, in feigned outrage. "And my queen."

"They've been taken hostage by my prawn army," Flora explained airily, gesturing to where his counters were lined up neatly on her side of the board. "They are prisoners of war."

"I'm not sure those tactics are in the rule book," Teagan countered, raising one eyebrow.

"Well, I can't read the rule book!"

The bann laughed, his gaze settling on Flora as she sat opposite him, solemn and entirely unrepentant.

She's guileless, he thought, suddenly. And charming in a way that wasn't learnt at court.

After Teagan had won three games in a row, Leliana laid down her blades and came to offer Flora assistance. The bard whispered instructions, using an elegant finger to sketch out potential moves; Flora followed the orders dutifully, and won the next two games.

Finally, Teagan and Leliana played each other; bann versus bard. It was a lengthy match, with the final winning move going to a triumphant Leliana. Flora applauded as the lay sister slid her queen across to join her king.

"And you didn't even need to sacrifice any of your prawns," she whispered, approvingly. "I wish I was as clever as you."

Leliana smiled, eyeing the ivory king and queen as they stood proudly alongside each other.

"These are beautifully carved pieces," she murmured after a moment, nudging the tip of her fingernail against the queen's finely hewn jaw. "Such intricate designs. This one has got the same cheekbones as you, Flora. In fact…"

The bard paused, her gaze sliding briefly towards Teagan before settling on their unsuspecting young Cousland.

"I'm going to name this piece Queen Florence. Since it resembles you so very much."

Leliana held her breath after delivering the seemingly innocuous statement, peering at Flora from beneath her eyelashes.

Flora appeared to be lost in thought, her brow furrowed deeply.

"Why is the knight counter just a horse?" she said after a moment, perturbed. "Horses can't use swords. Did the knight fall off its back?"

Teagan looked at Leliana, and the bard gave a mild shrug.

She doesn't even register her own name being used in conjunction with 'queen'.

The daylight waned; the Templar initiates snuck surreptitious glances into the inner courtyard as they passed from drill to afternoon prayers. A servant came out with a tray of small pastries, blushing as the bann flashed her an appreciative smile.

"Alright," Teagan said, as the first ochre clouds of sunset crept across the horizon. "I should be getting back to the city."

He checked that each chess piece had been returned to its proper place, before closing the polished wooden case and sliding it back into his saddlebag. Flora pushed herself to her feet as the bann rose from the chair, wondering at the additional effort that this movement now took.

"Thank you for coming to visit me," she said, earnestly. "I appreciate it a lot."

"Of course, poppet," Teagan replied, slinging the leather pack over his shoulder. "We're all counting down the days until you return to Denerim."

"Me too," said Flora, solemnly.

This was not strictly true; she had some idea of the length of a month (the time it took for a spratling cod to develop fins), but had only a vague conception of how many days that consisted of.

"I'll probably pass Alistair on the way here. I'm glad to see you and the babe looking so well, pet."

A characteristic that had always set Flora aside from her fellow inhabitants of Herring, was her readiness to initiate contact with others. Teagan gritted his teeth as she embraced him without reservation, allowing his mind to wander for several moments. The drabness of Flora's soft grey tunic and the dishevelment of her braid only seemed to emphasise the striking artistry of her features; the pale eyes, the full, sulky lips, the rich, ox-blood hue of the hair.

Still your nephew's lover, the more rational part of his brain reminded him, sternly. Carrying his child.

The distant, sonorous summon of the dinner bell echoed, rousing the bann from his reverie. A constant attendant to the demands of her stomach, Flora withdrew and began to shift from foot to foot, impatiently.

Leliana walked Teagan as far as the archway leading to the main passage, conscious of her promise to never stray from Flora's sight. The lay-sister smiled and nodded at the Chantry officials they passed, murmuring to the bann from the corner of her mouth.

"She's half your age, you know. Literally."

Teagan grunted; he was well-cognisant of this particular fact.

"Why nurture a sapling that won't survive?" Leliana continued, and there was an element of kindness within her quiet reprimand. "It cannot be easy to desire that which will never come to pass."

There came a sudden crash of tableware from behind them, and both turned towards the source of the noise. An elven servant carrying a tray of silverware across the courtyard had been startled by a pair of high-spirited recruits; dropping the contents of her arms everywhere.

Flora, who had immediately gone to assist, was kneeling down with her head turned sideways against the cobbles, trying to squint beneath a decorative flower planter.

"I think the bowl's gone under here," she called, looking around for something to assist her. "I need something long and skinny to get it out! My arms are too short."

As a bemused Chanter Devotia drew her sword and strode across the courtyard; Teagan returned his gaze to Leliana, with a resigned shrug.

"If the Maker ever instructs you on how to abandon your desire for a sweet-hearted lass, with the guts to kill an Archdemon, and a painter's dream of a face," he replied, bleakly. "Do let me know; because I can't see any way out of it. Andraste knows that I've tried."

Just then, Flora let out a squawk of triumph; crouched on the cobblestones with the fugitive sugar bowl held aloft.

"Ha! Here you go." She used the hem of her tunic to wipe the dirt from the silverware, before handing it back to the startled elven servant. "Good as new. Well, apart from the dent. Just blame it on me, I always drop things."

Leliana let out a sigh under her breath, reaching out to put a hand on Teagan's elbow. Bann and bard shared a glance of mutual understanding; they had spent several nights whiling away the hours in the same bed, both fully aware that the other desired a different partner.

"Safe journey back to Denerim, Bann Teagan," she murmured, softly.

 

Chapter Text

As the younger Guerrin departed, Flora noticed something tall and white on the courtyard table. Advancing, she realised what it was with a small grimace of dismay.

"Oh! Bann Teagan forgot one of his chess pieces," she breathed, picking up the elegantly carved figure and rolling it against the flat of her scarred palm. "What's this? The Chantry Mother?"

"No," replied Leliana, with an inward snort at the Fereldan noble's attempt at subtlety. "It's the queen, Florence. Why don't you… look after it until he visits next?"

If the bard had been looking for any flicker of realisation on Flora's face, she would be disappointed. Flora slid the piece into her pocket without a second thought, her ears pricking at the sound of the dinner gong.

The evening arrived with hushed gentleness, streaking the sky with hues of ochre, blush and apricot. Even the soft light of the waning day could not lend much beauty to the harsh edges of Revanloch. Some of its crumbling balconies and decrepit turrets were masked by the violet shadow, yet its underlying brutalist ugliness persisted.

Flora, who was from the equally offensive-to-the-eyes village of Herring, found the monastery's unapologetic drabness comforting. As she and Leliana returned to their quarters after dinner, the bard continued to contrast Revanloch to an abbey near Val Royeaux where she had once spent a summer. If the two Templars following silently in their wake took offence at the unfavourable comparison; they made no mention of it.

"Singing drifted through the air like perfume, from every open door and balcony at Hautefroide," Leliana reminisced, her spring-sky eyes hazy with memory. "The beauty of Andraste was reflected in every gilded statue and mirrored wall. One could have hosted a Royal ball in their great hall, and felt no shame at doing so."

"Did you ever go to any balls there?" Flora asked swiftly, having learnt that the best way to distract the bard was to question her about some glittering social facet of her past.

"Non," replied Leliana, wistfully. "The Maker's house should be no place for the Game; although I dare say more political intrigue has been brokered within their cloisters than the Chantry would like to admit."

As they turned the corner leading to their quarters, two upright figures clad in closed-face helmets caught their attention. They were garbed in the mustard and crimson livery of the Theirin dynasty, pikes held motionless at their sides as they stood guard.

Flora let out a reflexive squeak of excitement, since the presence of the Royal Guardsmen inevitably meant the presence of Alistair. Hearing the booted steps behind increase their pace to match hers, she strode down the corridor as fast as her stomach would allow.

The Royal Guard shifted their pikes from hand to hand in a sign of respect as Flora approached, then scrambled to open the door as she showed no signs of slowing down.

Alistair was waiting beside the window, hands tucked behind his back. The descending sun lit up both gilded hair and golden band; adding richness to the natural tan of his olive skin. He was gazing down at the ocean below with a pensive expression, brow furrowed in a single crease.

As Flora entered, he turned around and the careworn residue of a day spent in meetings and council chambers seemed to melt from his face. He grinned reflexively, the green flecks in his eyes standing out like shards of bottle-glass.

"My darling girl."

Flora paid no heed to the Royal Guard, the Templars or Leliana; as far as she was concerned, she and Alistair were the only two people alive in Ferelden. Ignoring everything in her periphery, she crossed the room and allowed herself to be enveloped in his extended arms. He felt warm, and strong; and she could have cried with how much she had missed him during the past twenty-four hours. 

Alistair held his best friend against his chest, feeling the steady throb of her sturdy workhorse heart. He buried his face in Flora's mass of half-loose hair, inhaling the familiar scent of the girl he loved. One hand slid down to stroke the firm mound of her belly, palm cupping the increasingly pronounced shape of their child. In the week that she had been at Revanloch, it seemed to have expanded several inches.

"Alistair," Flora said, and the king gazed down at her with bright, adoring eyes. "Bann Teagan forgot this piece of his chess set. Could you give it back to him?"

She slid a hand into her pocket and withdrew the carved length, holding it out to Alistair in the centre of her sunburst-marked palm. Alistair recognised the queen immediately, and hid a rueful smile at his uncle's attempt at subtle insinuation.

"Keep it, sweetheart," he murmured, closing her fingers over the piece. "You're the… queen of my heart, after all."

"And you're the king of my stomach," replied Flora, head turning to locate the source of a delicious, fresh-baked smell. "What did you bring me?"

"Scones," Alistair said, glancing briefly towards a cloth-covered basket. "But, I've brought you something else, baby."

Releasing her from his arms, the king strode over to the wicker basket. Feeling her knee give a small twinge of protest, Flora wandered to the window and lowered herself to the cushioned seat. Leliana, who was permitted to go elsewhere whenever Alistair himself was with Flora, had vanished off to conduct her own business; though Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia were a constant, stern-faced presence.

Flora peered up through the glass at the emerging moon, sliding out delicately from behind a lacy veil of cloud. The Amaranthine Ocean lost its rich, emerald-green sheen in the darkness; stretching out in an expanse of soft, desaturated grey.

When she turned back into the room, Alistair was holding an overflowing bundle of roses in his arms; several dozen blooms erupting from the restraining twine. Several stems fell to the floor as he approached her, his expression unreadable.

Flora blinked up at her former brother-warden in astonishment, watching as he sat carefully on the bench beside her with the bundle of flowers in his lap.

"Lo, do you remember when I gave you that rose from Lothering?" he asked, quietly.

Flora gave a wide-eyed nod; of course she did.

"In the inn, on the way back to Redcliffe," she replied, recalling how Alistair had withdrawn the stem hesitantly from his pack, cheeks flushed from something other than the heat of the hearth. "I was sad about not being able to set a fire in the hearth. You told me that you liked me for exactly what I was."

Flora had kept the rose alive for as long as possible with the help of her spirits, prodding new life into the wilting leaves and restoring colour to the fading petals. When it was beyond even her own prodigious skill, Flora had pressed it between the pages of Exotic Fish of Thedas; preserving it forever alongside the wax-paper dog that he had folded for her at Ostagar.

"I wanted you to have these," Alistair said, inwardly annoyed that he could think of no suitably poetic delivery. "Because I- I love you. And all the roses in Thedas wouldn't be enough to show you how much I love you, but… but I wanted to give you these anyway."

He trailed off, miserably aware of his own lack of eloquence.

Flora gazed down at the roses, spilling over Alistair's lap and onto the window bench. They were a haphazard collection – some were still tightly sealed in bud, others were overblown and spilling crimson petals onto the velvet. It was clearly no professional bundle purchased from a flower-seller. She envisioned her companion wandering about the gardens of the palace grounds, clumsily gathering blooms into a haphazard bouquet; more preoccupied with affection rather than aesthetic.

"They're beautiful," Flora replied, solemnly. "Thank you. And I love you too, more than anything in the world."

Alistair shot her the small, intimate smile that was rarely seen in public; the one that he kept just for her. Reaching out for Flora's hand, he lifted her fingers to his mouth and kissed them.

"Well, it occurred to me," he murmured, keeping hold of her hand as he lowered it. "That I've not done much in the way of… romance. I mean, the Blight just- sort of - threw us together and I… I never got to court you. In the way that a beautiful girl should be courted."

Flora gazed at him, slightly enthralled. In Herring, courtship was relatively unheard of – a boy and a girl spent a few hours behind a rock on the beach to see if they were compatible, then the boy would present the girl with a fish. If she chose, the girl could accept both fish and accompanying proposal; then they would get married the next time that a Chantry official paid a visit to their local chapel. It was entirely practical, rather than romantic.

"I don't really know what courtship is," Flora breathed. "But isn't it a bit late for it? I mean…"

She dropped her gaze to the swell of their child, and Alistair's bright hazel eyes softened; following her own.

"I'd like to do it anyway," he murmured, reaching out to stroke the hair away from her face. "It's what I'd do if I were a stable-boy and you a little fishwife, whom..."

Whom I want to marry, he thought determinedly to himself.

Flora looked around at the roses, spilling petals over the bench, and her heart suddenly throbbed with a single, hard pulse of affection.

"Thank you for the flowers," she said, leaning forward to kiss the coarse stubble of his jaw. "It's so kind of you. I love you."

Alistair smiled at her, a sudden spark of recognition flashing in his gaze.

"Oh, I meant to tell you," he continued, the edges of his mouth curling upwards in a grin. "You'll find this funny. The bards are already starting to compose their songs about the Fifth Blight – Leliana will have some competition, I think – and they're calling you the Flower of Ferelden."

Flora looked distinctly unimpressed, her brow creasing in a petulant fold.

"The flower?" she breathed, slightly indignant. "Why not the Fist of Ferelden? If I were the Fist of Ferelden, they could say that I punched the Darkspawn horde… that I fisted the Archde- well, maybe not."

Alistair was grinning widely, his fingers tightening around her own. Flora continued, grumpily.

"I'd rather be the Fish-lover of Ferelden."

The king let out a bark of laughter, reaching forward to gather her into his arms.

"You'd really want history to remember you as the fish-lover?"

"I don't particularly want history to remember me at all!"

"Well, I think it's too late for that, my dear."

Parting on this sixth night apart was no less difficult than it had been on the first. The smell of roses mingled with the cedar-scented wood burning on the hearth; as both former wardens clung to each other in the shadows, reluctant to separate. As he did each evening before departing, Alistair knelt before Flora and massaged the day's tensions from her sore knee.

"I'll see you tomorrow, my darling," he whispered throatily, so used to the ubiquitous presence of the Royal Guard that he barely noticed them crowding into the chamber.

"You won't be late? It starts at mid-day," Flora reminded him anxiously, fingers wrapping themselves in the edge of his gold-threaded tunic. "Please don't be late."

"I'll be early, Lola, I swear it," Alistair assured her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head before standing.

Tomorrow would be the burning of Riordan, the senior Warden who had leapt from the pinnacle of Fort Drakon and clung so heroically to the Archdemon's wing. He had sacrificed his life to ground the dragon; to rob it of the flight that gave it such an advantage in combat. At Alistair's request, the man's body had been transported to Revanloch; where the pyre had already been constructed.

Flora nodded, feeling a hard lump of sadness rise in her throat as she thought on the man whom she had first met in Howe's dungeon. Riordan had reminded her of Duncan in more ways that could be counted; and – like Duncan – he too had been taken from her prematurely.

Alistair looked hard at her face for a long moment, as though memorising its curves and angles. Then, on hearing Leliana approach with a gentle step upon the flagstones, he took his leave with aching heart.

That night, Flora slept fitfully; tossing and turning in a dreamless restlessness. It was not the child keeping her up - though her lower back was aching and sore – it was a general sense of dis-ease. Beside her, Leliana was sleeping soundly on her side, curled up into the blankets like a marmalade-coloured cat. The moonlight shone in diffused rays through the leaded window; illuminating the flagstones in gleaming array.

Riordan is here, somewhere. In the monastery.

Flora sat upright, kicking the coverlet away with a petulant foot. The Templar Chanter Devotia was on duty – she stood stock still before the door; vigilant as the bodyguard of any paranoid Orlesian duchess.

"'And the Maker did send forth succour for his thirsty flock?'" the Chanter murmured, a slight upwards inflection at the end of the sentence indicating that this was a question.

"No, thank you," whispered back Flora, politely. "I don't need a drink."

For a moment she wondered whether to wake Leliana, but the bard looked so peaceful that Flora decided against it. Instead, she retrieved a woollen jumper from her pack to pull on overtop her knee-length nightgown - Ferelden nights were persistently chilly, despite the season – and found her boots beneath the bed.

While Flora made herself more appropriate for nocturnal wanderings, Chanter Devotia watched with increasing disapproval.

"'And the Maker walked the land/With Andraste at His right hand?'" she hissed, her meaning clear.

Flora, as unfamiliar with the Chant of Light as she was with the great Archons of Tevinter, blinked for several moments. Deciding that the Templar was probably not going to impede her progress, she took an experimental step towards the door.

As Flora had hoped, the Templar looked irritated but did not make any move to stop her. The Chanter merely let out a small sigh under her breath, and made to follow the young Cousland as she sidled down the passageway.

 

Chapter Text

Revanloch at night was not wholly different from Revanloch at day. The basalt corridors were still shadowed and cool, the goose-fat candles burning low in their scones. The initiates were asleep in their dormitories, and only the most dedicated of the Maker's servants would rouse themselves to perform the nightly service.

Flora no longer possessed the ability to visit the Fade at night, but she felt almost as though she were in a dream as she crept down the corridors. It was so quiet that her footsteps seemed deafening against the stone, and the sound of her own breath was amplified. In her wake, Flora could hear Chanter Devotia several paces behind; the disapproval emanating off the Templar in waves.

Flora made her way down one snaking passageway after another, unsure if she was even heading the right way. Despite having a good memory; living in one location for the majority of her life meant that she had not developed an efficient sense of direction. Alistair had done most of the navigating on their travels, and even then they had got lost on more than one occasion.

Finally, after almost ending up in one of the recruit dormitories, Flora stumbled across the main arterial corridor that ran the length of the monastery; a great high-ceilinged hallway from which a dozen smaller passages branched.

At the end of this hallway lay a set of vast double doors, a huge Maker's symbol emblazoned at their pinnacle. The closer she drew, the more Flora slowed; knowing that the monastery's Chantry lay behind those innocuous doors.

And in the Chantry-

Flora swallowed, coming to an abrupt halt beneath a great iron candelabra. The Chanter stopped behind her, letting out another small huff of irritation.

Caught in a net of indecision, Flora shifted from foot to foot, lifting her gaze to the Chantry symbol. The creature gave an impatient nudge against her stomach, and she dropped her fingers to smooth absent-mindedly over the fraying wool of her jumper. She was so preoccupied with her thoughts, that she barely noticed the flicker of movement in the shadows near the door.

Do you think I should stop dithering and just get on with it?

There was only silence in response.

Fine, then.

Taking a deep breath, Flora reached out and gave one of the vast doors an experimental push. It swung open easily, with a creak that seemed inappropriately loud considering the night's stillness.

The Chantry loomed upwards and outwards before her, stern and stone-wrought; with no sunlight to illuminate the stained glass windows. Dozens of candles blazed away in tall, free-standing candelabras, the eternal flame of Andraste burning away in continual tribute.

"'Lady of Perpetual Victory, Your praises I sing,'" murmured Chanter Devotia, raising her fist to her chest in reverent salute.

Yet Flora's attention was drawn neither to the great statue of Andraste, nor the impressive carved columns that lined the central aisle. Her gaze went straight to the stone plinth at the far end; upon which a familiar figure rested.

For a moment, Flora felt the stone flagstones lurch beneath her, as though she had attempted to stand up in a row boat. She put out a hand to a nearby pew to steady herself; inhaling a gulp of cool, perfumed air.

Come on, Flora. That's your senior officer.

Deep breath, chin up, eyes straight!

The journey down the central aisle seemed to take an Age. As she passed each pew, Flora reached out to touch their worn, wooden backs, assuring herself with each step that she was in the waking world, and not the Fade. Riordan's body was not going to contort itself into macabre shapes; it was not going to pose some innocuous question that disguised a demon's trick. It was merely a body; the spirit departed; the soul already dissolved through the Veil.

It had been a fortnight since the Blight was ended, and Flora knew that Riordan would not look as she remembered him. She was – had been – a healer, and understood well how death could change the flesh and form of a body. She and Sten had retrieved Cailan's wind-blasted corpse from the Darkspawn crux at Ostagar, and the king had been months dead by that point.

Yet, to her surprise, Riordan did not seem to be much changed from when she had known him. The senior Warden was clad in the Order's colours of navy and silver, his greying hair swept back beneath his head in a ponytail. His face was still, the cheeks a fraction more hollow; the skin had a slightly waxen quality to it. Flora wondered if there had been a method of preservation applied to the dead Warden, or if a Circle mage had performed some magic of similar effect.

Stepping up beside the plinth, Flora gazed down at her dead officer with a hard lump of sadness in her throat. For a moment, she envisioned Duncan lying there; his tan Rivaini features robbed of their richness.

You were never laid out to rest. There was no funeral pyre, no memorial for you.

Not wanting to dwell on what the Darkspawn did with the corpses of the dead, Flora reached out with a tentative finger and touched Riordan's cheek. His skin felt oddly leathery, perhaps as a side-effect of the preservation.

"Thank you," she said out loud, her voice echoing between the stone columns. "I couldn't have killed the Archdemon without you. I hope you're at peace. Thank you for… everything."

Unsure whether she was talking to Riordan or Duncan, Flora leaned forward and pressed her lips to the prostrate man's forehead; its creases smoothed out in death.

"Say hello to my spirits if you see them in the Fade," she whispered, feeling a single throb of longing deep in her gut.

"'The Veil knows no uncertainty for Her/And She will know no fear of death.'"

The Chanter spoke quietly, letting a rare touch of sympathy tinge her words. Flora smiled at the Templar, surprised and grateful for the unexpected empathy.

"Sorry to make you walk all this way in the middle of the night," she said, apologetically. "I just wanted to… say goodbye privately. Before the funeral tomorrow."

Devotia inclined her head; it had been no problem.

Just then, the sound of footsteps echoed about the large, hollowed chamber. The young lieutenant Rutherford emerged from a small side-chapel, startling when he caught sight of them. Fortunately, this time, there was nothing in his hands that he could drop.

Flora spared one last glance down at Riordan's still, ascetic face, fixing it as best she could in her memory. She knew that tomorrow, the senior Warden's body would be consumed in an Andrastian pyre, his empty shell transmogrified into smoke and black ashes.

"This feels like four – five years ago, when we were at the Circle," Flora said at last into the reverent shadows, flashing a slightly wan smile at the young officer. "Remember when you used to catch me sneaking back from the kitchens at night? Well, I'm still sneaking!"

Cullen nodded silently, trying to avoid Chanter Devotia's violet-eyed glower.

"Sorry," he muttered, casting a curious glance over at Riordan's still body. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I was just… attending night prayers. I like to say my devotions when there's nobody else around."

"Don't be sorry," Flora countered, stepping carefully down from the raised stone platform. "It was me who disturbed you."

The eternal flame smouldered away behind her, bathing both plinth and low steps in shifting, ochre light. Flora had never had much of an opinion on this particular aspect of Chantry tradition before, but now she found herself irrationally glad that Riordan was not lying alone in the darkness.

"I'm going back to my room now," she breathed, apologetic. "I'm sorry for breaking curfew. Again."

The young lieutenant made a dismissive gesture, still self-conscious in her presence.

"You're not the only one here for night-prayer, I saw someone else a moment ago. Besides, the Chantry has no jurisdiction over you any more," Cullen replied, with a mild shrug.

"You could break every rule that Revanloch has, and the Knight-Commander could only grumble under his breath."

Chanter Devotia narrowed her eyes, murmuring under her breath in disapproval.

" 'The Maker smiles not on an errant child/Who recklessly defies His teachings!'"

"Oh, no!" Flora hastened to reassure both lieutenant and senior Templar, her eyes wide at the thought of such rebellion. "I don't usually break rules. I usually do exactly as I'm told."

Except have Leliana accompany me everywhere, she realised, with a sudden twinge of guilt.

"I remember."

There was an odd, slightly wistful timbre to the young Templar's voice. "You never caused any trouble for us at the Circle. Just for your instructors."

Cullen had lost count of the number of times he had stumbled across the adolescent Flora while patrolling a corridor; scrubbing diligently at the flagstones with a damp cloth, or sneezing as she disturbed a month's worth of gathered dust with a broom. Well-meaning but both figuratively and magically illiterate, Flora had been expelled from the classroom more often than not.

"Well, it's hard to- " he began, and then something arced its way through the gloom of the Chantry; soft and silent as the swoop of some predatory bird. It only became visible as it caught the light of the Chantry flame, the silvered metal flashing bright and deadly.

Chanter Devotia - whose dour-faced piety hid a lethality unrivalled by any other Templar in the Order - withdrew her blade with a joyful singing of metal, whipping it up to deflect the thrown blade. Sword collided with knife, knocking its smaller counterpart from the air with a clash of metal that echoed around the standing pillars.

The blade fell to the floor, and there followed a moment of incredulous silence. Flora blinked at the knife as it lay on the flagstones, the silvered point coated with some sort of oily residue. It had all happened so quickly that she had not had time to duck, or even to flinch; had merely stood, gaping inanely, as death flew through the air towards her. For the first time in Flora's life, the spirits had not been able to summon a gleaming barrier in her defence.

"Wait, was that meant for me?" she asked, more confused than frightened.

Moments later, hurried footsteps echoed from the gloom-shrouded columns that lined either side of the main aisle.

"Lieutenant, guard her!" snapped Chanter Devotia, the urgency of the situation overriding her adherence to the Chant. "Find some cover!"

Cullen gave a tight nod, reaching out to grab Flora's hand and pulling her without ceremony behind Riordan's plinth.

"Get down," he hissed at her, the usual shy deference replaced with a vein of command. "Stay behind me."

Flora, still in mild shock, slithered down to sit on the tiles with her back against the plinth. It was far from comfortable, but she barely registered the cold seeping through the thin linen of her nightgown.

Did someone just try and kill me?

For the second time in her life – the first being when she had been Howe's prisoner, with the magic-blocking collar around her neck – Flora felt horribly vulnerable. She cringed back against the stone, staring up at the young Templar officer as he stood before her with sword drawn.

I can't defend us. I can't protect you. I'm useless!

For several moments, Flora folded her arms across her stomach, shielding the child resting in her belly with her own flesh and bone. On the one hand, she was used to being the prey of would-be assassins – thanks to Rendon Howe, she had become accustomed to having a target on her back – yet now she had the little creature to think of, and her own new vulnerability.

On the other hand, I'm still a Herring girl.

It was not an easy task to search the shadowed Chantry for interlopers – candles made little headway against the shroud of night, and the rows of parallel pews provided plenty of hiding places for a would-be assassin. Chanter Devotia, sword drawn, made her way down the central aisle; methodologically checking each potential refuge. Despite the full armour, her movements were as stealthy as Leliana's – a metal-clad predator, stalking between the pews in absolute, held-breath silence.

"Come out, you fish-bellied coward!" came a sudden bellow from behind her, and the Templar's jaw dropped in consternation.

"If you've got a problem with me, say it to my FACE!" continued Flora, unsuccessfully grappled by a bug-eyed Cullen who was clearly reluctant to expend too much force in restraining her.

Managing to escape the young lieutenant, she scuttled around the plinth and spun her head from left to right; squinting into the shadows.

"Come out, come out and take me!" she demanded, the full northern patois of her voice echoing to the vaulted ceiling. "I'm not scared of you! I killed a dragon!"

"My la – Flora – please come back," Cullen begged, not wanting to pull too hard at her elbow. "Get behind some cover."

"I'm not going to hide!" the child of Herring retorted, following in Chanter Devotia's footsteps as the female officer put a despairing hand to her head. "I want to find this bottom feeder and GIVE THEM A GOOD KICKING."

Taking a deep lungful of air, she tilted her head towards the lofty ceiling.

"Come OUU-"

Her boot made contact with an object that scraped along the flagstones, and Flora abruptly cut off her own outraged bellow. Looking down, she spotted something small and round that glinted dully in the candlelight.

With a soft grunt of effort, she stretched her fingers down and retrieved the flat object, which appeared to be a metal token of some sort. The side facing her was blank, but she could feel an etched pattern pressing against her palm.

Turning the token over, Flora focused on the crudely carved symbol; her stomach lurching as she recognised the all-too-familiar bear.

Howe. How?!

"Can ghosts throw daggers?" she asked to nobody in particular, feeling icy fingers of dread creeping up her spine. "Is it a GHOST!?!"

Just then, the main doors went crashing open and a contingent of Templars burst in; swords drawn and shields up. The Knight-Commander was at their head, a raised torch casting dizzying patterns of light over the flagstones.

"What in the Maker's name- ?!"

 

Chapter Text

Some time later, a sulking Flora sat in the Knight-Commander's office, half-listening to him rant, but mostly watching a sly mouse skulk along the base of the far wall.

The Templar – incongruously clad in night linens - had spent the past hour pacing the length of his office; the relentless back and forth was dizzying to watch. He was fluctuating between disbelief at such a violation in security, remorse that it should have happened within his own facilities, and barely disguised trepidation about what the king's reaction might be. The entire monastery was in the process of being searched from top to bottom; from the depths of the underground cellars to the rookery in the crumbling northern tower. A raven had already been sent up to Denerim Castle, containing brief details of what had transpired.

There was an attempt on the lady Cousland's life. She is unharmed; the assassin has not yet been located.

Chanter Devotia, who had returned to her usual tight-lipped taciturn state, had brought Lieutenant Rutherford with her into the office. Cullen recanted the events that had transpired in the Chantry, first to a grim-faced Knight-Commander, and then once again to a scowling Gannorn and a horrified Leliana. The bard proceeded to berate Flora for a solid twenty minutes; finally threatening to handcuff the young Cousland's wrist to her own as they slept.

This lecture was the cause of Flora's sulk: she was used to being told off, but in this case, she did not feel as though she entirely deserved it.

"I just wanted to see Riordan," she muttered as the bard took a deep gulp of air. "Didn't do nothing wrong."

Leliana shot her an incredulous look, then imitated Flora's northerner's tongue with remarkable skill.

"'Come out you fish-bellied coward! Come out and face me... to my face!'"

Flora shot a slightly resentful glower towards Lieutenant Rutherford, whom she felt had been a little too detailed in his recanting of events.

"Ma petite, you have no shield!"

"I know."

"You are vulnerable. To say nothing of the child!"

"I know!"

Flora slunk down a little further in her seat, realising that she had indeed been in the wrong in this particular instance.

I can't be so reckless. I have no way to defend myself. Or Baby.

Just then, there came a minor commotion from the corridor. The Knight-Commander's head shot up in alarm and he had just enough time to brace himself behind the desk.

Moments later, the door crashed back against the stone and the king of Ferelden erupted into the chamber; incandescent with rage and fright in a way that Flora had never before seen. In what seemed like seconds, the room was full – Eamon was there in hastily donned clothing, as were both Finian and Teagan. Zevran slid in like a shadow in their wake, his expression dark and utterly humourless.

The Knight-Commander's chamber suddenly seemed very small, especially with Alistair's anger billowing outwards like some expanding volcanic mass. He swept his gaze across the chamber, fever-bright eyes settling immediately on his pregnant mistress as she sat glumly on a side-bench, legs sticking out before her and the hem of her jumper fraying.

In a heartbeat the new king was crouching before her, a greyish tinge beneath the furious crimson patches on his cheeks. Fingers came up to clutch at Flora's elbows, his frantic stare probing her own solemn expression.

"Flora," he breathed, a rasp to the edge of the word. "Are you alright, my love?"

She nodded, hoping fervently that nobody would inform Alistair of come out you fish bellied coward, come and face me to my face!

"And the child?"

Instead of a verbal reply, Flora took his hand and pushed the heel of his palm into her belly, letting him feel the little creature shifting against the confines of it's temporary home.

Alistair closed his eyes, exhaling in exhausted relief. Leaning forward, he pressed a hard and grateful kiss to her mouth; the mask of anger dropping once more over his features as he rose to his feet and turned towards the Knight-Commander.

"Ser, I entrusted you with my love and the mother of my child," he began, his voice dangerously low. "The most precious thing in the world to me. And – believe it or not - I thought that my Flora would be safe in a building filled with soldiers. Care to explain what the fuck happened?"

"Aye," added Eamon, equally grim. "There seems to have been a serious lapse in your security. I thought that all entrances were guarded?"

As arl, king and bann continued to loudly interrogate the sweating Knight-Commander, Zevran took a seat on one side of Flora, while Finian lowered himself to the bench on her other flank.

"Thank the Maker that you're alright, Flossie," breathed Flora's brother, smoothing down a strand of russet hair with trembling fingers. "Fergus has gone back up north to check on Highever. If he was here, he'd be tearing this hideous building apart brick by brick to find this deviant."

Flora gazed up at her former brother-warden, who was clearly building up towards some great Marician outburst of wrath as he towered over the Knight-Commander. Alistair was visibly struggling to restrain himself, fists clenched at his sides and colour flooding the back of his neck. A vein throbbed in his temple, pulsing hard and visible.

"It's a disgrace," he was snarling, letting the full force of his rage wash over the three Templars. "An absolute fucking disgrace. What kind of – incompetent idiots are you training here?"

To Flora's dismay, Finian now rose to his feet and joined in the angry interrogation, determined not to let little sister down in elder brother's absence. Flora's eyebrows shot to the ceiling and she leaned back against the stone wall, wishing fervently that she had just stayed in bed.

Would they have just come for me when I was sleeping, then? That's no better.

"Mi sirenita."

She glanced to where Zevran perched on the bench beside her, his usually lithe and sprawling frame suffused with tension. There was none of the customary relaxed ease about his face; no playful smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Instead, the elf's expression seemed fixed and grim as a death mask, the tiny creases at the corners of his eyes made deeper by such steely rigidity.

He spotted her looking and made a contorted effort that was supposed to be a smile. Reaching up, he touched her cheek gently with a deft, tan thumb; tracing the outline of the delicate bone.

"Are you well, mi lirio Rialto?"

She nodded gloomily, Herring stoicism rising to the fore even during these dire circumstances. Zevran let out a little exhalation under his breath, reaching for her fingers and giving them a squeeze.

"Is there any indication as to who could be behind this?" Teagan demanded, in an effort to channel the king's anger along more productive lines. "I'm just at a loss to suggest who would want Flora dead. The people adore her; she's just ended the Fifth Blight, for Maker's sake!"

This, at least, she could answer. Flora stretched out her hand into the room, showing the flat metal token in her palm. Alistair strode over, taking the coin and squinting at the symbol etched on the copper surface.

The moment that his eyes fell on the crudely-carved bear, his skin diffused into a mottled patchwork of grey and pink; lips drawing back over his teeth like a guard-Mabari spotting an intruder.

"Howe?"

Although Flora had had the same incredulous reaction within the Chantry, hearing somebody else say the name out loud made the situation seem grievously real. Her throat constricted, and for a moment she could almost feel the anti-magic collar tight around her neck.

"But… but Howe is dead," Alistair continued, in tones of throaty disbelief. "Months ago."

"He has three grown children," Teagan murmured, his expression grim. "The eldest hasn't been in Ferelden for years – I believe he's in the Marches, squiring for one of the lords there. There's a sister, who's up in Amaranthine. And- "

"The lad, the one about Florence's age," finished Eamon, grimly. "He slipped the guard and vanished a month ago. Thought he was fleeing the Blight."

There was a heavy silence, and Alistair clenched the coin so tightly in his fist that it dug red marks into his skin.

"Well, I did kill their dad," Flora offered, in a small voice. "I'm not surprised they want to… to kill me."

She grimaced, recalling the feeling of Howe's hands on her waist; his livery lips on hers; the taste of his brains in her mouth after she'd broken his skull into pieces.

"It's hardly the same!" Finian's voice rose in indignation, his remaining eye widening. "Howe betrayed our family and had our parents murdered in cold blood. He kidnapped you, Floss; he was going to Tranquilise you and flaunt you as some sort of… twisted trophy bride!"

Flora flinched; the memory of being instructed to wash Howe's wrinkled back somehow worse than the one where she had shattered his head with her expanding shield.

Alistair exhaled unsteadily, the rage subsiding quickly to a raw, sour-edged fear. He crossed to where Flora was sitting on the bench and knelt before her, touching the side of her face as though to confirm yet again that she was whole and unharmed.

"Flora, I couldn't cope if anything happened to you," he said, bleak and matter-of-fact. "I'd... I'd go mad, I know it. I can't live without you."

Flora lifted her hand to rest her palm against his, unsure what to say in response to this hopeless prediction.

Meanwhile, Zevran had wandered across to where the knife lay on a Chantry plate; the crudely hewn blade incongruous against the gleaming silver. He ducked his head to sniff at the clear liquid coating the dagger point, then dabbed at it with the very tip of his finger. Touching the end of his tongue to the poison, the elf squinted in concentration; mentally running through his catalogue of toxins.

"This is not the concoction of a skilled assassin," he said at last, drawing the attention of the others in the room. "Everything about this attempt seems clumsy and amateurish. The blade is blunt, for a start."

"I agree," Leliana chimed in immediately, her pale blue eyes meeting his own. "Besides, I doubt that any assassins' guild would take a contract on the Hero of Ferelden. No amount of gold would be worth the backlash."

Zevran gave a slight nod, sliding the blade into a discrete pocket within his tunic. There was none of the usual humour within his tone as he spoke, his coal-black irises seeking out Alistair's own with steady purpose.

"Alistair, I will make some enquiries," he murmured, softly. "I have eyes and ears beyond the city walls; and my hand can delve into farther and darker places than even the reach of a king."

Alistair inhaled, gratitude breaking through the storm clouds massing across his face.

"You'll find out who did this?"

The elf inclined his head in assent, as the rest of the room fell silent.

"I will find them, amor, and when I find them, I shall endeavour to restrain myself. I imagine that you would want to enact your own punishment upon such a villain."

"Well, they're a traitor," Alistair replied, without pause. "Any crime against Flora is a crime against Ferelden itself. They'll get a traitor's death."

A grateful Finian reached out to touch the elf's sleeve as he passed; Zevran let long, deft fingers drift over his lover's knuckles.

Flora, who was not happy at this new turn that the evening had taken, gazed at her Crow with solemn-faced disapproval. The corners of Zevran's mouth turned upwards, and he caught her hand to kiss her curling fingers.

"Why are you pouting, mi reina?"

She frowned; she could not quite articulate why she was afraid. The elf read the anxiousness writ plain across her fine-boned face, and leaned down to press his tattooed cheek to hers.

"Be careful," Flora said gravely, as the elf smiled ruefully to himself. "And… thank you."

"No need to thank me, carina. I cannot have knives being flung at mi sirenita, hm?"

Returning upright, Zevran swivelled his dark gaze across to where Alistair hovered.

"I'll send some enquiries off now with the ravens," he murmured, soft and reassuring. "And see you before I leave on the morrow."

"Thank you, Zev."

Once Zevran had gone, Alistair turned back to the Knight-Commander; his expression steely.

"I don't see why I shouldn't take her back up to the palace now," he said, blunt as a neglectful headman's ax. "The Divine has already confirmed Flo's status, which will be good enough for the Landsmeet. Half of the banns have already asked me why she's not back yet."

"Alistair, think a moment," murmured Eamon, low and thoughtful. "Denerim Castle is far larger. It's more public. There are nearly a thousand people passing in and out of its gates daily."

"Arl Eamon is right," added Leliana, quietly. "The monastery is still more secure. Easier to guard."

Alistair ground his teeth together, the green flecks in his hazel eyes standing out stark in the light from the hearth. He lowered himself to the bench beside Flora, taking the spot recently vacated by Zevran.

"Then… then I want the number of Royal Guard posted here doubled," he said, the fear congealing sourly in his stomach. "The number of patrols to increase. I want extra guards outside her room at night."

"I'd stay, but I can't wield a blade," Finian interjected, with a grimace of frustration. "My coordination is still poor. If only Fergus were here- "

"Alistair, I'm happy to relocate my own sleeping quarters down here," Teagan interrupted, softly. "I'll need to be in the city during the day, but the journey isn't long."

Alistair's face brightened immediately, his gaze swivelling across to the younger of the Guerrin brothers.

"You'd do that, uncle?"

Teagan gave a brief nod, a wry smile curling the corner of his mouth.

"Thanks to your sister-warden, my brother's and my nephew's lives have been saved; and not only Redcliffe, but the whole of Ferelden preserved. I could spend the rest of my life repaying a debt like that."

Not all of Ferelden was preserved, Flora thought as she blinked thoughtfully back at the bann. Not Lothering. Not South Reach

Alistair rose to his feet to thank his uncle, his gratitude effusive. To a sweating Knight-Commander's relief, the king seemed somewhat placated by these new arrangements.

"Alright. It's decided, then."

 

Chapter Text

Since Riordan's funeral was scheduled for the next morning – and dawn was only a few hours away – it was decided that Alistair and his contingent would stay the rest of the night at Revanloch.

Safely relocated in the guest quarters, Flora sat up against the pillows and gazed around in mild amusement at the new sleeping arrangements. Chanter Devotia lay snoring on the pallet beside the door, while the Knight-Captain glowered into the shadows from nearby. Gannorn had not stopped frowning since the debacle in the chapel; he had deeply disapproved of Flora's nocturnal wanderings.

Teagan was making himself comfortable on a pallet before the hearth. Unlike his older brother, who was accustomed to the luxuries afforded to his status; the bann was well-used to sleeping in more humble circumstances. During the defence of Redcliffe, he had spent a week sleeping on the unforgiving surface of a Chantry pew.

"This is like being back in a Circle dormitory," Flora said into the shadows, sneezing as she caught scent of one of Leliana's more pungent unguent creams. "At Kinloch, there were eight of us to a room."

"Maker's Breath, Lel," Alistair muttered, stripping down to shirt and smalls without ceremony beside the bed. "What's that stuff you're putting on your face? It smells like what I use to clean my sword."

The bard sniffed, replacing the lid on the small pot and placing it delicately on the side-table.

"Well, excuse me if I don't want the stresses of the Blight to leave permanent indentations on my forehead," she retorted, clambering into bed beside Flora and pulling the coverlets up to her chin. "You'll regret not following my skincare regime, Alistair, when you look forty years old by next Satinalia."

"Good," replied Alistair frankly as he lifted an arm for his former sister-warden. "I need to look older. Did you see this beard growing in, Lo?"

"Mm," Flora replied, grateful for the solid muscle of her best friend's chest against her back. "I like it."

Alistair kissed the top of her head, wishing for a single, fervent moment that he could stay curled up in bed with Flora for the next three and a half weeks.

"I can't be the only man on the Royal Council without facial hair."

Down on the floorboards, Teagan eventually managed to find a relatively comfortable position. Leaning over on one elbow, he paused before blowing out the candle; a rueful smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.

"Alistair, this is only going to fuel more tavern songs about you. In bed with two beautiful redheads?"

Alistair's ensuing flush was hidden by the shadows, while Flora sat up and made wide eyes towards Teagan. The bann let out a soft, quickly muffled bark of laughter, reaching for a nearby tankard.

"Sorry, poppet. I thought you'd gone to sleep."

Flora slid back down into Alistair's arms, tucking her head beneath his chin. His fingers felt warm and rough against her own; the calloused skin a legacy of years grasping a sword hilt. He moved his other hand beneath the blankets, edging his fingers underneath her Theirin-crested nightshirt.

For a moment, Flora wondered at his boldness – surely he wouldn't attempt anything with Leliana beside them, two Templars at the door and his uncle on a bedroll by the hearth? and then his palm slid around her belly, cupping the firm mound of flesh. With gentle, wondering fingers, he explored the shape of the child that they had inadvertently made together; his breath warm against the back of her neck.

Flora settled back into the circle of his arms, grimly resolving that she would be less reckless in the future.

It's Alistair's baby too. I have to look after it.

Meanwhile, Alistair was breathing unsteadily, clutching his lover beneath the blankets as a myriad of increasingly terrible scenarios ran through his head. First, he pictured the assassin's blade plunging into Flora's heart as she lifted helpless fingers to her ravaged breast. Then he pictured a pair of gloved hands emerging from the shadows, only to slip a garrotte silently around her slender throat.

An arrow fired from the ramparts as she went on one of her nocturnal wanderings.

Poison secreted into her flask; no way to neutralise it.

Terror gripped Ferelden's king and he drew Flora even closer; a soft groan sliding from between his lips. He wound his fingers in her nightshirt, in the thick tangles of her hair, anchoring his sister-warden to his side.

Curious, she twisted her head to gaze up at him, her pale eyes reflecting the dim embers in the hearth. Alistair leaned forward and put his mouth to Flora's ear, his heart thudding painfully against his ribs.

"I wish we could just leave, baby," he whispered, directing his words away from where Leliana lay snoring on Flora's other side.

"Leave? Leave where?" Flora's reply was interspersed with a yawn.

"Anywhere. Somewhere where you'd be safe. It's my fault that we have to stay here; this blasted crown."

Flora pushed herself up on a sleepy elbow and pressed her lips to his cheek, hoping to lend her brother-warden some reassurance.

"We're not going anywhere," she whispered back, sternly. "We don't run from Howes, Alistair."

Alistair gritted his teeth; he would have praised such bravado if it had come from anybody other than his pregnant and utterly defenceless mistress.

"But I need to keep you safe," he said forlornly, aware that Leliana was probably listening to every word. "Even the thought of you being hurt – of being in pain – it kills me, Lo."

"Well, don't think about it then," Flora replied, with Herring practicality. "I have a lot of people around me who won't let me get hurt. Like Leliana."

"That's if you actually bother waking me up before you go on these little night-time wanderings," hissed the bard, shooting Flora a malevolent look through the darkness. "Ensure that you do so next time, ma petite!"


 

The next morning dawned grey and drizzly, dampness hanging over Revanloch monastery like a shroud. It seemed fitting weather for a funeral; the sky an insipid grey and veiled in clouds. The sun itself refused to show its face, as though aware that the mortal remains of Ferelden's last senior Grey Warden were being sent to the Maker that evening.

In light of the previous night's broach of security, the Knight-Commander had posted more Templar soldiers to each entrance and exit; as well as increasing the frequency of patrols. This only heightened the similarity of Revanloch to a particularly ugly prison; the rampart walls seeming all the higher for the armoured men atop them.

Zevran took his leave from king and Cousland beneath the lofty stone archway that marked the main entrance into Revanloch. Chilly rivulets dripped from the damp Chantry banners hanging overhead; puddles expanding beneath the boots of the grim-faced Templars posted at each gatepost.

The elf hated the rain – especially the cold and misty Ferelden drizzle, so unlike the humid showers he was accustomed to in Antiva. There was no shelter to be found beneath the archway; the stone was so old and crumbling that rainwater dribbled through regardless.

Flora, a northerner who barely noticed the rain, was standing anxiously in the middle of a puddle. Alistair was at her side, the water-soaked fur collar of his tunic plastered unpleasantly to the back of his neck.

"And you'll send word the moment that you find anything?" he clarified, hazel eyes fixed earnestly on Zevran's own ink-dark stare. "Even the most minor clue. I want to know which Howe sent this assassin, and where I can find them."

"Naturally, mi rey," murmured the former Crow, shooting a malevolent look up at the rain-sodden sky. "I do not expect it to be an overly difficult task. Are you sure you would not prefer a head sent to you in a box?"

Alistair appeared to consider the possibility for a moment, before gritting his teeth and replying in the negative.

"No," he said, reluctantly. "I want to question this whoreson myself. Make an example of him. String him up from the palace wall by the bollocks, ideally."

Flora glanced sideways at her kind-hearted brother-warden; who occasionally displayed the ruthless streak that manifested in all Theirins. At times like this, the vein of Marician brutality was laid bare, sharp and silvered, beneath the gentle chivalry of his outer demeanour.

"Zev," she said, returning her attention to the elf. "Please, be careful. I don't want you to get hurt because of me."

Zevran almost laughed out loud at the thought of suffering injury from an assassin who could not even hit a defenceless and motionless target. Catching sight of Flora's solemn, anxious expression; he suppressed the smile before it could pull at the corners of his mouth.

"I promise I will be exceptionally careful, mi reina," he replied, with a gravity to match hers.

"You don't have to do this if you don't want to!"

This amused the elf, a soft, throaty-edged bark of laughter escaping his throat as he injected deliberate casualness into his response.

"Ah, but I must continue to make myself useful to you, eh, mi sirenita? Otherwise, you may decide that I am no longer worthy of association."

The brilliance of the smile that followed - dazzling white teeth set against rich tan skin – was an attempt to disguise the melancholic timbre of the elf's words. It took Flora several moments to comprehend Zevran's meaning; but when she eventually did, her eyes widened in bemusement.

"'Useful to me'?" she repeated, slightly, incredulous. "You're my friend. You don't need to be useful. You could sit around like a jellyfish all day, and I'd be grateful for your company."

Zevran looked at her for a long moment, something heated and indecipherable in his dark stare. There was a slight gleam to the rich mahogany of his iris that he quickly hid with another charming grin; extending his arms as a distraction.

"Here, nena," he declared, brightness in his voice to disguise a tremor of emotion that only the likes of Leliana would have been able to perceive. "Unlike your brother-warden, you are not yet so intimidating that I am afraid to embrace you."

Flora let him fold her against his chest, the elf standing just tall enough to rest his chin atop her head. She gripped his leathers, the material fitted too tight to his skin for her fingers to gain much purchase. She felt Zevran exhale, slightly unsteadily, one hand coming up to cup the back of her head.

"I promise you, I will find out who did this," he murmured into Flora's ear, lips brushing her hair. "I've buried two people close to my heart already; I won't do it again."

Unbeknownst to Flora, the elf's eyes had lifted to Alistair, who was standing patiently to one side. A silent bolt of mutual understanding passed between them; two very different men united in perfect accord.

I'll find the Howe that did this.

And I'll keep her safe.

Accompanied by the expected pat on the rump, Zevran gave Flora a peck on the cheek and released her, the laughing brightness settled back over his face once more.

"Alright, mi amors, I will send news very soon. Mi florita, take care of yourself, hm? And I hope, Alistair, that you can find a few quiet moments together in a dark cupboard or lonely pew. Te veo luego, queridos."

A flush rose beneath Alistair's olive cheeks as Flora smiled, slightly vaguely, unsure what the elf was alluding to. As Zevran swung himself swiftly onto the saddle, she was distracted by an odd sense of melancholy that pulled at her heart.

This strange wistfulness congealed into a more tangible dejection as the elf steered the horse's head towards the coastal track that led back towards the city. It was more identifiable in this solid state, and Flora subsequently swallowed the lump that rose in her throat.

"All our friends are going to leave, aren't they?" she said quietly, watching horse and rider shrink as they rode into the distance. "They all have their own lives to live. Wynne might go back to the Circle. Morrigan to the Wilds. I'm sure Leliana has got plans for her future, once she's finishing babysitting me."

Alistair gave a nod, injecting cheeriness into his reply.

"I can't wait to exchange letters with Morrigan. I bet she'll be an avid correspondent!"

Flora made no reply, dropping her gaze glumly to her boots. Alistair glanced at her for a moment, then slung his arm around her shoulders and drew her to his side.

"I'm sure that they'll be back to visit, my love. Once you've gone through something like the Fifth Blight together, well – those bonds are not easily broken."

He planted a kiss on top of her head, and she pressed her cheek to his arm, grateful for the reassurance.

"Besides, I'm not going anywhere; I'm stuck in Denerim. It should be me worried about you leaving, my darling!"

Flora turned an appalled face on him, grey eyes even wider in her indignation.

"Where would I go, without you?" she demanded, mildly incredulous.

A beaming Alistair gathered Flora up in his arms, intending to ignore the frowning presence of Chanter Devotia and Knight-Captain Gannorn and kiss his best friend until the last scrap of air had been stolen from her lungs.

For several moments, the king embraced his mistress beneath the stone archway; the crumbling edifice of Revanloch rising up around them as the gulls shrieked and wheeled in the air overhead. The drizzle continued unabated, a cloud-shrouded sky casting Ferelden in muted tones of ash and stone. In the distance, the city of Denerim could just be glimpsed clinging to the clifftops; the Royal Palace perched on its high, supervisory ridge.

Flora smiled up at her brother-warden, her mouth tender and flushed after his ardent attention. Alistair reached down to touch the side of her face, inexplicably fixated on the dimple that creased her cheek. He was about to duck his head to kiss her again, when the sound of approaching hoofbeats drew his attention.

The Royal Guard stationed at the gate posts stiffened, the keener-eyed soldiers spotting the glint of armour and weaponry. There were a group of five or six riders – mostly men, save for two – heading towards the monastery; sporting no discernible banner to declare their allegiance.

Flora, who had slightly better eyesight than Alistair, squinted at the garb of the soldiers sat astride the saddles, her brow furrowing.

"Alistair," she said, slowly. "Is that… are they wearing…?"

As the mounted party drew nearer, Alistair inhaled a sharp intake of breath; his own hazel eyes widening as he took in the navy and silver striped tunics.

"Maker's Breath," the king said, astounded. "Is it – are they Grey Wardens?"

 

Chapter Text

For the best part of a year, Flora and Alistair had known themselves to be the last Wardens in Ferelden. Even when Riordan had joined them in Denerim; it had still just been the three of them pitted against the swelling mass of the Darkspawn hordes. Although Flora had known that there were Grey Wardens outside Ferelden, she had not quite been able to comprehend their existence.

Now they stood together beneath the crumbling entrance to Revanloch with the sea-gulls wheeling and shrieking above them; watching the soldiers dressed in silver and blue ride ever closer on the cliff-top road.

The Royal Guard, who had gripped their pikes in readiness at the approach of an armed party, glanced sideways at their king; waiting for his instruction. Stunned into silence, Alistair made a quick gesture for them to stand down.

The riders came to a halt, their weary horses bearing the signs of a long journey. The deferential Chantry stable boys came scuttling out to take the reins; sneaking glances at the silver griffon emblazoned on the soldiers' breastplates.

Their leader, a man in his forties with tousled tawny hair and sharp, whisky-brown eyes, dismounted with a grunt onto the gravel. Despite the fine lines of age cobwebbing the corners of his mouth, the man moved with a militaristic precision. Beside him, a sinewy, strong woman with greying hair cropped close to her skull dropped to the ground, calling out something in an unfamiliar tongue to her companions.

Flora felt Alistair stiffen reflexively beside her, drawing himself up to his full six foot and several inches in height. The Royal Guard stationed at the gates of Revanloch came to flank the king, their eyes keen as blades behind their closed-face helmets.

"They're Orlesian," Alistair murmured, watching as the stable boys led the horses away. "That's a Val Royeaux accent."

Flora gazed at the strangers, thoughtfully. She had only ever known a handful of Orlesians – their companion Leliana, whom Flora adored without reservation, and Arl Eamon's highly-strung wife Isolde, whom Flora was mildly terrified of.

The other Wardens seemed to defer to the man with tousled golden hair, the fine lines trellised across his face a contrast to the raw power of his muscular body. The commander strode forward, coming to a pause just before Revanloch's crumbling entrance. The Royal Guard tightened their grips on their pikes; inching a fraction closer.

"Your Majesty," the Orlesian declared in mellifluous tones, inclining his head in courteous acknowledgement of Alistair's golden band. "I am Yvon Cuvillier, Warden-Commander of Orlais. This is my lieutenant, Clarel de Chanson."

He gestured to the lean woman at his side, who bowed her shaven head with an easy confidence.

Alistair returned the greeting neutrally, his instinct to welcome fellow Wardens tempered by his position as political leader of a rival nation. Flora, meanwhile, was oscillating between delight and disbelief; still not quite able to comprehend that other Wardens even existed.

Where were you three weeks ago?! she wanted to demand, biting her lip to stop herself from blurting the question out. When the Darkspawn were swarming the city walls?

Yvon glanced from Alistair to Flora, and it was clear that he had no idea who she was. His gaze returned to the king, and he cleared his throat.

"Your Majesty," the commander said, clearly accustomed to speaking with royalty. "May we first congratulate Ferelden on the defeat of the Fifth Blight? If your borders had not been sealed, Orlais would have been quick to offer assistance."

Flora thought privately that they could have come anyway; after all, had Riordan not managed to infiltrate the country? The next moment, she realised that the senior warden had been captured after mere days by Rendon Howe, and had subsequently spent months in captivity.

Alistair inclined his head with a grunt, his nostrils flaring in displeasure at their failure to acknowledge Flora's presence.

"We received a letter from our brother, Riordan, who perished during the efforts to defeat the Archdemon," Yvon continued, earnestly. "We have official business with the lady Florence Cousland, whom we understand stuck the final blow."

If the commander was perplexed as to how exactly the lady Cousland had survived after delivering the death-blow, he hid it well. However, what was apparent was that he had no idea who Flora was. Yvon Cuvillier had looked at her and seen merely a teenaged girl  - visibly weighed down with child - and proceeded to dismiss her as some mistress of the king. Flora's diminutive frame - and the beauty that seemed to have been cultivated by luxurious years spent in silken, perfumed halls - further denied her identity.

The drizzle increased in tempo and ferocity; one of the junior Wardens nudged his companion and muttered something about Fereldan weather.

"Well, no official business is going to be conducted today," replied Alistair, a steely vein running through the words. "The lady Cousland and I will be attending Riordan's funeral, which you're… you're welcome to attend. And I also want to get her out of this rain."

There came a clatter as a startled Warden in the rear of the group dropped his sword onto the flagstones. Yvon's tawny eyebrows shot upwards into his hairline as he surveyed Flora.

"You're the lady Cousland?" he asked, the disbelief shot clear through the enquiry. "You!?" 

Flora was already used to such a reaction, and no longer found it insulting. She confirmed her identity with a nod, sensing Alistair shifting from foot to foot beside her. It was clear that he was indignant on her behalf, but taking his cue from her on how to react.

"Mm," the youngest Cousland replied, amiably. "Hello."

The Orlesian Warden-Commander glanced at his second, Clarel, who looked equally dumbstruck. Alistair let out a small sound of impatience under his breath, and this seemed to break through Yvon's cloud of astonishment.

"Apologies, my lady," the senior Warden replied, forcing some steadiness back into his voice. "It's just – I was not expecting you to be so… so young. And – forgive my forwardness – are you with child?"

Flora nodded, and the man's tawny eyes widened even further; disbelief writ naked across his face.

"Forgive me," he repeated, struggling to keep the incredulity from infusing his reply. "I... I have… many questions."

"Which can wait until tomorrow," interjected Alistair, firmly. "I'm sure they've got rooms within the monastery to house you. Come on, my dear; let's get out of the rain."

Flora could feel the eyes of the half-dozen Wardens fixed between her shoulder blades as she let Alistair steer her back towards the monastery. Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia followed several yards in their wake, quiet and watchful.

"They were looking at me like I had three heads," Flora said, feeling rivulets of water from her rain-soaked hair dripping down the back of her neck. "Everyone always looks so confused when they see me. I don't know what they were expecting?"

"Someone ten feet tall," Alistair replied more cheerfully, happier now that they had sought sanctuary from the rain. In truth, Revanloch's interior was almost as damp as its exterior. "Who shoots flames from their eyes, most likely."

Flora blinked, quiet for several moments as she envisioned herself in such a terrifying format.

"I wouldn't have fit in the tent," she said, at last.

"Eh?"

"I wouldn't have fit in the tent if I were ten feet tall," Flora repeated, patiently. "I would have slept with my legs sticking out of the tent flap. You know, when we were travelling around. Creatures of the night would have CHEWED on my feet."

Alistair grinned down at his former sister-warden. Impulsively bending to close the foot between their heights, he pressed an affectionate kiss to the top of her head.

"And we couldn't have had that," he murmured, glancing down appreciatively at Flora's booted knees beneath her tunic. "Not… not when those lovely legs should be wrapped around me instead."

Unfortunately, Alistair's deliberate lowering in tone was not quite muffled enough to avoid detection. Even as Flora cackled at him, they heard a cough of menacing disapproval from behind.

"'And the magisters did look upon, with lustful eye/That which ought to remain sacred and inviolable,'" intoned a stern Chanter Devotia.

Alistair shot a look of mild alarm over his shoulder, eyebrows rising as he took in the Chanter's scowl.

"I have to ask," he said, earnestly. "Are you related to Chantry Mother Philippa, of the Bournshire monastery? Just because she used to glare at me in exactly the same way when I was a recruit there."

The Chanter narrowed her eyes, clearly unappreciative of Alistair's flippant retort.

Flora was trying not to laugh - she admired her best friend for his quick wit in such circumstances, since she never could think of anything clever to say – and then her gaze fell on the pair of vast wooden doors that marked the entrance to the monastery chapel. She envisioned Riordan lying alone on his cold slab near the altar, and swallowed a small lump of sadness that rose suddenly to her throat.

Alistair glanced down at his lover, then bowed to press softer, kinder lips against her forehead.

"Right," he murmured, quietly. "Let's get ready."


 

Death in Herring came frequently enough that it was not especially commemorated. Although – thanks to their resident mender – disease and injury were not a concern; the sea claimed its fair share of souls each season. In addition to the tithe it took from the men of the northern coast, bodies from broken ships often washed up on the Hag's Teeth reef; like some macabre reverse offering.

If the sea did deign to return a body, then there was no question of burning the traditional pyre – driftwood was kept as fuel to stave off the cruel bite of winter. The romantic notion of sending a corpse off to sea in a burning vessel was to be found in legend only; boats were a precious commodity.

Instead, brief prayers would be muttered for the dead within Herring's diminutive, sandy-floored Chantry. A more formal service might occur if there happened to be a visiting Sister present, but this was a rare occasion. Bodies were wrapped in rope to keep their limbs from flailing, then taken unceremoniously out to sea in the bottom of a fisherman's craft. Once they had reached the deep waters beyond the reef, the body would be weighted with rocks and lowered into the Waking Sea. This was far from a Chantry-sanctioned burial, but the grim-faced villagers of Herring had scant time to spare for tradition or sentiment. Flora was therefore unused to the elaborate ritual associated with Chantry funerary tradition.

Up in the chamber, she had been astounded when Leliana had informed her of the necessity of changing clothing. The bard had donned a crimson robe, the colour so rich and deep that it almost appeared black against the candlelight; with a sheer black veil worn over the upper part of her face. Her lips, painted scarlet to match her robe, shone rich and lustrous against the plain material.

Flora, who had lived in one threadbare woollen jersey for the majority of her childhood, found the concept of donning mourning clothes a novelty. She had reached for her only piece of dark clothing – a navy tunic edged with olive – and Leliana reached out to stop her.

"It is tradition for women associated with royalty to wear pale colours in mourning," the bard murmured, her expression obscured behind the veil. "Here, ma petite, let me help you into this."

This turned out to be a robe, to Flora's dismay. It was a pale dusky pink, unapologetically feminine and the antithesis of her usual plain, austere choice of dress.

"Do I have to wear it?" she complained, even when Leliana was drawing the laces closed at the back. "How am I royalty?"

"You're Alistair's... mistress," Leliana countered, reaching for the hairbrush and working it through the tangled length of Flora's hair. "You're carrying his child. People will have expectations."

Flora sighed, eyeing her reflection dubiously in the warped surface of the mirror. She could just about glimpse the two Templars flanking the door – as usual, they had watched her wash and dress with a detached, cool professionalism.

"Everyone always has expectations of me," she replied, gloomily. "Nonstop, ever since I left the Circle. I'm sure I'm going to do something stupid and let people down."

Leliana let out a tsk of disapproval under her breath, letting Flora's hair hang loose in thick, dark red ropes.

"Have more faith in yourself, ma crevette," she murmured, retrieving the sheer veil and bracing herself for Flora's vociferous opposition. "Let me put this on, and don't protest."

To Leliana's surprise, the young Cousland was unusually placid, letting the bard anchor the veil to her hair with a myriad of pins. The gossamer-light fabric fell over Flora's face; and Leliana wondered at the lack of protest as she went to retrieve the matching pale slippers.

A moment later, the bard's eyes narrowed in suspicion, and she twitched the veil aside.

Flora beamed, a cheese sandwich lodged firmly between her teeth.

"This thing would have been useful," the Cousland replied, her mouth full. "For secret snacking in class at the Circle. I could eat a three course dinner under here."

"Florence! If you get crumbs on your gown… I despair. Don't touch anything!"

A short while later, Flora took one look at the pretty, embroidered silk slippers, and flat-out refused to wear them. Leliana, in the face of such mulish obstinacy, decided not to press the issue. Instead, Flora retrieved her own beloved boots; in which she had walked across half of Ferelden without a single blister.

"From the knees up: princess. From the knees down: peasant," Leliana retorted, glancing quickly at Flora to see how she would respond.

Flora looked supremely un-bothered, unceremoniously hoisting the skirt up around her thighs to tighten her knee-strapping. Leliana groaned, dragging a hand over the sheer veil masking her face.

"Please don't hoick your skirts up like an employee of the Pearl," the bard begged, reaching out to flatten an errant strand of Flora's hair. "You aren't showing off your wares, you're a lady."

"Madame du Poisson!" Flora said, remembering the cognomen that Zevran had ascribed to her during their infiltration of Denerim. "Ha!"

"Oui, come on then, Miss Fish."

 

Chapter Text

The strange quartet – bard, lady, and lady's Templar escort – began to make their way through Ravenloch's labyrinthine passages. The guest quarters were located in a separate wing to the main chapel, and just as they reached the gallery between east and west, the bells began to ring overhead.

A flock of sparrows soared from the belfry in alarm as the seven great bells rocked back and forth; emitting the low, sonorous ring of mourning. Their plaintive clamour was taken up by the smaller bell-towers, until the entire monastery seemed to reverberate with metallic dissonance.

Flora was suddenly grateful for the veil over her face, not entirely sure that she would be able to maintain her solemn composure in the hours ahead. She had managed to refrain from dwelling on Riordan's funeral up until that point; deliberately distracting herself with thoughts of assassins and Orlesians, Madame du Poisson and glowering Templars.

Yet now, with the clarion cry of Revanloch's bells ringing about the mouldering corridors, Flora had no choice but to turn her mind to upcoming events. She had never been to a proper Andrastian funeral before, and was not wholly sure what it entailed.

The only pyre I've ever attended was that of Cailan. And that wasn't exactly a Royal send-off; it was us huddled around a bonfire built from the broken remains of Ostagar.

Afterwards, she and Alistair had lain together for the first time; gritted teeth on a damp bedroll, the ashes of a dead king still caught in their hair.

Now they were parting ways for a final time with Riordan, the senior Warden who had almost come to represent Duncan himself in Flora's mind. She recalled first meeting the Highever native in Rendon Howe's dungeon; where Riordan had been held for six months after crossing the Fereldan border to investigate rumours of a Blight. Despite his weak and half-starved condition, he had offered her words of comfort on that terrible first night; and launched himself in vain at the guards when they had come to deliver her to the Templar's lyrium brand.

I'm sorry, Riordan she thought to herself guiltily, falling slightly behind Leliana as the bard glided in stately manner down the corridor. I shouldn't think of you as another Duncan. You were a great man in your own right.

Flora bowed her head, gazing at her booted feet as she followed in Leliana's wake. She could hear the Templars several yards behind, their metal-clad footsteps echoing against the flagstones.

Alistair was waiting outside the entrance to the chapel, clad in dark leathers and sporting an uncharacteristically sombre expression. Duncan's sword hung at his side, the silverite length gleaming despite the encompassing gloom.

"Everyone else is inside," he said, his gaze falling on Leliana. "They won't start without us."

The king ducked his head to peer around Leliana's velvet-clad form; eyes widening imperceptibly as he took in Flora standing quiet and miserable on the flagstones.

Striding forward, Alistair lifted the veil to see his former sister-warden's face, pressing a kiss to her lips as her sad grey eyes settled on him.

"You look beautiful, Lo," he murmured, nudging Flora's cheek affectionately with a thumb. "Are you alright?"

She nodded, not quite trusting in herself to give a verbal reply. Alistair's eyes searched her face a moment longer, fingers lingering against her cheek; then he let the veil fall and offered her his arm.

"Ready?"

Although Flora was not quite sure what she was ready for, she gave a nod regardless, tightening her grip around his elbow.

Then two Templars were opening the doors and the great, hollow expanse of the Chantry billowed up before them. It seemed darker than usual; the candles failing to make much headway against the persistent gloom. At the far end, beside the altar and Riordan's plinth, Andraste's flame burned in defiance of the darkness.

As they proceeded down the central aisle, Flora realised the cause of the additional layer of shadow. The stained-glass windows lining the walls had been shrouded with thin grey veils, allowing only a fraction of the weak Fereldan sun to filter through. The purpose was seemingly to focus the audience's attention on the eternally smouldering brazier at the end of the aisle; which cast an inconstant, flickering warmth over the faces of those sitting in the front pews.

There were just over a dozen people in attendance; all of whom rose to their feet at Alistair's entrance. The Orlesian Grey Wardens – headed by the lion-headed Yvon and his second, Clarel – were clad in full silver and blue regalia; expressions solemn as they gazed upon their fallen brother-warden. Both Guerrins were there, clad in muted tones of their family livery. Finian stood at Teagan's side, his remaining eye swivelling anxiously towards his sister. Knight-Commander and Chantry Mother were already standing at either side of the plinth; the former having regained some measure of composure after suffering Alistair's incandescent wrath the previous night. Flora's vision was not impeded by the veil, but she clutched her best friend's arm with increasing tightness as they headed towards the altar.

Riordan's body looked much the same as it had done when Flora had visited him the previous night. Irreparable damage had been done after he had leapt from Fort Drakon's highest tower, sacrificing his life to bring the dragon to the ground; the cobblestones had broken near-every bone in his body. Yet despite the massive internal injury, his face appeared grave and peaceful, greying hair brushed neatly around the stiff collar of his tunic.

Alistair felt his former sister-warden's grip tighten on his arm, and reached up with a hand to provide an additional layer of reassurance. His large palm, strong and calloused, settled securely over Flora's fingers, anchoring them together.

The Royal pew at the front had been left empty in preparation for Ferelden's king and his mistress. Flora glanced to one side as she sat down, noticing Arl Leonas standing in the shadows of a nearby pillar. He nodded softly in greeting and she blinked at him through the veil; unsure whether or not she was allowed to wave.

The next moment, the arl shifted slightly and Flora caught sight of a short, stocky figure at his side. Her eyes widened as she recognised Oghren, dressed in his best attempt at formal wear. The dwarf's orange hair had been parted in the centre and slicked down, his moustache neatly combed. Sensing Flora's stare, Oghren raised a subtle hand to her, lifting his chin. Flora smiled at him, inexplicably touched by the dwarf's presence.

The Orlesian Warden-Commander bowed his head to acknowledge Flora's arrival; fascination visibly writ across his refined, fine-lined features. Flora knew that he would be confused on no less than three counts: on her survival – she had slain the Archdemon and survived, she had no discernible aura of taint, and she had seemingly defied the Order's curse of underlying infertility.

The Chantry Mother gestured for them all to sit, ascending the low pulpit to begin the service. As she began to intone the opening verses of the Chant, Flora let the familiar words wash over her; stifling a yawn beneath the veil.

I wonder if Riordan had a family? Oh, he said that he did, a long time ago. I suppose they aren't around any more, then.

I wonder if Duncan had any family?

Stop thinking about Duncan, she told herself firmly, missing the chiding reprimand of her spirits. This is to remember Riordan.

The Chantry Mother began a sermon on how the souls of the faithful were drawn to the Maker's side, like a fisherman pulling in a net. Even this marine reference was not enough to gain Flora's attention; she spared the regally clad priestess a brief glance before musing on Riordan once again.

He found the Grey Warden cache in the city. He made Alistair and I look the part; it was the first time we had worn the silver and blue since Ostagar.

I think it was the first time that anybody really took me seriously, when I came downstairs in the breastplate and the tunic.

The crowd replied with the expected responses, their voices echoing to the shadowed ceiling. Flora, less accustomed to such a formal service, did not join in – neither, understandably, did Oghren. Despite his unfamiliarity with Chantry tradition, the dwarf was standing stiff and straight-backed, his gaze clear, and unclouded by drink.

Alistair was also only half-listening to the words. He had heard the rites for the dead a dozen times over the past few weeks, while attending the great pyres on the Alamarri plains. His mind was on Duncan; the corners of his mouth turning down as he recalled that his commander still had no marker or memorial to commemorate his passing. Grimly, he resolved to speak to Eamon about the possibility of such after the funeral.

At the prompt of the Chantry Mother, the attendees rose to their feet once again. As she began the opening bars of a hymn, Alistair glanced down at his best friend as she stood dutifully at his side. Although the veil concealed much of Flora's face, he could just see the pale grey eyes and grave turn of the lips; her natural solemnity serving her well in this instance. He saw her mouth opening and closing and knew that she was miming, to spare those around her the trauma of listening to her tuneless voice.

Alistair suddenly felt ashamed of all the times that he, Leliana and Zevran had teased Flora about her singing; even to the point when they had fashioned ear plugs from scraps of cotton. Flora had been genuinely shocked to learn that her voice was so grating – it seemed that the villagers of Herring had never informed her of such.

Ducking his head and pressing his lips to the silk tulle of the veil, Alistair whispered throatily in Flora's ear.

"You can sing too, sweetheart."

"Nobody wants to hear me singing," she whispered back, then smiled briefly up at him. "And I don't know the words."

The king gazed down at her, realising suddenly that he could – so easily! - have been attending Flora's own funeral service, if circumstances had been but a little different. Fear clamped his belly like a vice, and he put an arm around his lover's shoulders, drawing her close to his side and pressing another kiss to her veiled head. Flora reached up and wound her fingers into Alistair's own; as always, ready to anchor herself to him without question.

The hymn came to an end, and those gathered to pay their respects to Riordan sat down once more. Flora fidgeted on the bench, unable to get comfortable on the unforgiving surface of the wooden pew. Her lower back was aching, a sharp muscular pain that dug uncomfortably into the base of her spine. She shifted from one side of her rear to the other, bending forward slightly in a vain attempt to appease the throbbing.

The Orlesian Warden-Commander rose to his feet at the Chantry Mother's encouraging gesture, striding towards the plinth with sombre expression. After gazing at Riordan's still face for a long moment, he turned towards the small gathering and cleared his throat.

"Warden Riordan has answered the highest calling asked of any member of our Order," he said, the words emerging coated in honeyed Orlesian tones. "By giving his life in the fight against the Archdemon, he has guaranteed his place by the Maker's side."

Flora swallowed, suddenly feeling a lodestone of sadness forming in her belly. She was uncertain whether it was due to her own grief over the senior warden's death; or a deliberate prodding of her humours caused by the babe.

Stop unbalancing me, she thought furiously to her abdomen. I don't want to cry. I'm already in pain because of you.

"Riordan joined the Wardens of Orlais because he wished to do his duty by Thedas," Warden-Commander Cullivar continued, his voice reverberating over the audience. "He knew that the threat of a Blight overwhelmed any petty division of country border."

"Typical Orlesian, to refer to a border as petty," Eamon murmured in Teagan's ear, as the younger Guerrin gave a soft grunt of agreement.

Flora let her eyes drift sideways to the other Wardens, still fascinated by their very existence. Yvon's lieutenant, Clarel, was sitting as though she were still standing, her spine so rigid that it did not touch the back of the pew. Her hair was cropped so close to her skull that the pink skin showed through, and her face was ablaze with conviction.

The Orlesian Warden-Commander continued to talk, but his accent was so heavy and his voice so formal that Flora was unable to understand half of what he said. Wishing to distract herself from her aching back, she let her gaze meander past Clarel, across to the only other female Warden in the Orlesian company. This woman was some years younger than her counterpart – possibly in her mid-thirties – and very tall, matching Arl Leonas in height. She had a lean, sinewy build and a hawkish face; her features striking rather than conventionally beautiful. Long, dark hair was restrained by a tight, precisely wrapped bun, and an envious Flora wondered as to the secret of such control.

She returned her eyes to Riordan, focusing on his calm, waxen face. It was odd to see him clean-shaven, since the Warden had always had a layer of dark stubble covering his cheeks and jawline.

I suppose hair stops growing after you die, she thought, wincing slightly as the pressure on her spine increased. Ow, stop it! That really hurts.

Yvon returned to his seat, head bowed respectfully. Leliana rose to her feet, gliding like a dancer across the flagstones. Her stately passage drew all eyes to her; the bard well-aware of her audience as she slid the veil back to reveal her face.

"This is a centuries-old mourning song," the bard murmured, the Orlesian in her dialect emphasised in the presence of her countrymen. "It was first rumoured to have been sung after the martyrdom of Andraste Herself. Please, stand with me."

The congregation rose to their feet in dutiful response. Flora felt her knee give a twinge of pain; simultaneously, the stone ceiling lurched in a sea-swell of dizziness. She gulped and closed her eyes very tightly, the Andrastian flame a glowing blur behind her eyelids.

When Flora opened them again, the world had righted itself and Leliana had begun to sing. Her sweet, mellifluous voice echoed about the Chantry, rising to the vaulted ceiling and lifting the small hairs on the necks of her audience.

"'No harp delights with glad music; no good hawk now soars through the halls, nor swift horses clatter in courtyards…'"

Leliana really does sing beautifully, reflected Flora as she shifted from foot to foot in an effort to relieve the soreness of her ankles. Her voice is lovely enough to penetrate the Veil. I hope Riordan can hear it, somehow.

I hope he's proud of Alistair and I.

Why do I feel like I know he is?

To Flora's slight surprise, she felt the delicate silk tulle of the veil sticking to her cheeks. Lifting her fingers to touch the skin, she realised that she was crying, though she had barely felt the tears slip from beneath her eyelashes.

Grateful for the cover provided by the delicate material, Flora sniffed as quietly as possible; just about resisting the urge to blow her nose on fine-spun silk that was probably worth more than the collective value of Herring.

Standing at Flora's other side, Leonas glanced down at her; narrowing his eyes to squint through the gauzy surface of the veil. Without drawing attention from those around them, the arl retrieved a square of linen from his sleeve and pressed it onto Flora's free hand. Taking it gratefully, she blew her nose surreptitiously beneath the filmy fabric.

As Leliana finished the last poignant refrain, she made an elegant bow to Riordan's prone body; gliding gracefully back towards the pew as though each foot was barely making contact with the ground.

The Chantry Mother lifted her arms reverently towards the Andrastian pyre, and this gesture seemed to draw the ritual to a close. Eamon rose to his feet, the other nobles present followed suit.

"The pyre will be lit at sunset," the arl murmured in response to a question from Leonas. "We'll have time to return to Denerim and meet with the stonemasons about the rebuilding of the guild-house."

Trying to avoid a repeat of the dizziness from earlier, Flora lifted herself more cautiously from the bench. Her attention was caught by the Orlesian Wardens, who were walking en masse towards the plinth.

"What are they doing?" she whispered, directing the question towards Leonas. The arl was adjusting the bandages that still covered his maimed hand; a souvenir of the final battle against the Darkspawn.

"They're serving the final watch," the arl replied, watching the Wardens kneel in a circle around their dead brother's plinth. "It's a form of military tribute. They'll remain there, keeping vigil, until the pyre is lit at sunset."

Flora stared at the prone figure of Riordan, ignoring the low conversation of those around her as they made ready to leave. For a moment, she fancied that she saw a faint mirage of Duncan's body, superimposed over his dead counterpart's features.

"I want to do it," she breathed, eyes wide. "I want to do it, too. The final watch."

 

Chapter Text

Alistair turned to gape at his lover, his brows rising in consternation. They were standing before the Royal pew in Revanloch's Chantry, the Orlesian Wardens already gathered in a circle around their dead brother's plinth. They were preparing to undertake the final watch, a vigil which would last until Riordan's pyre; and Flora had just declared her intention to join them.

"My heart," the king said eventually, nonplussed. "Sunset is ages away. You'd miss lunch, and dinner."

"And you can't kneel on a cold floor for hours," added Leliana, sternly. "Not in your condition. You're five and a half months gone with child."

"But I was – am – was the Warden-Commander of Ferelden," protested Flora, stubbornly. "I ought to do it."

An incredulous Alistair stared at his former sister-warden, then made a pleading gesture towards Finian.

"Finn, can you say something? It's freezing in here. Flo can't kneel on these tiles until sunset."

But Finian had been watching his sister closely through his remaining eye, and recognised the belligerent obstinacy settling on her features; strong enough to be glimpsed even through the veil. Flora, usually sweet and pliant as an amiable young sapling, was known to dig her heels in on rare occasion.

"Then I'd stoke up Andraste's Flame a little higher," he replied, in rueful tones. "I recognise the look on Floss' face – the same one as our mother used to get when Father suggested that we host a Satinalia ball for all the knights. Stubborn as a mule."

Eamon looked to Teagan, who gave a helpless shrug. Just then another strongly-accented voice piped up, offering unexpected support.

"Eh, I'll do it wi'ye, lass. I liked Riordan – man could 'old his drink. Nice ter say goodbye."

Flora smiled at Oghren, who had manifested before her with a clear determination in his small, clever eyes. For once, the dwarf's breath did not reek of ale.

"Thank you," she said, pointedly ignoring the others. "I want to say goodbye to Riordan properly, too."

And to Duncan.

With a slightly belligerent lift of the chin, Flora swivelled on her heel and ascended the shallow series of steps upon which the plinth rested. There was a space near Riordan's feet that was unoccupied, and she prepared to lower herself to the tiles.

Before she could work on the logistics of kneeling – robe, weak knee and belly combined to make this task more difficult - there was a hand at her arm, strong fingers gripping Flora's elbow to help lower her to the flagstones.

"Careful, sweetheart."

At first, Flora thought it was Oghren who had assisted her, but when the voice spoke; she recognised the familiar, clipped drawl. Despite the childhood spent in a stable, there was an unmistakeable thread of aristocracy that shaped her best friend's words; elevating his speech from the common masses.

Alistair smiled ruefully at his former sister-warden, taking to his knee at her side.

"I haven't done one of these vigils since I was a Templar recruit," he murmured, with a wry twist to his mouth. "Should be an interesting experience. It's nearly eight hours until sunset, you know."

Flora blinked at him through the sheer veil, and Alistair's voice softened slightly. He reached out to touch her cheek, thumb brushing over the translucent silk tulle.

"But, you're right. I want to pay my respects to our – to our senior officers."

Both of them.

Oghren took to his knee at Flora's other side, and she thought that she had never seen the dwarf look so earnest; without a whisker of joviality on his moustachioed features.

The prospect of remaining in one place for eight hours was not too insurmountable. On occasion in the Circle, Flora had hidden in cupboards or behind library shelves for similar lengths of time to avoid classes and irate Templars. In Herring, she had also spent full days sitting beside dropped lines, waiting for a bite.

Now, she found a position that was reasonably comfortable – kneeling down, with her stomach resting on her thighs and her head bowed.

In small groups the others drifted from the Chantry; leaving behind Flora's Templar watchers (not overjoyed at the prospect of spending the next eight hours in one place), and Alistair's Royal Guards (who felt a similar sentiment). After quietly working out a rota of shifts, the door swung shut quietly behind booted feet; and then there was naught but a weighty silence and the uneven of air.

Flora closed her eyes and let her mind blossom with memory; first of Riordan, and then Duncan, the two men blurring together until they became a strange hybrid.

Little sister. You have a great gift.

I made the right decision taking you from the Circle.

She remembered when she had first met Duncan, that terrible afternoon in the Circle when Jowan had lost all sense and control, and revealed himself as a maleficar. Flora had barely noticed the Warden-Commander's presence, she had been preoccupied with shielding the defenceless Tranquil and shock at Jowan's folly. It was only afterwards, when the blood was being mopped from the tiles, that Flora looked up to see the stranger staring at her; his dark eyes bright and thoughtful.

"You're a talented healer, little one," he'd said, the words ever-so-slightly accented. "And that shield was an exceptional piece of casting. It was… artistry."

He had Rivaini heritage, she would find out later. They found magic beautiful in Rivain.

"But I can't do anything else," Flora had replied, too shy to meet his gaze. "I can't fight. There's… there's something wrong with me, I'm flawed."

"I see no flaw in you, child. It seems to me as though the Maker has granted you a… a rare talent. A talent that could help to save this nation."

And it had helped to save the nation, Flora reflected to herself, awed at her old commander's prescience. If not for my spirits, we would have died a hundred times over. At Ostagar, when the ogre attacked us at the top of Ishal. At Redcliffe, when the undead poured forth from the castle. Roasted by dragon fire at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Blasted apart by Zathrian in the heart of Brecilian. Torn apart on the ramparts by the Archdemon's teeth. How many assassins' arrows would have met their mark without the barrier? How many blades sunk into vulnerable flesh?

You were right, Duncan. I hope you can see how right you were.

Say hello to my Silver Knight and Golden Lady if you see them. Tell them I miss them, every day. I miss you, too.

One of Flora's feet began to tingle and she tucked it beneath her rear, surreptitiously. She opened her eyes, relying on the gauzy organza veil to disguise her curiosity, and glanced quickly to either side.

The Orlesian Wardens were as still as statues, kneeling before their fallen brother. Even the slight draught blowing through the columns – Flora had learnt that there were always draughts at Revanloch, even if it were not particularly windy outside – did not disturb their inert reverence.

Flora slid her gaze sideways, to where Oghren was slumped with his eyes closed. For a moment, she thought that he had fallen asleep; then a slight shift in the dwarf's movement proved her wrong. She wondered idly what had provoked this sudden fascination in the Wardens, but was pleased that Oghren had found an interest that was not at the bottom of a bottle.

On her other side, Alistair was kneeling with an easy grace borne of many years of practice. His face was uncharacteristically grave, his lips moving silently as he murmured fragments of half-forgotten Chantry prayers. Flora knew that he had first volunteered to stay for the vigil to keep watch over her, unwilling to leave Flora in the very spot where an attempt on her life had been made.

Now, looking at the focused reverence on her best friend's face, Flora guessed that Alistair appreciated this chance to reflect on both Riordan's sacrifice and Duncan's death. It was not often that the king of Ferelden could be left undisturbed for an extended period of time; and ever since Ostagar, they had barely had a moment of peace to mourn their ill-fated commander.

Flora lifted her eyes to Riordan's body, letting her memories flood her mind and distract her from her aching spine.

You're the only Grey Wardens left in Ferelden? You and the lad – was it Alistair?

You've gathered the armies?! Just the two of you – a pair of warden-recruits?

Riordan, if things had gone just a little differently, it would have been you who had gathered the armies. It would have been you who was named the Hero of Ferelden, not me.

Though you probably would still have ended up on this plinth, most likely.

Kneeling on the cold tiles with the baby shifting impatiently in her stomach, Flora promised herself fervently that she would campaign for Riordan to also be named as a Hero of Ferelden.

I don't even deserve it. It wasn't me, it was my spirits. I was just their tool. No one praises the rod for catching the fish.

The hours passed by, each one seemingly longer than the last. The echo of a gong rang in the distance, marking the lunch hour. Patches of coloured light from the stained glass windows moved slowly across the flagstones; mirroring the leisurely progress of the sun as it inched along its bow-shaped arc.

Flora had long since passed the point of feeling hungry. Her feet and legs were numb – she didn't know whether it was from cold, or from kneeling down for such a protracted period of time. Rather unfairly, the ache in her lower back had not been masked by the numbness – it had grown more pronounced; a dull throb which gnawed at the base of her spine. The only benefit to kneeling with neck bowed was that it helped to keep the blood flowing to her brain; diminishing the light-headedness that Flora had felt since the morning.

Her stomach rumbled on cue with the dinner gong, and she felt the little creature shift against her kidneys, prodding her with a small foot.

Sorry, she thought, miserably. I'm really hungry too. Can't you just… chew on my insides for nourishment?

Actually, don't do that. That sounds really painful, and you're hurting me enough.

I feel like volunteering for this might have been a bit of a mistake. I don't need to do this to remember Riordan, or Duncan.

Well, too late now. How much longer?

As subtly as possible, Flora angled her gaze up to the stained glass window depicting Andraste leading her armies into Tevinter. Unfortunately, it was east-facing and no hint as to the sun's position could be gleaned from the leaded aperture.

Suddenly, Yvon murmured beneath his breath and rose to his feet; lifting his eyes to the ceiling. The other Orlesian Wardens followed suit, inclining their heads in turn towards Riordan's prostrate body. Oghren also clambered to his feet, far less gracefully, his stumble giving an ostentatious rumble.

"Cheers," he said to the dead Warden, head swivelling in pursuit of dinner. "For the… dragon."

Alistair rose up with a slight grimace, glancing down at his veiled lover as she remained kneeling with bowed head. He stretched his arms, rubbing the stiffness from his elbows.

"How did I do this every week when I was fifteen?" the king murmured under his breath, then stood up straighter as the Orlesian Warden-Commander turned to him.

"Your presence here is appreciated, your majesty," Yvon Cuvillier said quietly, bowing his lion-like head. "And the lady Cousland. I see that she is still paying tribute to our fallen brother."

The kneeling Flora stared gloomily at the flagstones, watching the progress of a small spider as it crawled along the base of the plinth.

The moment that the Orlesian Warden-Commander had left with comrades in tow, she shoved the veil back over her face and elbowed Alistair in the shin.

"Help me up!"

"What?" said Alistair, distracted by Chanter Devotia's unrelenting glower.

"Help me up!" hissed Flora. "My legs have gone to sleep; I can't move!"

Alistair dropped his attention to his best friend, then frowned; his handsome brow creasing.

"Sweetheart," he breathed, reaching down to haul Flora gently to her feet. "Maker's Breath, you're as white as a sheet. And you're frozen – ah, I'm such an idiot! Why did I agree to this?"

"I'm just hungry," replied Flora, wondering at how the stained glass windows were blurring together into a kaleidoscope of muted colour. "I think… I think- I need to eat something."

Then the world lurched beneath her, and she slid slowly into unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Text

When Flora opened her eyes, the ceiling overhead was low and crossed with wooden beams. She recognised these beams – she had tried to count them one night while trying to sleep – and realised that she was back up in the guest chamber. Chanter Devotia was glowering down at her from the end of the bed, her strange violet eyes narrowed.

"It's a miracle," Flora said wonderingly to the disapproving Templar. "I've transportationed myself from the Chantry up to here!"

The incredulous Chanter shook her head slowly from side to side.

"Flora!"

Alistair, who had been pacing the length of the room, shot to the side of the bed and crouched down; his hazel eyes blown wide with fear and distress. Flora sat up against the cushions and gazed at him, wondering why her knees were so stiff. He reached out and touched her hair and her face with trembling fingers; the crown set to one side on the mattress.

"Are you alright, sweetheart?" he breathed, the words emerging constricted from his throat. "Is it the baby? Maker's Breath, this is my fault, I should never have- "

"The baby is fine," a nonplussed Flora replied, feeling it nudge irritably against her spine. "Why am I up here?"

"Of course the baby is fine," came an exasperated voice from the doorway. "The silly child decided to spent all day bent in half, without eating. She's fainted, that's all. And it's nobody's fault but hers!"

"Wynne!" Flora breathed, delighted. "Wynne, you've come to visit me. I thought you'd forgotten about me."

The senior enchanter rolled her eyes, crossing the room with a rustling of her maroon Circle robes. She sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forward and fixing the Cousland with her sternest expression. Simultaneously, her lined, elegant hand disappeared into the depths of her robes and withdrew an apple.

"Eat this."

"Shouldn't she have something more substantial than fruit?" Alistair asked, anxiously pleating the blanket into folds. "Shouldn't she have some meat?"

The senior enchanter shook her head, watching Flora take an obedient bite.

"No, she needs something sweet. What possessed you, Florence, to go without food for the best part of the day?"

"I wanted to do it. The vigil," she replied, through a mouthful of fruit. "To comm- comm… commemoo… remember Duncan and Riordan."

"You've commemorated them enough by defeating the Archdemon," retorted Wynne, briskly. "Finish that apple."

Flora took another bite, heaving herself over on the mattress as Alistair collapsed onto the bed beside her, boots and all. The king of Ferelden let out a sigh, dragging his hand over his face.

"That's two heart attacks you've given me within the space of a night and a day, Lo," he murmured, grimacing. "First, the assassin, and now with this fainting- "

"And I thought life might get boring after the end of Fifth Blight!" Flora finished, swallowing the last bite of apple.

Alistair groaned, unable to see the humour in her response. He pressed his lips to her ear, clutching a fistful of the pale silk of her dress.

"Sweetheart, you need to take more care of yourself," he said, and there was a raw note of pleading in his tone. "For you, and for the baby."

Wynne, nostrils flaring, did not place much stock in Alistair's form of berating. Like many other grown men, the king was clearly unable to be overly stern to a beautiful woman. She, on the other hand, had no such issue.

"Your spirits are gone, Florence," she said bluntly, as Flora's face fell. "They're gone, they're never coming back, they are never going to look after you again, and so you need to start taking some responsibility for your own health."

Flora bowed her head, miserably aware that Wynne had an extremely valid point. The senior enchanter continued, in slightly kinder tones.

"I don't mean to be cruel, but you need to think of the child, whose well-being is now entirely dependent on you. That means sleeping enough, eating regularly, and not kneeling in a freezing Chantry for eight hours!"

Alistair, who felt sorry for his former sister-warden, put an arm around her shoulders. Wynne shot him a glare, and he immediately took it away again, forcing sternness into his voice.

"Wynne is right, my darling - I mean, Florence. I'm going to have to… put my foot down, here."

"Put your foot down on what?" Flora replied, perplexed. "On the floor?"

"I'd wager that they don't have that expression in Herring," the senior enchanter said, a wry smile curling the corner of her mouth. "Anyway, don't sulk, Flora. We're just concerned for your health. That's all."

Alistair returned his arm about his best friend, kissing the side of her ear. Flora leaned her head against his shoulder, then let out a strangled squawk.

"Riordan's pyre," she said, suddenly. "Did I miss it?"

Knight-Captain Gannorn, stationed near the window, took a glance out of the warped glass.

"They're just setting it up in the courtyard," he stated, flatly. "I imagine it'll begin soon."

Alistair opened his mouth to protest, but Flora was already un-entangling herself from his arms, retrieving a woollen jumper to pull on over the filmy silk of the dress.

"Darling, maybe you should rest," Alistair began, without much hope.

As expected, Flora shot him a slightly withering look.

"I want to say goodbye," she said, her tone inviting no dissent. "I feel fine, don't worry."

Alistair glanced around, then snatched up a bread roll left over from the breaking of their fast.

"At least eat this on the way down," he implored, clambering to his feet and smoothing out his rumpled tunic. "If the baby has inherited our appetites, it'll want more than just an apple."

Prepared to acquiesce on this matter, Flora took the bread roll and bit into it.


 

The sun had disappeared beneath the low hills of the Bannorn, faint ghost-like sketches of constellations emerging star by star from the pallid dusk. Despite the rapid encroachment of summer, Ferelden evenings were still chilly enough to warrant sleeves and outer layers; especially for those situated on its coastline. The gulls wheeled over the crumbling turrets and towers of Revanloch, calling out to each other as they eyed the odd collection of people gathered in the courtyard below.

Although the Chantry officials had been responsible for supervising the mass pyres on the Alamarri plains; it had been several months since the last burning at the monastery itself. The pyre had been built up in the central courtyard, a meticulous arrangement of kindling and larger logs. Riordan, clad in full armour, had been placed amidst the branches; his face waxen and stiff.

The Orlesian Wardens were present amidst the crowd, as were many nobles from Ferelden's Landsmeet. Eamon, Teagan, Leonas and Finian were amongst those who had returned; accompanied by several of the commanders from the disbanded Ferelden free army. Lyna Mahariel had returned to the forests with the Dalish, but General Aeducan was present, alongside First Enchanter Irving.

Loghain, with a pronounced limp and leaning heavily on a wooden stick, had also come to attend Riordan's departure. Escorted by two Royal Guard, he had been brought down from Denerim on a litter; not yet able to ride a horse with his wooden limb. He had greeted Flora with reserved cordiality, granting Alistair a stiff nod. Flora had been oddly gratified to see him – after all, he was technically the only Fereldan Grey Warden in existence, and it seemed fitting that he should be present.

"I bet you could kick someone really hard with that foot," Flora offered, eyeing the iron-capped wooden limb affixed to Loghain's knee.

"Aye, lass," he replied quietly, the northern cadence of his accent reflecting her own. "Any suggestions as to targets?"

"The assassin who tried to throw a dagger at me," replied Flora immediately, and Loghain's lip curled in contempt.

"Bad enough to attack a defenceless girl," he muttered, shifting his weight onto his good leg. "Worse to attack one heavy with child."

Flora grimaced, and then the Chantry Mother cleared her throat, raising her arms to the skies and speaking in beatific tones.

"'O Maker, we commend this soul into Your keeping. Guide this man to Your side; where he may know eternal rest, untroubled by care or affliction.'"

Leliana murmured a quiet prayer to herself, bowing towards the pyre with experienced reverence. Six Templars, each one clutching a burning torch, stepped forward.

Alistair glanced around to locate his lover. She was standing nearby, having turned away from Loghain at the sound of the Chantry Mother's words. Her eyes were narrowed as she squinted at Riordan's face, and Alistair knew that she was trying to inscribe every plane and angle onto her memory.

Suddenly, struck by a sudden impulse, the king drew Duncan's sword; which he had carried on his belt since Ostagar. Stepping forward, he ascended the low platform upon which the pyre was built, leaning forward to place the Warden-Commander's sword on Riordan's chest.

"Meet the Maker as a warrior, brother-warden."

He returned to Flora's side and she stared at him, her grey irises wide and placid as the Waking Sea after a storm.

"I don't need Duncan's sword to remember him," Alistair murmured to his once sister-warden. "It belongs with Riordan."

Flora nodded mutedly, gazing at the length of silverite as it lay on the senior warden's chest. Instinctively, she reached out and met Alistair's hand already stretching for her own; their fingers wrapping together in practised intimacy as the Templars stepped forwards, touching their torches to the pyre.

The wood must have been doused in some sort of incendiary fuel, since it flared up immediately with a heat and brightness that made those closest to it take a cautionary step back. The flames rose around Riordan's body, engulfing it in seconds. Billowing smoke began to belch upwards as the pyre consumed its offering; ashes and sparks carried towards the well of the night sky.

I remember you were kind to me in the cells of Fort Drakon, Flora thought, tremulously. You told me as much as you could about Duncan. I'm sorry that I always asked more about him, than about you.

She felt a great swell of sadness rise up from her belly like an unseasonably high tide. Unable to help herself, a sniffle escaped her throat; the tears blossoming on her eyelashes and dripping in thin rivulets down her cheeks. She could taste the woodsmoke on her tongue, prickling sharp and acrid against the back of her throat.

Beside her, Alistair - who had presided over a dozen pyres in his capacity as king over the past few weeks - gazed sombrely into the flames. Regret was writ over his handsome features, memories of his old commander flooding his mind. So absorbed was he in his own reminiscence, that he did not immediately notice his companion's distress.

Finian, who found his limited vision distorted by the heat and smoke rising from the pyre, had averted his stare away. Noticing Flora's pale face, he gave her an anxious nudge.

"Floss?" he breathed. "You alright, Flossie?"

"Just the smoke," she croaked back thickly, voice even hoarser than usual. "In my… in my eyes."

Her reply was half-masked by the crackling from the pyre as the flames chewed their way through the fuel.

Alistair glanced down at his former sister-warden, then inhaled sharply. Repositioning himself behind Flora, he slid one arm around her waist and the other just beneath her breastbone, drawing her back to his chest. Flora leaned against the familiar muscle of her best friend's chest, grateful for his closeness.

So much for never crying in public, she thought gloomily to herself. Now it's happened twice in one day. And you've fainted.

How much of this is caused by you, little creature? I never used to be so unbalanced. My Herring-dad would be horrified at such shrimpy behaviour.

At a couple of inches over five foot, Flora's head was too low for Alistair to rest his chin on. Instead, he bowed his face to kiss her hair, tasting ashes on his tongue. He was reminded suddenly of Cailan's pyre, which had been constructed far more amateurishly than this one. The wood had been damp – there was still snow on the ground at Ostagar, despite it being spring everywhere else in Ferelden – and Wynne had needed to use her own magic to accelerate the flames. There was no danger of a slow burn here – the wood was driftwood, dried out and stored in waterproof containers. The pyre flared up fast and fierce, a mass of pure white heat burning at its core.


 

Parting that evening proved to be harder than ever for both parties involved. A miserable Flora was desperate for her once brother-warden to stay; yet knew that he needed to return to Denerim, that his stabilising presence in the city was vital in this post-Blight uncertainty.

Alistair, meanwhile, was terrified by the possibility of more assassins, and was also keenly aware of his best friend's distress. He implored both Leliana and Teagan to keep an eye on Flora – fluctuating between instruction and plea – though none of their assurances seemed to assuage his concern.

After promising that he would be back tomorrow evening, the king took his leave with tears in his eyes that were not caused by the wood smoke.

Back up in the bedchamber, both bard and bann demonstrated consummate skill in distracting Flora from her own dolefulness. Leliana sang a motet of northern songs from Ferelden's wildest coastline, several of which Flora half-remembered from her decade spent in Herring.

Teagan then produced a book that he had managed to source from Maker-knew-where, with the alluring title: Sea Creatures Of Tevinter Legend. He spent a laborious hour puzzling over the first entry alongside Flora; demonstrating remarkable patience while translating words such as hydra and mythological. By the time that they had finished the Minrathous Melusine, Flora was dozing off; her head bowed low over the page.

Teagan gently extracted the book from her fingers, manoeuvring himself off the bed and stretching his cramped limbs. Shooting the two Templars at the door a slightly wary look, the bann made for the cabinet to pour himself an ale.

Easier to think of the lass as a niece doing this, he thought to himself ruefully, unplugging the bottle. By the time that we reach the end of the book, hopefully it'll put an end to those dreams about her that I really ought to confess to a Chantry Mother.

Leliana, leaning forward to melt the end of her sealing wax in the fire, cleared her throat pointedly. The courteous noble handed the bard the first beaker, pouring himself a second before taking a seat beside the fire.

"So: three remaining Howes," Leliana began steadily, her voice echoing about the chamber.

Teagan raised his eyebrows, glancing towards where Flora was curled up against the cushions. The bard made a soft, dismissive noise; waving her hand.

"Oh, she won't wake up; the child sleeps like the dead. A product of communal quarters, I believe. Anyway, I am unfamiliar with the Howe clan – would you enlighten me? Who do you believe is foolish enough to take out a contract on the widely-adored Hero of Ferelden?"

Leliana's brow creased in a single line; clearly not wholly comfortable with admitting her ignorance.

Teagan downed his ale in a single long draw, setting the beaker down beside the hearth.

"I don't know what his children have heard," he said, frankly. "The Landsmeet know what Howe did to the Couslands. They also know what he planned on doing to the lass, thanks to Loghain. But I'm not sure if the news has spread beyond Denerim."

Leliana finished her drink with more delicacy, her fine-boned face contorted in thought.

"I met the daughter once – Dolores, Delilah, something like that," Teagan continued, his voice quiet. "She seemed reasonable enough. Has the news of Flora's condition spread yet? I can't imagine that a woman would take out a contract on an expectant mother."

Without comment Leliana elevated her shoulder elegantly, inspecting the gleam of her silvered bracelet in a shaft of moonlight.

"The news has reached as far as Val Royeaux, at least," she murmured, with a coordinated lift of the eyebrow. "I have it on good authority that a set of platinum baby spoons are making their way across the Frostbacks at this very moment; each one engraved with Celene's insignia. "

Teagan let out a snort that came out a fraction louder than intended.

"Platinum baby spoons," he repeated, incredulous. "Orlesians! Sorry, no offence meant."

The bard waved her hand in a manner that meant none taken, the corner of her mouth curling ruefully.

"If there is a Howe out there with ill intentions towards our future queen," she finished, lowering her voice as Flora yawned and shifted in her sleep. "I have faith that Zevran will uncover them. Beneath the lechery and the witty banter, lies a… consummate professional."

 

 

Chapter Text

Awakening in the night with a dry throat, Flora yawned in a deeply unladylike manner; glancing over to where Leliana lay curled catlike in the blankets at her side. Careful not to disturb the softly snoring bard, Flora moved the furs aside and swung her legs out from the bed. Her foot proceeded to make contact with something soft and unexpected.

There came a quiet grunt from the darkness below, and Flora reflexively lifted her hand to summon light to her fingers. Of course, nothing came; and she had to resort to squinting through the shadows.

"Oh," she breathed apologetically as the Bann of Rainesfere gazed blearily up at her. "Sorry. Did I tread on your face?"

Teagan, stretched out on a bedroll on the floorboards, yawned and gave an amiable shrug.

"It's alright, poppet. You weigh as much as a Mabari pup; I doubt you'd have done much damage."

Flora sat up and gazed down at him anxiously, noting the position of the bann's sleeping mat directly alongside the bed. Anybody who wished to reach her would have literally had to step over him; she caught sight of Teagan's sword resting surreptitiously at his side.

"I'm actually small but dense," she mumbled, distractedly. "Especially with this, this- "

Flora made a vague circling gesture towards her belly.

"Alistair tried to carry me back up here earlier, you know, like he always does when he thinks I'm tired?"

"Mm."

"Well, he was sweating by the time we got to the stairs," Flora whispered, resting her chin on her elbow and widening her eyes at Teagan. "He had to use both arms to carry me down the corridor. He never usually needs both arms! I'm a porker."

The bann let out a muffled bark of laughter, using his sleeve to catch the majority of the sound before it could disturb the bard.

"Anyway," Flora continued, apologetically. "I'm sorry for treading on your… on your face, or your stomach, or your… wherever."

"It's fine, Florence. Are you alright?"

"Just going to get a drink."

"Stay there, I'll get it. Water?"

"Mm, please."

Flora lifted her legs back up onto the bed, adjusting the strapping around her weak knee as she repositioned the blankets. Using shafts of moonlight to navigate, the bann crossed to the side-table and poured out a tankard of water; as well as another weak ale for himself.

"Thank you," Flora said as he handed her the tankard, before settling back down against the bedroll. "I'm sorry that you have to do this – guard me. I'm sure you'd rather be in a warm room, with a comfortable bed and- " she remembered an off-hand comment that Teagan had made some weeks ago – "and winches."

The bann stifled another snort of laughter, grateful that he had just swallowed a mouthful of ale. Beside the door, Chanter Devotia gave a soft sniff of disapproval.

"It's... quite alright," he replied gravely, trying his best to keep a straight face in the darkness. "The, ah, wenches will just have to do the best they can without me."

Flora rolled over onto her stomach, found this too uncomfortable and relocated to her hip; the child nudging her too persistently to allow sleep.

"When I was pretending to be a winch – remember, when I was Madame du Poisson at the Pearl? – I thought that the workers there were very kind. And discreet. It wasn't them that got me caught by Howe."

She rubbed an idle hand over her stomach, feeling the little creature press a shoulder or the curve of a rump against her palm.

I didn't know you existed then. I'm glad I didn't know when I was captured in Fort Drakon; I didn't need anything else to worry about.

Shifting position, Flora felt something drop from the pile of bedding. Blinking, she peered down to see one of the cushions half-hidden under the bed, and made a quick, futile swipe with her fingers. This only succeeded in batting the cushion further into the dark recess.

"Stay there, petal. There we go, lean forward."

Flora leaned forward obediently, feeling the cushion slide into place against her lower back.

"Thank you," she breathed, feeling the ache in her spine abate a fraction. "For being so nice to me."

"It's my pleasure," replied Teagan quietly, quashing his own selfish feelings with a wistful grunt. "After all, since I count Alistair as a nephew, you're… you're almost like my niece."

Without gleaning his meaning, Flora smiled at him, catching a yawn in her elbow.

"'Night, Bann Teagan."

"Night, Flora."

"Don't let the weever fish bite."

"Weever fish?"


 

The next week passed without incident, Justinian sliding slowly towards Solace with mellifluous ease. In the coastal city of Denerim, Alistair grew reluctantly accustomed to council meetings that lasted eight hours; still new enough to politics that he mostly listened and took notes while Eamon led discussion. Yet the nobles of the Landsmeet learnt quickly that this new Theirin was not to be underestimated. Unlike Cailan, who often neglected matters of government to pursue his own personal follies, Alistair Theirin saw each meeting through to its end; unafraid to insist on further clarification of any issue if required.

At the end of one such meeting, Bann Alfstanna - the Landsmeet's nominated representative in the king's council – petitioned Alistair as to the standing of the lady Cousland. A newly-arrived letter from the Divine had confirmed Florence Cousland's severance from the Fade, endorsing the judgement already made by Ferelden's Grand Cleric and Templar Knight-Commander.

"The people want to see their Hero," the bann stated flatly, her clever, wrinkled eyes seeking out Alistair's own. "They're pestering their local clerics for news. Why don't you bring her back from that ghastly mausoleum tonight?"

Alistair gritted his teeth, hand curling measuredly against the round wooden table. By mutual agreement with Eamon, they had agreed not to share news of the attempted assassination; at least, not until Zevran had returned from his investigations. As much as Alistair was desperate to retrieve his lover from the gloomy clifftop monastery, he knew that there was logic behind her continued stay there – it was far more secure than the very public Royal Palace.

"Florence is still recovering from the battle with the Archdemon," the Arl of Redcliffe interjected smoothly, seeing Alistair at a loss for words. "She needs peace and quiet, and Revanloch can provide it. Besides, her victory feast is next week, and she'll be returning for that. The people can see her then."

Alistair nodded in silent, gloomy agreement with his elder uncle; hoping that his impatience for the session to be ended was not writ too plainly across his face.

The final item on the agenda was Alistair's coronation, which was now only mere weeks away. Delegates from the different nations of Thedas would start arriving in the upcoming days, and would need to be accommodated and catered for sufficiently. The assumption was that Alistair would wed his Cousland bride on the same day.

As this was mentioned, Alistair shifted uncomfortably in his seat, a slight grimace contorting his handsome features. The sharp-eyed Alfstanna spotted his momentary discomfort, and a single greying eyebrow rose skywards.

"Is the lady Cousland aware of her upcoming wedding yet, Alistair?"

The following silence proved answer enough, and the bann snorted wryly.

"Does the poor girl know that she's betrothed?"

"I'm… working on it."

Unaware that the cloth-workers of Denerim were currently puzzling on how best to incorporate the Theirin lion with the Cousland laurel; the future Queen of Ferelden had spent the recent days at Revanloch immersed in quiet gloom. Riordan's funeral had renewed Flora's grief at the destruction of her spirits, and she had been thoroughly miserable for the past week.

Wynne had stayed for three days; skilfully distracting Flora from her sadness by avoiding the topic of magic entirely. They spent hours in the library, working on both general literacy and Flora's knowledge of the dynasties of Thedas. Both Leliana and Wynne waited with baited breath for Flora to ask why she was learning about the history of Orlo-Fereldan relations; but the question never seemed to come.

"Does she think that Alistair will keep her merely as a mistress forever?" Leliana breathed quietly, the two women watching Flora as she poured over a book of Theodesian maps. "Even when she births a prince or princess?"

Wynne gave a shrug, flashing Flora a quick and reassuring smile as the young Cousland glanced round.

"Over the span of a year, she's gone from mage, to Warden, to Cousland," the senior enchanter murmured in response. "I don't think a further elevation of rank has even occurred to her."

"But does she not realise what Alistair is doing?"

Alistair – true to his word – had arrived at the monastery every evening without fail. Without any prior experience to inform him, he had nevertheless done his best to court his former sister-warden; as would be expected for any young noble seeking a girl's hand in marriage. He had brought Flora even more flowers, until the room overflowed with vases. He had found a large conch shell on the Palace beach and given it to her; beaming as she held it to her ear with a squeak of delight.

He had also meticulously found out each of her peculiar dietary cravings – the earth-covered turnips, bowls of cream and mint sauce, smoked haddock slathered with jam – and brought it down from the Palace. On one evening, Flora - almost tearful at the sight of so much appealing food – confronted him as to why he was being so generous.

They were both up on the ramparts overlooking the Amaranthine Ocean, the ochre light from the setting sun spilling over the crumbling stone. Leliana had vanished to give them a fraction more privacy – although naturally the two Templars were still present, standing quietly a dozen yards away.

"I don't understand," Flora breathed, reluctantly tearing her eyes away from the basket of dirt-caked turnips. "I haven't done anything. Why are you rewarding me?"

"Hm, sweetheart?"

"Is it my birthday?"

"No, love. Still a fortnight away."

"Is it Satinalia?"

"Not even close!"

Flora looked bemused. "Then WHY?"

Alistair wanted nothing more than to ask her then; to drop to his knees and take her hand, and ask the question that had been burning in his mind since South Reach.

Marry me, he thought, desperately. I want to be a husband to you. I want you as my wife.

"Flora..." he began tremulously, then trailed off, a lonely seagull calling out as it wheeled overhead.

Before finishing his sentence, the king reached out and took Flora's hand, lifting her curling fingers to his mouth and kissing them. His lips landed, half-consciously, on the finger that bore the Cousland ring; the one which housed the vein to the heart.

"Well, I'm courting you, aren't I? I want to do this properly, Lo. Everything was so rushed, during the Blight."

Flora stared at him in perplexion, her brow furrowing. Then there came a small flicker of realisation in the depths of her pale irises, brief as lightning across a winter sky; her eyes widening imperceptibly.

"Alistair," she said, her voice small. "Do you -? "

Alistair stared down at his best friend, willing her to say the words; to voice the question that had been on the tip of his tongue for weeks.

"Flora, I- "

"Unbelievable!"

Leliana erupted onto the ramparts, storm-clouds massing on her flushed features as she stalked past the Templars.

Flora blinked as though awakened from a daydream, turning to face the bard as Alistair muttered under his breath.

"I agreed to lead a seminar with a dozen initiates on the parallels between the Canticle of Erudition and the Canticle of Exaltations," the bard fumed, grasping the crumbling stone battlements and glowering down at the rocky beach below.

"Sounds fascinating," replied the king drily, accepting that the moment with Flora had vanished. "Let me guess: they didn't turn up to discuss the Chant?"

Leliana snarled quietly to herself, sweeping her fingers down to scoop an earth-covered turnip from the basket. With an eloquently uttered curse in Orlesian, she hurled the unfortunate vegetable over the ramparts. Flora stifled a squawk of dismay, biting her lip as she watched her snack disintegrate into pieces against the rocks below.

"Non!" the bard retorted, irritated. "They spent the hour trying to look down the front of my robes, interspersed with inane questions about Darkspawn. Darkspawn!"

Alistair had to stifle a guffaw, while Flora looked suitably indignant.

"How audacious," she breathed, outraged on Leliana's behalf. "When you were trying to educate them, too!"

"Exactly!" replied Leliana with a small huff, tossing her short, auburn braids. "Alistair, stop laughing."

Despite his levity, Alistair was reluctant to leave his sister-warden that evening; half-tempted to lift Flora onto his saddle and bring her back to Denerim. His logical mind waged a fierce internal debate with his heart, pointing out the flaws in such an impulsive plan.

The Royal Palace is a public building. It has two dozen entrances; more back passages and hidden doorways than are shown on any map. It's not as secure as Revanloch.

A light evening drizzle accompanied the setting sun; the puddles in the courtyard lit in gold and bronze by the waning rays. The king kissed his mistress once more, one palm resting on the pronounced curve of her stomach as he extracted the promise he received every evening.

"Stay with the others tonight, darling."

"I will!"

"Wake Leliana and my uncle if you want to go anywhere."

Flora nodded, although she had not been on any nocturnal wanderings since the assassin in the Chantry.

Alistair stared down at her a moment longer, then glanced around.

"Maybe I should walk you back to your chamber – Lel is up there already."

"I'll be fine," Flora reassured him, gesturing towards the two Templars standing several yards away. "They're still here."

This did not wholly satisfy Alistair, but he gave a tight nod, bending down to kiss her once more.

"I'll see you tomorrow, my love."

The inhabitants of Revanloch had almost grown used to Flora's presence as the Hero of Ferelden – after all, the Blight was three weeks in the past, and had never reached their enclosed little world anyway. However, she was still a beautiful girl, and one not covered by the austere and modest robes of a Chantry sister. The giggling recruits had been warned not to approach the lady Cousland directly, but their eyes still followed her about like cats after a fishmonger's cart.

Flora could feel stares prickling between her shoulder-blades as she passed through the inner courtyard; muffled comments half-hidden behind hands. It was something she had grown reluctantly accustomed to – attention was never something that she sought, but it had been thrust inadvertently upon her during the Fifth Blight.

With the footsteps of Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia echoing against the flagstones behind her, Flora was just about to ascend the steps leading to the east wing when a low, accented voice caught her attention.

"Lady Cousland?"

It was Yvon Cuvillier, Commander of the Grey in Orlais. His tousled, leonine presence stood out starkly against the damp stone of Revanloch; and he bowed towards Flora with the finesse of any Val Royeaux courtier.

"My lady, I have some… questions. Actually, many questions. Do you have a moment?"

 

Chapter Text

The Orlesian Warden-Commander gazed at Flora, his tawny eyes steady and biting. Flora came to a halt in the corridor, her heart sinking. She had a distinct feeling she knew what the matters for discussion pertained to – the slaying of the Archdemon, the cleansing of the taint, and the preposterous roundedness of her belly. She also guessed that the man had tactfully restrained himself from making such enquiries after Riordan's funeral; but Flora's dolefulness could not shield her indefinitely.

Flora therefore took a deep breath and gave a small nod, following Yvon Cuvillier into a side-chamber that she had never noticed before. It reminded Flora of a Circle classroom – rows of wooden desks, a teacher's lectern at the front, and bookshelves lining one wall. Incongruously, several of the Orlesian Wardens had already taken seats at the initiate desks – Yvon's shaven-headed lieutenant was present, as well as the angular woman with the grey-streaked bun. The seated Wardens rose to acknowledge her, and Flora felt as though she were a teacher arriving to deliver a lecture.

Stifling a laugh at such a ludicrous prospect – she was well aware of her own limited intellect – Flora took the seat that the Orlesian Commander pulled out for her.

Yvon Cuvillier then went to close the door, and Knight-Captain Gannorn let out a soft grunt of warning.

"It stays open," the Knight-Captain stated, flat and uncompromising. For the first time, Flora was grateful for the ever-present Templar guards.

The Warden-Commander made to protest, then inclined his head slightly.

"Fine. Lady Cousland, I should like to clarify a few things, if I may. Would you be amenable to some… questions?"

She gave a gloomy nod, hoping that the mask of solemnity on her features hid her trepidation. Behind her, Gannorn made a small gesture to Chanter Devotia. The female Templar gave a slight grunt, slipping from the room with surprising subtlety.

Yvon paused before speaking, glancing down at Flora with a faintly quizzical expression.

"Forgive my ignorance," he murmured, changing his mind about taking a seat and pacing the length of the classroom. "I'm afraid that communication between branches is poor at the best of times, let alone during a Blight. You were recruited by Duncan, a year ago?"

"Almost a year," Flora corrected, counting back through the months on uncertain fingers. "In the autumn. I don't know exactly when. I came to Ostagar about a month before – before the battle."

Before the majority of the Fereldan Wardens were obliterated.

"And you gathered the armies – two junior recruits – and won the support of the Landsmeet," Yvon continued, one golden eyebrow rising incredulously. "And then you slew the Archdemon, and instead of dying; both you and King Alistair were cleansed of the taint."

"I cured Alistair beforehand," Flora mumbled, cringing inwardly as she recalled her brother-warden's shock and furious indignation. "I didn't want him to risk taking the final blow. He would've done, to save Ferelden."

The angular woman, too tall for the initiate's desk, was scribing Flora's responses on a roll of parchment.

Yvon gave another nod, making a visible effort to stem the flood of questions as they bubbled up within his throat. His eyes fell on Flora's hand, resting idly on her belly in a way that she never would have dared to do when her condition was still a secret.

"I must beg forgiveness once again," he asked, quietly. "Rumour travels on the fleetest of wings, and no faster than within the streets of Val Royeaux. That is the king's child, yes? The former Warden, Alistair? "

Flora nodded, feeling the little creature nudge against her kidneys.

Yes, we are talking about you.

"But – how is this possible?"

"I'm- I was an… unusual mage," she replied, deciding that the more she explained, the less she would be questioned. "I couldn't really do much, but I was – I was a good healer. I had spirits that helped me. My body – it cured poisons. I could cleanse the taint, with their help."

You kept the vein of Darkspawn ichor in my blood so that I could kill the Archdemon and end the Blight. Once the dragon was dead, your last action was to remove the taint as you left me.

"I can't feel her," Clarel spoke up, bluntly. "I couldn't feel the king, either."

Yvon inhaled, shaking his lion-like head in wonder. He did take a seat then, his powerful frame incongruous behind the recruit's desk.

"So that's how you were able to conceive," he said at last, his voice soft and wondering. "You understand it is unprecedented, yes?"

Flora nodded, shifting position surreptitiously against the unforgiving wooden seat.

There followed a pause for a long moment, the bell for the final evening service echoing in the passage outside. Flora could hear the distant sound of a chattering crowd making their way towards the Chantry, and thought that she would rather sit through two hours of prayer than continue with this polite interrogation.

"And these spirits were destroyed when you slew the Archdemon," Yvon said eventually, tapping his fingers against his knee. "Instead of yourself."

Flora nodded once more, feeling a bolt of guilt ricochet around her skull at the destruction of her spirits. Instead of speaking, she held out her palms; showing the patches of white, sunburst-shaped discolouration.

"I have marks on my back, and my leg too," she said, remembering her obliterated Peraquialus freckles with a small jolt of sadness. "I don't think they'll ever go away."

Yvon reached out and took Flora's hand, fascination momentarily overcoming his propriety. His eyebrows rose as he gazed at the strange, pale markings, extending in curlicues across the surface of her skin; a soft, astonished murmur in Orlesian slipped from his lips.

"Right," he said abruptly, collecting himself and returning upright. "Thank you for your assistance, lady Cousland. Now- "

The Orlesian Warden-Commander turned to his captain and the rest of his Wardens, clearing his throat.

"The Fifth Blight may be over, but Ferelden's Order must be rebuilt. There'll be pockets of Darkspawn that need to be monitored; even leaderless, they still pose a threat to rural communities. I suggest we create a command structure from within our own Val Royeaux ranks. The Orlesian Wardens can afford to be divided, our numbers are strong enough- "

"Well, that wouldn't be very considerate," came the protest from a wide-eyed Flora. "Their poor feet. Their blisters."

There followed a moment of confused silence, as Yvon Cuvillier turned to look at her. Flora blinked back at him, innocuous.

"What do you mean, my lady?"

"From having to walk all the way to Ferelden, then turn around and walk all the way back to Val Royeaux," she continued, placidly. "Or perhaps it's the poor horses I should feel sorry for?"

"Why would they be walking back to Val Royeaux?" the lion-headed man replied, confused.

"After being stopped at the border, of course," Flora replied, patiently. "Ferelden admits no foreign force without permission from its king, and I don't see Alistair here, do you?"

She was now standing, her pale eyes cold as a winter sea, the imperiousness of a Cousland writ across the fine-hewn features that had always set her apart from the other inhabitants of Herring. For a moment, she envisioned herself back in the Landsmeet chamber, confronting another soldier who had made the mistake of dismissing her in the way that middle-aged men tended to dismiss young, attractive women.

"Also, I don't remember being consulted on this," Flora continued, unimpressed. "called the armies, I killed the Archdemon. I'm still the Acting Warden-Commander of Ferelden, and when someone replaces me; it'll be someone who Alistair and myself feel is best for this country. We will, of course, consult with Orlais," she added, with a small and humourless smile.

Yvon gaped at Flora, who stared back at him with the arrogant, well-hewn profile of a scion of Ferelden's most ancient dynasty. He had made the mistake of judging Florence Cousland based on her youth, her wide-eyed beauty, and her quiet grief after Riordan's funeral. This sudden flash of sheer, blunt defiance came as a shock.

"Loghain Mac Tir will need to be involved too," Flora added, slow and unblinking. "He's recovering from injury, but he's capable and he values this nation's security above no other."

Yvon, astonished, gave a wordless nod. Flora rewarded his compliance with a patient smile.

"The next time I see the king, I'll let him know that you would like to discuss this," she said, kindly. "We'll sit down together and come to some sort of arrangement."

"Yes, my lady," Yvon replied, eyebrows now lodged in his hairline. "I… I apologise for my presumption."

"Hm," said Flora, already tiring of the conversation. "We'll talk about this tomorrow, then."

Her stomach rumbled and she turned towards the exit, trying to ignore the twinge of pain from her knee.

Leliana was standing in the doorway – the Chanter had clearly gone to fetch her – and a beam was curled across her face from ear to ear. On hearing that Flora had been corralled into a classroom by the Orlesians, the bard had scuttled down the corridors in readiness to launch an indignant rescue.

Yet she had arrived just in time to hear Flora's solemn, polite and incontestable response; the young Cousland calmly rebuffing the commander's attempts to seize control of the Fereldan Wardens.

Leliana slid her arm into Flora's, steering her away from the classroom and towards the staircase that led to their guest quarters. The Templar guard followed in their wake, stoic and silent.

After ascending the stone steps, they turned into a damp, labyrinthine passage lined with moth-eaten tapestries. Now confident that they were out of earshot, Leliana kissed Flora on the cheek; inordinately and inexplicably proud.

"Well done for resisting his cajolement, ma petite. The Cuvilliers are known for their persuasive tongues; and I know it is your instinct to do as you are told. I hope he did not try and intimidate you in any way?"

Flora gave a little shake of the head, feeling her knee give a more persistent twinge just as the child dug an elbow or a knee into the base of her spine.

"Ouch. No, I… I don't think he did. Or if he tried, I didn't notice."

Leliana smiled, withdrawing the key from her sleeve as they approached their quarters.

"Regardless, it seems that you maintained both poise and bearing in the face of his interrogation. Well done, ma crevette."

Flora smiled vaguely, thinking that Leliana seemed almost disproportionately pleased at this small defiance.

The bard was indeed delighted, although for more significant reasons.

If she can stand up for herself against Orlais now; she can stand up for Ferelden as queen.


 

The next afternoon brought a most unexpected visitor. Flora and Leliana had been sitting at the table in the inner courtyard; the one separated from the training area by a high, ivy-covered wall. They could hear the rhythmic sounds of wooden swords beating against shields as the initiates practised drill; accompanied by the irate bark of an instructor.

Leliana was reading from a small book of Chantry homilies, her lips moving silently as she recited them out loud. As a special concession, the bard had been granted permission to lead the Sunday service; and was determined for it to be both an enlightening and spiritually invigorating experience.

Flora had the cards of Theodesian leaders spread out over the table before her; reminding herself of the names of each nation's leader.

Celene Valmont I.

She pressed a fingertip curiously against Celene's face, tracing the chiselled angles of the high cheekbones. The Empress had been depicted holding a golden mask in one hand. stylised feathers extending swan-like back from her ears.

"Why do Orlesians like to hide their faces?" Flora asked after a moment, her brow furrowed.

Few topics of discussion could distract Leliana from her piety, but the bard's adopted home was certainly one of them. She lowered the book of prayers, a wistful smile pulling at her lips.

"Ah, but many sports require facial protection, do they not? In jousting, a guard is worn, in fencing, a lighter cover. Orlesian politics is a sport like no other; and the masking of the face adds another layer to the Game."

Flora wrinkled her nose; such subterfuge was the antithesis of crude Herring bluntness.

"I wonder if I'll meet any more Orlesians," she wondered out loud, tracing the neatly inked flowers on the edge of the card. "I don't suppose they come to Ferelden very often."

"Well, you would if you went to Orlais," murmured Leliana, lifting a delicate porcelain teacup between equally elegant fingers. "Say, if you visited Val Royeaux."

Flora looked almost comically astonished, her pale eyes widening.

"Leave Ferelden?" she breathed, taken aback. "Why would I ever want to do that? And why would I go to Val Royeaux of all places?"

"Why, accompanying Alistair, of course," countered Leliana, smoothly. "If he ever decides on a state visit."

"Oh," replied Flora, slightly nonplussed. "Because I'm his mistress?"

Leliana raised her eyes above her teacup, pupils glinting like a silverite blade catching the sun.

"The Hero of Ferelden deserves more than to be a mistress, hm?"

Flora peered back at the bard, slightly confused. Leliana kept her gaze, steady and even; this time offering no distracting comment or skilful turn of conversation.

"Alistair will have his own card made soon, to replace that of his brother," she continued, quietly. "I should think he would wish for you to be drawn alongside him."

Leliana's slender fingers made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the various empresses, archons, kings, queens and dukes of Thedas. Flora stared down at them, a slow, primordial thought stirring deep within her mind.

"Leliana," she breathed, in a voice that was little more than a whisper. "Does- does Alistair…?"

Just then, a most unexpected visitor entered the small courtyard; bulky enough to seem overly large within the confines of the stone walls. The Templars escorting him were wide-eyed, trying to hide their astonishment. Even the steely Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia, incongruously flanking a large potted plant, were unable to arrest a flinch of shock.

"My lady," squawked one of the young guards. "This Qunari claims to know you?"

 

Chapter Text

Flora rose to her feet, transparent delight suffusing her features.

"Ste-e-e-n!" she bleated, scuttling across the worn cobbles. "Sten, I thought you'd gone back to… to wherever you're from!"

Flora came to a halt before the lofty Qunari, shuffling from foot to foot. It was clear that she was desperate to throw her arms around his waist – Flora had always been liberal with her physical affection – but likewise knew that Sten would not suffer such a display of sentiment.

Sten gazed down at her with the impassivity of a rock face, his crimson eyes utterly unreadable.

"Clearly I have not gone," he replied, disapproving of the question's redundancy. "I am here. I intend to remain here until the investiture of Ferelden's leader; and then return to Par Vollen with my report."

Flora smiled vaguely up at him, and the Qunari narrowed his stare; both of them fully aware that she had no idea what investiture meant.

"You've grown larger since last I saw you," Sten said after a moment, lowering his gaze further to the swell of the child pressing against her woollen tunic. "Soon, you may be as wide as you are tall."

"Good," replied Flora immediately, her expression earnest. "My feet hurt all the time; I'd love to roll everywhere. Like a BALL."

The Qunari let out a grunt, striding past her into the centre of the courtyard. He swept his ashen, assessing stare around the crumbling walls; appraising the monastery's general decrepitude. Leliana, who had returned to the table with her book of homilies, gave him a beatific smile of greeting.

"I noticed seven serious flaws in this building's security as I was escorted here," Sten said at last, and Leliana's ears pricked up.

"The north tower and the portcullis near the drains?"

The Qunari nodded, and the bard gave a soft cluck of satisfaction under her breath.

"So, I hear that Howes are after you again. How is it that you seem to launch straight from one peril to another?"

This was from Sten, who had returned his stare to Flora. The Par Vollen native had clearly learnt the habit of rhetorical questioning during his sojourn on the Ferelden mainland.

"I don't know," replied Flora, slightly gloomily. There had been no more attempts on her life – clumsy or not – over the past week; the monastery bristled with more guards and patrolling soldiers than the Royal barracks.

Sten grunted, lifting a strong arm behind his back. Lifting Asala from between his shoulder-blades, he let the vast greatsword rest carefully against the edge of the table. Instead of his own life-weapon, he withdrew a slender dagger from his pack. It was cut from silverite, the blade itself curved wickedly to cause maximum damage.

"Without your magical talent, your survival in an attack is not guaranteed," he stated, without emotion. "I… should not wish to see the warrior who felled the Archdemon, silenced by a clumsy amateur. I will show you a few counters that even the simplest and most incompetent children could master."

Flora, temporarily enchanted by his description of her as a warrior, took a moment to register what the Qunari was offering.

"Oh!" she said at last as he glowered at her, expecting a reply. "Thank you! I am an incompetent child."

Unfortunately, Flora proved not to be a master with the dagger. Her natural lack of grace, combined with the cumbersome swell of her belly, a stiff knee and sore feet; all conspired to sabotage her efforts. Leliana watched from her position at the table, unable to stop from grimacing. The two Templars looked on without expression; though a momentary spark of compassion had flickered across Chanter Devotia's face as Flora dropped the dagger for the tenth time.

Gritting her teeth against the pain in her lower back, Flora bent over and retrieved the blade.

"You know, there was someone else who tried to teach me how to use a dagger," she offered casually, sweat pouring down her forehead. "Leliana, remember the Rivaini lady from the Pearl? Zevran's friend."

Leliana snorted; she remembered very well.

"I think she was perhaps more successful at teaching you other things though, eh, ma petite?"

Flora let out a cackle, running her thumb idly over the grooved end of the dagger.

"That was a good night," she breathed, wistfully. "Although I did get kidnapped by Howe's men the next morning."

"Which will happen again if you have no way to defend yourself," snapped the Qunari, demonstrating a singular lack of patience. "Desist with these attempts to distract me."

Flora wiped the end of her sleeve over her forehead, making an effort to mop up the sweat.

"Alright," she said gamely, her feet throbbing inside her boots. "Let's keep going."


 

An hour later, the gloomy courtyard was losing what little sun it had managed to glean. As the sun lowered itself into the Bannorn, the temperature dropped and a chilly breeze began to explore Revanloch's labyrinthine corridors.

Flora's attempts to master Sten's dagger had proved in vain. Whatever elegance she demonstrated through dance was not mirrored by her normal movement; and this inherent lack of grace, combined with her physical restrictions, served to undermine all her attempts to wield the blade.

The Qunari, making a swift assessment of the situation, reached out to intercept Flora as she went to retrieve the dagger for the fifteenth time.

"This has been a wasted endeavour," he stated, with characteristic, brutal honesty. "Instead, I suggest you focus your efforts on your new role."

"My – my new role?" Flora asked, uncertain.

"Producing the next leader of this nation," Sten clarified, making an irritable gesture towards Flora's swollen stomach. "In your current condition, it is all that you can contribute to this society."

To the Qunari, who lacked any semblance of Theodesian social niceties, this was a mere stating of the fact. To Flora, it was a condemnation of her inadequacy, now that she was trapped in only a single realm.

The only time I'll ever go back to the Fade – and possibly see my spirits again – is when I die.

Sten's right; I can't do anything without my magic. I am useless! All I'm good for now is… giving birth.

Flora felt the tears rising before she could arrest them; streaming down her cheeks like a broken dam. Letting out a choked sound of distress, she scuttled between the old basalt pillars and back into the shadowy depths of the monastery. The two Templars glanced at one another wordlessly, then turned to follow her.

A crease formed in the centre of Sten's brow; the only indication of his confusion. He turned to look at Leliana, who was gathering up her book of homilies and tea paraphernalia, with a scowl writ across her features.

"Why is she caterwauling like an infant?" the Qunari asked, nonplussed. "I only stated the truth."

Leliana let out a small huff of displeasure, turning her pale blue stare on Sten as she made to follow in the wailing Flora's wake.

"Sten, remember when you lost your sword?"

"Obviously."

"How did you feel?"

"Maimed."

Leliana gave a little exasperated huff, shooting him a final glance over her shoulder.

"Well, that's how Flora feels, without her spirits. And unlike your sword, there's no way for her to find them again."

The bard left the Qunari in the courtyard, looking as thoughtful as she had ever seen him.


 

As the last egg-yolk sliver of the setting sun disappeared behind the distant hills, the party from the Royal Palace arrived at the monastery. Stable boys came rushing out to take the horses – they had tossed dice beforehand to see who would get the privilege of leading in the king's steed. Alistair and Teagan, escorted by a discreet contingent of Royal Guard, made entrance into Revanloch monastery; the Knight-Commander hurrying down from his study to greet them.

Alistair gave the greying Templar a stiff nod, not quite ready to forgive him for the previous week's grievous broach of security.

"Anything unusual?" the king asked in place of a greeting; his hazel eyes sharp and clear as Fereldan ale.

The Knight-Commander shook his head, falling into step alongside Alistair.

"No, your majesty. I've had guards stationed at the gate-posts day and night, and they report only the usual visitors."

Alistair shot a quick glance at his uncle, who let a shoulder rise and fall in grim acceptance.

"Hopefully your elven friend will return with news," the bann offered, quietly. "Set an assassin to catch an assassin, if you will."

Alistair let out a grunt of frustration, nostrils flaring.

A pair of excitable initiates rounded the corner before them, chattering away with practise wooden swords bundled in their arms. As they caught sight of the king of Ferelden – six feet and three inches of leather clad, fur trimmed muscle, the gold band squarely atop his lofty head – they gaped in alarm and promptly dropped the swords.

Alistair, wondering if he had ever been so young and naïve, bent to help them gather up the swords. The slightly braver of the two offered a squeak of gratitude, a flush rising to their hairline.

Leliana was waiting outside the doors to the Chantry, her arms folded grimly over her chest. Chanter Devotia stood beside her, stern and impassive as the Qunari.

"Alistair," she warned, the years spent in Val Royeaux shaping her distinctive tone. "She's not very happy."

"What do you mean, not very happy?"

"She's been crying, de temps à autre, all afternoon."

Alistair's brow creased in dismay, feeling his stomach drop unpleasantly within his gut.

"Why? I should have been told," he protested, one hand reaching to shove open the door. "I could have come earlier."

"Sten said that her only purpose was to birth an heir for Ferelden."

Beside him, Alistair heard Teagan let out a soft groan, the bann shaking his head slowly from side to side. The king himself flinched, part in disbelief and part in sorrow for his former sister-warden; who had not yet found her place in this post-Blight world.

"My poor girl," he said at last, hand resting motionless on the wood. "Is she in there?"

Leliana nodded, gesturing with an elegant hand.

Tactfully, Teagan murmured that he would take his paperwork up to the guest quarters. Alistair gave a distracted grunt of acknowledgement; shoving open the doors with an impatient elbow and stepping forward into Revanloch's Chantry. The doors closed behind him with a dull thud, and the king inhaled a lungful of damp, musty air.

The sacred space was near-deserted, the echoes of a thousand prayers and hymns clinging to the great stone arches that spanned the ceiling. The empty pews stretched out towards the front altar, where the Andrastian flame smouldered away with a soft, potent murmur.

Knight-Captain Gannorn was standing beside one of the pillars, hands behind his back and stance very stiff. It was clear that the Templar intended to maintain a professional distance from his charge; even if she were distressed and weeping.

Flora sat hunched over in one of the pews – not the Royal pew, since she would not presume to sit there without Alistair – with her shoulders drawn up and her head hanging low.

Alistair, feeling his heart rise painfully into his mouth, made his way down the central aisle. To his surprise, the Knight-Captain bowed his head, withdrawing wordlessly to the rear of the Chantry. The next moment, the wooden doors shut softly in the older man's wake.

Flora barely looked up as Alistair sat on the bench beside her. She had recognised his tread on the tiles, knowing the press of boot against stone as well as the sound of her own contracting lungs.

"Sweetheart," he breathed, and then said nothing more, reaching out to turn her face towards his. Flora let her mournful stare settle on him, cheeks mottled with the remnants of tears. Her boots lay discarded to one side, her bare toes brushing the cold tiles.

"My feet hurt," she whispered evasively after a moment, her voice even throatier than normal. "They ache. And I… I can't make the pain go away."

Alistair stared at the girl who had shaped his life and saved his nation, whose mooring ropes had come adrift with the loss of her spirits. He didn't know what to say to her; wasn't sure what words could possibly soothe such a gaping wound.

"Here, baby," he said thickly at last, unable to adequately articulate the emotion swelling in his throat. "Let me rub them. It might help the soreness."

Flora blinked at him, and Alistair took her silence as acquiescence. Reaching down, he lifted her feet gently up onto his thighs, frowning at their coldness. Unsure if he was even doing the right thing, he drove his thumbs in small circles over the sore flesh; pressing against the joints and kneading away the tightness with his curled knuckles.

"Your feet are half the size of mine," he commented after a few moments, sliding his palm beneath the pale, pink sole. "Does this feel any better?"

"Mm."

Flora nodded, bowing her forehead against his shoulder.

The moonlight – Ferelden's moon was far more luminous than its insipid daytime counterpart – shone through the stained glass windows; illuminating the leaded fragments in tones of dove-grey and silver.

Alistair ran his calloused thumb over her toes, the acoustics of the Chantry taking his soft words and throwing them between the damp pillars.

"My feet are huge," he continued, with a rueful smile. "Remember, I could never find boots to fit when we were travelling? I bet you don't miss having to heal all my blisters."

The king bowed his head and pressed an impulsive kiss to her toes. The next moment, he heard Flora sniff, and wet her dry lips.

"I'm not good with a sword, like you," she whispered, miserably. "I'm not a ferocious lady, like Leliana. Even if you took Wynne's magic away, she'd still be the most cleverest – clever – person in Ferelden. What… what am I without my spirits? I can't do anything."

Alistair paused for a moment, his thumb idly circling the delicate bone of Flora's ankle. She hung her head, miserable in a way that she had not been since the Templars had first taken her from Herring.

"Darling," he said eventually, the words emerging soft and earnest. "You're only nineteen years old. If you want to learn how to wield daggers like Leliana, or to write books like Wynne – you have decades to learn how to do it. Look at how your reading has improved over the past six months."

Flora gave a begrudging nod; she could see his point. Alistair squeezed her heel gently, gratified to feel the warmth returning to her skin.

"And at the moment, you're still the kindest and bravest girl I know," he murmured, suddenly feeling the tears prickling incongruously in the corners of his own eyes. "Your spirits didn't give you those qualities. They were attracted to you because of them."

Flora turned her face up to his, and because she held her brother-warden's opinion in such high regard, she allowed herself to take some comfort from his words. She reached out to touch the side of his handsome face gently, barely sparing a glance to the regal band resting on his coppery hair.

Alistair stared back at his companion, wondering at how the moon filled her pale irises with silvered light; the gold fleck left by the Archdemon gleaming like a coin dropped to the bottom of a fountain.

"Merciful Andraste," he said wonderingly after a moment, eyes dropping to the solemn, full curve of Flora's mouth. "You're growing into such a beautiful woman, Lo. I'll be the envy of every man in Thedas, walking into a room at your side."

Flora kept her solemn gaze fixed on him, grave and steady. Her fingers wandered down his jaw, feeling the neatly trimmed hair he had cultivated in an effort to look older. After tracing the strong angle of his chin, she let her thumb move upwards, brushing over the deceptively arrogant Theirin lip.

Alistair let out an unsteady exhalation as she touched his mouth, as though he had been holding his breath since leaving the Royal Palace. His eyes dropped to Flora's foot resting atop his thigh, then slowly moved upwards; along her bare calf, up to where her navy tunic had been rucked above her knee. He stared at the inches of revealed skin, eyes heavy-lidded and burning with something indescribable.

With one hand resting possessive on her thigh, Alistair twisted his head around to scan the pillared recesses of the Chantry. The chapel was empty; the only movement coming from the shadow cast by Andraste's flickering pyre. The moonlight trailed ghostly fingers across the face of the Maker's Bride, the lips of the statue almost appearing to move in its shifting essence.

Alistair turned back to his best friend, who was sitting motionless on the bench beside him; her face cast in silvered tones by the muted light.

"Come here," he murmured, manoeuvring Flora gently onto his lap. "My Ferelden flower."

 

 

Chapter Text

Flora shifted her weight, leaning forward on Alistair's thighs as her bare toes brushed the cold tiles of the Chantry floor. The swell of her belly – the child that they had made together – pressed against the contrasting tautness of the king's muscled abdomen. She reached out to trace the outline of her brother-warden's face with two fingers, drawing them together along his strong jaw.

Alistair gazed down at her, feeling an incongruous surge of tenderness to complement the tendrils of lust sprouting in his belly.

We made this baby at Ostagar, he thought, suddenly. I had her over and over, on that mouldering bedroll in the ruins of the Wardens' quarters; and twice in our own tent the next morning. I couldn't keep my hands off her. I still can't, five months later.

I wonder which coupling led to my seed taking root?

Seeing a glazed expression settle over Alistair's face, Flora decided to take matters into her own hands. Leaning forward, she cupped her palms against his cheeks, pressing her lips to his. Herring locals were virtuous folk, but they found the Maker in the great vastness of the sea, the howl of the wind over the dunes, the swell of relief when the boats returned safe. Therefore, Flora had absolutely no compunction about initiating intimacy in the man-made construction of the Chantry.

Rousing himself from his reverie, Alistair let out a soft murmur of approval into her mouth. Their lips parted wet against each other; tongues moving with languid and renewed familiarity as he reached up to tangle fingers in her hair.

When they parted at last, flushed and breathless, Flora could feel his arousal pressing urgently between her thighs. Beads of sweat had broken out on Alistair's forehead, and he was gazing fixedly down at her chest.

Looking down, she realised the cause of his fascination. Her nipples were taut against the soft wool of her tunic; undeniable proof of her own arousal. A throaty sound escaped Alistair's throat as he stared, transfixed, one hand moving to the laces crossed across her chest. Fortunately, Flora had not used one of her indecipherable fisherman's knots to fasten the garment closed. One gentle pull at the end of a lace and the material opened itself up; the fabric folding outwards to reveal her bare breasts.

Barely daring to breathe, Alistair reached out to cup one full handful tentatively in his calloused palm. He remembered her mentioning some days ago that they were tender, and took especial care to be gentle. His tongue moved with feather-light grace, laving delicate circles across each swollen mound; tasting her nipple rather than suckling enthusiastically.

Flora curled her fingers into the leather of Alistair's tunic, desperate to anchor herself to him before she slid from his thighs into a helpless puddle on the tiles. Her hips were pulsing, instinctively angling her pelvis towards her brother-warden's abdomen; heat licking through her veins like a mage's electricity. The small, still-rational part of Flora's mind warned her that she ought to be quiet- after all, they were in a monastery – but it was fighting a losing battle against the encroaching tide of lust.

It had been a month since they had last lain together. During the weeks of chastity, Alistair had nurtured the memory of his lover's quiet, helpless sounds of pleasure, letting them resonate about his skull as he thrust grimly into his own fist.

Now the object of his fantasies was panting soft and wanton against his ear as he lapped at her nipple, the sound so alluring that he wished he could bottle it.

"More," she whispered hoarsely, her wide eyes fixing his with mingled desire and helplessness. "Please."

For a single moment, the rational part of Alistair's mind reminded him that they were in a Chantry – a sacred space where he should not be harbouring a single lustful thought, let alone enthusiastically fondling his best friend as she straddled his lap on a bench.

Unfortunately, Alistair's hands had a will of their own, driven by something other than reason. Glancing down, he saw Flora's tunic bundled up around her waist, his fingers already at the laces of her smallclothes. She shifted impatiently on his lap, letting his desirous hands divest her of her undergarments.

The moment that Flora's smallclothes dropped down her calf and onto the tiles, Alistair abandoned caution to the wind; angling her on his thighs so he could better look at her.

"So beautiful, Lo," he murmured, thickly. "You steal the air from my lungs. I've missed you."

Alistair's fingers crept over the mound of her stomach; protective and tender at first, then taking on a far more intimate character as they dropped further. Once his hand was resting comfortably between her thighs, his calloused thumb began to move in practised circles.

"You're so sweet," he whispered, listening to the slick confirmation of her arousal. "And I've missed doing this for you, baby."

Flora let her forehead rest on his shoulder, feeling her heart throbbing with escalating vigour against her ribcage. Alistair's lips sought out her ear, gently teasing the lobe with his teeth as he stroked her into squirming ecstasy.

When he dropped his tongue to her nipple, Flora gasped; the sound echoing about the forest of tall pillars surrounding them. Alistair grinned into her breast, grinding his sword-roughened thumb against her most sensitive spot.

"Aaiee- "

"Don't hold back, love," he murmured, feeling her mouthing desperately against his shoulder. "Let it happen, let it hap- "

Flora let out a muffled wail, her body convulsing on his thighs; her head flung back with mouth wide and helpless. Alistair pressed his lips to her throat, lapping a line along her neck as he felt her quiver helplessly against him.

He held her tight as she recovered, eyes half-closed and bleary; one large hand stroking the length of her back as he murmured admiration into her ear. Once Flora had clawed back her composure, she leaned forward to whisper her counter-offer; asking only for some assistance in descending to her knees.

Alistair nearly spent himself in his breeches at the prospect, just about managing to restrain himself. For a moment, he was tempted to accept the offer – or simply to take her perched atop his thighs – but distant noises behind the closed rear doorway heralded a return of his senses.

With immense reluctance and an urgent, unsatisfied pulsating in his groin, Alistair reached out and tightened the laces of Flora's tunic, pulling the navy lambswool taut once more. She blinked at him, the corners of her mouth turning down comically. Her expression was one of such blatant outrage that Alistair had to stifle a laugh, knotting the laces in a swift bow before leaning forward to kiss her cheek.

"Darling, don't look at me like that!"

"Like what," Flora muttered slightly belligerently, slithering off his lap and reaching up to flatten down her hair.

"Like that," Alistair replied with a snort, rising to his feet and helping her to compose herself. "Your Templar chaperones will be back in a minute, and I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't look too kindly on us… having some out-of-hours prayertime in their Chantry."

"Hm," said Flora grumpily, shifting from foot to foot and running a hand absent-mindedly over her stomach. The baby turned over, pressing something firm and curved against the inside of her belly.

Alistair's eye was drawn to the movement of her hand, and his expression shifted subtly from amusement to affection. He reached down to cup her stomach with his own fingers, never failing to be astonished at the peculiar sensation of something nudging against his palm.

Just then, there came a minor commotion from the back of the Chantry.

"I don't care if I'm interrupting," rang out a familiar, imperious voice. "I want to see my sister!"

Flora's face lit up and she turned towards the back entrance, all thoughts of intimacy vanished from her mind.

"Fergus!"

She scuttled, crablike, from the pew; a beam spreading over her face. A large group of people had just entered the Chantry from behind – men clad in Highever colours, Flora's own Templars, Alistair's Royal Guard, and Leliana herself. The bard's face was suffused with exasperation and relief – she had clearly been anticipating that they would find Alistair and Flora in some compromising position.

Yet Flora's eyes were fixed on her elder brother, recently returned from Highever and still clad in travel leathers. Dust from the road covered Fergus' boots, his auburn curls were rumpled and his beard was sorely in need of a trim.

He held out his arms to his little sister, letting out an unsteady exhalation as she flattened herself readily against him.

"Thank the Maker you're alright," he breathed, bowing his head to press a kiss against her hair. "Finian wrote to me about the assassin. I swear, I'll have the remaining Howes hunted down like rats."

Alistair, fervently grateful that he had not succumbed to his baser urges, came to join them; hoping that his face was not too flushed.

Fergus looked up from Flora, his eyebrows rising as he prepared to launch into a tirade of questions. His face was twisted into an ugly blend of wrath and fear.

"The amount of Royal Guard have been doubled," Alistair replied, predicting the teyrn's outraged enquiry. "As have the number of patrols. Bann Teagan is spending his nights down here, sleeping in the same chamber. And Zevran is investigating the source."

The second most powerful man in the realm let out an unsteady exhalation, keeping Flora clamped to his chest. His eyes – which tended more towards blue than grey, having inherited more of Eleanor's colouring than his younger siblings – softened a fraction; mouth twisting with worry.

"My young sister can't defend herself anymore," he said, frankly. "She's as helpless as Oren was. I swear, if anything happens to her- "

"Fergus, everything in our power is being done to ensurer he safety," murmured Leliana, the bard's tone mellifluous and reassuring. "She is never alone."

Fergus let a grunt, lines of fatigue and worry creasing across his forehead. Stepping back, he gazed down at his sister, and his anger softened a fraction.

"Breath of the Maker, Floss. That belly has grown since I last saw you."

"They do say that Theirins make for large infants."

Flora peered over curiously at the man who had spoken. He was clad in Highever colours and appeared in his mid twenties, coppery hair rumpled from the long journey. There was a brutal scar across his cheek, curling down from beneath his eye to the corner of his mouth.

"Florence, this is Ser Gilmore," Fergus said, just about managing to retrieve some courtesy from the depths of his worry. "One of our father's most faithful servants."

Gilmore bowed, his smile distorted by the lurid mark over his jaw.

"And a fellow victim of Howe treachery," he said, returning upright with a rueful grimace. "My lady."

"You were at Highever when it was attacked?" Alistair asked, his own eyebrows rising to his hairline.

Fergus nodded, a shadow falling over his features.

"Gilmore was badly injured in an attempt to defend my father. This is the first he's been able to travel since… since the attack."

"Aye," confirmed Gilmore, his own tone darkening. "Blasted arrow got me in the face."

He gestured to his cheek and Flora flinched, hearing Alistair let out a low whistle.

"Anyway," continued the knight, his gaze swivelling towards Flora once again. "It's a Maker's blessing to see you alive, my lady. I remember you as a child, running amok about Highever and driving Nan to madness."

Flora gazed back at him, vague and polite. She had no idea what running amok meant, but it did not sound too endearing. The name Nan prompted a brief flicker of recognition, but she could not summon the memory of any matching face.

Fergus turned to the Knight-Commander, who had arrived from his quarters in a mild state of consternation. When the Templar general had agreed to temporarily house the Hero of Ferelden beneath Revanloch's leaking roof tiles, he had not envisioned the likes of kings and teyrns also swarming about the monastery. With beads of sweat rising to his forehead, the man attempted to assuage the fears of a growling Fergus.

Flora soon stopped listening to her brother berate the Templar, the image of the Orlesian Warden-Commander's face manifesting on the forefront of her mind.

"Alistair," she whispered, elbowing the king to get his attention.

"Yes, my dear?"

"Young Caviar tried to speak to me today," she said in an undertone, watching a candle in a nearby holster flicker as it neared its waxy base. "About the Fereldan Wardens."

Alistair looked nonplussed, eyebrows drawing together in confusion.

"Young Caviar?" he repeated, bemused. "Who?"

Flora shot Alistair a slightly anxious look, wondering if there was some problem with his memory.

"You know," she said, patiently. "The Orlesian Warden-Commander. Young Caviar."

"Yvon Cuvillier," corrected Alistair, just about managing to maintain a straight face. "What did he say?"

Flora shifted her weight off her weak knee, attention caught by the reflection of Andraste's flame flickering across Ser Gilmore's shield.

"He wanted to talk about reforming the Fereldan Wardens. I said that this was a discussion that you needed to be present for, and Loghain Mac Tir, too."

Alistair's brow furrowed, taken aback by the Orlesian soldier's presumption.

"Damned right!" he replied, indignant. "I'm not about to let the Orlesians dictate how the Order will be rebuilt. And... and you're right, Mac Tir ought to be here. He's the only true Fereldan Warden left."

"I'll send a raven up to the castle," murmured Leliana, who had – naturally – been eavesdropping on every word. "We can arrange the talks for tomorrow morning, if you wish. It's a Saturday; so you won't have any royal commitments."

"Typical Lel, knowing my business better than I do myself," Alistair replied, immensely cheered by the prospect of spending the night with Flora under Revanloch's draughty tiles – after all, it made no sense to leave, only to return in a few scant hours.

Since Alistair's presence meant that Teagan was not required for the evening, the bann departed the monastery alongside Fergus. It was a typical Fereldan summer evening, damp and prematurely dark; Revanloch rising like a gloomy spectre from its shroud of sea-mist as it perched atop the cliffs.

Even now - with Justinian fast drawing to a close – it was necessary to light a fire within the chambers of the old monastery. Only the guest quarters, and the private rooms of the Knight-Commander, had the luxury of a hearth; the initiates had to suffice with threadbare woollen blankets.

Within the chamber reserved for Royal guests, Alistair, who could never resist an empty grate and a pile of kindling, was busy demonstrating that he had not become too important to build a fire.

"You need to arrange the small twigs like this, then blow on them," he was busy explaining to Chanter Devotia, who stared back at him with a vague, professional boredom. "Then once you've a flame the size of your palm, you can add the rest of the kindling."

There came a quiet murmuring in the corridor outside as the Royal Guard changed watch, their hushed whispers sliding in through the gap beneath the door. No fixture or fitting sat snug in its frame within decaying Revanloch – panes of glass let in draughts, roof tiles leaked and doors had to be shoved into off-set frames.

Leliana was murmuring to herself with prayer book in hand; an olive-green unguent smeared across her face. Somehow, she had managed to procure yet another piece of flimsy Orlesian lingerie – despite having arrived at Revanloch with only a single leather pack.

Flora, clad in a pair of striped Theirin pyjamas, was already in bed, chewing on the end of a long-handled wooden spoon. She did not understand why she felt compelled to do so – all she knew was that she suddenly wished to have something organic in her mouth.

Once the fire was blazing, a proud Alistair returned upright; chin aloft as he surveyed his creation.

"I can still build a good fire," he said into the shadows, reaching to unbutton his tunic. "Haven't lost the knack!"

Leliana closed her prayer-book, clambering into bed beside Flora and making herself comfortable amongst the cushions.

"Skills so ingrained are not easily lost ," the bard murmured, shooting her bed-mate a perplexed look. "Ma petite, have you turned into a beaver? You have demolished that spoon."

Indeed, the length of the wooden utensil had been so thoroughly gnawed that it was no longer fit for purpose.

Flora let out a small, dissatisfied grunt – this was merely a poor substitute for what she really felt like doing; breaking off fragments of bark from one of the trees in Revanloch's courtyard and devouring them like Orlesian sweetmeats.

"Think of your teeth- " Leliana continued, and then broke off abruptly.

Both Flora and Leliana had been immediately distracted by Alistair's divestiture of his under-shirt. The king reached down to pull off his boots, the taut musculature of his olive-toned stomach contracting as he bowed.

Due to her training the bard managed to recover her composure more quickly, hastily donning a lace-edged eye mask as she slithered down the pillows.

The spoon fell from Flora's mouth as she continued to gape shamelessly at her former brother-warden's well-hewn form; which had lost none of its definition from the lack of travelling. Conscious that they would no longer be fighting Darkspawn on a regular basis, Alistair had begun a drill routine to keep himself in prime fighting condition.

"The Orlesian Wardens have agreed to meet tomorrow morning," Alistair said, crossing the room and sliding into bed on Flora's other side. "Mac Tir should have got the message by now. I'm not sure if he can ride yet, but I'm sure he'll find some way to get down here- "

He broke off in mild surprise, looking down to see Flora pressing her face against the hard, protruding muscle of his upper arm.

"Wha- "

"Mmmm.... "

Alistair continued to stare down at her, slightly perplexed. His confusion only mounted as he came across the mangled wooden spoon in the tangle of blankets.

"Are you alright, sweetheart?" he asked, and then flinched as Flora sat bolt upright in shock.

"Aah!"

Leliana put her hands pointedly over her head, rolling over to turn her back on them.

Flora, huge-eyed with alarm, cupped Alistair's ear with a hand and whispered something urgent and unintelligible. Alistair blinked, now entirely confused.

"Baby, I didn't catch that- "

"I left my SMALLCLOTHES in the Chantry," bellowed Flora, the words echoing about the draughty quarters. "My knick-knacks, abandoned in public!"

Leliana hissed like a malevolent bat while the Chanter Devotia mouthed furiously, trying to find suitable words of condemnation from her limited supply. Alistair gaped for a moment, then let out a bark of laughter.

"Right," he replied, clambering back out of bed and reaching for his discarded boots. "As much as it would fulfil some young recruit's wildest dreams to stumble across the lovely lady Cousland's smalls; I have a civic duty to go and retrieve them. Back in a bit, my darling."

 

Chapter Text

A half-hour later, Alistair arrived back in the bedchamber with Flora's smallclothes bunched in his fist, trying his best to maintain a solemn expression. Leliana was snoring softly, curled up on the cushions like a cat; but Flora was still awake, chewing idly on the wooden spoon as she squinted into the darkness.

"Special delivery, darling," the king whispered, tossing the crumpled linen onto the blankets. "I was searching for them for ages, I couldn't remember what pew we were in. The Royal Guard must think me mad."

Alistair sat on the edge of the mattress to pull off his boots, while Flora navigated the nest of tangled furs to wrap her arms around his neck.

"Thank you," she whispered, plastering kisses over his bare shoulder. "I'm sorry to inconvenience you."

He reached up to cover her hand with his larger palm, rubbing his thumb wistfully over the knuckle of her bare ring finger.

"Anything for you, my sweet queen."

Flora paused for a moment, her lips hovering just above the lobe of Alistair's ear. Somehow, that particular term of endearment seemed a little more weighty than when he had used it previously. There was a purpose in the word that was almost a promise, and she did not quite understand what it meant.

Then Alistair twisted his head to smile at her, the mellow whiskey-toned eyes loaned especial richness from the hearth-light. Flora stared back at him, her lips slightly parted.

"What are you thinking, Lola?"

"That you're the most handsome man in Thedas," she replied, immediate and honest. "And also… that I want to go and chew on a tree."

"A tree?!"

"Mm. I don't know why."


 

The next morning, on the way to meet the Orlesian Wardens, Flora finally got her wish. Alistair stood at the side of the inner courtyard, watching in open mouthed perplexity as his mistress broke off a shard of bark from a nearby tree. Standing beneath the shade of its obliging branches, Flora chewed away happily; a blissful expression on her face.

"I don't understand," Alistair muttered to his elder uncle, who had just arrived from the palace to join the meeting. "Is there some sort of nutritional value to it? Does the baby like eating… eating wood?"

Eamon suppressed a laugh at the mixture of anxiety and sheer confusion on the king's face, infusing reassurance into his reply.

"Don't worry, son. It's quite normal for women with child to have such… cravings. Isolde used to eat lumps of coal from the hearth when she was expecting Connor."

A brief flicker of sadness crossed Eamon's face, as it always did whenever his only child came up.

"Don't worry," the arl continued, forcing his mind from the Circle Tower where his son was currently confined. "It won't do the lass any harm, nor the babe."

Flora crossed the courtyard towards them, her face flushed with contentment.

"Thank you for waiting," she said, earnestly. "I feel a lot better now. And I took some snacks for later!"

She held out her pocket, showing several chunks of bark secreted away.

There were not many chambers within Revanloch that were suitable for meetings – after all, the ostensible purpose of the building was for reflection, not for politicking.

Therefore, the audience between the Fereldan nobility and the Orlesian Wardens had to take place within the same classroom where Yvon had confronted Flora the previous night. A vain attempt had been made to arrange the room for more solemn purpose: the desks had been manoeuvred into a circle, although the chalkboard at the front of the room rather spoilt the illusion.

Flora – who had never excelled within a classroom context – had nevertheless been cheered up by the sight of her lanky best friend trying to fit himself behind the initiate's desk.

"Maker's Breath," Alistair complained eventually, just about managing to fold his frame into the diminutive space. "Can you even fit, Flo?"

"Yes," replied Flora, indignantly. "I can – ouch."

Although she could fit well enough, the unforgiving hard line of the seat did not feel particularly good against her sore back. Alistair, whose head had spun at Flora's grunt of pain, immediately demanded that cushions be brought.

Loghain Mac Tir arrived during the delay, limping markedly and leaning on a wooden crutch. The false limb allowed for relatively free movement, but it would take some length of time to get used to. The former general inclined his head towards Alistair, his tone gruff.

"I'd bow in the proper manner," he muttered, drily. "Except I suspect I may fall."

"It's fine," Alistair replied, hastily. "You're a Grey Warden, there's no need to bow."

Loghain lifted his chin in wry acknowledgement, then turned his dark gaze on Flora; letting out the northerner's soft grunt of greeting.

"How are you feeling, lass?"

"Alright," replied Flora, stoically.

"The babe moving well?"

"Mm, all the time."

Once several hassocks from the Chantry had been brought and carefully wedged at the base of Flora's spine, the summit between Ferelden nobles and Orlesian Wardens could begin.

Eamon glanced sideways at Alistair, ready to step in if his nephew required direction.

Alistair, however, had spent the morning working himself up into a state of mild indignation. As Yvon Cuvillier opened his mouth to speak, the king of Ferelden cut straight across him; blunt and unforgiving as a negligent headsman's axe.

"Warden-Commander, I appreciate your coming here to offer assistance with rebuilding the Fereldan Order, but assistance is all we require. The lady Cousland and I may no longer have the taint, but we both still wish to superviser the rebuilding of the Wardens. Loghain Mac Tir lives, and must have some role to play."

Yvon Cuvillier raised an eyebrow, his tawny gaze swinging across to where the former teyrn was sitting, the wooden limb jutting awkwardly out to one side.

"The man known across Thedas as the Great Traitor of Ferelden?" he asked, deliberately neutral. The greying woman at his side, Clarel, let out a barely audible snort.

Loghain made no verbal response, merely lifted a shoulder in recognition. He was well aware that thirty years of loyal service to Ferelden had been erased by a single command; given in a rain-soaked valley in the shadow of Ostagar; retreat.

Flora had opened her mouth, ready to come to Loghain's defence; but to her surprise, Alistair was already there.

"Mac Tir has repented for his actions," he retorted, immediately and without hesitation. "He took the taint and was prepared to give his own life to save Ferelden."

"And he did end up giving his leg," Flora added solemnly.

And he saved me from Howe. And from the maleficar in the sewers.

"So, what do you propose?" Yvon Cuvillier replied, leaning forward on the desk and steepling his fingers beneath his chin.

Alistair glanced sideways at Eamon, who gave a small nod. Two servants clad in Theirin finery trooped in with a map held between them, angling it so that those gathered at the desks could see.

The Arl of Redcliffe stood, retrieving a pointer from the lecturer's stand, then dropped the wooden tip to a settlement in the north-east of the country.

"This is Vigil's Keep, the oldest fortress within Ferelden. It's large enough to house a decently-sized force, and comes with adequate training grounds. The Wardens could use it as a base from which to rebuild their numbers."

Yvon nodded slowly, standing to gain a better view of the marked location.

"That should suffice well enough," he murmured, his Val Royeaux inflection shaping the vowels as they slipped from his throat. "In whose territory does it lie?"

"The former seat of Howe," replied Alistair, barely masking his disgust. "The arling of Amaranthine. But the entire Howe family has been attainted, by demand of the Landsmeet."

"So who owns it now? Presumably it is their permission that must be sought," interjected Clarel, Yvon's shorn-headed lieutenant.

"The new arlessa of Amaranthine," said Eamon, after a long moment. "Florence, will you let the Wardens use Vigil's Keep as a base to rebuild and recruit the Order?"

Flora blinked for a moment, her brow furrowing.

"Eeeh?"

Alistair realised, in the face of assassins, post-Blight confusion and Riordan's funeral, he had entirely neglected to tell Flora that she was now the arlessa of the territory that bordered Denerim to the north.

"Sorry, sweetheart," he muttered in an undertone, leaning across to direct his words into her ear. "I forgot to tell you. The Landsmeet have granted you the arling of Amaranthine, as a reward for your services during the Fifth Blight."

Flora looked slightly nonplussed and a touch perturbed; the only arlessa she knew of was Isolde, whom she did not particularly like. Still, she was a child of Herring – and therefore a master of blank-faced stoicism – and did not want to embarrass her best friend before the Orlesian contingent. Without any concept of what being an arlessa entailed, she lifted her chin.

"That's fine," she said, kindly. "The Wardens can have Vigil's Keep."

Yvon nodded, as one of his juniors made a brief note on a sheet of parchment.

Alistair cleared his throat, grateful to his beloved for not causing a scene.

"And as for the new Warden-Commander," he continued, in measured tones. "Loghain Mac Tir has experience in military matters – including recruitment – and his loyalty to Ferelden is undoubted. However, the Landsmeet would not be happy at giving Mac Tir sole autonomy over an independent militia within Ferelden's borders, in light of recent events."

Loghain inclined his head in acknowledgement, his dark Mac Tir eyes watchful.

"So – if you have a suitable candidate in mind – I would propose a joint leadership," Alistair continued, steadily. "Loghain Mac Tir alongside an experienced Orlesian."

A rueful snort escaped from Loghain, as a reluctant smile curled the corner of his mouth.

"You've the slyness of your father, your majesty."

Yvon nodded slowly, his lazy, leonine gaze sliding sideways to Flora.

"And would the Warden-Commander be amenable to this?"

"Yes," replied Flora, immediately. "I think it's an excellent idea."

Alistair, delighted at such lofty praise from the person whose opinion he valued most, shot Flora a fleeting, proud smile; squeezing her knee affectionately beneath the table.

"And who would I have the pleasure of working with?" Loghain remarked drily, dark gaze moving from one Orlesian Warden to another.

Yvon made a gesture to a tall woman with braided, greying dark hair wound in a tight bun. Her angular face was avian and memorable; her nose prominent and her eyes black as onyx stones.

"My captain, Leonie Caron, has led recruitment for the Orlesian Wardens for the past decade. Our membership numbers swelled after her appointment."

"Where in Orlais are you from, captain?" Eamon asked, having mentally run Caron through his index of Orlesian nobility and come up wanting. "I am unfamiliar with the name."

"Val Royeaux," replied Leonie Caron, in an accent that most definitely did not come from any noble house. "And not from the nice parts. I've no family to speak of, save for my brethren in the Wardens."

The briefest flicker of relief passed over Loghain's face: if he must work with an Orlesian, at least it wasn't one from some pompous branch of the peerage.

"And your experience?" Alistair asked bluntly, surveying the woman who would be responsibility for caretaking Duncan's legacy.

Yvon opened his mouth, but Caron herself replied in steady and measured tones.

"Fifteen years of service in the Wardens," she began, looking the king directly in the eye. "Responsible for recruiting nearly eight hundred Wardens over ten years. Oversaw the cleansing of a section of the Deep Roads nearly ten miles long. Led the purging of over thirty Darkspawn nests."

"An impressive resumé," Eamon murmured, thoughtfully turning the quill between his old warrior's fingers. "If the king is happy, I see no reason why this shouldn't be enacted immediately."

Alistair nodded, trying in vain to suppress a grin at the thought of Loghain having to work in close quarters with an Orlesian.

"There are still pockets of Darkspawn resistance within Ferelden that'll need to be dealt with," he stated, flatly. "It sounds as though you're well-qualified to deal with them."

There followed silence for a long moment, before Yvon Cuvillier lifted his lion-like head towards Flora.

"Then, if it is agreed, there is but one last thing to be done," he murmured, rising to his feet. "Warden-Commander Cousland, do you relinquish control of the Ferelden Order?"

Flora, with slightly more difficulty, pushed herself to her feet. Her heart gave a lurch, and for a moment she envisioned Duncan's spirit hovering near the chalkboard, looking at her with the faint smile that she could still just about recall. Leonie Caron rose to a stand; Loghain following with a soft grunt of stiffness.

"I… I relinquish control," Flora repeated, grateful that her voice sounded somewhat steady.

Yvon's voice expanded to fill the classroom, his rich, Orlesian tones reverberating about the plastered walls.

"Scribe, note for the records," he declared, smoothly. "That on the nineteenth day of Justinian – Ferventis in the old calendar – Warden-Commander Florence Cousland, Vanquisher of the Fifth Blight, willingly relieved her command to Wardens Mac Tir and Caron; who will henceforth lead the Ferelden Order."

Leonie Caron cleared her throat, piercing black eyes lifting to meet Loghain's.

"I suggest we ride to Vigil's Keep immediately," she stated, no longer requiring permission of her former senior officer to speak. "I want to see the condition of the buildings. Can you ride?"

"Aye," replied Loghain, grudgingly admiring the woman's forthrightness. "That's a… sound idea."

As the two conferred in reserved tones, Flora found herself in oddly wistful mood. She had not even wanted to be Warden-Commander – she still remembered her shock when Wynne had named her such in the courtyard of South Reach – but she had come to accept it, much as Alistair had accepted the mantle of king.

Then she felt fingers sliding into hers, a familiar calloused palm pressed against her own. Used to deciphering the minute changes in his former sister-warden's face, Alistair had reached out beneath the desks to fish-rope her, providing continuity in the midst of this great change. Flora clutched his hand tightly, inordinately grateful.

My anchor, she thought, feverishly. I might no longer be mage or Warden, but I'm still your best friend.

The Orlesian Warden-Commander lingered after Loghain and Leonie Caron's departure from the classroom; making a subtle gesture to the scribe.

"Your Majesty, a moment, if you will."

Alistair paused, having retrieved the hassock cushions from Flora's seat and deposited them into the arms of a servant.

"Yes?"

Yvon Cuvillier bowed his head towards Flora, eyes dropping reflexively to the swell of her stomach.

"I apologise if this seems forward," he murmured, in decorous tone. "But it ought to be recorded, both for posterity, and for the archives. When exactly was the child conceived?"

"Maker's Breath," muttered Alistair, wishing that Eamon had already left the chamber. The arl busied himself with a retainer, blatantly pretending that he was not eavesdropping. "Well, it would have been when we were at Ostagar, so – around the beginning of Drakonis?"

"Carp season," added Flora, helpfully.

Yvon, who had never handled a fishing rod in his life, shot her a slightly bemused look as the scribe made a note.

"And the conception occurred in the – ahem – usual way?"

Alistair's jaw dropped in disbelief and he let out a slightly incredulous snort.

"As opposed to what? By osmosis? For Andraste's sake! Yes, it happened the usual way. Happy? Or do you want even more details? It was a cloudy night, the bedroll was covered in mildew, I think it was snowing- "

"It was snowing," Flora clarified, helpfully. "You had snowflakes in your hair. They melted and dripped onto me."

Alistair's gaze softened, and he turned to face his lover; reaching out to slide a hand through her hair.

"I remember thinking afterwards, that there was no way back," he said, very quietly. "I could never be just your friend anymore, not now I had seen you in the way I had."

Flora smiled vaguely at him, letting the memories rise to the surface of her mind like seaweed cast up by the tide. She remembered the way that he had looked immediately afterwards, gazing down at her with a mixture of adoration and astonishment.

"Anyway, " Alistair said after a moment, turning back to Yvon Cuvillier with a wry, incredulous smile. "I don't know what else you want. Eyewitnesses? A reenactment?"

Flora beamed, her face brightening.

Yvon shook his head magnanimously, glancing to his shorn-headed lieutenant.

"That, ah, won't be necessary, your majesty. Thank you for your time, King Alistair, Lady Cousland."

 

Chapter Text

After the Orlesian Wardens had departed, conversing softly in their melodic native tongue; Eamon, Flora and Alistair were left alone in the classroom. The lunch gong sounded in the distance, followed by the cacophonous thudding of several hundred feet heading into the dining hall.

Yet Flora, unusually, made no movement towards lunch. Instead, she reached out and put a hand on Alistair's arm, her expression entreating.

"Alistair?"

Alistair had an inclination as to what she was about to say, an apology already rising to his lips.

"Darling- "

"I'm an arlessa?"

"Sweetheart, I'm sorry that I didn't tell you about Amaranthine. I didn't – I didn't want to give you anything more to worry about, what with everything else going on. The Landsmeet approved it last week."

Flora gnawed on her lip for a moment, then turned grave and solemn eyes up to him.

"I'm very grateful," she began, measuredly. "I think it's very nice of you, but… I don't need a reward for helping during the Fifth Blight. I just asked for a feast, and that's happening soon, so…"

She gave a mild shrug, as Alistair and Eamon glanced at each other. They had suspected that Flora might react this way; and the arl of Redcliffe had already devised a solution.

"Then how about your brother – Finian – taking temporary ownership?" Eamon suggested, swiftly. "Despite the Orlesian frippery, there's a sound head on those gangly shoulders. The men respect him, after he led Highever into battle. Since he's unlikely to have heirs – unless something drastic changes with his, ah, predilections in partner – Amaranthine would revert back to your children in the future."

Flora gave a little nod, turning back to Alistair.

"That sounds good," she replied, placidly. "Do I have to say: I relinquish being arlessa, like I did Warden-Commander?"

Eamon snorted, shaking his head.

"That won't be necessary, lass."


 

Shortly afterwards,  a reluctant Alistair returned to Denerim for yet other inimitable meeting – this time with the mercantile guild. They were determined to make a concerted effort to rebuild the Fereldan trade network, which would first require repairs to be made to the broken King's Highway, and other roads damaged by the Darkspawn.

He arrived back at Revanloch shortly after sunset, vaulting off his sweating horse and leaving it in the safe hands of the stable-boys. Trailing Royal Guardsmen, the king took the steps up to the guest chamber two at a time; causing much consternation as those he encountered dropped into bows hasty enough to make their heads spin.

He found Leliana in the upper hallway, conversing as best she could with a stern-faced Chanter Devotia. Leliana greeted him with a peck on the cheek, her own blue eyes sparkling with interest.

"What a calling to follow," the bard mused, enraptured. "To dedicate oneself so wholly to the Chant that one utters nothing else. How selfless, how pious!"

"How impossible for you, Lel," Alistair added, amiably. "You enjoy the sound of your own voice far too much."

Leliana let her slender fingers collide delicately with his elbow, feigning outrage.

"Honestly! Such cheek."

Alistair grinned at the Orlesian's slender shoulder-blades, following the lay sister as she ascended the final set of steps with the fleet footedness of an elven halla.

Templars and initiates dropped into further rapid bows as the King of Ferelden strode down the corridors; his gaze fixed purposefully in the direction of the guest quarters.

Leliana kept up a light patter of conversation as they wound their way through Revanloch's labyrinthine passageways.

"How are the preparations for the coronation going?"

Alistair shrugged a shoulder, just about restraining himself from letting out a soft and exasperated grunt.

"I don't even understand why I need to be officially coronated, anyway. I'm king already, aren't I? I'm wearing a fancy hat and people call me Your Majesty."

"It's tradition, Alistair. The people expect it. Besides, aren't you intending to wife our lovely Florence as part of the ceremony? That's what the Chantry Mother mentioned the other morning. Theirin and Cousland united in the Eyes of the Maker: hence, the realm stable for the foreseeable future."

Alistair contorted his face wordlessly; Leliana was a skilled interpreter of facial expression. The bard raised a plucked eyebrow with a small sigh, gesturing them onto the guest corridor.

"It seems as though the bride herself is going to be the last to know about her own upcoming nuptials. Assure me that you at least plan to propose before the morning of the ceremony!"

"I'm going to," retorted Alistair, indignantly. "I just want it to be perfect. Everything else about how Flo and I got together was all…. well, it was all death, and despair, and Darkspawn. But this can be different."

Leliana flashed him a quick, wistful smile, pausing before a narrow window to admire the streaked apricot and mauve of sunset.

"It's a sweet notion, but don't leave it too long, hm?"

Alistair nodded dutifully, courtesy dictating that he wait for the bard as she gazed at the waning sun.

"How is Lo?" he asked, trying not to convey impatience through his tone.

"Tired," Leliana murmured in response, watching the ghostly outline of a constellation emerge from the twilight. "The babe has worn her out today, I fear. She's slept on and off for much of the afternoon."

As Alistair's mouth dropped open in dismay, Leliana stifled a smile and reached out to put a reassuring hand on the new father's elbow.

"It's wholly normal, Alistair. Don't fret."

Alistair grimaced, abandoning courtly manners and striding off down the corridor without a further word. To his gratification, the doorway to the guest chamber was guarded by no less than four Templars – the Knight-Commander was clearly taking no chances.

Knight-Captain Gannorn opened the door, greeting the king with a neutral inclination of the head. Alistair half-expected his former sister-warden to be asleep, but Flora was sitting up against the cushions, slightly paler than usual but appearing cheerful enough. Leonas Bryland was sitting at her bedside, Sea Creatures of Tevinter Legend clasped in his non-mangled hand. An expression of sheer incredulity contorted his grizzled features as he stared down at the contents of the pages.

"Lo!"

Lifting the crown from his head and setting it on the dresser, Alistair crossed the room in three lengthy strides and perched on the mattress. Flora smiled at him, reaching out her hands for him to clutch. His anxious hazel gaze searched her face, noting the shadows beneath his best friend's eyes and the slight waxiness of her skin.

"Love, how are you feeling?"

"Fine," Flora replied, blinking up at him. "But I've slept for hours, in the middle of the day! My dad would be horrified. Herring folk don't nap."

Alistair inhaled, kissing her fingertips with a slightly feverish intensity.

"Arl Leonas has been reading with me," Flora continued, her smile widening. "And he brought me a plant. I'm going to try and keep it alive without magic!"

She gestured across to the windowsill, where a pale green tendril sprouted tentatively from a pot.

"I'll be in the dining hall when you're ready to leave, lad," Leonas offered, rising to his feet with a soft grunt. "And I'll see you soon, pup."

As the general departed Alistair leaned forward, stroking his fingers over his mistress's forehead and flattening the rumpled hair with his palm. Dropping his hand to the back of Flora's neck, he touched his forehead to hers gently, pressing them together for a long moment.

"Sweetheart," he murmured, and she smiled at the endearment, her pale eyes anchoring themselves to his. "Is the baby misbehaving itself already? I heard it's been wearing you out."

"Yes," she replied, immediate and indignant. "It keeps poking me in the kidneys, even when I order it to stop. It must get this disobedience from you; I always did what I was told as a child."

Or at least I did when I was in Herring, she thought to herself, grimly. It sounds like I was a brat in Highever.

Alistair inhaled, pulling the blanket back to gaze at Flora's swollen stomach. The folds of her striped Theirin pyjamas draped open, revealing the firm curve of peachy flesh that seemed so incongruous on her slight frame. He leaned forward to put his face close, assuming his best stern expression.

"Stop prodding your mother," he instructed, solemnly. "I'm the king of Ferelden, and you have to listen to me."

Alistair pressed a tender kiss to the ripe mound, feeling something shift beneath the thin band of muscle. Flora reached down to touch his tousled, tawny head as it bowed before her; Alistair caught her fingers and entangled them tightly within his own.

"Have you had any ideas about names yet?" he asked, tentatively. "I was thinking about some on the ride over."

Flora was momentarily startled, her eyes widening a fraction.

I've called you 'little creature' for so long that I almost believed it was actually your name.

"I don't know," she said, astonished. "I hadn't thought about it at all."

Alistair smiled at her wonderingly, still bemused at the odd circumstances of them becoming parents.

"Give me a name – your gut feeling!" he demanded, catching Flora off-guard. "Quick, Lo, what're your instincts saying to you?"

"Tuna," she replied, alarmed.

Alistair's jaw dropped and he stared at her with utter incredulity.

"Tuna?"

At the doorway, Chanter Devotia and Knight-Commander Gannorn shared a look of mutual disbelief.

"Yes," Flora retorted, defiantly. "What's wrong with it?"

"What's right with it?!" countered Alistair, his hazel irises round as copper coins. "Why on earth would you name an innocent baby after a fish?"

"Not just any fish," said Flora, stubbornly. She was prepared to defend her impulsive response, despite being wholly aware that it was also ridiculous. "The tuna is strong and powerful. It provides meat for many people. It swims majestically."

A muscle in the corner of Alistair's jaw flickered as he gazed at her, unsure whether or not she was joking. Flora's solemn expression gave no clue away, her grey eyes fixed earnestly on his.

"Let's have a look in here for some inspiration," he replied at last, kicking off his boots and reaching for the pile of books stacked on Leliana's cabinet.

The stars emerged like bright lanterns, hanging from a veil of twilight like some fantastical ornamentation in an Orlesian whorehouse. The initiates within Revanloch went to attend evening prayers; the piety of their hymns echoing down the monastery's draughty halls and cobwebbed hollows.

Within the chamber reserved for royal guests, Flora and Alistair rested side by side on the bed and poured through several of Leliana's heftier tomes. The far more literate Alistair would scan the pages, pointing out the various names and letting his companion enunciate them with meticulous care.

Teagan arrived, travel cloak slung over his arm, just as they were puzzling over an entry from The Legend Of Calenhad: Volume One.

"Right," said Alistair, nodding a greeting to his uncle. "So, from this chapter, we have Myrddin and Simeon for boys, or Shayna and Mairyn for girls. What do you think?"

Flora, who was chewing the edge of a shard of bark, gave a little shrug.

"It has to be something I can spell," she said, eventually. "I don't think I could spell any of those."

Alistair closed the book, sneezing as a plume of dust billowed straight up his nose.

"Uncle, what names do you think sound authoritative and powerful?"

"Teagan," said Teagan, flashing them a wry grin as he hung his cloak on a nearby stand. "Can you spell that, poppet?"

"T-e-e-g-i-n," recited Flora, vaguely. "Is that right?"

"Not far off," replied the bann kindly, going to retrieve his bedroll and blankets from where they were kept beside the window. "Can you spell Alistair's name yet?"

Flora scowled - not appreciating the impromptu literacy test - but she liked Teagan and made a valiant attempt to rise to the challenge.

"A-l-i-s-t-a-r-e," she offered, then caught sight of Knight-Captain Gannorn's incredulous expression and grimaced. "Oh, is that wrong? It's wrong, isn't it?"

Knowing that his best friend was still self-conscious about her poor literacy, Alistair drew Flora's head towards his and pressed his lips to her cheek.

"I adore you more than a nug loves elfroot," he said, kindly. "My lovely Lo."

"I adore you too," replied Flora without hesitation, pulling a small face. "And I hope that the baby gets your brains, rather than mine."

 

Chapter Text

On a damp and drizzly afternoon several days later, Flora met with the head cook from Denerim's Royal Palace. Their purpose was to discuss the feast which would shortly take place to celebrate Flora's role in ending the Fifth Blight. Her flippant, offhand comment from months prior had been taken seriously – to her slight awe and embarrassment.

In truth, Flora did not want any reward. She did not want to become an arlessa, and she certainly did not expect any monetary compensation. Flora had requested that her Herring-dad be purchased a new fishing boat – and as far as she was concerned, that was sufficient. However, everybody seemed determined to impose some sort of remuneration upon her; and so she had agreed to a feast in the hope that the nagging would end.

It was a typical Fereldan summer day – despite it nearing the end of Justinian, a vast swathe of raincloud hung overhead, blurring the line between sea and sky. Rain pattered against Revanloch's leaded roof, water running in rivulets down the walls where it had managed to find some gap in the roof. Puddles formed across the uneven flagstones of the inner courtyards, and the younger, rowdier initiates delighted in crashing their boots into the pooling water.

Flora met with the head cook in the Knight-Commander's office; with the classrooms all in use, the chief Templar had volunteered his own quarters. The man – a balding human in his middle years with a belly that suggested he frequently partook of his own dishes – was so intimidated by Flora at first that he was barely able to speak.

Flora gazed in perplexion at the man as he blushed and fumbled with his recipe cards, bemused as to the cause of his discomfort. She knew that the solemn, haughty beauty of her face sometimes made her seem cold and unapproachable, but the cook had seen her many times before, during her residence in the Royal Palace.

"I'm sorry," she said at last, hating to see anyone in such squirming discomfort as the portly man accidentally dropped his sheath of recipe cards on the tiles. "Am I doing something to... disturb you?"

"No!" squawked the cook, crimson flooding to his cheeks. "No, no, no, my lady – your great dragon-slayeriness- Madame Hero of Ferelden- "

Flora realised then that it was not so much her face, but her accomplishments that served to intimidate. As the blushing cook spread the recipe cards across the table, she pulled an apologetic face at him.

"Please," she asked, wide-eyed and earnest. "Would you be able to speak them to me? I can't read very well."

As Flora had hoped, her humble request made the man a little more comfortable in her presence. In a far steadier voice, he read out the list of dishes that would be served in a few days time.

"A pottage of ham and leek; capon with blackberry sauce; ragout of wild deer; fried oranges from Antiva; eel and trench pie; honey-mustard spiced eggs…"

Flora had no idea what half of these dishes were, but nodded solemnly at each one regardless.

"Who is coming to the feast?" she asked curiously as the man paused for breath. "Will the army leaders be coming? The nobles?"

"The armies have already feasted and departed, my lady," the cook replied. "The nobles have also already hosted their own private banquets for their retainers. This feast is for you, and you can invite whomsoever you wish."

"Huh," said Flora, shifting in her seat as the little creature nudged against her spine. "Is it taking place in the Royal Palace?"

"Wherever you desire, my lady. If you wish to eat in the gardens – although perhaps not, if the weather is like this – it can easily be arranged."

Flora thought for a long moment and then smiled at him; her eyes thoughtful.

"Thank you."

The sun emerged after lunch, pale and insipid at first but then increasing in intensity as the hours drew on. To Flora's relief, the babe had deigned not to leech the entirety of her energy that day; she was able to accompany Leliana down to the rocky beach at the base of Revanloch's high promontory. Knight-Captain Gannorn, envisioning the king's limitless wrath if she fell, barely dared to breathe as Flora clambered across the seaweed-covered stones.

But Flora had spent more of her life traversing mossy rocks than she had tiled floors, and she was wholly comfortable with navigating the treacherous slippery surface. While Leliana covered herself in sunlight atop the flat edge of a boulder; Flora perused the various rock pools, dropping an expert hand into their navy crevasses. Sure enough, she had soon collected nearly half a bucket's worth of oysters.

However, to Flora's dismay, the moment that she cracked open a shell, she felt a violent curling of nausea in her stomach; strong enough that bile rose to the back of her throat.

In horror, she let the oyster drop onto the sand and went to wake Leliana, who was dozing in the late-afternoon heat.

"The baby doesn't like oysters!" Flora bemoaned loudly, as the bard grimaced and shielded her eyes from the sun. "I don't think it's related to me. How can it not like oysters? I just spent an hour collecting my midnight snack."

She scowled, giving the bucket a little discontented rattle.

Leliana ended up taking the collection of unfortunate oysters to the smoky labyrinth of Revanloch's kitchens; where the cooks took them with mild suspicion. Seafood was not a frequent occurrence in the diet of a Templar – the recruits existed on vegetable pottage, while the officers were afforded meat.

The bard ducked out of the kitchens, hearing a rattle behind her that sounded suspiciously like a large quantity of oysters being dumped out of a window. She met Flora at the foot of the stairs, and the two made their way back towards the guest quarters. Flora made little conversation; she was still sulking over the oysters, hands and feet covered in sand, and her hair teased into untidy whorls by the salt-laced breeze.

The presence of crimson and gold clad Royal Guard in the upper passageway indicated that Alistair had already arrived. Flora perked up a fraction, tilting her cheek for Leliana to kiss as the bard prepared to take her leave.

"I'll leave you in Alistair's capable hands," the lay sister murmured distractedly, already planning what she intended to do with her two hours of relative freedom. The Grand Cleric had been so impressed with Leliana's exquisite singing voice that she had requested the bard perform a solo at the next day's Evensong.

The Royal Guard flanking the entrance to the guest chamber shifted their pikes to acknowledge Flora's arrival. One opened the door for her; with a smile of gratitude, she stepped inside the chamber, blinking at the dimness within.

Alistair – worried that the chamber might be too cold for his pregnant mistress – was just drawing the heavy curtains closed, shutting out the chilly evening air. A fire had already been lit in the hearth, though its flickering reach only extended partway across the dusty floorboards.

Although the connection of shared blood between them had been severed, Alistair still recognised the sound of his former sister-warden's step. He turned around, unable to stop a reflexive grin from spreading across his face as he set eyes on Flora.

"Sweetheart!"

Flora beamed back at him, barely registering the golden band atop his head or the facial hair of authority sprouting from his jaw. Instead, she saw only her best friend and long-time companion, and went scuttling eagerly into his open arms.

Alistair embraced her, delighted in no less degree. After clutching her tightly to his chest for several long moments, he drew back a fraction and dropped his hand to her stomach, sliding an affectionate palm over the swollen mound of flesh.

"How are you feeling, darling?" he asked, gratified to see her looking fresh-faced and beaming.

"Good," she replied immediately, peering up at him through her eyelashes. "I slept well last night."

Alistair smiled down at her, lifting his palm to cup her cheek; brushing a thumb along her angular cheekbone.

"But," a solemn Flora added, watching her best friend's expression change almost comically at the conjunction. "I don't think the baby can be related to me."

Alistair looked somewhat perplexed, looking at her, then down at her stomach, then back at her face. His eyebrows shot into his hairline.

"Wha- ?!"

"It doesn't like oysters," Flora complained, indignant. "How can it not like oysters? They're the best. They're so flavourful, and salty; and you don't need to waste time cooking them, you can just eat eighteen at once without stopping. They look so beautiful, with their shiny black shells, like… like mysterious snails of the sea."

Alistair studied his best friend's earnest face as she soliloquised about the qualities of oysters; trying his hardest not to laugh out loud. A legacy of her Herring upbringing, Flora rarely spoke in such volume outside exceptional circumstance.

"Maker's Breath," he said, as she paused to inhale. "You make me so happy, Flo."

Flora interrupted herself mid-sentence and smiled shyly up at him; he gazed back down at her, with the green filaments standing out stark in his hazel irises.

Without another word, Alistair drew her down onto the window bench, letting their mouths collide in lazy trajectory. As he kissed her tenderly and without reservation, Flora curled her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck; vaguely remembering a time when he had been too self-conscious to kiss her in public. As Alistair had grown more comfortable with the notion of being king, he had also become accustomed to the lack of true privacy that accomplished such a status.

Still, if they had been in the Royal Palace, the king would have eventually ordered any other occupiers of the room to leave. As it stood, Alistair was not entirely sure that his jurisdiction held within Revanloch, and so did not order the Templars to depart.

Chanter Devotia was snoring on a pallet near the door, in preparation to take the second half of the night shift. Knight-Captain Gannorn gritted his teeth, raised his eyes to the ceiling, and hoped very much that the king was not planning to actually bed his mistress. Based on tavern songs he had heard on the occasional patrol around the city, the new Theirin and his crimson-headed Cousland were known for their brazenness. Fortunately for the uncomfortable Templar, the occupants of the window seat managed to exercise some degree of restraint.

Flora inhaled unsteadily, able to breathe only when Alistair's mouth wandered down her throat, his hand pulling her hair loose from its restraining band. Moments later, his lips were parting hers once more, his tongue insistent on laying claim to her mouth as though it were territory to be won.

With Flora's back angled towards the Templar, Alistair was able to work his hand through the opening of her tunic, seeking the curve of her bare breast. He kissed her ear as his fingers meandered gently over the firm mounds of flesh; considerate of their new sensitivity.

In contrast to the tenderness of his touch, Alistair's gaze caught Flora's like a barbed hook. His pupils were blown wide and black with desire, all traces of her compassionate brother-warden vanished in a swell of raw-edged lust.

"By the Maker, Lo," he whispered in her ear, voice throaty and desirous. "I want you so badly, I can't think straight. All I can think of in meetings is you, naked on the furs in the Royal bedchamber."

He ducked his mouth to her neck, tugging the soft skin gently with his teeth as his fingers sought out her nipple.

Flora tilted her head to the side with an appreciative little grunt, trying to envision herself posing seductively amidst the velvet cushions. The thought amused her slightly – sexual allure had always been more Leliana's area of expertise. Additionally, with her swollen stomach, sore feet and aching back; she did not feel at her most beguiling.

Suddenly, there came a confident rap on the window, several inches from Flora's head. A figure cloaked in shadow crouched on the sill, features obscured and the glint of weapons at their hip.

Alistair reflexively drew his mistress into his arms, twisting to position his own torso between Flora and the glass. From the doorway, the Knight-Captain drew his sword with a singing metallic chord, and made to stride across the room.

Flora peered over Alistair's shoulder, then beamed and reached out to tap her fingers against the glass in response.

"It's Zevran," she said, as the king let out a muted sigh of relief. "He's back! What does he have against doors?"

 

Chapter Text

Alistair leaned forward to unfasten the rusting window catch, standing back as the frame swung inwards with a creak. The elf, lithe as a cat, slithered his way onto the bench, his face hidden by a low hood. The formfitting leathers he wore gleamed oddly in the candlelight, leaving dark smears wherever they touched the wood.

"Greetings, mis amores," he purred, weariness running through the words. "I am very glad to see you both. And I am seeing quite a lot of you, mi florita."

The elf drew back his hood, winking leisurely at Flora in a way that did not quite hide the deep lines of tiredness scored beneath his eyes.

Flora absent-mindedly tightened the laces of her tunic, brow creasing as she stared at her Crow companion more closely. Reaching out, she pressed a finger to the oily patch on the elf's leathers; when she withdrew it, the tip came away a brownish-red.

Alistair came to the same realisation moments later, inhaling sharply in dismay.

"Zev," he breathed, alarmed. "Are you injured?"

The elf shook his head, fatigue ingrained deep in the angular crevasses of his face. His olive skin appeared a shade paler than usual, the tattooed marks standing out as though freshly inked.

"No, mi rey. It is not my blood."

Alistair barked for a servant; one came scuttling into the room with head bowed. The king proceeded to deliver a set of terse instructions: for a bath to be brought up and the lay sister Leliana to be located.

Meanwhile Flora was gazing anxiously at the elf, her eyes dropping to the blades at his hips. They were still caked in dried blood, and it was this that alarmed her more than anything, since the Crow took meticulous pride in the care of his weapons.

"Zev," she whispered, alarmed. "Wha- "

"You are looking radiant, mi sirenita," he interjected, skilfully avoiding her concern. "Fecundity suits you, my ripening little peach."

Flora frowned at him, unswayed by his diversionary tactics. The elf continued, determinedly.

"Anyway, I have news of your assassin. I shall update you both on the situation; appraise you of what I have learnt- "

"Not before you bathe, and sit down properly," Flora interrupted, with Herring bluntness. "And have something to eat."

A muscle in Alistair's jaw flickered – he was keen for any news on the one who had attempted to kill his beloved and best friend – but acquiesced to Flora's solemn declaration.

Zevran eyed her for a moment, and then sighed, leaning his white-blond head back against the glass. Flora surreptitiously looked him up and down, noting a bloodied smear of crimson on the pointed length of his ear. Licking her thumb, she reached out, and wiped it away.

It was a kind and oddly maternal gesture; the elf exhaled slightly unsteadily, anchoring his fingers in the folds of his leathers to stop himself from touching her.

"You must be hungry if you've been travelling," Flora said, glancing around. "Hm, what would you like?"

Unfortunately, the only food present was that which satisfied her own strange cravings – bundles of tree bark, a basket of earth-covered turnips and a pot of mint sauce.

"I'll have some fare brought up," Alistair called from across the room, shoving the poker into the hearth to perk up the flames. "I can hear your stomach rumbling from over here."

Flora knelt up and refastened the window, pulling the curtains closed once again. When she turned around, the elf had his eyes closed; in his stillness, the violet shadows etched around the sockets stood out all the more starkly.

Unsure whether or not he was dozing, Flora reached out and touched her finger to his cheek, tracing the faded pattern tattooed against the rich, stewed-tea skin.

Zevran opened a dark, inscrutable eye and watched her, a myriad of indescribable emotions swirling in the depths of his pupil.

"You look tired, carina," he murmured, seeing the remnants of similar shadows beneath Flora's own eyes. "Is it the babe keeping you awake, or has our king been exercising his royal prerogative at every available opportunity? Have the Templars been amenable to granting you some privacy, hm?"

Flora had no idea what a prerogative was, and so merely smiled enigmatically in response.

The elf realised that she had no idea what he was asking, and let out a weary chuckle. Reaching out, he mirrored her gesture; letting his thumb trace the high angle of her cheekbone.

"Congratulations on your retirement, Warden-Commander. I heard about the visit from the Orlesians. Did they smell of sugared violets and political intrigue?"

Flora pulled a little face at him, slumping down against the wall and resting an absent-minded hand on her belly.

"I think they tried to take over the Fereldan Wardens," she replied, somewhat uncertainly. "But Loghain Mac Tir is in charge now, along with one of their lieutenants."

"They'll watch each other like hawks," called Alistair from across the room, batting out a spark that had landed on his knee. "Loghain won't have time to get up to anything devious; he'll be too busy making sure there's no foul play from the Orlesian woman."

Despite his weariness, Zevran managed to summon a wry chuckle, dark eyes flashing.

"You're making Loghain work with an Orlesian? How deliciously twisted of you, Alistair. Perhaps they'll hate each other so much that they'll fall into bed."

"Maker's Breath!"

"Aaah!"

Neither Flora nor Alistair were much grateful for this mental image being inserted into their heads.

Soon afterwards the bath arrived, alongside a fleet-footed Leliana. The bard elbowed her way impatiently past the servants, going to greet Zevran with a smile.

"Mon chèr," she murmured, kissing the elf's tattooed cheek as he winked at her. "You must tell me the results of your investigations later."

He inclined his head, tucking away a strand of platinum hair that had escaped its tight braid.

Alistair directed the bath to be placed beside the hearth, as Flora went to intercept a servant carrying a tray.

"Thank you," she said, casting an appraising eye over the contents. There was a pot of freshly brewed tea, and an odourless vegetable stew accompanied by several slices of thick, grainy bread.

Zevran lifted a spoonful of stew to his mouth, just about managing to disguise the faint curl of his lip that accompanied any Fereldan cuisine.

"Tell me, nena. Has this country ever heard of using spices to flavour its food?" he begged after a moment, wide eyed. "If not, I know several Antivan merchant princes who are always looking to expand their trade networks."

Flora smiled at him, patting her stomach as the little creature nudged against her kidneys.

The servants soon departed, leaving the bath steaming before the fire. Zevran – like Flora – had never been self-conscious about disrobing before others. Discarding his bloodied leathers and similarly-coated blades, he strode across the room, tan and feline.

Alistair coughed, hastily directing his attention to the hearth. Leliana, who appreciated both aesthetically-pleasing male and female forms in equal measure, eyed the elf surreptitiously. Flora, who had a healer's ambivalence to the naked body, dutifully followed in the elf's wake with the congealing, tasteless stew.

"Ayuadame, its following me," breathed the elf, glimpsing the hated bowl from the corner of his eye. "The stuff of nightmares. I will stick to the marginally less offensive bread, I think, mi florita."

Flora nodded, perching carefully on the stool beside the bath as the elf lowered himself into the water.

"Alistair," murmured Leliana, drifting across the room like some ethereal spirit in her flimsy Chantry robes. "I have also been making some enquiries about our three remaining Howes."

Alistair's head snapped up from the hearth, his stare tautening as it met the duck-egg blue gaze of the bard. Reaching out, he took Leliana's arm and drew her to one side; lowering his voice as he glanced back at his seated mistress.

"Tell me, Lel."

Meanwhile, Flora rested her arm on the side of the bathtub and prodded at the floating foam with wary suspicion. Fortunately, there was no offensive flowery aroma rising from the water – Revanloch soap was made from plain, unscented animal fat.

Zevran exhaled unsteadily, closing his eyes and gripping the edge of the bathtub. Flora eyed his slender fingers, the nails of which were caked with something dark and sticky. Her gaze travelled over his faintly discoloured knuckles, which appeared to have recently made contact with something organic and yielding.

The elf watched her from beneath pale, half-lowered eyelashes, hair plastered to his shoulders.

"Do not judge them too harshly, mi sirenita,he murmured wryly, watching the soapy residue congeal atop the tepid water. "They are not the large, honest hands of your former brother-warden, strong and sword-calloused. They are the hands of a killer."

"I like your hands," Flora retorted, gazing enviously at the elf's graceful fingers. "They're very elegant."

"And they have done many gruesome things, carina," the elf said, watching the water roll down his forearm. "Things which would give you nightmares, if you were still capable of having them."

Flora held up her own smaller, far less elegant hand, with the fingernails bitten and the strange, moon-colour marking seared across the palm.

"Well, I once broke a man's head into pieces with this hand," she replied, recalling a rain-soaked balcony and the flash of sheer terror in Rendon Howe's eyes as he realised that Flora was not Tranquil after all. "And I still like it well enough."

Zevran smiled back at Flora, the bone-white of his teeth in gleaming contrast to the rich lustre of his tattooed skin. He reached out with wet fingers and gripped her wrist, bringing her hand close to his face and eyeing it, solemnly.

"This is the hand of the Hero of Ferelden. The hand which slew the Archdemon and ended the Blight. I'm surprised the Landsmeet haven't wanted to preserve it."

Flora looked alarmed. "Cut it off?!"

"Cara, no! I mean immortalising your fingerprints in plaster."

"Oh."


 

Later, after the elf had deliberately lingered over dressing to make Knight-Captain Gannorn distinctly uncomfortable; king, Cousland, bard and assassin sat down together as Zevran prepared to share his findings.

Flora leaned back against the cushions, incongruously hoping that she could push right through them and disappear into the depths of the bed. She had quite happily been in denial for the past fortnight – Howes, assassins and poisoned blades had been lodged firmly in the back of her mind – and was not looking forward to Zevran's revelations.

Alistair, conversely, was sitting bolt upright. One hand was resting protectively on Flora's bare calf, palm sliding up and down the skin. The fingers of his other hand lingered near the hilt of his nearby sword; as though ready to take it up immediately against any offending parties.

"So I have questioned Delilah Howe," Zevran began, wet hair hanging dark and wet around his bare shoulders as he paced about the bed. "She has married a commoner, and no longer considers herself a Howe. I have it confirmed by three sources that Rendon Howe disowned her six months ago, due to her lowly choice in partners. She is with child – much further along than you, carina- "

"Hence the marriage," whispered Leliana, surreptitiously.

" – and when I questioned her, there was no lie in her face. She is fully cognisant of what an animal her father was; of his betrayal at Highever, the kidnap of Florence Cousland and subsequent plan to illegally Tranquilise her."

Flora cringed, as she always did whenever the hated man was mentioned. Alistair felt her flinch as though struck, and a quick flash of Theirin anger passed across his face like an ill wind. Muttering a curse under his breath, he reached out and drew her beneath his arm.

"The elder brother is still in the Marches," continued the elf, quietly. "And although it would not be impossible for him to orchestrate some scheme from there, my little birds suggest otherwise. No, it is the younger brother, Thomas, whom I believe is behind this plot."

"Thomas," Flora said in disbelief, remembering the sallow-faced youth who had sat opposite her at Howe's dinner table. "I said sorry to him for killing his father. He said that he didn't even like him!"

"Where is he?" the king demanded in sudden rage, releasing his mistress and reaching for his sword. "I swear to the Maker, I'll go there tonight, I'll get some men- "

"Hold, Alistair," Zevran replied, reaching to place slender fingers on the fuming man's elbow. "I have not finished. I have made enquiries amongst the various assassin guilds – the Denerim Avengers, the Beards, the Loyalists, amongst others – and nobody knows of a contract on mi florita's life. Indeed, they were near-incredulous at the prospect. Unsurprisingly, nobody wants to go after the Hero of Ferelden."

Alistair, whose eyebrows had risen into his coppery hairline at the sheer number of assassin guilds apparently operating within Ferelden, ground his teeth.

"So, what are you saying?" he asked, bluntly.

Zevran turned to Flora, who was anxiously rubbing the heel of her hand across her stomach.

"Nena, I believe that it was not an assassin who made the clumsy attempt on your life in the Chantry," he said, quietly. "I believe it was Thomas Howe himself. Furthermore, I believe that he has located himself nearby."

"How do you know that?" demanded Leliana, her eyes at once both shrewd and surprised.

Zevran slipped a hand into the pocket of his trousers, withdrawing a small vial filled with a blackish-green ichor.

"I distilled the poison used onto the assassin's blade into its various essences," he murmured. "The core component was the crimson lily-wort, a flower only found along this particular stretch of coastline. I believe that Thomas Howe is nearby, possibly very nearby."

"Within Denerim?" Leliana asked, softly. "Hidden in one of the caves along the coastline?"

"Or even closer still," replied Zevran in low tones, the surface humour that usually danced across his words entirely absent. "Perhaps within the monastery itself."

There was a silence, during which Alistair gaped in horror; loosing his grip on the sword hilt and tucking his lover beneath his arm once more. Flora swallowed, feeling the little creature nudge against the base of her spine.

"There are three hundred initiates here," murmured Leliana, glancing around as though her pale blue gaze could penetrate Revanloch's stone walls. "How old is Thomas Howe, two decades? He could easily blend in amongst them."

"I'll have the recruits numbered and interviewed tomorrow," Knight-Captain Gannorn interrupted from beside the door. "If this Howe is hiding within Revanloch, we will find him."

Alistair was already on his feet, sword at his side, looking ready to lead an immediate charge into the initiate dormitories. Leliana reached up to put placating fingers on his elbow, shaking her head.

"Alistair, brute force is not the way to bring this vile creature to the light," she breathed, as the king put a despairing hand to his head. "We must proceed carefully, or else we will drive the Howe back underground. We know that he can be stealthy – after all, he slipped from Eamon's estate without notice."

Alistair groaned, turning to Zevran with a raw plea in his eyes.

"Zev- "

"Give me a day," replied the elf, quietly. "One more. I believe I am close."

Alistair stared down at the former Crow, who raised cunning dark eyes to meet his own.

"But, if he is here, Lo is in danger," he said, a clear note of despair ringing through his words. "If anything happens to her- "

"I will not allow it," said Zevran throatily, a harsh, ragged edge to his reply. "You know I would not permit a hair on her head to be harmed. Or for any misfortune to come to your little babe. The thought is… anatema."

Alistair glanced once towards the door, paused, then nodded wordlessly. Letting the sword drop to the floorboards with a clatter, he strode to the sideboard and poured himself a flagon of ale with a trembling hand.

Flora, her own alarm sufficiently assuaged by Zevran's reassurance, shifted position amidst the furs until she could put her arm about his neck. The elf reached up to touch her fingers as she pressed her lips affectionately against his cheek; his eyes half-closing.

Alistair threw back the flagon in a single, quick gulp, barely noticing its stale tepidness.

"Right," he said, low and determined as he turned back towards them. "What do you need me to do?"

"Return to the city tonight, as normal," replied Zevran, steadily. "Host tomorrow's meeting with the Fereldan merchants, as planned. Basically, do not act as though you are suspicious. If our treacherous halla catches the scent of a wolf, then it will flee."

"Does that make you the wolf?" Flora asked, resting her chin on his shoulder.

"Sí," breathed the elf, and there was a dark menace in his smile. "My claws have been sharpened, and my belly hungers for foul traitor-meat."

"Oh! Are you going to eat him?"

"Qué?!"

 

Chapter Text

Once Alistair had departed, with even greater reluctance than usual, the other occupants of Revanloch settled down for the night. A lone priestess tended the eternal flame in the Chantry, while the guards made silent patrol along the monastery's crumbling ramparts. A watchful moon filtered through the clouds, penetrating the broken roof tiles with rays of searching light; as though attempting to illuminate any possible Howe intruder lurking within.

Up in the guest chambers, Bann Teagan, who had had a long day arguing with the stonemasons about the cost of rebuilding Denerim's broken defences, was snoring away on the bedroll. Leliana had just finished applying her facial unguents, and was leaning forward; eyes closed in pleasure as Flora knelt at her back, kneading her fingertips into the bard's skull.

"Ma petite," Leliana murmured, exhaling as the tension across her temples began to dissipate. "Just so you are aware. There may be some time tomorrow when I, and your usual Templar guards, will not be with you."

Flora blinked, sliding her fingers in slow circles behind Leliana's ears. The bard's strawberry blonde locks felt conditioned and silken, much – Flora reflected – like the bard herself.

"Oh!"

"If that is the case, Bann Teagan will be with you, as will Lieutenant Rutherford."

"Alright," said Flora, bemused. "Why?"

The bard made no reply, merely let out a little sigh and rolled her shoulders. Flora stuck an immature tongue out at the back of Leliana's skull. The next moment, she felt bad and pressed her cheek affectionately against her companion's hair.

"Well, I'm sure you have a good reason for it," Flora conceded amiably, leaning back into the cushions and yawning. "Watch out for Thomas Howe. He might jump out at you from behind the Grand Cleric's giant hat!"

Zevran, who had just been admiring his own taut, biscuit-brown torso in the mirror, turned around and flashed them a brilliant smile.

"Bedtime, with my two beautiful pelirrojas!"

Skipping across the floorboards, the elf made to gleefully clamber into bed beside Flora; Leliana let out a warning snarl.

"On my other side, dépraver!"

Zevran pouted, but obediently rolled across to relocate himself on the far side of the bed. Leliana lowered her lacy eye mask just enough to shoot him a warning glower.

"Envision me as the impenetrable wall of Minrathous," she said sternly into the darkness. "None shall pass."

Zevran blew a plaintive kiss in Flora's direction, over Leliana's muscled, silk-clad stomach.

"Alas, we must postpone our passion once again, carina."

"Oh, well. Have some interesting dreams," Flora replied, smiling sleepily back at him. "Tell me about them in the morning."


 

An owl hooted from the depths of some vaulted crevasse, a light night-time drizzle pattered against Revanloch's roof tiles. The city of Denerim, sprawled on the estuary two miles to the north, was lost in a caldera of smoke and shadow; its braziers smouldering in vain defiance of the sodden darkness.

Alistair, tossing and turning within the Royal bedchamber, stretched out an unconscious hand into the hollow of the mattress. Flora's old fishing jersey, its fraying navy wool unravelling in a half-dozen places, lay on the pillow beside him.

His sleeping mind was crowded with images of faceless Howe descendants, each one brandishing a fragment of their father's broken skull. He saw his best friend, vulnerable and defenceless, startled fingers flying to her throat as a dozen crimson birds flew from her mouth.

The king awoke in a cold sweat, shouting out in alarm. Moments later, several guardsmen burst through the doors with pikes raised, torchlight sweeping the chamber.

After reassuring the guards that all was well, Alistair leaned back against the cushions, trying to calm his racing heart. He reached for Flora's fishing jumper and held it against his chest, finding some small measure of comfort in the salt-roughened wool.

Meanwhile, within the decrepit towers of Revanloch monastery, Flora herself was having a restless night. The little creature was testing the boundaries of its confined quarters, nudging irritably against her kidneys and spine. She had tried sleeping propped up against the cushions, curled on her side, and eventually tried rubbing her hand over her belly in an attempt to soothe it.

I shouldn't call you little creature, Flora thought to herself, pressing the heel of her palm against her swollen stomach. Everyone keeps saying how big you are.

Please don't get too big. I'm already not sure how you're going to… fit.

I mean, I know how it happens. I'm a healer. I just can't see it happening in this instance. Especially if you've got three more months of growing to do.

The rubbing motion seemed to settle the not-so-little creature, and Flora managed to glean an hour or so more sleep. When she woke next, it was to the sound of the guard changing shift on the midnight bell.

Yawning, she was about to roll over and attempt to reclaim sleep, when the balance of light inside the room shifted; shadow and moonbeam briefly merging as a figure moved before the window.

In mild alarm, Flora sat up and rubbed her eyes, squinting towards the opened curtains. A moment later, she recognised Zevran's form silhouetted before the leaded glass. The elf was leaning back against the stone frame, naked from the waist up, his hair braided neatly behind his head.

Yet it was his expression that caught Flora's attention; the tan features uncharacteristically austere, the gaze clouded and distant. There was none of the usual humour in the laughing mouth, which was pulled taut.

Flora shoved the blankets back with a foot, taking care not to tread on Bann Teagan as she clambered inelegantly upright.

Immediately, Chanter Devotia let out a little cough of warning from where she was stationed beside the door, her violet eyes narrowing through the shadows. The Chanter clearly believed that Flora was ready to embark on another of her nocturnal wanderings, and relaxed a fraction when the Cousland padded towards the window instead.

Zevran heard Flora's approach, and turned to face her, his angular features immediately assembling themselves into a charismatic smile of greeting.

"Carina," he murmured, teeth very white against the gloom. "Why are we up at this hour?"

Flora looked at him dubiously, the gold mote embedded within her iris gleaming with reflected moonlight. The elf continued in a similar charming vein, his smile fixed and brilliant.

"Doesn't this lighting suit me, hm? I look almost Dalish. I heard the forest elves caper and cavort about beneath the full moon – or perhaps that is the Witches of the Wild, I know not."

He held out a sinewy arm, the lean muscle harbouring the coiled strength of a wildcat. The tattooed markings extended down his shoulder-blades and wound to his elbows, the ink faded from longevity.

"Zevran, I thought you were Antivan," Flora whispered back, solemnly. "Not Orlesian."

Zevran managed to maintain his charming grin while simultaneously twitching his brows together in confusion. Flora propped herself up against the opposite window frame and continued to stare at him, unblinking.

"I am bemused, nena," the elf said at last, quizzical and smiling. "What do you mean, Orlesian? Surely my fashion sense is not that bad?"

Flora made a little gesture, passing her fingers in front of her face with a smile and a frown in quick succession.

"The mask," she explained, pale eyes unfathomable as the Waking Sea. "You're wearing it now. You don't need to, not in front of me."

Zevran stared at her for a long moment, the smile gradually turning rictus.

Subtle as a sea change before a storm, the veil of outer charm slipped away. The elf seemed to age several years before her, his mouth pulling grim and humourless; old regrets shadowing the rich depths of his irises.

Flora did not say anything, but looked at him silently; for once, she was not distracted by the sight of the nearby ocean. The elf was never shy about shedding clothes in daylight – he revelled in his own fine-hewn physicality – but the daylight warmed the rich skin sufficient to hide what lay beneath its surface.

Conversely, the silvered hue of moonlight illuminated a dozen old wounds, the scar tissue pale and discoloured. Some appeared to be the careless remnants of battle – from the rare occasion an opponent had managed to land a lucky blow – but others were of far more insidious more nature. These earliest ones spoke of systematic and deliberate infliction; of chains, and manacles, and a punishing lash.

Flora looked at them, recalling the brief fragments that the elf had shared with them about his childhood with the Crows.

They were… not kind to my fellow bond-slaves and I. Most of us did not survive training.

But, enough of that! Where to now, hm? My, the colouring of sunset suits you, mi sirenita.

"I think you are lucky, mi florita, not to dream any longer," murmured the elf at last, pensively. "I wish I was afforded the same luxury."

Flora leaned her head against the window frame, wistful and contemplative.

"I think I would have had a lot of nightmares," she agreed, her pale eyes seeking out his. "Is that why you're awake? A nightmare?"

Zevran almost smiled and spun her a pretty lie, then remembered that Flora had politely and insistently requested the removal of his mask.

"," he replied instead, soft and without pretence.

"Si," repeated Flora, in her flat, northern augmentation. "SI."

"No: , like this. Sí. Sííí."

"Si," she said obediently, then smiled at him. "Is that better?"

Zevran flashed her a quick, ambiguous grin; his gaze sliding sideways towards where the moon left dappled patches on the vast, dark swathe of ocean.

"What was your nightmare about?" Flora asked after a moment, fiddling with the fraying sleeve of her Theirin-crested pyjamas.

For a moment, Zevran stared at the window as though the reflections of his reproachful dead were gazing back at him through the leaded glass. The elf flinched fractionally, the movement so infinitesimal that Flora almost missed it.

"Tell me, bella," he said, quietly. "Do you think that your Herring past will ever leave you? Or does the saltwater run so deep in your veins that it is impossible to drain?"

Flora made a vain attempt to decipher the elf's euphemism, her brow furrowing. Eventually, she gave up and asked him to clarify.

"What do you mean?"

The elf gave no reply for a moment, turning his eyes away from the sad imagined faces of betrayed friends. When he spoke, the words emerged low and rueful.

"I do not think that I will ever leave my mistakes behind, mi florita. The shadow of the crow's wing will fall across my path for the rest of my life."

Flora pressed her finger against a warped mark in the glass, thoughtfully. The elf continued in a quiet, dry voice; grateful that she had not attempted to interrupt him with platitudes.

"You said in the Brecilian Forest: Zevran, you are free. But I am a prisoner of my own past, carina. I do not wish to be a Crow, but if I am not a Crow, I… I do not know what I am."

Flora held her breath as her friend continued, wondering what arcane alignment of stars had occurred to prompt this uncharacteristic confession. Zevran had rarely mentioned his youth with the Crows on their travels; clearly, it was a rite of passage he chose not to dwell on.

The elf licked his dry lips, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against the cool, uneven glass.

"During the Blight, I had a purpose – to assist you and Alistair in defeating the Darkspawn. What now is the purpose of Zevran? I am masterless, guildless, aimless."

He opened his eyes, to see Flora proffering a tankard of weak ale, having spotted it abandoned half-drunk on the sideboard.

In defiance of his usual caution when ingesting strange fluids, Zevran drank the liquor in three long gulps, grateful for its tepid refreshment. Flora watched the muscles in the elf's tan throat contract as he swallowed, thinking on how to best phrase her thoughts.

"When my spirits left me, I didn't know what to do," she said at last, careful and solemn. "They had been with me for as long as I could remember, longer than any real person. I thought they were my parents when I was younger, because the other children in Herring teased me about not looking like my dad."

Flora swallowed, feeling the perennial sadness rise once more to the forefront of her mind.

"When they left – were destroyed? – I felt useless. I felt like a crab in a rock pool; trapped in my own body, weak and… and pointless."

"Nena," said Zevran, and then cut himself off as she continued; her voice small.

"And I still feel a bit useless, even now. But…"

"But?"

"But," Flora whispered, determinedly. "I'm sure I'll find some new purpose, now that there's no Blight. Even though I can't heal anymore, and my spirits are gone… I can do something else. I can move on from them, from my old life. I'm sure I can. I have to, or I'll never… I'll never grow up."

Zevran looked at her, his dark pupils thoughtful and unreadable. She was looking out at the ocean, fingertips pressed against the glass, more dark red hair hanging free from her braid than was contained within it. The pyjama shirt – clearly one of Alistair's, from its size – drooped just enough at the neck to show the highest arc of the white scar between her shoulder-blades; the Chantry-like sunburst that had resulted from the Archdemon's soul attempting to take root.

"Mi florita," he murmured eventually, and then trailed off; unsure what to say.

Flora smiled sideways at him, quick and fleeting as a fish darting through a patch of sunlight-dappled water.

"And if I can move forward, you can, too. We'll be currents together," she said, determinedly. "Currents, not crabs stuck in rock-pools."

Zevran opened his mouth to speak his heart plainly, and then arrested himself at the last minute; reaching out to finger a thick rope of loose hair.

"Currents, not rock pools," he repeated instead, feeling his gut constrict. "Constantly moving, not stagnating."

"I know it's going to take a while," Flora added, pulling a rueful face. "I saw a skull on a tapestry the other day – you know, the battlefield scene in the Chantry corridor? - and it reminded me of my Golden Lady. I spent the whole afternoon as an… an emotional shipwreck."

She grimaced, nudging her fingertip into a pockmarked section of the window pane. There was silence for a few heartbeats; an owl called out for its mate from somewhere beyond the glass.

"Why are you so kind, carina?" the elf asked eventually, watching Flora trace her mispelled name in the condensation.

"Because," she replied, soft and without hesitation. "People have been unkind to me."

Zevran inhaled suddenly, turning away from her and staring very hard up at the beams that ran horizontally across the ceiling.

"Go back to bed, amor," he said, an odd throatiness blurring the words.

"Eh?" said Flora, blinking. "Why?"

"Because I like Alistair very much," the elf continued, measuredly. "And I do not wish to disrespect him by kissing you, advertencia justa."

Flora's brows drew together as she thought on this. After a moment, she leaned forward and pressed her lips against his cheek, firm and affectionate.

"Try and get some sleep," she told him kindly, clambering off the window bench. "You and Leliana have some big plans tomorrow, apparently, which neither of you will tell me about!"

The elf inclined his head, feline gaze tracing her steps across the room.

"Remember what our bard said," he murmured, the words carrying easily through the still, damp air. "If we are not with you tomorrow, stay with the bann."

 

Chapter Text

When Flora awoke the next morning, she was alone amidst the rumpled blankets of the bed. Bann Teagan was dictating quietly to a clerk clad in Redcliffe colours at the door; while a familiar Templar with curly blond hair stood stiffly beside the hearth. Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia were nowhere to be seen.

Flora rubbed her eyes with her thumbs, yawning. The sun was spilling through the leaded window, illuminating the dusty floorboards with a languid, buttery light. The Herring part of her soul was immediately ashamed at sleeping in so late; it must have been at least mid-morning.

"Sorry, poppet." Teagan turned away from the clerk, apologetic and freshly-shaven. "Did I wake you?"

"No," Flora replied, her curious gaze sliding sideways. "Morning, Lieutenant Rutherford."

The lieutenant swallowed and began a reply that was an octave higher than normal; before clearing his throat and making a second attempt.

"Good morning, my lady."

But Flora was so distracted by the terrible realisation that she had missed breakfast, that she did not reprimand Cullen for his use of her honorific title. Immediately anxious, she put a hand to her stomach, feeling the little creature nudge against her palm.

"Has everyone broken their fast already?" she breathed, dismayed. "I need to go to the kitchens."

The bann stepped to one side, revealing a tray of freshly cut fruit and seeded rolls resting on a low stool.

"Here," he said, hastily. "Anything else you want, just let one of the servants know. Lay-Sister Leliana has requested that you… not leave the guest quarters today."

Flora, already halfway across the room, paused with one hand stretched towards the tray. She blinked, pale eyes moving from Teagan, to Cullen, then back to the bann.

"I can't leave the rooms?" she asked, nonplussed. "Why? What's going on?"

The younger Guerrin shot a quick side-look at the lieutenant; Flora spotted the fleeting exchange of glances, and narrowed her own stare.

"Why can't I leave?" she repeated, an unconscious note of Cousland imperiousness creeping into the query.

Teagan let out a sigh, taking a step towards her.

"Leliana and your Crow are now convinced that Thomas Howe may be hiding within Revanloch," he said, watching Flora's eyes widen in alarm. "It's almost a certainty, in fact."

"So he is here?" she breathed, disbelieving. "In the same building?"

Indeed, it appeared that Revanloch's crumbling chambers and labyrinthine passages had harboured a more insidious presence than mildew or mice.

"I… I- "

Seeing Flora mouth wordlessly as she paled, the freckles standing out like flecks of tan ink against her nose, Teagan hastened to reassure her.

"Child, no harm will come to you," he hastened to reassure her. "I swear by the Maker. Don't be frightened- "

"I'm going to knock his teeth out!" finished Flora, the words emerging as an enraged hiss. "He's here?! Let me out, I'm going to find him, I'm going to find him and impale his manhood on a fishhook; which I will then use as bait! If it's anything like his father's, it'll be miniscule- "

Cullen, who had witnessed Flora's similarly violent outburst in the Chantry after the initial assassination attempt, was not taken aback. He stepped across to bodily block the doorway as Teagan gaped, momentarily too surprised to intercept Flora as she lunged forwards.

"I wish I'd never said sorry for killing his dad now," Flora fumed, sidestepping like a crab in an attempt to dodge the stoic-faced young Templar. "I should've butted out his teeth with my head. I'm going to do it now, once you move out of my way!"

"Flora, no."

The combination of her name, and the authority in the officer's voice, caused Flora to come to an abrupt halt. For a moment, she was no longer lady Cousland or king's mistressbut merely an apprentice being reprimanded by a Templar. Despite no longer possessing magic, deference to the Chantry's soldiers was still ingrained within Flora's psyche.

"It's important that you stay here," Cullen repeated, a fraction less sternly. "The bard Leliana requested it."

Inwardly, the young officer was quailing at his own audacity – after all, this was the Hero of Ferelden whom he had just told off. But Flora had visibly given up; her head hanging in defeat. She had remembered her promise to be cautious, and knew that that charging down Revanloch's damp corridors (like an enraged bull) in pursuit of assassins was perhaps not the most sensible course of action.

You're alone now. There's no one to protect you any more. No shield but your own skin.

Frustrated at her own vulnerability, the sulking Flora went to sit on the bed with shoulders slumped.


 

The next few hours passed with excruciating slowness. The quiet noises of Revanloch at day – muffled footsteps, hushed conversations, the distant clash of training swords from the inner courtyard – seemed to taunt Flora; now that she was confined to within four walls. The thought that Zevran and Leliana might be engaged in some potentially dangerous activity – involving a Howe, no less – while she was trapped useless inside the room, proved a source of great frustration.

Teagan dragged the writing desk over to the window, where there was the best light, and busied himself with correspondence. The young Templar lieutenant stood beside the door, one hand on his blade in readiness, chin raised.

Flora had taken her cards of Theodesian leaders to the bed, but she had memorised every angle of their inked faces already. Gazing across the room, her pale irises settled on the young Templar, whom she had first come into contact with during her earliest years at the Circle.

"Lieutenant Rutherford," Flora said eventually, her words breaking the silence.

The officer, who had been making a conscious effort not to look at Flora as she sprawled back against the cushions, now had little excuse. Hoping that his cheeks were not deepening their colour, Cullen returned her stare.

"Yes, my lady?"

Flora let the card featuring Empress Celene slip from her lap, pressing her fingertips together thoughtfully.

"We've known each other for a long time," she said, thoughtfully. "And you probably know a lot about me, after… after everything."

"Well, all of Ferelden knows about you now, I would assume," Cullen replied, with a wry half-nod of acknowledgement. "If not Thedas."

"I imagine that Herring is going to become a rather popular destination for travellers in the future," Teagan added from beside the window. "People will be curious to see where the Hero of Ferelden grew up."

Flora was silent for a moment, knowing that such an influx of strangers into the insular community of Herring would cause no small amount of consternation. Deciding that she could do nothing about this grim prospect, she pressed onwards.

"But I don't know a thing about you."

"What would you wish to know, my lady?"

Flora thought hard for a moment, frowning. She had incorrectly predicted that the shy young man would politely deflect any personal enquiries, and thus had not prepared any questions.

"I feel as though you're from a small village, like me," she said at last, carefully. "Is that right?"

"I was raised in a village by the name of Honnleath," the Templar said, with a slight inclination of the head. "There weren't many of us there. Our Chantry was only a little larger than these chambers."

"Where is Honnleath?" Flora asked, unfamiliar with the name.

The junior officer paused, before continuing in a carefully measured voice.

"It… it was in southern Ferelden."

The use of the past tense did not escape Flora, who understood immediately that Cullen's hometown had met the same fate as poor, lost Lothering.

"Oh," she breathed, immediately regretting having asked. "I'm sorry."

"My family fled when the Darkspawn came," Cullen continued, steadily. "To South Reach."

Flora grimaced once more at the mention of Arl Bryland's doomed seat. She dared not ask if his relatives had survived the horde's assault; yet the young captain continued to speak without prompting.

"My sisters and brother made it to Denerim, thank Andraste. Our parents were delivered to the Maker's side."

Cullen spoke with the resigned tone of a man who had prematurely forced himself to come to terms with such a tragedy. Flora, who had been devastated by the departure of her spirits, was humbled by the man's Herring-like stoicism in the face of an even greater loss.

Letting the rest of the cards fall from her lap, she clambered out of bed and crossed the chamber, coming to a halt before the Templar. Not wanting to make Cullen uncomfortable, she made no attempt to embrace him; but reached out and took his gloved hand, clasping it between both of her palms.

"I'm sorry," she said solemnly, meaning it. "I'll never forget the villages and towns that the Darkspawn stole from us. Their names have been engraved on my bones."

It was an odd expression of sympathy – a typically fatalistic northerner's saying - but the sincerity of the words was clear. Cullen glanced down at her, his bruised, bronze gaze meeting her steady silvered one.

"Thank you."

Flora nodded, letting his hand go after a final tight squeeze.

"I should have known you were a man who had sisters," she said, angling the conversation gently away from death. "You were always kind to me in the Circle. Are they younger or older?"

"Mia is the oldest," Cullen replied, some of the rigidity loosing in his face as he uttered his sister's name. "Rosie is only sixteen summers old."

"Sixteen," repeated Flora, trying not to grimace as she envisioned the horrors that the girl must have experienced over the past year. "Are they still in Denerim?"

"Yes, I- I believe so."

"You don't know?"

The Templar coughed, eyes darting over her shoulder towards the window.

"The Chantry discourages contact with our families," he muttered, stiffly. "They suggest we do not even think on them. They're seen as a distraction."

"Oh."

Flora, who could not envision her family being anything other than an integral part of her life, glanced down. Then the Templar coughed, a slight awkwardness creeping into his tone.

"I was never very good at that part," Cullen said, frankly. "The forgetting of the family. It's my second greatest failing as a Templar."

"What's the first?" Flora asked, curious.

There was a brief pause, while the officer considered how best to phrase his answer. When they emerged, the words were carefully selected.

"Not following protocol when I found out that you were violating curfew. You should have been disciplined for climbing up onto the roof."

Flora peered up at him through her eyelashes, the corners of her mouth tightening in disapproval.

"It's not a failing to be kind," she told him, sternly. Cullen's eyes slid evasively from her own, darting once more towards the window.

With that said, Flora went to retrieve Sea Creatures of Tevinter Legend, taking the book over to the window bench to glean some light from the watery sun. The Templar watched her as she went; the latent meaning of his words writ plain across his clean-shaven face.

My greatest failing as a Templar was how I felt about you. I harboured inappropriate desires, in violation of my sacred oath to the Chantry. I almost acted on them.

Teagan, who recognised that particular brand of longing only too well, rose from the writing desk in a pretence to fetch some ale. As he passed the young officer, he lowered his voice and directed his words like a spear-thrust into the man's ear.

"Mind yourself, Templar. The girl is meant for the king."

And if I can keep my feelings submerged, so can you.

"I know, my lord. I am… I've requested a transfer to Kirkwall, in the Marches," Cullen replied, not quite able to look the bann in the eye. "They're telling me it'll be a promotion."

"Hm," said Teagan shrewdly, watching the young man's gaze edge back over the room in small increments, until it was settled once more on Flora. She was puzzling over some inscrutable word from Sea Creatures of Tevinter Legend, holding the book an inch before her face and squinting at it in bemusement.

"Well, I think that would be a good idea, lieutenant. Need some help, petal?"

This last part was directed to Flora, who was now holding the book upside-down in an effort to extract some sense from the text.

"Yes! Please!"


 

Flora made no further attempt to leave the room that day; after all, she was more than used to being confined in cramped quarters. She puzzled over several more entries from Sea Creatures with Teagan, then spent an hour writing out a series of improvised sentences that the bann dictated.

Many of them were related to the great horse fairs of the Marches that Teagan had attended in his youth. Flora painstakingly scribed statements such as the dappled grey mare was sold for fourteen guineas, and the final steeplechase was won by a brave Ferelden Forder.

The bann, with a patience that he had not known he possessed, corrected each misspelled word, adding in capitalisations and commas where necessary.

Grateful for Teagan's assistance, Flora opened her mouth both to thank him and suggest a tactical break; anxious not to dissuade the bann from helping her in the future.

Teagan appeared about to follow her suggestion, half-rising to his feet as he set down the quill. Then, struck by an idea, he sat back down and cleared his throat.

"Do you know how to spell Theirin, pet?"

Flora thought for a moment, her expression dubious. She had a vague idea, but the name was full of confusing vowels and she was not entirely sure where they all belonged.

"T-h-," she began, then trailed off. "Um: T-h-e-r-r-a-n?"

"I'm going to teach you how to write it," the bann said, not quite looking her direct in the eye. "So that you're confident in the future."

When you're using it as your new name, he thought with a faint pang of regret. Surely, you must have some inkling as to what Alistair intends by now?

Flora smiled at him, reaching to pull a fresh sheet of parchment onto her knee.

"Alright," she said, and there was no hint of realisation in either expression or reply. "Teach me."

 

Chapter Text

 

The hours passed by slow and steady, beams of light moving gradually across the floorboards as the sun began its long western arc. Teagan finished his correspondence and positioned himself at the window, watching various Templars come and go beneath Revanloch's crumbling entrance arch. The city of Denerim was visible in the distance, the Royal Palace perched on its supervisory edifice high above the estuary.

Cullen Rutherford was still berating himself inwardly for informing Flora that he ought to have had her disciplined for breaking curfew in the Circle. He stood, stiff and unhappy, before the doorway, tawny eyes fixed on the plastered wall opposite, mouth folded into a tight line.

Flora watered the plant that Leonas had given her, then became unduly anxious that she had over-saturated it. Not wanting it to die – after all, she could no longer prod life back into it with a finger – she spent several minutes scooping out the excess water with a spoon. Deciding grimly that horticulture wasn't for her, she sat back down on the window bench, taking the seat recently vacated by Teagan. Turning over the parchment so that the Ferelden Forder won the steeplechase was on the back, she began to painstakingly scribe her own sentences.

This was an arduous and time-consuming process, and soon a sweat had risen to Flora's forehead. She bit the end of the ink-pen, unable to stop herself from gnawing the end of the wooden shaft. Before she could stop herself, she had demolished near a quarter of it with her teeth.

"Bann Teagan, I've eaten your pen," she called across the room, sweating and unhappy. "I'm really sorry, the baby made me do it."

The bann came over and inspected his gnawed ink-pen, snorting. Curious, he glanced over Flora's shoulder at the scribbled sentences, one eyebrow rising.

"What's this, poppet?"

"A letter to Connor," she replied, frowning down at her spelling. "Do you spell Gregoir, G-E-E-G-A-R?"

Teagan paused, the chewed ink-pen motionless between his fingers; something odd flickering in the depths of his pale green Guerrin gaze.

"You're writing to my nephew?"

"Mm, at the Jainen Circle. I wrote to him when we first came to Denerim, I told him I would. He wrote back. He's seen lots of ships, and he's made a friend called Hen- Henrich."

When she wasn't delivering a speech for a specific purpose, the rhythm and flux of Flora's diction was classic Herring – short, rather abrupt sentences, strung together like fish on a line. Yet, Teagan was not listening to her peculiar northern delivery. The bann was still speechless at the revelation that – in the middle of the assembling of the army, in those frantic, dark days before the horde arrived at the city walls – the young Cousland had remembered a promise she had made months ago to a frightened ten year old boy.

"Anyway, how do you write Gregoir?" Flora repeated patiently, plucking the ink-pen neatly from the bann's fingers. "Grongor? Gree-gwaaar?"

Teagan took a deep, steadying breath; forcing the storm-surge of inappropriate emotion back into his gut.

"Shift over on the bench, lamb, I'll check your spellings. I'm not sure about Gregoir, but I'd wager it's not spelt Gree-gwar."

Worn out from such mental exertions, Flora decided to have a short rest. The baby, after shifting restlessly in her belly for an hour, had also deigned to settle down; mother and child taking concurrent naps. Entirely nonchalant about preparing for bed with others present – after all, she was a veteran of communal sleeping quarters – Flora changed back into her striped Theirin-crested pyjamas. Teagan gritted his teeth and directed his eyes to the ceiling; while the Templar kept a carefully neutral expression.

Seagulls made lazy circles around the crumbling towers of Revanloch as the sun eased itself beneath the horizon. Instead of the usual dinner gong, there came a strange succession of noises from somewhere within the monastery's labyrinthine heart. There was a distant echoing crash, followed by a quickly muffled shout. The acoustics of the cloisters meant that the sounds were projected even as far as the guest quarters, rousing Teagan from his musings.

The Mabari at the door – one of the guard-dogs brought down from the palace – let out a low growl of warning as the bann's hand went to his sword-hilt, immediately alert. He crossed the room in six steps, positioning himself at Flora's bedside.

Cullen, who had also heard the noise, drew his sword with a singing of metal as he met the bann's quick glance: yes, I heard it too.

Flora, whose quick nap had accidentally turned into a four hour snooze, woke disorientated, having been disturbed by the bann's footsteps rather than the strange noise. In an instant she took in Teagan's vigilant expression and the Templar's drawn sword, and sat up in alarm.

"Wha- "

In the distance, there came the sound of running footsteps, metal boots against time-worn flagstones. Another shout followed it, ragged and muffled. Flora heard this new set of noises, and frowned in confusion, swinging feet legs out from beneath the furs.

"What's going on?"

"I don't know," replied Teagan tersely, keeping close at her side. "Stay with me."

Flora shot him a slightly bemused look, wandering over to the window and peering down into the courtyard. Her face immediately brightened, spotting a familiar crimson and gold banner leaning against a wall.

"Ooh! Alistair is here," she said, pleased. "I wonder why he hasn't come up? Maybe he's on his way."

Another distant shout echoed through the corridors of the monastery. Teagan glanced at Cullen, and the Templar gave a brief nod; positioning himself before the door.

"I'm hungry," continued Flora obviously, giving her swollen belly an absent-minded rub. "Did I miss dinner? Do you think there'll be anything left? That's two meals I've missed today."

Nobody made any reply, and she scowled over her shoulder, one palm spread over the window pane.

There suddenly came a loud, staccato rap on the door, so loud and unexpected that it startled each occupant of the room. The bann let out a muffled blasphemy under his breath, drawing his own sword as he shot a quick glance at Cullen. The Mabari snarled, low and threatening.

"Call off the dog," came a terse, familiar snap from the other side of the wood. "The danger is over."

It was the Templar Knight-Commander, and Cullen hastened to open the door. The man strode in, seemingly aged a decade, shock and rage engraved into the lines of his greying face.

"What's happened, man?" Teagan demanded, not quite ready to sheathe his blade.

The Knight-Commander glanced at Flora, who now looked thoroughly confused.

"My lady," he said, heavily. "The king is asking for you."

From the tone of the man's voice, it was clear that Alistair was not asking for, but demanding that his mistress be brought to him.

Unable to locate her boots, Flora ended up sliding her feet into a pair of Leliana's silk slippers; which were too large and required the curling of toes to keep in place.

They followed the Knight-Commander down a series of passageways, past whispering initiates and restless guards. All of Revanloch seemed to be aware that something strange had transpired, that something was not quite right. Teagan, sweat beading on his brow, kept so close to Flora's side that he was almost treading on her heels.

Soon, it became clear that they were heading towards Revanloch's main Chantry. Clumps of grim-faced Royal Guard shifted their pikes from hand to hand as Flora approached; a tacit acknowledgement of their future queen.

There was a crowd gathered before the great doors that led into the Chantry. It was made up mainly of Templars and Royal Guardsmen, yet there were a not-insignificant number of soldiers clad in Highever livery also present. It was a Cousland retainer who first spotted Flora's approach, and gave a sharp bark of instruction.

"Make way for the lady Florence!"

The crowd parted before them, quiet and sombre.

Beyond the great doors, Revanloch's Chantry appeared the same as it had always done; a vast, cavernous space lined with a forest of ancient pillars. The stained glass windows and plethora of candles made little headway against the incense-scented shadow, yet there was a distant side-chapel that blazed with the brightness of torchlight.

It was towards this illuminated enclave that the Knight-Commander headed, his expression becoming more strained by the minute. A cluster of senior officers were gathered within the small chapel, huddled around a statue of Maferath.

The tallest man in the group turned around, hair gleaming burnished gold in the reflected light. Yet Alistair's face was pale and sickly beneath the summer tan, twin wolves of fear and anger fighting in his expression. A fine line worked its way across his forehead, and he appeared to have aged several years since Flora had last seen him.

The moment the king set eyes on her, a vast and indescribable relief passed over his face. Abandoning his terse conversation with a senior officer, Alistair strode forward with arms outstretched.

"Darling."

Flora, who still had no idea what was going on, went dutifully into her best friend's embrace, letting Alistair fold her tightly against his chest. She could feel the reverberation of his racing heart, thunderous within his ribcage.

"Alistair- "

"Thank the Maker."

"What's going on?"

"Just let me hold you for a second, Flo, I can't think straight- "

Flora gave up on extracting any sense from Alistair, clutching a fold of his tunic and letting him calm himself against her body. One of Alistair's hands had slid down to cradle the swell of their child, cupping it with a protective palm.

Out of the corner of her eye, Flora saw Teagan make his way through the crowd, then seemingly disappear into the ground. After a moment, she realised that a bronze grill set into the tiles had been moved to one side, revealing a flight of mildewed stone steps. They appeared to descend into a shadowed recess beneath the chapel, from which more angry and incredulous voices were rising.

Flora thought that she recognised one particular murmur; and indeed moments later Fergus Cousland emerged from the hidden stairway, his expression very grim.

"Fergus," she breathed, then repeated his name a little louder, squirming away from Alistair's arms. "Fergus! What's happened?"

Fergus let out a low hiss of warning directed towards the Cousland retainers gathered about them, shaking his head quickly from side to side.

"Don't let my sister go down there and see it," he instructed, voice taut. "It won't be good for the babe."

Flora, who was now beginning to grow a little irate, thrust Alistair's arms away and strode towards her brother; trusting in the haughty arrogance of her face to convey an authority that her striped pyjamas lacked. The Cousland soldiers, caught between loyalty to the teyrn and reluctance to stand in the Hero of Ferelden's path, looked mildly terrified. Ultimately they gave way, letting Flora confront her brother.

"Who's down there?" she asked, bluntly. "What's down there?"

Fergus' eyes slid over her shoulder to Alistair, knowing that the king was the only one who Flora would ultimately listen to; not because of the crown, but because he was her best friend and former brother-warden.

"Alistair, the shock won't be good for the child," the teyrn repeated, hearing muffled conversation from below. "You ought not let her- "

"Flo will be fine," Alistair said heavily, knowing his lover better than any other man present. "She can handle it, she's seen far worse. Sweetheart, let me help you on the steps."

This was in response to Flora, who had dodged Fergus' restraining arm and was striding determinedly towards the stairs. Alistair shot forward with remarkable speed for a man his size, reaching out to grip Flora's elbow as she peered down the treacherous flight.

"Lo, let me go first."

The steps were basalt and crumbling from age; there were at least a dozen of them, descending to a candlelit hollow beneath the Chantry tiles. Alistair led the way, keeping a tight grip on his best friend's arm as she navigated the treacherous stairwell. Flora slid one hand along the wall, the stone slick with mildew beneath her palm.

At the bottom lay a subterranean crypt that was both ancient and decrepit. The curved stone ceiling was cracked, the altar long since crumbled away into fragments. Spiders had decorated the low vaulted stonework with veils of webbing; these too were coated in a thin, dusty film. Candles – Flora recognised them as ones stolen from the Chantry above – littered the floor, their wax melting into soft pools on the broken tiles.

Yet it was not towards the scattered bones or ancient altar that Flora's eye was drawn, but to the figure hanging from a rusting iron hook bolted at the highest point in the curved stone ceiling. Thomas Howe, slack and grey, rotated slowly as he dangled by the neck; his expression contorted. Mottled black and blue bruising was visible on the skin beneath the taut ligature.

Flora had seen a hanged apprentice in the first month of arriving at the Circle (and her first drowning at the age of seven); dead men held no fear for her, especially after the events of the past year. Still, she felt a pang of sadness as she gazed upon the young man's bulging-eyed face, since Thomas Howe had only been her age.

Zevran and Leliana framed the scene, he leaning against the wall and cleaning a blade, and she in the process of removing something from her hooded cloak. It appeared to be some sort of padding, and to Flora's surprise, she spotted her own missing boots on the bard's feet.

"Thomas Howe was here," Flora breathed, astounded. "All along. Are you alright?"

Casting a wary glance at the hanging man, she sidled past and went to her companions; her eyes sweeping over them to ensure that they were not hurt.

"We're fine, ma crevette," Leliana replied, her face flushed with pleasure at a job well done. "Zevran, perhaps you would like to recant the story? This is the fruition of your scheming, after all."

The elf nodded, unable to stop his lip curling in contempt as he eyed the rotating corpse.

"I wanted to ascertain whether my suspicions – and the rumours from my contacts - were correct, about the Howe being present within Revanloch. When he first attacked you, carina, it was from within this Chantry; so it was here that Leliana and I put our plan into motion. With the aid of your Templars, of course."

Zevran made a gesture, and Flora turned to see Chanter Devotia and Knight-Captain Gannorn flanking the stairwell, their expressions equally neutral.

"Our lovely bard took your boots, borrowed your mourning garb and your voice, and made a loud display of grief outside the Chantry; sending the Templars away so that she could pray for her departed spirits alone. Providing the perfect bait for our would-be assassin."

Flora turned to Leliana, noticing the discarded cushion that the bard had used to emulate a swollen stomach.

"You pretended to be me?!" she breathed, astounded. They both had red hair, but in all other aspects, the tall and graceful bard was Flora's physical opposite.

Leliana pulled the dark veil of mourning back over her face and somehow appeared to shrink, carrying herself in such a way that she seemed several inches shorter.

"'Leave me in peace!'" she demanded throatily, in a near-perfect emulation of Flora's flat northern tones. "'I want to say a prayer for my spirits without you both glaring at me!'"

The inflection, speech pattern and mannerisms were flawless; Flora's jaw dropped in shock.

"Leliana, you sound just like a Herring girl," she said after a moment, her eyes wide and round. "You're so clever."

The bard smiled demurely, pushing back the veil and reclaiming her full height.

"Well, the Howe was fooled well enough," she murmured, eyes lifting towards the shadowed ceiling. "He made his move in the Chantry, 'forcing' me down here at knife-point. Very quickly, it became clear that I was not his intended prey."

Flora's mouth twisted in dismay and she went over to her companion, reaching out to clutch Leliana's slender, lace-gloved fingers.

"That was so dangerous for you," she bemoaned, clasping Leliana's hand tightly and bringing it to her chest. "You could've been hurt."

Meanwhile, Alistair had crossed to stand beside Zevran; his face still contorted with rage and relief. The elf glanced sideways to confirm that Flora was still preoccupied with Leliana, then lowered his voice.

"I offered him a choice of farewell: the noose or the knife," Zevran murmured, dark irises settling once more on Howe's dangling figure. "Just as you requested, mi rey. No possibility of carina feeling sorry for him and begging for his life."

Alistair gave a taut nod, his green-flecked hazel eyes lacking even the slightest shred of remorse.

"I know he was young – well, my age – but he threw a blade at Lo. No mercy for anybody who tries to harm her, ever."

"I agree, Alistair. And, see- "

The elf made a gesture towards the back of the crypt, just as Flora withdrew anxiously from Leliana.

They turned as one to see a strange tangle of metal and leather near the crumbling wall; the torchlight reflecting off stained chains and blunt-edged blades.

Fergus, avoiding a half-broken skull lying on the dusty floor, approached the pile as though in a dream. Reaching down, he lifted a pair of rusting manacles, a metal gag attached by a corroded chain. Other various instruments lay haphazardly amidst the crumbling fragments of brick; a pair of pliers, a blade with jagged teeth, a spiked cuff for the neck.

"Maker's Breath," the teyrn muttered, contempt infusing the words. "The sick little bastard. These are torture devices."

Flora flinched as Alistair inhaled unsteadily beside her, the king's pupils shrinking to small dots of unadulterated hatred. A heartbeat later, he had wrenched a pike from a nearby guardsman, striding across the dusty tiles towards the manifestation of Howe's sadistic urges. Spurred by a volatile, barely controlled rage he used the blunt wooden end of the pike to systematically break manacles and torture devices alike into fragments of jagged metal. This was no small feat; but Alistair's strength was fuelled by unadulterated fury. He laid into the twisted iron as though he were beating in the skull of a Howe – father or son – fragments of stone skidding outwards as the tiles splintered under the brutal battering.

Meanwhile, Flora looked down at her stomach, feeling a lump of sadness rise painfully through her throat.

Little creature: can you feel pain in there? I don't think you would have survived what Thomas Howe had planned for me.

The thought of the unborn child experiencing even the slightest discomfort was so distressing that tears threatened to spill over her cheeks. Flora took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down. She envisioned her Herring-dad's familiar scowl; his furrowed grimace of disapproval at such a rampart display of emotion.

Calm down. Alistair needs you to be calm; or he'll get even angrier.

You're a northerner. You're the rock against which the ocean breaks itself.

She took another steadying breath, envisioning the soft, grey whisper of waves creeping over shingle-ridged sand. Walking past the hanging corpse without looking at it, she crossed to the back of the crypt; where her former brother-warden was losing himself in a fit of brutal, helpless rage.

"Alistair," Flora said, and her quiet, flat intonation was enough to break through the muddied crimson haze of Alistair's fury.

He turned with the guard's pike still gripped in his fists, eyes wide and staring. Flora stepped forward, kicking the remains of a manacle across the dusty tile, and reached up to touch his face.

Calm down, her eyes warned him, torchlight catching on the gold flick embedded within the pale iris. Brother-warden.

"Flora," the king said, raw and despairing. "He wanted to torture you. I... I could tear him apart with my teeth, like a Mabari."

"Alistair."

"Look at all this stuff, Flora! He wanted to hurt you – to punish you. Maker's Breath!"

"It's pointless to get angry about things you can't change," she replied, with Herring-instilled practicality. "Think about what you can do stop such things happening in the future. It's more productive."

Alistair deflated, anger draining out of him like a spilt wine glass as he saw the logic behind her argument. He let the pike drop from his hand as though it had scalded him; the wooden length clattering onto the fractured tiles. Flora gazed hopefully up at him and he reached out to cradle her cheeks in his hands, framing her face with his cupped fingers.

"My northern star," he said at last, the words emerging soft and rueful. "Right, then."

The king turned to the others crowded within the crypt, his face filled with grim purpose.

"I want the body cut into four pieces and hung over each entrance to the city," he said, referencing the standard punishment for traitors. "And Fergus, you've a Mabari bitch in pup?"

"Aye," replied the teyrn, with a nod. "Saela. She's from the same litter as Jethro, very good blood. Due in a month or so, according to the kennel-master."

"I want two of the pups – the strongest two – for Flo. To guard her, and the babe."

"I think that sounds very good," replied Fergus, relief infusing the words. "I was saying to Finn the other day; if only my father had had more hounds at Highever, Howe's treachery might have been averted."

Alistair exhaled unsteadily, his hand stretching blindly behind him. Flora's fingers wrapped themselves dutifully in his, and the king drew his mistress to stand close at his side.

"And Zev, Leliana, anything that you want, you'll have it," he said, quietly. "Anything within my power to give. I can't thank you enough for what you've done."

Both bard and Crow immediately opened their mouths to protest, but Alistair shook his head to interrupt their rejection.

"Think about it," he instructed, firmly. "Let me know."

"Aye," added Fergus, stepping forward to pass a palm over his little sister's head. "I'm a man of great resources, too. I'm sure that between us, we can come up with a suitable reward."

"Your Lordship," murmured Zevran, a faint teasing tone to his reply. "We once swore that we would protect our Warden from all who wished to harm her. That oath did not end when the Blight did."

Flora, inexplicably touched, extracted her fingers from Alistair's and stepped forward; avoiding the Cousland retainers as they busied themselves retrieving the dangling corpse. She embraced both of her companions in turn, not quite sure how else to express her gratitude.


 

That night, Alistair took far longer than normal to part from his mistress; unable to remove images of rusted manacles and other cruel devices from his mind. He stood in Revanloch's outer courtyard, mindless of the pouring drizzle, his arms wrapped around Flora's waist as he gazed down at her in the torchlight. She stared back up at him, the fire moving across her face like the setting of the sun; hair hanging in damp tendrils before her ears.

"I love you," he told her for the third time in a half-hour; for the thousandth time in six months; earnest as when he had first confessed it in the bedchamber at Redcliffe Castle. "I love you more than I can say. Maker, I can't wait for this month to be over."

Flora smiled up at him, grateful that some of the tension had drained from her brother-warden's furrowed brow. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the remains of Thomas Howe being brought out wrapped in undignified hessian sacking; a cart waiting in readiness to transport the corpse to the city.

Despite everything that had transpired, Flora felt a pang of sympathy for a young man who had been born into a cruel family through no fault of his own; who had been warped by the twisted predilections of his father, and consumed by a subsequent need for revenge.

I hope you find some peace in the Fade, she thought, swallowing her sorrow so that Alistair did not see it. I hope the spirits are kind to you.

Turning her gaze from the hessian sacking as it was dumped unceremoniously in the back of the cart, Flora stood on her toes to kiss her best friend on the mouth.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she said, as Fergus waited patiently on horseback nearby. "I love you too."

Alistair bowed his head to close the ten inch difference in height between them, kissing her on the nose, both cheeks and mouth in rapid succession; clearly reluctant to leave.

"Alistair, any much longer and it's going to be your birthday," Fergus called down impatiently from the saddle. "Justinian will end, and you'll still be attached to my sister's face."

"Is it my birthday soon, too?" asked Flora, with vague curiosity.

"Aye, Floss," replied Fergus, smiling at her. "The day after. First of Solace. Are you looking forward to it?"

"As much as any other day," said Flora, honestly. She had never celebrated her birthday, and had only a vague understanding of when in the year it fell. Nobody in Herring put much stock in the day they were born; and they certainly did not expect anyone else to recognise the occasion.

Fergus glanced at Alistair, who had a slightly odd expression on his face.

"Well, you'll be turning two decades of age, Lo," the king said, carefully not looking directly at her. "It's a… special moment. It needs to be properly commemorated."

"I'm not going to be 'two decades', whatever that means," Flora corrected, shooting him a puzzled look. "I'll be two-ty. One up from nineteen."

As she held up a finger to illustrate Alistair bit back a laugh, kissing her on the mouth to hide the grin.

"That's right, darling. My mistake."

 

Chapter Text

Three days later, the morning of Flora's celebratory feast arrived. It was an unusually fine Fereldan summer day, the sky a clear and uninterrupted swathe of duck-egg blue, blurring into an Amaranthine ocean unruffled by breeze.

Within Denerim, the people chattered amongst themselves excitedly; the gossip on the streets being that the Lady Cousland was returning – albeit temporarily – to the city. Royal Guardsmen were bribed to leak details of her route up to the palace; which gate would be used, and whether she would be travelling on roadways or taking a barge. Fortunately, Theirin soldiers were loyal – and wary of the king's reprisal - and they betrayed no details of the lady's chosen course.

Still, nothing could dampen the spirit of excitement within the city – all districts rustled with a buzz of gleeful gossip, save for the docks. This part of the city still housed near two hundred refugees, those who not yet managed to scrape together the coin for passage out of Ferelden. These unfortunate travellers huddled in grubby clusters beneath the tiles of an abandoned fish market, hungry and forlorn; many of them from Gwaren, Lothering, and Honnleath.

Revanloch, hunched on its rocky promontory, managed to somehow defy the brilliant sunshine and remain as dour and sombre as ever. The late-Justinian warmth could not penetrate the crumbling stone walls, and made little headway within the shadowed courtyards.

Up in the guest chamber, Flora had been awake for several hours in anticipation. She was perched on the edge of the bed, wincing as Leliana wove a half-dozen slender braids within her heavy mass of hair. The bard was determined to emphasise Flora's Alamarri heritage; knowing that her colouring of pale skin, watercolour grey eyes and oxblood hair harkened back to these first ancient rulers of Ferelden.

"Ow! Ouch."

"If you'd brush your hair and braid it in the evening, like I tell you, it wouldn't work itself into such a bird's nest by morning!" retorted the bard, whose own strawberry blonde locks were already neatly coiffed. "Anyway, have you changed your mind about the robe?"

"No!"

Flora, having successfully negotiated her way into her usual navy tunic and boots, now watched Leliana put the final touches on her makeup. The bard had managed to perfect the art of enhancing her features so subtly that it was impossible to tell that cosmetics had even been applied. The lay sister tsked at herself in the mirror, licking her fingers to mute some of the rouge decorating her cheeks.

"Too much maquillage for this outfit," she murmured absent-mindedly, smoothing a hand over her damask Chantry robes.

"Mack-a-what?"

"Cosmetics," replied Leliana, taking one final glance in the mirror. "Are you ready, ma petite? Ugh, are you wearing those boots? I despair!"

Flora finished tightening the leather strap around her knee, feeling the usual reflexive defensiveness that rose whenever Leliana criticised her footwear.

"These boots have been with me since Ostagar! They've been in the Deep Roads, the Brecilian Forest… I killed the Archdemon in these boots!"

"All the more reason to throw them out," retorted Leliana, immediately. "They're probably covered in all sorts of- "

"Lady Cousland?"

A servant clad in a Chantry tabard made a demure entrance, head bowed.

"Oh, is the escort from the Palace here?" Leliana asked, glancing around for her silken purse. "Tell them we'll just be a moment. They're early. Is Bann Teagan with them?"

The Chantry servant bowed once more, while simultaneously shaking his head.

"No, lay-sister. The Lady Cousland has a guest, they're waiting downstairs."

Flora frowned, she was not expecting anyone in particular. Leliana's face settled into a more prominent scowl, her powdered nostrils flaring.

"They've picked a poor day to visit," the bard grumbled. "We need to depart for the feast; they'll either have to accompany us, or wait here until we return. Who is it?"

The servant swallowed, and Flora noticed beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead.

"An Orlesian, by the name of G-Gasper Deshallyon."

"Gasper Deshallyon?"

"Gasp.. Gaspard Deshallon…"

Leliana inhaled sharply, her fingers fluttering towards her mouth.

"Gaspard de Chalons? The Grand Duc? Cousin of the Empress Celene? Chevalier of the Order?"

"He's a long way from Val Royeaux," Flora said, unimpressed by a string of titles. "Do you think he's lost?"

Leliana shook her head slowly, finely plucked eyebrows lodged within her auburn hairline.

"Non."

"Then why is he here?"

"I believe he has a purpose, though I know not what it could be," the bard murmured. "Still, there is only one way to find out. Are you ready for your first diplomatic exchange with the Valmonts, ma crevette?"

Flora grunted, grateful for the natural haughtiness of her fine-boned features; solemn and enigmatic as any Orlesian mask.

"Not really."

Before they left the room, Leliana slid one of her narrowest blades up her sleeve, expression carefully blank. Flora gaped, eyes expanding like saucers.

"Do you think he's dangerous?"

"Not dangerous, exactly," replied the bard, summoning a bright and detached smile. "But ruthless – oui. Very much so."

The Grand Duc was waiting downstairs within the Knight-Commander's office. The Knight-Commander himself had been relegated to the mildewed corridor, twitching and unhappy. The entrance to the office was flanked with Orlesian guards, clad in the argent and blue livery of the Valmonts. Instead of the closed-face helms worn by the Theirin Royal Guardsmen, these soldiers had their faces obscured by ornate silver masks. Their halberds were decorated with finely worked filigree, though the blade's razor-sharp edge proved it a weapon well enough.

As Flora and Leliana entered the room, Gaspard de Chalons was inspecting a moth-eared tapestry depicting Andraste and her disciples. Hearing the door open, he turned on a heel with militaristic swiftness; crossing the room in a handful of strides.

"My lady Cousland," he said, bowing down with a practised flourish. "It is a privilege and an honour to meet you."

He gripped her fingers and kissed them in typical Orlesian manner; Flora took advantage of this brief interlude to dart her eyes quickly over this mysterious new arrival. The duc was a stocky, powerfully built man who appeared to be nearing his sixth decade, greying hair cropped close enough to his head to see the pink skin below. He was regally clad in crimson and ochre, and small, clever green eyes were framed by a silvered mask.

Flora continued to gaze at the duc thoughtfully as he straightened, not entirely sure what to say. The Orlesian noble graciously pulled out a chair for her to sit, taking a seat on the opposite side of the desk. Leliana elected to remain standing; made subtle by the demure camouflage of a Chantry sister.

"May I first pass on our gratitude to the nation of Ferelden for the defeat of the Fifth Blight," Gaspard said quietly, peeling off his leather travel gloves one finger at a time.

Flora nodded slowly, her pale eyes meeting the glass-green irises of the duc. He was staring at her with unblinking intensity, as though trying to penetrate the ambiguous mask of her haughty features in order to perceive the girl underneath. Flora, who had once looked the Archdemon in its scaled, hooded eye, was unimpressed.

Is he trying to intimidate me?

There came no response, and Flora gave an inward sigh; wondering if she would ever get used to the silence that now followed her thoughts.

Well, I think he is trying to intimidate me. What is it with these Orlesians?

On getting no reply from Flora save from a vacant stare; Gaspard continued, a small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.

"Orlais would have stood ready to assist… if assistance had been requested."

"Ferelden managed well enough alone," said Flora blandly, fixing her pale, Cousland eyes on him.

Gaspard nodded, settling back in the chair and touching his fingertips together.

"Oui, especially considering that your nation is not exactly renowned within Thedas for its military prowess."

Flora felt outrage flare within her stomach; with effort, she kept it from her face.

"I'm surprised that Orlais doesn't remember the strength of our army," she replied, innocently. "How many decades has it been since the rebels ousted you from Ferelden?"

Gaspard's grey eyebrows rose from behind his mask, his fingers steepling together.

"Forgive me, my lady," he countered, in arch tones. "Were you even alive during the Orlesian occupation, or the Fereldan war of independence? You do seem very… young."

"You're right," replied Flora, with the impudence of any adolescent girl. "I'm not old enough to remember a time when Orlais was a great military power. I'll have to check my history books later."

Leliana had to bite back a smile, inordinately proud of her young charge. The grand duc looked astounded for a moment, and then let out a gruff bark of laughter, looking a fraction friendlier.

"My lady, I have a gift I wish to formally present to you, on behalf of the Empress and I."

Gaspard barked out an instruction in his native tongue, and two livery-clad retainers came struggling in; clutching something large and covered in a silk cloth. With mutual grunts of exertion, they deposited the item onto the desk, bowing low before making their exit.

The grand duc rose to his feet, taking hold of the navy satin and pulling it free with a triumphal gesture. A great golden fish rose up from a sculpted wave; each fin and scale carved with exceptional care. Flora stared at it, utterly nonplussed.

"It is, ah, how do you say it? Un hareng."

"A herring," she translated, having recognised the shape of the fin.

"Oui. The story of your… unusual upbringing has been a source of much fascination in the salons of Val Royeaux."

The duc eyed her from behind the ornate mask, his curiosity no less assuaged by meeting the Hero of Ferelden in person. Florence Cousland gave nothing away, her face as ambiguous and fine-featured as any Orlesian mask.

"Hm," Flora said at last, reaching out to run her finger over the gilded scales. "I'm not sure how good a swimmer this fish would be. But thank you for this imaginative present."

Gaspard made no reply; merely curled his lips upwards at her beneath the mask.

Leliana took advantage of the pause to clear her throat delicately. When she spoke, the Orlesian accent had been smoothed away to near-nothingness, her tongue shaping words like a Fereldan.

"Lady Florence, the feast will be starting soon. We ought to depart."

"Please," interrupted the duc, inclining his head politely. "Allow me to escort you to Denerim, my lady. I have a carriage and horse waiting in the courtyard."

In a split second, Flora weighed up the benefits and drawbacks to accepting the Orlesian's offer.

He's not going to hurt me. It'd start a war.

What's a carriage, anyway? Some sort of fancy cart?

If I say no, it'll look like I'm afraid.

Leliana will be with me, I'll be fine.

"Thank you," she said at last, unable to stop herself from casting a final, dubious glance at the golden fish statuette.

As it happened, a carriage turned out to be more than just a fancy cart. A sweating coachman held open the gilded door, as Flora eyed the ornately worked metal with increasing wariness. Leliana clambered in beside her, with a soft purr of appreciation at the velvet furnishings.

"I'm not sure carriages have caught on yet in Ferelden," the duc commented idly, settling back against the cushions as Flora sat rigidly opposite, trying hard not to let her apprehension show on her face. "Does your king still ride around on horseback?"

"Yes," Flora replied, summoning some spirit into her reply. "The king of Ferelden is loved by his people and can ride freely among them. From what I've heard, it's no surprise that some Orlesian nobles require a layer of protection between them and their subjects."

The duc snorted once more, eyeing her with increasing appreciation as the carriage set off.

"You are… not what I expected, Florence Cousland. That child is the king's, yes?"

Flora nodded, already deciding that she hated this new form of transport. They went over a large pothole and the entire carriage rattled, the occupants within jolting up and down. Grimly, Flora anchored herself to the velvet bench with her fingertips, offering a silent apology to the little creature within her belly.

"I see," replied Gaspard, seeming to retreat into his own thoughts. "Interesting."


 

The journey took longer than it would have done on horseback, due to the need to navigate the crumbling roadways and clifftop path. The horses made a wilful effort, sweat breaking out on their flanks as they heaved the carriage down the final long incline towards the city walls.

To one side, the Alamarri plains stretched out to the west of the city, the river estuary gleaming in the sunlight as it snaked leisurely towards the Bannorn hills. The land had been irrevocably scarred by the battle that had taken place there a month prior; only a few scant patches of grass remained amidst a sea of mud and earth. The remains of the dwarven trenches and gullies could still be seen, along with the tangled wreckage of field weaponry too broken for redemption.

Flora did not want to look at the plains, memories of the battle too raw and sharp still for palatable recall. Gaspard, conversely, appeared fascinated by them; shifting position along the velvet bench to gain a better view.

Meanwhile Leliana hummed softly to herself, peering out of the window and fiddling with the lacy edge of her glove. By some miracle – or a set of well-honed abdominal muscles – she barely seemed to register the uneven surface; remaining perfectly serene and stable as the carriage lurched about her.

"It appears that Ferelden's roadways are in need of some maintenance," offered the grand duc at last, relying on his muscled bulk to keep him steady on the cushions. "You may wish to whisper something on the matter to your king, my lady."

Flora, who was jammed into one corner of the bench in an attempt to wedge herself in place, managed to summon up a retort.

"My king is committed to rebuilding the nation after the Blight," she replied, feeling the little creature nudge irritably against her kidney. "Filling in holes in the roads is not a great priority for him at the moment."

Gaspard opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by the sound of approaching hoof-steps, and the shouts of men. Leliana peered out of the carriage window, her sky-blue eyes lighting up like Dalish lanterns.

"It's Bann Teagan and the escort. Stop the carriage!"

The bard reached out to open the carriage door as the bann reined his horse expertly to a halt alongside them.

Teagan's expression was a mixture of raw suspicion and naked alarm; he had clearly identified the Valmont coat of arms painted on the side of the carriage. Surprise was quickly added to the blend as his gaze settled on Flora, rigid and unhappy in one corner. He stared at her, and she made a tiny grimace back at him.

"Grand-Duc," the bann said, after a short pause. "You're aware that you've arrived a fortnight early for the coronation?"

"I am aware, bann," replied Gaspard, equally coolly. "I have some personal business with the new teyrn of Highever."

Teagan made a quick gesture inside the carriage, his Guerrin eyes hawklike in their unblinking focus.

"This is not the teyrn of Highever," he stated, evenly. "And your decision to visit the teyrn's sister at Revanloch is in deliberate defiance of protocol. She is not of voting age; there ought to have been elders present."

The grand duc smiled, though his eyes behind the mask stayed sharp and thoughtful.

"My apologies," he murmured, after a moment. "Although I do not believe that the lady had any need for elders. She defied me as belligerently as any Landsmeet veteran."

Teagan flashed Flora a fleeting smile.

"Still," he continued, voice steady. "I'll take the Lady Cousland to the city from here, grand-duc. Lay-sister Leliana, would you like to accompany us?"

"I'll be fine," a demure Leliana replied in her Fereldan-accented guise, folding her fingers in her lap. "We'll follow you in the carriage."

And I'll see what I can find out about this man's purpose, her eyes added, silently.

Teagan gave a slight nod of acknowledgement, then reached out his arms towards the carriage. Flora clambered to her feet, awkwardly stepping over the grand-duc's boots to reach the doorway. The bann leaned over and lifted her onto his saddle, feeling an internal twinge of relief as she settled back against his chest.

"À bientôt, my lady," called the grand-duc out of the window, his mouth curling upwards in an amused smile beneath his mask.

Teagan barked an order to his retainers, and they turned their horses back around towards the city of Denerim. The city walls were now only a few minutes ride away; they were close enough to see the great banners of Theirin hanging crimson and gold against the lofty stonework.

The bann let out a low exhalation, keeping one arm wrapped tightly around Flora's abdomen as they rode slowly towards the western gate.

"I'm sorry that I was late," he said after a moment, removing a strand of her hair that had blown back against his face. "Are you alright, poppet?"

"Mm," replied Flora, letting go of the pommel and trusting in the bann's strong grip to keep her astride the saddle.

"Do you know who that was?"

"… Gosper?"

"Gaspard de Chalons, one of the most notorious members of the Orlesian court and ruler of Verchiel." Teagan wrinkled his nose, his distaste for Val Royeaux politics apparent. "Outmanoeuvred to the Sunburst Throne by his cousin Celene, his wife Calienne engineered the death of Celene's mother in a hunting accident, then was murdered herself by Celene's father."

Flora twisted in the saddle and gaped up at him. The bann laughed at the expression on her face, shortening the reins expertly as they approached the gate.

"I know, pet. Stuff of stories, isn't it? The Orlesian Court is a snake-pit."

"It sounds horrible," replied Flora, bluntly. "I can't believe someone as lovely as Leliana came out of all that. Why would he want to see me?"

Teagan let out a low, ambiguous grunt, his grip tightening a fraction around her waist.

"Well," he said, softly. "You're a valuable political pawn now, Flora. A Cousland girl, Hero of Ferelden, and carrying a royal child."

In addition to the incalculable advantage of that face the bann thought, but did not add.

"A valuable political prawn," replied Flora, remembering his attempts to teach her chess. She smiled to herself, feeling a low rumble of laughter within the bann's chest.

"Indeed. Looking forward to your feast? I hope you didn't break your fast too extensively this morning."

"Oh, I ate a ton earlier. But I've always got room for more," Flora replied, blithely. "I think I must have two stomachs, like a starfish. You know, a starfish isn't actually a fish? It's part of the mollusc family."

 

 

Chapter Text

As Teagan and Flora approached the city gates, a shout went up on the walls. Flora blinked in astonishment as a swarm of soldiers popped up on the ramparts like herons, swords raised in greeting. More armoured men came streaming out from beneath the portcullis, forming a guard of honour at either side of the road.

"What's going on?" Flora asked, peering over her shoulder. "Is this for Gosper?"

"No, petal."

Lady Cousland! the cry echoed down from the city walls. Lady Cousland!

Hearing the outcry of the guards, it was now the turn of the civilians to flock down towards the gate. Children scampered onto the city walls, clinging precariously to the ramparts as they waved frantically at the approaching riders. In mere minutes, a crowd of almost two hundred had formed to greet the lady Cousland as she returned to Denerim for the first time in three weeks. They knew that she had arrived for her celebratory feast, and wanted to gain a glimpse before she vanished behind the fortress-like walls of the Royal Palace.

For a fleeting moment, Flora was genuinely astounded. Safely enclosed within Revanloch's walls, the Templar initiates under strict instruction not to harass her; it had become easy to ignore her new prominence within Fereldan society. To be so suddenly reminded of her own fame was somewhat disorientating.

Lady Cousland! Lady Cousland!

Still, Flora had been the centre of attention before. She summoned a memory from when she had been Warden-Commander - inspecting the troops on the Alamarri plains, with the heat of ten thousand curious stares resting between her shoulder blades.

Teagan felt her stiffen, pushing herself up on the saddle to gain a few extra inches of height.

At least, Flora thought grimly to herself, sweeping her cool Cousland stare across the assembled crowds. They don't expect me to smile and wave. They know I always look sulky.

Don't look at the cage above the gate; it's got a bit of Thomas Howe in it.

She lifted her chin to acknowledge the cries and hails, hearing the excited murmurs reach a frenzy as her swollen stomach came into full view of the crowds.

"The taverns are taking bets on when the royal baby is due," Teagan murmured in her ear, clearly amused. "A great deal of coin is wagered on the workings of your belly."

"What are the odds?" breathed Flora, genuinely curious. A daring youth darted forwards, tucking a flower into Teagan's stirrup before being chased away by a guard.

"Fourth week of Kingsway is the most popular bet, last I checked," Teagan replied with a chuckle, betraying his own vested interest. "But there's an increasing number who believe it'll be the middle of Harvestmere. First children are often late, or so I've been told. Not exactly my area of expertise."

Teagan, the confirmed bachelor, gave a wry shrug.

"Me either," said Flora, bestowing a smile on a small child who was running alongside their horse and squeaking with excitement.

"Soon as you're back in the palace – next week, aye – we'll get the midwife in again."

They had reached the largest bridge, where the main roadway cut a great east-west swathe through the city. Teagan made to turn the horse's head westwards, towards the noble district and royal palace; then Flora reached out to rest her fingers on the back of his hand.

"Not that way," she said, conspiratorially. "That way."

"East?"

"Mm."


 

Meanwhile, up in the Royal Palace, Alistair had finally acquiesced to some assistance with dressing. He was so distracted by the multitude of events in the upcoming fortnight – Flora's feast, their birthdays, meetings with the trade guilds, the coronation – that he had fastened his tunic incorrectly three times in a row.

Eventually, he let out a frustrated bark for help. The young groom, who had been waiting for this moment for months, scuttled in from the Royal corridor with head bowed decorously to hide the beam of delight. Alistair, a little self-conscious, stood rigid in place as he was laced and buttoned into the garb of a Fereldan king.

Running a finger over the neatly trimmed hair across his jaw – Alistair reckoned that the short beard added at least five years to his age – he glanced around for the crown. Guilluame, the Royal Steward who had served the Theirins for two generations, advanced with the spiked golden band in its protective case.

"Are you coming down to the feast, Will?" Alistair asked, adjusting the position of the band on his head and glancing briefly in the mirror. "The head cook has been back and forth to Revanloch at least three times. I'm glad that Flo has been so enthusiastic about organising it."

"It should be a memorable occasion, Your Majesty," murmured Guilluame decorously in response, knowing far more than he was letting on. "Speaking of the lady Florence-"

Alistair grimaced to himself as they headed down the Royal corridor together, making their way towards the great hall where banquets were customarily held.

"I know what you're going to ask."

"Majesty?"

Alistair put on a rather poor attempt at a Nevarran accent, in an effort to emulate Guilluame's distinctive intonation.

"'Your Majesty. Does the lady Florence actually know about her upcoming nuptials?' Well, the answer is, no. No, she does not. She has no idea, and the dressmakers' guild keeps nagging me about getting her measurements for the bridal gown. The standard-makers have already made three dozen banners with our combined heraldry! And she doesn't know!"

Guilluame blinked, running his fingers through the oiled point of his silver beard.

"I see your dilemma," he said at last, as they passed the hunted halla tapestry at the top of the stairs. "If I may presume to ask – why haven't you asked the lady yet?"

"I don't know," replied Alistair, bleakly. "She was so upset after finding out that her spirits were gone. And then – I suppose I wanted to court her properly. She deserves the best, Will, she deserves the best of everything. I wanted the proposal to be perfect. But now the coronation is – ten days away! – and she doesn't know that we're getting married on the same day."

Alistair visibly slumped, head bowed like a chastised Mabari.

"I just didn't want to overwhelm her," he muttered, glancing up at the stained glass Calenhad window. The sunlight shone through, illuminating his ancestor's face in jewel tones. "It took me months to accept becoming king. Marrying me is more than just a ring, it's a throne."

Guilluame gave a soft grunt of acknowledgement, silvery eyes flashing like fish darting through the water as they approached the main hall.

"The lady Cousland seems to be an adaptable creature," he replied diplomatically, ears pricking as booted footsteps approached from a side corridor. "Ah, here come the others. Excuse me a moment, your majesty."

Sure enough, Finian's high-pitched laughter preceded him around the corner; the young, russet-haired noble appearing particularly piratical in a leather eye-patch.

"I'm going to need all my shirts let out before the coronation," he was saying, with a slight roll of the eyes. "This'll be the fourth banquet this month. Fergus, you're getting a little soft about the belly- "

The teyrn, who was deep in conversation with Leonas, managed to elbow his brother in the ribs without interrupting his sentence.

"Morning, Alistair."

"Morning, uncle," Alistair returned his uncle's greeting as Eamon clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Has Teagan gone to collect Flo?"

The arl of Redcliffe gave a nod, having seen Teagan off with several retainers on horseback earlier that morning.

"Aye, lad. There was a short delay, but he's well on his way. They ought to be here by now."

Alistair beamed, delighted to have his best friend back within the confines of the palace.

"Where is she?" he asked, immediately. "Is she with the others – oh."

The king trailed off as they entered the entrance hall, brow furrowing. The cavernous space was dim and smoky as usual, the fireplaces lit in defiance of the sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Gathered in one corner were several of Flora's companions – Wynne was talking animatedly to Oghren, while Zevran leaned against a hearth and fiddled idly with a blade strapped to his forearm.

"Ha, it's Prince Charming!" Oghren bellowed across the entrance hall, waving a meaty arm in greeting. "All hail! You know," he said, to a wide-eyed passing servant. "knew the king when he were just plain Warden Alistair, blue-ballin' over a lass he hadn't even bedded- "

The dwarf let out a cough as Wynne's bony elbow swung with surprising strength into his ribcage.

The senior enchanter advanced across the entrance hall, her eyebrows rising into her silver hairline.

"Dear boy," she murmured, kissing Alistair on the cheek as her shrewd blue gaze searched his face. "The beard suits you. You look the spit of Maric."

Alistair smiled distractedly at her, eyes moving towards Zevran.

"Morning. I thought Flo would be with you?"

"No, mi rey," replied the elf, frowning."I haven't seen her since I last saw you."

There was a brief, puzzled silence. Oghren squinted about the entrance hall, which was deserted save for a handful of servants.

"This feast don't seem very well attended," he said at last, brow furrowing. "Who did she invite?"

Alistair gave a helpless shrug, as Fergus and Finian glanced at one another in similar confusion.

"I don't know. She's been quite vague about the whole thing. Shall we check the great hall?"

A handful of minutes later, and both nobles and companions were staring with mild consternation into a shadowed and entirely empty hall. The hearths were unlit, the long tables deserted; the candelabras hanging in darkness overhead. The hall's only occupant was an old Mabari, greying in the muzzle, snoring beside a cobwebbed suit of armour.

"I don't understand," said Alistair, at last. "I know the feast was definitely happening today – the cooks have been preparing the food since Tuesday. The kitchens have been going all night."

"Could it be taking place outside?" suggested Finian, brushing against a wall tapestry and sneezing at the subsequent expulsion of dust. "In the gardens? It's sunny enough."

They gazed at one another in the shadowed hall, equally perplexed.

Eventually Zevran cleared his throat, the noise echoing up to the rafters overhead.

"My little peach does have quite the ravenous appetite," he said at last, at a loss for any other explanation. "Perhaps she has arrived, descended upon the feast like a horde of locusts, and it is all gone?"

There was a moment of silence as those present considered this possibility.

"I don't think she could eat that much," said Alistair, uncertainly. "I mean, I know she eats a lot, but- "

"Your Majesty, my lords!"

Guillaume had arrived behind them, looking slightly out of breath; a pink flush illuminating his tawny skin.

"I apologise, King Alistair. I meant to tell you earlier – the lady Cousland's feast is not being held within the palace!"

"She's not here?" Finian repeated, a furrow forming in the centre of his noble brow.

"Where's my wife?" the king chimed in, somewhat plaintively. "My future wife."

"I believe the lady is at her feast," continued the Royal Steward, quietly. "Which is being held down on the docks."

"The docks? With the fishermen?" Fergus asked, confused. "I suppose that makes sense."

"Not with the fishermen."

Wynne corrected the teyrn gently, the corner of her mouth turning upwards in a wry smile.

"With the refugees."


 

Horses were called for and brought quickly to the gravel forecourt before the great palace gates. The sun bore down on them brilliantly from above; not a single scrap of cloud marring the sky as midday approached.

They made good time through the city, Royal Guardsmen sent in advance to ensure that a path within the crowds was cleared. The people of Denerim, who had come onto the streets to welcome back the lady Cousland, now received further compensation with a glimpse of their popular young king.

Theirin, Theirin! the cry went up, and Alistair lifted a distracted hand to acknowledge the hails; preoccupied with thoughts of his former sister-warden.

Despite her grief for the loss of her spirits, the concern over the assassins, the isolation at Revanloch; Flora had not forgotten about the plight of the refugees, whom she and Alistair had seen every day during their residence at the Pearl. There were hundreds of them, from Loghain's ravaged teyrnir of Gwaren, from poor lost Lothering, from Cullen Rutherford's home-town of Honnleath. Their regional accents may have been different; but they all wore the same hollow and hopeless expression, the faces of those who had lost everything.

"We came down here a dozen times," Leonas was saying to Fergus, their horses abreast in the centre of the road. "So the lass could offer her mending services. Even in the days right before the battle."

"'Heeling here too-day (free)'" murmured Zevran, riding close behind. The elf recalled the clumsily painted sign that Flora had hung up on a bedsheet loaned from the Pearl, standing on a crate and offering her liberal talents to any who required them.

Denerim's docks lay at the eastern edge of the city; consisting of a dozen wooden jetties extending into the muddy green estuary. An eclectic collection of buildings were clustered on the dockside itself; whorehouses, warehouses and fish markets competed for space on the salt-stained boardwalk.

The old fish market – little more than a tiled roof perched upon crumbling stone arches – had been left as temporary shelter for the refugees. When Alistair had last been there, it was a forlorn and desperate place; with families huddled in miserable clumps around the remains of wooden stalls.

Now the sound of sizzling meat and chatter echoed about the stone arches, the hollow space filled with long tables that had been brought down from the palace and quickly assembled. Each surface was crowded with platters and dishes, jugs of ale wedged into any available space; vast cauldrons of stew and soup were stationed to one side. The head cook at the Royal Palace was directing several of his underlings as they carved meat from a pig precariously balanced on a makeshift spit.

The homeless families were gathered at the tables with plates piled high, speaking with mouths full as they conversed animatedly. Such was the level of chatter that Alistair's arrival was not immediately registered. Only when the Royal Guard flanked the entrance, did the news begin to spread like wildfire.

The king is here! King Alistair is here!

Those nearby dropped their forks and scrambled to stand, in mild panic. Alistair held up his hand, shaking his head and raising his voice so that it reverberated through the old market.

"Don't interrupt your meal on my account," he instructed, gesturing for them to remain seated. "We've come to join you."

"Sounds good to me," chimed in Oghren, who had his eye on a nearby pork pie.

So it followed that the most prominent nobles in Ferelden – including the Royal General and the teyrn of Highever - sat down on the benches amidst the common folk and began to gather food onto some hastily provided plates.

Meanwhile Alistair was scanning the old market like a hawk, the green veins in his irises standing out stark against the hazel. After a few moments, he caught sight of a splash of crimson in a far and unobtrusive corner. With a heart throbbing irrationally hard against his ribcage, the king made his way through the tables and free-standing cauldrons.

Flora was standing away from the crowds, deep in conversation with an auburn-headed man whose fingers were twisting nervously in his ragged sleeves. She was listening earnestly to the man's shy muttering, while simultaneously resting a grubby, copper-haired baby on her swollen belly. Teagan was standing close by, leaning against a pillar; bann flashed king a wry smile of greeting as Alistair neared.

"I can't believe haddock season starts so early down south," Flora breathed in wonder, shifting the infant expertly to her hip as it wriggled. "Fishing in Gwaren sounds very different. I wonder if the seawater is warmer?"

Alistair stopped abruptly in his tracks, mesmerised by the sight of his mistress with the widower's baby. The rational part of his mind reminded him that Flora had spent ten years in a tiny village; it made sense that she had helped to look after the younger children and was thus comfortable in their company.

Yet he had never seen her with any before, and her natural ease with the baby made his heart swell with affection in his chest. The infant made a snuffling noise, wrapping its fingers in her hair, and she kissed it tenderly on its plump little cheek.

"Flora," Alistair said quietly, and Flora startled, having been so immersed in conversation with the Gwaren fisherman that she had not noticed the king's arrival.

The widower froze in momentary panic, unsure how to respond. Flora carefully extracted her hair from the baby's clenched fist, tickling it under the chin before handing it back to its father.

Turning back to Alistair, Flora smiled up at him anxiously; hoping that he wasn't annoyed that she had neglected to inform him of her plans to relocate her feast to the docks. The king stepped forward, cupped her cheek in his hand and lifted her chin; gazing down into her solemn, earnest face.

"My sweet-hearted girl," he said softly after a moment, shaking his head. "This was meant to be your feast."

"Eh, I don't need a feast," Flora replied, with northern candour and a shrug of the shoulders. "I'm going to get fat enough by Kingsway – or Harvestmere - I ought not stuff my face with food."

The old market had fallen quiet behind them, those at the tables pausing with forks halfway their to mouths as they watched the king greet his mistress. More of Denerim's citizens had crowded in beneath the arches, curious and wide-eyed; always eager to catch another glimpse of their handsome new Theirin, and the girl who had ended the Blight.

Alistair made as though to kiss her, then felt the heat of several hundred eyes raising the hairs on the back of his neck. As though on cue, Eamon sidled out from a nearby pillar, lowering his voice to a murmur.

"Florence, they're waiting for you."

Flora grimaced, she had not expected to actually address the crowd. However, public speaking was something that she had grown reluctantly accustomed to over the months, and so she headed towards the auctioneer's block at the front of the market, judging it to be more stable than standing on a crate. The throngs parted to clear a path before her, hungry fingers still clutching pieces of cooked chicken and broth-soaked bread.

Alistair followed in her wake, overtaking Flora easily on the last few strides to offer her assistance onto the auctioneer's platform. There must have once existed a wooden scaffold or makeshift step; yet this had clearly been scavenged for fuel. In the absence of any stairs, Alistair lifted his mistress bodily up onto the raised stone plinth.

Flora looked out over the gathered people, her friends and companions blending in amidst the refugees, with the people of Denerim clustering on the fringes of the crowd. She caught sight of her brothers – their tall, russet-haired frames distinct – and half-smiled at them. Zevran was loitering near Finian; murmuring something quiet in her slender brother's ear. The elf looked up to meet her gaze, then blew her a kiss.

The crowd fell silent beneath Flora's pale Cousland stare; the cool, watercolour appraisal that her ancestors had used to hold Ferelden's wild north in check. Flora licked her lips - relatively certain that the baby had left a handful of apple sauce in her hair – and began to speak.

"I remember what it's like to be hungry," she began, quietly. "When I grew up – in Herring – there were some weeks when the catch was bad, and all we caught had to be sold. There were times when we cooked seaweed into a stew because there was nothing else to eat."

Flora hoped that the compassion in her voice made up for the haughty beauty of her face; which she resented and had no control over.

"This food doesn't in any way compensate for what's been lost," she continued, earnest and solemn. "It doesn't make up for the homes, the towns, the family that you've left behind. I've never been to Gwaren or Honnleath, but I... I have been to Lothering. I think of Lothering all the time. I had Lothering in my heart when I killed the Archdemon."

Flora paused for a moment, wondering at how clear poor, lost Lothering stood out in her mind; the village preserved with especial clarity despite featuring so fleetingly in her life.

"I just wanted to do something to help," she said at last, a raw echo to the words. "Since I can't mend you any more. I'm sorry that I can't mend you, I wish I could. I was useful when I had my spirits. I think – I don't really know what to do without them. I feel a bit useless, to be honest."

Flora half-smiled to take the edge from her northern frankness, but the candour in the words gleamed like pyrite in a river stream. Each phlegmatic cough she heard from the crowd cut her like a small, pernicious blade; as did each glimpse of a bandaged limb that she now had no hope of mending. To her horror, Flora felt tears prickling in the corners of her eyes.

Don't cry! You don't cry in public!

If you do cry, blame it on the little creature unbalancing you.

"Your Majesty!"

The cry rose first from the back of the market hall, thin and defiant.

Flora blinked in slight surprise, a faint line of confusion forming on her brow as the tears arrested themselves on her lashes.

"Aye! Your Majesty!"

Seconds later, the hail came again, louder this time and joined by several more voices. It continued to build upon itself, a dozen more voices joining with each repetition; swelling in volume and vigour until the words blurred together in a great roar of sound that rattled the roof tiles.

Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Your Majesty!

Flora had no idea what was going on, except that she was relatively certain she was now partially deaf. She stood on the auctioneer's platform, feeling incongruously as though she were for sale; and stared solemnly out at the cheering crowds.

What are you cheering me for? she thought, in mild bewilderment. I didn't make this food. I can't heal your coughs or that old man's broken arm.

Why are you calling me 'your majesty'?

Down on the market floor, Fergus nudged Alistair's elbow; a half-laugh emerging from his throat.

"You'd better get up there, Theirin," he murmured, eyebrows wedged in his hairline. "Or my little sister might unwittingly usurp your throne."

Alistair grinned, his face suffused with immeasurable pride. In a swift, effortless gesture he had climbed up onto the auctioneer's platform and put an arm around his best friend's waist, one hand spreading affectionately across her stomach.

"I adore you," he breathed in Flora's ear, wishing that they were alone.

Flora beamed, delighted, and the sight of the solemn young Cousland smiling for her king was enough to set off a fresh wave of approval from the crowd.

"Alistair," she whispered, grateful for his steadying arm about her waist. The smell of roast pig had been wafting up her nostrils for an hour, and the meaty aroma was enough to curdle her stomach.

"Yes, my love?"

"There's an Orlesian here. He's with Leliana."

"An Orlesian?" Alistair repeated, managing to convey incredulity through his smile. "Who is it?"

"Gosper."

"Who?!"

"Gosper De...Deshally. I don't know what he's here for. Leliana says that he's a duck."

"?!"

 

Chapter Text

Once they had returned to the Royal Palace, it became quickly apparent why Gaspard De Chalons had arrived two weeks early for Alistair's coronation.

The nobles met formally with the grand duc within the castle's most unashamedly Fereldan audience chamber. There was not a single gilded curlicue or delicate mural to be seen on the windowless stone walls – they were carved with finely worked reliefs of Mabari and horses mid-hunt, the wooden beams overhead painted with old Alamarri patterns. A tapestry of Calenhad loomed above the receiving platform, eight foot high and nearly twelve in length; while a statue of the Rebel Queen dominated the chamber's opposite flank. Candles hung from the ceiling in wrought-iron rings, casting a flickering light onto the faces of those gathered below.

The Valmont soldiers were stationed at one side of the door, while the Theirin Royal Guard eyed them suspiciously from the other. The grand duc stood in the centre of the room, his stance straight-backed and militaristic despite his advancing years.

Alistair was seated alongside his advisers, his chair raised a fraction higher to denote his status. The crown – which he had removed to eat amongst the refugees – was now placed firmly back atop his head. Eamon, Leonas and Fergus sat about him with varying degrees of suspicion writ plain across their faces.

Teagan was leaning against the far wall, head tilted towards the newly invested Arl of Amaranthine. Finian had relayed all that he had learnt about the grand duc during his five years immersed within Orlesian society; and none of it was particularly palatable.

"You're a fortnight early," Alistair stated flatly, leaning forward and disposing with pleasantries. "What's your business within Ferelden?"

And with the mother of my child, he added grimly to himself.

"You can take off that mask, Orlesian," Leonas interjected, his voice gruff. "This isn't Halamshiral. We don't speak through flowers here."

Gaspard de Chalons acquiesced without comment, removing the silvered domino. Beneath was the bitter, weathered face of a man who had survived decades of the Orlesian Great Game, only to emerge with second prize.

"A force of habit," he murmured, soft and amused. "No offence intended, my lords. But my business is with the Couslands – the young lady is not here, and I am loathe to start without her."

Alistair narrowed his eyes, feeling a small pulse of anger form in the back of his skull. Beside him, he felt the teyrn bristle in his seat.

"As you said: Florence is young. In fact, my sister has not even reached the age of voting majority," Fergus interjected, stiffly. "Any dealings with her will go through me."

"Comme vous voulez," replied the grand duc, a faint smile tugging his thin lips at the mention of Ferelden's 'primitive' politics. "I have come to throw my hat into the ring."

"Speak plain and not in guise, man!" Teagan called out irritably from the wall, tiring of the Orlesian's wordplay.

"Bien sûr. I wish to sign my name to the list of the lady Florence's suitors."

There was a long and charged silence, during which Alistair felt his blood pressure increase in gradual increments.

"What do you mean: list of suitors?" he half-growled, visibly struggling to keep a grip on civility. "What bloody list?"

The grand duc raised an eyebrow, taking a gulp from an ornately carved hip flask.

"As far as I'm aware, there are at least a half-dozen noble families within Thedas who have put forward propositions of marriage. The Vaels of Starkhaven are looking for a match for their eldest son. The Pentaghasts of Nevarre have made enquiries. There was even a suit from a Tevinter magister, although I believe they redacted their offer on hearing of the lady's severance from the Fade."

Alistair sat in stunned silence for a moment, mouth slightly parted. Fergus cleared his throat, a scowl ingrained deep within his handsome, prematurely lined face.

"Those proposals all went to me," he stated, bluntly. "I didn't care to pass them on to my sister. She's not leaving Ferelden. Neither the Landsmeet nor the people would countenance it."

There was a murmur of general agreement amongst those present.

"Floss wouldn't survive in Nevarre," Finian whispered conspiratorially in Teagan's ear. "She can barely cope with the Fereldan sun. Anyway, you know this duc's last wife was murdered?"

Alistair interjected then, his face contorted in naked outrage.

"But she's carrying my child," he retorted, the words harbouring a vein of distinct Theirin threat. "She's my- my-"

The grand duc gave a shrug, the silvered epaulet on his shoulder catching the torchlight.

"To raise a king's child would be no burden," he replied; and almost said more before changing his mind.

"No, I imagine it'd be quite the strategic asset," retorted Eamon, quick as a whip. "Especially for one in your position, with a claim to the Sunburst Throne."

Alistair, struck dumb at the prospect of his unborn baby becoming a hapless pawn in the Orlesian Great Game, gaped; a rush of angry colour flooding his cheeks. Abruptly, he shoved back his chair with a scrape across the flagstones, a retort emerging as a bellow.

"Enough!"

The prospective bride herself had not joined them in the audience chamber due to a sudden and demanding burst of nausea, mostly likely brought on by inhaling the smell of roasted meats for several hours. On return to the Royal Palace, Flora had turned an unappealing shade of green, and been quickly whisked away into a servant's back corridor by Wynne and Leliana.

Zevran sauntered after them, pulling the door closed as Flora huddled miserably over a convenient bucket. She was sick three times in a row, expelling the contents of her stomach in spectacular fashion. Leliana charmed a wide-eyed servant into fetching some water and fruit, while Wynne gripped Flora's hair and patted her back with business-like affection.

"There, there- " the senior enchanter murmured, softly. Long lost memories of being in a similar position rose to the surface of Wynne's mind, like flotsam cast onto the seashore.

"This baby hates me!" Flora croaked, sitting back on the flagstones and wiping at her watering eyes. With the departure of her spirits, she was no longer able to self-soothe the raw lining of her throat.

Wynne stood to retrieve the water and fruit, pausing to exchange a few quiet words with Leliana. Zevran slid down to take her place, reaching out to push a strand of sweaty hair gently away from Flora's forehead.

"Don't talk nonsense, mi corazón. How could the baby hate you? It is an impossible thing, abejorro."

Flora made a little unhappy gesture with her mouth, hunching her shoulders.

"Everyone told me the sickness would be over by now," she complained, taking the water pouch gratefully from Wynne and gulping down several mouthfuls. "But, no. The little toad is not content with poking me in the kidneys all night, it has to punish me for sampling my own feast!"

"You can't call the baby a little toad!" Leliana chided, reproachfully.

The baby also did not appreciate being called a toad. Flora opened her mouth to reply, then went several degrees paler and grabbed for the bucket once again.

Zevran grimaced, reaching to clamp her hair in a restraining fist.

"Get it all up, lovely," he murmured, rubbing his thumb into the base of her neck.

Flora proceeded to do so, clutching the edge of the bucket so hard that her knuckles went white. Eventually, her stomach had nothing left to yield and so went dormant; producing only the occasional ominous rumble. Feeling rather sorry for herself, Flora sat back on the cold tiles and sniffed. It hurt to swallow – the lining of her throat was inflamed from bile – and there was a foul taste in the back of her mouth.

"Finish the water," Wynne instructed, and Flora followed the command, grimacing as her sore throat muscles contracted around the liquid. "You need to get into that audience with the grand duc. Have you been sick down your tunic?"

"No, wait- yes."

Leliana was commandeered to fetch something clean from the Royal chamber, while Wynne busied herself refilling the water pouch.

Zevran cast an expert eye over the tray of fruit, then made a shrewd choice. He offered the spherical yellow fruit to Flora without comment; as he had hoped, she was distracted from her own self-pity.

"Oh," she croaked, entranced. "It's a lemon. I dressed up as one of these for a Satinalia party at the Circle."

"I remember you telling me, mi florita," the elf crooned, watching Flora work her finger beneath the rind. "Bite - it'll chase the sourness away."

Flora took a large bite, then almost spat it out; the corners of her mouth turning down. She turned a wide, accusatory gaze on Zevran, who couldn't hold back a chortle of laughter.

"I used to eat lemons raw all the time as a child," he told her, fighting to regain a solemn expression as she eyed him malevolently. "Like a mouthful of pure Antivan sunshine."

Flora swallowed, grudgingly admitting to herself that the elf had a point; the stale taste of bile had been thoroughly purged from her mouth.

Leliana appeared with one of Alistair's shirts, her brow furrowed with intense dissatisfaction.

"You have no clothes, Florence! I believed your meagre allowance at Revanloch to be a fraction of your wardrobe, but now I realise the truth – you have nothing to wear. This is a situation that will need to be remedied once you return to the city!"

Flora grunted, squirming her way out of the navy tunic and waving her arms for Alistair's garment.

"In Herring, I wore the same 'outfit' every single day," she retorted, buttoning the linen shirt over her breasts. "And it only got washed when it rained, or if I fell in the sea."

"Aah! The stuff of nightmares, ma petite."

Emerging back into the public passages of the palace, Leliana led the way towards the audience chamber she believed was being used to hear the proposition of Gaspard de Challons.

"It's the most Fereldan of the receiving rooms," she explained over her shoulder, guiding them expertly down a corridor lined with dust-covered suits of armour. "Mabari painted on the walls, sculptures of horses; a giant depiction of the Rebel Queen. The perfect chamber to meet with a grand duc of Orlais."

"Did he tell you what he wanted- " Flora began, then cut herself off abruptly as Alistair's angry bellow echoed about the passage, the sound emanating from a nearby set of double doors.

"Enough!"

Flora blinked, head swivelling to her three companions in turn. Wynne looked bemused while Zevran seemed more intrigued; yet Leliana did not appear to be taken aback by the king's sudden outburst.

What, Flora mouthed at the bard, her eyes wide. Whaaat-

But Leliana's gaze slid away like a jellyfish, and then the guards were pushing open the doors into the audience chamber and it was too late to ask why Alistair had sounded so angry.

"The lady Cousland," announced the steward dutifully at the entrance.

Flora blinked against the torch-lit brightness, which was in stark contrast to the gloomy corridor. When she managed to focus on the figures in the room, the grand duc was standing – appearing somewhat amused – in the centre of the chamber, while her brothers and the other nobles were seated at the far side. Alistair had already risen to his feet, with lip curled and a flush heating his olive skin.

"Ah, la dame herself," murmured Gaspard, turning and bowing with the consummate finesse of a lifelong courtier. "Shall we ask the lady what she wishes?"

Flora did not reply, her eyes moving from the Orlesian noble across to where Alistair stood, face contorted in anger. The grand duc, deciding to take matters into his own hands, strode across the chamber to face Flora directly.

"This is my offer," he said, bluntly. "Verchiel is in need of a new duchesse. You are a Cousland; I a Valmont. It would be an profitable alliance for us both."

Flora had a sudden, peculiar sense of déjà vu. For a moment she was standing back in the garden at South Reach, and Arl Leonas was making a similar proposition; so discomfited that he was barely able to look her in the eye.

But he was doing it to protect me, because he was a friend of Bryce Cousland, and felt responsible for my safety. Such a marriage would have brought him no advantage; I was still a mage when he proposed.

This Orlesian seeks my hand just for his own gain!

"My cousin Celene has been childless for a decade, and as it stands – I am her only surviving relative," continued Gaspard de Chalons, persuasively. "It would be logical for her to name this babe as heir, if we were married. You possess one of the oldest pedigrees of Ferelden; I am a Valmont."

One of the few quality bloodlines, his tone implied.

"And you would control a child with a claim to both the Fereldan and Orlesian thrones," pointed out Eamon, his lip curling.

Flora heard a low rumble of anger, sensing that the others were preparing to rally to her defence. Alistair looked as though he had stayed out in the sun for too long – his entire head was a shade of furious crimson.

Yet, the thought of their baby becoming entangled in the complex skeins of Orlesian politics, made the blood boil in her veins like an overlooked cauldron.

I kept you safe from the Archdemon, my little toad, Flora thought to herself, determinedly. I can keep you safe from this man's ambition.

"Usually when people are trying to charm me, they praise my hair, or my eyes," she replied, grateful for her flat Herring intonation and the solemn ambiguity of her features. "They don't usually praise my blood."

"Lady Cousland, you know full-well that you're a beautiful girl," replied the grand duc, lightning quick. "Surely, there's no need for me to reaffirm that?"

"Hm," retorted Flora, already bored of this arrogant noble and his presumptions. "Do your weddings take place in counting-houses, rather than Chantries?"

The duc narrowed his eyes, trying to divine the purpose of Flora's question.

"You would be celebrated within Val Royeaux," he continued, in the stilted tones of a man not used to cajoling. "And a lifestyle far beyond what you could imagine awaits you in the Hall of Mirrors at Verchiel. Your every desire would be catered for."

Flora paused, her stare wide and accusatory, feeling the little creature nudge against the base of her spine.

"But, I'm Fereldan," she countered, quiet and firm. "And this baby is Fereldan. We aren't going anywhere."

Flora could almost hear Alistair's exhalation of relief from across the room. She wanted to pull an incredulous face at him: as if she would ever have said yes!

"Anyway," she continued hastily, feeling her stomach give an ominous lurch. "I would never even consider a proposal unless it was done in true, traditional Herring style."

The grand duc narrowed his pale, clever Valmont eyes thoughtfully, scrutinising her features as though he hoped to learn something. Yet Flora's face was as solemn and ambiguous as any Orlesian mask; and he could glean nothing from it.

"A shame," he murmured, softly. "Our union might have achieved great things."

Flora, worried that she was about to be sick once again, decided to make a rapid exit.

"Sorry, Duck Gosper," she said, not unkindly. "Your... rod isn't big enough to catch a fish such as me."

Feeling her guts churn, Flora turned on her heel and sailed out of the room; wanting to put as much space between herself and the audience chamber as possible. Finian and Zevran followed in her wake; the elf openly snickering.

Oh shit, Alistair thought to himself, as Eamon cleared his throat and stood up. What's a Herring-style proposal again? I'm sure Flo has mentioned it before.

"The lady Cousland has spoken her mind," the arl of Redcliffe murmured, trying not to laugh. "You are permitted to stay within Denerim until the coronation, grand duc."

Gaspard scowled, lifting the silver mask and placing it firmly back on his unhappy features.

"That girl is as obstinate as Celene," he muttered to himself, darkly. "Merci for the audience, Your Majesty."

Alistair grunted, frantically searching his memory for any mention that Flora had made of Herring proposals. He rose to his feet, barely sparing a further glance towards the Orlesian duke; head turned towards the corridor where his mistress had headed.

Fergus put up a hand to intercept the king, the teyrn's face caught between reproach and wry amusement. He lowered his voice, ensuring that the grand duc could not hear.

"Alistair, you are going to propose to my sister before the wedding day itself, aren't you? I understand that you wanted to give her time to grieve for her spirits, but… it's less than a fortnight away now."

"You're northern. Do you know what these 'Herring proposal traditions' are?" Alistair retorted, hoping that Flora had been referring to a regional – rather than strictly local – custom.

Unfortunately, Fergus looked blank; raising a shoulder in a shrug.

"Sorry. I gave Oriana a ring and a gold necklace when we were betrothed, but I doubt that's a practice shared by the villagers of Herring."

Alistair grimaced, feeling a bead of nervous sweat break out on his forehead as he straightened.

"Maker's Breath. I'd better go and find her dad tomorrow. I hope he's still in the city!"

 

Chapter Text

In the shadowy servant's corridor Flora sunk down against the wall, looking distinctly green about the gills. Finian was pacing back and forth before her, flapping his hands and offering unhelpful medical advice. His silhouette lurched erratically across the unplastered wall, making Flora feel even more nauseous.

"Quick, put your head between your legs!"

"Alright," said Flora, obediently bowing her face between her knees. "Uergh."

"Does that feel any better?"

"Noooo."

"Perhaps you need someone to put their head between your legs," Zevran volunteered, slyly. "I volunteer!"

Finian swatted the elf on the elbow, crouching down beside Flora as she slumped unceremoniously on the flagstones.

"I think the head between the legs might be for dizziness, actually. Do you feel dizzy, Floss?"

Flora shook her head, taking several gulps of musty air while talking her stomach down from the metaphorical ledge.

You don't need to do this. There's nothing left to expel. You've already punished me for daring to eat something at my own feast.

To make herself feel better, Flora summoned a mental image of Gaspard's startled face, open-mouthed like a fish laid out on the sand. This had a palliative effect on her nausea, and - to her relief - she felt her stomach settle down once again.

The next moment, candlelight spilled into the corridor as Alistair manoeuvred his way impatiently inside.

"I didn't even know this corridor existed. It's so dark. Where are you, baby?"

"Down here," said Flora, from somewhere near his feet. "By your boots."

Alistair squinted, his eyes gradually adjusting to the gloom. As he focused on her slumped against the wall, his face crumpled in sympathy.

"Oh, my love," he breathed, crouching down before her on the dusty tiles. The crown slipped forward and he removed it impatiently, setting the golden band on the flagstones at her feet. "Why are you in here? This is a servants' passage."

"I thought I was going to be sick," she replied, leaning forward into his embrace and winding her arms around his neck. "I didn't want to be sick on Gosper's silky shoes. I'm not sure what diplomatic message that would send. Not a good one." 

"And on top of the 'your rod isn't big enough to catch me' comment," Finian murmured in Zevran's ear, archly. "It might start another Orlo-Fereldan war."

Alistair slid his fingers around the back of his best friend's head, holding it against his shoulder.

"What can I do to help, darling?" he murmured, rubbing his hand up and down the length of Flora's narrow back; feeling the hard ridges of her spine. "Anything at all, just say the word."

"Keep doing that," she mumbled into his tunic, pressing her cheek against the fine crimson velvet. "Feels nice."

Alistair dropped a kiss to the top of Flora's head, feeling her yawn into his shoulder as he slid his palm back up to the nape of her neck.

"You're wearing my tunic," he murmured, fingering the collar. "I've missed seeing you in them, Lo. You lived in my shirts when we were journeying."

"Mm," she replied, inhaling his familiar, masculine scent. "Leliana doesn't think I have enough clothes. She kept saying I'd need to get a new dress very soon. She was mysterious."

Alistair grimly resolved that he would go and find Pel – Flora's fisherman-father – the very next morning, and question him about the ominous-sounding Herring-style proposal.

"Sweetheart, I wish you would stay here tonight," he said, instead. "I can't see any reason for you to stay at Revanloch another week. We have the Divine's letter, the Landsmeet has approved it already. I want you back with me."

Flora considered this longingly, the urge to acquiesce overwhelming.

No more damp, draughty, overcrowded chamber.

No more Templars watching my every move.

"I think I should stay at the monastery," she said reluctantly, and Alistair's mouth turned down as he heard the rejection in her tone.

"But?"

"You ought to do as you said," Flora continued, letting her finger run down the collar of his tunic. "You said I'd be there for a month. It's only been three weeks. You ought to keep your word, since … since you're so new on the throne. Even about something like this."

Finian let out a soft grunt of confirmation; he could see the logic in his sister's argument.

"She's right, Alistair."

Alistair grimaced, clutching her a fraction more tightly against his chest. Flora wound her fingers in his collar, brushing her thumb over the copper-gold hair curling at the nape of his neck.

"I just miss you," he said, slightly plaintively. "I don't sleep well without you in my arms. I wake a thousand times a night."

"I miss you too," Flora whispered, tracing the strong band of sinew in his neck down to his throat. His collarbone stood out against the taut, defined bulk of his chest; the velvet garb of a king would never fit him as well as a suit of armour. "I miss being in bed with you. It's been ages."

She shot him a look beneath her eyelashes, curling her fingers more persuasively into the velvet collar of his tunic. Alistair's irises darkened, feeling the first tendrils of lust sprouting in his gut. He knew that look all too well; it had led him into empty stables at South Reach and behind trees in the Brecilian Forest, it had tempted him into violating the hallowed space of the Chantry. Flora's clear seawater eyes, dark-lashed and limpid, communicated her wanton urges far more eloquently than her Herring-shaped vocabulary. They misted over with desire like a humid summer rain; pupils dark and hot as coals.

"It's been... twenty eight days," he replied, throatily. "Not that… not that I've been counting."

"Twenty eight days since what?" asked Finian cluelessly, averting his eyes as Alistair dropped his mouth to the hollow of Flora's throat "Oh, for Maker's sake- really?!"

Alistair raised his head and cast a heavy-lidded glance around the narrow corridor. Intended for servants, it was gloomy and ill-kept, with cobwebs decorating the ceiling beams. More importantly, it was private.

"Finn, Zev," he instructed, words blurring together with desire. "Find somewhere else to be."

"For the love of Andraste!" Finian, eyes bulging, made a vain attempt at protest. "You can't rut my little sister in a servant's passage! Why not at least take her up to the bedchamber?!"

"No time," Alistair retorted, unbuttoning his breeches with swift, desirous fingers. "I just heard the sixth bell - the Templars will be here soon."

"Let's give the king and his mistress some privacy, Finían," Zevran purred, smiling very widely to hide the raw edge in his tone. "Come on. Have fun, amores. I cannot promise that I will resist the temptation to peek."

Alistair let out a grunt, more than aware of the elf's voyeuristic tendencies. Finian fled up the corridor with a squawk of horror, vanishing into the depths of the labyrinth used by the servants to navigate the palace unseen. Far more nonchalantly, Zevran sauntered in the young arl's wake. Being in masochistic mood, instead of following Finian into the safety of an audience chamber, he slid into a convenient recess half-hidden by shadow. Leaning back against the wall, the elf pricked his ears back towards the gloomy corridor; heart racing uncharacteristically in his chest.

Meanwhile, Alistair was enthralled by the new inches added to his best friend's bust. He slid his hands inside the unbuttoned shirt to cup her naked breasts, gently weighing them against calloused palms.

"Is it selfish that I don't want to share these with the baby?" the king murmured, letting his thumbs brush lightly over her nipples.

"Yes," she replied, reaching down to pull impatiently at the fastening of his belt. "Hurry, hurry- "

Alistair let out an involuntary groan at her unashamed desire; single-minded need transforming his kind, handsome face into something primitive. His mouth dropped to Flora's neck, working the delicate skin with teeth and tongue until she cried out in frustration.

"Alistaaaair- "

He growled against the softness of Flora's throat, licking a long stripe down to her collarbone as his fingers began to inch her leggings down around her thighs. As he did so, his wrist inadvertently nudged against the swollen swell of her stomach. A clear ray of affection broke through the lust saturating Alistair's features, quickly accompanied by a matching streak of worry.

"It's not going to hurt the baby, is it? Us doing… this?"

"Nooo," mumbled Flora, her hand working busily inside his own breeches. "I don't see how."

"Is it going to hurt you?" Alistair continued, anxiously. "It's been ages."

"Dunno. Don't care."

She let out an impatient little grunt, successfully freeing his rigid length from the confines of the leather.

"I don't want to hurt you," he repeated, anxiously. "Maybe I should just- Maker's Breath!"

This strangled blasphemy was in response to his best friend repositioning herself – somewhat awkwardly, considering her weighted belly and sore knee – so that she could take him in her mouth. Alistair let his head drop back against the wall, fingers clenching involuntary fistfuls of her hair. Something raw and heated was burning in the pit of his belly; a desire which she was stoking unashamedly with the workings of her tongue. He opened his mouth to speak but a strangled croak emerged, his pelvis thrusting involuntarily against her yielding lips.

"Flora," he managed to mutter at last, her name emerging hoarse and peculiar. "Sweetheart- "

Abandoning coherency, the king let out a moan; reaching with clumsy fingers to slide the shirt from her shoulders. Flora paused to breathe, secretly delighted at the effect of her mouth's purposeful exertions.

I thought I might have forgotten how to do this.

Well, we did spend enough time practising during that month at South Reach. There wasn't really anything else to do –

Flora smiled up at Alistair and he flashed her a dazed grin, the cool olive tone of his cheeks warmed by an uncharacteristic flush. As she took him in her mouth once again, Alistair let his hand rest on the crown of her tangled head, gentle and affectionate.

Just then, in sonorous tones from the other side of the door, came the unmistakeable chiding of Chanter Devotia.

"'And thus with creeping indolence did the sinners while away their hours; spurning the Maker in the pursuit of WANTON PLEASURE!'"

Flora almost choked, recoiling from him as Alistair let out a strangled curse.

"Oh, for fuck's sake- "

There came a loud, pointed cough from the audience chamber. Flora sat back on her haunches and gazed at Alistair in mild irritation; he stared back at her, eyes narrowed.

"They can't tell us off," he said, slightly uncertainly. "Can they? I'm the king."

For a moment they blinked at one another through the gloom of the servant's passage; a stable-boy and a fisher-girl who – through a series of inexplicably strange circumstances - had somehow ended up in the Royal Palace.

There came an experimental rattle at the door knob, and Alistair swore under his breath; reaching down to tuck himself back into his breeches.

"Fine. To be continued, darling."

As Flora shrugged her arms into her shirt, Zevran manifested from the shadows and made them both jump.

"Maker's Breath!" hissed Alistair, using the crown to flatten down his rumpled hair. "Why don't you just join in next time? You were close enough!"

"Don't tempt me, mi amor," purred the elf, buttoning Flora's shirt from the bottom while she started from the top. "I'm only sorry that you were so rudely interrupted."

Flora raked her fingers through her own tangled locks in an attempt to calm them.

"We'll just say that I felt poorly and Alistair was looking after me," she said, hopefully. "Do you think they'd believe us? Do I look sickly?"

"You look as though you've just been bedded, mi sirenita," replied the elf honestly, casting an eye over her flushed cheeks and swollen lips.

"Didn't even get that far," grumbled Flora, reaching up to adjust the angle of the crown on Alistair's head. "Oh well, let's just get this over with."

 

Chapter Text

Like stern parents collecting a recalcitrant youth from the city guard's custody; Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia escorted Flora from the castle with expressions of mutual disapproval. The Chanter had offered a few choice excepts from her limited source material – mostly focusing on sinners who fell victim to lusty urges – while Gannorn had asked (with a straight face) whether there were no bedchambers fit for purpose within the Royal Palace.

The sun was just setting as they rode along the cliff top, casting lazy tendrils of ochre and apricot across the green expanse of the Amaranthine Ocean. Revanloch monastery hunched like a crow on its low, rocky promontory; dark basalt towers standing out in stark contrast against the pastel twilight.

Flora, who was riding on Chanter Devotia's saddle, found the Templar's quiet, disapproving murmurs oddly soothing. Before they had begun to ascend the low gravelled path that led up to the monastery's main gates, she had fallen asleep; head against the officer's breastplate.

Chanter Devotia had looked down at her silently, the corners of her mouth pulling taut. When the stable boys came scampering out to take their horses, she quietened them with a ferocious ssh!, her pale violet eyes flashing behind her helm. Knight-Captain Gannorn reached up wordlessly to receive the yawning Flora; she let herself be transferred from one officer to another as readily as a sleepy child.

Without exchanging more than a few choice words, the two Templars manoeuvred their snoring charge up to the guest chamber. Once Flora had been deposited onto the bed – with exceptional care, considering the precious cargo she carried – Knight-Captain Gannorn went to draw the curtains while Chanter Devotia prepared the bedroll before the door.

The night drew in, close and unusually humid, the stars lighting one by one like distant lanterns in the heavens. Flora, worn out by the long day, snored contentedly; lost in soft and dreamless sleep. The Templars watched over her in staggered intervals, their purpose not to watch for any hint of magic – it had long become apparent that Flora's Fade connection was severed – but out of sheer curiosity.

When Flora had first arrived at Revanloch, it had been hard for them to reconcile this sulking adolescent with the great string of titles that she bore – Hero of Ferelden, Warden-Commander, Ender of the Fifth Blight, Dragonslayer. They had not been impressed by her immaturity or her recklessness; and wondered at her illiteracy and lack of education. They had also found her grief at the loss of her spirits entirely perplexing – why would one mourn the loss of their magehood?

Now, although neither one would dare to admit it, the Templars had become oddly fond of their young charge. They had watched Florence Cousland near-incessantly for the past three weeks; and had found in her many admirable qualities to balance out their unfavourable first impression. She was unfailingly polite to the monastery servants, and had an uncanny knack of remembering their names. She laboured away for hours each day in an effort to improve her poor literacy; stubborn in the face of her own ignorance. Even Knight-Captain Gannorn had to admit to himself that this assignment had been a welcome change from escorting pilgrims across the Anderfels.

In the last days of Justinian, Flora received a most unexpected visitor at the monastery. With help from her Templars, she had dragged the small table into the shade within the inner courtyard. Whilst the bard positioned herself tactically in the only patch of light and warmth within Revanloch; Flora huddled near the apex of two conjoining walls, aware that the summer sun wrought havoc on her pale skin.

"It's not natural for the sky to look like this," she said at last mid-afternoon, abandoning her writing and squinting upwards with a look of distinct suspicion.

Leliana, who had rolled up her Chantry robe sleeves and was draped horizontally atop a long planter, turned her head and frowned.

"What do you mean, ma petite?"

Flora jabbed a finger upwards as the bard returned to a sitting position, stretching herself like a cat.

"Look how... blue it is," she said, indignantly. "Blue and cheerful. There's no cloud. In Herring, there was always cloud. I thought the sky was naturally grey until I moved south to the Circle."

Rising elegantly to her feet, Leliana drifted across the courtyard and took a seat at the table beside Flora; pulling over the scrawled sentences to correct them.

"In the south and the east, these skies are quite normal in the summer," the bard reassured, a slight crease forming on her forehead as she tried to decipher Flora's unintelligible text. "Ma crevette, I do not understand what this word is meant to say?"

"Indubitably."

Leliana's eyebrows shot into her hairline as she stared at the tangle of consonants.

"So you have attempted to write, 'I love fish, indubitably'? Don't run before you can walk, ma chérie. Let's concentrate on spelling the basics correctly before we get too ambitious, hm?"

Flora blinked in dismay. "What did I get wrong from the first bit?"

"L-o-v-e. Not l-u-v!"

"Oh." The Cousland drooped for a moment and then perked up again, casting her eyes once more towards the sun. "What's Orlais like in summertime?"

Leliana let out a little sigh, leaning back to finger the wilting leaves of a nearby pot-plant.

"Unmatched in beauty," she murmured, softly. "I remember travelling through the countryside alongside Lake Celestine, when the pasque flowers were just beginning to bloom. They sprouted in such abundance that they had overtaken the path, and we had to walk waist-high through lavender and clumps of gentian. The smell, you cannot imagine – even those flowers that lay trodden underfoot had been dried by the sun, so that each step brought forth the most delicious aroma. And the skies overhead were not simply blue, they were aquamarine."

"Aqua-what?"

"Aquamarine. There is nothing within Ferelden that can compare."

"Oh," replied Flora, thoughtfully. "Well, it sounds very nice."

"I will have some lavender bushes imported from Montsimmard, ma petite, to be grown in the Royal Palace. The smell is meant to help babies sleep; Orlesian mamas hang clumps of it in their nurseries."

"Thank you!"

"De rienmon chaton."

"Derry-ann," repeated Flora, wistfully. "Derryann. I wish I could speak two languages, you're so clever."

Leliana smiled, her teeth white against skin rapidly bronzing in the sunlight.

"Perhaps focus on becoming adept with the King's Tongue first, eh, ma fleur?"

"From what I've heard in the taverns of Denerim, Florence Cousland is already fluent in the King's Tongue!"

The comment was delivered in a thick and immediately recognisable brogue; and Flora's face broke into a beam. Pushing back her chair, she rose to greet the dwarf as he strolled across the cobbles.

"Oghren!"

"Eh, don't get up, lassie!"

Flora obediently sat, leaning forward to peck Oghren's cheek as he bent down expectantly. She was delighted to see him in what seemed to be excellent health and spirits – his eyes were sparkling and unclouded, there was no stench of alcohol about his person. His leathers, although crumpled, seemed to be relatively clean.

"You look well," Flora said, irrationally proud of her dwarven companion.

Oghren grinned, his eyes roaming unashamedly over her figure.

"And you've got quite the beer belly on you, princess. How many months we at now?"

Flora snorted, looking down at the swell of her stomach as it stretched out the navy lambswool of her tunic.

"Six," she said after a moment, slightly vaguely. "I think."

"It is six," called Leliana from across the courtyard; having relocated herself to a sunnier spot. "And you're right, Oghren. It's going to be a big, strong baby when it's born."

Flora immediately scowled as the dwarf cackled, clapping a reassuring hand onto her non-bound knee.

"Good luck! You'll be fine, you're a sturdy little maid. Anyway- "

Oghren took a deep breath, ginger whiskers quivering. Flora shot him a slightly curious look, wondering at the uncharacteristic apprehension on her companion's florid face.

"The reason why I'm here, is that… well. I got somethin' to tell you."

Flora blinked at these portentous words, fiddling with the gold Cousland ring on her little finger.

"Before yeh and Prince Charming came to Orzammar, I spent… a long time not doin' anythin' in particular. Became acquainted with a lot of tavern floors, but tha's about it. Then… well. I joined yeh both on this crazy journey, didn't I? Gave my life a bit of meanin'."

The dwarf nodded as though to himself, one thick thumb running absentmindedly across the knotted wooden surface of the table.

"Anyway, now the Blight's over… I don't want to go back to tha' old life, you know? So I- I got an idea. An' don't try and talk me out of it, my mind is made up."

Across the courtyard, the bard's ears pricked and she sat up, curiosity piqued. Flora stared at Oghren with increasing trepidation, feeling a small knot of anxiety form at the bottom of her belly.

"So I thought I might… join the Grey Wardens," the dwarf said, his tone nonchalant but his eyes steady and purposeful. "Keep on fightin' the good fight against the Darkspawn, now that you an' the king have retired. Reckon they'll need a few more soldiers."

The knot of anxiety solidified into a hard lump of fear in Flora's throat, sudden and irrational. A memory ignited in the back of her mind; Daveth choking on a froth of Darkspawn ichor at his own failed Joining.

The canny dwarf spotted the flicker of worry, and sought to offer some jovial reassurance.

"I know there's a risk. But, far as I can see, the alternative is endin' up a bloat-bag of booze on a tavern floor in ten years. And we dwarves know the Darkspawn, we've been fightin' 'em for years."

Flora remembered how Oghren had volunteered to keep vigil over Riordan's body, how he had stood stiff and straight-backed alongside the Orlesian Warden-Commander, head held high. Now, the dwarf looked at her with mild apprehension; trying hard not to show how much he desired her approval.

Swallowing her nerves, Flora smiled back at him, reaching out to rest her fingers on his arm.

"I think that the Wardens will be lucky to have a warrior of your strength and bravery," she replied, earnestly.

Oghren grinned at her, cheeks flushing a deep pink that clashed with the lurid ginger of his moustache.

"I'll give the Darkspawn a thing or two to think about!" he continued, gleefully. "I'll happily introduce 'em to the sharp end of my ax."

"Will you travel to Vigil's Keep to join the Order?" Leliana called, rolling up her sleeves to let her arms catch the sun.

"I wrote to Loghain," replied Oghren, then amended his statement. "Well, I got Wynne to write, askin' what would be best. Turns out the new Warden-Commander is comin' down for Alistair's coronation next week; gonna do some recruitment in the city at the same time."

Flora leaned forward, impulsively reaching her arms around the dwarf's broad frame to embrace him. Oghren patted her gently on the back, a grin spreading behind his thick moustache.

"Your tits have definitely gotten bigger, queenie."

Leliana, from across the courtyard, let out a little hiss of disapproval.

"You're as bad as Zevran, dwarf! Worse, actually; because at least he would try and be poetic in his lechery."

The dwarf snickered unrepentantly as Flora withdrew, tapping his fingers against the mottled wood of the tabletop.

"Speakin' of the elf, Flo, has Alistair let him shag you yet? Ouch, nughumper!"

This was in response to Leliana picking up a small pebble from the soil of the planter and flicking it deftly at the back of Oghren's head. The dwarf shot her a scowl, making a less-than-polite gesture with his fingers.

"Anyway, lass, jus' wanted to let you know what the plans were. Glad I've got your 'proval. Means a lot, you know?"

Flora smiled at him wistfully, remembering how she and Alistair had first met the dwarf while he was in the process of being manhandled from the Diamond Quarter, drunk and disorderly.

"Oghren, you're a different man from the one we met in Orzammar," she said earnestly, and the dwarf seemed to swell several inches; his chin lifting a fraction. "Will you stay for dinner?"

"You want me ter… ter stay? Usually people are pleased ter see the back o' me!"

"I want you to stay," Flora repeated, firmly. "I'd like to hear all about what you've been doing over the past few weeks."


 

The dwarf left just after sunset, passing Alistair and his escort of Royal Guard at the gate. Waylaying the king a moment, Oghren revealed his plans to join the Grey Wardens; glancing hopefully up at the taller man out of the corners of his eyes. After expressing initial surprise, Alistair had grinned and clapped the dwarf on the back, offering sincere congratulations.

When the king turned reflexively towards the guest chambers, Oghren had called out; halfway through heaving himself up into his long-suffering pony.

"She ain't up there, Alistair. She went off ter the Chantry."

"Oh."

Alistair blinked; somewhat surprised. Flora was not particularly religious, and tended to avoid the Chantry if her presence was not required. From what he remembered of monastery routine and ritual, the evening service wouldn't begin for another hour.

All became clear once he had arrived within Revanloch's Chantry, the cool stone interior a welcome sanctuary from the muggy humidity of the evening. The hollow space appeared near-empty at first, a lone Chantry Sister refilling the incense holders with fresh sage.

Then a shifting of movement caught Alistair's eye, and he caught sight of Flora's two Templar guardians; standing still as suits of armour at the entrance to a side chapel. The glow of candlelight emanated from the recessed hollow, and Alistair headed duly towards it.

Flora was sitting cross-legged on the flagstones, her dual arcs of remembrance set out neatly before her. The wax had trickled down the stalks of the candles, stretching out in pale rivulets across the dark basalt tiles; she had clearly been sitting there for some time. An abandoned taper drooped between her fingers, the end still smoking.

Not wanting to disturb her contemplation, Alistair managed to fold his powerful frame unobtrusively down to the flagstones beside her. Flora blinked, as though awakened from some waking dream; peering at him as though he was a stranger. There were damp streaks on her cheeks, eyelashes clumped together with the remnants of stray tears.

The king leaned forward and kissed his mistress on each side of her face in turn, tasting salt against his lips.

"My sweet girl," he murmured and said nothing more, waiting for her to speak in her own time.

"Nobody understands why I'm still sad," Flora mumbled after a moment, without further clarification. Alistair bit back his question, reaching out and smoothing a wispy curl of hair away from her forehead.

"About my spirits being gone," she explained, realising that her tears could theoretically have been for any of the dead commemorated before her. There was a candle to represent each of those who had been lost over the course of their journey; from their ill-fated Warden-Commander Duncan, to a lowly husk of a dwarf named Ruck, cowering in the darkest recesses of the Deep Roads.

"Because they weren't people. But they were like people to me," Flora continued, tearfully. "They were my friends. They made me who I was. They helped so many, they gave up existing to end the Blight, and… and nobody cares. There'll be memorials for all the others who gave their lives for Ferelden, but my spirits... nobody will remember them, except for me!"

She stared at him, part-tearful and part-indignant. The glimmering tangle of candle-flames was reflected in her pale irises, illuminating the gold fleck left by the Archdemon's soul. Alistair gazed back at her for a long moment, a line creasing his noble brow as he mentally crafted his response.

"Darling, we've all been saved by your spirits at one time or the other. Whether it was from some deadly blow deflected, a fatal injury healed, or a poison cured. We all ought to remember them."

The king nodded, warming to his idea as he enunciated it.

"Let's have a memorial for them tomorrow evening. We'll invite everyone."

Flora blinked at him, damp-eyed and hopeful.

"You… you think they'll come?"

For you, they will, the king thought to himself as he nodded, firmly.

"Of course, my love. We owe our lives to them."

Alistair reached out and brushed his thumb gently beneath her eyelashes, lifting away the wetness clinging there.

"But no kneeling in vigil for eight hours this time, eh?"

Flora inhaled unsteadily, then lunged forwards, shoving herself ingloriously against the solid bulk of his chest. The king leaned back, gathering his mistress into his arms and kissing the top of her head with sudden, fierce affection.

"You grieve as long as you need to," he murmured into the untidy mass of dark red hair, his fingers sliding down to clasp hard into hers. "My sweet girl."

Alistair's gaze settled on a tall, dripping candle that he somehow knew was meant to represent Duncan. For a moment, he fancied that he saw their old Warden-Commander standing in the hollowed recess of the chapel, his dark Rivaini eyes shifting thoughtfully in the candlelight.

Are you looking after your sister-warden as I requested, Alistair? Remember: she's younger than you, and wholly inexperienced in the ways of the world.

Actually, Duncan, she mostly ended up looking after me. After all of us.

But I swear, I'll take care of her now. For as long as she lives, I'll keep her safe: my sister-warden.

"Don't set yourself on fire," muttered Knight-Captain Gannorn darkly from the chapel entrance, eyeing the ring of burning candles. "Or our Chantry."

 

 

Chapter Text

The following day rained incessantly, the drizzle only abating when the murky sun began to sink into the western horizon. A veil of mist settled over the cliffs; softening Revanloch's harsh basalt edges and restricting vision to a few dozen yards. As the twilight deepened into a rich, lustrous navy; stars emerged like little jewels from the heavens, rays of moonlight scattering the mists to reveal the great dark swathe of the Amaranthine Ocean.

To Flora's relief, Alistair and Leliana had taken charge of organising the impromptu 'memorial' for her spirits. It didn't seem appropriate somehow to hold such a service within the Chantry, in light of their less-than-flattering view of mages. Instead, they decided to hold it atop the Revanloch ramparts, in view of both sea and star-studded sky. In lieu of the customary pyre, the remnants of Flora's staff were brought down from the palace; though Guilluame discreetly kept one fragment behind to use for future display.

Alistair had sent frantic messages about the memorial around the noble district and across to the Circle camp – the mages alone had remained on the Alamarri plains, in an effort to purify the tainted soil so that it could be used for crops once more. As sundown drew near, a whole caravan of people passed beneath Revanloch's crumbling main gate. Many of them did not quite understand what exactly they were attending, but they came out of regard of their young Cousland; who had taken the loss of her spirits very hard.

Leonas Bryland arrived first on horseback, proving that his maimed hand was no deterrent to skilled ridership. Shortly afterwards, the Cousland and Guerrin brothers arrived as part of a small group; talking in low voices to each other as they rode beneath the old stone archway and into Revanloch's large courtyard.

Flora's companions arrived next in a slow trickle; Oghren on his stout little pony, followed shortly by Leliana, who had been perusing robes in the newly restocked Denerim market. Now that the Blight was ended, imports had begun to trickle back through Ferelden's ports; including a fresh shipment of raw silk from Orlais. Sten, who had never trusted Flora's spirits but appreciated their utility, arrived in their wake. The stableboys, awed and intimidated by the Qunari's bulk, scuttled to take his horse while not quite daring to look him in the eye.

Wynne arrived just as the drizzle began to abate, the senior mage murmuring animatedly to Ferelden's First Enchanter. Irving had done his own quiet research into the identity of Flora's spirits; beings of such blatant antiquity and power tended to have legends attached to them. This was now a pointless pursuit – the spirits had been blasted apart by the Archdemon's soul, and would take millennia to reform – but Irving wished to honour their contribution regardless.

Meanwhile, up in the guest chamber, a miserable Flora was sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling compulsively at a loose thread in her sleeve. Alistair had half-finished pruning his facial hair of authority, squinting at his reflection in the mirror with shaving-blade in hand.

"Does it look alright, Lo? I'll take it all off if it looks ridiculous."

"You look very handsome," she replied with forced cheer; turning her head to give Alistair a quick and entirely unnecessary once-over. "But you'd look handsome if you were bald-headed and had a moustache like Oghren."

Alistair smiled at Flora over his shoulder, appreciative of her effort to find kind words in the midst of her sadness.

"Thank you, darling, but I'm not ambitious enough to pursue dwarven-style facial hair."

Flora dropped her gaze to her lap, and then blinked as a shadow fell over the floorboards. She looked up to see Zevran already partway across the room, clad in a dark leather tunic with a high collar that rose about his throat. The elf's expression was sombre, and he clutched a bouquet of sunset-hued flowers.

"Mi florita," he murmured, glancing swiftly behind him before bending down to kiss both of Flora's cheeks in quick succession. "Lo siento."

"I see you still hate doors," commented Alistair amiably. Moments later the king cursed as he accidentally nicked his cheek with the shaving-blade, pressing his thumb to the minute wound in annoyance.

Flora smiled wanly up at Zevran, her eyes moving curiously to the bunch of flowers clasped in his hand. They were exotic in appearance, made up of dozens of clustered tiny petals in hues of amber and peach.

"What are these?" she asked curiously, touching one delicate green stem with a finger.

"They are caléndulas, carina," replied the elf, softly. "The flower of mourning, according to Antivan custom."

Flora felt tears beginning to well in the corners of her eyes, and blinked them back furiously.

"They always warned me never to cry in front of anyone," she mumbled, aware in retrospect that her spirits had subtly been preparing her for the role of Warden-Commander. "I think they'll be disappointed in me tonight."

Zevran pressed the flowers into Flora's bitten-nailed hands, patting her knee gently with his own elegant fingers.

"I think such a thing would be impossible," he murmured quietly, withdrawing his hand and glancing behind once again. "You have another visitor, I will see you on the ramparts."

As the elf made a quiet exit, Flora and Alistair peered at one another in confusion. The guest chamber was ostensibly empty, the corridor outside quiet, save for the shifting boots of Flora's Templars against the creaking floorboards. A humid evening breeze filtered in through the ajar window, ruffling the curtains with a gentle whisper of fabric against glass.

"Wha- " started Alistair, then his eyes were drawn to a flutter of movement in the centre of the window frame.

A raven, its feathers glossy and indigo, was perched with claws digging into the wood. Small, clever eyes were focused on the occupants of the room; as though establishing who was present before committing to entrance. Flora rose to her feet, using her palms to propel herself upwards from the mattress, wide-eyed and with her mouth part open.

The raven let itself drift slowly inside, wings spread. Before it made contact with the floorboards, it's outline began to blur and unfold outwards, a dark silhouette that shifted into female form. The feet that landed on the floorboards were those of a woman, bound in strips of leather and with nails darkened by earth.

The Witch of the Wilds stood before them clad in her usual rustic garb, small beads and animal bones woven into strands of ink-black hair. It had been the first time that Alistair had seen the witch since pleading with her to help Flora in the Fade; and the first time that Flora herself had seen Morrigan since the roof of Fort Drakon, with the Archdemon snarling in the far corner.

"Well," Morrigan began, determined to begin the conversation on her own terms. "It's been some time. Don't lie and claim that you missed me- "

Flora scuttled across the room with surprising vigour for someone in her advanced condition. She came to an abrupt halt before Morrigan with face contorted, fists clenched at her sides; simultaneously desperate to embrace her and respectful of the witch's personal space.

Morrigan's carefully blank expression flickered as she gazed downwards. A moment later, the witch sighed and raised a hand.

"If you must. Such sentiment, 'tis enough to make the stomach roll!"

Flora wasted no more time, throwing her arms around the witch's waist and embracing her with a delighted squawk. Alistair responded with slightly more measured enthusiasm; flashing Morrigan a rueful smile over Flora's head.

"We thought you'd gone back to the swamps, Mor."

Morrigan let out a small sniff, letting her hand brush abrupt but affectionate down Flora's back.

"I could call your city a swamp of humanity, but I do not; in the interest of maintaining civility. I certainly hope that you do not expect me to address you as Your Majesty!"

"I can say with absolute certainty that I did not expect that," Alistair replied mildly, as Flora continued to cling to the witch's bosom.

"Hmph," said Morrigan, eyeing the top of Flora's dark red head. "I see you have not abandoned your limpet-like qualities. Will it take another Blight for you to release me?"

Yet there was no harshness in her tone; and a modicum of affection could be found within the soft reproach.

Finally Flora withdrew, her eyes bright and appreciative. She beamed up at their most longstanding companion, who had first joined their cause in the Korcari Wilds after an instruction from the inimitable Flemeth.

"I'm so glad to see you," she said, honest and without ornament. "I thought you'd gone. Are you coming to my memorial?"

"Not your memorial, Flo," replied Alistair, a stern note in his tone. "The memorial for your spirits."

Morrigan's dark-painted lip curled and she swung her head from side to side in the negative, with a little accompanying shudder.

"I have spent most of my life avoiding the wrath of Templars. I do not think it wise that I – technically, an apostate – reveal myself within their inner sanctum."

The witch reached down to Flora's stomach with a business-like hand, letting her palm follow the curve of the baby.

"You're carrying high and full," the witch murmured, feeling a twitch of movement beneath her fingers. "In the animal kingdom, this means that the child is male. Perhaps it is the same in the human kingdom also."

Alistair felt something constrict in his throat at Morrigan's words; his stomach clenching within his gut.

"Really," said Flora cluelessly, her fingers settling instinctively on the rounded swell. "What about in the fish kingdom? Oh, fish lay eggs."

Morrigan shot her a mildly incredulous look, and then cleared her throat.

"I came to tell you that I intend to return to the Wilds, to see if they are indeed Blighted. I also go in search of my mother; though I doubt she lingered if our home was in immediate danger. I do plan on – oh, blast and damnation!"

This was in response to Alistair sniffing and brushing a hand quickly over his face. Flora turned towards her former brother-warden in alarm, spotting the beginnings of tears in the corners of his hazel eyes.

"Sorry," Alistair muttered, embarrassed. "It's just- "

He made a little gesture towards Flora's stomach, using his sleeve to dab at his face. Flora smiled at him, while Morrigan rolled her eyes in blatant derision.

"And here I thought it was the woman who became unbalanced with the growth of a babe," the witch muttered, reaching to adjust the leather thong circling her neck. "Anyway, I did not wish to leave without… saying farewell."

Flora took a deep, steadying breath. She had been preparing herself for some time for this moment: when one of her companions made their goodbyes.

"Will you be back for the baby?" she asked, hopefully.

Morrigan shot her a quick, darting look from the corner of her gilded eye.

"Why, 'tis up to you," she murmured, in faintly mocking tones. "Would you desire the presence of an apostate such as myself at the bedside of a newborn infant? I might turn it into a frog."

"Of course," Flora replied immediately as Alistair narrowed his eyes in a scowl. "I want the baby to meet one of the bravest women I know."

"The bravest?" repeated Morrigan, one eyebrow rising. "How so?"

"Leaving the Wilds must have been like me leaving Herring," Flora explained, earnestly. "But you were in the Wilds for even longer. It must have been very strange."

"Let's not forget that her mother all but forced her into it," muttered Alistair quietly, who had not forgiven the witch for her flippant comment about transforming the baby into an amphibian.

"Still," repeated Flora, firmly. "It was brave of you to come with us. Thank you."

Morrigan inclined her head, lifting her chin and taking a step backwards.

"Alistair, it may be possible for me to write to you on the state of the Wilds, and the condition of the land which I pass over," she murmured, not quite meeting his gaze. "Would this perhaps be useful to you, considering your new position?"

Alistair's eyebrows rose, and he looked at the witch with a guarded gratitude.

"Well, yes," he replied, warily. "Eamon is planning some sort of royal progress for after the coronation, but it'll only reach as far as Lothering. It'd be useful to learn the extent of the Blight's damage further south. Thank… thank you, Morrigan."

The Chasind woman inclined her head with a wordless, feline grace, retreating rapidly towards the window as she heard the booted sounds of Templars outside. Flora bit at her lip, resisting the urge to embrace their oldest companion one final time.

The witch clambered up onto the window bench, lithe and graceful as any Theodesian predator; as the door opened, she folded herself into a beating of feathered wings.

Alistair wrinkled his nose at the faint, acrid tang of magic; whereas Flora had been so utterly severed from the Fade that she could not even smell its residue.

Moments later, Knight-Captain Gannorn entered, with the slightly wary expression he adopted whenever coming into a room where the king and his mistress had been left alone. Upon seeing them both fully dressed and at a chaste distance, he opened both of his eyes and cleared his throat.

"The visitors are gathered upon the ramparts, Your Majesty."

Alistair looked down at Flora, just in time to see her flinch. He reached out to anchor his best friend's fingers tightly within his own, bringing her hand to his mouth.

"Ready to say goodbye to your spirits, my love?"

"No," she replied in a small voice, then took a deep breath and channelled her best Herring stoicism. "But, let's go."

 

Chapter Text

The shroud of dusk settled upon Revanloch, the stars like hanging ethereal lanterns overhead. The moon was so low that it appeared almost to be submerged within the deep green vista of the Amaranthine Ocean. In the distance, the city of Denerim could be seen smouldering away; the light from several hundred braziers creating an ochre haze above the clustered buildings.

Atop the ramparts, Flora's companions both noble and common gathered about an empty iron brazier; a salt-edged breeze ruffling hair and clothing. It was not like the usual Fereldan memorial – there was no priestess present, no effigy of Andraste, none of the recognisable Chantry funereal trappings – and yet this was not a usual memorial. There was no body and no pyre, only a few fragments of charred wood placed carefully on a silver tray.

Leliana, who had taken charge of this strange service, cleared her throat. She had dressed up in her lay-sister robes, her hair neatly pinned behind her ears and her expression very solemn.

"The Maker gathers all souls and spirits to his side," the bard began, her voice carrying clear and melodic across the ramparts. "Yet there are some spirits which forsake their deserved eternal rest to serve a greater purpose. In this case, to assist Ferelden in the defence against the Fifth Blight."

Flora inhaled unsteadily, grateful for both Alistair's hand clamped firmly around her own, and Finian standing close at her elbow.

"The contribution of these spirits – of Valour, and Compassion – cannot be denied," Leliana continued, softly. "First Enchanter?"

Irving stepped forwards, fingers tucked into the sleeves of his robe and lined face wreathed in thought.

"To be a spirit healer is a rare calling," Ferelden's most senior mage mused, contemplative. "It is unusual for spirits to show any interest in the waking world, let alone for them to reach out and make contact with a mortal. I am only sorry, Flora, that I was unaware of your skills whilst you were at the Tower. You would not have been so neglected."

"It's alright," Flora replied, in a small voice. "I didn't stand out at all."

"And yet the spirits chose you," Irving countered, his shrewd eyes settling on her. "Out of all the mages within Ferelden."

There was silence for a moment, during which a seagull gave a long and mournful cry. Leliana, who had been intending to ask Flora to share her first memories of her spirits, saw the agonised look on the young Cousland's face and rapidly changed her course.

"I don't think there's one amongst us here who haven't benefitted from Flora's spirits in some way," the lay sister said, softly. "Would anybody like to share one of these memories?"

Without pause, Teagan Guerrin raised a hand. All eyes turned to the bann, including Flora's own damp gaze.

"When the dead surged out from the gates of Redcliffe Castle, they didn't split their forces," Teagan murmured, his voice low. "Our defences at the southern barricade would have been overwhelmed in minutes. Then the lass went running off towards the enemy. Her shield went up over the bridge, and it bought us time to bring in reinforcements from the east path. As a result, the village – and our lives - were preserved."

Flora blinked at Teagan as he shot her a quick glance, both of them remembering distinctly that cold and rainy night when the dead had stormed Redcliffe.

Light the oil! she had bellowed, slithering over the mud towards the defenders as the barrier disintegrated behind her. Light it, light it, light it! The fire was ignited, and she had brought up her shield; crashing through the flames with sparks licking the hem of her battered woollen coat.

Leonas put up his hand next, the coarse stitches still lodged in the ruins of his maimed fingers. When the arl of South Reach spoke, his voice was rueful and reminiscent.

"An assassin once poisoned my flagon. I saw my life pass before my eyes – my throat burned as though a fire had been stoked in my belly. I couldn't see the great hall or even those sat around me – all had gone dark – and then the lady Cousland came crashing over the table, elegant as always- " here, the general flashed a wry smile sideways at Flora "- and she drew the poison from me, breathed it in as though it were… as though it were perfume. I would have been dead in minutes, if it wasn't for the healing that Florence imparted."

Arl Eamon then told of how his son's life had been saved when Flora had ventured into the Fade; a strange golden light blistering the demon until it had burnt from the inside out. Fergus recanted the terrible moment when the South Reach assassin had severed a chandelier above Finian's head; only for the glass to shatter harmlessly against a gleaming, gilded shield expanding from Flora's outstretched fingers. Zevran, his expression uncharacteristically sombre, told of a girl who had spent all day patrolling about the army camp, and then all evening standing hopefully beneath a heeling Here too-day! (Free) sign in the most dangerous parts of the city.

Wynne had told of a shield being summoned across a tower roof in Fort Drakon; protecting Flora's companions while also preventing them from intervening as she limped alone towards the snarling Archdemon. The senior enchanter's words echoed across the ramparts, and Alistair felt a low curdling of nausea in his stomach; recalling the horrific moment when he had realised what Flora was intending. His grip tightened on her fingers, and he had to suppress the urge to embrace her.

Throughout each recanted memory, Flora had listened avidly as though she were not the central protagonist in each one. She had never taken credit for any of these actions – always deferring praise to her spirits, from whom she derived all her magic. In her hands, she clutched the fragmented remains of her staff; the wood charred and smeared with fingerprints. It was so unassuming in appearance that it could have masqueraded as a broken broom handle, and none would have been the wiser.

Finally, Alistair stepped forwards; the king's expression carefully neutral but his green-flecked eyes stern and determined.'

"I could stand here all night listing each fatal blow that Flo's magic has deflected from me," he said, bluntly. "I would be dead a thousand times over, if not for her spirits. Ferelden is saved, and the Blight ended because of them."

Alistair glanced down at his mistress, the purposeful amber gaze softening.

"They saved your life, and… and the life within you, Lo. I owe them more than I could ever hope to say."

Flora swallowed, feeling her stomach constrict in a single, painful twist of sadness. There came a moment of silence, and she realised that everybody was waiting for her cue; giving her the chance to speak, if she so wished.

How can I possibly explain what you meant to me? she thought furiously into the silent void, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. You were part of my own self. How can I describe that? My Silver Knight and Golden Lady.

Not wanting to look at anyone's expectant face, Flora dropped her gaze to the shadowed expanse of the Amaranthine Ocean, opaque as the surface of a mirror. The reflected night sky appeared to lie drowned beneath its placid surface; submerged stars wreathing a sunken pearl of a moon.

"You were there from the beginning to the end," she whispered at last, fingers tightening compulsively around the broken shards of wood. "You were the family that the Templars couldn't take from me."

Flora felt the edge of the wood bite into her white-seared palm, a bead of blood rising where a splinter had dug itself into the flesh. Whereas before she would have pressed her lips to the wound without a second thought; now, Flora gazed down at the tiny cut with horrified fascination, aware of her own new impotence.

Come on: this is their memorial. You have to do them proud, do this properly.

Swallowing and forcing herself to look away, Flora cleared her throat and continued, in a small and determined voice.

"In the Circle, I cleaned corridors during the day, but you taught me how to mend in the Fade. When the Archdemon forced its way into my dreams, you made me face it until I could stare it in the eye without flinching. Now, every night… I'm on my own in the darkness. I see nothing, I- I hear nothing. I don't dream of anything. I'm alone, properly alone. For the first time in my life."

Flora took a deep breath, not wanting to look at Alistair as his handsome face creased in distress beside her. She had a sudden vision of her dad, Pel, frowning at such a display of melodrama; his inherent Herring stoicism thrumming in disapproval.

Sorry, papa. Can I blame it on the baby unbalancing me?

After another steadying gulp of air, she stepped forwards to place the fragments of her staff into the iron brazier. The scattered shards of wood seemed small and insubstantial against the metal belly of the vessel; Flora had to resist the urge to scoop them out and press them protectively to her chest.

No, she thought fiercely to herself. No matter what you did with this staff once, it's just kindling now.

Wynne stepped forward, touching the head of her own staff to the fragments of wood. An ochre flame sprung up, catching the dry shards almost immediately. They burned as ordinarily as any other wood, a thin trail of smoke curling upwards towards the twilit heavens.

Flora watched the remains of her staff burn within the makeshift pyre; her heart beating with such rapid ferocity that it almost frightened her. She had to physically stop herself from reaching into the flames and pulling out the smouldering splinters, reminding herself furiously that she no longer had the ability to summon a protective sheath around her hand.

Although she had been able to watch Riordan's body as it was engulfed on the pyre weeks prior, Flora found herself unable to keep her eyes on the shards of wood as they began to burn and blacken. She looked down at her feet, feeling the tears finally spill over her eyelashes; no longer caring if the others saw her cry.

Before the first tears had made their way down past her nose, Flora felt her former brother-wardenreach around her waist, drawing her back beneath the protective crook of his arm. Catching sight of Alistair's expression from the corner of her eye, Flora was startled at the grimness and the guilt fighting for dominance across his handsome features.

He didn't realise how alone I felt at night. But how was he supposed to know? I didn't tell him.

Now Flora could feel Alistair rigid and unhappy beside her, his arm clamped tightly about her shoulders. She gave him a reassuring nudge with her elbow, and he shot her an agonised glance in return from the corner of his eye.

Within minutes, the shards had become charred curlicues of carbon, lying in the bottom of the brazier like the leavings of a hearth-fire. Leliana, who had conducted the service for Flora's spirits with the same solemnity as she would have done for any fallen soldier, murmured a Chantry incantation; passing her hand gracefully before her chest.

"Let us take a moment."

There followed a short silence as those gathered on the ramparts paused to reflect; some thinking dutifully on Flora's spirits, others focusing more on the girl who had channelled their mighty will. An owl let out a mournful hoot from somewhere within Revanloch's rafters, the sound echoing about the crumbling walls and shadowed courtyards.

Zevran caught Flora's eye skilfully from the other side of the brazier. She blinked at him and he held up tan, elegant fingers twisted into the shape of a heart. Flora attempted to smile at him, the corner of her mouth curving into a miserable grimace.

At a subtle cue from Leliana, Alistair cleared his throat; keeping a tight grip on his mistress as she slumped miserably at his side.

"Thank you all for coming," he murmured in a quiet undertone, aware that a memorial for departed spirits was somewhat of an odd concept. "I appreciate it."

Leonas Bryland grunted, touching his maimed hand to Alistair's shoulder.

"For the little lass," he murmured under his breath, nodding to where Flora was still hunched and unhappy beneath Alistair's protective arm. "Look after her."

Just as the group was on the verge of splintering, a low and steady voice came from the steps leading down into the courtyard.

"I still think about that golden ship sometimes."

 

Chapter Text

Those still gathered on the ramparts turned to see the young Templar lieutenant, clad in travelling leathers and with a full pack slung over his shoulder. In the courtyard below, they could hear the chatter of the stable boys as they readied a lone horse for departure.

"I still remember it. The golden ship that your spirits made," Cullen repeated steadily, his tawny eyes fixing themselves on Flora's face. She stared back at him, astonished by the lack of customary shyness in his stare.

"The one from South Reach," she breathed, recalling a clouded spring evening and a fine mist of drizzle. "Connor's ship."

We stood on the cobblestones in the courtyard, Flora remembered, a lump rising to her throat. Me, Connor Guerrin, this young Templar. I wanted to show Connor that magic could be a… a beautiful thing to possess, rather than just something to be feared.

"It was meant to be a constellation," Cullen said after a moment, not well versed in astrological lore. "Do you remember going up to the tower roof, with the arl's son?"

Arl Eamon stiffened slightly, his ears pricking with interest. Flora nodded, remembering how she had sent her gleaming simulacrum of the Peraquialus on a slow, glimmering ascent; while Connor had tugged her with excited-child haste up the winding tower steps.

We came out on the roof – this Templar behind us, keeping pace – and Connor's face was bright with pleasure and excitement. He wasn't scared of the magic anymore; he was fascinated by it.

"I'll never forget the sight of that golden ship rising into the sky," Cullen said, earnest and – for the span of several heartbeats – unashamed of his own admiration. "It was one of the… one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. The boy couldn't stop talking about it on the journey to the Circle."

Flora inhaled unsteadily, grateful for Alistair's steadying arm about her waist. Cullen continued, the words emerging in a heated rush as though he were spilling his sins in a Chantry confession box.

"Anyway, I wanted to give you… to give you this."

The young officer turned to his pack and reached down, retrieving a roll of parchment sealed with a wax Chantry emblem. Uncomfortably aware of the eyes of Ferelden's most powerful nobility resting on him, Cullen strode across the ramparts and thrust the roll of parchment into a startled Flora's hand.

"I'd like to request that you don't open it right away," he mumbled, retreating quickly towards his travel pack. "Or, at least – not in front of me."

Alistair narrowed his eyes a fraction as Flora blinked, astonished. She clutched the roll of parchment, wondering at its length and weight.

Finian watched the Templar curiously as he went to retrieve pack, sword and shield; one fine russet brow lifting.

"Are you going somewhere, Lieutenant Rutherford?"

Cullen gave a slight nod in response, clearly anxious to remove himself before Flora could break the seal on the parchment.

"I've been posted to Kirkwall, in the Marches," he replied, quietly. "I'm hoping it'll be less… eventful up there."

Without another word, the Templar slung his pack over his shoulder; nearly dropping sword and sigil-marked shield in his haste. Head bowed and gaze set determinedly forwards, Cullen made his way down the steps leading into the lower courtyard.

The moment that the officer's curly blond head disappeared below the ramparts, Finian reached out and snatched the roll of parchment from Flora's hand.

"Wasn't that the Templar who kept mooning over you at South Reach? I bet this is a love letter," he said gleefully, picking at the wax seal as Flora squawked in outrage. "A declaration of undying passion!"

"Undying passion!?" demanded Alistair, nostrils flaring. The king had still not fully recovered from the revelation that Fergus had already turned down a half-dozen proposals for his younger sister's hand. "Let me see!"

"Nonsense," countered Leliana firmly, her eyes focused with predatorial interest on the roll of parchment. "It's far too large for a letter."

Flora, nonplussed, watched her brother break the seal on the wax, unrolling the full dimension of the thin vellum. It was about an arm's length in width, and Finian said nothing as he stared at the parchment's contents.

"What is it?" demanded Leliana, making an impatient gesture. "Show us!"

Wordlessly, Finian turned the parchment so that Flora could see it.

The vellum, made of finest calfskin, was decorated with an illustration scribed in ink-pen. The Templar had replicated near-perfectly the fine-boned structure of Flora's features, her eyes half-closed and her full Cousland mouth part-open. Her hand – accurate down to the bitten fingernails – was raised before her face, oddly graceful. Using the gold ink usually reserved for decorating copies of the Chant, Cullen had illustrated curlicues of light radiating from the outstretched fingertips; coiling effortlessly to the edges of the vellum. Flecks of metallic ink surrounded the portrait like a misting rain, and veins of gold ran through the windswept hair.

Flora had never seen her old abilities depicted in such a way before. In conjunction with her new inability to dream, she had resigned herself to the fact that she would never again see how her magic had looked. The Templar's inked drawing had preserved that which Flora had believed would gradually slip into the darker recesses of her memory. Breathless, she reached out to touch the vellum with a fingertip, tracing the metallic outline of the emerging magic.

"How beautiful, ma petite," Leliana murmured, her eyes moving over various painstaking details. "What a kind parting gift."

Squinting down at the uncanny replication of Flora's face – exact down to the curve of the mouth and delicate hollow of the throat – Arl Leonas' eyes narrowed a fraction, and he nudged Fergus in the ribs.

"I'd wager that's not the first time that the Templar has drawn your sister," he muttered in an undertone. "That's a practised hand."

Fergus nodded, keeping his response similarly low.

"Aye, I was thinking the same thing," he replied, grimly. "Still, he's headed off to Kirkwall. The Marcher wind will blow any inappropriate desires out of his head."

Down in the courtyard, Cullen finished loading up the horse with the last of his possessions. He had gathered scant belongings during his decade at the Chantry, and the horse was not especially weighted. After attaching his shield to the saddle, he reached for his sword, which was propped up against a nearby barrel.

Sliding the long blade carefully into its travel scabbard, Cullen took a deep breath of damp Revanloch evening air. The Templar knew it could be the last time that he would ever stand within the crumbling walls of the old monastery. Yet Cullen felt no sorrow at the prospect – Ferelden held an excess of vexing memories, of both torture and temptation in equal measure. There was a considerable part of the young man which hoped that Kirkwall would prove to be a place that he could call home; where he could both serve the Maker and sleep easy in his bed.

"Lieutenant Rutherford?"

The officer turned around and startled; if he had been holding something in his hands, he would have dropped it. Flora was standing on the cobbles, slightly flush in the face from the exertion of scuttling across the ramparts and down the steps. She stared up at him, wide-eyed and solemn, shifting from foot to foot in an effort to stop herself from lunging forward.

"Thank you for the picture," she said after a moment, impulsively. "Sorry for opening it. My brother is bad at following instructions; not like me."

Cullen dropped his stare to the cobbles, self-consciousness flooding his cheeks with a rush of pink.

"It's… it's fine," he muttered to his boots. "You're welcome."

Despite the veil of dusk settling over Revanloch like a shroud, torchlight illuminated the young man's flushed face. Abandoning caution to the wind, Flora stepped forwards. Relatively confident that Cullen would not reject her – nobody had ever recoiled from one of her earnestly offered embraces – she stretched her arms towards him.

Sure enough, after a moment of fleeting indecision, the Templar accepted her hug; at first rigid, and then relaxing in small increments. He patted her awkwardly and rather forcefully between the shoulder-blades, as though trying to dislodge some stuck food.

"Good luck in Kirkwall," Flora mumbled into his shoulder, before withdrawing in the hope that she had not embarrassed him too extensively. The Templar summoned stoicism to his face to disguise any careless fragment of emergent emotion; nodding tightly as he made to mount the saddle.

Flora stepped back, shielding her eyes against the torchlight as Cullen nudged the horse's flank gently with his knee. With a final, gruff nod in her direction, he turned his mount's head towards Revanloch's main gate.

This doesn't feel like a forever-parting, Flora wondered, watching his silhouette diminish as he rode away. I can't explain why.

I don't regret anything, the young Templar thought defiantly to himself as the horse picked its way over the cobbles.

Once Cullen's horse had disappeared into the shadows, the others joined Flora in the courtyard. The stable boys moved quietly about them, leading their horses out from the stables. By this time, the moon had risen full and plump; a swollen white peach casting a watery hue over Revanloch's damp cobbles.

Flora watched her friends and companions prepare to mount up, talking softly amongst themselves. Eamon was murmuring to Finian about the need to re-open Amaranthine's port for trade; while Wynne and Irving exchanged wry smiles at the suspicious glances they were receiving from the Templar guards. The courtyard quickly became crowded as retainers clad in Guerrin, Cousland, Bryland and Theirin livery emerged from the servants' hall, ready to escort their noble charges back to the city.

Flora stood to one side, watching the preparations to depart. A light, misting drizzle had begun to fall and she tucked the roll of parchment into her tunic to protect it.

Eamon clambered up onto his horse, rubbing at a sore knee with a grimace before sliding his boot into the stirrup. The arl of Redcliffe glanced around for his retainers, one eyebrow rising as he saw Alistair standing motionless on the cobbles. The king's horse was waiting patiently, head held still by a dutiful young stableboy.

"Alistair?"

"I'm not coming back to the palace with you, uncle," replied Alistair, low and steady.

Flora blinked across at him, clutching the folds of her tunic shut over the roll of parchment.

"I'll be there for the guild meeting tomorrow," the king continued, his gaze not leaving his mistress' face. "But I'm staying with Flo tonight."

Alistair rounded the back of the horse, coming to a halt on the cobblestones just before Flora. Flora wondered at the seriousness of his expression, pressing her cheek reflexively into his palm as he cupped the side of her face. Staring up at him, she saw her own miserable confession from earlier writ plain across his features.

Every night, I'm on my own in the darkness. I see nothing, I hear nothing. I don't dream. I'm alone, properly alone.

Flora's best friend gazed back down at her through the misting drizzle, hazel irises bruised with concern. His thumb traced the high bone of her cheek, and the affectionate gesture brought incongruous tears to Flora's own eyes.

"I'm so sorry that I sent you away after the Blight ended," he said after a moment, the regret running raw in his voice. "I should have been there with you, Lo. I'm such an idiot."

Flora shook her head silently, a protest rising to her lips. Yet Alistair had already turned away, his eyes boring into her two Templar guards standing unobtrusively to one side.

"Your presence won't be required tonight."

Eyes lighting like candles, Zevran leaned across the space between the saddles and whispered in Finian's ear, his expression gleeful. Finian grimaced and looked as though he wanted to elbow the elf in the ribs; neither requiring nor desiring Zevran to enunciate Alistair's intentions more explicitly.

"That's my little sister," he retorted indignantly, sole remaining eye wide and accusatory. "I don't need to hear you say it out loud."

 

Chapter Text

As much as Alistair may have desired complete privacy, such was an impossible thing if one was the king of Ferelden. Although Knight-Captain Gannorn and Chanter Devotia had been relegated to their own rooms for the night, a half-dozen Royal Guard had been posted outside the guest chamber.

Still, as the king closed the door firmly in his wake, he was grateful for even a semblance of seclusion. Stopping short of actually turning the key in the lock – he knew from experience that this would cause great protest from the guard – he hoped that the door would sit well enough in its uneven frame to stay closed.

Moonlight spilled across the bedchamber from the opened windows, illuminating soft swathes of dust on the floorboards and disguising the patches of damp on the plastered walls. Flora, who was sitting on the edge of the bed, watched a small spider drop from a ceiling beam; the thin silken thread left in its wake caught the luminescence filtering through the clouded glass.

The sound of boot-steps roused Flora from her reverie, and she looked up as Alistair sat beside her on the mattress. He slid over his hand and she took it reflexively, gazing at the contrasting skin tone of their entwined fingers - alabaster woven through olive. His thumb immediately began to rub around her knuckles in slow, comforting circles; the gesture both intimate and familiar.

"Lola," Alistair said quietly after a moment, a raw note of self-doubt in his voice. "Did I do the wrong thing in sending you here after the Blight? I didn't have to listen to Eamon and the council; I am the king."

Flora thought for a moment, her brow furrowing. Alistair leaned forward, unable to help himself, and pressed a kiss to his solemn sister-warden's cheek. Her skin felt cool against his lips – with the departure of her spirits, Flora had lost the residual heat that loaned her body perpetual warmth.

"No, I think it was right," she said, slow and careful. "It gave me a chance to understand how I'd… how I'd changed. And it was quiet here. I – I think I needed some quietness, after what happened."

A small part of Alistair's worry was alleviated with this response; though he still kept a tight and anxious grip on her hand.

"It broke my heart what you said earlier, Lo," he muttered, so quiet she could barely hear him. "About being alone at night, surrounded by darkness. It – it felt like I'd been punched in the gut by a Qunari."

Flora looked down, feeling a sudden, sharp sting of sadness. The tears began to well on her eyelashes and Alistair inhaled, immediately distraught on her behalf.

"I'm so sorry, my love."

Flora shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. He reached out to turn her face towards his own, leaning forwards to let their mouths come naturally together. His lips worked hers open, a bold tongue immediately staking its claim. She let out a muffled gasp into his mouth and Alistair responded with a soft grunt of approval.

"But I'm here now," he murmured, letting his mouth drift over Flora's ear. He could feel her shivering as he traced the shell-like curve with the tip of his tongue, savouring each breathy squeak that escaped from her lips. The pale line of her throat was too tempting to resist; Alistair's mouth meandered down her neck in a slow progression of little sucking kisses. Flora squirmed helplessly beneath them, her fingers anchored in the folds of his tunic.

"Alistair," she breathed and he let out a low groan of desire against her skin, tracing the hollow of her collarbone with his tongue.

"I'm here, baby."

As the king made love to Flora's throat with the increasingly enthusiastic workings of his lips, his hand was busily divesting her of her clothing. He unfastened the lacings of her tunic with quickly-remembered fleetness, letting the folds of navy lambs-wool fall open to bare her breasts. Flora went to help him, shrugging her shoulders free of the garment so that it pooled around her waist. Her boots were already discarded halfway across the floor; it took but a moment to wriggle her smallclothes down around her thighs. She leaned back against the cushions, eyes heavy-lidded with desire; he followed her movement and began to kiss his way with clumsy ardour down her body.

"You're so beautiful," he mumbled into her skin, tongue now tracing the underside of her breast. "I can't believe you're mine. You exquisite creature."

There was but one thing in Ferelden that could distract a lust-ridden Alistair; and that was Flora's plump stomach, the skin stretched taut over the rounded curve that housed their growing child. He raised his head, gazing in wonder at the mound of flesh rising gently beneath her breasts.

"Maker's Breath," Alistair murmured, feeling his throat thicken with a sudden surge of emotion. "That's so amazing, Lo. Look how big it's getting."

Flora eyed the top of his bronzed head beadily as he planted a gentle mouth on the swollen flesh, kissing it as though the child itself could feel the pressure of his lips. Although she already loved her little toad beyond measure or reason, it had also made her sick that morning and given her indigestion in the afternoon.

"Hm," she said in response, waiting for him to move further south. When he continued to gaze at her belly, transfixed; Flora decided to take matters into her own hands.

Pushing herself up from the cushions, she squirmed her fingers into the waistband of Alistair's loosened breeches; delving them over the hard muscle of his abdomen and down through the nest of tangled hair.

Alistair inhaled unsteadily as she took him in hand, finally distracted from the mound of her stomach.

"Baby," he breathed into her ear, pushing himself hard into her fingers with a shift of his pelvis. "Maker, I've missed you."

Flora smiled against the new king's shoulder, curling an arm around his neck and inhaling the familiar masculine scent of his skin. She could describe the planes and hollows of her best friend's chest from memory, knew intimately the location of each faded scar and old callous.

Abruptly, lust flickering in the depths of his pupils, Alistair shoved his breeches awkwardly down his hips. Reaching out, he placed large hands on Flora's waist and manoeuvred her gently onto his lap. The fire in the hearth had burnt down to embers, just bright enough to ignite the green veins in his tawny irises.

Flora reached out to caress the side of her best friend's face, brought equal in height by her position straddling his naked thighs.

"I need you," she whispered, touching her thumb to his bearded chin. "Please."

Lost for words, Alistair kissed her in response, hard and desirous. As he leaned forwards, his arousal pressed insistently against her abdomen. Lips parting wetly, they both looked down at it and Alistair's brow furrowed in consternation.

"I don't want to hurt you," he said, a grimace creasing across his olive brow. "Or be too rough. Will you tell me if it's uncomfortable?"

Flora nodded impatiently, using her strong knee to raise herself several inches above his thighs. Alistair took a deep breath, summoning deep from the reserves of self-control, then took himself in hand and began to work inside her, an inch at a time. She was good and slick, which made it easier; but it had still been almost a month since he had last penetrated her. Beads of sweat began to rise to the king's forehead, teeth gritted with the effort required not to hilt himself in one deep thrust. Flora was also grimacing; growing used to the sensation of Alistair's considerable length within her.

Once he was sheathed fully between her legs, she gave an experimental little wriggle. Alistair let a low, helpless groan in response; fingers tightening on her waist.

"Darling," he whispered against her ear, in slightly strangled tones. "Give me a moment, I just almost spent myself."

Flora obediently arrested her momentum, letting Alistair take several deep, steadying gulps of air. Once some fragment of composure had been regained, he gripped Flora by the hips, easing her gently up and down. She matched his movements; letting her pelvis rock in slow synchrony against his own.

"Is – is it alright, Flo?"

Alistair's words blurred as he sunk himself repeatedly inside her, his buttocks clenching with each deep thrust. She let out a squeak of assent as she rode him; increasingly confident as she grew accustomed to her new shape. He groaned, eyelids half-closed with desire as the sounds of their lovemaking expanded to fill the room. The slickness of bodily arousal blended with the cadence of wet flesh meeting and parting; their moans and pants muddying together into a tangle of lust.

Flora's eyes were open, albeit clouded. She was dazedly watching the reflection of her best friend in the mirror; admiring the sweaty muscles of his back as they worked in rippling unison. Then Alistair's lips were at her ear, some coherent words managing to escape between the grunts and groans of pleasure.

"Not – alone," he gasped, urgent, forceful. "I'm here, baby."

At last, at last.

Flora wrapped her arms around his neck, crying out helplessly as she felt her abdomen convulse; waves of energy spreading outwards from her core like a pebble dropped into a rockpool.

This raw whimper was the signal that Alistair had been waiting for; seconds later, he let out a strangled half-snarl of desire and dug his fingers into Flora's shoulders as his own pelvis spasmed violently. The room seemed to darken as his vision contracted; for several moments, he was only aware of his own frantically reverberating heart. Shortly afterwards his sweaty forehead dropped onto Flora's shoulder, the air escaping his lips in a rush. She reached up to slide her arms about his neck, strands of sweaty hair plastered to her cheeks.

Momentarily lost for words, Alistair shifted on the rumpled furs; leaning back against the cushions and bringing Flora with him. She rested her cheek against his chest, feeling him settle his chin on top of her head.

"Well," the king said, somewhat hoarsely. "That was definitely worth the wait."

Flora smiled dazedly into the taut muscle, a thin layer of sweat adhering her cheek to the skin.

"I love you," she whispered, feeling him inhale sharply and grip her a fraction tighter.

"And I adore you," he replied, voice ragged and earnest. "Maker's Breath. You are magnificent, my queen."

Alistair darted an eye towards Flora to see her reaction, yet she was huddled yawning against his chest; well mired in the stupor that followed good lovemaking.

"Ouch, my foot has gone to sleep."

In the passageway, one of the Royal Guardsmen posted at the doorway let out a muffled curse, while his counterpart snickered.

"Ha! A quarter-candle length, jus' as I said. Told you the king wouldn't last a full half, it's the first time he's bedded her in weeks. That's five silver you owe me!"

The first guard extracted a handful of coins from his pocket, belligerent and sulky as he handed them over.

"I still got my other wager," he retorted, defiantly. "Twice more tonight."

"Nah, the lady's got a fat Theirin babe in the belly, she'll be tired. Once more in the mornin', that was their custom in the palace."

Unfortunately for the latter guard, the third bell had just rung when the tell-tale noises began once more. It was the deepest, stillest part of the night, and the silence was broken by the moan of a girl filtering out beneath the door. The moans increased in need and tangled together into an incoherent feminine whimper; raw and pleading.

The first guardsman looked triumphant, and the second made to check his glee quickly; ducking down to squint through the keyhole.

"Tongue-wagging doesn't count!" he protested, indignantly. "It has to be a proper rut."

Unfortunately for him, shortly afterwards the unmistakable sound of wet flesh slapping together emerged from the chamber. The throaty grunts of a man joined with the girl's pants, interspersed with the sound of needy kisses. This bout of lovemaking was lengthier than the first; as they learnt how to best accommodate Flora's stomach.

The first guard grinned, making a rude gesture with his fingers at his scowling comrade.

"Ha! Once more, and I get double back, as agreed. Come on, your Majesty!"

The morning dawned damp and drizzly, an insipid sun barely bothering to show its face behind an Orlesian mask of cloud. Water ran in rivulets down Revanloch's tiled rooftops, flooding gutters and gathering in pools on the flagstones.

Teagan arrived on the tenth bell to escort Alistair back to the palace in good time for the trade guilds meeting. As the bann ascended the stairs to the guest passageway, he was greeted with one grinning Royal guard and a sulking counterpart.

"My lord," the first guard said, with a diplomatic clearing of the throat. "The king is… indisposed at the moment. He shouldn't be long."

Teagan snorted, leaning against the wall and taking out some correspondence from Rainesfere.

"Good lad," he murmured, dropping his eyes to the sheriff's report.

"The lady Florence is a lovely lass," offered the second guardsman, for want of anything else to say. "King Alistair is a lucky man."

"Aye, she's beautiful," agreed Teagan, amiably. "And… he is."

"Jealous, my lord?" added the first, slyly. He had once been a man of Redcliffe, and was more familiar with the bann than most.

"Ha!" replied the younger Guerrin, forcing a note of humour into his voice. "I doubt I could keep up with a nineteen year old."

A short while later, the heated sounds from the bedchamber abated and Teagan duly tucked his correspondence away, a little warm under the collar himself. He counted to two hundred under his breath, then strode forwards and delivered a sharp rap to the door.

"The Bann of Rainesfere!" chirped out the triumphant guard as Teagan entered the guest chamber, carefully arranging his features into neutrality.

The room was lit by a weak, insipid sunlight; the cries of seagulls echoing from the cliffs outside. Alistair, clad only in unbuttoned breeches, was in the process of opening the window. The bed itself was in a state of disarray, with cushions strewn halfway across the room and furs tangled beyond recognition.

"Morning, uncle," Alistair called jovially over his shoulder, keeping his breeches up around his hips with one hand as he swung the window open.

"Morning, Alistair," Teagan replied, wryly. "Slept well, I trust?"

Alistair was unable to prevent a grin from spreading across his face as he nodded.

"Well enough."

Just then the attention of both men was drawn by a mournful wail from Flora. She was standing in front of the mirror clad in Alistair's shirt, twisting her head from side to side to view her neck.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?" Alistair demanded, shooting across the room with remarkable speed for a man his height.

Outraged, Flora turned to face him, gesturing at herself.

"I can't heal these anymore!"

Her throat and shoulders were bruised with the aftermath of Alistair's sucking kisses, dark red marks scattered lewdly across the pale skin. Alistair blinked at her for a moment, and then – mistakenly – chuckled.

This was very much the wrong response to make. Flora bent down, scooped up a cushion with her fingertips and launched it at the King of Ferelden's head. It exploded in a puff of feathers and he sneezed, several wads of fluff shooting directly up his nostrils.

"You feasted on me like a… a moray eel! I'm maimed!"

When Alistair emerged from the storm of feathers, wiping his eyes, Flora was still glowering at him. Trying not to laugh, he reached out his arms towards her.

"Alright, darling. You can plant one on me, if it'd make you feel better- "

Before he had finished speaking, Flora lunged forwards. Instead of pressing her lips to his neck or bare chest, she fastened her mouth around the end of his nose; firm as a limpet. When she withdrew, there was a distinct purplish bruise left at the very tip.

Alistair stared at himself at the mirror, eyebrows lodged somewhere within his hairline. In the background, Flora now appeared somewhat mollified.

"Ha! Haha."

"I'll have to say I was bending down to pet a dog, and it bit my nose," the king of Ferelden said after a moment, breaking into laughter. "My little she-Mabari."

He shot Flora a look that was both intimate and full of meaning, and she immediately blushed; memories from the previous night rising to the surface of her mind.

Teagan cleared his throat, sensing the atmosphere in the room heighten.

"Come on, lad," he said, not unkindly. "There's a hall full of guildsmen and ministers waiting for you."

 

Chapter Text

On the twenty-ninth day of Justinian, the people of Denerim began preparations for their new king's birthday. Although they were saving much of the best ale for the coronation in five days time, Alistair Theirin turning one-and-twenty was still an excuse for revelry. Merchants intended to close up shop early, taverns would stay open until late; in the wake of the grimmest year in Ferelden's memory, its people did not require much cause to celebrate.

Before the sun had fully risen over Revanloch's steeply tilted roof, Leliana found herself being shaken awake. The bard groaned, opening one eye to gaze into Flora's alarmed face.

"What's wrong, ma petite? Ugh, it's barely dawn!"

Flora rolled awkwardly over into the bard's half of the bed, the mattress dipping down with their conjoined weight. She gripped Leliana's shoulder, curling her fingers anxiously into the pink silk of the Orlesian nightgown.

"Leliana, it's Alistair's birthday tomorrow," Flora whispered. "He's going to be twoty-one."

From his position by the door, Knight-Captain Gannorn snorted quietly under his breath.

"Flor - ence, we have been over this – how many times?"protested the bard, exasperated. "It's not two-ty, it's twenty. You aren't 'one-ty' nine, are you?"

"It would make more sense if I was," Flora replied, thinking of sixty, seventy, eighty. A moment later she continued, impatiently. "Anyway. Don't people give each other… presents on their birthday?"

Such a concept was utterly foreign to Flora; in Herring, one's birthday was barely mentioned, let alone celebrated. The giving of gifts was unheard of.

Leliana nodded, stretching against the cushions with a yawn.

"Yes, it is customary to do so. On my twentieth birthday, one of my suitors gave me a hollow nightingale carved from jade. When one breathed into its wing-tip, a beautiful high-pitched note sounded from its beak."

"I need to get Alistair something," Flora breathed, horrified. "I can't be the only person to not give him a gift. Not a bird that you blow, though."

Leliana bit back a laugh, reaching up to tuck a loose strand of Flora's hair behind her ear.

"Ma fleur, you need not get him anything. Your love is more than enough, I suspect."

"No," Flora protested, looking about her as though a merchant might miraculously manifest in the corner of the room. "I need to go to the big market, in the city. There's lots of stalls there."

She slithered awkwardly down the end of the bed, her knee giving a twinge of protest at such unorthodox movement. Leliana sat up against the cushions, her brow creasing.

"Flora, you know the effect your presence has on the people. You can't just wander about the city anonymous, like you used to. There'll be a crowd five-deep."

Flora chewed on her lip, thinking hard. A seagull gave a piercing cry from outside, and its mate responded in equally high-pitched timbre.

"Then I won't go as Lady Cousland," she said at last, triumphantly. "I'll tie my hair back, and wear a hat. And a big coat."

"In summer?"

"Yes! And I'll go by myself, since everyone is used to me being escorted by guards and Templars – why are you laughing?"

Flora stopped mid-sentence, gazing in perplexion down at Leliana. The bard was cackling, one elegant hand beating out the rhythm of her chortles on the cushions.

"What's so funny?"

"The thought of you being allowed to wander the streets alone," retorted Leliana, wiping a tear from her pale eyelashes. "Such a circumstance is less likely than the Veil itself dissolving."

Flora fell into a sulky silence, and the bard relented a fraction.

"Alright," she murmured, sliding elegantly out from the blankets. "We will bundle you up beyond recognition, and I will escort you myself. Find all the clothing you can, ma crevette; I am going to send a quick raven to the city."


 

An hour later, Flora and Leliana were riding along the cliff-top path towards Denerim; the sea breeze ruffling the bard's short braids around her ears as she gripped the reins. They had not told the Knight-Commander where they were going – Leliana rightly assumed that the man would go apoplectic with fear at the lady Cousland making an unaccompanied journey under his purview – and, after much persuasion, they had left behind Flora's Templar guards.

"Don't fall off," Leliana directed sternly over her shoulder, feeling Flora shift around on the saddle behind her. "If any harm comes to you, Alistair will have my head on a pike alongside Thomas Howe's."

"Ooh, he would never," replied Flora automatically, keeping one arm wrapped around Leliana's taut stomach as she adjusted the buttons at her neck. "My head feels all sweaty. My entire body is sweaty."

This was the unavoidable consequence of having her hair bundled up beneath a wide-brimmed hat, and her body covered with a lumpen and unflattering wool jacket. Flora actually didn't mind the coat – the coarse fabric reminded her of Herring – but she would not have chosen to wear it during high summer, in normal circumstances. However, her distinctive oxblood hair and the swell of her belly – the two features that identified her mostly strongly as Lady Cousland – had been somewhat disguised.

The horse slowed its pace as they embarked on the steep gravel descent that led down to the estuary. The muddied expanse of the Alamarri plains stretched out to the west, vast and desolate. The walled city itself lay over the mouth of the estuary, the tributaries repurposed into canals.

"What are you doing?" Leliana asked, as Flora fidgeted and murmured quietly to herself, the brim of her hat bumping into the bard's neck.

"Sorting out what I've got to barter with," Flora replied, gripping Leliana's belt with one hand as she delved into her pocket with the other. "I don't have any money, hm. I do have a nice shiny rock. And some sea-shells."

Leliana snorted, guiding the horse carefully around a pothole.

"I'll give you the coin for anything you desire," the bard replied, trying not to laugh. "One of your brothers can repay me later."

Flora beamed at Leliana's shoulder-blades, watching the tightly-hewn muscle move beneath the thin fabric of the lay-sister's tunic.

"Mercy!"

"Merci."

Once they had reached the western gate, Flora found that her heart was beating exceptionally – and irrationally - fast. As always, there were guards stationed beneath the iron portcullis, checking all those who wished to enter Denerim for smuggled goods. Fortunately, a long caravan of Marcher traders was passing through just ahead of them; the guards were so preoccupied with searching the contents of each cart that they waved Leliana past without a second glance.

After they had passed into the city itself, Flora's attention was immediately captured by the newly embroidered banners hanging from each archway and balcony. They depicted a Theirin lion, rearing upwards, with the curving arc of a Cousland laurel wound about its flank and caught in its outstretched paw.

"Are they to mark Alistair and I's contribution to ending the Fifth Blight?" Flora whispered in Leliana's ear.

Leliana paused, then gave a soft and ambiguous grunt in response; not wanting to lie outright. The bard turned the horse towards a nearby stables, using her knee to guide it skilfully away from the crowd of chattering Marcher merchants.

"We'll leave the horse here and go on foot," she said, sharp eyes alighting on a figure leaning unobtrusively against the wall. "Ah, parfait."

The horse came to a halt near a water trough, and Leliana leaned forward to unclip the reins. Flora eyed the drop to the cobbles, wondering if she dared risk attempt the descent unaided – then a familiar voice came drifting from somewhere below; half-laughing and half-chiding.

"Don't even think about it, mi florita."

A pair of sinewy arms reached up, and Flora let herself slither down obediently into them, beaming up at Zevran as far as her outlandish headgear would allow. Zevran - who had just been hit in the nose by the hat's wide brim - let out a little snicker.

"Mi sirenita," he murmured, stepping backwards and surveying her. "You look like a sausage, all bundled up. Is this our bard's best attempt at subterfugeI thought you had been trained in the courts and salons of Orlais, Leliana."

"I had limited means at my disposal!" Leliana retorted, flashing the elf an evil glance as she led the horse into the stables.

Zevran snickered, flicking the wide brim of Flora's hat with elegant, tattooed fingers. "Mi florita."

"You can't call me Flora," Flora told him sternly, her voice dropping on the last word. "When I'm in this cunning disguise."

The elf, whose eyebrows had shot upwards at the application of the word cunning, tried not to laugh.

"What should we call you then, nena?"

"Fred," said Flora vaguely after a moment, selecting a solid sounding northern name at random. "It starts with the same letter, doesn't it? F? Fuh?"

"Fred!" announced the elf, a grin curling the black marks scythed in ink across his cheeks. "My sweet little Federico. Hey, you have not yet given us the kiss of greeting. Don't cheat me, now!"

"Good luck getting under this hat," replied Flora, and the elf's dark eyes lit up like ignited coals.

"That is a challenge I readily accept, carina."

Zevran ducked his head beneath the wide, floppy brim and planted a kiss against Flora's cheek, his lips brushing the corner of her mouth. She smiled vaguely at him, turning her head in the direction of the market square. In the background, Leliana embarked upon negotiations for the cost of renting a horse-stall, batting her eyelashes at the young stable-hand. Not to be outdone, Zevran soon chimed in, and the dual charm offensive resulted in a bargain price.

Bard and elf turned around in triumph, only to realise in slight horror that their charge had wandered off into the crowds heading towards the markets. Leliana hissed a most un-Chantry-sister like string of curses under her breath, shooting an accusatory glower at Zevran.

"The one time you don't have your eyes glued to her…!"

"Relax," murmured the elf in response, swinging his sharp gaze across the crowd of traders, travellers and townsfolk. "She's just there, by the Chanter's board."

Flora had paused in the middle of the street; gazing around at the buildings and bridges absentmindedly as she tried to remember the fastest route to the market square. The sun had emerged from behind a thin screen of clouds, and she felt several beads of sweat rise to her forehead beneath the felt hat. The city was larger and noisier than the Herring native remembered; the sheer quantity of people bustling along the streets was a tad intimidating.

A trader with a handcart barked impatiently for Flora to move! from somewhere behind her left shoulder. She stepped hastily to one side; not quite far enough, as it transpired. The handle of the cart knocked into Flora's hip, hard enough to make her flinch.

"Ow!"

"Idiot boy, get out the way!"

The next moment, the trader's hand-cart came to an abrupt halt, the handles dropping to the mud as the trader drew in a shocked breath. Zevran had manifested in the road just ahead, his face contorted into a death's head smile without a shred of humour. Without moving his unblinking stare from the trader's face, the elf drew back the flap of his leathers to show several inches of gleaming, newly sharpened steel. With the colour draining rapidly from his face, the travelling merchant picked up the cart – fumbling the handles several times – and scuttled off into the midst of the crowds.

Flora, oblivious to the elf's voiceless threat, had turned to face an indignant Leliana. The bard drew her to one side, towards the wall of a boarded-up blacksmith's.

"Flor- Fred – I swear, if you run off one more time, we're going straight back to Revanloch!"

"Oh NO!"

"Ah, oui!" The bard relented a fraction, seeing the look of alarm on Flora's face beneath the wide-brimmed hat. "Are you alright, ma petite? The cart didn't knock you in the stomach?"

"No," replied Flora, as Zevran sidled towards them and slid his arm about her waist. "Just my hip. Which way is the market?"

They made their way over a crowded bridge towards the market square, following the main flow of the crowds. A mere five weeks after the end of the Blight, commerce had flourished once more within Ferelden's capital; mercantile companies putting out tentative roots to replace those routes that had been destroyed by war. Trade ships from other nations were dropping anchor in the estuary once more, importing exotic spices from Antiva and scent from Rivain.

Zevran and Leliana walked at either side of Flora, outwardly nonchalant but alert to the movements of every passer-by. A street urchin had eyed the deep pockets of Flora's coat with interest, fingers twitching; only to flee in terror as Leliana bared her teeth at him in primeval warning.

They had almost reached the great bridge that spanned Denerim's main canal – a placid tongue of the estuary wide enough for six barges to float parallel - when the sound of metallic bootsteps echoed from the streets ahead. This was accompanied by the yells of guards, their shouts echoing between the tall waterside warehouses.

"Make way for the king! Make way for King Alistair of Ferelden!"

Flora's initial, instinctive reaction of delight was quickly tempered. She shot a frantic glance towards Leliana, who looked equally alarmed at the prospect of Alistair discovering his pregnant mistress wandering the city streets with only two guardians.

"Quick," the bard hissed after a moment, as the sound of horses' hooves drew closer. "Back here."

The three of them ducked into the arched porch of a tavern, trusting in the sudden surge forward of the eager crowd to hide them. Leliana and Zevran had mastered the art of blending into the environment; the elf reached out to tug the brim of Flora's hat low over her face.

No more than a minute later, two columns of Royal Guard came marching over the bridge, pikes raised to form a protective barrier. The crowds obediently flattened themselves against the sides of the buildings, chattering excitedly to one another as they stood on their toes to gain a first glimpse of the king.

Flora, trapped in the tavern doorway with Leliana at her side and Zevran at her front, could barely see anything. Although she knew that the blood-connection between herself and Alistair had been severed with the purging of the taint, she still found herself cringing back against the doorway; irrationally worried about being spotted.

The excited babble reached a crescendo, cheers breaking out as the king's retinue approached. Fergus came first, gripping the reins in a leisurely hand and conversing with Teagan, who was riding at his side. A handful of Cousland retainers followed close in the teyrn's wake, their navy and olive Highever livery standing out distinctly against the crimson of the Guards' tunics.

The cheers escalated in volume as Alistair came into view, clad in tan, fur-edged leathers. The gold band rested on his temples, his head was held high, and he looked both authoritative and wholly at ease. Flora felt a sudden surge of pride in her best friend; she knew that Alistair was not yet entirely comfortable in his new status, yet he was simultaneously determined to make a good job of it.

The king raised his hand to acknowledge the cheers, leaning over to murmur in Eamon's ear. The sharp eyed Leliana noticed something strapped to Alistair's saddle, and she nudged Zevran pointedly.

"I see it," murmured the elf, whose eyesight was sharper still.

Flora, too, had been immediately drawn to this deeply familiar object, her eyes widening.

"It's a fishing pole!" she exclaimed excitedly, unable to keep her voice muted. "At last, after all my nagging, Alistair is finally embracing the delights of the rod!"

"I wish Alistair would embrace the delights of the rod," replied the elf with a lewd cackle.

"You know, he's never been fishing?" Flora continued, oblivious to Zevran's crude remark. "Better late than never!"

"Ssh!" hissed Leliana, shooting both of them a glower over her shoulder. "Keep your voices down!"

Sure enough, Flora's distinctive northern accent had cut through the excited babble of the crowd like a fish-gut knife. Atop his bay mare, Alistair paused mid-conversation, breaking off a reply to Eamon to glance around, perplexed.

Flora immediately shrank back into the doorway, trusting in the gloomy archway and wide-brimmed hat to mask her face. After a moment more, the king resumed his conversation with the arl; and the royal retinue gradually made their way further down the street and out of sight.

"Are you ready to go, ma petite?" Leliana asked at last, resting her fingers on Flora's elbow. "I thought for a moment that you were going to launch yourself towards Alistair's horse, waving your arms."

"Nooo ! Can you imagine! Let's go to the market."

 

Chapter Text

Once the king's procession had passed, Flora, Zevran and Leliana made their way over the main bridge, past the fish-sellers and canal-side merchants, towards Denerim's market square. This was a large and sprawling space in the eastern part of the city, lined on all four sides with taverns, smiths and other assorted shopfronts. There was a diminutive Chantry – a fraction of the size of the Grand Chantry in the Square of the Bride – and a guard post located nearby.

A tangle of stalls were clustered without any semblance of order about the auctioneer's platform in the centre. Goods from all corners of Thedas were displayed for sale; raw silk in a rainbow spectrum of hues from Orlais; pungent baskets of spice from Antiva; as well as Surface dwarves showing off their admirable metalworking skills. One ginger-bearded smith was sending up showers of sparks as he hammered away in a demonstration of his craft; while a nearby cheese-maker sweated and hoped that his produce wouldn't melt in the forge heat. There were butchers gathered into a far corner, swatting flies away from swathes of dangling meat. A group of bowyers huddled nearby, irritated at being assigned a spot near the offal-filled gutters. An elven herbalist sat proudly atop a raised cart, amidst a plethora of oddly coloured glass vials. During the Blight, the market had only ever been half-full and limited to mostly Fereldan crafts, due to the drying-up of trade routes. Now it had swelled to almost full capacity, bustling and noisy; traders bellowing their wares over the hiss of the forge and snorting of animals.

Flora came to an abrupt halt at the western entrance, wide-eyed and shocked at the sheer scale of the market. Although she had seen such quantities of people before – her gathered armies – they had been ordered in strictly regimented rows. This – on the other hand - seemed naught but a chaotic mass of people; loud, unruly and intimidating.

She glanced to her companions for a measure of reassurance. Leliana was eyeing the spectrum of raw silk hanging from the Orlesian dressmaker's stand, while Zevran was leaning towards the Antivan spice-stall as though physically drawn towards it. Flora looked down at her feet, berating furiously herself for her own nerves.

You killed a dragon. Why are you scared of a crowd?

Finally, Zevran noticed Flora's hesitation and reached out, sliding his fingers through her arm.

"It is as if the whole world was compressed into a single space, no?" he said, kindly. "Let us start at the outside and work our way inwards."

They began at the blacksmiths' quarter, avoiding the sparks flying from the collision of hammer against anvil as a dwarven smith sweated over his forge. Flora mulled over getting Alistair a piece of armour – a helm, or a breastplate – but then decided against it; not knowing the actual measurements of a body she could describe as well as her own. Leliana lingered behind at the armourer's stand, testing a wickedly curved blade against the flat of her finger. The weapon met with her approval and she handed over a small pouch of coin, sliding the dagger up her sleeve unobtrusively.

"Come here, Federico. I want to show you something."

Zevran wound his fingers in Flora's own and pulled her across to a certain stall which the native Fereldans seemed to be avoiding. As they neared, Flora could understand why – the scent emanating from the wares was so overwhelming that it made her eyes water. It was not an unpleasant smell exactly, but strong.

The elf ventured towards the stall, which was manned by a slender, dark haired merchant with fox-like features and a single golden nose-ring. The two men exchanged a few words in Antivan, before Zevran grinned and beckoned Flora forwards.

Baskets of ground spice were laid out in enticing array, in warm hues that ranged from bright ochre to brick red. Flora sniffed, mopping at her streaming eyes, as Zevran exulted the wondrous properties of the goods before her.

"Here, carina, we have the secret to what all Fereldan meals sorely lack – flavour. We have cinnamon, saffron, star anise, caraway, cardamom…"

"Arl Eamon had some cin- cinnamon in his kitchen," Flora said, remembering a stew that she and Morrigan had once made, many months ago in the servants' quarters of Redcliffe Castle.

The elf wrinkled his nose, giving a little toss of the head.

"Well, his cook surely never used it."

Zevran then leaned forwards, dipping the end of his little finger into the mound of ochre spice.

"Nena, stick your tongue out," he instructed, and Flora obediently did as requested.

The elf touched his fingertip to the end of her tongue, and she pulled a face, the corners of her mouth twisting.

"That's cardamom, Federico. How does it taste?"

"Strange," replied Flora unhelpfully after a moment, and the elf's dark eyes rolled like marbles.

"Strange? Here, try this one."

He scooped up a small pile of yellow spice on the end of another finger, holding it out expectantly. Flora ducked her head forward and tasted the powdery substance, her face immediately contorting in a grimace.

"What's that?" she demanded, wide-eyed. "It tastes like grass."

The elf wiped his fingers on his tunic, shaking his head from side to side regretfully.

"It is saffron, carina, and it is worth its weight in gold! Quite literally, in fact."

Flora gazed dubiously down at the baskets of pungent seasoning, her brow creasing.

"I don't think I'm going to get Alistair any spices," she said after a moment, then immediately regretted referring to the king so explicitly.

Sure enough, the Antivan trader's ears had pricked at the mention of Alistair by name, his shrewd gaze attempting to slide beneath the brim of Flora's wide and obscuring hat.

"Come on, ma petite."

Leliana manifested behind them, reaching to interweave her arm though Flora's elbow. Flora, who was now sweating both from heat and horror at her own foolish transgression, allowed the bard to lead her away. Zevran leaned forward to exchange a few words with the trader, the mellifluous rhythm of the Antivan tongue blending into the low background babble of the marketplace.

"I'm such an idiot," Flora bemoaned as Leliana led her towards a nearby row of stalls. "Why did I call Alistair, Alistair? I should have given him a false name. Alistair could have been… Albert. Or Aron. Anything other than Alistair!"

"Stop saying Alistair!" hissed back Leliana, noticing several more civilians turn their heads curiously towards them. "Honestly, ma petite, I recommend that you never consider the path of the bard."

Not that you could ever hope to become one, with that singing voice, Leliana thought grimly, but did not add.

After they had made another rotation of the market, Flora had still not found anything which she deemed to be acceptable. The sun had risen to midday; she was growing hotter, sweatier and more frustrated by the minute. Her weak knee was throbbing, the strapping dangling loose around the injured joint. Leliana and Zevran, conscious of the increasing temperatures, had plied Flora with frequent offerings from their water pouches; seeing her flushed and frustrated face beneath the hat.

"I can't find anything," she wailed as they paused beside a stall selling exotic fowl in cages. "I thought I would be able to get Alis – him - the perfect present, but there's nothing here!"

"Perhaps we should admit defeat and return to the monastery?" Leliana suggested hopefully, feeling beads of sweat rise to her own forehead. "We could arrive back in time for afternoon prayers if we leave now."

The corners of Flora's mouth turned down in dismay, and she dropped her gaze to her feet. Zevran glanced over his shoulder to ensure that nobody was paying a little too much attention; then hastened forward to reassure their young Cousland. Sliding a hand between the buttons of Flora's coat, he let his fingers rest on the protruding curve of her stomach.

"Federico," the elf murmured, wry and rueful. "You are already giving him the greatest gift of all. You could present Alistair with nothing more for the rest of his life, and he would still name you as his greatest benefactor."

"But baby isn't coming for three months," retorted Flora, belligerent and crimson in the face. "It'd be a very late birthday present. And I can't wrap it up and put a bow on it. Actually, I could probably put a bow on it. But still, it's too late! His birthday is tomorrow!"

After making another increasingly agitated circuit of the stalls, Flora selected a hunk of wax-paper wrapped Fereldan cheddar, accompanied by a pair of thick knitted woollen socks in an alarming shade of orange. Flora was not particularly enamoured with either present, but she was becoming tired and overheated after spending so much time on her feet, in direct sunlight.

"Arl Eamon will probably be getting Alistair a… a minor island or something," she complained, feeling sweat running down the back of her neck as the merchant wrapped the socks in a thin skein of fabric. "I don't know how to do presents. I'm not good at it."

"Don't worry yourself," chided Zevran, lifting his water pouch to her lips and tilting it gently. "Take another sip, nena. You ought to get into some shade."

Flora obligingly took a gulp, water dribbling down the side of her mouth as she yawned mid-swallow.

Just then, there came a minor commotion as a caravan of Surface dwarves passed close by, travel-worn and yet surprisingly jovial. They blocked the road to such an extent that Flora, Zevran and Leliana were forced to retreat; taking refuge by a silk merchant's stall. Flora glanced to one side, her attention caught by a flash of familiar forest green.

I recognise that livery, she thought to herself, spotting a portcullis badge sewn onto a doublet. That's South Reach livery.

Oh no!

At that same moment, a piercing young female voice rang out near them; high and petulant.

"Papa, I need three different colours of silk for my gown."

"Why in the seven hells do you need three colours?"

"Because I need to have slashed sleeves and an underskirt in contrasting shades," retorted the voice, insistently. "Otherwise I won't be able to show my face at the coronation!"

"You'll be lucky to even attend the coronation, the way you're complaining, lass," came the blunt response. "Any more talk of slashed sleeves and I'll send you off to your aunt in Ostwick."

"Papa-aaa!"

"Retreat," hissed Leliana in Flora's ear, gripping her tightly by the elbow. "Let's go."

But they were still trapped by the column of dwarves, pinned next to the silk merchant's stall. Flora risked a glance over her shoulder, and looked directly into the dark eyes of the curious Habren Bryland. The young arlina blinked in shock, recognising Flora's flushed face beneath the wide brim of the hat.

"Lady Florence!" Habren exclaimed, loud and indiscreet. "What are you doing here? Where are your guards?!"

Flora gaped, lost for words. Leonas Bryland's head swung around, rapid as a Mabari smelling raw meat. The general's bearded face gave a single contortion of shock as he set eyes on Leliana, Zevran and the diminutive bundled-up figure between them.

"Florence?" he said, greying eyebrows shooting up into a receding hairline. "What are you doing here?"

His gaze swung around, expecting to see a contingent of Templars positioned in the immediate proximity. When they failed to manifest, he let out an astonished bark of disbelief.

"Maker's Breath, are there just the three of you?"

"Being with Zevran and Leliana is like being with a whole troop of soldiers," retorted Flora, obstinately. "Better."

Rumours of Flora's identity had begun to spread outwards, like ripples expanding in a pond. Whispers darted between stalls, curious heads swivelling in the direction of the silk merchant.

Leonas noted both the increasing attention, and Flora's flushed, weary face, in a single instant. Reaching out, he took her elbow in a firm, parental gesture, steering her rapidly into the doorway of a nearby tavern. A battered sign swung overhead, depicting a large rat with a malevolent expression; the legend The Gnawed Noble scribed below.

"Come on, I've got a room here."

Flora, thoroughly overheated and exhausted, let the arl guide her into the tavern. The downstairs was lofty and high-ceilinged, with a gabled roof and ironwork candelabras. It being just past midday, only a handful of patrons sat drinking at the long tables; a barmaid yawned as she scrubbed limply at a stain on the woodwork.

Avoiding the curious stares of the other drinkers, the general nudged Flora in the direction of a narrow stair; tucked unobtrusively in the corner. Staying close on her heels, Leonas glanced over his shoulder to ensure that nobody unwanted had made pursuit. Fortunately, only Leliana, Zevran and a wide-eyed Habren were following in their wake; along with several retainers clad in South Reach livery.

The upper floor of the tavern consisted of two corridors branching in the cardinal directions, with numerous doorways spaced at intervals. Leonas steered the yawning Cousland towards the far end of the corridor, whilst simultaneously removing a key from his sleeve.

The key granted entrance to a reasonably sized room, with exposed rafters and carved oak décor. A four-poster bed, sparsely hung with undyed wool curtains, rested squatly in the centre of the chamber. The shutters had been pulled back over the windows to let in several rays of watery sunlight, and a single stained tapestry of a wounded Mabari decorated the southern wall.

"Here," the arl said firmly, guiding a shuffling Flora towards the bed. "Rest for a while; I'll have something to drink sent up."

"Thank you," mumbled Flora, sitting on the edge of the lumpen mattress and yawning widely as Zevran and Leliana entered.

The arl gave a low grunt in response, steering his gaping daughter firmly out of the room. Before exiting himself, he paused to exchange a few quiet words with Leliana and Zevran.

Once the door had settled back into its frame, the bard went to draw the shutters closed over the windows. Zevran advanced towards the bed, perching neatly on the mattress beside Flora.

"Mi sirenita, how are you going to cope with the heat when we visit Antiva City?" he crooned, removing the hat and peering at Flora's flushed and sweaty face. "You are as red as un poco tomate."

Flora yawned once more in response, unsure whether she was overheating due to the summer warmth, or her own fluctuating temperature. The baby seemed to have seized control from within; taking command of various functions of her body.

"At least I match my hair," she mumbled, the words blurring together as they drifted from her mouth. The elf smiled at Flora, reaching out to divest her of the many coverings bundled about her body.

"Ah, how many layers has Leliana wrapped you in?" he exclaimed after a moment, having unbuttoned a coat and removed two thick tunics. "No wonder you were sweating like the proverbial whore in a Chantry."

"I had to disguise her shape," the bard retorted from the doorway, taking delivery of some watered-down ale from a blinking servant. "A redhead with a swollen belly is bound to draw more attention."

Flora reached up her arms as Zevran pulled the final tunic over her head. Now barefoot in breast-band and smalls, she slumped back against the cushions; dragging a palm over her sweaty face. Zevran manfully managed to restrain himself from making a gleeful comment on the swollen bust that now- for the first time in Flora's life - required a supporting garment. Instead, he bowed his head and kissed Flora on the top of her bare foot, running his thumb affectionately over her toes.

"Take a few sips, ma crevette," instructed Leliana, crossing to the bed and holding a flagon of watered-down ale to Flora's lips. Flora obediently swallowed, grimacing as the liquid spilled in a pale golden rivulet down her chin.

"Have you got Alistair's cheese?" she asked, anxiously. "And the socks?"

"Oui," replied Leliana softly, lifting the tray and carrying back it over to the dresser. "Do not fret."

Flora leaned back against the cushions, a frown creasing her smooth brow neatly in two. Her knee was throbbing painfully, and the little creature in her belly was nudging against her kidneys.

"I can't believe I need naps now," she said, mildly disgusted with herself. "Sleeping in the middle of the day! Nobody- nobody had better tell anyone from Herring about this, or… or my reputation will be ru - rui"

Flora trailed off in the middle of her sentence, losing her train of thought as sleep rose like a dark tide to claim her waking mind. She turned her cheek into the cushions, each individual eyelash suddenly a leaden weight. The noises of the market faded into the background as she drifted into a quiet and dreamless sleep, fingers curled into the blankets.


 

An immeasurable amount of time later, Flora awoke with the uncanny sensation that somebody was watching her. She could almost feel their curious gaze prickling against her skin, soft and intrusive. Opening her eyes in the strange half-light of the shuttered room, she turned her head to the side to see Habren Bryland sitting beside the bed.

The arl's daughter must have taken more after her deceased mother in appearance. She had a slender, pointed face and thick, light brown hair bundled into an uncomfortable – but fashionable – style about her ears. The piercing, inquisitive stare, however, was clearly inherited from Leonas; and it was this that was turned on Flora now. Leliana and Zevran were conversing quietly in the corridor, their voices filtering through the wood.

The young arlina was gazing surreptitiously at Flora's skin, her eyes travelling over the pale sunburst scars spread across Flora's hip, shoulder and thigh.

"Are those from the battle with the dragon?" Habren asked, realising that she had been spotted and deciding to brazen it out.

Flora nodded, turning over her hand to show a similar white marking on the flat of her palm. Habren inhaled curiously, fingers twitching at her side.

"Can I – can I touch it?"

Letting her head sink back against the pillows Flora gave a small grunt of assent; used to such inspection. The girl used her fingertip to trace the outline of the sunburst on Flora's thigh, her face transfused with fascination.

As Habren did so the little creature awoke within Flora, nudging a shoulder into her. She let her hand drift down to the mound of her stomach, wondering what exactly it was doing within the warm, cramped darkness of her belly.

"Did it hurt?"

Flora blinked, reluctantly tearing her thoughts from the baby.

"Did what hurt? Oh," she realised, letting her fingers move to the scar on her hip. "No. It didn't hurt, not exactly. I don't remember much about the dragon."

Now the young noblewoman's eyes had drifted to the uncovered mound of Flora's stomach. Fascinated, Habren reached up to press a finger against the warm, taut skin.

"One of my handmaids caught with child once," she said, eventually. "She wasn't married, either. My father didn't get rid of her, but he did send her to work in the kitchens."

Flora – who was from a village where people only got married on the rare occasion that a Chantry priestess passed through – suppressed a snort.

"Oh, well," she replied mildly, for want of anything else to say. "I don't think anyone is going to send me to work in the kitchens. I'd eat all the food."

Habren was silent a moment, lost in thought.

"So you've lain with the king?"

"He wasn't the king when we first… lain - laid together," Flora replied, wondering if she had used the correct grammar. "But, yes."

Habren nodded slowly, vaguely familiar with Alistair's unusual journey to the throne from overhearing snippets of her father's conversations.

"You're not that much older than me," the arlina continued, her brow furrowing. "Didn't you worry about your reputation, lying with someone who you weren't married to?"

Flora wanted to laugh, but didn't; aware of how acutely different she was to this girl who was so similar in age.

"Well," she replied instead, diplomatically. "We thought we were going to die, so… no."

For a moment she shivered, recalling the thin undercurrent of desperation that had run through their lovemaking during the Blight.

We'd pitch our tent next to land laid waste by the Darkspawn; then spend all night writhing together on the bedroll, as though we could bring some life back to the tainted soil with our efforts.

"Did it hurt?" Habren asked, with the curiosity of the permanently sheltered. "When you… laid together?"

"The first time, it did," Flora replied, honestly. "And the second. Then… not so much."

Habren turned wide eyes on her, dark eyebrows shooting into her hairline.

"You kept doing it? How many times?"

"Um," said Flora, vague. "Quite… a few more times."

"More than five times?"

"Mm, I think so."

Habren looked mildly scandalised, and Flora shot her a slightly wary look. In Herring, it was not an unusual thing for young people to pair off with each other; with thoughts of marriage far from their minds. Still, she reasoned to herself, perhaps there were different expectations for girls from noble families.

Leonas' daughter looked about to question Flora in more intensive detail, then her attention was caught by a faint flicker of movement from the taut, lumpen belly. The girl's dark Bryland eyes widened in fascination, and she abruptly changed her course of questioning.

"I wonder if the baby is a boy or a girl? Do you have any gut feeling?"

Flora thought for a moment, concentrating on the little creature lodged within her. Truthfully, she had thought of the child as it for such a long time, that it was startling to even envision the child as possessing gender.

"No," she replied, vaguely. "I have no idea. It could be anything."

Habren shot her a surreptitious glance, her eyes igniting like coals as she lowered her voice.

"There is a way," she whispered, portentously. "I overheard my old maid talking about it. A test you can do to determine the baby's sex. Do you have a ring?"

Flora slid the gold Cousland band from her little finger, as Habren pulled out a loose thread from the blanket, snapping it loose. The arlina then tied the thread in a knot around the ring, letting it dangle over Flora's stomach.

It hung still for several moments, and both girls eyed it; Habren excited and Flora dubious.

"I don't understand - " the latter started, and then Leonas' daughter let out an excited squeak, making a gesture.

"Look!"

The ring had begun to swing gently from side to side, swaying like a pendulum at the end of the thread. Flora gazed at it, transfixed.

"What does that mean?"

"A boy," replied Habren, confidently. "Back and forth means a boy, circles means a girl."

"Superstition! It's just the draught."

Leliana had entered the room, stealthy as a shadow; Zevran close at her heels.

"It's not," insisted the arl's daughter, her features infused with stubbornness. "It's an accurate test."

The bard made a little dismissive noise through her nostrils, crossing the room to crouch beside the bed.

"How are you feeling now, ma petite? A little less hot and bothered, I hope."

Flora nodded, smiling up at her companions as she pushed the blankets away from her legs.

"Mm, a lot better. I had a good nap."

"Glad to hear it, mi sirenita," added Zevran softly, his dark eyes settling on her face like birds coming to rest. "And, contrary to our Chantry devotee, I believe that the old superstitions have some truth in them."

Just then, there came a slight commotion at the door. Arl Leonas had entered, seen Flora clad in her smallclothes; and collided with the doorframe in his haste to retreat.

"Arl Leonas," called Flora earnestly after him, clutching the blanket to her thighs. "Come back, come back – I don't mind. Honestly, Finian told me that pretty much everyone saw me naked when I was unconscious after the battle!"

Stifling an embarrassed cough, the arl ducked back inside the room; keeping his eyes firmly averted to the ceiling.

"Florence, I'll see you safely back to the monastery," Leonas stated, in a tone that brokered no dissent. "It's sunset, and Alistair will be making his own way to Revanloch soon. He'll worry himself sick if he finds you gone."

Zevran cleared his throat, lightly. The elf had wandered over to the window and was peering out, one golden eyebrow firmly raised.

"That might be trickier than anticipated," he murmured, wryly. "It seems as though your disguise was not quite as effective as we hoped, Federico. There's a sizeable crowd gathered outside."

Leliana let out a muffled curse under her breath; nostrils flaring.

"Well, none of us have any horses nearby. It seems we must beat our way through these nosy citizens!"

Slightly alarmingly, the lay sister seemed rather excited at this prospect. Flora eyed her beadily from the bed, while the arl hastened to intervene.

"No need for that – there's another exit," Leonas interrupted, abruptly. "This tavern's got a reputation as a hideaway for nobles to rendezvous with their… partners. Hence, the need for discretion. And back passages."

Zevran let out a low cackle, reaching down to retrieve one of Flora's discarded shirts from the floorboards.

"Perhaps we will not need to bundle you up quite so like a sausage this time, eh, carina?"

 

 

Chapter Text

With the assistance of Leonas, they managed to make their escape from the city without attracting too much attention. Hastening along the cliff-top path towards the seaside monastery, Flora and her companions were able to reach Revanloch a half candle before the king's retinue passed beneath the main gate. By this point, Flora was so coated with sweat that she felt a little like an eel; skin slick and hair stuck to her forehead.

Alistair had arrived in the guest chamber a short time later, breathless from taking the steps two at a time. He burst into the room, a beam already spreading across his face; only to find Flora submerged in the bathtub, wet hair plastered over her breasts, blinking at him with limpid eyes. She smiled, delighted, then reached out a dripping hand.

"Alistaaair!"

The king gazed at his mistress for all of three seconds, before dismissing both Templars with a terse instruction. Kicking the door shut, one hand was already working at the buttons of his breeches as he strode across the room towards her.

Some time later, the blankets lay on the floor in a damp tangle, the cushions knocked halfway across the room. Alistair leaned back against the window, seated on the low bench with his best friend straddling his thighs. Ropes of damp hair hung loose around Flora's face; a fur from the bed was wrapped around her bare shoulders, and her own arms were wound around Alistair's neck. He beamed at her dazedly, still wreathed in post-coital languor.

"My darling girl."

"Alistair," replied Flora, who was not in the habit of using pet names.

Alistair gazed at her for a moment, wondering how exactly to phrase his next words.

"Lola, it's my birthday tomorrow," he said at last, softly. "I'll be- "

"Twenty one," she said, inwardly proud of herself for not saying twoty. "I know. I got you a present in the market."

Oh, that was meant to be a secret! You lobster brain.

Alistair shot Flora a suspicious look, but decided not to pursue the matter. Instead, he continued on the path he had set himself, taking a deep breath.

"I just wanted to say… how much the people value you, Flora. You know they call you the Flower of Ferelden?"

Flora looked nonplussed, unsure how this corresponded to Alistair turning a year older. Still, she let him continue; a faint line creasing itself through her brow.

"Yes, I know," she replied, adjusting her position on his lap. The king inhaled unsteadily, reaching out to trace the line of her jaw with his thumb.

"Anyway, I wanted you to know how… how important you are, Lo. Even though you're not the Warden anymore; you're still the Hero of Ferelden. The people look to you and they see – wellThey see beauty, and they see new life, and they see… hope."

Increasingly confused, Flora tilted her face into Alistair's hand; rubbing her cheek against his palm.

"That's good," she replied amiably, reaching up to slide her fingers between his. Kissing his knuckles, she clasped their conjoined hands to her breast. "I want them to be hopeful. The Blight is over, and Ferelden needs to recover, and get strong again. In case anyone takes advantage."

Duc Gaspard's supercilious face flashed into Flora's mind and she scowled, shifting against Alistair's thighs as the fur slithered down onto the floorboards.

"Exactly! Exactly, Flo," the king replied, feverishly. "Ferelden's borders need to be reinforced, the Royal Army rebuilt- "

He cut himself off abruptly, smiling.

"But enough of that. Tomorrow is about you, my love."

"About me?" she said, bemused. "But it's your birthday. Mine is the day after."

Alistair made no reply, but ducked his head to press a long and lingering kiss against her mouth.


 

The morning of Alistair's birthday, Flora awoke even earlier than her customary dawn rising-time. The guest chamber was still muted in shades of grey, the last fading stars visible through the parted curtains. Yawning, Flora reached out to pull the blanket up to Leliana's shoulders; passing an affectionate hand over the bard's sleep-rumpled head.

Aware that she would not be able to get back to sleep, Flora was about to clamber out of bed when she felt a ferocious little kick from within her belly.

"Ow," she said out loud, astonished at the vigour of her little creature. "Good morning to you, too."

Alert to the slightest sound of distress, Knight-Captain Gannorn immediately raised his head.

"Is all well, my lady?"

Flora nodded, patting her stomach in an effort to calm the baby down.

"Mm," she whispered, conscious of her sleeping companion. "It just kicked me right in the bladder."

The Knight-Captain relaxed a fraction, only too aware of the consequences if anything ill-fated should happen to the king's expectant mistress under his watch. Flora smiled at him, then clambered ungracefully out of bed. Wandering barefoot across the floorboards, she lowered herself to the window bench and drew the curtains fully open, peering out at the gradually lightening sky. The ghosts of stars were still visible, though veiled in dawn cloud. Below, the Amaranthine ocean was as still as a millpond, mirroring the heavens with crystalline accuracy. In the distance, a thin sliver of sun was just cresting the horizon; bright as a fire-opal.

Flora tucked her feet beneath her to keep them warm – dawn on a Fereldan summer morning was still chilly – and watched the sun rise upwards with slow languidity. The ocean was far more placid and genteel than her wild, tempestuous Waking Sea, yet it was still beautiful enough to take her breath away. Starved for any glimpse of saltwater for the four years she had been in the Circle; Flora was not about to complain.

"Happy twenty-one birthday, brother-warden," she said to herself as the sun broke free of the sea; sailing upwards with renewed vitality.

"Twenty-first," corrected the Templar quietly from behind her.

"Twenty-first," repeated Flora, brow creasing.

The Knight-Captain soon came to regret his correction of Flora's numeracy. The young Cousland proceeded to spend the next hour practising her counting out loud, a painful and laborious process which invariably ended up in a tangle of mistakes somewhere between threety and fourthty-first.

Leliana woke as the bell sounded for the breaking of fast, her stretch accompanied by a small, distinctly Orlesian squeak. Opening her eyes, she swept the chamber in a single, appraising glance. Flora was sitting cross-legged on the window bench, reciting what appeared to be a string of painfully inaccurate numbers. The Templar was standing close by the door (as though desperate to escape), and a vein was twitching on his forehead.

"Six-and-four one, six-and-four-two, six-and-fifty-tenth, eight million- "

"Andraste's Mercy," breathed the bard as she rose to her feet, astounded at such a blatant lack of understanding. "What nonsense is this, ma crevette?"

"It's not nonsense," retorted Flora, secretly delighted that Leliana had awoken in time for breakfast. "I'm educating myself."

"I wouldn't call that education," Leliana murmured in response, peering at her reflection in the dresser mirror. "I'd call it a… numerical massacre. And I saw that, you little minx!"

This was in response to Flora pulling one of her least attractive faces in Leliana's direction.

Flora cackled, leaning back against the window and resting a hand on her stomach, warm and firm beneath the striped pajama shirt. She watched Leliana wash her face in the basin; the bard adding several drops of lavender oil into the water before splashing it over her face.

"It's Alistair's birthday today."

"Ouima petite. He won't be down until this evening – poor thing is trapped in a council meeting all day. Fancy that, on your birthday! One's birthday should be celebrated, not punished."

Flora couldn't even remember what had happened on her last birthday, but was reasonably certain it involved getting expelled from class and cleaning corridors – the usual pattern of her Circle day.

"Alistair is twenty one now," she said, half to herself, as Leliana requested a bathtub and busied herself with towels. "It's the last day of Justinian – last day of red-fin snapper season – so he's now a year older."

"Oui," confirmed the bard, now riffling through the dresser.

"So, if he's twenty one, and I'm still nineteen, does that mean that he's now two years older than me?"

"What?! No! Your mathematics is truly terrible, ma petite."

This debate continued even after a filled bath was brought up; Leliana bathing first to take the heated edge off the water.

"One, two," Flora counted stubbornly, perched on a stool beside the bathtub. "There's two years between nineteen and twenty one."

"But you're twenty tomorrow," countered the bard, massaging a soapy lather into her hair. "My grown-up girl. Pass me the pomegranate oil – the red one."

Flora duly passed over the crimson glass vial, wrinkling her nose as Leliana uncapped the pungent scent.

"I wonder what Alistair's doing now?" she breathed, trailing a wistful hand in the water. "I wish he could come sooner than this evening. I want to give him his present."

Leliana smiled to herself, passing slender fingers one final time through her hair before rising to her feet; water streaming in rivulets down her finely-hewn body.

"It means we've got plenty of time to get you ready," the Orlesian replied, slightly evasively. "There'll be a lot of eyes on you later."

Flora wondered briefly if the fumes of pomegranate oil had addled the bard's brain – it was Alistair's birthday, not her own.

"All eyes should be on you," she said instead, gazing up and down Leliana's figure with naked envy as she unbuttoned her pajama shirt. "Your body is like a… a statue. I could chop fish on your stomach."

Leliana, who was duly proud of the well-hewn muscle that had taken years to hone, smiled and gave an Orlesian shrug.

Once bathed and dried, Leliana – much to her own surprise - managed to cajole Flora into wearing a sundress. This laudable feat was accomplished after the bard had pointed out how much cooler the white linen dress would be than Flora's usual breeches: it was only knee-length, Flora could wear her usual boots, and it was sleeveless. After a small amount of persuasion Flora acquiesced; Leliana gleefully tightened the laces at the bodice while the young Cousland gazed distractedly out of the window.

"Should I put the presents in something?" Flora asked distractedly, rubbing the heel of her hand over her stomach as Leliana went to retrieve the hairbrush. "I've never given anyone a birthday present before. Should I wrap them in cloth? What do they do in Orlais?"

"I once received a mirror as a birthday gift from an admirer," the bard replied, drawing the band loose from Flora's hair and spreading it loose over her shoulders. "It came in a case made from turquoise enamel, embedded with flecks of gold and shards of glass in the pattern of a rose."

Flora looked dubiously around the Revanloch guest chamber, grimacing as the brush worked through her tangled mass of hair.

"I'm not sure where I could get one of those at short notice," she replied, solemnly. "And it sounds like quite a fancy box for cheese and socks."

Leliana laughed, placing the brush to one side and reaching for a silken hair-ribbon.

"I don't think you ought to worry about wrapping your present," she murmured, tying a bow at the nape of Flora's neck. "I think that Alistair will appreciate it very much, with trappings or without. There we go, ma petite. Very sweet. Almost virginal, actually."

Flora eyed her reflection in the mirror, warily.

"I'm not sure how virginal I look with this belly," she replied, smoothing fingers in an absentminded circle over the rounded swell. "Thank you for helping me. I owe you more than I can say."

"You're welcome, ma petite."

Leliana's voice wobbled in a deeply uncharacteristic fashion partway through her reply.

Flora, who was trying to drape Alistair's socks in a decorative manner over the cheese, turned rapidly in astonishment. To her alarm, tears shone in the corners of Leliana's eyes; the bard's pink-painted lips trembling.

"Leliana?"

Having never seen their smooth Orlesian bard so nakedly tearful; Flora scuttled immediately to her, anchoring Leliana about the waist and drawing her down to sit on the bed.

"Leliana," she breathed once again, reaching into the bard's pocket to retrieve a silk handkerchief. "What's wrong? What's wrong? Tell me!"

Flora dabbed the silk handkerchief beneath Leliana's watering eyes, her own gaze threaded with alarm.

"Has someone done something to upset you? Tell me who it is! I'll go and beat them up."

Leliana smiled, shaking her head and sniffing the remainder of her tears back; patting cool fingers against her flushed cheeks to calm them.

"I'll batter them with driftwood, I'll take a fishing rod, and shove it- "

"Non, non- I am not upset, ma crevette. No need for any Herring-style retribution, though I do appreciate the offer."

Flora blinked, mildly confused; the handkerchief still clutched between her fingers. The bard let out a little laugh, briskly wiping her eyes and taking a deep inhalation of air.

"Then why were you crying?" demanded Flora, brow furrowed with indignation.

"Oh – it is nothing," Leliana replied evasively; her duck-egg blue eyes sparkling. "It's just been… an honour to serve you, ma fleur. And it will continue to be an honour, and a privilege. Ferelden will be very lucky to have you as its... to have you."

Flora eyed her dubiously, oblivious to the bard's oblique reference.

She is Orlesian, though. They do have some strange habits and customs.

Shaking her head, the king's mistress leaned forward and kissed Leliana rather bemusedly on the cheek; deciding not to press her any further.


 

The morning drew on, languid and lazy. The closing of Justinian had resulted in a typically Fereldan summer day, the sun low and the sky clouded; resulting in a thick, soupy humidity. Flora had waited for several hours on the window bench, peering across at the cliff-top path despite Leliana's warning that the council meeting was sure to last for several hours yet.

The lunch-gong rang; they ended up dining in the main hall with the rest of the Templar initiates. Flora had grown so accustomed to their curious stares that she now barely noticed them. A source of more interest was the obvious disquiet of the Knight-Commander and the Grand Mother of the Chantry; who were seated at her side but could not sit still. They whispered to each other throughout the meal, darting eyes at the Cousland as she ate her stew.

Flora tore a hunk of rye bread apart with her fingers, uncomfortably aware of their surreptitious glances.

"Why do they keep looking at me and whispering?" she hissed from the corner of her mouth towards Leliana, dipping the bread into the vegetable pottage. "They're going to make me spill soup over myself! White is a very stressful colour to eat in."

"Lady Cousland?"

It was the chief Templar, clearing his throat while avoiding looking her directly in the eye. Flora turned her head and stared at him, her brows drawing together.

"Yes?"

"Just so you know – the Chantry will be kept empty for you and King Alistair to meet later. I'll ensure that the recruits are kept away – nobody will disturb you. You'll have as much privacy as is… as is needed for the deed to be done."

Flora blinked at him, nodded wordlessly; then immediately put her mouth to Leliana's ear.

"The Templar is giving me and Alistair permission to do it in the Chantry later!" she whispered, incredulous. "Do you think he has sunstroke?"

Leliana dropped her spoon into her soup, letting out a squawk of indignation.

"That is most definitely not what he meant, Florence Cousland, you perverted little troll!"

"Ha! Hahaha."

They returned back to the chamber, where Flora perched herself once more on the window bench. The sun edged itself lower towards the western horizon; she heaved herself up high on the cushions and squinted along the cliff-top path. It was deserted, save for a group of merchants travelling in a small caravan. She bit at her lip, glancing once more at the forlorn little pile of socks and cheese on the bench beside her.

The heat was growing muggier, the air thick and soup, Flora sensed both her energy and spirits wilting. Strands of hair were falling out of the silk ribbon, she could feel herself sweating into the white linen sundress, and the baby was shifting irritably in her stomach.

"Do you… do you think he's coming?" Flora asked at last, directing the plaintive question over her shoulder towards Leliana. "Maybe they're having a party. Maybe he's partying with winches."

The bard – who had been reading a new and controversial biography of Andraste's life – immediately placed the tome on the blankets and sought to reassure the hormonal young Cousland.

"Nonsense, ma petite. He'll be here, I promise you. Come and lie down, you look exhausted."

Leliana patted the mattress beside her; Flora obediently clambered off the bench and went to join the bard on the bed. Curling up onto her side, she rested her cheek against the cushion and yawned; hot and irritable.

"Close your eyes, just for a moment," cajoled Leliana softly, reaching out to tuck a stray strand of hair behind Flora's ear. "Just for a few minutes."

Within moments, Flora was dead to the world; snoring face-down in the cushions with her swollen torso twisted awkwardly to one side. Leliana picked up the troublesome biography once again, her brow creasing with a mixture of disapproval and reluctant fascination.

The next thing that Flora knew, a gentle hand was placed on her shoulder; a familiar Orlesian whisper directed into her ear.

"Ma crevette: I see the royal party approaching. Alistair is here."

 

 

Chapter Text

"Alistair is here."

Leliana's words hooked into Flora's mind, pulling her from a soft, dreamless darkness. Delighted at the arrival of her best friend, the youngest Cousland swung her legs from the bed and clambered gracelessly upright. Sensing that half of her hair had joyfully escaped the silken bow, she briefly debated pausing to adjust it before abandoning the notion and heading straight for the door.

"Florence!" called the bard, in mild alarm. "You have forgotten your boots. And Alistair's present!"

Flora shot back inside the guest chamber to retrieve the cheese and socks; clearly not willing to spare the time to also retrieve her footwear. Leliana, with a little sigh escaping her throat, stooped to pick up the boots before following Flora out into the passageway.

The sun was just beginning to lower itself into the horizon as the Royal party approached the crumbling main gate. Revanloch was swarming with people; the sunset heralded the end of the day's training, and initiates filled the corridors with chatter as they headed towards the mess hall. Chantry sisters issued stern reprimands from classroom doorways; reminding the adolescent Templars not to run in the passageways! and keep quiet in the Maker's House!

Flora wove her way impatiently around the excitable initiates as they wandered in clumps down the corridors. Fortunately, they tended to scatter before her; as a result of the Knight-Commander promising fifty extra hours of chores to any recruit who dared to waylay the Hero of Ferelden.

She made her way into the main wing of Revanloch, now knowing the route through the musty labyrinth by heart. Passing the imposing doors of the Chantry – not yet open for evening prayers – she ducked her way into the kitchen garden; through which lay a short cut to the main courtyard.

Chatter and sounds of general consumption drifted out from the windows of the mess hall overhead. Struck by a sudden compulsion, Flora was unable to stop herself from halting in the middle of the small allotment; plunging a hand into the dirt and pulling free a half-formed raw potato. Biting into the dirt-covered vegetable, she continued determinedly on her way.

The torches were being lit as Flora emerged into the main courtyard, slightly out of breath from her exertions. The braziers flared into life one after the other atop the ramparts; illuminating the enclosed space with soft ochre light. Reflected flames moved across the faces of those already gathered on the cobblestones; of which there were almost two dozen.

Flora stopped abruptly in the entranceway, brow creasing in sheer confusion. A collection of Ferelden's most powerful nobility were clustered expectantly at both sides of the gate; she could see Arl Bryland, both Guerrin brothers, her own brothers and a handful of other minor banns she vaguely recognised from the Landsmeet.

Scattered amongst the nobles were her companions – Wynne was clutching her staff, Oghren was grinning from ear to ear; even Sten stood to one side, sporting a faint scowl. Zevran was leaning against the crumbling gatepost, his features carefully arranged into a rather fixed-looking smile.

Flora's gaze was drawn next to a stocky, grey-bearded figure standing near Fergus, and her heart gave a palpable throb.

"Pa," she whispered, now utterly bewildered. "Papa. What are you doing here?"

Her foster-father issued a typical Herring grunt, jerking his chin wordlessly towards the centre of the courtyard. Hearing Leliana and her Templar guardians emerging from the doorway behind her, Flora followed her dad's gesture.

Alistair was standing at his horse's side, retrieving something wrapped in brown paper from the saddlebag. He was clad in the full rustic garb of a native Fereldan king – fur-trimmed leather, the spiked gold band firmly atop his ahead – and yet, despite these trappings of authority, Flora thought that she could see his hands shaking as he stepped back from the horse.

Her best friend turned towards her and she blinked, astonished at the strange, fervent mien cast across his features. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes fever bright and flashing like a storm at sea as they focused on her. A tangle of emotions fought each other across his face; a mixture of apprehension, determination and nausea all seeking dominance.

Flora eyed him dubiously, clutching the half-eaten potato in one hand and clasping his birthday gift to her chest. For some reason, she felt her own heart escalate to a giddy patter; thundering against her ribcage like an untamed horse on the gallop.

"I can't wait," Alistair threw desperately over his shoulder towards Eamon. "I can't. I just need to do it now, I'm going to just ask her – "

He strode across the cobblestones, those in his way parting like hay yielding to a harvester's scythe.

Flora, now thoroughly bemused, watched Alistair come to an abrupt halt several yards before her. The brown paper package was clamped beneath his arm; and she could see beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead, despite the increasing coolness of the evening. Out of the corner, Flora could see Finian grinning like a madman, whispering excitedly to a smiling Fergus.

"Flora," Alistair croaked, his voice oddly raw and constricted. "I stand before you, not as a king, but as any other man."

He reached up as though in a dream, lifting the crown from his head and letting it drop to the cobbles with a dull, metallic clang. Flora blinked at him in sheer astonishment, half-wondering what to do with the potato in her hand.

"A man who loves you more than… than the fish love water," Alistair continued desperately, the pre-planned words coming out in a tangled rush. "More deeply than the Amaranthine Ocean."

Flora continued to gaze at him, suddenly grateful for her face's natural solemnity. Alistair pressed determinedly onwards, face blazing with a conviction far brighter than the braziers on the ramparts overhead.

"You're my best friend, my sister-warden, the kindest and bravest person I know. And each time I see you, it takes my breath away how beautiful you are."

Flora felt the little creature give an impatient kick, and she dropped a distracted hand to rub over her belly. Alistair followed the movement of her fingers, a distinct tremor running beneath his words.

"Lo, I fell in love with you the first night you slept in my arms," he said, odd and unsteady. "And I've… I've wanted to ask you this since we were at South Reach."

Flora swallowed, her heart crashing so hard against her ribs that she worried for their integrity. His face now set in grim purpose, Alistair retrieved the paper-wrapped object from beneath his arm, pulling loose the twine with trembling, impatient fingers.

Once the wrapping had fallen loose, the king knelt on the cobbles before Flora; holding up a mid-sized salmon in his outstretched hands. He lifted his hazel eyes earnestly to hers, the green flecks standing out like shards of bottle-glass in the torchlight.

"Flora of Herring and Highever," he blurted, the words emerging raw, impassioned. "You're my best friend, my lover – the mother of my child. I…. I need you as my wife. Will you marry me?"

There was silence for a long moment, during which the only noise came from the open beaks of seagulls as they circled Revanloch's crumbling towers. Flora peered down at her former brother-warden as he knelt before her, head bowed and the fish held up like an offering.

Carefully – with more finesse than Alistair had let loose the crown – she placed his gift on the ground; then reached out and took the fish from his trembling hands. This soon joined the socks and cheese in a strange little pile on the cobbles.

This being done, Flora reached out and touched the top of Alistair's head, feeling the outline of his skull through the rumpled golden hair. He looked up at her, face suffused with anxiety and hope. She smiled down at him, wondering why he appeared so nervous - for in what possible circumstances would she have said no?

Our bond was forged in the breath of an Archdemon and hardened in the wake of Ostagar. We are bound brother- and sister-warden forever; tainted blood or no.

"Alistair," she replied kindly, speaking for the first time since she had stepped outside. "Of course."

Before Flora had finished her sentence, Alistair was on his feet, lifting her up bodily. Flora put her arms around his neck, smiling at the sheer joy and relief in his grip. She was vaguely aware of cheering in the background, knew that her friends, brothers and companions were shouting and stamping their approval, could hear Leliana sniffing wetly from somewhere behind her; yet all she cared about at that moment was her best friend and his glowing, ecstatic face.

"That's a yes?" Alistair sought to confirm desperately. "It's a yes, Flora?"

She nodded, and a little choked sound of relief escaped his throat; letting her down gently onto the cobbles but keeping his arms clamped around her waist.

"You… you know it's a throne I'm offering, as well as a ring, " Alistair mumbled, eyes flickering sideways to the crown discarded on the cobbles. "I'm sorry that marrying me means becoming queen, Lo. I know you never wanted it."

Flora shrugged; the embodiment of Herring stoicism.

"A leader with a fancy hat. Lots of people looking at you. It's just like being Warden-Commander, really," she replied, with a northerner's practicality. "I did that well enough; I can do this too."

Alistair had not released Flora from the circle of his arms, but now he drew her closer still, letting his mouth collide with relief and desire against her own. She put her arms about his neck, parting her lips to accept the ardour of his untainted kiss; tasting the relief sharp on his tongue.

When they parted, Eamon was standing incongruously close; smiling and purposeful.

"Maker's Blessings on you both," he said, just about remembering to offer congratulations before getting down to business. "So, Florence, we want you married ideally as soon as possible."

Flora nodded, trying not to get distracted by Finian grinning and waving in the background.

"Alright," she replied, placidly. "When?"

Alistair swallowed, shooting his uncle a slightly anxious glance. Eamon pressed forwards, taking a deep breath.

"At the coronation in three days time," he proposed, determinedly. "Combine the ceremony with a wedding."

"But if that's too soon, Lo, it doesn't matter," the king added, hastily. "Whenever you feel ready."

"Three days is fine," she said, delighted at the prospect of becoming her brother-warden's wife so soon. "Just tell me where to stand and what to say."

Alistair embraced her once more, gripping Flora about the waist and pressing his face to the top of her head. She could feel dampness against her hair, and realised that tears of joy and relief were leaking from his eyes. Around them, there was excited chatter and relieved grins – nobody had expected Flora to turn Alistair down, but it was still reassuring to hear her enunciate her acceptance out loud.

"This is what I'd hoped for, since South Reach," the king whispered once again, the words emerging constricted. "And ever since the Blight ended, it's all I've thought of. I need you with me, Flo. As my wife, my queen – as my best friend in all Thedas."

Flora smiled against his leather tunic, her gaze falling on the socks and cheese lying abandoned on the cobblestones.

"Happy birthday," she said, squirming from Alistair's restraining arms to gaze up at him. "I've got a present for you."

"Oh!" Alistair said, remembering that the proposal was not yet complete. "I've got something for you, too."

"But it's not my birthday yet," protested Flora, watching Finian stride forward with something clenched in his palm.

Her brother passed the object to Alistair, who turned to Flora with a face now bright as sunrise.

"Give me your hand, Lo."

Flora held out her hand, palm upright; expecting to receive something to hold. Instead, Alistair reached out and turned her fingers so that her knuckles were facing upwards. With a thumb, he traced the slender line of her fourth finger; voice thickening with emotion.

"Do you remember what I told you about this finger in South Reach?"

"The Tevinter legend," she replied, dutifully. "About the vein going straight to the heart."

Alistair nodded, taking a deep and steadying breath. His own hand visibly trembled as he slid something cool and heavy onto her fourth finger. Flora looked down in surprise, her brow furrowing.

What once had been merely her own unprepossessing digit – short and bitten-nailed – now sported a slender band of gold beneath the lowest knuckle. Delicate filigree held a single ivory pearl in place; catching the torchlight like a small lantern.

"It's from the Royal treasury," Alistair explained throatily, not yet willing to release her hand. "It's got some fancy name- "

"Mairyn's Star," offered an eavesdropping Finian, desperate to worm his way into the proposal so that he could gleefully recant his involvement in the taverns later.

" – but it's from the ocean," the king continued, earnestly. "Some fisherman must have brought it up in his net. I thought it would remind you of Herring."

"I suggested the Kal-Ashok emerald at first," Eamon murmured to Leonas, who gave a small snort. "Or the diamond privateered from the Orlesians. The lad wouldn't have any of it. He knows his own mind."

Flora stood on her toes - feeling her bound knee give a twitch of effort – and pressed her lips to Alistair's own in gratitude.

"Thank you," she said, feeling her cheeks flush. "I got you a gift, too. It's not exactly jewellery. I'm… not very good at birthdays."

Bending down with a grunt, Flora scooped up the assorted items; presenting them to Alistair with her chin raised.

"Happy twenty-one birthday."

Alistair's eyes gleamed with a sudden dampness as he looked down at the Fereldan cheddar and Mabari-patterned knitted socks. He took them as though in a dream, reaching out with his free hand to stroke Flora's cheek with his thumb.

"My beautiful betrothed," he said, thickly. "My queen."

Flora beamed up at him, the solemn Cousland mask dissolving as her lips curved upwards; eyes bright with equally matched ardour. Alistair wrapped his arm about her shoulders, keeping a tight grip on her as they turned to face their friends and companions.

"'Bout time you made an honest woman out of her!" Oghren guffawed through his ginger moustache, eyes sparkling merrily. "Congratulations."

Wynne was doing her best to wipe her damp eyes in her sleeve, swallowing briskly.

"I refuse to do what is expected of a sentimental old woman and bawl," she said sternly, though there was a distinct tremor in her voice. "I'm sure there'll be weeping enough at the wedding."

Flora smiled at the senior enchanter, pale gaze drifting towards where Zevran was standing a short distance to the side. His mouth was open as though he were laughing at a humorous comment made by Finian to the assembled company; yet there was quite clearly no sound emerging from his lips. Instead, there was a rictus stiffness to the elf's face, and a dull opacity clouded the usually dancing pupils.

She stared at him anxiously for a moment; then Eamon was speaking to her, drawing her attention away.

"Do you want a carriage to return to Denerim? Or will you ride with Alistair?"

Flora blinked, turning back to where the Arl of Redcliffe was standing. The stars were emerging one at a time overhead, like small, glinting shells catching the sunlight from the bottom of some murky rock-pool. Night was drawing in without pause; the moon hung overhead, vast and impossibly low.

"Return to Denerim?" she asked, confused. "What do you mean?"

Fergus stepped forwards, smiling down at his younger sister with affection creasing his prematurely aged forehead.

"Floss, your month at Revanloch is over. We're taking you back to the palace."

 

 

Chapter Text

Flora's mouth fell open, and she turned first to Alistair, and then to her two Templar guards; a silent question in her eyes.

"Aye," Knight-Captain Gannorn confirmed, gruffly. "It's been thirty days. You're free to leave Revanloch."

Alistair beamed reflexively, utterly delighted that his soon-to-be wife could at last return to Denerim at his side.

Flora - who had never had a very solid grasp on the Theodesian calendar compared with the fishing seasons – blinked, her brow furrowing.

"I didn't realise," she breathed, astonished. "Oh, but my things are all over the place. I need some time to pack."

"I'll go and gather up your possessions ," Leliana interrupted, blowing her nose damply. "I know where everything is. But I'll need some help with the duc's giant golden fish. Hideous thing that it is!"

Finian gallantly volunteered to assist her, disappearing within the damp bowels of Revanloch in the bard's wake.

There followed a flurry of movement; shapes and silhouettes shifting in the torchlight as the gathered group prepared to depart. Stable boys came scampering excitedly forward, leading their equine charges across the cobbles; the Templar Knight-Commander conversed in low tones with Eamon about the Grand Cleric's presidence over the wedding. Flora's companions – save for one – conversed amongst themselves on the manner of Alistair's proposal. According to Wynne, it had taken the king six stressful hours to finally catch a fish at the end of his rod – in the end, Royal Guard had to hurl baskets of live, pre-caught fish into the water around Alistair's bobbing line.

An evening breeze had sprung up, whistling through the gaps in Revanloch's tiled roof and tugging at the faded Chantry banners hanging from the ramparts. Alistair – who had been tacking up his own horse – immediately went in search of a blanket for his new betrothed; aware that even the slightest breath of air was amplified on the cliff-top path.

Flora, meanwhile, had been surrounded by a crowd talking excitedly about the upcoming coronation and wedding – but to each other, rather than to her. She did not mind this in the slightest, standing at her silent Herring-father's elbow as he shifted on the cobbles. True to form, Pel had said little more than three words to Flora since passing beneath Revanloch's crumbling archway. She could tell that he was deeply uncomfortable in the company of the nobles; lined brow furrowed and mouth drawn taut behind the tangled grey beard.

For a moment, Flora wondered if there was anything she could do to ease his discomfort. She was skilled at persuasion, if the occasion demanded it – but even she could not see a way to reconcile her Herring father with her Highever status. Instead of speaking, she reached out – still getting used to the new weight of her be-ringed hand – and squeezed his elbow, tight and wordless.

Pel let out a grunt of disapproval at such tacit emotion, yet his eyes flickered over his adopted daughter with a fleeting glint of affection. Flora smiled up at him, and then her attention was caught once more by the Antivan elf; standing just beyond the reach of the torchlight.

Taking advantage of everyone's distraction, she sidled barefoot across the cobblestones and came to a halt besides Zevran. He was gazing through an iron grill set into the wall, which framed a view of the still, deep green Amaranthine Ocean. The wave-less surface reflected the effervescent miasma of the heavens as well as any mirror; the stars swathed in gaseous cloud and the moon a swollen counterpart of the pearl resting on Flora's finger.

With the extraordinary perception of one trained in subterfuge; Zevran had identified Flora by the sound of her approach alone, able to pick out the subtle differences in timbre between her strong and weak footfalls.

"Your Majesty," he murmured and made a lacklustre effort to smile; an unseeing stare fixed on the rusting iron grate.

Flora eyed the elf for a moment, considering the peculiar tone of his response. She had a vague notion as to the cause of his distress, and felt a twist of unhappiness in her gut due to her inability to rectify it.

Zevran angled himself to face her, forcing a shred of humour into his voice as he drew his fingers together above her head in an emulation of a crown.

"You know, carina," he said, meditative. "That circle of gold will trap you just as effectively as any mage tower."

"Yes," she replied, with a shrug. "I know."

His dark eyes flared, fixing themselves onto hers like limpets.

"Is that really what you want, my Rialto lily? To be a… prisoner of the throne? You have never desired status, amor. And this will be the end of freedom for you. The end of choice."

"Arl Eamon is right," Flora replied, quietly. "For some reason – I don't understand why – the people look at me and see…. hope. And since I'm not a Warden anymore, and my spirits are… are gone, it's the only way I can serve Ferelden."

Zevran fell quiet and pensive, his eyes moving from the pearl of betrothal on her finger to its lunar counterpart overhead. The breeze ruffled his hair, catching the fine platinum strands and tugging them upwards.

"I made Alistair king at the Landsmeet," she continued, in little more than a whisper. "When I showed them my army – giving them no choice but to support me - I as good as put the crown on his head myself. It's only right I should serve this sentence at his side."

The elf took a deep inhalation of cool Fereldan air, forcing a strand of lightness back into his response.

"Ah, but you'll be breaking your promise to me then, carina! You won't be able to visit Antiva now. Or, if you do, you'll be visiting merchant princes and aristocrats; sipping anís on the loftiest of sea-view terraces. Not visiting an elf who dwells in the back-alleys behind the leatherworkers. You will only see the sunny side of the city."

Flora snorted, shooting him a little pointed glance.

"I'll go where I want," she retorted, with a flash of northern defiance. "I'll go to the… shadows and the back alleys."

"Sí, as long as it is with a troop of Royal Guard, eh, mi florita? The most interesting denizens of Antiva will scatter like autumn leaves when they hear the sound of plated boots."

"Then I'll disguise myself as Federico to visit you! Or," she said, recalling their subterfuge to allow her undetected access to Denerim. "I'll become a whore again. A worker of the Pearl."

The elf smiled at Flora, appreciating her efforts to cheer him up.

"You're too sweet to pass yourself off as an Antivan whore, carina."

"Well, I don't know," she replied, dropping her voice solemnly and putting a finger to her once-curative lips. "I've put my mouth on a lot of men over the years."

Zevran let out a sudden, genuine chortle at Flora's very mild bawdiness. He was proud of her attempt to make a joke about her own peculiar manner of healing; the absence of which was still a raw wound. He put his arm about her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek, affectionate and mostly familial.


 

When it came time for Flora to officially leave Revanloch's custody, she found herself oddly emotional. The cloisters, although claustrophobic, had also shielded her from the initial post-Blight chaos; from the trauma of seeing injured and dying that she could no longer heal and from the smoke of the pyres that had burned for a week. She had left the monastery on only two occasions – for her feast, and to purchase Alistair's present – and had found herself content to dwell within its walls for the remainder of the time. Beneath Revanloch's leaking rooftiles, she had also found time to become more attuned to the little creature whose existence she had mostly ignored during the latter days of the Blight; and she had also been granted space, silence and privacy to grieve for her departed spirits.

Now Flora was aware that she was leaving privacy behind and immersing herself in Fereldan politics - a tangled web that she would most likely only be free of at her own death. It was an intimidating prospect, but Flora had faced intimidating prospects before; and she was a northerner, who knew that hard grit lay at the centre of every pearl.

With the others all mounted and ready to depart – save for Alistair, who waited patiently on the cobbles with the horse's reins in his hand – Flora went to thank her two Templar guardians in turn.

Knight-Captain Gannorn had grunted in response to her gratitude, the faintest flush appearing behind the neatly cropped silver hair on his cheeks.

"It was no chore, my lady," he muttered, eyes firmly fixed on the crumbling brickwork of the archway. "More interesting than escorting pilgrims across the Rivaini deserts."

Flora smiled at him, then turned to Chanter Devotia, summoning the words that Leliana had taught her earlier in the day. They emerged in an untrained rush, without proper elocution and eloquence; but with a genuine sincerity.

"'The host of Shartan, the clans of Alamarri, a thousand freemen. Held aloft blade and spear and to the Maker gave thanks.' THANKS," she repeated, with especial emphasis on the final word in the hope that her meaning was conveyed clearly.

For the first time in a month, the corner of the Chanter's mouth turned upwards; the steely violet stare flickering as she gazed down at the earnest young Cousland; who herself was a descendent of Ferelden's ancient Alamarri.

"'As I stumble forth in shadow, I am not alone. And nothing that He has wrought shall be truly lost. Nothing."

Just as Flora had done, Chanter Devotia hardened her voice meaningfully on the last word; catching Flora's eye and nodding slightly.

Nothing shall be truly lost. Not even spirits blasted apart by a demon's soul.

Flora felt the all too familiar sensation of dampness prickling on her lashes, and took a quick inhalation of cold night air to suppress the surge of emotion. Turning to the Knight-Commander of the Fereldan Order, she bowed her head in gratitude; shivering slightly as a chilly breeze cut through the thin linen dress.

"Thank you for allowing me to stay here," she said, politely. "It wasn't half as horrible as I thought it was going to be."

Atop his horse, Finian snorted quietly; while Fergus let out a grunt of despair.

"The Maker's House is always open to those seeking solitude and sanctuary," replied the Knight-Commander, coughing slightly. "Although with you gone, our recruits might finally be able to concentrate on their lessons again."

Flora, not sure how to respond to this, smiled vaguely. Far above their heads, a bat swooped out of Revanloch's bell tower, making a leisurely circuit about the courtyard before dropping out of sight. The stiff breeze was soon accompanied by a fine, misting drizzle; the salt-tang of the sea strong in the air.

This was the final straw for Alistair, who decided that the goodbyes and gratitude had gone on long enough. With the blanket slung over his shoulder like a Tevinter-style cape, he strode across the cobbles and draped an arm protectively across Flora's bare shoulders.

"Darling, it's freezing and you're practically naked. Come on, let's go home. Where in the Fade are your boots?!"

Footwear was retrieved, the king's horse led over, and Alistair lifted his mistress onto the saddle as though she was made of Orlesian glass. Moments later, he had clambered up to sit behind Flora; clamping one arm protectively around her waist while calling impatiently for the blanket. She clutched the rough woollen fabric to her chin; leaning back against Alistair's chest as he gripped the reins in a single, experienced hand.

The procession began with the retainers and Royal Guard on foot, their torches cutting a brilliant swathe through the darkness. They were followed by the nobles and Flora's companions, conversation dwindling as the tenth-hour bell rung faint in Revanloch's dwindling tower.

Flora twisted her head to catch one final glimpse of the monastery as the horses made their way along the clifftop path; plodding stoically through the drizzle. Despite the coolness of the night, a combination of the blanket and Alistair's proximity kept out the chill.

"Alistair," she whispered, hoping that her words weren't being immediately snatched away by the wind.

"Yes, my love?" he replied, through a mouthful of birthday-gift cheese.

"You said: 'let's go home'. Do you think of the palace as home, then?"

Alistair was quiet a moment, his eyes drawn to the city of Denerim sprawled across the mouth of the estuary. It blazed away in defiance of the shadows; lit by a thousand braziers smouldering away on ramparts and bridges. The castle was perched on the highest point of the city, rising above the other districts like a watchful captain of the guard.

"I'm… starting to," he replied, eventually. "I know it sounds odd. But it already feels more familiar than the Templar monastery I was raised in, and I spent a decade there."

Flora twisted around in the saddle, and Alistair reflexively tightened his grip as he felt her shift against him. The purpose of such movement was revealed soon after; her lips landed slightly off-centre of his mouth. He pressed a returning kiss to the back of Flora's head as she settled back into her normal position.

"My queen," he said quietly and this time Flora did not chide or correct him, but laid her palm gently across his riding glove. The pearl on her fourth finger glinted in the moonlight, undulled by rain or veneer of night.

"I used to think that I could never feel at home anywhere other than Herring," she replied after a moment, tucking several loose strands of hair back into the silken bow. "I thought of nothing else when I was in the Circle. I was so homesick, I felt sometimes I would go mad if I didn't see the sea. That's why I climbed up on the tower roof so often."

Alistair waited with baited breath, keeping a firm hand on the reins as they began the gradual slope down into the city. Several scouts had ridden ahead to alert the guards; the portcullis was being slowly winched upwards over the western gate. It had been Eamon's idea to bring Flora back to Denerim under cover of night, when they could be guaranteed some measure of privacy.

"But recently I've been so confused, because I've stopped missing Herring quite so much," Flora continued thoughtfully, grateful for the reassuring firmness of Alistair's chest against her head. "I didn't understand why for a long time, and then… I did."

She fell quiet for several minutes, letting Alistair steer the horse down the sloping gravelled path towards the gate. To her relief, the Alamarri plains were lost in a mass of shadow to one side; looking upon them brought back too many raw memories for Flora's liking. Alistair did not press her to continue, exchanging a few murmured comments with Eamon as he drew up alongside them.

Once the arl had spurred his horse forward, Flora resumed her chain of thought; voice soft and contemplative. The drizzle had plastered her hair to her cheeks, an oddly comforting sensation for the native northerner.

"It's because I'm happiest and safest when I'm with you," she said at last, abandoning any attempt at effusive explanation. "So my home is wherever you are."

Alistair gripped her even more tightly on the saddle, inhaling unsteadily against her hair in place of a coherent response. Lost for words, he pressed his lips fiercely to the back of her head.

"I'll never be parted from you again," he said at last, voice emerging thickly from his throat. "The only good thing about the Blight was that, during it, I could always stretch out my hand and touch you. Now I'm going to keep you within arms' reach, forever."

Flora smiled to herself and then yawned, deeply. She let her head loll back against her soon-to-be husband's shoulder, trusting in the anchor of his arm to keep her astride the saddle. Within minutes, she had fallen asleep; lulled by the horse's gentle gait and the rhythm of Alistair's breathing.

 

Chapter Text

It felt as though Flora had only let her eyes close for a moment; yet when she blinked and roused herself, they were on the final approach up to the Royal Palace. The night-time drizzle had finally abated, the veil of cloud drawing back to create a star-studded backdrop for the sprawling, fortress-like Theirin seat. The castle ramparts and towers sat squatly silhouetted against the heavens, no less intimidating for being half-cloaked in shadow. Many of the trees from the Royal hunting grounds had been unceremoniously chopped down to fortify the camp on the Alamarri plains; great swathes of woodland lay studded with forlorn tree-stumps.

The hooves of the horses crunched softly against the gravel as they came to a halt on the palace forecourt. Flora yawned, peering around at their diminished company. Several of her companions had clearly gone their separate ways in the city below – Leonas too must have retired to the Bryland manor in the noble district. She noticed with a twinge of sadness that her Herring-father had also taken himself off, without word or ceremony.

I'm surprised he's even stayed in the city this long. He must be returning to Herring soon, it's almost bream season.

Flora found herself irrationally terrified by the idea of her adoptive father leaving for the northern coast. Her heartbeat surged like a startled horse, and she found herself instinctively shifting closer to Alistair on the saddle, her fingers anchoring themselves to his sleeve.

"Darling," he said quietly, realising that she had woken. "We're here."

Swallowing the bitter taste of anxiety, Flora peered up at the imposing eastern face of the palace. The basalt rock was bathed in firelight from a dozen standing braziers, and she could see the silhouettes of guards posted at intervals along the ramparts overhead. Stable boys and the Royal Steward were already there to meet them, standing in formal array outside the main doors.

Those still remaining in the party dismounted onto the gravel, their horses swiftly led away by dutiful retainers. Alistair reached up for a yawning Flora, reluctant to release her even when she was safely on the ground.

"Your Majesty, Lady Cousland," Guillaume murmured, stepping forward and sweeping into a smooth, practised bow. "Congratulations on your betrothal. And welcome back to the palace, my lady; on behalf of the household. We are glad to have you here with us."

Flora gave a sleepy smile in response as Alistair beamed from beside her.

"Is the fire lit in our chamber?" the king asked as they made their way into the entrance hall. "And extra furs on the bed? It's a cold night, I won't have my wife - my almost-wife catching a chill."

"Aye, your majesty. It is all as you requested."

Flora roused herself, gazing at the hall that she had not seen for a month even as one hand extended reflexively to touch the stone Mabari's paw. The fireplaces that lined each wall were lit; smouldering softly into the shadow and emitting scented cedar-smoke. The thick teal velvet carpeting – designed to impress those first making entrance into the palace – had been freshly cleaned, dust and dog-hair swept away, worn patches re-threaded.

Yet her eye was drawn to the long banners overhead, hanging from each rafter in an endless parade of brightly embroidered silk. Interspersed with the usual Theirin and Ferelden pennants hung several new designs – the olive Highever wreath stood stark and proud against its navy backdrop. At the forefront hung the pattern that Flora had noticed when venturing to the Denerim markets – the Theirin lion, with the Cousland laurel wrapped intimately around its paw and flank.

"Oh!" she breathed, in sudden realisation. "Alistair, are they for us? For the wedding?"

Alistair, who had paused to exchange a few words with Eamon, gave a little – slightly self-conscious – nod. More than one pair of eyes swung towards Flora to see how she would react to this blatant sign that preparations for her marriage had been going on for some time – long before Alistair's actual proposal.

As it transpired, Flora was entirely unbothered by this revelation – becoming Alistair's wife was just a Chantry-acknowledged formalisation of their existing bond; and she was used to pomp and ceremony from her brief tenure as Warden-Commander.

"Well, I like it," she said amiably, stifling another yawn. "It's a clever design."

Though better with a fish incorporated in it somewhere, she thought privately to herself. Or some seaweed.

Alistair, vastly relieved, strode back to Flora's side; noticing that his lover was unsteady on her feet with tiredness.

"Come on, sweetheart. I know we aren't officially married yet, but I'm going to carry you over the threshold regardless."

Flora allowed herself to be hoisted up into the familiar berth of the king's arms, anchoring herself around his neck and yawning once again.

"Not officially," she murmured, sliding her finger along the fur collar of his tunic. "But it feels like we've been married forever."

I slept in your arms for months before we ever did anything more explicit. We lay tangled together on the bedroll like a decades-wed couple before we'd even shared a kiss. It was a defiance of sorts, against both our grief over Ostagar and the terrible knowledge that we were fighting the Fifth Blight alone.

Alistair pressed affectionate lips to the top of Flora's head, tasting the salty residue from the sea-mist on her hair.

"My wife," he repeated, and it was clear that he placed far greater significance on the Chantry's blessing of their relationship. "Maker, I wasn't particularly looking forward to the coronation, but now I wish it were tomorrow."

Flora yawned once more in response, letting her head droop against his shoulder.

The journey up to the Royal passageway – which housed the king's quarters, as well as those of the Couslands – passed in a series of intermittent images as Flora dozed on and off in Alistair's arms. From half-closed eyes, she caught a glimpse of certain familiar features; the distinct landmarks she had once used to navigate her way about the palace.

The first was the stained glass depiction of the great king Calenhad, progenitor of the Theirin line. Alistair's oldest ancestor had united the diverse tribes of the Alamarri and thus won himself a place in Fereldan legend. In the past Flora had spent countless minutes standing open-mouthed before the cunningly designed window, wondering how they made glass gleam in such a vivid spectrum of shades.

Then it was along a wide corridor lined with suits of armour, up a curling stone staircase; then across a minstrel's gallery that ran above a great hall. It was crammed full of extra tables and chairs, in readiness to house three hundred additional mouths in two days' time.

At the top of another wide, shallow flight of steps, a vast and moth-eaten tapestry showed an unfortunate halla being set upon by a pack of delighted, bloody-jawed Mabari. This marked the beginning of the Royal corridor, a wide passage lined with busts of previous kings and queens. Guardsmen were placed at intervals between these carved visages; stiff as suits of armour and clutching pikes in their hands.

Flora awoke just as Alistair came to a halt outside the vast, ornately carved wooden doors that led into the Royal bedchamber. Alistair had stopped to receive a wry reminder from Eamon; one of the few who had accompanied them up from the entrance hall.

"Now, son," the arl said quietly, keeping his voice lowered out of courtesy for the Cousland brothers. "The lady Florence is not going anywhere. Do try and be on time for the council tomorrow morning."

"In other words, there'll be all the nights in the world to spend together," murmured Zevran under his breath; the elf loitering in the shadows near Finian.

Alistair gave a vague and oblivious nod, only half-listening. His fingers were working through the rope-like, dark red strands of Flora's hair; exploring its rain-dampened texture.

"What time does it start?" mumbled Flora, who had punctuality drilled into her during her tenure at the Circle.

"Nine bells," replied Eamon, pale green Guerrin eyes fixing themselves on her. "Will you do your utmost to see that he's there, child?"

Flora nodded, stifling another yawn against Alistair's tunic.

"Mm."

Fergus stepped forward to say goodnight; sporting a face vividly stricken with conflict. On the one hand, his little sister was soon going to become Queen of Ferelden. Never before had Ferelden's two most prominent families been so closely allied – it was a great political coup. In some tangential way, it also fulfilled Bryce Cousland's desire to betroth his pretty daughter to a son of Maric – albeit not the one the old teyrn had intended.

However, a more immediate and pressing concern for the new teyrn was Flora's resumed residency in the adjacent bedchamber. His younger sister tended to be somewhat vocal – to put it mildly – during her nightly exertions with Alistair, and Fergus had no intention of being traumatised. Stonemasons had already started the process of reinforcing the party wall between the Theirin and Cousland quarters; until then, the teyrn of Highever was well-stocked with earplugs.

Both Cousland brothers bid their sister goodnight, Zevran blowing a subtle kiss in the background. To Fergus' relief, Flora appeared far too tired for any nocturnal activities; arms wound around Alistair's neck and her eyes half closing.

The Royal Guard dutifully opened the double doors for their king, stepping back with a smart left-right shift of their pikes as he carried his yawning mistress into the bedchamber.

As the sounds from the corridor were muted by the closure of the doors, Alistair pressed a kiss to Flora's ear; the words emerging soft and shyly hopeful.

"This is my birthday gift to you, sweet girl," he murmured, unable to stop a proud beam from spreading across his face.

Flora opened her eyes, perplexed.

"I thought this was your birthday gift to me," she mumbled, letting her sleepy fingers droop back to reveal the filigree-clad pearl known as Mairyn's Star.

"Well, then. This is my second gift," Alistair replied, lowering Flora gently to the ground so that she could take in the surroundings. "Look about you."

The king's bedchamber was lit by the great hearth on the far wall; wider than most fireplaces and thus able to bathe the majority of the room in soft, ochre light. It had always been surprisingly austere for a royal bedchamber – no Theirin had particularly valued fussy ornamentation, and Alistair was no exception. Instead of gilt or lavish embellishment, the walls were clad in thick plaster and coated in murals of native beasts; dark exposed beams running the length of the ceiling. Skilfully-hewn statues of Fereldan heroes stood instead of paintings; and a large, somewhat faded tapestry depicting Calenhad's loyal pack of Mabari hung on the south wall. Animal furs were strewn both over the flagstones and atop the master bed, tangled amidst blankets embroidered in Alamarri clan patterns.

All this was familiar to Flora, who had resided with Alistair in the Royal bedchamber for nearly two months prior to the final battle. Yet the more she gazed around, the more she noticed the subtle differences in décor that Alistair had made.

Murals of loll-tongued Mabari and proud Ferelden Forder horses already decorated various walls, but Flora noticed a new design daubed above the great hearth. A line of dancing fish, their bodies curled in artistically pleasing symmetry, had been picked out in fresh paint on the plaster. Several blankets strewn across the over-large bed had been embroidered with patterns native to the northern coast – some from Highever and others from the rural localities – but each one known to her. Scattered across the dark oak top of the dresser were a number of sea-shells, washed and varnished to a sheen.

Flora's attention was drawn finally to the window, besides which she had spent many hours sitting and gazing at the city spread over the estuary below. The stonemasons reinforcing the joining wall between Cousland and Theirin quarters had also paid a visit here. The window had been widened and deepened, so that it was possible to lie in the great fur-strewn bed and gaze directly out at a swathe of the pea-green Amaranthine Ocean.

"You told me once that you liked to watch the storms over the sea at night," Alistair murmured softly in Flora's ear. "Now we can do that together."

Flora stared wordlessly at him, for she had mentioned that only fleetingly, wistfully, over six months prior. Alistair flashed her a little grin, trying to disguise how proud he was of this second gift.

"See, you're not the only one with a good memory! I remember things too. Well, sometimes."

Flora gazed once more around the bedchamber, her wide and astonished eyes taking in the painted fish murals, the familiar stitching on the blankets, the shells and the sea-view window.

"I – I know this life isn't what you ever wanted," Alistair murmured, soft and rueful. "Maker's Breath, I wish I were a man who could take you back to Herring and live a simple life in a two-room cottage. But… but I hope this at least will help a little. Make you feel more comfortable, at least."

Unable to retrieve any coherent words, Flora reached up her arms towards her former brother-warden. He went to embrace her; drawing her against his chest with mingled protectiveness and affection. With Flora's face buried in the leather of his tunic, it wasn't until Alistair saw the shaking of her shoulders that he realised she was crying.

"My love," he said, leaning back just far enough to see her water-stained cheeks. "Those are happy tears, right?"

Flora nodded, staring up at him with eyes like winter skies over the Waking Sea; grey, damp and clouded. She reached up to touch the side of Alistair's face, tracing the line of his jaw, feeling the residue of the evening's rain in the short beard covering his chin. Alistair said nothing more, his face bright with affection but his eyes trained on her with the still, unblinking focus of a Mabari spotting a lone halla.

Anchoring his fingers wordlessly in her own, Flora shuffled backwards across the flagstones, leading her best friend to the fur-strewn royal bed. He followed her as though in a dream, docile as a child but with an intensity in his expression that belied the gentleness.

Loosing his hand, Flora lowered herself down amidst the blankets, letting her fingers curl into the familiar patterns of the fabric.

"Alistair."

Shaking her head back so that the thick, dark red ropes of hair fell away from her shoulders, she let him see how the white linen of the dress had become translucent in the rain; the pink of her nipple showing through the wet fabric as it clung to the curve of her breast.

"Make me your wife," Flora whispered, peering up at him through damp eyelashes as she gestured to the bed. "Now, here. Before the Chantry does."

"Yes," the king breathed, stepping forwards and reaching to unbutton his breeches.

 

 

Chapter Text

The light from the great hearth emanated in soft waves across the Royal bedchamber, illuminating the fish painted above the hearth and the embroidered blankets spread across the bed. Sprawled amidst their familiar northern patterns, Flora smiled up at the king of Ferelden from beneath her eyelashes; a naked invitation in her pale grey stare.

Without hesitation Alistair bore her backwards amidst the furs, careful to keep his bulk propped up on strong arms. His mouth went straight to Flora's throat, a desirous tongue tracing the line of her neck, from her ear down to her collarbone. She arched herself reflexively into him, shoulder-blades pressing into the mattress as she hooked a bare leg around his waist.

Alistair let out a helpless groan against her skin, lips closing around her earlobe. His fingers wandered over the thin, rain-dampened fabric covering her breast; one calloused thumb coaxing the nipple to stiffness with measured little circles.

"How much do you like this dress, baby?" he murmured thickly into Flora's ear, the words coagulated with lust.

"I hate it," she whispered back honestly, watching the corner of her best friend's mouth twist upwards in a crude, purposeful grin. 

Alistair reached out, clutching a handful of the flimsy bodice in a strong fist. With a single yank downwards, the fabric tore like cheap parchment; opening the dress from neck to nape. The king let the torn material fall apart, leaning back to survey his mistress as she rested languid on the furs before him, entirely unbothered by her own nakedness.

"No smallclothes, Lo?" he asked her throatily, unfastening the final fiddly button on his breeches.

"Why would I wear smalls on your birthday?" Flora asked sweetly, the innocence of her query belied by the intimacy in her gaze.

"Ha! That's my girl."

Alistair let out an unsteady laugh, eyes moving over her exposed body as he pulled unashamedly at himself for several long moments. Flora smiled up at him, curling a strand of hair absent-mindedly about her finger as she let her leather-bound knee drop to the side.

Soon after she felt a calloused palm settle on her other knee, parting her thighs with gentle insistence. Flora opened her eyes just in time to see Alistair taking up a kneeling position on the fur-covered flagstones; spitting crudely on his fingers and wetting his lips in preparation.

"Alistair," she breathed in a small voice, reaching down to brush her fingers across his golden hair as he lowered his head almost reverently between her legs.

For the next half-candle female gasps and whimpers would drift out from beneath the king's door. These were interspersed with pleas, growing more desperate and incoherent as time passed. In the adjacent Cousland chambers, a traumatised and bug-eyed Fergus was busy melting candle wax to stuff into his ears.

As the bell rang for the change in watch, the king of Ferelden brought his mistress to a shuddering, whimpering climax for the fifth time in a row. By now Flora had lost her ability to speak lucidly, sprawled back in the blankets with her arms flung above her head and a thoroughly dazed expression. She was so disorientated, brain dulled and body overstimulated, that she barely registered the additional pressure between her legs. Moments later, she realised that he had sheathed himself fully; sinking down to the root.

Her body responded faster than her lust-addled brain, arching upwards as Alistair rutted slow and deep into her; gripping her thighs with each controlled thrust. As he rapidly neared his own climax, restraint slipped away and he took his best friend like a Mabari in heat; taut hips snapping rhythmically back and forth. The king let out a helpless shout as he spent himself, sinking to the root. Moments later, Alistair collapsed onto the bed beside her, wide-eyed and temporarily stunned.

Flora, who always recovered more quickly, reached out and touched his cheek gently. She could feel the heat radiating from his flushed face, like a cooking pot taken fresh from the fire.

"Alistair," she whispered, and he let out a strangled, half-grunt in response; stupefied as a fish left to gasp on the sand.

Flora eyed the king appreciatively for a moment, peering beneath her eyelashes at the sweat-slick, solidly hewn muscle of his body; the usual olive tones made richer by the summer heat.

"I'll get you something to drink," she offered eventually, ignoring his feeble moan of protest as he flailed an arm towards her. "No, no- it's fine. Stay there."

With a slight degree of unsteadiness, she clambered to her feet and wrapped one of the furs about her like an Alamarri tribal princess; shuffling towards the door with it trailing across the floorboards. Nudging the door open – naturally, the king's chamber was never locked – Flora stuck her head out into the corridor.

The Royal Guard standing at either side of the entrance appeared slightly bemused – they were used to passing their pike sharply from hand to hand when an important personage entered an area; but what was the protocol for when only part of them entered?

Before they knew it, Flora had stepped out into the corridor, clutching the fur closed with a single hand to her chest. Taken off-guard, the soldiers performed a rather ragged version of their salute; while the night steward scuttled at rapid speed down the corridor towards her.

"My lady! How can I assist you?"

"Please could we have something to drink?"

The night steward gave a quick nod and bow, setting off in the opposite direction at a pace that was not quite a run – but was not far from it.

Flora was about to retreat back inside the Royal bedchamber when the Cousland retainers posted outside the adjacent door made to open it, alerted by some movement from within.

Two shadowed figures made their exit, conversing quietly in the corridor. The moonlight cut a swathe of illumination through the gloom; casting Zevran's hair in a silvery hue as he leaned his head towards Finian.

Finian made to respond, and then saw Flora standing in the passageway nearby, clutching the fur up to her chest.

"Floss!" the newly invested arl of Amaranthine exclaimed, then lowered his voice hastily. "Are you alright? What do you need?"

"I'm fine," replied Flora, smiling at her brother and the elf in turn as they came towards her. "I'm getting Alistair a drink. He's gasping like a fish on the sand."

"Things sounded more than fine, from what I could hear," purred Zevran, flashing Flora a quick wink. "You little minx. Te veo mañana."

The artificial lightness of the elf's tone did not fool Finian. Both Couslands watched Zevran saunter off down the corridor, melding into the shadows with the subtleness that heralded his part-Dalish ancestry.

"Thanks to this, you and I don't look that alike any more," murmured Finian wryly, making a gesture towards the black leather patch over his eye and the scar carved through the flesh of his cheek. "And the elf's eyesight is better than a game-hawk. There's no excuse for mixing we Cousland siblings up."

Flora blinked at her brother, shifting from foot to foot on the cold flagstones. Finian flashed her a rueful smile, reaching out to flatten the errant strands of hair atop her head.

"Zevran has several nicknames for me – none that I'm willing to share with my baby sister," he added sternly, seeing her mouth begin to form a question. "But the endearment he uttered at the ultimate moment – 'mi florita' – is definitely not one of them."

Flora looked down at her bare toes, shoulders slumping. Suddenly and incongruously, she felt tears gathering on her eyelashes; threatening to spill over.

"I don't know what to do," she whispered, a distinct wobble to her voice. "Zevran is my friend; one of my most dear friends. I want nothing but for him to be happy, and yet I'm the reason why he's sad. I don't know what to do!"

There came a loud snore drifting out from the chamber behind her: Alistair had fallen asleep.

Finian took one look at his younger sister, whose lip was now trembling dangerously; then reached out to take her hand.

"Come on, tadpole."

Flora let him steer her into the Cousland quarters; which for three centuries had stood alongside those of the Theirins as a mark of prestige and regard. They had been neglected during Loghain's brief tenure as regent – mildew had spread on the walls and plaster had crumbled and cracked – but the renovations were now almost complete. Like the king's own chamber, the décor was rustic and yet finely made, the furniture carved by expert hand and the furnishings woven from the softest lambswool. The heraldry of Highever was fresh-painted above the hearth, and accents of navy and olive were subtle but pervasive.

Fergus' snores rang out from the adjacent bedchamber as Finian led the sniffing Flora across to one of the armchairs before the fire. She was so preoccupied with blinking back her own tears that she barely paid attention to the wooden panelling part-installed on the wall between Cousland quarters and Royal bedchamber.

"Keep a tight grip on that fur, Floss," Finian instructed sternly as he went in search for a more reliable covering. "I don't fancy the double trauma of seeing a naked woman, who also happens to be my little sister."

"Sorry," Flora mumbled, hoisting the fur up around her bare shoulders.

Finian found a crimson velvet dressing robe, bringing it to Flora and averting his remaining eye with a little huff as she shrugged her arms into it.

"Decent?"

"Mm."

"Good. Otherwise, that'd definitely lose me the sight in my sole working eye."

Finian grinned at her, the Orlesian-instilled charm in no way diminished by the leather patch or the scar distorting one side of his handsome Cousland face. Flora smiled wanly back at him, leaning back into the cushiony depths of the armchair.

He leaned forward to follow her motion, retrieving a lace-edged handkerchief from his sleeve and dabbing it beneath her eyes.

"Come on now, Floss," Finian chided, fixing her with a beady grey stare. "Don't you know it's illegal to cry on your birthday in Denerim?"

Flora gazed at him with such alarm that the young arl laughed and went to reassure her, patting her thigh gently through the crimson velvet.

"I'm only jesting. Ah, but what are we going to do about our elven friend, hm? You know he'd be aghast if he knew that you were shedding tears over him."

Flora nodded, pleading the expensive fabric in folds over her strapped-up knee.

"I know," she replied, the words emerging quiet and sad. "But I feel so bad about it. I don't want him to be sad when he sees me and Alistair together."

Or, hears us, Flora then thought guiltily, eyeing the half-finished soundproofing as she twisted Mairyn's Star around her finger.

"He's so important to me," she continued, miserable. "He's always been kind to me. He's saved my life more times than I can count. His sense of humour got me and Alistair through the Blight!"

Finian nodded quietly, letting his sister ramble on freely as he poured himself a glass of Antivan wine from a nearby decanter.

"You know that Zevran is in love with you?" he asked eventually, and then cursed as the stopper dropped from his hand and rolled beneath the armchair. "Despite all his instincts screaming at him to suppress such feeling."

Flora leaned down, anchoring herself in place with a hand, and managed to scoop up the cork. Handing it back to him, she gave a glum little nod.

"I know," she mumbled. "Even though I've told him that he would get bored of me quickly. I'm not exciting or witty enough."

"Hm," replied Finian, unconvinced. "Well, Alistair doesn't seem too bothered by it. I suppose he's well-used to men falling at your feet."

Flora had never heard this particular saying before, and shot him a slightly appalled look.

"I'd never trip men over," she insisted, indignant. "That's a mean thing to do. Especially now I can't heal them!"

Finian suppressed his laughter in the face of his sister's outrage, reaching out an elegant-fingered hand to pat her knee.

"Alistair trusts him," Flora corrected, solemnly. "He's just as grateful to Zevran as I am."

There was a long silence, during which the sudden crack of a log in the hearth made them both jump.

"Sweeting, take the advice of your elder and wiser brother," Finian said eventually, with the airy sageness of one a full five years her senior. "Zevran is a grown man. He's older than me, and – in both years and life experience – far older than you. Let him handle his own feelings. He's strong as steel, and twice as hardened. And he certainly doesn't want you to shed tears for him, petal."

Flora nodded earnestly, wanting desperately to believe in the wisdom of her brother's words. Her pale grey gaze fixed itself on his single remaining eye, which housed a near-mirror of her own limpid iris – save for the golden fleck left by the Archdemon's soul. Finian seemed sincere enough, and she relaxed a fraction; wiping her nose on the sleeve of the expensive dressing-robe.

She spent another hour in her brother's company, huddled up before the hearth while eating stale bread rolls left over from dinner. They played a game of Wicked Grace – Finian challenged himself to play as incompetently as possible, and still managed to defeat his sister by a wide margin.

During the game he dropped several gleeful hints as to the nature of the birthday gift he had procured for her, until Flora was both intrigued and confused. Her requests for clarification went unsatisfied, even when she threatened him with a cushion.

When the bell rang for the change in night watch, Flora took her leave from the Cousland chamber. She gathered the fur into her arms, yawning widely as Finian accompanied her to the door.

"Please," he murmured, escorting Flora the few metres down the corridor to the Royal quarters. "Give me a good head start before you resume activities with Alistair. Enough time to return to my bedchamber and barricade my ears with three dozen cushions."

Flora laughed, muffling the sound with her sleeve. Her lanky brother – almost as tall as Alistair, though half the width - grinned back down at her, then pressed a kiss to Flora's forehead.

"Night, Flossie. Happy birthday."

The Royal bedchamber was now cloaked in shadow, the candles making little headway against the rich obscurity of a moonless Fereldan night. The bed though was still bathed in light from the dying hearth; a burnt autumnal glow illuminating Flora's soon-to-be husband as he sprawled naked across the blankets. His muscled limbs stretched nearly the full length of the bed, his head tilted back and the crease of authority across his brow smoothed over in sleep.

Noticing a tray with a full pitcher placed unobtrusively nearby, Flora let the fur drop onto the flagstones. After pouring out a tankard, she crept across to the bed and lowered herself carefully beside him; placing a hand on his shoulder.

"Alistair," she whispered, tapping her fingers against the hard muscle and sinew.

Alistair grunted, turning his head in Flora's direction and reaching for her even before his eyes had fully opened.

"Darling."

She offered him the tankard as he yawned, rubbing a palm across his stubbled cheek.

"Here's your drink."

The king pushed himself upright, still slightly bleary-eyed. With a little grunt of thanks, he took the tankard and drained the lukewarm ale in several long gulps. Flora watched him, fascinated by the languid flex of his neck as he swallowed.

Abandoning the tankard, Alistair's attention returned to Flora. As his vision grew accustomed to the darkness, his gaze dropped to the plump, milk-white pearl sitting on her ring finger. The king blinked, hard, several times; and now it was his turn to fall victim to a sudden surge of emotion.

"Lo, this is real, and not the Fade?" he sought to confirm, searching her face in the shadow.

"It's real," replied Flora, who now would only pass through the Veil on the event of her death. "I can't go to the Fade anymore. Why?"

"Because this feels so unreal," Alistair replied throatily, a thread of unsteadiness running through the words. "I've dreamed of making you my wife for so long. I- I never dared to hope that it might become reality."

Flora smiled down at him, then grimaced as the little creature dug an elbow into her kidney, dropping a hand to her belly. Alistair leaned over, moving aside the thick fabric of the dressing robe to bare the full mound of her stomach. He pressed his lips tenderly against the skin, kissing a lopsided arc over the ripe flesh.

"Lie with me, baby," he ordered huskily, and then proceeded to do exactly that, drawing Flora back against his chest and curling his own larger torso around her own. Burying his face in her cloud of dark red hair, one hand wandered over Flora's swollen breasts and belly; in a way that was far too gentle and reverent to be lecherous.

"My sweet wife," he mumbled, then went quiet; a muffled snore emerging moments later. Flora drew his dozing limbs tighter around herself, like some bulky and organic harness, and prepared to pass these last few hours before dawn in the usual dreamless void.

 

 

Chapter Text

Flora awoke on the morning of her twentieth birthday with heated breath against her skin and a dozen kisses being plastered across her cheeks, nose, forehead and mouth. She opened her eyes in slight alarm, only to see Alistair's face hovering inches above her own. His hair was transformed to spun gold by the morning sunlight streaming through the parted curtains; coppery stubble emphasising the hard angle of his jaw.

"Happy birthday," he breathed, beaming down at her with naked adoration. "My beautiful girl."

"Twenty-birthday," mumbled Flora blearily, wondering if they had overslept. "Twenteenth? Twentorth?"

Alistair did not correct her, but instead ducked his head down to kiss her mouth once more; lifting their fingers still entwined from sleep. Flora smiled up at him, stretching stiff limbs out as far as they would reach.

"What hour is it?" she asked, yawning.

"They rang the eighth bell some time ago," replied Alistair, then yelped as Flora disentangled herself from the blankets and launched herself to her feet with surprising agility considering her condition. "What? What? Is there a spider in the bed? Maker's Breath!"

The king began to root through the blankets and furs in consternation, looking for the cause of Flora's rapid exit from his arms.

"No," Flora replied, pulling the dressing robe tight across her chest and scuttling across to the door. "It's your council meeting soon, remember? It begins at nine bells!"

Four years spent within a Circle – where meal-times and classroom hours were strictly adhered to for fear of a Templar's discipline – had hardened Flora's natural desire to be in good time - if not early!- for everything.

Alistair watched, half-amused and half-bemused, as she begged a steward for some bathwater to be brought up to their chamber.

"My love," he said, clambering naked from the bed at a far more leisurely pace. "I'm the king. I can't be late, because they can't start without me."

Flora shot him a stern look over her shoulder, trying - and failing - not to get distracted by his finely-hewn body.

"They asked me to make sure that you were there on time," she told him sternly; forcing her eyes to stay fixed above his neck.

Alistair grinned, advancing towards her with lusty purpose bright on his face.

"Well, I might relocate the meeting," he murmured, knowing full-well that she was trying not to look at him. "To the bed. And restrict it to only myself and my… closest adviser."

"Arl Eamon?"

Alistair's eyes bulged at Flora's innocent query, and an incredulous bark of laughter escaped his throat.

"No, darling. You! Obviously."


 

Despite all of Alistair's protestations; the king and his betrothed were washed, dressed and waiting outside the council chamber doorway before the bell had even struck the ninth hour. The two Royal Guardsmen at the door were frozen in perpetual salute as the couple hovered indecisively at the entrance.

"We're early," Alistair said, suppressing a wry snort. "Everybody else is probably still breaking their fast."

Flora shifted from foot to foot, opening her mouth to explain how important it was to be punctual, and then she heard the sound of footsteps and muted conversation; the tangling together of high-born accents from north, east and south-west Ferelden.

"Floss!" exclaimed a familiar voice, excited and aristocratic. "Come here, you little old lady."

Flora turned to receive Finian's enthusiastic embrace, smiling up at him as he reached down to ruffle her hair.

"Though still not yet quite old enough to vote in the Landsmeet," her oldest brother added wryly as he came to join them, a proud beam writ across his face.

The other members of Alistair's council gathered about them, each one offering their congratulations. Eamon, resplendent in a Redcliffe-scarlet tunic that looked new, smiled down at Flora with quiet relief that she had not kept Alistair preoccupied for all hours in the bedchamber. Leonas grunted gruffly in place of a greeting, pressing an object wrapped in brown paper into Flora's palm. Teagan leaned forward and kissed her rather abruptly on the cheek

"Happy birthday, petal."

Flora received their congratulations with mild disbelief. She was used to receiving attention, but not for something as unremarkable as ageing – which she had played no part in accomplishing, and thus deserved no congratulations for. Still, she smiled at each one in turn, bowing her head gratefully as her fingers clamped themselves around the hard object that Leonas had given her.

"Let's get this underway," Eamon said at last, canting his head towards the council chamber. "Florence doesn't want to spend her whole birthday trapped in meetings, I imagine."

Flora blinked, her pale grey gaze moving from Alistair to Eamon, and then to the room beyond the open doors.

Sunlight streamed down from several high windows, illuminating the polished surface of a vast wooden table, two dozen chairs placed around its perimeter. Statues of great Fereldan legends were stationed like sentries at the boundaries of the room. A lofty Calenhad sporting a kilt and broadsword stood watch over the southern face of the room. An armoured woman - Alistair's grandmother, Moira – had a Mabari asleep at her feet as she glowered unseeingly forward.

Yet the statue which drew Flora's eye was the tall figure guarding the elevated pair of seats at the head of the table. The stone was brighter and less weathered by age; looking at the man's handsome, bearded features, Flora felt a spark of recollection ignite in the deepest depths of her recently-uncovered memory.

A man's voice, deep and amused, rang in the small girl's ear as he sat her on his knee, one hand smoothing down her childish curls.

She'll be a  rare beauty when she's older, Bryce.

So you think she'll do for Cailan, in a few years' time?

Aye, she'll do very well. Comely little creature.

In addition to her memories of Maric from his visit to Highever, Flora could see the startling similarities in feature between the old king and his younger son. Alistair had the classic Theirin build – tall and broad, more at ease in armour than finery – and the strong Marician jawline, obvious even beneath the close-cropped beard.

"You'll sit with me, Lo," Alistair murmured in her ear as they entered, his palm spread over the small of her back. "I'll do my best to make it brief. Sorry, love."

There were twin notes of anxiety and apology in his tone, and Flora darted a quick look at him. She realised that Alistair was nervous – that this was her first proper foray into the life that he had grudgingly accepted. I'm sorry, Flo, he had said last night in the Royal bedchamber, an involuntary grimace distorting his handsome features. I know this isn't what you'd have chosen for yourself.

It was not what Flora would have chosen for herself; but she had as good as placed the crown on Alistair's head by bringing her army to the Landsmeet vote and forcing their hand.

It's only sitting on a chair and listening, she thought, determinedly. I can sit on a chair all day if needs be; I learnt patience at the Circle.

Flora lifted her chin, letting Alistair guide her to the slightly raised step at the far end of the table, where a pair of ornately carved chairs stood side by side. The elevation was less than a foot in height, yet he still gripped Flora's elbow as a precaution as she stepped up.

The rest of the council took their places at the various seats, waiting to sit until their king had taken the initiative. Alistair glanced sideways at Flora, standing patiently at his side. Despite the fact that this was her first official appearance at the king's council; a formal introduction into what would become a recurring feature of her life as queen; she did not appear apprehensive in the slightest.

Instead, she bore the usual solemn expression, her pale eyes thoughtful as they meandered across the faces of those assembled at the table. There was a natural imperiousness to her features – the full, curving mouth and high-angled cheekbones were reminiscent of her Alamarri heritage; and this proved immeasurably useful in the circumstances. The king felt a sudden surge of pride in his former sister-warden, who – like himself – had been raised in such humility, and had now been elevated to such prominence.

"I convene this meeting of the King's Council on the prime day of Solace, 9:31 Dragon," began Eamon, for the benefit of the scribes. "First item of business – we have an addition to our number. Florence – daughter of the late Teyrn Bryce Cousland, Hero of Ferelden, Ender of the Fifth Blight, betrothed of the king…"

Flora barely paid heed to the string of titles ascribed to her, noticing how Alistair had taken out notepad and ink-pen in order to make his own record of proceedings.

"Welcome, Florence."

The other members of the council gave a hail of greeting, Fergus' face suffused with gratification as he gazed up at his sister. Alistair reached for Flora's hand beneath the table, giving it a surreptitious squeeze.

The next item on the agenda was the conversion of pasture land to tillage, in preparation for a winter that would surely tax the long-suffering people of Ferelden. With such large swathes of land destroyed by the Blight, much arable soil was now unsuitable for growing crops. The harvest was sure to be poor, and unless precautionary measures were taken, there would be a severe subsistence crisis in the autumn.

For the following few hours, various problems and solutions were offered and discussed extensively. Fergus raised the issue that some land was not suitable for the plough. Leonas added that the cloth trade was a vital source of income between Ferelden and the Marches; and that the sabotage of their own animal stock would do irreparable damage to the economy.

Alistair paused in his scribbling to glance sideways at his betrothed. Flora was listening avidly to the discussion, her brow furrowed slightly and her mouth part-open. He had been apprehensive that she would find the proceedings tedious; clearly, he needn't have worried.

Although Flora was not able to contribute to the discussion, she understood well enough what they were about. There had been winters in Herring when there been nothing to eat for weeks but a thin broth made from seaweed; when the loose skin hung from her dad's cheeks with nothing to fill it, and her own childish ribs protruded against the flesh. The thought of the people of Ferelden starving in their thousands – when they had suffered so horrifically over the past year – was such an appalling notion that she leaned forward to listen, ignoring the growling of her stomach.

Alistair, however, had heard the rumbling from his lover's belly and narrowed his eyes. All at once, he realised that Flora was sitting on a deeply uncomfortable wooden seat, and that she had had nothing to eat or drink since awakening. Despite the opened windows, the room was rapidly beginning to overheat, beams of sunlight glancing off the gleaming wooden surface of the table.

"Let's take a recess," the king said abruptly, cutting across the Bann of Calon. "We'll resume the meeting at the change of watch."

There came a general murmur of relief; members of the council rapidly dispersing to refresh themselves or meet with their retainers. Alistair rose to his feet, bending down to press a kiss to Flora's cheek.

"Darling, I'm going to sort out some food for you," he murmured, affectionate fingers cupping the back of her head. "I could hear your stomach grumbling louder than a Mabari."

Flora nodded, leaning back against the wooden chair in an effort to find a position that relieved her aching back. There came a soft rustle of paper from her lap and she looked down, seeing the small, wrapped item that Leonas had handed her earlier. Shooting the Arl of South Reach a curious glance – he was still seated, ignoring a hovering steward while busily scribing a letter – Flora unfolded the parchment, feeling something hard and metallic underneath.

The paper fell away to reveal a small silver token, shaped like a wolf's head. The features were worn away in places, but the snarl of the beast's jaw was still clearly visible in the worked metal. Flora ran her finger over the etched row of teeth, brow furrowing. For the second time that morning, a faint flicker of memory resonated at the back of her mind – unlike the first, she was unable to retrieve it.

"It's the emblem of the Sea Wolf."

Flora looked up at the general's familiar, gruff tones. Leonas had put the letter down and was gazing at her, dark eyes oddly reminiscent.

"Thirty five years ago, your mother – Eleanor Mac Eanraig – won this title after sinking her eighth Orlesian warship. Hundreds of these silver emblems were made and handed out as tokens of her victory."

Flora stared at him, fascination writ naked on her features. Leonas, who had known both Bryce and Eleanor for decades, let out a little cough, letting his gaze drop to the table.

"Anyway. I found this one in a desk; thought you might like it. You know, they used to call your mother, the Queen of the Waking Sea?"

Flora had not known this, and this thin skein connecting her to a mother whom she barely remembered was just as precious a gift as the silver emblem itself. Sliding the token into her tunic pocket, she clambered to her feet and stepped down from the elevated platform, following the border of the table to reach Leonas' seat.

Leonas half-rose from the chair, letting out a small grunt as she embraced him, curling her slender arms about his neck. Despite his abrasive exterior, the arl had raised single-handedly a daughter close to Flora's age, and was at ease with such a display of affection. He passed a quick, paternal hand over the top of her head; suddenly wishing very much that his old friend was alive to see how his youngest child had turned out.

Shortly afterwards, Alistair returned with two tray-bearing servants in tow, one bearing flagons and the other weighed down with buttered bread and hunks of salty cheese. King and mistress sat back down on their elevated seats, sharing the contents of the tray and whispering to each other.

"You're not bored, are you?" he asked her, anxiously. "I'm sorry that we're doing this on your birthday."

Flora swallowed an impressively girthy chunk of cheese, shooting him a look of affront in response.

"I'm not at all bored," she replied, sternly. "This is important. I don't want anyone to starve in the autumn!"

Alistair smiled at her, the weight of the golden band atop his head no longer quite so cumbersome.

Once the session had resumed, a general consensus was reached – additional grain needed to be imported from the Marches to form an emergency reserve.

"We can't afford to match the price paid by Orlais," Fergus pointed out, bluntly. "The Marcher merchants already overcharge our ships with this blasted Blight-tax."

"There's a trade guild meeting in several days' time," Teagan interjected, after a murmured whisper from a hovering Rainesfere secretary. "The Marcher merchants are sure to be there."

"Uncle, would you try and talk some sense into them?" Alistair asked, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his thumb into his temples. "At least, get them to abandon the quarantine of Fereldan ships in their ports. As if Darkspawn could smuggle themselves away in the hold – Maker's Breath, it's ridiculous."

Teagan nodded, making a brief note on the parchment.

"I'll do my best, Alistair. They'll be sick of seeing my face, though - I've been at three of their meetings already this month."

"Florence could accompany you," spoke up the elder Guerrin, suddenly. "Her word on the Darkspawn might prove to be more reassuring, considering her history as a Warden."

And she's the Hero of Ferelden, the arl's argument continued, unspoken. Her presence alone will sway them.

"Plus, who could say no to a face like that?" Finian added cheerfully; gesturing towards where Flora was sitting, solemn and listening closely.

"Exactly," murmured Eamon, and there was no jest in his own response. "I doubt they'll refuse her anything. Florence, would you be amenable to this?"

Flora nodded, grateful to be able to help even in a minor way.

Alistair had been listening to the exchange in silence; a crease of anxiety folding its way across his Marician brow.

"And she'll be with you the whole time, Teagan?" the king sought to clarify, painfully aware that his new commitments meant that he would not be able to accompany his new queen every time that she left the safety of the palace.

"Aye, lad," the bann replied, quietly. "No harm will come to her when she's with me, you can be sure of it."

Flora frowned at the reminder that she was now reliant on others for protection; thinking wistfully back to a time when she had been responsible for shielding everyone else.

The next hour was spent discussing various minor issues – the repair of the southern city wall, the Chantry's efforts to rehouse the refugees still remaining in Denerim's ports, recruitment into the Royal Army. Alistair's upcoming progress was mentioned briefly, but any further discussion would be postponed until after the coronation.

Alistair stayed alert throughout proceedings, alternating between scribbling his notes and asking questions. Flora said nothing during the wall and progress discussion, piping up only to ask if the refugees were being well-treated by the Chantry. Leonas replied that many of them were forming what they themselves dubbed as 'restoration committees'; their eventual purpose to return to their shattered communities and attempt to rebuild them. He, as Arl of South Reach, was participating in discussions for the revival of his own seat, as well as the rebuilding of Lothering. Each noble present would be responsible for ensuring that the townsfolk in their own demesne would not starve through winter.

The bell had just rung for the mid-afternoon change in watch, when Eamon finally brought forward the final item on the agenda. Everybody in the council chamber was beginning to look distinctly overheated – tunic sleeves had been rolled up, copious amounts of watered-down ale drunk, and the great oak doors had been propped open to encourage the circulation of air.

Flora – who was used to sitting in stuffy Circle classrooms for hours on end – was coping reasonably well. Alistair had exchanged seats with his expectant mistress, so that the long shadow of Maric's statue shielded her from the sun's glare. In contrast to their velvet and leather tunics, Flora was clad in a short navy kirtle that ended at the knee; and had surreptitiously pulled off her woollen leggings during a discussion of stonemason fees.

"Finally," Eamon said, aware that most of those present were wilting. "The coronation will take place in two days' time. All arrangements are in place, and the remainder of guests are due to arrive tomorrow."

"Who's here already?" asked Alistair, tilting his face gratefully towards Flora as she fanned him with a sheet of parchment. "Thank you, sweetheart."

"Grand-Duc Gaspard de Chalons, obviously," began Fergus, whose spies had kept a close eye on the movements of the Orlesian nobleman over the past week. "In addition, Celene has sent her Court Enchanter and adviser; she's staying at the Circle's Denerim quarters. The Viscount of Kirkwall and his son arrived yesterday. There's also a magister from Minrathous."

"Lot of mages," commented the Bann of Calon, with a little twitch of apprehension. "Lot of foreigners, actually. I don't remember this many attending Cailan's coronation – most didn't even bother replying to their invitations."

Fergus paused, glancing down the table to his younger sister.

"They're under close watch. And – from what my sources are suggesting - it sounds as though many of them are curious about you. Prepare yourself for a lot of stares, pup."

Flora felt the gaze of the council settle on her, curious as to her reaction. She let her eyes roll in a single, languid motion, a dismissive Herring grunt escaping from her threat.

Teagan laughed, shooting her a quick glance of approval.

"Perfect response," Eamon murmured, shuffling through the sheaf of parchment on the desk before him. "Who else is still to come?"

"There's a Pentaghast general arriving tomorrow," Fergus finished, checking his notes. "The Vael's vessel from Starkhaven should be coming into dock soon."

A steward entered unobtrusively, moving around the table and topping up flagons of ale. The cawing of seagulls echoed down from the high windows; tinny and distant.

"Alistair, Florence," the Arl of Redcliffe continued, wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. "The rehearsal will take place tomorrow in the Grand Chantry. The ceremony itself should last about two hours – I know you wanted to keep it brief, Alistair – and there'll follow a feast here, at the palace."

Alistair nodded, his fingers reaching out to grasp Flora's excitedly underneath the table. Despite the unwanted accompanying fuss and ritual, the king was still unable to hide his delight at finally being able to make his best friend his wife.

Flora smiled back at him, but had detected a slightly odd prickling of the atmosphere in the council chamber. She looked up, only to see Finian darting his gaze away quick as a snake; Fergus equally uncomfortable. Leonas also avoided her questioning stare, lifting his dark Bryland eyes to the ceiling.

"What?" she asked, perplexed as to why an entire chamber of mostly middle-aged men had suddenly begun to squirm. "What?"

Nobody spoke for a moment, and now Alistair too detected the strange tension in the room. He narrowed his eyes, infusing a vein of Theirin authority into his own query.

"Uncle, answer her."

Eamon cleared his throat, tapping his ink-pen methodically against the surface of the table.

"I expect that neither you nor Florence will be aware of the wedding night proceedings for a royal marriage," he said, eyes fixed firmly on the stone Maric's face.

Alistair blinked, glancing sideways at an equally bemused Flora.

"What, like – wearing a special pair of pajamas?" he asked with forced humour, lifting his flagon to his lips. "Bringing out the fanciest bedsheets?"

"Not exactly," continued Eamon, measuredly. "Alistair, you know how important it is that the marriage between a king and queen is undisputed? If anybody did query the legitimacy of a royal union, it could affect the succession and future stability of the nation."

Alistair took several long gulps of lukewarm ale, nodding slowly.

"So – in order to absolutely guarantee that a full and valid marriage has taken place – the consummation needs to be witnessed. By a high-ranking sister of the Chantry, and a peer of the realm."

The king nearly spat his drink across the table, eyes bulging.

"Maker's Breath!"

Fergus and Finian both looked as though they wanted to sink a mile underground into the Deep Roads; a fate preferable to remaining in the council chamber. Leonas grunted, a scowl deepening the careworn lines across his face.

Meanwhile Flora sat there, utterly confused. She had no idea what consummation meant; it was not a word found in the Herring lexicon. Alistair, his features contorted in sheer incredulity, leaned over and whispered in her ear. A moment later, her eyes widened and she beamed in delight. 

"A show? We're going to be in a show? I've never been in a show before."

"Not exactly a show, my darling- well, sort of a show," amended Alistair, a single bead of sweat trickling down the back of his neck.

"I never got picked to be in any of the Circle plays! And now I'm going to be the star!"

"Maric and my sister were witnessed – not by myself, obviously," Eamon added hastily, seeing the king's dubious expression. "As were Cailan and Anora. It's important, Alistair – it means that no one can doubt the legality of your marriage… and the status of your heirs."

Alistair glanced down at the swell of Flora's stomach, and thought of their child, which – until they were married – was currently a bastard. Having grown up with this stigma draped like a mantle of shame across his shoulders, Alistair knew full well the importance of legitimacy.

"They'll put a screen before the bed," Finian offered; the ritual being relatively common practice in Orlaisian marriages. "Though it's completely see-through."

"Maker's Breath," the king repeated sarcastically, taking another gulp of ale. "No pressure, then!"

Flora leaned across and whispered in his ear, with the ease of someone who had rarely experienced privacy.

"It'll be just like doing it in the tent," she breathed, patting his knee. "And we used to do that all the time. Don't worry about it."

Alistair swallowed, acquiescing with a grim nod.

"Fine," he said, shortly. "So, some old crone from the Chantry – who'll probably tut disapprovingly throughout – and, I'm assuming, one of you lot? Great."

"Not Ferg or I," Finian hastened to reply, as his elder brother grimaced. "Obviously."

"It'll be someone here," Eamon confirmed, the ink-pen twirling between his fingers. "If you prefer, they can stay anonymous."

The king nodded firmly, teeth gritted. Flora, seated beside him, appeared remarkably placid, considering the circumstances.

"Flo, how can you look so calm?" Alistair demanded, turning incredulous eyes on her. "Don't you feel any pressure?"

"Well," Finian called out, malevolently. "She's not the one who needs to rise to the occasion, is she?"

As several in the audience chamber let out barks of appreciative laughter, and many more hid smiles; Alistair gritted his teeth. Flora took pity on him, putting her arm about his neck and planting a kiss on his cheek.

"You've never given me any cause for complaint in that area," she breathed, stroking his ear with her fingertips as she directed her words into his ear. "You don't need to worry. My beautiful king."

Such affectionate language was so uncharacteristic emerging from Flora's Herring-crafted throat that Alistair allowed himself to be temporarily distracted from the looming spectre of the wedding night. He smiled back at Flora, tapping her nose gently with his thumb.

"My handsome queen. Are we finished for today?"

This last part was directed to Eamon; at which the arl gave a soft nod of confirmation.

"Aye, son."

There followed a general murmuring of relief, accompanied by the scraping of chairs across flagstones as the council members rose to their feet and headed en masse to the exit.

Alistair reached out for his betrothed's hand, only to find her fingers already stretching for his.

"Darling," he said, circling his thumb gently around each knuckle in turn. "Ready for lunch? A late lunch. Just me and you."

Flora nodded, smiling up at him.

 

Chapter Text

Both former Wardens retired to the Royal bedchamber, where a table and two chairs had been placed in preparation for lunch. Flora stared at the array of food on offer – platters of meats, cheeses and pickled vegetables, roasted chicken in a wine sauce, strips of smoked haddock, a rich fruit-filled pie served with cream – and then turned her incredulous gaze on Alistair.

"Is all this for us?"

"I believe so, sweetheart," the king replied, plate already in hand as he headed towards the cheeseboard. "Does it meet with your approval?"

"Mm," said Flora, wide-eyed. "How much do they think we're going to eat?"

"I'm not sure, my love. You're eating for two, after all."

"More like two hundred."

Flora picked up her plate, with words like subsistence crisis and harvest failure echoing around her mind from the council meeting earlier. As Alistair piled his own plate high with hunks of fresh-baked bread, crab claws and roasted asparagus; she picked up a boiled egg and stared at it gloomily.

"Did you know, in Orlais, they let their cheese go mouldy?" Alistair said, through a mouthful of sharp Fereldan cheddar. "Big, thick veins of rotted green running though! Absolutely disg- Lo, what's wrong?"

Discarding his plate without a second thought, the king strode towards his forlorn mistress, who was still incongruously clutching the boiled egg as tears ran down her face.

"Darling," Alistair breathed in dismay as he went to embrace her. "Is it the baby unbalancing you? Or something else?"

"All this food," Flora whispered, her voice trembling. "There's enough for a dozen mouths here. And there are refugees hungry on the docks. And what if the crops all fail this autumn? Everyone will starve! It's not fair, people have survived the Blight and now they won't have enough to eat "

Alistair's eyebrows shot into his hairline, and he drew his best friend close to his chest; thinking on how best to comfort her.

"Well, then," he said, at last. "Anything that we don't eat, I'll have it sent down to the refugees on the docks. Don't worry about the harvest, yet – we'll set up this grain deal with the Marches, and most destroyed towns have got their rebuilding committees already set up. Leonas is leading the South Reach efforts – Lothering is in his arling too."

A wet-eyed Flora nodded, her anxieties somewhat assuaged. Alistair peered at her for a moment, then ducked his head and kissed the dampness tenderly from each of her cheeks in turn. He had done the same many, many months prior, on a balcony of Redcliffe Castle overlooking Lake Calenhad; when she had seen the Archdemon in her dreams and woken up stricken by fear.

"My sweet-hearted girl," he cajoled, brushing his thumb over her full, turned-down mouth. "You must put aside some of your concern for yourself, love. You're so busy worrying about what people are going to eat in four months' time, that you haven't even touched your own food."

Seeing Flora's shoulders slump, Alistair tried a different tack; dropping to his knees on the flagstones and pressing his ear to the swell of her belly.

"Our child is talking," the king murmured, turning wide hazel eyes up to her. "It's saying: feed me, mother. I have inherited your appetite, and I demand eighty bread rolls and four hundred crab claws for lunch"

Flora started to laugh, then froze as she felt the baby shifting position in her stomach.

"Oh, it woke up," she said, oddly enchanted. "It must have heard you."

Alistair blinked mutedly, and suddenly it was his turn to brush away a sudden dampness from his eyelashes.

They took a plate each and sat on the deep, velvet-cushioned bench before the widened window, the Amaranthine Ocean stretching out like an emerald tapestry in the background. Seagulls swooped and called out to one another; in the distance, a ship flying the crimson and black mantle of Starkhaven made its way west into the estuary.

Flora tore a large hunk of rye bread into strips, dipping each one absentmindedly into a honey and mustard sauce as she listened to Alistair talk. Mouth full, the king meandered from topic to topic; from a hideous nine hour long council meeting he'd suffered through the previous week, to the new Marcher horse that Teagan had purchased him for his birthday. Flora made the occasional comment or question, content to listen while satisfying the demands of her stomach.

Once both had finished, they talked about Oghren wanting to join the Wardens, then about the wedding night consummation. The pair spent nearly half a candle trying to speculate on what the gender of the baby might be. Alistair thought that it would be a boy – based on an old wives' tale about the volume of Flora's snores. Flora, on the other hand, had no idea – she was still trying to think of the being in her stomach as an actual baby, rather than the ambiguous 'little creature'. Privately, she didn't care what gender the baby was – as long as it was a human. In her more paranoid moments, Flora thought that all the Blighted essence she had submerged herself in over the months might have had some terrible effect on the baby's development.

Please don't actually be a Hurlock, little creature.

Every so often, Alistair would put down his knife and pause his conversation; reaching out to touch Flora's face as though wanting to confirm that she was really sitting at his side, her bare feet in his lap; and not miles away in a draughty cliff-top monastery. The third time this happened, Flora set her plate on the cushions and crawled into Alistair's lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and resting her chin on his shoulder.

"I love you," she whispered, tilting her face towards his ear. "I promise this is real. It's not a dream; I can't dream."

Alistair embraced her in return, careful not to hug too tightly. His hand rose to stroke Flora's narrow back, feeling the ridge of her spine through the thin navy lambs-wool of her tunic.

"I wish I were marrying you tonight," he murmured, with a wry smile at his own impatience. "I want you as my wife."

Flora kissed the curve of his ear, the lobe thick and fleshy. She resisted the urge to nip at it with her teeth – an act which invariably led to them tangled together on the floor – and instead pressed her face against his neck.

"I've been your wife in all but name for months," she said instead into his warm, olive-toned skin. "Haven't I, though?"

"Of course you have, baby." A secretly delighted Alistair brushed away thick ropes of dark red hair to kiss the back of her neck in return. "You've always been mine."

Just then, there came a tentative knock at the door. Finian advanced into the Royal bedchamber with one hand dramatically placed over his sole remaining eye.

"Is it safe to look?" he enquired, a touch melodramatically. "One never knows, when one is coming into a room where you two have been left to your own devices. Is my sister dressed?"

With exaggerated caution, the young arl peered between his fingers, exhaling in relief when he saw Flora fully clothed – albeit perched in Alistair's lap.

"The midwife is waiting in the corridor, and she doesn't have a surfeit of patience," Finian informed them, taking a chicken leg from the leftover food. "Shall I invite her in?"

At Alistair's nod, Finian returned to the door and nudged it open; calling through to those waiting outside.

"It's safe to enter; they're both fully clothed!"

To Flora's surprise, what seemed like half of Ferelden proceeded into the chamber. Wynne entered with Leliana, the two old friends conversing in earnest tones. Teagan came next, the bann shooting Alistair a quick glance of warning.

Alistair blinked, bemused, and then a familiar Orlesian-accented voice came drifting across the room. He sat bolt upright; Flora, in slight shock, almost fell off his knees.

"Alistaaair!" announced Isolde, a brazen smile writ brightly across her features as she entered on Eamon's elbow. "It has been far too long, dear boy."

Alistair shot Flora a look of fleeting alarm, then helped her carefully off his lap; crossing the chamber to cordially greet the woman who had made his childhood years a misery.

"Lady Isolde," he said, careful and polite as she kissed him on both cheeks. "I didn't realise that you were in the city. You've come for the coronation?"

"Oui," replied the arlessa, her autumn-coloured eyes surreptitiously sweeping the Royal bedchamber. "Though, I admit – I've not received as many social invitations as I would have expected since I've been back."

"Isolde, you did try and hide the existence of Connor," Eamon murmured, a slight edge to his tone that suggested that he had not yet fully forgiven his wife. "It would have been a far greater scandal if Ferelden had not been in the midst of a Blight. You ought to be grateful."

Isolde glanced downwards, her painted mouth turning south at the corners. Flora, who felt oddly sorry for her, crossed the room to stand at Alistair's side.

"My parents were so ashamed of me being a mage that they sent me away in secret," she offered, softly. "At least Connor will never know what that feels like. You wanted to keep him."

Isolde met Flora's eyes, embarrassed; the older woman recalling the many times that she had slighted the girl for her common accent and unpolished manners.

Fortunately, the tension in the room was broken by the arrival of Fergus, who was chatting easily to an old woman who possessed a dwarf-like squat, broad-shouldered frame. Her steel-grey hair had been cropped above her shoulders, and she carried a large leather bag beneath her arm. The brusque demeanour of the stranger suggested that she was a woman who never allowed anyone to carry her baggage for her.

"This is Mab," announced Fergus, as the old woman swept beady eyes about the chamber. "Highever's longest-serving midwife. Every babe born in Castle Cousland for the past thirty five years was delivered by this good lady. Myself, Finn and Floss included!"

And Oren, the teyrn thought, with a brief twinge of sadness. My poor boy.

Finian gave the woman a little wave, clearly intimidated by her presence.

"Hullo, ma'am."

Mab muttered a half-grunted greeting, the words emerging in a timbre that immediately drew Flora's attention.

"You're from Skingle," the youngest Cousland said, pale eyes igniting with recognition as she named the village just to the east of Herring.

Mab's small, dark eyes immediately settled on Flora, taking in the oxblood hair and distinctive full, sulky Cousland mouth.

"Florence Cousland," she said, her words shaped by the northern coast in a slightly different manner to Flora's. "Lost an' found again. You've grown since I last saw yeh."

Flora nodded, searching her mind for any memory of this barrel-chested woman. Mab started across the room, stopping abruptly when she spotted Alistair. She eyed the crown on his head for a moment, and then shot him a belligerent look.

"'Scuse me for not bowin'," the midwife said, with typical bluntness. "I got a bad back."

"That's quite alright," replied Alistair, fascinated by the brusque northerner. "Thank you for travelling this far east."

"Mab is the best midwife in the teyrnir," added Fergus, proudly. "She hasn't lost a mother or babe in five years."

Alistair, who had lost his own mother during childbirth, blanched a fraction. Swallowing the acidic bile that had surged upwards in his throat, he distracted himself by promptly asking another question.

"You delivered Flora, then?"

The woman grunted, dumping the leather case unceremoniously on the bed and unfastening its buttons.

"Aye. Big brute of an infant she was. Tore poor Lady Eleanor to shreds on her way out. Full two days and nights of labour."

Flora's jaw dropped in horror, her fingers instinctively groping for Alistair's hand.

"But you were worth it," he murmured reassuringly, squeezing them tight against his palm. "I bet you were an adorable baby."

Mab continued in business-like tones, taking out a cloth measuring tape.

"Ugly pink shrimp. I'll never forget all that wild ginger hair atop that oversized head. Evil reptilian eyes."

"She's right, Floss," Finian called from beside the dinner table, mouth full of smoked salmon. "You were a hideous baby. I called you Ratface for a year."

'Ratface' herself looked slightly perturbed, her brows drawing together as Alistair was unable to stop himself from spluttering out a snort.

"Well," interjected Teagan, feeling rather sorry for her. "Florence has grown into a beautiful young woman. And I'm sure that she and Alistair are going to produce a comely child."

Flora smiled at Teagan, appreciating his gentlemanly attempt to come to her defence. The bann hastily averted his eyes, taking a swig from his hipflask.

Mab took out a leather pouch, uncorked it with her teeth, and proceeded to pour the watery contents over her hands; letting the runoff trickle onto the flagstones.

"Come on, lassie," she instructed, with a blunt gesture towards the bed. "Up you get."

"Is that seawater?" Flora asked, nostrils twitching in recognition as she clambered up onto the furs, settling back against the cushions.

Mab nodded, unceremoniously whipping the cushions from behind Flora's head so that she was lying flat on the mattress.

"I ain't used to having an audience," the midwife said after a moment, shooting a glance towards the other occupants of the room. "Not even the teyrna had a half-dozen people in with her. Loosen your dress."

"We do the same thing in Herring," Flora said from the mattress, expertly loosing the fisherman's knot securing her bodice. "The seawater. Our midwife – Bess – swears by it."

Mab let out a little sneer, lip curling as she opened up the folds of the dress to reveal ripe breasts contained by a strip of cloth, and a substantial swollen stomach.

"I know Bess," she said after a moment, nose wrinkling. "Got in a fight wi' her once over a bucket o' crabs."

Flora nodded solemnly, as the nobles in the room exchanged incredulous glances.

"Right."

Mab fell silent, a professional demeanour setting over her florid, wind-blasted features as she reached out to run her hands over the swell of Flora's stomach. She pressed her fingers into the ripe flesh, measuring the mound with the span of her hands.

Alistair – who, naturally, had not been present during the first midwife inspection twelve weeks prior – watched in fascination and a small, irrational air of protectiveness. He had to bite his tongue from asking the midwife to handle Flora's stomach with a little more gentility; grimacing every time Mab issued a business-like prod.

"It's fine, Alistair," murmured Wynne, noticing the king's anxiety. "It won't hurt the baby."

"It's a large babe," Mab observed, a moment later. "Feels good and strong – moving well, responds to bein' poked."

Alistair beamed while Flora blanched, recalling the midwife's comment about her own delivery tearing the teyrna to shreds.

"How large is it going to be?" she asked, tentatively. "Considering it's got to… come out. Is it going to hurt at all? I'm not very good at pain – I'm not really used to it."

I used to be able to anaesthetise myself within seconds of an injury being inflicted; then heal the wound minutes later.

Mab let out an incredulous bark of laughter, eyeing the girl pityingly as she moved downwards.

"Of course it's goin' to hurt," she replied bluntly from between Flora's thighs. "It's alright. We'll tie up some rope for you to hold onto. Give you a bit o' driftwood to bite through."

Flora went even paler, her eyes going immediately to Alistair's face to seek some reassurance. He came to her side without pause, perching on the mattress and winding her fingers tightly within his own.

"Is there any way of making it – hurt less?" he asked, as inexperienced as she in such matters.

Mab snorted, shaking her head from side to side as she rinsed her fingers once again in the saltwater.

"No. Most you can do is hope that it's quick."

Flora brought her fingers to her mouth and began to bite at the nails anxiously, Mairyn's Star twinkling in the mellow late-afternoon sunlight.

"Floss, you'll be fine," Fergus sought to reassure his younger sister after a moment, seeing the fear naked on her face. "Oriana was terrified too, but Mother told me she was fine, eventually. I was down the end of the corridor, and I couldn't even hear her screaming after a while."

"Aye," Eamon offered, recanting the story of Connor's birth. The common theme between both men appeared to be that they had not been present during the actual labour; appearing only once baby had been delivered, cleaned and presented in a lacy gown.

"You'll stay with me?" Flora whispered frantically to Alistair as Mab ducked beneath the hem of her tunic. "You won't leave me?"

The king kissed her forehead, then raised their entwined hands to his mouth and kissed each of her knuckles in turn.

"Of course I won't leave, sweetheart."

"It won't be a pretty sight," warned Mab, doing something with her fingers that made Flora's eyes bulge. "Stop tensing up, girl!"

"Aah, your hands are freezing. Alistair, you promise you won't leave me? Even if it's not pretty?"

Alistair gazed down at his former sister-warden's face; lost in a sudden rush of memories.

I remember – at Ostagar - when you were sick with fear after our first expedition against the Darkspawn, he recalled, suddenly. You were so frightened that you were sick over yourself in your sleep after a nightmare. I took you to the wash-tent and found you some spare clothing, and exhausted my supply of jokes in an attempt to cheer you up.

How many times did we fall asleep curled together, stinking and covered in Darkspawn effulgence? You've seen me bloodied and cursing; I've seen you splattered by the froth coughed from the mouths of the dying. I remember when neither of us washed for a week because we couldn't find a spring large enough to bathe in; and we both smelt so bad that an entire tavern recoiled when we walked in.

"Maker's Breath, Lo," he murmured, softly. "Wild Marcher stallions couldn't tear me from your side."

"Promise?" she repeated, grimacing and peering down between her legs. "Ow."

"I swear on Ferelden itself, my love."

Finally, Mab withdrew her hands with a business-like cough, returning upright.

"All looks as it ought. Baby's resting nice and high. You've got some good muscle in that tummy, eh?"

"We walked from one end of the nation to the other," replied Flora, relieved that the inspection was over.

Eamon gave a small gesture to a nearby servant, who came forwards dutifully with a pouch of coin for the midwife. "So, the babe will be here by Harvestmere, you'd say?"

The midwife cast a final, appraising glance over Flora's stomach; before giving a nod of confirmation.

"Aye, my lord. Though since it's her first bairn, it's like to be late. And you can put your legs together now, lass – you look like a street-wench advertisin' the wares."

Flora obediently drew her knees closed, pulling the hem of her tunic down over her thighs.

Mab of Skingle accepted the heavy purse with a little grunt. With a northerner's wariness, she took out a coin and bit it to check the quality of the metal, eyeing Eamon with suspicion. Only once the coin's worth was proven did she tuck the purse away, delivering a laundry list of dos and don'ts to a bemused Flora.

"Stay away from Orlesian cheese and shellfish, keep in the shade, lie down if you feel dizzy. Chew on some wormwood bark if you feel nauseous. Once the first Kingsway frost falls, get your husband to salt the fancy tiles."

Flora nodded, having already forgotten what came after Orlesian cheeses. Fortunately, Alistair had whipped out the small pad of parchment he used to minute the Council meetings; and was frantically scribbling each piece of advice.

"Oh, and don't think of ugly people," the midwife delivered as a parting shot over her shoulder, shuffling her squat frame towards the exit. "Or the babe will be born with foul features."

"Like our little Ratface herself," Finian murmured evilly, receiving an elbow to the ribs from his elder brother in response.

"As though those two could ever produce an aesthetically unappealing child," Leliana replied, withering scorn in her voice. "Look at them!"

The bard gestured an elegant hand towards where Alistair was leaning forwards on the mattress, face inches from Flora's own as she gazed up at him from the depths of the cushions. Alistair beamed back down at her, and moments later, the grin softened into a wondering smile. He tilted her face upwards with a finger beneath her chin; leaning forward to kiss her on the mouth. The room was still filled with a half-dozen people, yet they had eyes only for each other, barely noticing even as the others filed quietly out.

 

Chapter Text

Later that evening, the former Wardens and their companions – save for Morrigan, who was winging her way south towards the Wilds, and Sten, who had his own business – congregated on the top of the palace's loftiest tower. One of the great southern constellations drifted idly above them, half-cloaked in miasma and atmospheric effulgence. The moon hung low and full, a swollen version of Mairyn's Star.

They had gathered about a makeshift campfire, an incongruous construct of kindling that seemed rather meagre when compared to the vast, pit-bellied braziers elevated on the ramparts above. Yet with the host of familiar faces gathered about the flames, blankets spread out and ale-flasks lying askance; it was almost as though the companions were on their travels once again, camped out in some isolated corner of the Fereldan wilderness. Only the pair of Royal Guard, tucked discreetly away near the rampart steps, disputed the illusion.

It was an unusually balmy evening, mild enough for Leliana to bare her tanned, muscled calves in short leathers. Zevran needed little excuse to unbutton the entire front of his shirt, reclining against a blanket and winking at a young steward who arrived clutching a tray of tankards. Oghren, who was laying off the bottle in preparation for the Joining, devoured his way through six and a half roasted sausages; wondering enthusiastically how many ladies he would be able to beguile with tales of Grey Warden heroics. This was met with stern chiding from Wynne, who reminded the dwarf of the Order's solemn duty and purpose - which did not include sleeping one's way around Ferelden.

Leliana produced a lute from the fold of the blankets, singing an old Frostbacks folk song in her distinctive, sweet-toned voice. The bard then sang an Orlesian love ballad, and despite Flora's patriotic distrust of anything from over the western border, she could not stop herself from listening, captivated, to the strange-tongued tune. Alistair preferred drinking songs to serenades, but there was something about the simple beauty of Leliana's verse that appealed to his sentimental side. Instead of interrupting with a request for The Round-Bellied Redcliffe Brewer, the king found himself following the melody of the music; barely daring to breathe as Leliana's dulcet tones drifted to the heavens. Once the bard had finished, she lowered her head modestly and set the lute down in her lap.

"The Maker has truly blessed us with a voice like yours," Wynne murmured, smiling gently through the fire-lit shadows. "I hope you're going to sing during the coronation."

"It has been requested, yes," Leliana confirmed, unable to stop a glow of pride creeping into her reply. "It'll be a little like the olden days, when I used to serenade wealthy patrons at Halamshiral. You've never seen such a rainbow spectrum of colour as when the elites of Celene's court are gathered together in their finery! It's breathtaking."

"Great idea," offered Oghren, a slight edge of malevolence to his tone. "And if the guests are out-stayin' their welcome, we could just get the bride to do a solo. That'd send the poor buggers runnin' for the hills!"

Flora shot him an un-amused look from where she was sitting cross-legged on a fur besides Alistair.

"I think a Herring wedding song would add a certain specialness to the occasion," she insistently, defiantly. "Nobody can resist dancing when they hear the opening of Bones In The Sand or – my dad's favourite - The Dead Sailor Returns To Drive His Lover Into Madness."

"Intriguing names," purred Zevran, gulping down another swallow of ale. "Though I can't imagine the natives of Herring dancing, somehow, nena."

"Oh, we know all the northern dances," retorted Flora, immediately. "We also have some local dances unique to Herring."

"Like what?"

"Like… the octopus."

Flora waved her arms vigorously about her head; Alistair ducked to avoid a flailing hand. The others gaped wordlessly, struck into momentary silence.

"I can't do the lobster because of my stomach," Flora confessed, slightly out of breath. "I'll have to show you at Satinalia."

Alistair reached out to anchor her fingers in his; bringing their conjoined hands to his mouth so that he could kiss her knuckles. She smiled at him, shy and pleased at his affection.

"I can't wait to see it," he murmured, an involuntary beam spreading over his face. "I can't wait for the day after tomorrow, actually."

Oghren let out a snort, leaning forward to prod at the fire with the tip of his short-sword.

"You've been complainin' about the coronation every time I seen you for the past month! 'I hate formal occasions, I'm king already, see this crown on my head, why do we need all these formalities?'"

Alistair made no immediate reply, his thumb brushing gently over Mairyn's Star as he clasped Flora's fingers in his. Lifting his arm, he drew her against his side, suddenly anxious about the increasingly chilly breeze. The warm envelope of his arms was too inviting to resist; within minutes; she was snoring quietly into his armpit.

"But I've been desperate to make Flo my wife for months," he said softly at last, his thumb stroking a circle into her arm. "I can't wait a moment longer."

"You may have to write to me about the details of the ceremony itself, amor."

Alistair's brow furrowed as he turned his head towards the elf. The former Crow was silhouetted behind the temperamental flames, the drifting sparks reflected in his watchful, coal-dark pupils.

"What do you mean, Zev?"

"There is a possibility that I may not be here."

When Alistair gaped, the elf hastened to explain.

"You have several Antivan trade princes attending the ceremony. With such powerful influencers removed from the country, it would be the perfect opportunity for me to return and begin the process of dismantling the Crows."

It was a flimsy excuse, the words emerging as brittle and unconvincing as the rationalisation itself. Alistair's brows drew together, his mouth already dropping open to protest.

"Zev, why- "

"Bedtime," Leliana chirped quickly, taking a steely grip on Oghren's collar and hauling the dwarf upwards with surprising strength. "Come on, let's go."

Wynne propelled herself to her feet with the aid of her staff – the senior enchanter was far too proud to accept a hand. Within minutes, the rooftop was deserted save for elf, king and snoring future queen; the three of them gathered about the campfire with only the stars left to eavesdrop. Even the Royal Guard had been dismissed – which, in their vernacular, meant that they now stood several steps down as opposed to atop the tower itself.

Flora yawned against Alistair's shoulder, slumping gracelessly forwards until she was face-down in his lap. The king stroked his hand absentmindedly down her back, his brow creasing further into pre-existing indentations as he gazed at Zevran.

"You're leaving? You can't leave."

The elf inclined his chin silently, avoiding Alistair's stare as he would a poisoned dagger-thrust. Alistair paused to gather his thoughts, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

"But – I thought that- "

"You thought that I would stay at your side forever?" Zevran retorted, giving a smile laced with a flash of Antivan defiance. "An exotic elven ornament to augment the court? I have my own plans for the future, you know. There is only so much of this damp Fereldan climate that I can take."

"I know," repeated Alistair, quietly. "But – I thought that you would stay for the coronation. Maybe join us on the progress around the country. I thought you'd want to stay until the baby is born - it's only twelve weeks away."

The elf glanced towards Alistair, eyes dropping to where Flora lay snoring inelegantly in the king's lap. Loose wisps of hair curled about her face, erratic as fraying strands of fishing net. There followed a flicker of something unreadable across his tattooed face, and he quickly looked away once again.

"I want you to come with us on the progress," Alistair cajoled, deciding to lay the guilt on heavily. "There could be bandits. Pockets of Darkspawn remaining. Without Flo's shield, she's vulnerable. Besides myself, there's no-one I trust more than you to keep her safe."

Zevran grimaced, aware that he was being coerced but unable to ignore the truth embedded in his friend's words.

"It'll break Flo's heart if you go," Alistair said softly, changing tactic. "She adores you. She loves you, Zev. You can't leave now, she'll be devastated."

The elf nodded with a small sigh, knowing that the king spoke the truth. With feline agility, he clambered around the perimeter of the campfire, coming to rest beside the two former Wardens. Reaching out, he let his richly tanned hand rest on the nape of Flora's neck; the elegant, tattooed fingers in stark contrast to her pale skin. She let out a little grunt in response to the contact, fingers curling absentmindedly into her palm.

"Ah, but I'm a selfish creature," the elf said, half-laughing without a shred of humour. "To be loved by mi sirenita is a great thing; even if it is… as a friend."

Sensing that the elf's resolve was wavering, Alistair determinedly pressed home the advantage.

"Please, stay," he implored, hazel eyes boring into Zevran's coal-dark pupils. "At least until the baby is born."

There was a silence, during which Alistair held his breath; not daring to look away from their former Crow's face. Finally, a rueful smile tugged at the corner of Zevran's mouth and the king breathed an inward sigh of relief.

"Eh, I cannot say no to such a handsome face," the elf murmured, raising slender fingers to pat Alistair's bearded cheek. "Especially since you are the king now, mi amor. Who knows, you might decide to lock me in the dungeons! Although, if chains are involved, I may not be too averse to that prospect."

Zevran laughed at the flush that rose to Alistair's face, and the throaty Antivan cackle was enough to rouse Flora from her impromptu doze.

"Ooh," she yawned, pushing herself out of Alistair's lap on sleepy elbows. "Was I snoring?"

"Like a drunken soldier, my love," Alistair confirmed, reaching out to smooth a hand over her rumpled, dark red head. "Anyway, here's some good news – Zevran is going to stay until after the baby is born."

Flora, who had not even considered the possibility that the elf might be departing any sooner than that, immediately turned a distraught face towards him.

"You were thinking about leaving?" she breathed, alarm writ across her features. Her pale grey irises flickered with reflected firelight, the gold fleck left by the Archdemon's soul glinting like pyrite. "Leaving?"

Zevran reached out and put his fingers on her sleeve, fingering the skin beneath the navy lambswool.

"No, no, no- " he hastened to reassure her, not wanting to be the cause of any undue distress. "No, I am afraid you are stuck with my lechery and witty remarks for the immediate future, mi reina."

"Good!"

Flora leaned towards the elf and put her arms around his neck, still anxious despite his assurances. Zevran embraced her in return, patting between her shoulder-blades in an effort to put her mind to rest. Looking up, his gaze met Alistair's, and the king gave a slight nod of gratitude. Flora, feeling her heart slowly settle back into a normal rhythm, exhaled in relief. She pressed her lips impulsively against the faded markings on the elf's cheek, moving her mouth to his ear.

"Guess what."

"Eh, carina?"

"Alistair and I have to do it in front of a priestess and someone from the Landsmeet," she said gleefully, as Alistair let out a groan. "Isn't that strange? Nobles are peculiar."

Zevran cackled, cheering up immensely as he shot the scowling king a malefic grin.

"Ah, the traditional witnessing of the consummation! I admit, it is a ritual long since died out in Antiva."

Typical Ferelden, two Ages behind the rest of Thedas, the elf thought with a snort, a grin curling the corner of his mouth.

Flora, who had never known- and, in her new capacity as queen would now never know – privacy, seemed far less anxious about the prospect than Alistair. Despite the coolness of the evening, several beads of sweat had risen to the king's forehead.

"It's a lot of pressure," the Theirin insisted, stubbornly. "I mean, who would get… in the mood with some wizened old bat from the Chantry muttering away within arm's reach? And – Maker forbid – Eamon on the other side of the screen."

This was a sobering thought for both Flora and Alistair, their eyes meeting in alarm.

"I don't think it'd be Arl Eamon," she said at last, uncertainly. "Maybe it'll be some minor bann we don't know."

Zevran let out a cackle, leaning elegantly to the side as the wind bent a thin tendril of smoke from the campfire towards him.

"Well, if you need another witness, let me know," the elf offered, gleefully. "I have heard stories of these old wedding rituals. The bride is stripped naked by her women and put into bed; the husband brought along by the menfolk shortly later, often accompanied with lewd jokes and provocative verses."

"Stripped naked by which women?" Flora asked, bewildered. "I don't understand. Noblewomen?"

The only two noble women she knew were Anora Mac Tir and Isolde Guerrin. This prospect was so utterly horrific that her mouth fell open in dismay; eyes widening.

"Oh, no!" she croaked, plaintively. "I'd rather let the Archdemon undress me. Can't I just take off my own clothes? Or ask Leliana?"

Meanwhile, Alistair was still quietly obsessing over the daunting prospect of performing on demand.

"What if I can't… get in the mood?" he demanded in a low, urgent hiss. "I'll be a laughing stock. They'll lampoon me in the market square. The taverns will have a field day. The man who couldn't take his wife on the wedding night."

Flora, suppressing her own nerves in the face of her best friend's anxiety, reached out to put her hand on his arm.

"I'll help you," she assured him, earnestly. "Don't worry."

The three of them watched the makeshift campfire burn out; there was no more fuel for it to consume and the disconsolate flames sunk ever lower. Sparks drifted towards the heavens, the flecks of red and white standing out stark against the gloom, illuminating the faces of those still in attendance. Zevran's expression was pensive, Alistair still grimacing at the prospect of the wedding night. Flora's head was nodding forwards with tiredness; the baby had leeched her energy especially vigorously that evening.

Eventually, they were driven inside by a faint, misting drizzle. Flora, who would have barely noticed the fine shower if she had been awake, was too busy snoring against Alistair's chest to protest. King, unconscious mistress and elf made to part ways outside the Royal bedchamber; when Alistair realised that Zevran intended to spend the remainder of the evening alone, he invited him in to play a round of Wicked Grace.

The round soon turned into three, and then five; Flora slumbered in contented, dreamless oblivion on the bed as the king proceeded to lose thirteen gold coins to the sleight-handed elf. Zevran pocketed his winnings with a grin, promising to spend at least part of it on a gift for the baby. Once the midnight bell had rung and the watch changed, Alistair made his way over to the bed, not even bothering to take off his boots before slumping facedown beside his snoring lover. For a moment, the elf pondered departure – there were always a few doors guaranteed to open for him, no matter how late the hour – but ultimately lingered on in the stuffed arm chair beside the fire, thoughts meandering idly as the dark tide of sleep crept ever closer.

 

Chapter Text

By the time that Flora awoke to the pallid grey light of pre-dawn spilling across the flagstones, the armchair was empty. She yawned deeply, un-entangling herself from the furs on the bed and propping herself up on an elbow. As though sensing that it's mother was awake, there came a little exploratory nudge from within her stomach; Flora rested a hand on top of the swollen curve and thought good morning.

A moment later, she realised that the baby would be formed enough to hear, and repeated the greeting out loud. This felt stranger in many ways than saying it inwardly – a practise she was used to from years of conversing with her spirits.

A snore from behind drew her attention, and Flora looked over her shoulder to see Alistair sprawled naked across the blankets, one hand flung in her direction. She leaned over to press her lips against the back of the king's head; feeling a sudden surge of affection as she saw him clutching a blanket embroidered with herringbone – a traditional pattern of the northern coast. He let out a blurred rumble in his sleep and she pressed a second kiss to his ear, fierce and tender. 

Unable to fall back asleep once she had risen, the yawning queen-to-be wandered over to the window bench and settled herself on the velvet cushions, leaning back against the stone wall and watching the crimson sun inch leisurely above the eastern horizon. Molten light spilled across the glasslike surface of the Amaranthine Ocean; a feat impossible to replicate on the perpetually restless waters of her native Waking Sea.

The night steward, hearing activity from within, peered around the door and inquired if there was anything he could bring her. Out of habit Flora began to politely decline, and then arrested herself abruptly mid-sentence. The strange urge to gnaw on something organic had returned; if a wooden spoon was not brought to her within minutes, Flora was relatively sure that she was going to start chewing on the furniture. These sudden, irresistible cravings struck without warning – often at inconvenient moments - and she was utterly helpless in the face of her body's peculiar desires.

When Alistair awoke an hour later, Flora was still sprawled in the window seat; gazing down at the waking movements of the city below while fervently licking a wooden spoon.

"Morning, baby," he murmured, dragging a hand over his rumpled head and yawning. "Having fun?"

Flora extracted the spoon from her mouth and eyed the chewed wooden length, bemused at her own odd compulsions.

"Yes," she said at last, sinking her teeth once more into the mangled handle as she returned her gaze to the estuary. A ship bearing a yellow and black standard in the shape of a skull was just making a leisurely final approach towards the harbour. It was a vast and flat-bellied galleon, dominating the smaller trade vessels to either side.

Alistair pushed back the heavy furs and clambered upright, ambling across the dawn-lit floorboards without a stitch of clothing. Her best friend's well-sculpted form was the one thing guaranteed to distract Flora from the sea; she eyed his nakedness surreptitiously as he came to stand beside her.

"My little beaver," Alistair said fondly, fingers sliding through her hair to cup the back of her head gently. "I wonder whose standard that is? Looks rather sinister, if you ask me."

Flora reluctantly averted her eyes from the taut muscle of Alistair's abdomen, gazing down at the stately vessel as it glided across the pond-like stillness of the estuary. A flicker of memory ignited in the back of her mind, and she reached out to flutter her fingers against her companion's elbow.

"Oh! I know," she exclaimed, recalling Leliana's cards of Theodesian leaders. "It's the P-Pantleghosts. Pentagoons. Pentaghasts."

Alistair intercepted her hand at the wrist, raising it to brush his lips lightly over her fingers; lingering against the cool, weighty sphere of Mairyn's Star.

"Ah, of course. The ruling family of Nevarra. They're meant to be dragon hunters, so they're probably a bit mad. Plus – this'll make a shiver go down your spine, baby – they sponsor death cults. Explains that flag."

The wooden spoon dropped from Flora's mouth as she turned startled eyes on him, eyebrows rising into her hairline.

"Death cults? What's a death cult?"

Alistair lowered himself to the window seat beside her, one foot propped against the wall as he leaned back on the stone.

"They take out the organs from their dead and pickle them in vinegar," he said, with enthusiasm but not a great deal of accuracy. "Then they stack them up in rows in great stone standing tombs. And every year, they bring them out and parade them about the city!"

Flora gaped at him, her startled eyes now as round as silver coins.

"No! Really?"

"Something like that," he replied blithely, then laughed at her expression. "Is that the face you're going to make when we're formally introduced tomorrow?"

Flora scowled, turning disapproving eyes on the Pentaghast ship as it dropped anchor in the still, green waters below. She suspected that her Herring stoicism and Cousland composure might be extensively tested over the next few days; as they were introduced to a string of Thedas' most eccentric foreign notables.

A grinning Alistair reached out to turn Flora's face towards him, thumb caressing the high angle of her cheek.

"This coronation rehearsal is going to take hours," he murmured, leaning purposefully forwards on the bench. "Give me a kiss to keep me going."

Flora was more than happy to oblige, wrapping her arms around the king's neck and parting her lips readily against his own. One kiss quickly turned into several, each becoming more heated until she was in his lap, his lips roaming down the hollow of her throat and her hand working between his muscled thighs.

Unfortunately, the morning's commitments would not wait, and a firm, staccato knock sounded at the door.

Alistair, flushed-faced and teeth gritted, muttered a curse under his breath.

"Don't stop, sweetheart," he instructed in an unsteady voice, pushing into her soft, small fingers. "Almost, almost - "

Another knock came, soft yet insistent.

"Your Majesty? The Chancellor is in the entrance hall."

The king groaned at the news of Eamon's arrival. He reached ill-temperedly for a cushion to cover himself as Flora withdrew her hand with an apologetic grimace.

A moment later, Guillaume entered with a pair of servants in tow, struggling with a full bathtub. Water splashed over the flagstones, and the Nevarran shot the servants a beady-eyed glower.

"Your Majesty, Lady Cousland," the steward murmured, bowing expertly as he turned towards the window seat. Well-aware of what he had interrupted, not a flicker passed across the silver-bearded man's face. "I hope you both slept well."

"Morning," said Flora placidly, leaning back against the glass and pulling the striped Theirin-crested nightshirt down over her thighs.

The king was less inclined to be amiable. Discarding the cushion, he stalked naked across the room to pour himself an ale; muscled, golden and leonine.

"Eamon's early," he complained, emptying the flagon ill-temperedly into the tankard. "The eighth bell hasn't even rung yet. How long is this rehearsal going to take?"

"From Canticles through to Threnodies, I'd wager," came Fergus' voice wryly from the doorway. "Floss, I'm not making any assumptions about your state of dress – are you decent?"

Once Flora had confirmed that she was indeed decent, the teyrn removed his hand from his eyes and stepped fully inside the room, Finian close behind him.

"It's been years since Grand Cleric Elemena has had an opportunity like this," Fergus continued, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Alistair's face. Meanwhile, Finian was ogling the king unashamedly; giving his sister a little gleeful thumbs-up behind Fergus' back.

"She's definitely going to take advantage. Prepare yourselves for a monologue of epic proportion!"

"How much of the Chant can she fit into the span of a day, do you think?" Alistair replied with a little snort, unable to stop himself from smiling at the prospect of tomorrow's ceremony. Despite his complaints and grumbling, he was inwardly chafing at the bit with impatience; unconcerned about the crowning, but desperate to have his bond with his mistress formalised.

"At least six hundred verses," replied Fergus, inspecting the fresh-painted fish pattern above the hearth. "Eight hundred, if she's feeling ambitious. And she's deaf, so she won't be able to hear your pleas for her to stop."

"Maker's Breath!"

Eamon was not kept waiting long in the entrance hall – Flora prided herself on her punctuality and grew unduly anxious if she believed herself to be late. Seeing his mistress shifting fretfully from foot to foot, her fresh-washed hair hanging in thick, wet ropes down her back, Alistair duly picked up his own pace.


 

Less than half a candle length later, they were riding through the noble district, flanked by the usual escort of guards. It was the type of summer day more suited to Orlais or Antiva than Ferelden – a cornflower-blue sky unblemished by cloud, the sun an unblinking tourmaline lion's eye. The heat radiated from the cobbles and surrounding buildings; the smoke and animal-scent of the city mixing with the salt-edged sea breeze.

Alistair rode with the reins in a single, confident hand, keeping one arm curled around Flora's belly to anchor her in place before him. She was sitting in her usual position on the saddle, trying not to look too rapidly from side to side in case her damp ponytail whipped him in the face.

Not looking proved to be an increasingly difficult endeavour, especially once they entered the city proper. Every canal-bridge and lamp-post bore the conjoined Theirin-Cousland legend, depicting the intertwined lion and laurel. The banners hung down, long and weighty; their colours fresh-embroidered. Flowers and garlands had been planted in hastily-constructed planters and barrels alongside the main thoroughfares of the city.

To Flora's astonishment, crimson ribbons had also been tied onto tavern signs and balcony-railings; woven through the wheel-spokes of carts and wrapped about the staves of the city guard. With a sudden, sharp poignancy, she recalled the raised pikes and staves of her gathered army, the crimson ribbon tied defiantly to each one. She was suddenly glad that she had not been awake to see the immediate aftermath of the final battle; to see the broken remains of these weapons trodden into the bloodied mud. There had not been excessive casualties against the Darkspawn horde, but their forces had not escaped without losses.

Most people had not yet realised that Flora was back in the city, and so the first part of their journey passed relatively unimpeded. Yet news travelled faster in Denerim than through the dormitories of the Circle; by the time that they neared the Square of the Bride, the crowds had come out in full vigour to see their handsome Theirin and his betrothed.

Although Flora had received substantial attention when she was riding to the docks with Teagan for her feast, the prospect of seeing both king and mistress together proved a great lure for the crowds. The people of Denerim flocked to the streets as the procession approached, streaming out of taverns and leaning out of upper windows. Their cries melded together into a general roar of approval; the occasional distinct call standing out amongst the rest.

"Welcome back, Lady Cousland!"

"Congratulations!"

"Show us your belly!"

Although the city folk knew better than to come too close to the king's horse – besides which, the closed-face ranks of the Royal Guard were too intimidating to broach – Flora still felt herself pressing reflexively back against Alistair. The noise, the heat, the crowd of excited faces and open mouths - all melded together into a swell of overwhelming stimulation. Grateful for her haughty, impassive Cousland features; Flora relied on the natural coolness of her expression to disguise the anxiety that lay beneath.

Even the famous Cousland ambiguity was not potent enough to fool Alistair. He tightened his grip about Flora's waist, ducking forward to nuzzle his face against the back of her head.

"Not much longer, darling," he murmured, kissing the pale curve of her ear. "They've closed the entire Square of the Bride to the public. We're almost there, see?"

Sure enough, the vast staggered spire of Ferelden's largest Chantry towered above the rooftops ahead, raised high like a cleric's chiding finger. Alistair let the reins rest and used his strong thighs to keep himself astride in the saddle as he raised a hand to acknowledge the crowds. There was a swell of sound in response; bright faces with their mouths open calling out to their king.

"Theirin! Theirin!"

Suddenly proud of her best friend for embracing a role that he had once so vehemently rejected; Flora sat up a little straighter on the saddle, feeling Alistair's arm tighten around her waist in response to her movement.

If he can do it, I can do it.

As they turned into the wide promenade that led into the Square of the Bride, Flora twisted her head back towards the crowd. Forcing the natural coolness from her face, she smiled at them; hoping that it wasn't coming across as a maniacal leer.

From the immediate calls and delight that followed; it was clear that her smile had not offended. Alistair snorted, pressing his lips swiftly against the back of her head.

"Either you stopped glowering, or you just flashed them," he whispered, grinning slyly into her ear. "Which was it, baby?"

"Oh, definitely just flashed them," she replied, solemnly. "And they all think you're a lucky man."

Alistair laughed out loud, lifting the reins once again as they passed into the Square of the Bride.

"You can say that again, sweetheart."

 

 

Chapter Text

The sounds of the crowds died away as the high stone buildings reared up to either side; the Square of the Bride was home to some of the tallest structures in the city. The Chantry administrative offices ran along one side, decorated with a series of relief panels depicting the life, death and redemption of Andraste. Opposite, the Templar headquarters rose, stern and without décor, save for the flecked-sword banner hanging from a dozen iron fixings along the face of the building.

On the far side of the Square, Ferelden's largest Chantry was built atop a raised stone terrace; accessible by flights of parallel steps. It was built in sympathetic manner to other Chantries within the region, but on a far vaster scale. Three towers loomed overhead, their shadows long enough to cloak the entire Square in gloom when the sun was high. The embroidered Chantry sunburst hung down from various metal fixings, each lofty standard the height of a merchant's warehouse. A great circular stained glass window faced east, the shards of dyed crystal gleaming with a prismatic sheen in the morning sunlight.

It had been months since Flora had last been here – even when she and Alistair had been residing in the palace; she had preferred to use the smaller chapel within the castle itself. Now, gazing up at the vast, imposing edifice of Ferelden's oldest and grandest Chantry, she realised quite how large and imposing it was. Recalling how she had been alarmed by the size of the crowds gathering on the streets, Flora felt as though she was seeing the city with fresh eyes.

I suppose, before, the final battle loomed so large that everything else faded into insignificance. Now that the Blight is over, I see the world for what it is.

This city is large. Everything is so tall.

They dismounted on the cobbles before the great twin flights of stairs leading upwards to the Chantry entrance. As the party began to climb the fifty four basalt steps, retainers led their horses away to some discreet stabling. The sun continued to beam in radiant approval from overhead, and by the thirtieth step, Alistair felt beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead.

"Teagan thinks it's going to be a hot summer, my love," he called upwards to Flora, who was plodding determinedly several steps ahead of him. "Feels like it."

"Threety-two, threety-three – oh, that means a good harvest? Lots of crops?"

"Sweetheart, are you still fretting about people starving in the autumn?"

Flora shot him a gloomy look of confirmation over her shoulder. Alistair took several steps at once, catching up to his companion easily. Sliding an arm around her waist, he kissed her tenderly on the cheek and climbed the remainder of the steps at her side.

A familiar trio of figures stood beside the carved oak panels of the entrance doors. Flora beamed, delighted to see Wynne, Leliana and Zevran conversing quietly as they waited.

"Leliana," Eamon murmured in place of greeting, as the bard also discarded the usual pleasantries and advanced towards them. "Have the arrangements been made?"

Leliana nodded, fluttering an elegant hand towards the doors.

"All is as you requested, Arl Eamon. I'll perform the role of the Grand Cleric for today. Will you stay for your part?"

The arl shook his head, gesturing to where Teagan was just ascending the last of the steps.

"My brother will take my role for today," Eamon replied, wryly. "I remember the last coronation all too well; I need not a practice."

"Good morning, amors," purred Zevran meanwhile, advancing towards Flora with the merry eyes of a rogue. "A kiss from the blushing bride?"

"I'm not blushing," replied Flora, pressing her lips obligingly to the elf's tattooed cheek. "I'm burning. It's so hot on the east coast. Oh, you have a – here."

She reached up, touching her finger to the edge of Zevran's ear; intercepting the progress of a small, wispy-legged spider as it descended from some dusty overhead eaves. Letting it drop gently onto the stone terrace, Flora smiled at the elf; then shuffled towards Leliana's imperious beckon. The bard, who was scandalised by the prospect of tomorrow's ceremony being marred by unsightly sunburn, was eager for the pallid young Cousland to get inside the gloom of the Chantry.

As Leliana followed in Flora's wake, she leaned forward to whisper in the elf's ear.

"And breathe, mon cher."

Zevran exhaled in a rush, shaking his head with a small growl of frustration. Leliana darted a quick glance over her shoulder, shooting him a look as though to say: even now? A sunset before she marries another man?

Even now, the Antivan thought, defiantly. Permit me my foolish fancy.

Meanwhile, Flora had stopped still within the entrance to the Chantry, one booted foot over the threshold. The elongated space inside was even higher and deeper than she had remembered; twin lines of granite columns thicker than the oldest tree trunks running from door to transept. Andraste's eternal flame blazed at the far end, set into a sunken copper trough so that the writhing tongues of fire appeared to rise miraculously from the tiles themselves. High above, patterned glass windows high in the vaulted ceiling cast imperious patterns on the flagstones.

Yet all this Flora remembered, for it had been such when she had last visited the Grand Chantry. Instead – just as when she had stepped into the Royal bedchamber after Alistair's redecoration – her eye was drawn to that which was different.

Just as in the entrance hall of the castle, a multitude of familiar banners now dangled from the great columns. The colours of Highever hung adjacent to the ancient arms of Denerim, and every other banner was the conjoined lion and laurel; commemorating the union between Theirin and Cousland. Long vines of laurel had been woven through the back of every pew, their elongated oval leaves pale and soft as fresh mint. Tall braziers had been placed at intervals, crimson ribbons wrapped around their bronze supports. More scarlet drapery hung from the alter; cut into slender skeins to emulate the token once carried by Flora's armies. Each tallow candle had been replaced with a luxuriant equivalent moulded from beeswax, radiating warm, honeyed puddles of light across the basalt tiles.

Voices called out to one another, echoing up to the lofty murals painted on the walls. A pair of Chantry brothers scuttled between hanging incense gourds; the first polishing and the second refilling. More servants wound the final skeins of crimson ribbon into place, chattering in excited undertones. High above, affixed by some ingenious means, long strands of laurel had been draped across the vaulted parapets. Interspersed with crimson roses, they formed an organic curtain overhead, turning the light filtering in from overhead into a pale, milky green.

Flora stood as though she had been paralysed; her eyes wide with sheer disbelief. Alistair came to a halt just beside her, an astonished grunt escaping his throat.

"By Andraste's holy bosom," he breathed, receiving a swift elbow from Leliana for the profanity. "You mentioned some decoration, uncle, but I wasn't expecting this."

Teagan laughed, letting the door swing shut with a low, muffled thud in his wake.

"Does it meet with your approval?" he asked, mildly. "I know neither of you are inclined to fuss and ornamentation, but we've got representatives from all over Thedas attending tomorrow. Each one ready to gauge Ferelden's post-Blight capacity."

Flora, who in the latter weeks of the Blight had worn her hair constantly in a symbolic – immediately recognisable- crimson ponytail, understood full-well the importance of putting on a show. She shot a quick glance across at Teagan, still awed by the Grand Chantry's transformation.

"Surely all this isn't for me and Alistair? It's too much!"

"For the union of Cousland and Theirin: the two most powerful dynasties in the nation?" Leliana interrupted, stepping forward to gesture widely; fingers curling towards minor details not obvious on first appraisal. "Heroes of the realm both? Non, it is not too much."

"Huh!"

Every pew contained a stiff parchment card depicting a different cost of arms – from the crossed spears of Vael to the silver lion's head of Valmont. These were to denote where the various dignitaries of Thedas would sit – ranked by order of allegiance to Ferelden, rather than by prestige alone. The Marcher representatives – with whom Eamon hoped to forge new trade routes – were placed front and centre.

Flora tilted her head back, inhaling the fragrant smell wafting from the roses and feeling Alistair's anxious eyes on her. The king knew well that Flora's Herring-instilled sensibilities would be incredulous at such expense and show for something so uncomplicated as a marriage; which could be performed simply by expressing and consummating such a bond before the Maker.

It is an expense. But remember – this is for show. It's to show everyone that Ferelden has got a future.

"It's lovely," Flora said softly, smiling at Teagan and bowing her head. "What an honour, to be married in such beautiful place. Thank you."

Alistair exhaled in slight relief, his fingers reaching out to twine affectionately into her own.

"Right," continued the bann, glancing at the position of the sun through the great stained glass windows. "The marriage ceremony will come before the coronation, so that you can be crowned king and queen together after being made man and wife- "

There came a loud sniff from somewhere amongst the bann's small audience. Teagan broke off, gazing across at Alistair in surprise. The king went a minor shade of pink, slightly embarrassed at his own sentiment even as his eyes welled up.

"Sorry," he muttered, as Leliana cooed under her breath and advanced forwards with a silken handkerchief. "I just – anyway. Keep explaining, don't mind me."

Flora squeezed her best friend's palm tightly against her own, feeling him immediately return the firm pressure.

I adore you, she thought, hoping that her sentiment could pass from her flesh to his. I adore you more than anything. 

" – after that's finished, you'll proceed down the aisle and emerge at the top of the steps; where the crowds will be gathered in the Square of the Bride. You'll return to the palace for the wedding feast and celebrations, and then – ah - "

The elf gave a little cackle, dark eyes lighting up.

"Then you'll be put into your marital bed together," he murmured, snickering like a schoolboy. "And perform for your audience."

Flora darted a quick glance up at her lover, just in time to see him swallow, hard. She gave his hand another reassuring little squeeze, feeling a corresponding pressure on her fingers.

Teagan coughed and continued, addressing his words to the great statue of Andraste at the far end of the aisle.

"I've put a stop to some of the bawdier traditions. Don't worry, Alistair, nobody will try and break into the bedchamber with a cup of bride's broth to fortify you. Flora, they won't be pulling your clothes off in an attempt to steal your garter!"

"Damned right," muttered Alistair, bristling defensively even as Flora's jaw dropped. "I'll put up with the witnessing to make sure the baby can't ever be named bastard, but that's it. And if anyone tries to pull Flo's clothes off, they'll be pulling their sword from out of their own- "

"We are in the house of the Maker!" interjected Leliana, as a Chantry sister squeaked nearby.

Teagan nodded, with a little grimace of sympathy.

"Aye, lad. I don't blame you. Anyway, we should get underway with this practice – I'll stand where Eamon stands for now, and Leliana can be our Grand Cleric. Finian appears to be delayed – would somebody be Fergus until he arrives?"

Zevran raised his hand with a game grin, always desiring to be involved.

A short time later, the assorted Chantry sisters and brothers had withdrawn to the chapels and side-chambers, and a stillness fell over the great, hallowed hall. Alistair, Leliana and Teagan stood near the alter on a specially raised step at the front of the Chantry; the light from Andraste's flame flickering across their faces.

Alistair was caught between anticipation and frustration that this was only a simulacrum of marriage. If it had been up to him alone, he would have wedded his mistress the very day he brought her back from Revanloch. Teagan was busy running through the chronology of proceedings in his head, though the bann was reasonably sure that Leliana would not allow him to disorder events. The Orlesian bard seemed determined to prove her efficiency; perhaps desiring to garner some international attention.

Leliana did not quite dare to don the lofty helm of a senior church official, but she had draped a violet-tinted surplice over her lay-sister robes and bore an additional air of haughty eminence.

"Florence!" she called, projecting her voice with bardic skill directly down the central aisle. "You have to wait until the drumming starts. Don't start walking just yet."

At the very back of the Chantry, beside the great wooden doors, Flora squinted down at Leliana's diminutive figure. She was waiting alongside Zevran, who was tapping his fingers somewhat agitatedly against a carved stone relief.

"What did she say?"

"'Wait until the drumming starts to start walking'," Zevran repeated, whose sharper ears had heard the bard's enunciation.

Flora blinked at him for a moment, nonplussed.

"Drumming? Whaa- "

The elf returned her confusion with a shrug, one eyebrow rising.

"I don't know, carina."

Flora fell silent, her brow furrowed. Teagan, Alistair and Leliana appeared to be deep in conversation at the far end of the Chantry; king listening with bemused attention as the lay-sister gesticulated enthusiastically.

Unable to hear their discussion, Flora turned her attention to Zevran. The elf was bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, humming under his breath. She reached out a gentle finger to touch the fine, silver-blond tendrils of hair, which now reached partway down the elf's back.

"Your hair is getting long," she observed, twisting one lock around her finger and watching the pink nail go white. "You could wear it in a plait if you wanted. A nice fishtail braid."

The elf grinned at her, his amusement discoloured only by the faintest shadow.

"Will you braid it for me later, mi sirenita? I find my fingers awfully clumsy in recent times."

Flora crossed her eyes at him, knowing full well that this was an untruth. The elf had the quickest hands of all their companions; his gestures swift as a salmon darting through patches of dappled sunlight. Zevran let out a little cackle, lifting his eyes to the heavy vines of laurel suspended from the ceiling.

"Putting on quite a show, aren't they? I hope you're ready to be centre-stage, nena."

Flora shrugged a shoulder, her stomach letting loose a plaintive grumble. She dropped a hand to her belly, rubbing her palm soothingly over the plump mound.

"I feel like I've been centre-stage since we were at South Reach," the young Cousland replied, mildly. "I'll have to grow used to it."

The elf smiled back at her, a touch wistful. Flora, willing her stomach to stop grumbling, focused instead on the wide, basalt-tiled central aisle that she would soon be traversing.

"It's so long. Am I supposed to walk the whole way down? It's going to take ages. Can't I… jog?"

Zevran snickered, dark cat-eyes flickering reflexively towards a nearby movement in the shadows. A pair of drummers, their instruments suspended by straps around their necks, emerged with sticks held aloft; clearly waiting for some signal from the distant bard.

"Ah, as amusing a sight as that would be, mi amor, I fear that it would not be permitted."

Flora scowled, then jumped a little as a slow, measured drumbeat began; wooden stick striking taut leather in a formal, almost militaristic pulse. The sound echoed to the vaulted ceiling, amplified by the acoustics of the centuries-old building. From the raised altar, Leliana made an impatient, imperious gesture with her hand, a clear signal to proceed.

"Alright, my dear hermanita," murmured Zevran, as Flora continued to gawp with naked astonishment at the drummers. "Are you ready for a little role play?"

"Yes," she replied, only half-listening. "What is 'role-play'?"

"Excelente. I shall be the wicked sinner confessing my lusty escapades, and you can be the sweet young Chantry sister, who can't help but be fascinated by my sexual prowess."

Flora eyed him dubiously and the elf cackled, relenting and offering her his arm to take.

"I jest, mi florita. I shall, of course, be the Teyrn of Highever, ready to give away my lovely little sister."

She slid her arm through his offered elbow, curling her fingers into his leather-clad sleeve.

The drummers continued their stately rhythm as Flora and Zevran proceeded down the aisle, passing pews reserved for some of Thedas' most prominent figureheads. Zevran, who had the more musical ear, kept their tread in time to the slow beat of the drums.

"Don't charge off like a ship in full sail," he murmured from the corner of his mouth. "Patience; Alistair is not going to leave if you don't get there soon enough."

"I'm starving," Flora mumbled in reply. "The sooner we finish this, the sooner I can have some lunch. Wait, did I hide a snack in my tunic?"

At the front of the Chantry, Alistair shifted from foot to foot; his own stomach giving a rather ominous rumble.

"Is that hunger or nerves, Alistair?" Leliana asked, smiling even as she kept her eyes trained hawk-like on the two figures approaching down the central aisle. The sun was shifting slowly into its highest stance; rays of jewel-coloured light beaming down onto the dark basalt flagstones.

"A bit of both," the king replied honestly, forcing himself to take his eyes from his mistress and look at the bard. "I can't believe I'm going to marry Flo tomorrow. She's going to be my wife – my very own wife – and nobody will ever be able to part us. I've dreamed of this for… longer than I'd care to admit, uncle."

A soft laugh escaped Teagan's throat, the bann's mouth curling into a rueful smile.

"Only one-and-twenty years of age, and desperate to wed," he murmured, wryly. "When I was your age, marriage was the furthest thing from my mind. I was more concerned with horses and comely stable-lasses."

"I wager you'd have felt different if you'd known a girl like her," countered Alistair, confidently.

Teagan paused for a moment, then let out a soft bark of laughter.

"Aye, lad. You're probably not too far from the mark, there."

Meanwhile, Leliana had also become a little distracted thanks to a servant placing a bundle of linen-wrapped objects discreetly on the bench of the Royal pew. When she turned her gaze back to the central aisle, a squawk of disbelief flew from between her lips like an un-caged songbird.

"Flora! You cannot snack on your journey down the aisle!"

Those waiting beside Andraste's eternal flame returned their eyes to the middle of the Chantry. Sure enough, Flora was sitting in a pew about halfway between doorway and transept, munching contentedly on a pear while Zevran tried to cajole her into continuing.

"The baby hungers," Flora called back earnestly through a mouthful of fruit. "I have a maternal obligation to feed it."

"Lel, the baby needs to eat," an anxious Alistair repeated, turning his gaze on Leliana as they stood near the altar. "Maybe we should pause for lunch."

The bard's nostrils flared almost the width of the Chantry, her eyes like focused darts of disapproval.

"Ahem! This is the girl whom I personally witnessed eating six bread rolls, four apples and an entire cauldron of cooked eggs when breaking her fast this morning. The baby is plenty nourished; it's your betrothed who is a slave to the unnatural demands of her stomach!"

A proud Alistair beamed at his mistress as she pushed herself upright from the bench, reaching out for Zevran's arm so that they could continue their journey down the aisle.

"I appreciate a girl with a healthy appetite," the king murmured, fondly.

Finally, after much humming of disapproval from Leliana, Flora and Zevran arrived at the foot of the three shallow steps that led up to the central platform. The drumbeat escalated into a loud, crescendo roll and then abruptly ended; the lingering sound echoing about the vaulted eaves.

Alistair began instinctively to head down, and then froze as Leliana let out a hiss of instruction.

"Arrêtez! You cannot just go and embrace her. There are traditions that must be followed!"

Alistair let out a small huff of impatience, but allowed himself to be led back up beside Teagan. Leliana, resplendent in her borrowed mantle of authority, cleared her throat.

"Alright, 'Fergus' – are you listening?"

Zevran dragged his attention reluctantly from a pair of slender young Chantry sisters, smiling with brilliant white teeth up at the increasingly irate lay sister.

"Sí. I mean, 'aye'. I, Teyrn of Highever, am here."

"You must first remove the fur from around Flora's shoulders – no, it is an imaginary fur for today – and let it fall to the floor. Then you kiss your sister and pass her to 'Eamon'. Not on the mouth, fiend!"

Flora, who was caught between amusement and bemusement, laughed as Zevran changed course at the last minute; planting his lips on her cheek. Turning, she saw Teagan extending a hand towards her, and went dutifully to take it. Leliana nodded, gesturing for Teagan to lead Flora up the three steps towards an impatient Alistair.

"Now, Alistair – stop, you can't just grab your bride like the choice cut of meat from a roasted boar! 'Eamon' will lead your bride to you, and you need to place your own 'fur' around her shoulders."

Alistair's brow furrowed, blinking down at the Chantry robe which had suddenly appeared in his hands courtesy of a hovering servant. He gazed down at Flora in perplexion, even as he did as he was told and draped the robe about her neck.

"I don't understand," he started, brow furrowed. "What's the point of this fur-swapping?"

Leliana opened her mouth to clarify; but to everybody's surprise, Flora piped up with her own explanation.

"It's from when Andraste gets married to Maf -Maferon," she said, mangling the latter's name. "She wore furs from her family home into the marital bedchamber; his Mabari didn't recognise the scent and almost attacked her. So she had to abandon all her old furs and wear the furs of Maferon's house. We used to tell the story in Herring."

Leliana nodded in slow astonishment, her finely plucked eyebrows lodged within her hairline.

"It seems that the old Alamarri traditions are kept alive in the smallest villages of Ferelden" she murmured, stepping forwards in preparation to emulate the Grand Cleric's role. "You are quite right, ma petite. Except, it's Maferath."

"I'm going to sweat like a pig," Flora added, with gloomy resignation. "Who wears FUR in the summer?"

Slowly but surely, the audience in the Chantry was beginning to swell. Curious sisters and minor brothers lurked in the shadows of the thick basalt columns; Cousland retainers perched themselves in the pews and Royal Guardsmen lined the far wall. All eyes were trained on the odd collection of figures gathered at the transept of the Cathedral; king, mistress, elf emulating teyrn, bann representing arl, and a lowly lay sister clad in the elegant mantle of a senior priestess.

"So after you both confirm your identity – and make sure you get your names in the correct order this time, Flora – you will exchange rings," Leliana continued, adjusting the angle of the lofty hat. "Flora, make sure that Mairyn's Star is on your other hand."

Flora, who had been mouthing Florence Chastity Popelyn Ragenhilda to herself, suddenly looked stricken.

"I haven't got you a ring," she breathed to Alistair, wide-eyed. "I didn't realise I was supposed to, I'll go to the market now- "

Leliana reached out, letting a reassuring hand settle on Flora's elbow as the latter quivered in distress.

"You didn't even know you were getting married until three days ago, ma crevette. Do not worry; Bann Teagan is taking responsibility for the rings."

Teagan nodded in gruff confirmation, and Flora relaxed a fraction. Alistair smiled at her, surreptitiously squeezing her fingers tightly within his own.

"Finally," Leliana continued, impatient to rehearse the more ritualistic coronation. "Arl Eamon will bind your hands together with a leather strap. A symbolic representation of your Maker-blessed bond."

"Mi sirenita should be used to that," purred Zevran, unable to resist. "It won't be the first time she's had her hands tied before Alistair."

"We are in the Maker's house!" Leliana hissed malevolently as the king went a deep shade of pink. "Keep your lechery to yourself."

"You're meant to be Fergus," Flora added solemnly, trying not to laugh. "Try and stay in character. He doesn't like it when we talk about bedchamber-activities."

Zevran assumed an equally sombre expression, then flashed her a little wink.

A lay brother came forward at the bard's gesture, clutching a long wooden case. Inside the case rested a number of assorted objects – a long silver-handled candlestick, an apple, a copy of the Chant; amongst various others. These were meant to represent the regalia of the kings of Ferelden; the authentic collection currently resting ceremoniously in the castle treasury.

Patiently, Teagan guided Alistair and Flora through the ritual-laden coronation itself. Alistair, as king regnant, would take the main role in proceedings – it would be he who would be presented with Calenhad's sword and Andraste's sceptre. Flora had merely to hold the Orb of Fionne – represented in this instance by a plump crimson apple – and a caged wren, which she was a little nervous about.

"Why does it matter that I hold out my right hand for the bloody sword?" complained Alistair, whose patience was wearing thin. "Will the Grand Cleric refuse to crown me if I get it the wrong way round?"

"Your brother and father both managed it well enough," countered Teagan, sympathetic to a degree but also aware of the importance of adhering to tradition. "Come on, lad. You can do it."

A guilty Flora, who had eaten half of the 'Orb of Fionne', sought to deflect attention from herself.

"What's a sceptre?" she asked, eyeing the silver-handled taper meant to represent this particular piece of regalia.

"A stick to beat your enemies with," replied Zevran, with a yawn. "Used to fend off would-be usurpers."

Flora's brow furrowed in confusion, and she looked to Teagan for clarification. The bann let out a sigh under his breath, aware that the rehearsal was dragging on far longer than anyone had anticipated.

"Right. Let's run through it one more time. You alright with that, poppet?"

This latter query was directed to Flora, who was busy shifting her weight onto her stronger leg. Her bound knee was complaining bitterly after several hours spent standing on it; she could feel the leather strapping beginning to loosen around the weak joint.

"I'm fine," she replied stoically, avoiding Alistair's suspicious stare. "I'm afraid that somebody has eaten the Orb of Thing though."

 

 

Chapter Text

An hour later and the rehearsal was finally finished, the sun just beginning on its leisurely afternoon descent. It had lost none of its brilliance during its tenure in the sky; baking the mud between the flagstones and prompting the people of Denerim to unbutton their shirts and roll up the arms of their tunics. Still, even this uncharacteristically warm Solace afternoon could not stop them working with especial keenness, eager to finish the day's labour and begin tomorrow's coronation day holiday early. The taverns had already thrown open their doors; the more reputable dwellings housing musicians that played excerpts from Leliana's bardic epic The Lion and the Light. The less reputable establishments echoed with the explicit version of Warden Flora, we adore her, and other bawdy songs that had sprung up based on the reputedly vigorous bedroom proclivities of their youthful king and his solemn-faced mistress.

The only citizens not partaking in these celebrations were the refugees that had formed the so-called restoration committees; the groups that were determined to return to their devastated homelands and see them rebuilt. These gatherings of men and women took place in tavern basements and vacant guild-halls, trying to get as much as possible accomplished before tomorrow's holiday. They were assisted in their efforts by the presence of their local liege lord, who would be responsible for coordinating the response and securing funding. Bann Teagan had gone straight from the Grand Chantry to the meeting of men and women from the arling of Redcliffe. Eamon's demesne had not suffered extensively from the Blight, but there were a handful of villages on the south-eastern border of his territory that had been destroyed.

Likewise, Arl Leonas, the Bann of Calon and Bann Reginalda had each gone to oversee proceedings in their own restoration committees. Leonas' familial seat of South Reach had been ransacked by the horde to build their siege weaponry, and the new general was quietly determined to see it restored.

The only restoration committee who had no noble patron to oversee its efforts, was the southern teyrnir of Gwaren. Loghain was now co-leading the Fereldan Wardens, and his daughter – having lost all noble claim after the attainting of the Mac Tir name – resided under heavy guard within Denerim's noble district.

Even if either Mac Tir had taken an interest in overseeing the rebuilding of Gwaren, the residents were determined to reject their efforts. Gwaren had been one of the earliest provinces swarmed by the Darkspawn, and its people could not forgive the utter inaction of both former queen and regent in the face of their plight. Therefore this committee laboured alone in its efforts to organise materials and funding, with no noble patron to oversee efforts or campaign on its behalf. The two main sources of income for the town were its dock and its fishing industry; both utterly devastated.

The mayor of Gwaren, a man so short and stocky it was rumoured he had dwarven ancestry, was currently listening to a litany of problems recited by the master of the fishermen's guild. Without a patron, the Gwaren committee had not managed to secure respectable premises to meet, and so they were gathered in an abandoned storeroom in the warehouse district. Fortunately, it was a sunny day and the gaps in the rafters did not matter overmuch; though the rats scuttling along the borders of the room did somewhat distract from proceedings.

"First problem is, we can't get nothin' back down south," piped up Tadric, the bearded fisherman who was the most outspoken of his peers. "It's too difficult to get materials over the hills, and 'alf our ships have sailed off to the Marches."

"With half of our people," chimed in a sad-faced merchant, fingering his moustache.

"And they've took everything they could get their hands on," added a flush-cheeked fishwife, who had lost her husband during the Blight. "The jetties and piers have fallen into the sea. Our nets are gone. The lobster pots scattered to the corners of the Amaranthine Ocean."

The mayor banged a tankard on the table, irritably. They had agreed to try and retain a sense of positivity and optimism; so far, nobody had stuck to their own rule. The table, being uneven, wobbled in precarious manner.

"So, first priorities are to secure ships and wood," he repeated with a nod to his scrawny adolescent son; who was serving as scribe. "If we can get at least one or two piers back in operation before summer-end, we might have a chance of gettin' some autumn trade."

"Because ships are such an easy thing to come by," muttered the merchant, still pulling at the drooping ends of his moustache. "And the nobles own all the trees. It's poachin' if we just start choppin' em down."

Just then, there was a slight commotion from the entrance. Booted metallic footsteps echoed about the crumbling stone walls of the warehouse, and a troop of a half-dozen Royal Guard proceeded to make entrance. They formed two ranks at either side of the door; pikes held straight and aloft.

" – going to be late for your wedding dress fitting," hissed an irate Orlesian voice from the passageway. "You'll be wearing a baggy sack tomorrow, and have nobody to blame but yourself."

"When I was a child in Herring, I wore a sack for a year, actually,came an indignant, northern-tinged reply, the accent deceptively low-born considering the noble blood of its progenitor. "I can wear one at my wedding if needs be."

"I despair!"

The assembled citizens of Gwaren gaped at the door and then at each other, utterly confused. However, those that had been at the refugee's feast several weeks prior soon recognised that distinctive accent.

"Quick!" hissed the mayor, shoving his chair back and nearly falling over in his haste. "On your feet! Get up! It's the lady Cousland."

Moments later, the lady herself arrived; shooting a slightly bemused glance at the ranks of Royal Guard standing at either side of the entrance. She was accompanied by an irate redhead clad in lay-sister robes, and a grinning blond elf with fading tattoos scribed on his cheeks.

"Hello," said Flora, eyeing the eclectic mix of merchants, fishermen and peasants gathered before her; who were half-risen from their chairs, too stunned even to bow. "My name is- "

"The Hero of Ferelden!" breathed the fishwife, a flush of disbelief rising to her cheeks.

"Florence Cousland," corrected Flora, slightly nonplussed. "I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner. We were rehearsing the wedding, and someone ate the Orb of Fionne, and then – anyway. It doesn't matter. I hate being late."

The mayor ventured a question, his hand creeping upwards like a shy initiate in a Templar classroom.

"Late, my lady?"

Flora nodded, advancing further into the decrepit warehouse, paying no heed to the rotten floorboards or cobwebbed rafters. There had been rats in the Circle tower – the resident cats were lazy and didn't venture much above the fifth floor – and so the rodents scuttling about the warehouse walls did not bother her.

"For your meeting," she said patiently, as a bearded man clad in a much-patched tunic scuttled to provide a chair for her. "It took ages to find out where you were. We got lost."

Pleased, Flora sat down with a little exhalation of air, reaching to tighten the loose strapping about her weak knee. The fishermen and traders of Gwaren darted small glances at each other from the corners of their eyes, uncertain how to proceed. They sunk back into their seats, one at a time; excited whispers quickly falling to a hush as she spoke once again.

"I want to help, if you'll let me," Flora said, blunt and without preamble. "With Gwaren."

There followed a small, astonished silence, a tentative and uncertain flush of hope appearing on the face of the mayor.

"What – what do you mean, Lady Cousland?"

"I know you have no one to support you," she continued, patiently. "You've lost your teyrn."

"Aye, my lady," replied the mayor, the words emerging slow and tentative. "With the fall of the Mac Tirs, we have no liege lord and no voice in the Landsmeet. Any assistance you could offer us would be much appreciated."

"Well, we fishing communities ought to stick together," replied Flora, immediately. "Even though Herring and Skingle are arch-rivals, whenever Skingle has a problem with wreckers – or Herring loses a boat to a storm – we help each other out. Did you say you needed wood and ships?"

The mayor nodded mutedly, his eyes wide. Flora smiled, absurdly pleased that she was able to offer some genuine assistance – perhaps make a difference to the lives of these unfortunate refugees.

I might not be able to heal this man's cough or mend that old lady's linen-bandaged arm. But I can still help them.

"My brothers have promised to assist me," she said, stifling a grimace of discomfort as the baby swung a gleefully malicious foot into her kidneys. "Highever wasn't Blighted, and they have wood to spare. There's a whole host of ships at Amaranthine, where my other brother holds tenure."

"And they would be willing to assist us?" asked the mayor warily, not quite daring to let the hope show in his tone. He was well aware of the old rivalry between Cousland and Mac Tir; a mutual mistrust reflected by the history of antagonism between their respective teyrnirs.

"Of course," murmured the Orlesian bard from her position leaning watchfully against the door frame. "Gwaren was once Ferelden's third largest economy, after Denerim and Highever. It must be restored, for the good of the nation."

"I believe that you will end up with more than a few offers of assistance," added the tattooed elf wryly from the opposite side of the entrance. "The Cousland menfolk will naturally assist their sister; and nobody in the Landsmeet will be able to resist that lovely, earnest face, especially when it belongs to a hero of the realm. She need only make a request on your behalf and a dozen promises of aid will be thrust upon her. Not least from the king himself, who can refuse her nothing."

The dawning hope on the mayor's face at last began to spread to those around him. The people of Gwaren had suffered perhaps in even greater degree than most of Ferelden. Like many others, they had lost land, livelihoods and loved ones with the arrival of the Darkspawn horde; but they had also struggled on as refugees for almost a year with no assistance from either Mac Tir.

Changing the subject, Flora leaned forwards on the table and dropped her voice.

"Tell me," she whispered, conspiratorially. "What kind of fish do you get in the southern waters at this time of year?"

"Here we go on the fish tangent," Zevran murmured to Leliana quietly; the bard nodded and rolled her eyes.

"This time of year, we'd get a lot o' copper bream," one man offered after a tentative moment of silence – who was going to respond to the Hero of Ferelden? "An' the lobster pots'd be full."

He was rewarded with such an uncharacteristic beam of delight that others began to pipe up, selfishly desiring a similar reaction from their future queen.

"Green-tailed pike, they'd be swarmin' round the legs of the southern pier."

"Only 'cause your Berne used to bait the waters there! Otherwise they'd be clumpin' in my traps at the riverhead."

"Them whelk-fish should think 'emselves lucky they aren't getting caught up in our nets this summer. They'll be runnin' rampant."

Flora listened in fascination, her chin propped in her hand. Eventually, Leliana – who had been experiencing traumatic visions of the bride advancing down the aisle clad in a literal sack – cleared her throat, pointedly.

"Alright," Flora said obediently, realising that the bard's nerves were wearing thin. "So, we need wood and ships. I'll speak to my brothers, after tomorrow."

The mayor nodded, aware of two dozen pointed stares prickling between his shoulder-blades. Flora had just risen from her chair, using a hand to propel her swollen stomach upwards.

"Ah – lady Cousland?"

She turned her pale, questioning eyes on him, searching as silvered lanterns.

"I think we're all in agreement, my lady... I know it's the king, by rights, who awards things like this, but… we all desire it."

Flora watched the nervous man shifting from foot to foot. The entire gathered company had fallen silent; their hopeful faces were turned on hers.

"Would… would you consider becoming our new teyrna? We ain't got anyone in charge, and – and you've shown that you care. Noone else has come lookin' for us."

Flora was astonished; she had – rather naively – not considered the possibility of such a request. Out of fairness, she forced herself to mull over it, grateful for her face's neutrality.

"You honour me with this request," she whispered, bowing her head in their general direction. "And… if I wasn't becoming queen tomorrow, I would agree gladly."

Maybe, she thought to herself, remembering how quickly she had spurned the arling of Amaranthine. Possibly.

The mayor nodded with a defeated slump; he had suspected as much. Flora gazed at them a moment, thoughtful.

"What about… Lady Anora?" she suggested, softly. "She was raised in Gwaren, wasn't she?"

"And did nothin' to save it during the Blight, she were so under the thumb of her father," replied a fishwife, indignantly. "She left us to be overrun by the Darkspawn. She ain't even been to see us."

Flora thought for a moment, biting on her lip anxiously. In her practical Herring mind, Anora was the most logical choice to be the new leader of Gwaren – it was the Mac Tir family seat, she had experience of governance and knowledge of Gwaren's unique trade patterns.

Yet from the creased brows and mutterings before her, it seemed that there was a long way to go before the people would countenance the return of their disgraced local dynasty.

"What if she came here – to one of these meetings – and made amends?" Flora suggested at last, one hand resting lightly on her stomach.

"It'd have to be a lot of amends," said the mayor, eventually. "The name Mac Tir is spoken as a blasphemy more often than not, nowadays."

"And the dynasty has been attainted," Leliana murmured softly from near the doorway. "Alistair would have to reverse the attainder to grant Anora any sort of authority."

Flora grunted; she was not overly worried that Alistair would refuse her.

"We'd rather have you as our teyrna," repeated a merchant, slightly sulkily. "Lass with a sensible head on her shoulders, and one who understands the workins' of a piscicultural economy."

Flora bowed her head apologetically, deciding to pay Anora a visit in the immediate future.

"I don't need a title to be concerned with Gwaren's welfare," she said softly, letting her pale gaze meander from one anxious face to the next. "Alistair and I will rebuild Gwaren, as we will all the villages and towns destroyed during the Blight."

The people looked at Flora with bright new hope on their faces, and this triggered the sudden emergence of a memory, rising like flotsam on the surface of her mind.

It's like when I was the Warden-Commander. The soldiers used to look at me the same way.

"Ma petite," murmured Leliana quietly, and Flora decided that the bard had been patient long enough. As she pushed herself to her feet, there was a great scraping of chair legs against wood as those present hurried to stand.

"When is your next meeting?" she asked hastily, seeing that the mayor was preparing to deliver an effusive - and unnecessary, in Flora's opinion- speech of gratitude.

"In a week," replied the mayor, wide-eyed.

Flora nodded, biting her lip as she thought on the timings.

"I'll speak to my brothers about the wood and the ships," she said, at last. "We want that sorted out before the progress."

"My lady- "

"It's fine," Flora said quickly, feeling a faint flush rise to her cheeks. "I hope the lobsters and whelk-fish enjoy their summer of reprieve, because the nets and crab-pots will be back with a vengeance by autumn."

There was a resounding murmur of agreement, and Flora was gratified to hear a distinct vein of optimism emerging in their muttered conversation.

As she, Zevran and Leliana – accompanied by the usual plethora of Royal Guard – made their way out into the sunlight; the elf turned around with a little, teasing smile on his face.

"I've had an idea, carina."

"Eh?" said Flora, who was trying to avoid the direct glare of the sun for fear of burning. "What?"

The horses were led forwards from the shade between two warehouses, their tails whisking briskly at the hovering flies.

"I think the sons and daughters of the nobility should all be sent off to be raised in little villages," Zevran continued, ascending onto his horse with a fluid grace as Leliana heaved Flora bodily up behind her. "If they develop such a care for the common person as you."

"Losing your home feels just as bad, whether you're a villager losing a little hut, or a lord losing a castle," replied Flora solemnly, her brow furrowed. "I'm glad that I can do something to help, even though I'm- "

Useless, she had been about to say, but now Flora was uncertain how true that actually was.

I can still help. I can still be useful. Even without my magic.

 

Chapter Text

A half-candle later and they had arrived – better late than never – at the Guerrin manor, which was set in a prime location within the noble district. Eamon himself greeted them at the door, ushering them swiftly into the entrance hall. Flora wandered along in Leliana's brisk wake, recalling how she and Alistair had stayed here during the frenetic, uncertain days of the Landsmeet. She had realised the existence of her little creature within the dining chamber of this very manor – finally acknowledging that which she had denied since the first horrible suspicions crept into her mind at South Reach.

They passed before the family portrait at the peak of the staircase – Eamon, Isolde and Connor, their painted plaster faces staring out blindly into the void of the hallway. Eamon led them down another wide, flagstoned corridor until they reached a familiar door – the chamber that Alistair and Flora had been assigned during their stay here.

"The dressmaker is all ready for you," the arl murmured to Flora, with a small smile. "I know that gowns aren't your usual choice of garb – I hope that you can tolerate one for tomorrow."

Flora let out a little grunt of assent, following Leliana into the chamber. It was just as she remembered – wide and airy, with the row of dancing Mabari painted above the hearth and a large, leaded-glass window that looked out onto the mouth of the estuary.

A slender woman with the narrow, clever features of a fox was waiting beside the bed, reams of material piled atop the blankets.

"At last!" she murmured, with a thick Redcliffe accent. "My lady, we have much to do. If you wouldn't mind leaving your tunic on the stool!"

"I'll leave you to it, Greta," said Eamon hastily, knowing that Flora had a habit of premature disrobing. "Let me know the cost of the materials."

"For the Hero of Ferelden?" the dressmaker retorted, incredulous. "No charge!"

Soon afterwards, Flora was standing in her smallclothes before the hearth; counting each painted Mabari beneath her breath as Leliana and the dressmaker exchanged swift, abbreviated conversation.

"Not the patterned wool," the bard declared, eyeing the crimson chequered fabric. "It'll be too warm with all the fur and leather. Remember, she'll be on her feet for several hours."

"Traditionally, the Avvar wore the tartan at their wedding ceremonies," Greta retorted, stretching a swathe of leather around a silent, compliant Flora's waist.

"Avvar brides also got their husbands to unpick knots to determine the length of their marriage," retorted Leliana, comparing the weight of two furs. "We're emulating the Alamarri in general, not just the Avvar."

Flora let the women move about her, raising her arms as required, her gaze drifting across to where Zevran lay sprawled in an armchair. A swathe of scarlet and tan tartan was draped across his thighs; as he sensed her stare, the elf lifted his leg atop the chair's arm.

"Does this pattern make me look more 'Ferelden'?" he enquired with a wicked smile, knowing that – with his warm-hued skin, golden earring and pronounced accent – he could not look more foreign if he tried.

Flora smiled at him, and then squawked as Leliana yanked the strings of a bodice tightly around her breasts.

"I think you're already a little bit 'Ferelden'," she replied, slightly breathless. "I haven't heard you complain about the blandness of the food for at least a day."

The elf snorted, sitting upright and eyeing her from top to toe. Although the dress was not yet completed, it was easy to see the general aesthetic that the Redcliffe dressmaker intended: traditional Alamarri, unsullied by the Orlesian influence that had crept into Fereldan fashion over the past decade. There would be no silk or velvet found in either king or queen's wedding outfits on the morrow, no lace sleeves or satin trim. Instead, their garb would be hewn from leather and fur in a clear statement: we both are descended from the oldest humans in Thedas; from the great warriors who shaped the south in our image. Andraste Herself was one of our kind, as was the dragon-slayer Calenhad.

This political subtext was lost on Flora, who was merely bemused at the decision to wear such weighty materials in the middle of summer.

"I'm going to sweat like a pig," she said plaintively as Leliana draped a bearskin around her shoulders. "Especially with my hair down."

"No, you won't," the bard replied briskly, removing the bearskin and replacing it with a dark sable fur. "The Grand Chantry is always cool."

"Save your sweating for later," Zevran chimed in, with a slightly malicious edge to his voice. "For when you and Alistair must perform for your audience. Ha! Is the witnessing of a consummation an Alamarri tradition too?"

The question was directed at Leliana, who snorted and gave a little shake of the head.

Flora grimaced slightly, having been so preoccupied with remembering the order of the coronation ritual – was it take orb, then pass sceptre to Alistair, or the other way around? – that the spectre of the wedding night had been temporarily banished from her mind.

"I forgot about that," she said, gloomily. "Leliana, can't you be the Chantry sister who watches us?"

The bard laughed, removing fur and bodice before setting them down on the bed.

"I'm nowhere near senior enough to verify the legitimacy of a royal marriage, ma cherie."

Zevran eyed Flora's swollen breasts appreciatively for a moment, elegant tattooed fingers moving in idle patterns across the worn velvet chair arm.

"I have it on good authority that more than a dozen nobles have volunteered to witness the consummation," he purred, Finian having told him in bed that morning. "It seems that there are many keen to hear the sounds that the lovely lady Cousland makes in the bedchamber."

"Snoring?" offered Flora helpfully, as Leliana resisted the urge to throw a pin at the lecherous Antivan.

"Come now," retorted Zevran, crooking a wicked golden eyebrow towards her. "Not just snoring, nena."

Flora thought for a moment, and then flashed him an innocent smile; her pale Mabari eyes wide and guileless.

"Not just snoring," she confirmed, then cackled as he grinned, shooting her a knowing look.

The edge of the sun brushed the western horizon, the pale peach hue of sunset shining through the leaded glass and filling the chamber with mellow light.

The baby shifted in Flora's stomach, woken by the echo of her laughter. The leather strapping around it's mother's knee had come loose; she was about to attempt to tighten it when a foot swung into her bladder. A second kick followed shortly afterwards as the baby tested the confines of Flora's belly, and she gave a reflexive grimace.

"Ow. Stop kicking me, you little toad. We're making you a not-bastard tomorrow, be grateful."

"Sturdy creature," murmured Leliana, going to fetch Flora's navy tunic from where it had been abandoned on the bed. "At least it's not making you sick in the mornings anymore."

"Oh, it still does sometimes," replied Flora immediately, pulling the tunic on over her head. "It did the other day. Thank you."

This was in response to the sharp-eyed Zevran, who had had spotted the trailing leather strap at her knee and was now on his own knees before her; deft fingers skilfully pulling the thin band taut.

"De nada, carina."

Leliana retrieved Flora's boots from where she had kicked them off near the entrance. A steward ducked their head around the ajar door, voicing a soft question; bard and servant began to converse in low tones about arrangements for the morrow.

Zevran glanced over to check that the dressmaker was preoccupied with gathering her materials, rising to his feet with the feline grace of a leopard. He caught Flora's eye and she leaned towards him; knowing from long familiarity that the elf had something to say.

"Nena," he breathed, with a last thin vein of hope infused through the words. "I can offer you one more chance to escape the gilded handcuffs that will be placed on you tomorrow. We can bring Alistair with us as well, if he is willing. After the coronation, such liberation will be impossible."

Flora gazed at the elf, whose dark eyes were gleaming like ignited coals. There was an air of resignation infusing his request; as though he already knew what her response was going to be.

"We can't leave," she whispered, tying the laces of her tunic in a swift fisherman's knot. "You know we can't. This is what Alistair and I have to do, now that the Blight is over."

"But you do not want it, nena," replied Zevran, a pleading edge now creeping into his tone. "I know the sweet-hearted girl from Herring never wished to be queen. I remember her fleeing Redcliffe Castle because she did not even wish to be Lady Cousland."

"It's duty, not desire," continued Flora, quietly. "Even though I'm not a Warden anymore, I can still serve this country."

The elf half-laughed, and there was no humour in the sound.

"Forgive me, mi florita, but did you not assemble an army, slay the Archdemon and end the Fifth Blight? Have you not served Ferelden enough?"

Flora reached out to touch the slender braid hanging beside Zevran's ear, thoughtful.

"But I don't want to stop trying to help," she said softly, fingering the woven strands of platinum. "Even though Compassion's left me. I'm not ready to retire. And I can do more as queen than I could as just a… girl from Herring."

Zevran stared at her with a myriad of conflicting emotions tangled together on his face; Flora pulled gently at the slender braid.

"Will you help me put some of these in my hair tomorrow? I'm not as good as you at doing them."

"Of… of course," the elf replied at last, plastering a smile atop his clouded features. "It would be my pleasure, nena."

Pleased, Flora smiled at him, and then ducked neatly around his body to retrieve her boots.


 

By the time that they arrived back at the palace, the sun had half-lowered itself into the sky. It promised to be a fine day tomorrow – the sky was a blended mix of ochre and violet, with no ominous cloud brewing on the horizon.

The grounds of the palace seemed far busier than usual – many of the more esteemed wedding guests were staying within the castle itself. Wagons, horses and retainers clad in a spectrum of different liveries were clustered on the palace forecourt; a babble of excited foreign tongues rising up above them like some exotic effluence.

A dozen different banners were propped against the wall – thanks to Leliana's tutelage at Revanloch, Flora found that she recognised many of them. She spotted the silver and blue of Orlais, far more refined in pattern compared to the Marcher standards nearby; the grand duc's guards clad in the formal attire of Celene's court. The banner of the Pentaghasts – a black skull on a mustard field – was at the opposite side of the courtyard from the Vaels of Nevarre; the two noble dynasties had fallen out over a trade disagreement earlier that year.

There was also a heavy Templar presence – Flora recognised several familiar faces from Revanloch – due to the number of mages in attendance. The Empress Celene had sent her Court Enchanter; a woman with unmatchable poise who travelled in the style befitting a lady of her stature. In addition, there were a gaggle of Tevinter magisters who had come out of sheer curiosity; hoping to catch a glimpse of the reputed markings left by the Archdemon's soul on the body of Ferelden's future queen.

There was so much bustle and conversation within the courtyard that Leliana managed to secrete Flora inside a side-entrance unnoticed, aided by Zevran's loud and purposefully distracting flirtation with a pair of un-amused Templar several yards away.

Once they were inside the palace, Leliana led the way skilfully through the labyrinth of servant tunnels that circled the public areas of the palace, Flora's hand gripped tightly in hers. Servants were rushing back and forth, clutching sacks of raw ingredients, bolts of fabric, and garlands of flowers. Pairs of dwarves carried great barrels of ale between them, sweat dripping down their necks. With the coronation and wedding on the morrow, it was set to be the most significant occasion since the liberation of Ferelden; and there was a corresponding urgency in these last minute preparations.

"Why are we back here?" the young Cousland asked, following in Leliana's wake as they navigated through a busy set of corridors. "Ooh, is that the kitchens? It smells good. I wish the baby would let me eat meat, I miss chicken."

"Arl Eamon wants to keep you under wraps until tomorrow," replied Leliana, knowing the maze-like network of torch-lit passages like the back of her own lute. "All of your guests will be dining in the great hall later, but you and Alistair will be eating in your quarters."

Flora beamed; infinitely preferring this latter option.

They crossed the elevated passage that overlooked the Landsmeet chamber. Flora was unable to resist peering down through the window-slits at the darkened chamber, the rows of tiered wooden seating bathed in shadow as the unlit hearths sat like gaping mouths. The shutters across the Alamarri balcony had been left part-open to air the chamber; revealing a glimpse of star-studded sky.

Before they could step through the doorway leading to the Royal passage, Zevran took his leave.

"I'll see you tomorrow, señoras," he murmured, winking at Leliana. "I'm going to see if any of our Antivan guests remember me."

Although the playful tone of his voice implied some provocative intent, Leliana was well aware of the elf's true purpose: to drift amongst the foreign factions and blend into the background in the way that only an elf could, his aim to divine any ill intentions. Zevran had already secured access to the grand duc's quarters after beguiling Gaspard's Orlesian groom.

Flora opened her mouth anxiously, and the elf hastened to reassure her, lifting a hand to brush his thumb along her jaw.

"Don't fret, hermosa novia. I will be at your quarters in the morning to put some braids into your hair."

She smiled at Zevran, and he leaned forward to kiss her just to the east of her mouth.

One unobtrusive side door later and Leliana led them triumphantly into the Royal passage; the torches on the walls struggling to illuminate such a broad and lengthy corridor. The Royal Guard stood still as statues between the actual suits of armour; their pikes throwing long shadows across the flagstones.

The chief steward, Guillaume, was standing just outside the king's quarters, talking in muted tones to a servant. As Leliana and Flora approached, the Nevarran interrupted his conversation and turned to face them; sweeping into a bow.

"Lady Cousland," he murmured, clever eyes glinting in the torchlight. "Lay-Sister. I trust all went well with the dressmaker today?"

"Very well," replied Leliana, inclining her own head. "Florence, I imagine that Alistair is waiting for you. I'll see you after dinner, ma chérie."

"The king is indeed waiting," confirmed the steward, canting his chin towards the double doors leading into the Theirin chamber. "He's getting a tad anxious."

"Alistair gets anxious when she goes to the wash-chamber in the mornings," muttered Leliana, nudging Flora forwards. "Go on, put him out of his misery."

The guardsmen hurried to open the doors, revealing the Royal bedchamber in all its stark, rough-hewn native glory. The hearth had been piled high with fresh cedar-wood, and the spiked iron wheel hanging overhead gleamed with fat beeswax candles.

Alistair, still clad in the leathers he had worn during the rehearsal earlier that day, was pacing the length of the flagstones between the hearth and the bed. Turning swiftly as the doors opened, relief suffused the king's handsome features as his eyes focused on his fat-bellied mistress.

"Maker's Breath, Lo! I was about to head out with a search party."

Her former brother-warden strode towards her, pulling the crown impatiently from his head and setting it down on the dresser. Flora, beaming reflexively, went happily into his outstretched arms. Alistair embraced her close to his chest, one hand coming up to cradle the back of her head. He planted a half-dozen kisses into her hair, one brand of adoration following another.

"I thought you'd be back hours ago," he murmured, aware that he was being overly protective but unable to stop himself. "You were just meant to be going to the dressmaker, not wandering all over Denerim!"

"I did go to the dressmaker," Flora repeated indignantly into the muscle of Alistair's leather-clad chest. "Eventually. Anyway, I was with Zevran and Leliana. And six guards."

"Saela can't birth those pups soon enough," Alistair replied, thinking on Fergus' favourite Mabari. "Your brother has promised to train the fiercest pair to guard you and the baby. We need more dogs around the place, anyway."

Flora smiled vaguely at her overly concerned best friend, extricating herself from his arms and wandering over to the bed to pull off her boots. This proved to be easier said than done: her feet had swollen enough to test the confines of the leather.

There followed a rap at the door and a small procession of servants entered, carrying trays and tankards between them. Seeing a slender elven female buckling under the weight of a heavy platter, Alistair went to assist, taking the tray with a murmur of gratitude. Plates of meat, cheese and onion tartlets were placed on the table among bowls of stuffed eggs and sugared almonds. A platter of raw vegetables – with as much earth as the cook could bear to leave on them – was also included; catering for Flora's hormonal urges.

"Sweetheart," Alistair said, turning away from the freshly laid table and seeing Flora red-faced and contorted trying to remove her boots. "Let me help you."

Striding over to the bed, he sat beside Flora amidst the furs; pulling her legs up into his lap and reaching for her boots.

"Ouch, ouch- "

"I know, I know, baby. Sorry."

Once the offending boots were on the floor, Flora eyed her aching and swollen feet, belligerently.

"I don't understand why something growing in the stomach would make my feet hurt," she said in perplexion, letting her fingers drift idly over Alistair's head as he bent to rub her sore toes. "How is it connected?"

I could have found out, when I still had my magic, Flora thought ruefully to herself; Alistair's strong fingers working away the tension from her feet just as they had done for her sore knee. I could see the body in my mind, easy as opening up a book. Easier, actually – I didn't need to learn how to read the crevices and fissures of flesh and bone; I just knew them.

Why didn't I spend more time working out how it all fit together? How one part connected to another? I wasted so much of my gift, and now it's gone.

"Darling. Is that better?"

Alistair's voice punctuated Flora's reverie and she shook off her melancholy, smiling down at his handsome face as he gazed hopefully up at her.

"Much better. Thank you."

She reached out to put her arms about his neck, planting a grateful kiss on his cheek.

They ate together on the rug before the hearth; Flora ignoring the meat and gobbling down all the vegetables, Alistair readily consuming the chicken and beef cuts that she spurned.

Mouths full, they tried to recall the order of the coronation ritual that they would soon be enacting before the leading figures of Thedas.

"I pass you the scep- scorp- fancy stick," Flora said without any degree of certainty, handing him a fork intended to emulate a sceptre. "And then you do… something with it. Twirl it?"

Alistair looked down at the fork, his brow creasing in an effort to remember.

"Is that before or after I raise the sword?"

Flora took his meat-knife, giving it an experimental thrust upwards.

"I'd rather have the sword. I have to carry a bird. Why do I need to carry a bird? What if I drop the cage?"

For a moment, the two former Wardens gazed at one another in mutual bemusement before the fire. Finally, Alistair laughed and put down the fork, reaching out to stroke her cheek with the calloused ball of his thumb.

"It doesn't matter, darling. The most important bit of the whole thing is getting married to you. Everything else comes second to that."

Alistair lifted Flora's fingers to his mouth, as though he were not king but a grown stable boy declaring his love to the local fisherman's daughter. Still clutching her hand, he leaned forward and let his lips brush against her ear.

"You're the light of my life," he murmured, delighted at the blush rising to her cheeks. "You know that, sweet girl?"

Flora dropped her eyes to her lap, suddenly made shy. Instead of replying, she brought their intertwined hands to her breast, letting him feel the steady rhythm of her heart.

"This beats only for you," she whispered, feeling tears prickling on her eyelashes that were not entirely caused by hormonal fluctuation. "Always for you."

Alistair gazed back at her, dampness gleaming within his own hazel irises; the green flecks illuminated by the light of the hearth.

"You two are so precious, it's making my teeth rot," commented a dry, familiar voice from behind them.

Finian – whose entrance had been announced by the steward but gone unnoticed – was hovering beside the table, picking at the leftovers. He grinned down at them, tossing an olive into his mouth before crooking an imperious finger.

"Floss, your birthday present is here. It's in our chamber."

 

Chapter Text

Bemused, Flora and Alistair both followed Finian the short distance down the passageway to the Cousland quarters. Retainers clad in the family livery hastened to open the doors; heads inclined in polite acknowledgement of king and future queen.

With a triumphant flourish, Finian led the way inside the quarters once used extensively by Bryce Cousland. The hearth had been piled high with the same perfumed cedar wood as the Royal bedchamber, but these flames illuminated stark differences in décor. The laurel of Highever was painted painstakingly on the plastered walls; fabric accents of navy and olive permeated throughout. A framed family tree, carefully inked on parchment, hung above the hearth itself.

Fergus was sitting at the table, a polite and slightly bemused expression writ across his auburn-bearded face. Opposite him was a rotund, middle-aged man with florid and weather-beaten features. He was wearing a rather odd combination of clothing: a grubby linen shirt, a striped mustard and tan tunic, and a bright orange fishing hat. The entire ensemble was much patched and clearly well-travelled in.

Alistair thought at first that it might be some familiar face from Herring, but this theory was quickly dashed when his lover appeared equally clueless as to the man's identity.

On seeing them, the man rose awkwardly to his feet; not used to being in such esteemed company.

"Floss," announced Finian from behind her shoulder, pride suffusing the words as they emerged. "I'm very pleased to introduce Wulfric Letholdus, formerly of Honnleath, currently of Dragon's Peak."

Alistair blinked - the name meant nothing to him. At his side Flora's jaw dropped, her eyes widening in disbelief. Finian had spent a half-candle deciphering this name with her at South Reach, his finger patiently tracing out the letters scored into the book's leather binding.

"You wrote Exotic Fish of Thedas," she breathed, awestruck.

"Aye, milady."

"My favourite book in the world. You fished up all those amazing fish."

The man nodded, eyeing her warily.

"Aye, that I did, ma'am. Every one, by my own net and pole."

"Oh," she continued, utterly enraptured. "That's amazing. I'm so jealous."

Wulfric let out a little grunt, shifting in his seat and shooting a surreptitious glance at the Cousland heraldry painted on the walls.

"How did you manage to catch the Rivaini Night Eel?" Flora whispered, with eyes like saucers. "It only comes out of the nest twice a year."

"All a matter of usin' a big-enough hook," replied the fisherman, with the dourness typical of his profession. "And waitin' for a sou'westerly current."

Fascinated, Flora drifted forwards as though in a waking dream; taking a seat at the table and staring at the man as though he were the Blessed Andraste Herself returned to the mortal world.

"But what kind of bait did you use?"

Within moments, fisherman and future queen were immersed deep in a conversation that seemed utterly nonsensical to the others present in the chamber. Alistair had no idea what his best friend was babbling excitedly about – it was an incomprehensible tangle of fishing linguistics, interspersed with peculiar breed names he just about recognised from reading through Exotic Fish with her. Still, he was delighted to see his lover looking so animated, simultaneously grateful to Finian for organising such a deeply meaningful gift.

Fergus apparently had similar thoughts, the teyrn draping an arm about his younger brother's shoulders as he came to stand alongside them.

"How in Andraste's flaming smalls did you manage to track him down, Finn?"

Finian grinned, at once both proud and smug.

"He was a bugger to find," the new arl of Amaranthine admitted, cheerfully. "Had to use all my Orlesian contacts. I owe quite a few people favours now. But, it's worth it. Look at her sweet little face!"

Flora was leaning forwards, utterly enthralled, her chin resting in her hands and her pale eyes bright with fascination.

For the next two hours, fisherman and daughter of Herring were consumed by frenzied conversation. Unable to contribute, king and Cousland brothers ended up playing several quiet rounds of Wicked Grace in the corner of the chamber; Finian winning three times and the others a round apiece.

Finally, Wulfric Letholdus ended up rather awkwardly presenting Flora with a sheaf of parchment bound together with twine; coughing and raising his eyes to the ceiling. She used her finger to trace the words etched into the leather, reading them painstakingly out loud.

"'Even… More… Ex- Exotic Fish of Thedas.' Oh! Oooooh!"

"It's the sequel," muttered Wulfric, with the awkward demeanour of a man who spent more time alone in the wilds with a fishing rod than he did in the company of others. "Only a first draft, mind."

Flora clutched the book to her chest; so overwhelmed that she felt a choked sob surging up from her belly. Not bothering to restrain herself – after all, she was not in public – she let the tears of gratitude roll freely down her cheeks.

Wulfric, even less used to dealing with tears than he was women in general, shot a frantic glance towards the others. Alistair, whose head had shot around at the first sniffle, immediately rose to his feet; the cards falling from his lap to the flagstones.

"Three Serpents and a Rose," observed Finian quietly, smug in the knowledge that he would have won this round too.

Alistair came to stand behind Flora's chair, one hand settling gently on top of her head. Flora wiped roughly at her eyes, clutching the book to her chest as though it were a precious baby.

"I owe you more than I can say," she whispered tremulously, forcing some evenness into her reply. "Exotic Fish of Thedas gave me so much happiness during the Blight. I can't thank you enough."

"Well, we all owe you our lives," muttered Wulfric, the words accompanied by a little grunt. "Dragon-slayer."

Once Wulfric had taken his leave, Finian shot a self-satisfied grin across the room towards his little sister, who was still sitting – slightly dazed - at the table.

"Told you my gift was worth waiting for, Flossie," he declared, with equal parts smugness and pride.

Flora placed the Exotic Fish sequel atop the gleaming beech surface; propelling herself and her belly upright with a spread palm. Crossing the room in a handful of strides, she embraced her brother with a ferocity that knocked the air from his lungs. Finian laughed as he held her against him, hand patting her shoulder blades through the lambs' wool tunic.

"I take it you liked your present then, sweet pea?"

"I loved it!"

"Does it make up for me chasing you around Redcliffe Castle with some Templars when we first met?"

"YES!"


 

A short while later - much to Alistair and Flora's dismay - they were forced to part. Old Fereldan tradition dictated that the bride be kept in a separate room from her future husband on the night preceding the wedding. Eamon had sent Leliana as enforcer; knowing that both Alistair and Flora would do as the sweetly smiling, steely-eyed bard requested.

With Flora's nightgown over her arm, the lay sister manifested in the corridor outside the Cousland quarters, intercepting both former Wardens as they left. Alistair's face had been almost comical in its disappointment as he learnt that he was to be separated from his best friend until midday the next day – indeed, the next time he would set eyes on her would be in the Grand Chantry itself.

Flora, equally glum at the prospect of their parting, reached out her arms towards him; Mairyn's Star glintingin the torchlight.

"I'll have the horses ready at eleven bells tomorrow morning," Fergus murmured to Leliana, as the lay sister gave a small nod of confirmation. "The streets will be cordoned off to carts and wagons, and guards will line the route, but I suspect it'll still take longer than normal to reach the Square."

"In Orlais, it's fashionable for a bride to be late to her own wedding," Leliana replied, with a little snort reminiscent of Val Royeaux. "Oh, for the love of Andraste, you two are being parted for a single night, not a year! Florence, do try and leave Alistair some face left, won't you?"

A flushed Flora detached herself with extreme reluctance. Alistair appeared half tempted to take his mistress by the hand and lead her back into their own bedchamber, though he was rapidly dissuaded by a deadly glare from Leliana.

"I'll see you tomorrow, baby," the king called after Flora as she was steered down the corridor by the determined bard. "I'll be the one standing at the front of the Chantry in a gold hat."

Leliana, with the acumen of one who knew the layout of the palace intimately, led the way from the Royal quarters and into the eastern wing of the castle. They traversed branching corridors and passageways that Flora had not even seen before, passing over balconies overlooking mouldering hallways and barely-used reception chambers. Flora was so fascinated by this venture into the decaying depths of the palace that she abandoned her sulk at being parted from Alistair. The bard seemed to be leading her into a far older section of the castle – one in dire need of repairs. The stone walls were crumbling, the flagstones cracked and the tapestries on the wall visibly threadbare. Even the candelabras were cloaked in cobwebs, remnants of candles frozen in waxy drips. The corridor was lit sporadically, one torch lit for every three iron brackets.

"I've never been here before," Flora breathed, almost colliding with Leliana as the bard halted outside a wooden door inscribed with a wolf's snarling maw. "It smells like Herring."

"Damp and mouldering? I agree," murmured Leliana, giving the door an experimental nudge.

In contrast to the dilapidated surroundings, the door swung open easily; as though its hinges had been freshly oiled. Indeed, the small bedchamber that lay within appeared to have been recently renovated – a fresh coat of plaster had been applied to the walls, clean furs spread over the bed and sweet-smelling rushes strewn across the flagstones. A fire had been set in the hearth, crackling contentedly away behind the iron grate.

The neat little bedchamber was in such disparity to the mildewed corridor that Flora stared at it, and then twisted her head to peer up and down the dilapidated passageway.

"In, in," chided Leliana, ushering Flora inside and promptly closing the door. "You're going to let all the heat out."

Flora wandered across the room, her attention caught by the faded tapestry on the wall. It depicted several playful Mabari at play; one gnawing at a bone, the other chasing its tail, and the third barking up at its master. It was faded and frayed, clearly a great number of decades old.

"Whose room was this?" she breathed, touching a finger to the moth-eaten fabric and sneezing at the dust that rose in its wake.

"This was the childhood room of Moira Theirin," Leliana replied softly, heading to the window and pushing back the shutters. A sloping tiled roof ran alongside the wall; running a length of several metres before ending in a sharp drop to the courtyard below. Just beneath the window was a low balcony, barely large enough for two people to stand abreast.

"Moira Theirin?" Flora repeated, trying to recall Alistair's ancestry.

"The Rebel Queen of Ferelden, Florence. Do you remember nothing of my history lessons? Although," Leliana relented, seeing Flora yawn. "She wasn't yet the Rebel Queen when she lived here. She was a little girl, whose father was desperately clinging to his throne. The Orlesians had already captured the south-west- "

"Boo! Hiss!"

"Indeed, ma petite. The Orlesians had taken Redcliffe, and were rapidly encroaching on the Bannorn. King Brandel could not rally the Fereldan people, and so eventually he lost Denerim too. It was his daughter who united the people behind her and took up the rebel cause; in defiance of what seemed an insurmountable force."

Flora blinked, dropping an absentminded hand to her stomach as she felt the baby give an irritable kick.

"I have a feeling I'm staying in this room tonight for a reason," she said carefully at last, and Leliana gave a small, patient nod of confirmation.

"Oui, ma crevette. It sends out a message to Ferelden, much like the entirety of tomorrow. You understand, yes?"

Flora nodded; she did understand.

All of Thedas' leaders will be at the coronation tomorrow; either in person or in proxy. They're not just there as guests, they're there to assess Ferelden's post-Blight strength.

Alistair and I, we both have to appear strong. Like leaders that can rally a nation behind us. If we look strong, Ferelden looks strong.

Leliana smiled, drawing the shutters closed and turning back into the room.

"Anyway! As isolated as this chamber may seem, I assure you that there are servants and stewards lingering nearby if you have any requests. However, I must suggest an early night - it's going to be a very exhausting day tomorrow."

Leliana's 'suggestions' were actually none-too-subtly disguised instructions. Minutes later, Flora was sitting on the bed in her nightgown, eyes watering as the bard wielded a merciless hairbrush.

"The dressmaker will arrive at eight bells tomorrow. We'll need to be up at dawn to wash and dry this great unruly mass of hair," Leliana murmured, finally satisfied that she had worked out all the tangles. "It'll take three hours to get you ready- "

"Three hours?!" bleated Flora, who customarily took three minutes to get ready. "Hours?"

"Ssh! Oui. We'll depart at eleven bells. Does that suit you?"

Flora let out a little grunt of assent, winding several thick ropes of hair into a plump braid over her shoulder.

"Eleven hours," she repeated, fastening the end of the woven hair with a leather tie and lying back against the furs. "Alright."

Leliana leaned across to blow out the candle, settling back into the mass of overstuffed cushions. For several moments, both redheads were silent, thinking on the events of the next day. An owl called from somewhere beyond the closed shutters, the cry echoed by its mate moments later. The bard's sharp ears detected the sound of guardsmen's boots against the flagstones; a pair of soldiers stationing themselves at either side of the door. Clearly, Alistair was willing to take no chances with his mistress' safety on this final night they were to spend apart.

Flora felt the baby shift inside her belly and placed a warning hand over the fleshy curve, inwardly instructing the little creature not to get too acrobatic just as she was settling down.

Go back to sleep, Flora thought to herself, sternly. We both have a long day tomorrow.

"Bonne nuit, ma crevette." Leliana's voice drifted from the shadows; the outline of her face just visible against the cushions.

"Night, Leliana," Flora replied, reaching out to pat the bard gently on her freshly moisturised cheek. "Don't let the weever fish bite."

Flora awoke several hours later to the sound of a faint tapping. Confused – and also a little terrified that it might be the headless ghost of the Rebel Queen come back to revisit her old bedroom - Flora opened an eye and squinted through the gloom.

The hearth burned low in the grate, casting a muted ochre glow across the small bedchamber. Leliana was sound asleep beside her, a pink silk Orlesian mask covering the upper half of her face. The chamber itself seemed deserted, and then the faint tapping came again and Flora jumped a little amidst the blankets.

A moment later, she realised that the sound was coming through the closed shutters; faint and insistent.

"Flo!"

Flora put down her impromptu weapon - Even More Exotic Fish Of Thedas - and pushed back the furs, swinging herself and her belly out of bed. Creeping barefoot across the flagstones, she reached up to unfasten the shutters, pulling them inwards to reveal a triumphant Alistair perched on the balcony below. He was still fully dressed and grinning triumphantly; untidy hair silvered by an indulgent, low-hanging moon.

"Finally!"

Chapter Text

Flora blinked down at Alistair as he balanced precariously on the ledge below, utterly astonished. Somewhere in the night-shrouded courtyard, the bell rang for the tenth hour; the sound echoing between the crumbling stone walls.

"You're turning into Zevran," she breathed after a moment, leaning out of the window to stare down at him. "What are you doing?"

"I wanted to come and see my beautiful bride," Alistair replied, taking hold of the balcony edge and using strong thighs to propel himself upwards. "Guillaume told me where you were staying. I've never been in this bit of the palace before!"

"Be careful," Flora said in alarm, aware that her long-limbed, broad-shouldered companion was not the most graceful being in Thedas. "Don't slip."

"I'm not going to slip – oh, shit – well, I'm probably not going to slip."

Now successfully perched on the balcony, Alistair grinned winningly up at her; the torch-lit exterior of the Royal Palace serving as a suitably dramatic backdrop.

"My love! No tradition can stop me from seeing you. If they catch us, I'll just plead ignorance due to my upbringing in Arl Eamon's stables."

"I thought you were the ghost of the Rebel Queen," Flora replied, leaning further out of the window as he reached up; one large, sword-calloused hand cupping the side of her cheek. "I was about to hit you with Even More Fish."

"Ah, Granny Moira," the king murmured distractedly, his thumb now tracing the planes and angles of her solemn face. "Sorry if I scared you, baby. I just wanted to come and get my goodnight kiss. Or… I won't sleep well, and then I'll forget when to raise the sword during the coronation ceremony tomorrow, and Leliana might actually kill me."

Flora smiled down at him, strands of hair pulling loose from her braid and falling down beside her ears. Alistair gazed back up at her, the green flecks in his hazel irises standing out stark in the moonlight.

"By the Maker, you're so beautiful," he said unsteadily a moment later, shaking his head slowly. "You take my breath away, darling."

Immediately afterwards, his eyes widened in alarm as Flora hoisted the nightgown up around her thighs and swung her leg over the windowsill; his arms shooting upwards to steady her as she clambered out onto the balcony. This accomplished, she beamed in triumph, hair askew and nightgown half slipping from her shoulder.

"Ha! Haha."

A slightly traumatised Alistair drew her into his arms, making sure that she was safely positioned on the interior of the balcony. The beam slid away as Flora turned her face up to him; the metallic mote on her iris like a stray golden fleck from a painter's brush.

After a moment, the king's stare dropped from Flora's eyes to her full Cousland mouth, fascinated by the natural sulkiness found in its solemn curve. Wanting suddenly to see those lips part and shape his name, he bowed his head and pressed his mouth against hers. While his tongue worked busily alongside her own, one hand was already reaching to draw her nightgown up around her hips. Alistair's mouth made its way lower to caress her throat, lips suckling a series of gentle kisses into the creamy skin. Flora's thighs wrapped readily around his waist as he braced her against the wall, his own breeches partway down his thighs and buttocks exposed. She pressed her face into his shoulder, wide-eyed, not quite able to muffle her little noises of pleasure.

The moon gazed benevolently down from above; a pallid wash of nocturnal light illuminating both lofty balcony and the figures moving together upon it. As the king's thumb worked in conjunction with slow rolls of his pelvis, he felt his lover tense, a half-strangled plea escaping her lips.

"Say my name, baby," he instructed thickly with the Theirin dominance of his father, increasing the speed of his thumb.

Sure enough, moments later his name escaped Flora's throat in a desperate half-moan, her thighs clamping vice-like around his waist. Alistair held her through the shuddering climax, pressing tender kisses to her bared breasts.

As soon as the post-coital haze cleared from her mind, Flora blinked up at him in slight perplexion.

"You.. you didn't…?"

"No, sweetheart."

She looked about the cramped balcony, wondering if there was space for her to sink to her knees. Reading her intentions clear on her face, Alistair almost gave into temptation. One hand hovered above Flora's shoulder, then drew back; the king forcing himself to resist.

"I'm going to save myself for the wedding night," he said, and then stifled a laugh, realising that he sounded like some blushing maid. "Maker knows I'll need all the help I can get, in the company of a wizened old crone from the Chantry and some fellow from the Landsmeet whom I'll never be able to look in the eye again."

Flora was unable to stop herself from cackling as he lowered her gently to the tiles. Alistair shot his best friend a faintly malevolent look, and then broke into a rueful laugh.

"I suppose we'll look back at this in years to come and laugh," he murmured, bowing to press a kiss against her forehead. "I'd better leave you to get your rest now, darling. It's going to be a long one tomorrow."

Alistair kissed her on the end of the nose and then once more on the mouth, fingers reluctant to release the folds of her nightgown. Only when Flora appeared ready to clamber back through the window unaided did he stop his affections; lifting her gently up onto the sill in strong arms.

"There we go," he murmured, manoeuvring each of Flora's feet back over the stone ledge. "Back to bed, and the bard will be none the wiser. See you at the altar, baby."

With a final kiss on the lips, the king was navigating his way across the rooftop, one hand on the wall to steady himself. His mistress, her face wistful, watched Alistair's progress until he disappeared into the shadows; presumably ducking inside another opened window.

Flora drew the shutters quietly behind her, and then turned back into the shadowed chamber that had once belonged to Ferelden's most revered queen. Leliana was still motionless in bed, facing the door with the blankets pulled up to her chin.

Creeping across the tiles, Flora slid back into bed alongside her; letting out a little grunt as the baby swung a foot into her belly.

Don't you start, she thought sternly to her abdomen, tugging her nightgown back down over her knees. The next moment, she almost fell out of bed in terror as Leliana rolled over; raising her eye-mask to unleash a glower of epic proportion.

"Ma petite, the purpose of you sleeping in this chamber was to keep Alistair from seeing his bride until you come face to face in the Grand Chantry tomorrow. A purpose defeated if you allow him to illicitly grope you on balconies. You wanton little minx!"

"Yes… grope… that's all," said Flora hastily, worried that Leliana might have a minor heart attack if she discovered the full truth. "Sorry. It's the Herring girl in me. Shameless."

The bard let out a typically Orlesian sigh, plumping up the cushions before sinking back into them and replacing the eye mask. Flora eyed Leliana for a moment, then leaned over on her elbow and kissed her on the cheek.

"Lovely Leliana," she whispered, wistfully. "You're so clever. I wish we could keep you here forever with us. But I know you're going to be in demand all over Thedas."

"Ah, ma crevette!" The bard let out a soft laugh, her voice distant. "You are too kind. Do you really think that the Maker has some plan in store for me?"

"Definitely," Flora replied, immediately and without a shred of doubt. "There's lots of great things coming up in your future."

"Do you really believe so, ma petite?"

"Yes, of course!"

Leliana smiled at the young Cousland through the shadows, their faces resting a short distance apart on the embroidered cushions.

"I hope you're right, fleur. I am not yet ready to retire from His service."

A murmured prayer later and the bard was soon fast asleep, the eye mask firmly back over the upper half of her face. Flora rolled over, unable to get comfortable; the baby was digging itself into the base of her spine. Wishing that Alistair was there – his muscled chest was more comfortable to sprawl against than any mattress – she spent the next half-candle gazing gormlessly into the flickering hearth. A pair of servants entered a short time later, creeping across the flagstones with the breath suspended in their throats in an effort to be silent. They restocked the fire with new logs, sneaking out with equal care.

As the first layer of these fresh logs burned away, sleep continued to elude Flora. She turned impatiently from one side to another, until the furs tangled between her legs and she shoved them to the foot of the bed.

Finally, Flora clambered to her feet and went to the dresser, in the off-chance it would have some meagre contents. Sure enough, it contained a thick woollen dressing robe in an alarming shade of mustard. Pushing her arms through the sleeves, Flora shuffled across the flagstones and nudged the door open, inhaling the scent of mildew from the corridor. Immediately, the two guards posted at the entrance shifted their pikes from hand to hand to acknowledge her presence.

"Lady Florence," offered a Highever retainer, his loyalty recognisable from the navy livery he wore. "Is all well?"

"I'm fine," sh