Fifty Chapters! *is scared by how big this story turned out to be*. I tried to get you some smut to celebrate, but my characters were not co-operative :( So I can offer only plot, as per usual. I do plot.
Much love as always to bellaknoti the Comma Fairy, who kindly tidies up my chapters.
Link to the beginning, for anyone joining us for the first time: www.fanfiction.net/s/6144534/1/Trouble_S
Title: Trouble & Strife: Chapter Fifty
Characters: today we have Alistair, Maddy, Philippe, Eamon, Loopy Leanna, Arl Wulff, Empress Celene, Divine Beatrix III, Valendrian and Shianni.
Rating: T (boo hiss for recalcitrant characters)
This chapter: Alistair's plans take the Hahren by complete surprise. Meanwhile, in Val Royeaux, the Divine has received an unwelcome letter from King Bhelen.
Stepping into King Alistair’s receiving room wasn’t quite as intimidating an experience as it had been last time, but Shianni’s mouth was still dry with nerves. Kalli was crap at letter-writing and, in the five months since leaving Denerim, had only managed two measly letters that could be summed up as ‘I’m well, and learning a load of stuff’. The arrival of the King’s messenger, summoning Valendrian and her to the palace, had worried Shianni, despite Valendrian’s reassurances. You could never be completely certain with Kalli; perhaps she had done something… violent… and upset the Queen.
Still, the King seemed as friendly as always, offering them a seat and some tea. He looked weary and a bit rumpled, his shirt open at the neck and his fine velvet doublet only half-laced. Beside him, Arl Eamon was precise as a pin and stiff-backed as any shem noble; in the King’s absence the Arl had ordered a number of improvements to the alienage, but had never once come to see the results for himself.
“Hahren Valendrian, Shianni.” The King’s cheerful nod and smile were as engaging as she remembered. It made Shianni’s head ache with confusion to think that King treated elves with more courtesy than they received from the lowest shem scum in the marketplace. All the way up the scale to the nobles, they got treated worse and worse, until the man at the top toppled the whole tidy structure. She had a feeling that meant something, but she couldn’t work out what. “I imagine you’re wondering why I asked for you to meet with me.”
Asked. He probably did, too, although you wouldn’t have thought it from the words the snooty messenger spoke. A royal summons was what it was, and who had a better right than he? While Shianni turned this over in her mind, Valendrian answered with his customary courtesy.
“Why yes, Your Majesty, I have to admit that I am. I hope all is well?” It was a guarded request as to whether Kalli had misbehaved, if Shianni had ever heard one, but thankfully the King was still smiling.
“I’m working on it, Valendrian. The fact is, I have made rather an advantageous trade deal for Ferelden, one that is going to create a great deal of jobs in, or close to, all of our cities.”
“Congratulations, Sire.” Knowing him as she did, Shianni could hear the pent-up excitement in Valendrian’s quiet voice. Jobs? If the alienage could snag just a little of the available work, then she could think of half a dozen families straight off the top of her head who would cry with relief. “May I ask what kind of workers will be needed?”
“Mainly shipwrights, dockers, sailors. I’ll need guards for secure storage, but I’ll use some of my own until I can get some trained. This is a cargo which will not be going astray.”
Some of the stronger elves worked as dockhands already; it was hard work, at first, for a race without the upper body strength of the shem, but they adapted. They had to. Shianni sat forward slightly in her excitement, caught the somewhat fishy eye of Arl Eamon, and made an effort to relax.
The King continued, “We have a small shipyard here in Denerim, another in Amaranthine and a larger one in Gwaren. None are big enough to serve our needs now. I’m hoping to erect a new one up at Highever, but that depends on… stuff.” An anxious crease appeared between his eyes. “Whatever happens, I must get a lot of ships, and fast. That’s where I though you may be able to help me.”
“I am at your disposal, Your Majesty, but I confess I cannot see how I can assist; I have many willing hands, all eager for paid work, but they do not know how to build ships.”
“Not yet.” The young monarch, in his rumpled doublet, beamed at them and it was like the sun coming out, eclipsing his earlier cheerful smiles entirely. It occurred to Shianni to wonder how Kalli coped, working so closely with such manly beauty. The King was a shem, true, but… wow. “Valendrian, I don’t have anywhere near as many shipwrights as I need. I’ve written to craft halls in several countries, hoping to lure a few over here with the promise of good work, but it’s a short-term fix at best. I really need more Fereldan shipwrights. So, I was wondering…” Valendrian was on the edge of his seat now, and Shianni didn’t blame him. Craftsmen, for Andraste’s sake. No-one hired elves to become craftsmen. “I was wondering if you had any bright young men and women, who’d care to take the fastest apprenticeships in the history of Thedas? Not only here in Denerim, but in every city.”
“You have master craftsmen willing to teach elves?” Valendrian’s tone was sharp, disbelieving. “Forgive me, Sire, but this is unheard of.”
The King grinned boyishly. “Well, I won’t try to claim that they were happy about it, but yes, I’ve convinced them.” A more serious expression overtook his clear hazel eyes. “Valendrian, you know what people are like. I can’t promise that your people will be well-treated. Maker; an awful lot of human apprentices have a tough time, and they are likely to make things even harder for elves. But, once they are trained, they’ll be set for life and can train others in their turn.
“I’ll need other workers too.” The King ticked them off on his fingers. “Dockers, of course; sailors, if you have lads and lasses with itchy feet, there’s a lot less prejudice on the seas, I hear; port officials-” He broke off as Arl Eamon cleared his throat. “Yes, Eamon, elven port officials, if they have the book-learning for it, and Valendrian can assure me that they won’t be taking backhanders from lyrium smugglers. I’d far rather have honest officials, under the eye of our Hahren here, than some of the dodgy sods we’ve got at the moment.”
“Lyrium!” It was the first word Shianni had said and it was out before she could stop it. “But- the Chantry…”
It was Eamon who answered, fixing both elves with a stern eye. “The Chantry no longer controls the lyrium trade. The news will break soon, no doubt, but for the moment that information must not leave this room.”
As Valendrian assured them, in a slightly stunned voice, that they would not say a word, and that his people would be ecstatic to receive so much opportunity for advancement, all Shianni could do was sit and wonder what the fuck had been happening , and just how much of it Kalli had been privy to. She couldn’t wait to see her cousin again. The meeting wound on, moving to discussions of the numbers of workers required in each city and of each type. The King sat back, allowing Arl Eamon to pick up this part of the conversation. Only when he and Valendrian came to the beginnings of an agreement, and the Arl began to make noises of imminent dismissal, did she interrupt with the question burning in her mind.
“Your Majesty?” He looked up from the list he was surveying, and cocked a questioning eyebrow at her. “How is Kallian?”
“She was fine when I saw her two weeks ago. Just as ferocious as always; I have absolute confidence in her ability to protect Maddy.” The King chuckled. “She was a bit shaken up after what I did to her at Redcliffe, but she’s got used to it now, I think.”
What he did to her at Redcliffe? Several worrying images danced across Shianni’s mind, but she shook them off. The King wasn’t that kind of man, and anyway, Kalli would have his balls for breakfast if he tried. “What happened at Redcliffe?”
He raised his eyebrows, obviously surprised. “She didn’t write and tell you? Maker’s Breath, I know she hates writing, but that takes the biscuit.” A twinkle came into his eye, and his lips twitched. The opportunity to tell them this seemed to be causing him some amusement. “I knighted her.” The bald statement drew a gasp from Valendrian, an explosive and impolite expletive from Shianni, and a coughing fit from the Arl, who apparently hadn’t known either. “She’s Ser Kallian now, and Maker help any miscreants she stumbles upon.”
Shianni stared at him, shocked to the bone. I wish Uncle Cyrion could have heard that. I really, really do.
Pollution of the Ancestors’ finest gift…
The Stone has rejected you, and your contract lies in the dust…
The strange blunt phrases, masked in the social mores of a dying culture, jumped out at Empress Celene from the letter before her. She raised her eyes to the elderly woman seated ramrod-straight on the chair opposite.
“You received this today, Your Holiness?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, our trade caravan returned from Orzammar with it, together with the… consignment.”
“The lyrium consignment?” In answer to the sharp question, the Divine shook her head.
“No, the caravan brought back our consignment of Tranquil. There was no lyrium, just the letter.”
“I see.” Celene studied her visitor, the highest ranking cleric in Thedas. One did not reach such a position without making some compromises; the Divine was a politician first and foremost, but politics in the real world were different from the internal political ladder that the Divine had clawed her way to the top of. “What is this ‘pollution’ of lyrium that King Bhelen refers to? Did you know of it?”
“No, Your Majesty.” The Divine’s eyelid flickered; a lie, how interesting. So the Chantry had been up to something, perhaps some experiment to keep their Templars even further under their heel, and as a result an ancient contract had been broken and was presumably up for grabs. Orlais must move swiftly to secure it, before this knowledge became public. Plans marched across the Empress’ mind; she must go immediately to Orzammar and make Bhelen an offer he could not refuse. Few nations were as rich as hers, and dwarves were notoriously greedy.
“Your Majesty?” Celene raised her eyes from the letter, having almost forgotten the presence of the Divine. “You will help me? Make them see sense? The Chantry has always controlled lyrium; it is too dangerous a drug to be freely available. It’s the law.”
The law. A quaint notion, compared to so much wealth and power. Celene smiled reassuringly. “Of course; I will speak with King Bhelen myself. You should stay here; given the tone of his letter, your presence may infuriate him.”
“If you say so, Your Majesty, but I should send one of my Revered Mothers with you, and my Knight Commander.” Watchdogs, to ensure her compliance. Really, the Divine, and indeed the entire Chantry, had become far too complaisant if they believed that would make a scrap of difference.
“Of course,” she murmured. As the Divine stood, preparing to leave, a thought occurred to her. “One other thing, Your Holiness. My agents have been disseminating false rumours in Ferelden, as we discussed. You must ensure that no-one within the Fereldan Chantry makes any attempt to follow up on those rumours. I want no move made against my sister, Madeleina, until after the birth of her children. When your Templars, Orlesian Templars, arrive to take her into custody on charges of apostasy, we must give her husband the minimum amount of reason to object.”
“I shall write to Grand Cleric Leanna personally, Your Majesty.”
“Good.” I want you home, little sister. You are far too precious a resource to slip through my fingers so easily.
The fields were dreadful, worse than Lothering, and even the overlay of winter frost couldn’t detract from the noisome filth it covered. Maddy clung to Philippe’s arm as she picked her way through the vile growths; she was taking much more care, now that she was beginning to thicken noticeably. She was sure that the strange, squirmy sensation she had felt in her belly last night was one of the babies moving. It was dreadful that Alistair wasn’t here for it; she had stroked her stomach and thought of how his eyes would have filled with wonder.
A crowd had gathered to watch the demonstration; she could feel their eyes upon her, their desperation. When she had explained to Arl Wulff about the planned Landsmeet and their reasons for it, his response had been blunt. Help my people, restore my land and you have my vote. Alistair wouldn’t be wholly happy about that; she would have to return here when she was heavy with child, otherwise the ground would not be ready for the spring planting.
Maddy closed her eyes, leaning on her brother’s velvet sleeve, feeling his warmth and reassurance beside her. Since Alistair left, she’d realised how much she had been relying upon her husband. Despite her rank, she had never played the part of a Princess, and hadn’t realised exactly what she was getting into by marrying a King. Thank the Maker that Ferelden was so informal; she’d been able to follow Alistair around, smile, be polite and get by. Now she was expected to be a Queen in her own right, and the whole business made her want to run to the nearest tree, climb up it, and refuse to come down.
She extended her senses, taking a half-step into the place where the land dreamed. Just as in other places she had healed, the land slept deeply, but sun, wind and water offered up their goodness. Taking a deep breath, Maddy stepped further into the Setheneran, making herself a channel for nutrients to flow into the sleeping soil. It was easier, much easier, than it had been in Lothering; practice did indeed make perfect. There was no need to crouch, to engage with the dreadful pustules of the Blight. She felt Philippe’s arm slip around her waist to steady her as she swayed, and leaned gratefully against him. Murmurs were beginning to rise from the crowd, heralding success. She heard a raucous cry of mage, bitten off into silence; Arl Wulff had given Cedric and his men free rein, there would be no dissenting voices today.
Minutes later, Maddy opened her eyes, blinking in the bright winter sun, to resounding cheers. Her legs felt a little wobbly, and the gentle comfort of Anders’ rejuvenation spell would have been very welcome, but in compensation, a vast stretch of clean brown met her eyes, cold and drowsy, but healthy and ready for the spring.
“Come, ma chérie, into the warm.” Philippe began to lead her back to the path, Kalli and Zev taking up positions around them. “We shall return to the castle and have hot tea before the fire, n’est ce-pas?”
Arl Wulff was striding towards them, a comet trail of townspeople behind him. She heard a snapped order from Cedric and a contingent of the King’s Own moved into position in front of their Queen, allowing the Arl to approach, but keeping the mob back.
“Your Majesty…” The gruff old nobleman seemed shaken, his eyes moist with something more than the bitter wind. “I had heard… but I didn’t realise just how…” He pulled himself together, taking her hand and bowing deeply to kiss her fingers. “You have my support, ma’am. And, if I hear a whisper against you on my land, the culprits will swing for it.”
“Will you come to Highever with me, Your Grace?” Her voice was little more than a thread of sound; it was an effort to speak. All Maddy wanted was to curl up somewhere warm and doze, but this was the very best time to ask. “I have a proposition to put before both you and the Teyrn, and then we can all continue on to Denerim together.”
“Whatever you desire, my Queen.”
Spacious though the guest bedroom at West Hill was, it felt confining, the walls closing in around him. Ever since the previous evening, in Zevran’s room, Philippe had been restless, his thoughts churning in never-ending circles.
I was a fool to allow such closeness to develop. Where can it possibly go?
Turn at the window, fingers trailing across the polished wood of the table beside it. Six steps from here took him to the fireplace. He tried to imagine Zevran in his chateau at Ghislain; the assassin would be bored out of his wits in a month.
And so would you, now.
From the fireplace to the bed was another eight paces, his heavy dressing robe brushing the bed frame as he passed. For ten years, since his retreat from the Imperial Court, Philippe had embraced the life of a rural princeling, governing the sleepy province to the best of his ability. He’d acted as guardian to Maddy as she grew from a wild child, to a tomboy teen, and finally to a young lady uninterested in the vicious cut and thrust of Imperial life. But now…
Now, snared by her undeniably beautiful King, his beloved sister was Queen of Ferelden, and as a result they had all been plunged into this wild adventure. Taking on the Chantry, no less! The prospect of returning to Ghislain, of picking up the pieces of his old life, held no savour. To have to do so with a strange woman, an Antivan Princess, as his new wife, was intolerable. And Zevran…
Seven paces took him from the bed to the door, which was always a tricky moment. His hand brushed the door handle as he fought the urge to open it, to go to Zev, to just give in, to lose himself and his fears in the arms of the man he felt such passion and need for. Especially since last night…
Philippe unglued his fingers from the door handle and turned, taking the measured paces necessary to return to the fireplace. He rested his head against the mantel and closed his eyes, fighting his rebellious body. Oh, the floodgates were really opened now. Rampant heat surged through him, melting his resistance. For ten years he’d been celibate, refusing casual encounters, unable any longer to indulge himself without trust.
You do trust him; you know you do.
Philippe had been attracted to Zevran from their first meeting, as would anyone faced with such a beautiful, self-assured piece of physical perfection. Without respect and trust, though, attraction meant nothing; that lesson had been learnt young, and at bitter cost. In a back-alley in Denerim, with corpses cooling at their feet, the flirtatious sensualist whom Philippe had been keeping at arm’s length had miraculously vanished, replaced by a man considerate enough to step away from an incautious embrace. A seed of trust had been planted that night and, in the months that followed, the assassin’s every action had fed that seed.
Philippe pushed himself away from the mantel and began another slow circuit of the room. Blood was the problem here, the blood of emperors which ran in his veins. Yes, he could take Zevran as a lover, yes, he could take him back to Ghislain – assuming that Zevran was prepared to remain with him when he returned – and yes, he could even accept the Crow’s argument that an Antivan princess would find the arrangement acceptable. But however many times he circled the problem, Philippe could not get away from the fact that, by his own personal standards, he would feel that he was not offering Zevran the level of respect that he patently deserved.
I love him. I do not know if he feels the same – perhaps not – but I cannot treat him so. I cannot take him to Court and watch the nobles sneer at my elven whore, and nor can I hide away, as if ashamed of him.
The only possible way Philippe could see out of this situation was to renounce his heritage. Give up his title, hand his estates back to the Imperial Crown…
And then what?
Money was not a problem; he’d inherited a modest private fortune, separate from the income of the estate. They would be able to do, more or less, whatever they wished.
And when he leaves you, Philippe? He’s had many lovers; sooner or later he will grow weary of your company.
That thought brought him up short, to sit on the edge of the bed with a bump. To give up everything, to hand back all that he’d inherited from his parents… It required a level of commitment in return that he just couldn’t see Zevran offering to him, a set of expectations that it would be unfair to demand from such short acquaintance. He groaned, dropping his head in his hands.
There was no solution to this. Principessa Luciana might already be on a boat to Orlais; Celene would want the matter settled as quickly as possible, and the Empress was a determined woman. Once they reached Denerim, he would have little choice but to say his goodbyes and take ship to Val Royeaux.
He’d run out of time.
It had been a decade since the last time Philippe gave full rein to his feelings, crying as though his heart would break. Seated on the edge of his bed, in a lonely room, he did so once again.