The disappearance of Alistair Theirin, king of Ferelden, was discovered shortly after lunch, and promptly threw the palace staff into a panic. Every room was searched, to no avail. The grounds and gardens, as well, with an equal lack of success. The simple fact of the matter was they had no idea where to look.
Luckily, Marta did. Dodging frantic servants and deliberately avoiding an increasingly irate Arl Eamon, she meandered toward a far-flung corner of the grounds. It was desolate and empty this time of year, nothing growing save one huge, old tree.
"You know, this makes a better hiding place in the summer," she laughed as she approached, breath clouding the air. "When there are actual leaves."
"You're still the only one who's found me." Alistair grinned at her, perched on a sturdy branch fifteen feet up.
Marta put her hands on her hips and gave him a mock-reproving look. "That's another thing, Your Majesty; you can't go running off and hide from problems."
His grin widened. "It's working so far."
"Will you come down from there? This angle is murder on my neck."
"I dunno, I kind of like you having to look up to me," he teased. "Besides, this branch is surprisingly comfortable."
Marta stared at him for a second or two, let out an exasperated huff, and started to climb the tree; skirts, cloak, and all. When she reached the branch Alistair was perched on, he looked suitably impressed. She was fairly certain she looked more than a little smug, but that was allowed under the circumstances. "Out with it, what's bothering you?"
"There's some ball that's traditionally held this time of year. Eamon's been badgering me to 'continue the tradition' so people can see both that the darkspawn didn't destroy our heritage and that I'll respect my predecessors, or something like that."
"And you don't want to?" Marta probed, twisting the end of her ponytail.
Alistair sighed, picked at a loose thread on his cuff. "I've only been king a couple months, Marta. I'm afraid I'll mess up and it'll be a disaster. Or Eamon will try to use it as a match-making opportunity, b'cause Maker forbid I stay single awhile..." He stared at the ground. "I wonder, if I jump from here and break my leg, if I can get out of going."
"Or," she chuckled softly. "Alternatively, I could go as your date."
"Really? You'd do that?"
"I'm kind of hurt you even need to ask," Marta teased. "You're king, I'm your chancellor, we're friends, and neither of us has a... currently available significant other."
"I am sorry you haven't found Thomas yet," Alistair said. "But if you're really willing to accompany me, Lady Cousland, I do believe I'll take you up on that." A thought occurred and he frowned. "What if we have to dance? I'll step on your toes or trip or something."
"No, you won't. For starters, there's this wonderful thing called practice," Marta said lightly. "We'll have plenty of time to fit some in before the ball. You'll be dancing like you've been doing it your whole life by the time I'm done with you."
"I notice you're talking like I've decided to have this ball," he teased.
"You sounded like you had a minute ago," she pointed out playfully. "And I really think you should. It's a good tradition, and it's always been fun in the past."
"You've been before?" Alistair couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.
Marta nodded. "With my family. Teyrns usually get invited to those sorts of things."
"Well, then, you can make sure I do everything right."
"I would do that anyway," she laughed.
"Now come on, let's head back inside, before people start worrying you were abducted."
It took an odd mix of careful planning and reckless leaps, but both king and chancellor got down out of the tree without any broken bones.
True to her word, Marta made sure Alistair practiced--dancing, etiquette, the traditions associated with the king's role at the ball. More than once he joked that she was a harsher task master than the Chantry sisters, which Marta simply smiled and took as a compliment. But unlike the Chantry sisters, Alistair actually listened to Marta. And so, sure enough, by the day of the Wintersend Ball, he was more than competent at all of the necessary skills to avoid making a fool out of himself. He found himself actually looking forward to this ball--for more reason than Marta offering to be his date.
I'm sure she just meant as friends, he scolded himself mentally, watching as she worked out color schemes with the royal seamstress. She even listed your friendship as one of the reasons it made sense. Still, it would be a challenge, knowing the assumptions people would make, seeing the two of them there as a couple. And knowing how badly he wished those assumptions could be true.
But they weren't and they couldn't be, a fact he just had to accept. It was enough to be friends. A mantra he found himself repeating more and more frequently as the Wintersend Ball drew closer. Most of the time he even meant it.
One of Marta's more fervent wishes for the ball was granted the morning of, as a pair of calloused hands covered her eyes and a familiar voice playfully demanded, "Guess who?"
She dropped her book and jumped up to hug her brother, unable to resist commenting, "You remember it's a bad idea to startle someone with my training, right, Fergus?"
He just laughed and tweaked the end of her braid. "I was trusting your finely honed instincts to know I meant you no harm."
"Well-played," Marta conceded, tightening her hug. "It is good to see you. I wasn't sure you'd come."
"And pass up a chance to see my baby sister?" Fergus said warmly. "Perish the thought. Are you getting enough to eat, Mar? You feel thin."
"Warden appetite," she shrugged. "I'm fine. But come sit down, tell me about your trip, how the rebuilding's going."
He sat in the chair next to hers. "Uneventful, and slowly, respectively. Howe must've let his men run rampant as a herd of cattle while they occupied the castle. There's a lot missing, a lot to be fixed. Oh, but we did find this." He reached into a pocket of his shirt and pulled out a small flat box. "I thought you might want it for tonight."
Marta took the box, but hesitated slightly before opening it. A soft gasp escaped her when she saw what was inside. "This was Mother's."
Fergus nodded, watching her almost reverently brush her thumb over the necklace, a small sapphire set between the Cousland laurels done in silver. "I'm sure she's want you to have it."
Overwhelmed with emotion, all Marta could do was smile and nod gratefully.
"Well, I'm sure you have things you need to accomplish before tonight, m'lady Chancellor, and I would very much like to get some rest before I spend the night dancing. So I will see you later, little sister." Fergus stood to leave. "And at that time, we'll discuss how things have been for you." He gave her a meaningful look, kissed the top of her head, and whisked off before she could form a reply.
"How does he always, always know?" Marta whispered to the necklace as the door clicked shut.
He's your brother. It's his job to notice when things are bothering you. The little voice almost sounded like her mother for a moment, and Marta blinked back tears. It wouldn't do to have red eyes at the ball, not when Alistair was so adamantly insisting he'd need her help.
The process of getting ready for a royal ball was rather more involved when you were hosting instead of merely attending. Marta was interrupted multiple times as her maids did her hair and helped her dress. Finally, however, everything was accomplished and ready, and with one last pat to the reddish-golden brown braid that circled her head--a move more habit than anything--she went to meet Alistair.
She very nearly laughed, and couldn't entirely restrain a giggle, when she saw him. Whether by coincidence or the wiles of the palace seamstress, they matched. Well, sort of. Marta's dress was dark blue, inset with deep red down the front and sleeves, trimmed subtly in silver. Alistair's tunic was the reverse; dark red inset with blue and accented by what looked like woven silver and gold. His crown for the night was a simple thing; more coronet or circlet than anything.
"Wow," he murmured fervently upon laying eyes on her. "People are definitely going to talk. You look beautiful."
Her cheeks warmed and she fought the urge to fiddle with one of the wide, draped sleeves. "Thank you. And let them." Marta cleared her throat and twirled a loose, curling wisp of hair. "You look very handsome yourself, my friend. What do you say we give the nobility a show?"
Alistair grinned boyishly and extended an arm. "Let's."
Marta linked her arm through his and they headed for the ballroom, in perfect step without even trying.
As expected, the pair of them turned every head in the room when they made their entrance. Marta's hand tightened on his arm ever so briefly as the whispers started and spread, and Alistair wondered if they bothered her. After all, most of them were likely accusations of social climbing, "isn't chancellor enough for her?", "she won't stop until she's queen.", and various other comments that painted her as a gold-digging harpy rather than the gentle diplomat he knew her to be. Then, too, there were the romantics; watching King and Chancellor cross the room arm-in-arm, already writing the love story in their heads.
If only they knew, Alistair thought wryly, maintaining what he hoped was a benevolent smile. If only they knew he'd loved her since before he breathed a word about his heritage. If only they knew her friendship was the thing he cherished most in the world. If only they knew that was as far as it went; friendship. If only they knew how quickly he would leap at the chance to court her, marry her, love her properly and freely. But they didn't. No one did, not even Marta. He valued her friendship too much to push for something he knew would never happen.
They reached their places at the head of the table and sat, Alistair very carefully recalling and following all the etiquette pointers Marta had given him. How to sit, what to do with his hands, the length and manner in which to nod a dismissal to the servant responsible for moving his chair. He still felt like a child trying desperately to mimic the effortless grace of the nearest adult so no one would know how clueless he was. And then Marta offered an encouraging smile, and the knot of tension in his gut loosened, just a little. Meals were relatively easy, so long as you remembered to wait through the blessing, chew slowly, and which fork to use when. Amid copious joking about his 'raised by dogs' quip from ages ago, Marta had made sure Alistair was well-versed in all three.
The chantry sister offered the blessing, Alistair rose and reeled off the short, traditional welcome speech, and the meal began. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that the gossip was flowing as freely as the wine, but there wasn't much to be done about that. Let them talk.
Marta leaned over slightly to whisper, "You're doing wonderfully."
"So far," he returned in an undertone. "This is the easy part. I have another, longer speech later in the evening, and I have to manage to dance without stepping on your toes."
"Leaving aside that you haven't done that the last three times we've practiced, my toes have been through worse," she assured him. "If you should prove me wrong and step on them, I will survive. In fact, I believe you still owe me a bruise or two for the elbow to the temple in the tower of Ishal."
"Oh, you mean when you very nearly knocked me unconscious while we were fighting an ogre?" Alistair ribbed playfully.
Marta gave a small, sheepish chuckle. "Yes, that would be the occasion to which I was referring. I will remind you I was still adjusting to both fighting as part of a team and your fighting style specifically, however. And you still managed to kill the blasted thing."
"Only because Bear proved an adept distraction," he shrugged. "I probably would've wound up paste if he hadn't found such joy in being an anklebiter."
She smiled. "It's not a role mabari get to play often,"
Their conversation shifted through small talk to more meaningful topics the rest of the meal; everything from Bear's recently acquired habit of sleeping sprawled across Marta's pillows to how the rebuilding of Highever was progressing. Several times as she passed on what her brother had told her, Marta shot him keen looks that said she knew he was deliberately keeping the focus of the conversation off him, but Alistair didn't care. So often their talks revolved around his struggles, how his day had gone, what Eamon was trying to talk him into now. Marta was very good at pretending she didn't matter, and for once he wanted to show her that someone believed otherwise.
As a teyrn's daughter, ignoring gossip was a skill Marta had learned roughly around when she mastered the proper curtsy. That didn't mean she didn't notice, just that she was very good at letting it roll right off her. "Water off a duck's back," Delilah used to laugh as the two of them held their heads high and pretended they hadn't heard women twice their age critiquing their hair, their dresses, their everything. The skill was just as handy now as it had been back then. She could hear the murmurings, hidden behind fans or not at all, guess at their content, but worrying was useless. And thus pointless. She wasn't about to let somethign pointless ruin the fun she was having.
The meal wound down and she and Alistair led the following exodus to the ballroom. The nobles milled about chatting until the palace musicians struck up a lively tune.
Before they were halfway through the first stanza, Fergus had materialized at her elbow, grinning impishly as he extended one hand. "Care to dance, sister?"
Marta raised an eyebrow in mock censure. "Awfully bold of you to cut in on the king, brother."
Alistair raised a hand to forestall Fergus' apology. "Go right ahead. This song's a bit fast for me. I'll reclaim her attention later."
She smirked at the teasing in his tone and the protective look that flickered in Fergus' eye. "Very well. Lead on. Fergus."
The dance was a favorite with both Cousland siblings, and they fell in step with ease. "So what's this about reclaiming your attention later?" Fergus asked, raising his arm so Marta could spin.
Which she did, expertly, before answering. "I believe it's customary at social functions to spend at least the majority of your time with whomever accompanied you to said function." She fixed her brother with a knowing look. "And on that note, where's Alfstanna? I don't recall seeing her thus far tonight."
Fergus shot her a sour look. "Her brother relapsed. How did you know?"
Marta shrugged, half smile playing at her lips. "Simple deduction, brother dearest. Of all the nobles who survived the Battle of Denerim, she's the one who's been helping the most with rebuilding, both in Denerim and in Highever. Since I know you wouldn't attend a function such as this alone, lest the noblewomen descend upon the poor, widowed teyrn; and I'm equally sure you've thrown yourself into the reconstruction of our home with enough vigor to ensure you don't have a social life, it follows you would invite the woman who's been helping. The only question that remains is if yours is simply a friendly arrangement, like mine and Alistair's, or perhaps a gateway to something more."
Fergus laughed, shaking his head in bewilderment as he reeled her out and back in, keeping perfect time with the other dancers around them. "Damn, you're good. Although it's definitely the former; I'm not ready yet to even contemplate remarrying, and Alfstanna is focusing on Irminric's recovery. Neither of us is even looking for anything more. I will, however, congratulate you on doing an excellent job deflecting attention. Now that you've interrogated me regarding my date for the evening, I feel it only fair that you answer a question or two as well. I had no idea you wanted to be queen."
"That's not a question, and I don't," Marta retorted. "Alistair and I are just friends. That's all."
"Yes, because I look at my friends the way he looks at you," Fergus said dryly.
"No, that's-" She sighed. "He's worried about me tonight, that's all. I mentioned something about memories of my family attached to the Wintersend Ball, and I think he's concerned I'll break down in tears or something."
"If you say so." He only looked half convinced. "As your brother, it's part of my job to look out for you-"
"And there's nothing that needs looking after there," she assured him. "There's more risk of memories being an issue than Alistair."
"Why?" Fergus frowned.
Light brown eyes dancing with mirth, he held her closer than strictly required by the dance. "I would very much like to kiss you, Lady Cousland."
"I would very much like to let you, Ser Howe."
Marta bit down hard on the tears that accompanied the memory. "Just... Just in general. This ball was so important to Mother, and being here without them... and wearing her necklace...." she sighed, brushing her fingers against the pendant. "It hurts a little."
"I understand," Fergus nodded as the dance ended. "Much as I enjoy your company, Marta, I would much rather be dancing with Oriana."
She pressed a comforting hand to his arm as his voice caught on the name. "I know this must be even harder for you. I really appreciate that you came anyway."
He ginned. "I wasn't about to let you endure this bit of pageantry alone. But given our earlier conversation, don't you think you should return to your actual partner for the evening?"
"Probably a good idea," Marta agreed. "One dance with my brother is all well and fine, but much more than that and the gossips will turn it into me avoiding Alistair. And that's the last thing I want; he's still finding his feet as king and worrying about his leadership capabilities as it is, Maker knows I don't need anyone giving him ideas."
Fergus pulled her closer for one last hug. "Wouldn't want that. Have fun, sister."
"You as well, brother. I'll send up a prayer Alfstanna arrives soon to save you from the womanly hordes," Marta smirked, nodding towards a small gaggle of unaccompanied women who were clearly waiting for the first available man to dance with. "Good luck."
She slipped away with his hissed, "Brat," ringing in her ears and a serene smile on her face as she went in search of Alistair.
They found each other on the dance floor, feigning a first meeting.
"I've heard a great many interesting things about you, Ser Howe," she murmured, extending her hand toward him.
"As I have about you, m'lady," he returned, bowing to kiss her hand."Might I suggest we share a dance as we investigate the truth of this hearsay?"
She inclined her head and arched a brow, actually managing to look quite regal for a moment, before nodding. "A wise suggestion." Her hand stayed safely resting in his as they prepared to dance. It wasn't until the music started and granted at least the illusion of privacy that she let a crack form in their charade. "Thomas, you have no idea how much I've missed you."
"Oh, I rather think I do," he contradicted, smiling. "For I've missed you just as much."
"Well, then. We should make the best of our time together," she said, gracefully twirling under his upraised arm as the music swelled.
"Won't it look suspicious if we only dance with each other? I think I saw King Cailan eyeing you as if he wished to request a dance," he joked.
She scoffed quietly. "I'd rather dance with you than with a dozen kings."
He raised an eyebrow. "Then I shall do my best to be worthy of such sentiments, Lady Cousland."
The memory faded, leaving Marta with a sad smile tugging her lips. The Maker did have a sense of humor. Now she was here without Thomas, and there was a different king. One she was very much looking forward to having as her dance partner.
It didn't stop her from mssing him, though. Blast it, Thomas, where are you?
If you haven't found him yet, you probably never will, at least alive.
She shook off the thought, even as it sent icy chills down her spine. Tonight was not the time for such thoughts. Tonight was for-
"Marta? You okay?"
She spun at the gentle touch on her shoulder, slapping on a smile. "Alistair. There you are. I'm fine, I was just looking for you, actually."
Alistair looked skeptical, but didn't argue--even as he cupped her face in one hand and brushed away the tear hanging in the corner of her eye. "There. Now people will believe you when you tell them that."
Marta shot him a grateful smile as he let his hand drop. "Thank you. There's just... a lot of memories to work through. But I'll manage." I always do.
I'm so proud of you, pup.
Her smile wavered, and Marta cleared her throat. "Shall we dance?"
"If that's what you want," Alistair nodded. "I think I know this one well enough." He took the lead as they made their way to the dance floor. "I had an excellent teacher, after all."
Marta laughed, the vise around her heart loosening slightly. "Thank you for the high praise, Your Majesty."
"I only speak the truth," he said, as his hand came to rest on her waist.
"You are a lady to be held in the highest regard."
She sucked in a sharp breath, her grip on Alistair's hand tightening briefly. Nothing his look of concern, she tried to smile. "Just another memory."
Alistair frowned as the two of them began moving. "You're having an awful lot of them. Is it because of that?" He shot a meaningful look at her necklace.
Marta shook her head. "If it were, the memories would be of my family, not..."
It only took a second or two for him to catch what she couldn't say. "Thomas?"
She nodded wordlessly and felt is hand flex against her waist. They danced in silence for a few moments, Marta regaining her composure, Alistair focusing on his feet. The sweet and slow tempo made this dance an easier one, but the fact remained he had only just recently learned it.
"Thank you," Marta whispered, finally breaking the silence, comfortable and natural as it was.
"For knowing the value of not saying a word." She sighed. "Thomas is... a tricky subject right now; knowing he's innocent of his father's schemes, but not knowing if he lives... The fairy tales never made it seem this complicated."
To his credit, Alistair smiled at the weak joke. "The fairy tales glaze over a lot at the end, I find. The hero slays the dragon or evil villain, marries the princess, and they live happily ever after. They don't give a step-by step of how all of that's accomplished."
"Everyone wants to skip to the happily ever after,"Marta murmured. "Without the hard work. At the moment, I understand that painfully well." She paused. "What if... I mean, what if he's not- if he's..."
She was breaking his heart. Alistair pulled her closer and rubbed her back. "Then you'll cry--on my shoulder, if y'like--and keep going. Because that's who you are, Marta; you mourn tragedy and loss as they're due, but you pick yourself up and keep going. They may change you, but you don't let them paralyze you."
"This might," she whispered, leaning her head against his chest.
Alistair took a deep breath, praying she couldn't feel his racing heart. "It won't. Not for long, anyway. You're a strong woman, with friends who care about you, and a heart to help and protect people. It's one of the things I-" love- "appreciate most about you. Plus, if it tries to keep you down long term, I'll drag you out of it. Or be a listening ear. Whichever you need."
Marta lifted her head and smiled gratefully, though he could see the tears shining in her eyes. "Thank you. Either one will mean more to me than I can put into words." She took advantage of the next step in the dance to rise on the balls of her feet and kiss him on the cheek.
He couldn't stop his eyes from fluttering closed briefly as her lips brushed his skin, or his stomach from twisting in a knot. I was only with a great deal of effort that he retained his composure enough to whisper, "It's no more than you did for me. Fair's fair."
She kissed me, reverberated inside his head, every echo making his heart skip a beat, no matter how many different ways he tried to reign himself in. It was on the cheek. Obviously just a friendly gesture. It was a thank you. She's clearly still in love with Thomas and will never see you as anything other than a friend and brother in arms.
So? I'll take it. Despite knowing what this must look like to any observers or gossips witnessing the comfortable familiarity between them, friends was enough.
As Marta smiled once more in gratitude, Alistair could only hope that one day, when he thought that, he would absolutely and entirely mean it. Because he'd never doubted himself like he did at the moment.
Alistair was... quiet for the rest of the evening. Or, at least, quiet for him. He carried out the rest of his kingly duties for the Wintersend Ball, joked a little with her to make her smile, gave the longer speech without a single flub, and was all warmth and sincerity interacting with his people. But there was something, an edge of solemnity, after their dance, and Marta couldn't help but worry she'd overstepped her bounds with the kiss. Yes, it had been on the cheek, yes, she'd simply meant it as a friendly gesture of gratitude.
But it probably hadn't looked like that to other people. She cursed herself for an idiot as she realized that. In the heat of the moment, her heart laid bare and Alistair being his usual wonderful self, it had seemed only natural. It's what she would have done were they on the road. Only, they weren't on the road. They weren't simply Wardens, just Alistair and Marta, anymore. They were King and Chancellor and standing in the middle of perhaps the most public place in Denerim.
And she'd kissed him. On the cheek or on the lips, both would mean the same to the gossips. "The Cousland girl's not content with chancellor, she wants to be queen" or "oh, how romantic". She rubbed her fingers over the sapphire in her necklace and could practically hear Mother's lectures on propriety and comportment. No wonder Alistair was acting different; he was trying to balance out her over-familiarity. So she took her cue from him and was the picture of propriety the rest of the night.
It wasn't until things had wound down, nobles heading off to their homes or other lodgings and they were free to retreat to the privacy of the royal wing that Marta dared broach the subject. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Alistair, bless him, looked as exhausted as he did confused.
"The kiss," she said softly, unpinning her braid and letting it fall down her back. "It was... ill-advised, given our circumstances. I just forgot myself and where we were in the heat of the moment."
"No, Marta, that's not something you need to apologize for," he protested, raking one hand through his hair, which dislodged his coronet. He fumbled to catch it, then spun the thin gold circlet between his hands as they walked. "There was nothing wrong about it. I-I mean, I don't think it was im-improper or ill-advised of whatever. It was just a friendly gesture, right?"
"Yes, but that's not what it looked like to other people, I'm sure," she pointed out, fidgeting with the jewel-studded hairpins.
"Hang what it looked like to other people," Alistair growled. "You're my friend, and I care about you, and I don't want you feeling like you have to worry about that."
"But you're king now," Marta reminded him gently. "We do need to worry about that, because your people's opinion of you matters. And if they think your chancellor is a gold-digging, social-climbing... tart, that reflects poorly on both of us." She sighed and drew off her necklace. "So next time I decide to have a complete breakdown about my missing lover, I'll be sure to do it in private."
"I see your point," Alistair conceded around a yawn. "See, this is why I like having you around. You're smart and think about things likethis."
"Not because I'm the only one who'll put up with you?" she teased.
"...Well, there's that, too," he rejoined, making a face at her. "G'night, Mar."
Marta blinked in momentary surprise when she realized they were outside her room. "G'night, Alistair. Get some sleep, and remember we're meeting with the Orlesian ambassador tomorrow."
"I remember," Alistair promised. "You get sleep, too. I'm gonna need you. I-In the meeting."
"As my king commands," she couldn't resist joking as she darted into her room.
Fortunately, the memories that had plagued her during the ball did not follow her into her dreams, making that a relatively easy promise to keep.