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After the Landsmeet

Someplace between Eamon’s estate and the docks, Alistair ducked through an alley and threw away the golden helm tucked under his arm.

He stopped three streets further, groaned, and returned with intent to collect. Yet at the sight he could not, gold glinting through the garbage. His heels shifted, his weight swaying back and forth, those few steps untaken, stuck in the alley’s craw. He could not pick it up.

She gave him Cailan’s armour, and took away Cailan’s crown.

Behind his closed eyes, Alistair stood before the Landsmeet again, sweating into his brother’s old skin. Even though he told Tabris Anora should keep the crown, when he walked the long carpet and all eyes turned to him in Cailan’s shining gold, he felt the mantle’s weight settle on his shoulders. When Loghain fell crushed under his own lies, it was Alistair who beheaded him in single combat, the first act of a king.

A daydream unacknowledged. It had warmed him through nights spent with dogs, or fledgling lyrium withdrawal. Rolled through him like sickness, remembering Tabris’ bloody persistence scissoring her blades at Loghain’s throat, stopping.

The gauntlets were good, at least. His hand throbbed painfully but still flexed when he clenched, showering brick dust.

‘Offensive as the architecture is, frontal assault rarely has the expected outcome.’

‘Fuck off, Zevran.’

Rutting elvhen dogs, the pair of them. Alistair’s human bias shamed him instantly.

‘He says the word this time without blushing,’ Zevran said, crisp.

Now the inconvenience to wearing gauntlets. Alistair could not scrub the embarrassed fury from his cheeks without damage. ‘Don’t you have a kingmaker’s pert backside to be licking right now?’

‘Politics,’ Zevran made a face, and an uncertain motion with his hand. ‘Only exciting when there are knives, not arselicking, for all the latter is the more efficacious and involves less blood, one might hope. Also, she sent me after you.’

‘Why,’ Alistair wore no masks, did not hide, ‘does she care?’

Zevran wore no mask either. This was a horrible sight on the assassin, such mortal sympathy rendering him inexplicably old and lined.

‘She cares. You are still her Brother.’

Alistair did not believe him.

He should have believed her that night, when she came to tell him she would leave the kingdom in Anora’s hands.

Overjoyed. I don’t want this throne. I think Anora makes a fantastic queen.

Tabris did not think much of him, he knew. Rosebud mouth untouched and warm beneath the dark tattoos feathering from her eyes, the mothwing guard veiling her emotions. But Alistair did not trust the mouth. Kallian turned too many situations in her own favour, by saying what needed to be said instead of what she might have wanted.

He still hoped. Even in the Chantry there had been tales enough of dogboys made arls and kings. The narrative called for salvation, for his just reward.

‘If she cares so much, she could have—’

Not given him the crown. Not really. His skin flinched from the thought, cringing from the dead man’s clammy armour.

‘—pretended one moment, to consider you honestly for the role? One moment of second thoughts, to spare your pride?’

‘Yes,’ Alistair said, bitterly.

‘Pride must come from actions of the self,’ Zevran said eventually, with reluctance. ‘Not from others. Tabris thought you strong enough to understand.’

‘She never agreed with me before. Or listened to me. She picked Anora as the time to start. She could have at least carried it on to Loghain.’

Alistair spat, inexpertly.

Zevran bit the corner of his mouth, which he did when striving to swallow his smile, but the lines of his face rioted.

The walls again suffered where Alistair could not bring himself to strike the elf. To break him. Assassin or not, Alistair could, because Zevran was her elf and rage and hurt gave Alistair the right to conquer.

That too was a story. A fabrication beyond his reach. Alistair slumped, forehead against the dusty brick.

‘She came from an alienage. Poorer than Ferelden dirt. She wasn’t raised to these decisions any more than I was. What gives her the right?’

‘That she takes the responsibility? And also, the blame? The guilt? But I do not know, I can only surmise.’ A callous shrug. ‘I kill kings when instructed, I do not decide who to crown or spare.’

Alistair’s breath caught.

‘Did she send you here for that? Seem merciful before the Landsmeet, end me here in the mud? Zevran—’

Should he fumble for his sword? It would be a fumble, his hand unresponsive. Zevran was already too close, swaying closer, lids lazy in the way he wore on the battlefield, the mad elation he claimed from the final strike.

‘But you are no king.’ Zevran offered his palm. ‘Also there is no mark of death on you. Yet. I would not bid for the contract if there were. How is your hand?’

Alistair looked at the gold, which was battered and brittle, coated with deceased brick.

‘I can’t even feel it. Oh, Maker, now I feel it, you bastard!’

‘Yes. Something else we share.’ Zevran eased him upright, holding the hand high where Alistair’s instinct had been to clutch it between his knees. ‘Your gauntlet, I do not think you have broken anything—’

‘Let Anora be king,’ Alistair said hoarsely. ‘I mean. Queen. Fine. But why did Kalli let that traitor live? He killed Duncan. He killed Cailan.’

The only father who had chosen to have him. The brother who had never known him.

His relentless elvhen Brother who was more an unreadable elder sister, who did not believe him capable of anything but muscle in a melee.

‘Life can be a better punishment than death. Perhaps she thinks of this, with Loghain. That his suffering and shame can only be felt if he is alive.’

Zevran prodded at Alistair’s ripe knuckles and hummed in consideration.

‘She’s right there,’ Alistair said. ‘I can tell you that now.’

The hurt was not for the throne, or Anora, or even Loghain. For Kallian.

‘I do not think anything is broken. Let’s go. Leave the helm, the gauntlets.’

‘Where are we going? Why?’

‘You cannot leave Ferelden wearing the armour of your dead king.’

The worming anger pickled in brine. ‘You’re just trying to get me out of my clothes.’

‘Yes, little Brother,’ Zevran said calmly. ‘Now come along, and we shall outfit you for the road and fill your pockets with a more useful gold.’

Alistair expected something more, all the way to the market. That he would wake from this unusual nightmare, hurting only the way uncertain dreams could hurt, of paths not taken. Yet there was no more: Kallian had not even believed he could leave Denerim without her help. Zevran approached a shadowy seller who spoke only Antivan, then another with a Tevinter accent, another the same, then a strange Orlesian. A brief, shadowy glimpse into an underworld Alistair had never known existed, that Kallian never took him into, where the competent Crow led the way. Pack, clothes, dutiful sword, sturdy shield, unambitious armour. Dry food store, water, solvents to purify river water. A backpack. Cailan’s precious pieces disposed of securely, sundered then buried in foreign anonymity, for all that surrendering each piece grieved Alistair.

His survival mattered more to Zevran, to Kallian, than his pride.

They went then to a dockside tavern which was not a brothel, Zevran’s arm hooked securely through his own to hold through the press. The Antivan smelled of salt and leather, thicker than the crowd. That was strange until the proximity of others made it stop mattering.

There was the view.

A sunset, spilled oil on sand.

The docks themselves, Alistair saw through a tidal wave of panic, the glittering dirt of a Fereldan port, the rocking boats, the sickening, wet-dog smell rising from the background to overwhelm him. He had known nothing but Fereldan mud, then the terrifying horror of a Templar’s closeted life. Duncan had at least ditched the lyrium and returned his horizons, but with such an overriding duty, every day under a clear sky felt illicit as kisses. Closets and cupboards and poverty and uselessness. Alistair wanted the choice, had a right to a choice. He was human, he was male, some nobility, somewhere; he was strong.

But there was no choice to be made by such as he.

Rocked and swayed in a sea of foreign sailors.

Zevran tugged him down to put his lips to ear, optimistic he would be heard. ‘Where do you wish to go?’

Alistair said thickly, ‘I don’t want to go.’

‘Kallian had a suggestion—’

‘I don’t want to know.’

Zevran furrowed his brow, but did not insist on Alistair’s involvement in his own exile.

Negotiations took place, with Zevran lively as always, and the numbers of Blight refugees were such Zevran had to pay with great reluctance for a single berth for his surly human friend to a destination unknown.

Then they were on the jetty.

The panic rose and fell with the tide beneath, as Alistair creaked and groaned in his unfamiliar armour, weighed with belongings. Everything he had known was here, and even if he had never known so much.

‘I can’t do this. Please don’t make me do this.’

Then Alistair drew in a shuddering breath.

‘I have to do this.’

Zevran looked at him critically, and not as if he was a madman.

‘Zevran. I’ve never even been drunk, not even, with a girl, how could I ever, live— I have to—’

Zevran held up one palm, his halfglove hiding most of a scar cutting from thumb and down his wrist. With his other hand, he drew from his vest the silver flask, of the potent stuff Alistair had watched him drink with near orgasmic outcome during cold nights on watch. A long mouthful, throat exposed by tilt of head.

But Zevran did not swallow. Zevran held the brandy in his mouth and moved it so slowly from one cheek to the other, rolling it across his tongue. A bead escaped on his lower lip, and at the corner.

He put his gloved hand behind Alistair’s neck and pulled him into the brandy-filled kiss.

The liquid was warm and shocking, and warmed the more as Alistair held it in his own mouth, until he was alight with it. A burst no stranger for Zevran’s slender tongue spearing through the liquid fire, alien against his teeth and throat, Zevran’s lips dry and warm, firm. Alistair’s jaw opened without thought, and Zevran’s also as if in response, fine skin and bone moving under Alistair’s trembling fingers.

Zevran moved away slowly, his hand brief on the back of Alistair’s, resting on his cheek. The touch fractured.

‘The money is from our Tabris.’ Now Zevran smelled of brandy. ‘A truth. The clothes, and the will which sent me here. But this is from me, and I do not begrudge you the knowledge that she grieves for you.’

‘How did you know? That I had never—’

Kissed someone. Said goodbye. Lived.

Zevran nudged him, shoulder to shoulder. ‘Be well, Alistair. Remember you have friends, when you want them again.’

Alistair had his horizon, the battered ship, fingers tight around a silver flask of Antivan brandy warm as tanned skin, longing foolishly, already, for the taste which curled in his throat like a ghost and had eased the hurt in his chest, like an embrace and the apology he had not been given.

But Zevran was gone.

The longboat’s oarsman called for the ship, the wind and tide imposing final inexorable necessity.

Alistair was gone, too, before the hour was done.

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