King Alistair looked up at the tap on the door, then back down at the missive in his hand— Howe trying to excuse his failures again— really, he was going to have to do something about that man after all. It seemed even his limitless ambition couldn't protect him from his own incompetence. He sighed, folded the letter, and barked at whoever it was to enter.
The light fell across the subject of the letter's face, and he straightened visibly in his chair. She was dressed for stealth, not for battle, her auburn hair pinned up and away from her face, her armor battered black leather. Still, she was as pretty as the descriptions painted her, and, from the rage in her Amaranthine blue eyes and the scowl on those plush lips, just as much trouble. She was flanked by two guards and the Captain, her hands tied behind her back, but that did nothing to quell the threat that rolled off of her in waves. Even the guards seemed scared of her, and she was several inches shorter than all of them.
"Well, well," Alistair murmured as he stood. "The Bitch of Highever. You've been giving my men quite a lot of trouble, I hear." His gaze shifted to the Captain of the Guard immediately over her shoulder. "You've searched her?"
"Aye, Your Majesty. Confiscated her knives…" a troubled look flitted over his face, "all five of them, and the poisons, sire. And the crossbow. "
Despite himself, Alistair was mildly impressed. She'd certainly come prepared. And if she was as good with those weapons as the rumors said… "Then you may leave us, but Captain—" the man froze mid-bow. "Leave someone right outside the door. If they hear anything amiss, they are to return immediately. And… see to it there's another set of guards on our guest downstairs. It wouldn't do for anything to happen to him whilst he's enjoying his stay."
The girl's lips drew back into a snarl, and he saw her whole body flinch, as if she wanted to throw herself at him and only just held herself back.
The Captain bowed, and his guards left the room one at a time, shutting the door loosely behind them.
"Well, well, well," Alistair said as he walked around his desk, until the distance between them could be covered by an ill-fated lunge. He could feel the distance between them on his skin, and shifted to make sure his own boot-dagger was in place. "What am I to do with you, Lady Cousland?"
"Kill me, perhaps?" she snarled. "Like you killed my parents. Like you killed my nephew, my sister-in-law. Like you killed my betrothed."
"If you'll remember, dear Lady, it was Rendon Howe who killed your family. On the late Teyrn Loghain's orders," he shook his head in mock-grief, leaning his hip on the ancient wooden desk. "It is an action Howe gravely regrets. But you must understand, they were orders the poor Arl couldn't possibly deny, when they were given by a Teyrn, and our late Queen's father besides. Especially when he had evidence your parents were Orlesian spies."
"Evidence you had planted," Corrine replied, all but growling like her namesake.
"I do have to admit, though," he went on, as if she hadn't spoken. "I have thought about your suggestion. You and your little band of Banns," he smiled at his own joke, hard amber eyes crinkling in the corners, "have been causing quite the stir. I hear a Landsmeet may not be too far away, now. Perhaps even a civil war, and so soon after our last one," he tsked. "I had considered making an example of you, but now… now I feel we can reach a compromise."
Her lips parted in shock, and she blinked through her confusion, anger settling back into place as she considered his words. Oh, but she was wonderfully emotive. "Compromise. You had my parents killed, my nephew and his mother and imprisoned my brother!"
Was she going to list all of his supposed crimes? Maker, as if he hadn't had accusations thrown at him since the Silverite Crown touched his head. It was all he could do not to yawn. He focused his eyes on her lips instead. A much more pleasant show.
"You had your own brother killed," she continued. "His poor wife as well, and that after you married her for the throne." She scoffed. "What sort of compromise, save your death and your head on a pike above Denerim's gates, do you think we could possibly achieve?"
He sighed, but he didn't correct her. Though really, most of that had been Loghain's doing. Give credit where credit is due, he always said. Well, said once, perhaps. "As you say, my Lady. Your brother is an unwilling guest of mine, taken, I might add, attempting to take the life of his King. Not that I take it personally." He grinned wolfishly at her, setting aside all pretense of amiability. "But both your lives may yet be saved."
Her eyes narrowed, watching as he pushed himself to standing, and as he began to pace. "I thought, at first, that both the Cousland scions escaping the attack on their stronghold was simply an extreme bit of… luck," a grimace came and was gone, "but now I see our Lady's hand in it. The Couslands are an old family, since before Calenhad. Indeed, it is said Calenhad mucked out Lady Elethea's stables," he cocked his head, "or kept her dogs, I can never remember. Anyway, yours is an old and powerful bloodline. One chosen by the people time and time again, all honorable and true, and so on." He sighed dramatically. "Such a bloodline could only give legitimacy to a Theirin base-born son who may have ascended to the throne in… questionable circumstances."
He wouldn't have expected anything less. The wolfish grin was back as he rounded on her. "Think of it, Your Ladyship. As Queen, you could do so much more for the people of Ferelden. And, if I'm such a terrible King, you'd be able to mitigate any damage I could possibly do. Perhaps," he laid a dramatic hand on his chest, "you could even bring me around. Make me into the kind of King the people so richly deserve."
She sniffed her incredulousness. But, ah, he could see she was thinking about it. "And what is to stop me from stabbing you in our marriage bed?"
"Before or after we have an heir?" He wagged his eyebrows, then sighed when her expression did not change. "Well, nothing I suppose. Only—"
Her eyes narrowed even further.
The rage roared back into her face, and he was surprised when she didn't lunge at him, bound hands and all. "You dare to threaten him?"
"His life is already forfeit for plotting to kill his liege," he pointed out. "But, if you were to sit by my side, I suppose I could forgive all of that. As a wedding present. Perhaps I will even reinstate him as the Teyrn of Highever. Howe, grief-stricken as he is over the wrongful deaths of your family, would be quite content as the Arl of Denerim."
"And all I have to do is marry you."
"Precisely. You know, you aren’t half as dim as they say you are. Though all the snarling and snapping does give quite a different impression." He waited to see if she would rise to the bait, but she stayed still, simply glowering at him. Interesting. "Of course, both you and Fergus will be held responsible for each other's good behavior. You poison my food or stab me in the night or what have you, and he finds himself hung by the ankles over the Drakon. And vice-versa, of course. With standing orders to follow through on both if I die under mysterious circumstances. Which, of course, you wouldn't do with the line of succession still in question, would you? The last thing Ferelden needs is another civil war."
Her expression turned thoughtful, though it didn't lose any of its fierceness. Maker, to have that beside him, all that passion, all that fire… "And if I decline your… generous offer?"
"Then Fergus dies a traitor's death at dawn," he shrugged carelessly. "Drawn and quartered. I'm given to believe it's quite painful. And you, of course. You become well acquainted with Fort Drakon."
That was enough to make her pale. He watched with interest as she turned his offer over in her mind, her blue eyes flicking as if reading a page, watched her shoulders sag as she couldn't figure another way around it. Victory crowed in his chest as she swallowed. As she nodded.
"I'll need to hear you say it."
She tilted her chin at him like a lance. Defiant to the last. He could almost admire that. "I agree."
"Your Majesty," she finished.
"Then kiss my ring," he replied, voice rough. "And swear your fealty."
Hatred flashed in those beautiful blue eyes, and Maker did it make his heart race. He forced himself still, savoring the scant inches between them, the closing of space as she complied.
As gracefully as she was able with her arms hobbled behind her, she knelt before him, and pressed her lips to the signet ring on his proffered hand. A very pretty sight. And with her lips still hovering over the cold metal, spoke her oath, binding herself to him: "By the Maker and his Bride, I, Corrine Elethea Sarim Cousland of Highever, swear my life and service to—" she hesitated, but swallowed down all that screamed within her, and continued, "King Alistair Therein, first of his name. I will be faithful and true, love all that he loves and shun all he shuns according to the Maker's will. I will be his shield in the darkness and his sword on the field, and strike as he commands. I pledge my life and my will to his word, on the condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all of our agreements remain fulfilled." She emphasized the last, eyes promising him more than a simple knife through the back should he fail. And he smiled.
It was more a soldier's oath than from one noble to another, but with her in armor and his men's blood on her blades, he supposed it would have to do. He'd have a more… intimate pledge from her later.
"Very pretty words," he commended, and her lips pulled back in a sneer. "Very well. I, Alistair Marius Vanedrin Theirin, accept your oath, Corrine Elethea Sarim Cousland," he let his lips and tongue wrap around each syllable of her name, almost endearingly, and saw her back go rigid. "And do agree to keep you as you deserve, and our accord as we have arranged, this night as you submit yourself and choose to align your word and will to my own, forsaking all others save for the Maker's law, and that of his Bride."
Alistair let the words hang in the air a moment, then withdrew his hand so quickly that Corrine nearly lost her balance. "Now, what do you say we get things underway, shall we?" He clapped his hands together, summoning the guards from outside. "One of you retrieve my new brother-in-law, and the other run and find the Reverend Mother. Wake her if you have to. Meet us in the chapel. We'll have to arrange a more formal ceremony before all of Ferelden, of course, but this will do for now."
The guards gave a half-bow and were turning to fulfill their liege's will when he stopped them, "Oh, and leave the keys to her shackles. It doesn't do for my new Queen to be bound so.
"At least," he continued, when the guards were gone, the door shut behind them. He moved around toward her back, crouching low as he slipped the key into the shackles, waiting half a beat before turning it in the lock, "not where others can see. I have a reputation to uphold. But, Maker, you do look beautiful bound."
She shuddered as his bare hand skimmed along her back, steadying her as she rose to her feet.
"Oh, yes," he murmured into her ear. "We are going to have such fun together, you and I."