Alistair sent a silent prayer to the Maker, hoping that his decades of combat training would guide him.
He managed to dodge enough so that the blow hit him in the upper thigh and not the groin, but ow. That hurt. His armor, of course, was packed away. Not that it would have been much help.
He vastly preferred darkspawn.
“Noooo!” Elodie screeched, louder and higher-pitched than a high dragon, every hit of her flailing legs against his abdomen reminding him of sparring with Sten. Maker, she was three, how was she so strong?
No one had told him parenting would be like this.
“I don’t wanna!” Elodie wailed as he tried in vain to pry her fingers from the door of the carriage. “I want Munda!”
“Five minutes ago you couldn’t wait to get out of the carriage!” Alistair knew his appeal to logic was pointless in the face of such a temper tantrum, but it gave him a nonviolent outlet for his frustration. “And in case you haven’t noticed, Munda is not in there!”
Unfortunately, his words only enraged her more, and he immediately regretted engaging her. He was conscious of stares and muttering behind his back, and he dearly wished they were somewhere, anywhere else — the top of Fort Drakon fighting an archdemon, for example, or the palace in Denerim during the Landsmeet.
Anywhere but the fucking Winter Palace.
The Orlesian accents took him back to one of the worst moments of his life, when he’d almost lost Elodie to that horrid Orlesian couple, and the words of Comte Pelletier came flooding back to him.
“No child under my care will receive this ... coddling. Discipline and strict rules are what a child needs.”
That, more than anything else, provided him with the burst of renewed patience he needed. No child of his would worry that her parents cared more about what people thought than about her well-being. He’d been that child, and he refused to do that to his Elodie.
“Ellie, sweetheart,” he said gently, but loudly enough to be heard over her cries, “do you want to go see Munda?”
“Yes!” she cried, but at the volume of a only a dragonling now.
The distraction weakened her grip, and he took advantage of the opportunity to remove her hands from the door and bring her into his arms.
“Me, too. So let’s go, huh?”
“Noooo!” she wailed, realizing she’d been played and grappling in vain for the carriage that was now out of her reach.
He grinned, a little too pleased with himself. “I’m a Grey Warden. You’ll have to get up earlier than that to outsmart me, missy.”
That got him a swift kick to — ow, the groin — as she renewed her flailing with all four limbs plus her head. He gritted his teeth and breathed through it while he moved toward the driver.
The carriage was the Inquisition’s, so the driver and the two guards hand-picked by Cullen to accompany them didn’t require payment, as such. Nevertheless, he pressed several coins into each of their hands, only slightly hampered by Elodie’s continued tantrum.
Before the men could protest, Alistair shouted over Elodie, “Buy yourselves a drink or three, on me. Consider it thanks for not abandoning us in the Frostbacks after twenty minutes of …” He readjusted the still screaming Elodie, her struggles having caused her to slip in his arms.
“But ser,” one of Cullen’s men began.
Alistair smirked. “I won’t tell the Commander if you don’t.” When they still didn’t move, he said, “Go now, before he gets here and explicitly forbids you from any sort of fun or relaxation after that miserable trip!”
They didn’t need telling twice — or, rather, thrice, since they’d at least attempted to argue — and then he was left with just the driver, William, who actually smiled at him.
“I have five young-uns meself, ser,” William said. “Though they an’t as young as Miss Elodie anymore. Trip like that’s hard on little-uns. I know it an’t much comfort now, but she’ll grow out of it.”
“That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” Alistair said with a sigh and then a grunt as Elodie’s fists pounded into his back. “Can’t come soon enough.”
“That’s what you think now,” said William. “But a’fore you know it she’ll be striking out on her own, and you’ll wish for these times back again.”
“I want Munda!” Elodie screamed, and Alistair highly doubted he would ever want to return to this moment. But he nodded and thanked William again before turning around and finally taking in their destination.
The Winter Palace never ceased to amaze him, and somehow it seemed to glow like lyrium crystals in the Deep Roads, rising into the beautiful dusk sky.
He only realized he was gawking when he heard a “Ser,” spoken in a tone that indicated annoyance with having to repeat itself.
Alistair dropped his gaze and registered the gathered crowd of perhaps twenty Orlesians, whom he now realized were gawking at them, not at the palace.
Maker, but he hated Orlais.
“Ser,” came the annoyed voice yet again. “Your name, so we may have the servants send the luggage to your quarters.”
How Orlesians could show such intense distaste with their faces covered by those ridiculous masks, Alistair would never understand. But he didn’t miss how the chevalier’s eyes looked him up and down before settling on Elodie’s still-flailing form.
Alistair bit back a few choice words — something along the lines of, “Do you beat the Game into Orlesian children before or after they start to smile?” only with more profanity — when he thought of the fallout from Elodie’s temper tantrum, and made an uncharacteristically calculated decision. The Inquisition, and therefore Cullen’s current position, was in a delicate situation, and the last thing either needed was Alistair running his mouth and making Elodie’s scene actively worse.
So, even though it went against everything he valued and stood for, he forced his posture into his closest approximation of relaxed and smiled his Game-iest smile.
“Of course,” he said, loud but otherwise acting as though he were on a quiet stroll and all their ears weren’t being assaulted by Elodie’s insistent calls for Munda. “I’m here as a guest of the Inquisition’s commander, Cul —”
“You’re a guest of the Commander!” The chevalier immediately perked up, eager and earnest. Behind him, Alistair could practically feel the tension as the crowd strained to hear their conversation over Elodie’s ear-piercing screeches. “You and your … companion are most welcome to the Winter —”
Alistair almost lost it as the chevalier’s impressive commitment to the Game was drowned out by a particularly loud wail from Elodie. But he bit his tongue hard and managed to keep his polite smile in place. “Thank you, ser knight. If you could direct me to his quarters?”
The chevalier’s eyes drifted again to Elodie. “Surely you’d prefer to visit your own quarters first?”
The question hit Alistair like a shield bash to the face, and he barely kept his smile in place. He’d been so worried about Elodie’s behavior that he’d forgotten to steel himself against the judgment he and Cullen usually received by simply … being themselves.
But he rallied and, amid Elodie’s continued cries, tried to sound casual. “No, we’ll be in the same quarters.”
To his immense surprise, the chevalier didn’t even blink. “Of course. If you’ll take this path to the doors, a servant will escort you.”
Huh. That was a point in Orlais’s column. Their score was now negative nine hundred ninety-nine, but still.
“I — thank you,” Alistair said, too surprised to pretend not to care.
“Of course, ser.” Was that … disappointment in the chevalier’s voice? Ugh, apparently the Orlesian nobility hadn’t gotten over their obsession with Cullen since the last time he was here. Alistair couldn’t blame them — well, actually, he could. Orlais lost the point they’d just gained for being accepting by not accepting “No, please stop, leave me alone” for an answer.
With that, he turned his back to the chevalier and faced the gawking crowd. He shrugged with one shoulder, his other holding Elodie like a potato sack, and grinned.
“Don’t worry, the Mabari’s in the next carriage.”
And, clinging to William’s advice that he wasn’t the absolute worst father in the world, Alistair hoisted his kicking and screaming daughter into a more comfortable position and proceeded to leisurely stroll through the crowd of gawking Orlesians to the doors of the Winter Palace.