When the alert for the train of wagons heading towards the city reached the Palace, Anora was already prepared for their arrival. The messenger that had arrived in the blur of days previous had told her the message she was supposed to receive as well as the truth. It had hurt terribly to hear of Cailan’s almost certain death but to know it was practically at her father’s hand?
And he was blaming it on Alistair of all people.
If she hadn’t grown up with Cailan and his brother, she might have fallen for it. But she had seen them together. They would do anything for each other and Alistair would never, never plot against his brother.
When the wagons entered the city and made their way to the Palace, she was waiting for them with the Palace staff at the ready behind her. They swiftly had the three weary men inside the building with the Couslands ensconced in the set of rooms they’d always been accorded and she’d sent a man riding to the Tower for the best healer they could spare. Anora had what few belongings Alistair had delivered to Cailan’s old room and ordered him brought to her as soon as possible once he’d cleaned up.
He showed up, hair still damp and fresh clothes sticking to his skin, and stood there, hands clasped behind him with his head bowed.
Turning away from the window – watching for any alert that meant a sign of her father – Anora frowned at him. “Are we to be formal now, Alistair?” she asked quietly.
“Given that I’m not sure exactly where you stand, I figured it would probably be better to swing for formal than just barging in and demanding you keep to your word.” The words were so like him, so like Cailan, and her heart ached for her husband’s absence.
“I promised Cailan I would support you.”
Alistair lifted his head then and she was more than a little shocked by the rage in his eyes. Never had she seen that much anger in his hazel eyes, not even during the worst of his few fights with Cailan or the one shouting match she’d witnessed with King Maric.
“Promises can be broken,” he growled. “Cailan broke one he made to Father in order to have me as his heir. And your own father broke one and good as killed my brother and your husband!” He paused then spat, “Can I honestly trust you?”
“Alistair…I have never lied to you.”
“You haven’t, Anora, but there’s always a first time for everything.”
She blinked at the words then shook her head, mentally scolding herself. This wasn’t the fifteen year-old boy they’d sent away nor was he the young man who had come to Denerim with the Couslands at Wintersend every year after that. No, this Alistair was a completely different creature.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I forgot how long it’s been. Has Highever changed you that much?”
Pain flared in his eyes and he snapped back, “Watching the people who cared for me like I was one of their own for nearly a decade die at the hands of those we thought were allies tends to give one a different perspective.”
Anora flinched, regretting her question. The messenger had only briefly mentioned the fall of Highever to the Howes and she hadn’t had time to fully comprehend the details of what that had meant for Alistair and Aedan with all else that she’d been doing to prepare. Of course, then, Highever had changed him.
Bowing her head, she said, “It seems I will be apologizing for a great deal in this conversation.”
Alistair heaved a sigh in response and she looked up to see him rubbing a hand across his face. “I should be as well,” he said and there it was in his voice, all the pain that was as much a match to her own. “I’m sorry, Anora. I just…the last few days…”
“Have been hard,” she supplied and he shook his head.
“Hard doesn’t begun to describe it,” he answered, voice dropping to a whisper. Alistair then shook himself and straightened as he said, “I can grieve later though. Loghain isn’t far behind us on the road and, as I’m sure the messenger he sent told you, he’s laying Cailan’s death on me and the Wardens.”
Nodding, Anora gestured towards the window. “I have men keeping watch for him, never fear.” She then frowned and asked, “What of the Couslands? Were they included in this supposed coup?”
“Just me. Fergus and Aedan are safe and that’s the way I’d like to keep it. They’d fight tooth and nail to protect me.”
As Cailan tried, thought Anora. She tilted her head to the side, regarding Alistair carefully, then said, “You would rather have them safe.”
“I’ve been protected for most of my life, Anora!” he snapped. “It’s about time I protected someone else.”
“Then you have a plan?”
Alistair shrugged then answered, “Parts of one, I suppose. Most of it’s me running.”
Anora blinked. “Running?” she repeated. “Alistair, you don’t have to run.”
“Do you really think your father is going to let a little thing like Cailan’s last request keep him from whatever end he has in mind?” Shaking his head, he went on, “I learned early that he hated me, remember? It made me always wonder why and question what it was about me that had led to this man, this supposed best friend of my own father, to hate me. So I watched him. I learned a lot about Loghain by just watching how he interacted with you or Cailan or anyone else he came across. You’re rather like him, you know, but nicer.”
Nodding slightly because she had heard herself compared to her father many times in the past, Anora asked, “And what did you learn?”
“Mostly that he’s rather like a mabari. Once he’s latched on to something he thinks is the right choice or course, he won’t let go. So whatever prompted him to do this, he’s not going to give up easy, Anora. He’ll fight us for every inch and if he can get me out of the way, he will.”
Alistair’s assessment of her father – and herself – was rather exact. Neither of them gave up easily but, as her father had a goal now, she had one as well. With a chilling smile, Anora said, “And what have I latched onto?”
“Making me King, which is really a terrible idea in my personal opinion,” he answered, eyes a little wider than normal. He then shuddered as he added, “You’re rather terrifying when you smile like that.”
Stepping across the room now, Anora reached out to grab his arm. “Cailan believed in you,” she insisted. “He pored over every report Bryce sent of your progress at Highever, smiling like a proud father when there was something impressive or amusing. If anyone knows what you’re capable of, it is my husband.” Was, corrected some tiny part of herself but she shoved it away. If she looked too closely at the proper way to reference her husband now, she’d be useless as with it would come the full realization of his absence.
“Now,” she continued, “you need more of a plan than just running away.”
Alistair tilted his head to the side curiously. “I take it you have a few ideas?”
“Perhaps,” answered Anora, summoning her most mysterious smile. Then, impulsively, she stepped closer and lifted a hand to touch his face. As he blinked down at her, she quietly said, “You are dear to me, Alistair. Remember that.”
After a moment, Alistair brought his hand up to grasp hers, bringing it down so it hung between them. “And you are dear to me, sister,” he intoned softly.
It had been a long time since the first time he’d called her that but somehow, given the current circumstances, the word seemed to suddenly mean so much more. Smiling, Anora squeezed his hand then led him over to the chairs in front of the fire, gesturing for him to sit.
They had little time and so much to do.