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The Start of it All

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Satinalia was one of Nathaniel’s least favorite holidays. The nobles in Ferelden felt the need to celebrate the old religion’s holiday in an Andrastian manner. Instead of following the traditions of the common folk—getting drunk, dancing, feasting, and general chaos—they prided themselves on going to pompous balls that consisted of masks, fancy food, and polite conversation. Between close friends and family members, the occasional gift would be given, though that was incredibly rare for the Howe family. He honestly couldn’t recall the last Satinalia gift he had received it had been so long ago. The holiday was just an old tradition that Ferelden could never shake. It just wasn’t Umbralis unless the family was riding out to some castle to celebrate with all the other low-level nobles.

This year, however, was different. The Howes had been invited to the grandest ball in all of the country, thrown by none other than the Arl of Redcliffe. Not only was Arl Eamon a rich and influential man, but he was also brother-in-law to the King. Eamon was known to host the royals during the holiday, so this celebration would certainly be extravagant. Nathaniel’s mother had made sure the entire family had new clothes tailor made just for the event, including traditional Satinalia masks. Each outfit was decorated with the family’s colors—brown, white, and gold—and a golden bear mask. His father had commented that the masks seemed a bit too Orlesian, but the complaint fell on deaf ears.

The day of the party had finally arrived, and Nathaniel shifted in his seat in the carriage. The crisp white satin shirt did little to protect him from the cold Ferelden winter. Even in the carriage, away from the wind and falling snow, he shivered. He moved just an inch closer to his mother, who was smart enough to don a fur coat. She offered him a smile, noticing his shakes.

 “Come here, Nate, Mother will keep you warm,” she cooed, curling an arm around her son. He tried to feign annoyance, but she saw through it. As much as he tried to pride himself on being stoic young man, he couldn’t deny his affection for his mother.

“You coddle the boy,” his father scoffed, crossing his legs. “It was his own decision to leave his proper winter coat. Let him shiver.”

The youngest Howe, Thomas, chuckled. There was no doubt he enjoyed the snide remark. Despite his youthful innocence, it was clear Thomas had aspirations of becoming the next Arl of Amaranthine, and not Nathaniel.

Delilah, the middle child, simply looked from one parent to another nervously. Arguments like these never sat well with her.

“Oh, let me have this. Who knows how much longer I get to have my son under my wing?” his mother frowned. “He’ll be turning twenty soon. Time to begin looking for a wife, start a family of his own…”

“That won’t be happening anytime soon. Not a single woman in Thedas seems to be interested in our eldest,” his father added, rolling his eyes.

 “Such cruelty from his own father! Rendon, you should be ashamed. I don’t want you talking like that at the ball tonight, do you hear me?”

 “What do you want me to say then? He’s just biding his time? Trying to find the right woman? These lies won’t fool the bannorn much longer, Eliane.”

 His parents bickered for the rest of the carriage ride. Nathaniel was more than happy to jump out into the cold once the carriage came to stop—if it was up to him, he would hide inside of Redcliffe Castle for as long as possible, even if it meant never returning to Amaranthine. He rushed inside the grand building and put his mask on, making sure it was secure. Nathaniel knew he should have waited for his family, but listening to his parents argue for one more minute would drive him insane. At least at home he could leave the area and find a place that was quiet, but inside the carriage, he was a captive, forced to listen.  

The guards at the door stopped him for only a moment, holding hands out for the thick paper invitation. Once he had handed it over, they opened up the doors to the ballroom, allowing him entry. The only way to describe it was that it was beautiful. Every inch of the great hall was decorated, candles shining brightly from lanterns. Flowers hung from chandeliers. Paintings were adorned with fine ribbons along their frames. Food was everywhere. The only thing more plentiful was drink. Ales, wines, and liquors were paraded in fine glasses by servants in red. The guests wore all kinds of fine fabrics—satin, chiffon, velvet, furs—in addition to their gilded masks. Nathaniel had never seen anything quite so…grand.

 “It’s lovely, isn’t it?”

Nathaniel turned to see the man responsible for the Howe’s invite—Bryce Cousland. The teryn was a close friend of his father’s, and with his greater political influence, was able to secure spots for the Howes at the great gathering. He wore his family’s colors—blue, silver, and green—and hid behind a mask mimicking the leaves of a tree. No doubt a call to the Cousland coat of arms. The older man gave a hearty grin.

“Yes, sir,” Nathaniel responded politely, making sure to stand up straight.

 “No need to be so formal, Nathaniel. I’ve known you since you were an infant. You’re like another son to me,” the teryn said, giving a hearty slap to the younger man’s back.

“Thank you, teryn.” As truthful as Bryce’s statement was, it was still hard for Nathaniel to regard the Cousland in a friendly manner. He was simply just too powerful to be anything other than the teryn in his eyes.

“Say, where is your family? I would have expected to see them with you,” he asked.

 “We may have been separated at some point,” Nathaniel lied. “I honestly couldn’t tell you where they are.”

“So Eliane and Rendon are fighting again. Wonderful,” the teryn sighed. “I knew I should have just invited one of your parents. Trying to get the whole family together always ends in conflict.”

 “I hate to tell you, but you’re right.” Nathaniel let out a slight chuckle. So it was just as obvious as he had thought…

 “What a surprise.” Bryce readjusted his mask, his large smile disappearing. “Is it at least over something meaningful, and not a petty matter?”

“For once, yes,” Nathaniel lowered his voice. “It’s actually about…me.”

The teryn put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “What is it, dear boy?”

“It’s…I’m nearing my twentieth birthday, and I still haven’t found…a lady to marry,” he admitted reluctantly. It wasn’t as though Nathaniel hadn’t been with women—his father had made sure he lost his virginity on his sixteenth birthday, and since then, a variety of serving girls and well-paid whores had quenched his lustful thirst. Still, none of them were even remotely close to what Nathaniel truly wanted. A meaningful relationship built on trust and love seemed like a far off dream, especially when he looked at his parent’s relationship. His own social skills didn’t help in the manner. There was a reason why most of the women he’d been with had to be paid to spend time with him.

Oblivious to all of that, Bryce nodded, his eyes suspiciously scanning the room. “You know, that can easily be fixed. You are going to be rubbing elbows with many fine maidens this evening. Even my daughter, Anastasia, is somewhere in this crowd.”

 Anastasia. Nathaniel knew of the teryn’s daughter, but had never properly met her face to face. She’d always been in the background during his visits to Cousland Castle, off reading a book, collecting herbs, or doing some other chore. She’d seemed nice enough from what Fergus had said about her. He was fiercely protective of his younger sister, claiming she was shy and fragile. Talking to her would most likely prove to be tolerable at least. It could even be enjoyable if he played his cards right.

Still, Nathaniel frowned. Social events were never his strong suit. That was why he hated Satinalia in the first place—the parties. And now, with his parents bickering about his future, he would be pressured to socialize more than usual. Why couldn’t he have such an important decision already made up for him, like Prince Cailan? He’d been betrothed since he was a toddler. \

Perhaps that was just another perk of being a prince.

 “Should I leave you to woo the ladies?” the teryn asked.

 “Please don’t,” Nathaniel answered too quickly.

 Bryce laughed. “You know, if you’re so adverse to the idea, I’m sure you could find refuge in the servants’ quarters, if you’re sneaky about it. It’s all hands on deck tonight, so the only inhabitants of that area of the castle will be sleeping children.”

Nathaniel looked up at him, gauging just how serious the man was being.

“Just a thought, my dear boy,” he shrugged. “I’ll try and find your parents, see if I can get them to enjoy themselves a little bit this evening. You do what you will.”

The younger man nodded, silently thanking the man as he walked away. All alone now in the crowd, Nathaniel looked across the sea of people. Was there anyone other than the teryn here that he knew? His circle of friends consisted mainly of servants and stable boys back in Amaranthine, with the occasional son of a bann. The only exception was Bryce’s oldest son, Fergus Cousland. Perhaps he would be there, and he could latch onto him for the evening? No, that wouldn’t do. Fergus was charismatic and thrived on events such as these. He’d no doubt be surrounded by people. There was always the option of trying to meet someone new, or he could even just look for his family and hover around them.

The servants’ quarters was sounding better and better by the second. All Nathaniel had to do was actually find it.

Gradually the young man ventured into the crowds, taking food from trays as they passed, filling his belly with the delectable treats that no doubt had to be from Orlais. He found numerous hallways, all leading to other rooms filled with people singing, dancing, drinking…Not a single one leading to a quiet refuge. Luckily, with his mask in place, no one knew he was, or they knew and simply didn’t care, and he wasn’t stopped for idle conversation once. He was able to cover a good amount of ground with little interference, and gained a vague understanding of the castle in only an hour. As he wandered, he noticed a single unmoving figure.

A young servant boy, no older than eight or nine, stood in a corner, shakily holding up glasses of wine for the guests. He was so short, most missed him, paying the child no mind. Perhaps he could be a kindred soul, hoping for an escape as well? Nathaniel meandered over to the boy, crouching down to be on his level.

“Wine, sir?” he asked softly.

 “No thank you,” Nathaniel smiled, “but there is something that I was hoping I could ask you.”

 “I don’t know any secrets, sir,” the child replied, taking a step back.

 “No, no, I don’t want to know any secrets, kid. It’s just, you look a little uncomfortable. Like you don’t want to be here.”

“So?”

“So, neither do I. Maybe you know a good place to hide? If you show me, I’ll let you hang out with me for the rest of the night,” Nathaniel offered.

“I can’t go back to the servants’ quarters until I finish serving all this wine,” the child said, looking at the several glasses. “The arlessa said so.”

Nathaniel took in a deep breath. He knew exactly how to not only help this kid, but also get away from the crowd. It just meant he might get sick on the way home. He shook his head before taking a hold of a glass and downing the drink.

“Mister, you aren’t gonna drink all of these, are you?” the child asked as Nathaniel grabbed a second glass.

“If it means you get to leave, and you’ll show me a place to hide for the rest of the party, I am,” he said, gulping down the sweet drink.

“You don’t need to do that!” the boy exclaimed, stepping out of Nathaniel’s reach. “I’ll just give the rest to somebody else. I don’t want you getting sick, mister.”

“Call me Nathaniel,” he stated, trying to smile.

The kid laughed. “I’m Alistair. I’ll be right back.” He walked into the crowd of people, holding up his plate of drinks as high as he could. The party guests started to finally notice the child. Before he could get to whichever servant it was that he was going to unload his drinks on, all the glasses had been snatched up. Alistair handed his plate off to an older boy, and ran to the hors d’oeuvres table. He returned quickly, holding up a napkin filled with bread and cheeses.

“Just a little snack,” he explained.

“You’re a smart kid, Alistair,” Nathaniel remarked, stealing a little cube of cheese from the stash.

The child led him down a series of hallways, a flight of stairs, and then one more hallway. Down there, the roar of the party had been quieted to a quiet hum. It was significantly colder below, but it was well worth getting away from all the activity. A series of rooms, crammed with beds, lay before Nathaniel and Alistair. The perfect place to escape.

“This is absolutely perfect, kid. Thank you so much,” he grinned, taking his mask off. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”

Alistair had already kicked off his shoes and began to untuck his shirt. “No problem,” he replied. “I wanted to get away from the arlessa, so we both win.”

“Arlessa Isolde, right?” Nathaniel asked. “I don’t know much about her, other than she’s from Orlais.”

“She really doesn’t like me,” the child said quietly. “She gives me extra work, and when I do it, says I didn’t do it right.”

Nathaniel took a seat on a wooden trunk beside a single bed. “She doesn’t sound very nice.”

“She really isn’t.” Alistair took a hunk of cheese and popped it into his mouth. “The war dogs are better than her.”

“Now that’s a bold statement. I hear Redcliffe’s mabari are second only to Highever’s in fierceness. She must be a real bitch,” Nathaniel winked.

Alistair erupted into laughter. “Don’t say that too loud!” he giggled. “The mabari are pretty nice, though. They’re fun to play fetch with.”

The two sat in silence for a while, the sole sound being Alistair’s woofing his food down. When only crumbs remained, the child called out Nathaniel’s name. The older man looked up, having dozed off just slightly.

“You know,” he suggested, “I bet the dogs are hungry. Maybe we should bring them down something.”

Nathaniel stood, smoothing out his fine shirt. “Are you sure you aren’t just wanting some more of that fancy cheese?”

“Maybe,” Alistair grinned, putting his shoes back on.

“C’mon, let’s go get something for both of us, and the dogs, alright?”

The two made their way back to the party, Nathaniel sure to put his mask back on before encountering any nobility. It was extremely unlikely anyone knew who he was, but still, it was better to be safe than sorry. The music and ambient chatter was deafening in comparison to the quiet of the servants’ quarters. Nathaniel winced as the two gathered up various treats, spanning from cheese and bread to sweet meats and cakes. They placed everything in napkins, which Alistair then fit under his shirt. It took only a few minutes before they ran out of room.

This time Nathaniel led the way down, taking only three wrong turns. Alistair was quick to correct him, so they never veered off course for too long. The two stashed their booty in the servants’ dining room, taking meat and bones for the mabari. It was simple enough to find the war hounds—they just had to follow the sound of barking. They were in an even colder, more secluded part of the castle. It could have been the barking, but Nathaniel swore he couldn’t hear the party anymore in the kennels.

The dogs became visibly excited when they saw Alistair. The child himself lit up at the sight of them, dropping his treats and rushing towards their cages. He knelt down next to one in particular, a big brown hound, and reached in between the bars to scratch behind her ears. The sight made Nathaniel wish Amaranthine had war hounds. The mabari didn’t seem much like a fierce warrior here, wagging its rear end with joy at the sight of its favorite human. Just a boy and his dog. It was a rare, heart-warming vision for the noble.

He was so caught up in the sight that he almost didn’t hear the sound of dainty footsteps enter the kennel.

How could he have forgotten that there would be guards? How could he have missed them? It was a shock that none had stopped him earlier. The Arl wouldn’t want his guests poking through his personal home—of course he and the kid would be noticed. Nathaniel spun on his heel to face the intruder, starting to write an excuse in his head for why he was down there before even looking at the stranger. He could claim that the hounds were so loud they were disturbing the party, and he was just doing the Arl a favor? Or perhaps he could play drunk and only slightly embarrass his family? It wouldn’t be the first time that a member of the nobility drank too much at a fine party.

The words came to his mind, but refused to leave. The sight before him had simply stupefied the eldest Howe son.

A young woman stood in the doorway. She wore a deep, dark blue velvet gown, covered in silver lace. Pearls were strung up around her sleeves, waist, and chest. The plunging cut of her dress revealed a long, pale neck. She was short, barely five foot, each inch consisting of fine curves. Long curls of auburn framed her face. A mask, gilded in silver that mimicked the leaves of a tree, hid her features. Still, she was more beautiful than any other woman Nathaniel had ever seen before.

“I’m sorry,” she began, “It’s just so loud upstairs, and then I heard you talking about mabari—“

“It’s alright,” chimed Alistair, “I’m sure the hounds don’t mind another visitor.” The child nonchalantly got up and took the hand of the girl, guiding her over to the dogs. He began to name all of them, pointing out which ones were friendly, where they liked to be pet, and what tricks they could do, as though this was all perfectly normal. Perhaps he was too young to realize just what a beauty this woman was?

Nathaniel slowly inched towards the two, suddenly rendered mute. He just watched as the boy unlocked the cage of the dog he called Buttercup, and fed the beast a scrap of chicken. The girl reached out to the hound, letting Buttercup sniff her hand before making a move. When she licked the girls’ hand, she giggled. It was like the chime of a bell.

“Your mask,” the girl noted, “You’re a Howe.”

Somehow he managed to speak. “Yes,” he nodded, “My name is Nathaniel. I’m the eldest son of Rendon and Eliane.”

The realization hit him like a punch to the gut. Her mask—it was identical to Bryce Cousland’s. That could only mean one thing.

“You’re Anastasia Cousland, youngest child of Bryce and Eleanor.”

“You are quite right.”

He reached out a hand in greeting. “I don’t think we ever properly met. I’ve been to Cousland Castle before, but you’ve always been busy.”

Her little hand fit easily in his. “That’s been on purpose, I must admit. Fergus always makes sure I’m out of sight when he has his friends over. He doesn’t want me embarrassing him.”

“What a shame,” Nathaniel murmured, barely audible.

Buttercup’s bark interrupted the two. Alistair sat, scratching her belly, offering the dog sweet praises. Anastasia took her hand back, moving quickly to return to the hound’s side. She joined Alistair, gracefully taking a seat on the cobblestone floor. Nathaniel was about to sit with them when he heard more footsteps—this time, not so dainty.

Another unexpected visitor. Something told him they wouldn’t be quite as lovely as Anastasia.

“Someone’s coming,” he whispered, tapping Alistair on the shoulder.

“You two, hide! I’m allowed to be down here, you aren’t!” he scolded, pushing them behind a stack of empty cages. “Don’t make a sound!”

Just as the two nobles were out of sight, two guards and a woman clad in red and gold stomped into the room. She was clearly of high standing, her gown even finer than Anastasia’s.

“Alistair,” she spat, her accent heavy, “what are you doing down here? Why are you not serving the guests upstairs?”

“I’m sorry, arlessa,” the child said, hanging his head in shame, “I ran out of drinks and figured the dogs might be hungry so I—“

“So you stole food, meant for our guests, to feed these…beasts? What kind of fool are you, child?” the woman hissed.

“I’m sorry, arlessa. It won’t happen again.” Alistair dared not even look the woman in the eyes.

“You do this every year! Why does Eamon keep you around? You’re just a stupid little orphan boy, can’t even do something as simple as serve drinks!” The woman stormed over to the boy and slapped him across the face. The hound barked and snapped at the Arlessa.

“What are you doing?!” a not-so-dainty voice cried out.

Anastasia had come out of their hiding place and stood in full view. The once petite woman now seemed larger than life, taking a full and commanding presence.

“Who is this woman?” the arlessa questioned, her hands balling into fists. “Alistair—“

“My name is Anastasia Cousland, daughter of the teryn of Highever, Bryce Cousland. How dare you strike this child?” she growled.

“He is my servant, and I shall do as I please to him,” Isolde stated, crossing her arms. Alistair retreated behind Buttercup.

Hitting a child was one thing—Nathaniel had been hit by his father on several occasions when he was small. But acting as though a servant was a piece of property, and not a human being? No. He couldn’t hide any longer. He, too, emerged from behind the cages, copying Anastasia’s pose.

“That is no excuse to mistreat a child. You should be ashamed of your actions,” Nathaniel challenged.

“Me? I should—I should throw you and your family out of this party, young lady! Yours too, young man!” the arlessa screeched. “You two shouldn’t even be down here!”

“I’m glad that I am, if only to defend this child,” stated Anastasia.

The arlessa began to charge towards Anastasia, but her guards held her back. They exchanged glances, and a single word: “Don’t.”

Despite the obvious challenge made towards her, Anastasia stood her ground, protecting the young servant boy with her body. Nathaniel tried to puff up best as he could, to make it known he would defend both Anastasia and Alistair if push came to shove.

“Get out of here. Now. I won’t ask you a second time,” the arlessa instructed, turning to leave, though clearly waiting for Anastasia and Nathaniel to exit first. The glares her guards gave made sure that the two knew she meant what she said.

Alistair waved at Anastasia and Nathaniel from his spot behind the dog. She waved back, a truly sad look on her face. She clearly did not want to leave this boy just yet, and neither did Nathaniel. The guards, however, left them little choice. They followed the two of them out of the room, leaving Alistair and the hounds alone.

Once out of sight from the boy, the guards grabbed Anastasia and Nathaniel, one each, and strong-armed them to the castle doors. Onlookers from the party stared and whispered, yet Anastasia remained strong, a look of defiance painted on her features. The guards kept them there as the arlessa found and scolded each of their parents, telling them of their wrongdoings. This would certainly make for an interesting ride home.

“Thank you, Nathaniel.”

He turned and saw Anastasia smiling up at him, despite being held by a guard.

“You didn’t have to reveal yourself, but you did. Thank you.”

Nathaniel looked away, feeling warmth spread across his cheeks. “Of course. It was my pleasure.”

“I’m sorry if your parents get upset. They should know that what you did was right.”

He scoffed at the thought. “No, they won’t see it as such. It’ll just be another instance of my shenanigans. They’ll certainly take the arlessa’s side.”

“I hope it won’t mean that we won’t see each other again,” Anastasia said quietly, looking down at her feet.

Nathaniel turned to face her, admiring the wave of blush that hid beneath her mask. “I—I hope the same, my ladyship.”

Bryce Cousland was the first to walk over to the children, still holding a glass of wine in his hands. He chuckled, looking up at down at the two and the guards that held them.

“Come now, is that necessary?” he chided, giving the guards a look. “My daughter is a tiny thing, and Nathaniel is a rule follower. I’m sure she somehow dragged him into this mess.”

As the guards let them go, Nathaniel began to apologize to the teryn, but he wouldn’t hear it. He held his hand up in defiance.

“You two did nothing wrong. I’ve never liked that Orlesian woman—only the Maker knows what Eamon sees in her. We’ll send him a letter in a week or so, let them cool off, and all will be right in the world,” Bryce said, pulling his daughter into a hug.

“What of Arl Howe? Do you think he’ll listen to reason?” Anastasia asked.

“He’s being yelled at by an Orlesian, darling,” the teryn laughed. “If anything, Isolde should be afraid of him.”

“I hope you’re right,” Nathaniel lamented.

“Don’t you worry, Nate. He might be a little upset that he won’t be invited to next year’s party, but he’ll get over it,” the teryn smiled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to escort my little miscreant back to Cousland Castle, as per the arlessa’s wishes.”

To his surprise, Anastasia held out her hand. Nathaniel gladly took it, bowing down to her as he placed a gentle kiss on her knuckles.

“Maker guide your path,” he breathed, watching the two leave.

“I see you’ve made a friend.”

Nathaniel slowly stood back upright, turning to smile at his mother. He held out his arm for her, knowing exactly why she was there.

“I must say, when we got here, this wasn’t how I was expecting us to be leaving,” she stated coyly, taking her son’s arm.

“Mother, I…I think I solved our problem,” Nathaniel said, gazing into the snow, following a blue vision.

“What problem, dear?”

“I know who it is I want to marry,” he smiled, the cold somehow not so biting anymore.

“What? Who’s the lucky lady?” she asked.

“Anastasia Cousland. I want nothing more than for her to be my wife.”

 

Chapter Text

As much as Teryn Cousland may have tried, Nathaniel still got in trouble for his behavior at Redcliffe Castle. He was given a very long, very repetitive lecture about respecting his elders and proper manners. In addition to that, he was restricted to Vigil’s Keep for a full month. Normally that would have meant nothing to Nathaniel—typically he would actually appreciate being left home and not joining his family on their noble visits—but things had changed. Being stuck at his family’s castle for a full thirty days meant missing his monthly training session at Cousland Castle. No matter how much he begged his father to let him go, he wouldn’t budge.

          He wouldn’t be able to see Anastasia. That was infinitely worse than dealing with stuck up nobles and listening to his parents bicker.

          Since the ball, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. She had been stunning from head to toe in her blue gown. The velvet had hugged her curves so perfectly and the deep neckline revealed just enough porcelain skin to be alluring, but still modest.  Every night, she appeared in Nathaniel’s dreams, haunting him. It would have been a slight annoyance if it hadn’t been for the graphic nature of these dreams. If it had only been a vision of her smile, the sound of her voice, he would have been able to toss the thoughts aside easily.

          Instead, he was tortured by the ghostly touch of her hands across his bare skin, her lips against his neck, the sound of her moaning his name. As time wore on, they got worse and worse, starting as mere illusions of simple kisses, and growing to passionate sex. He felt guilty about his lustful thoughts, yet, he came back to them again and again. No matter how much he tried, no matter how much he prayed, they returned without fail.

          Nathaniel was putting off going to bed one night during the third week of his sentence. He lingered in the foyer, staring up at one of the many paintings that hung on the halls. His tall body was clothed in a loose pair of slacks and a retired training shirt of white cotton. A black velvet robe warmed his torso. He wiggled the toes of his bare feet absentmindedly.

          “Still awake?” a sweet voice called out.

          Standing at the foot of the stairs leading to the bedrooms was Delilah, she herself wrapped up in a robe, this one green. Her long raven hair was out of its usual bun, falling down to her shoulders.

          “I’m not tired,” he fibbed, sticking his hands in his pockets.

          “Lies. You can’t stop thinking about her, can you?” Delilah smiled wickedly.

          “What are you talking about?” Nathaniel asked, feigning innocence.

          “There’s no need to hide, brother. I heard you arguing with Father.”

          He let out a sigh. It was embarrassing to even admit his feelings, let alone discuss them openly. It had taken days of mustering up all his courage to speak to his father. Somehow, though, it seemed so much easier to speak to his sister about his predicament. “He won’t let me go, despite the visit being on the next-to-last day of my punishment.”

          The young woman walked over to Nathaniel, wrapping her arms around his waist in a rare display of affection. “I’m sorry.”

          His grey-blue eyes looked away, uncomfortable with the embrace. When was the last time that he’d exchanged such touch with someone? The feeling was so foreign; he prayed it would end soon. “It’s alright. I’ll live.”

          “I can still have sympathy for you,” Delilah mumbled into his chest.

          Nathaniel took in a deep breath. “That’s very kind of you.”

          His sister pulled away, giving a playful slap against his shoulder. “Fine, be smart with me. See if I’m ever nice to you again,” she winked at him.

          She didn’t seem to see the gravity of the problem. “Delilah,” Nathaniel frowned. “What am I supposed to do? I’ve…I’ve never felt like this before.”

          “Exactly what are you feeling?”

          “I…I don’t know,” he bemoaned. “I’ve spent less than an hour with her, but I just can’t get her out of my head.”

          Delilah placed a hand on her brother’s shoulder. “You know, Father may not listen, but I bet Mother will.”

          Nathaniel gave her a puzzled look. “Do you think so?”

          “Between the two of them, I think she’s the only one who actually remembers what it was like to be in love,” Delilah smiled sadly.

          She was right. On rare occasions, in the moments between arguments, Nathaniel would catch his mother reaching for his father’s hand, or even placing a kiss on his cheek. Each sentiment was met with either disgust or indifference, but nonetheless, his mother would still try. It was hard to believe that the two of them had been willing to risk everything to be together.

          “I’ll ask her,” Nathaniel said.

          Delilah squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “Let me know how it goes. I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.”

          She turned away, humming a happy tune to herself as she made her way up the stairs. She was far more optimistic than he was in situations like these. So much like their mother, especially when she was younger.

          Now, in the evenings, Eliane would often retreat to the small study beside her chambers, typically with a glass of red wine. Nathaniel was never sure if her drinking habit was because she genuinely liked the taste, or if it was in a vain effort to erase the sorrows she felt on a daily basis. With how often he spotted her, asleep at her writing desk, holding onto an empty bottle, he feared it was the latter. The night was still young, though. His mother would be relatively sober at the moment.

          He tiptoed past his father’s chambers and gently knocked on the great oak door to the study. Eliane appeared momentarily, still in her day-wear. A nearly full bottle of wine sat on her desk.

          “Nathaniel, what a nice surprise!” she smiled, opening the door wider. “Do come in and sit with me for a while.”

          She led him to the fireplace in the center of the room, two looming chairs placed in front. Before he could sit, she placed two chaste kisses to his cheeks.

          “I know I don’t say it often enough, but I really am proud of the young gentleman you’ve become,” she cooed, taking her place in the worn chair on the left.

          Nathaniel took the nearly untouched chair on the right—presumably the one meant for his father. “Thank you mother, it means a lot to hear that.”

          “What inspired this visit to your beloved mother?” she asked, taking the wine glass from the wooden end table beside her chair.

          “I wanted to ask you a question,” he admitted quietly.

          “Oh? And what kind of question is this?” she smiled coyly. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with you and your father’s argument, would it?”

          Nathaniel scratched the back of his neck, looking away. Had everyone in Amaranthine heard them? “Perhaps.”

          Eliane took ahold of her son’s hand. “You can tell me anything—ask me anything.”

          “What does it feel like…to be in love?” he blurted out.

          Her grip on his hand faltered, but returned to normal in seconds. “It’s hard to explain,” she began.

          “I have all night,” Nathaniel chuckled, trying to smile.

          Readjusting herself in her chair, his mother stayed silent for a minute or two, thinking. When she broke her quiet, there was a strange, far off look in her eye. He’d never seen her with such an expression before. Maybe something close to it, but never quite like this. It was almost as if he was invading an intimate moment.

          “It’s as though nothing else in the Thedas exists but that one person, and the only way you’ll ever be happy is to be at that person’s side for the rest of your life,” she murmured.

          The young man knew all too well that feeling—he simply hadn’t been able to find the right words. It was if Eliane had reached into his mind and laid it all out for him. A sense of dread overtook him. If that truly was what it was like to be in love, then it meant all was lost. Nathaniel was, indeed, in love.

He slid down in his chair, eliciting a soft smile from his mother. Without saying a word, he had somehow told her everything.

          “It would appear that you know exactly what I’m talking about, my dear,” she smiled, taking a sip from her glass.

          “I don’t know,” he sighed. “I can’t be in love with a girl I’ve only met once, right?” He ran his hands through his raven hair, hoping desperately that the words he spoke rang true. This just couldn’t be. He couldn’t be. He had to be mistaken.

          “Haven’t you ever heard of love at first sight?” Eliane smiled, reaching out to her son. That look was back, just for a second, fading as quickly as it had appeared.

          “That’s just a story parents tell their children at bedtime,” he grumbled.

          “All the great stories start as truth,” she added. Eliane took her hand back and drank deeply from her wine glass.

          “Maybe if I see her again, I’ll know.” Nathaniel hid his face in his hands, a sad attempt at escaping his feelings.

          Eliane clicked her tongue. “Ah, I think I’ve found the real reason why you’ve come to see me.”

          Nathaniel peeked through his fingers and looked down at his feet sheepishly.

          His mother patted his leg sympathetically. “Pack your things. Leave before the sun rises. I’ll handle your father.”

          He looked up at her incredulously. “You don’t mean…?”

          “Take a couple of guards with you—ones you trust. I don’t want you to run into any trouble, but if you do, they’ll come in handy. Besides, we don’t need any rumors floating around until you know for certain.” Eliane stood up and placed a quick kiss on Nathaniel’s forehead. “I’ll send someone ahead of you to the let the teryn know you’re coming. Your father had been very clear to Bryce that you would not be visiting this month. He’ll be caught by surprise if I don’t let him know right away.”

          “Thank you mother. This…this means the world to me.” The young man was frozen in his seat, so shocked that he couldn’t find the strength to move.

          “Of course dear,” she said quietly, digging through her desk. She took out a piece of parchment and found her quill, carefully dipping it in ink. “Be safe.”

Chapter Text

He was ready to go, but it would be hours until he actually left Vigil’s Keep. All of his things were packed for the short trip. Nathaniel had told his servant to wake him in the early morning, and the guards he had chosen to take with him had been alerted. He just had to sleep—but his body refused to calm down.

His trip to Highever would take most of the day and require a good deal of energy. He had to sleep, or his exhaustion would slow the whole group down. There was a chance that his exhilaration would keep him awake through the travel, and maybe continue through the visit, but the likelihood of that happening was slim. The young man paced back and forth in his room, his mind racing. What would it be like seeing her again? What would she be wearing? Had she been feeling the same way all these weeks? Would she have changed in any way? Maybe she wouldn’t even remember who he was. Could it have been that, to her, their time together had been just a fleeting moment of fun, and nothing more?

He felt sick.

Perhaps a drink would set him at ease.

Nathaniel wandered from his bedroom and into the kitchen. A bit of scotch always slowed his system down. He poured himself a drink, the amber liquid filling the fine crystal glass. Taking it with him, Nathaniel nursed his liquor, taking a sip every other step. By the time he was back in his chambers, he had emptied the glass.

He didn’t feel anything. Not even a slight buzz.

Frustrated, he sat on his bed, setting the glass on the ornate end table beside the frame. His room had always been a place of solace—somewhere to escape. It was far enough away from the commotion of the rest of his family that he could barely hear the shouting that tended to echo throughout the castle. So many times, as a child, he would wrap the covers around himself and hug a pillow until the uneasiness that so often followed him subsided.

Maybe if he lay down, the Fade would take him, just like it always had before. As he lowered his body onto the mattress, he said a silent prayer to the Maker for peace of mind.

“Nathaniel.”
The young man looked up. He was dreaming. He had to be…but could he have fallen asleep that quickly? With how alert he had been just moments ago, it was hard to believe. Yet, there was no way he could be seeing what his eyes told him he was witnessing.

Walking towards him, practically glowing in the moonlight, was the petite form of Anastasia Cousland. The woman was clad in a long, sheer white nightgown. Lace ran around the edges, just a hint of pink in the ornate decoration. Her most intimate parts were covered in creamy silk, tempting his hands to touch the cool fabric. Despite most of her body being covered, the dress left little to the imagination.

“Good evening, Nathaniel,” she smiled, shyly covering herself up with the scandalous gown. As if it would do much good.

“Anastasia, you can’t be here,” he said, sitting up in the bed.

“I know I shouldn’t, but I wanted to see you.” The mattress dipped as she sat beside him. One of her delicate hands found his chin and angled his face towards hers, forcing him to look her in the eyes. Those bright, enchanting, emerald eyes.

Nathaniel took in a shaky breath, shutting his own eyes in a desperate attempt to cast out the tempting image. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what do you mean?” The sweet smell of lilacs filled his nostrils as she got closer.

“This is all in my head—it’s just a dream,” he stuttered. He opened his eyes, finding her beauty an inch from his face. For a moment, she looked upset—almost hurt. As if somehow, this revelation had been an insult. Her expression changed, though, to something more sinister—more seductive.

“If that’s true, then that means we can do whatever we want,” she purred. Her vivid green eyes seemed to put a spell on him. He felt an all too familiar warmth grow in the pit of his stomach.

“I shouldn’t be thinking about you this way.” He shut his eyes again. If he looked too much longer he would lose what little sense of control he had.

“Why not?” She slowly ran her thumb across his lips, the touch only fueling his desire. Her skin was soft and silky. Did the rest of her body feel like that? “I think of you like this.”

Nathaniel opened up a single eye, giving the girl a puzzled look. “A proper young lady like you shouldn’t be thinking like this.”

“I think of you, laying in your bed, barely clothed, licking your lips, and dreaming of what my lips taste like.” She nibbled on his earlobe, a shot of sweet pain coursing through him. He swallowed hard. The way she spoke, the very sound of her voice aroused him. His hand curled into a fist, nails biting into the skin. Maybe if he hurt enough, he’d wake up and this desire would go away.

“I think of you, your hard cock in your hand, wishing it was my fingers touching you.” Her tongue darted out, licking the spot she had just bitten, easing the injury. Nathaniel shuddered with pleasure--by the Maker, why did that feel so damn good?

“Anastasia, please--” he struggled, trying to turn away. The girl straddled him, locking him in place. There was no escape from her affections.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she whispered, soft lips placing a chaste kiss on his cheek. “They’re just dreams.”

Nathaniel could feel his growing erection straining against his sleep pants. The material may have been a loose cotton, but with what she was doing to him, it was almost excruciating.

“Please, Nathaniel. Won’t you at least touch me? I know you want to,” she pleaded. Anastasia grinded against him, thin fabric rubbing against another, even thinner fabric. He could feel the wetness between her legs. Nathaniel gasped at the sensation. If this truly was a dream...what was the harm in having some fun? Enjoying the night? What was the point of being chaste and controlling one’s emotions during the day when you couldn’t let go and indulge every now and then?

“Please?” she purred, biting his earlobe once more.

His hands sprang into action, unable to deny her such a small request. She let out a moan as his rough callouses met the chiffon of her nightgown. His lust guided his movement, wandering from her hips up to the swell of her breasts. Nathaniel released a groan of his own, unable to hold back anymore. Even behind the silk lingerie, the pillowy feel of her bosom was far more intoxicating than any wine. Gently he gave a squeeze, eliciting a gasp from his partner. A little voice in the back of his head reminded him that this wasn’t real—that this was all just a figment of his lonely imagination. The sound of Anastasia coming apart, however, was enough to silence that nagging.

Nathaniel surrendered to his desires once again, his hungry mouth descending on those perfect lips of hers. He kissed her with a ferocity he’d never seen in himself before—at least, not since his last dream. She returned the embrace with the same amount of vigor, even more. Anastasia pushed Nathaniel down onto the mattress, taking command of the situation.

“More,” she gasped, pulling away from the kiss just long enough to instruct the young man. Her eyes gazed down at his tented pants. “I want more.”

He gave her breasts one final squeeze before running his hands down her body, eagerly finding her pert bottom. He slapped her left cheek, relishing in the moan she let out in response.

“Do you like that?” he asked, his voice low.

“Mhmm,” she whined. “Again. Please.”

He did as told, spanking her once more. She arched into his touch, pressing her body against his even more. Teeth found his shoulder, giving an encouraging bite. She kissed the spot as she whispered to him once more.

“I want you to slap my ass so hard, you leave a handprint.”

Nathaniel groaned. How could those sweet lips speak with such filthy language? He captured her mouth with a hard kiss, silencing her lewd requests. As he spanked her again and again, she moaned into the embrace with each new contact. Only when he pulled away for air, did she speak again.

“What do you want me to do to you tonight, love?” she whispered. Her eyes darted down his body, looking directly at his erection. As she licked her lips, she asked, “Would you like me to take care of that?”

Before he could answer, she was on him, pulling his sleep pants down. His cock sprang free, standing proudly against his stomach. Anastasia got on all fours, leaving chaste pecks down his torso, slowly and tortuously making her way to her goal. Nathaniel swallowed hard. His hands numbly worked at the buttons of his sleep shirt, failing again and again to undo the connections. He needed to think about something other than how incredible Ana looked like this. If he kept concentrating on that, he wouldn’t last long enough for her to even put his cock in her mouth.

“Are you ready for me?” the girl purred, a delicate finger running up his length. Nathaniel gasped at the touch, and somehow mustered up the strength to nod his head.

Anastasia wasted no time. Before Nathaniel stopped moving his head, she had her hand around the base of his cock, her tongue darting out of her mouth to lick along the path her finger had been tracing a moment earlier. Once she reached the top, she wrapped her lips around the head, that sinful tongue of hers running along the slit. The buttons of Nathaniel’s shirt came undone, popping off as he tore the fabric, caught off guard by Ana’s affections. Her tongue circled the head as the girl gave a forceful suck.

“M-Maker’s breath--” Nathaniel stuttered. “D-Don’t stop!” The hand that wasn’t fisting the fabric of his shirt reached out and grabbed some of the youngest Cousland’s copper locks. He needed to hold onto her, to ground himself, to keep him from floating away with ecstasy. Anastasia worked his length, licking, sucking, and kissing, driving Nathaniel closer and closer to the edge.

“Ana--I’m going to--I’m--” he began, tossing his head back and shutting his eyes. “Fuck--!”

Stars spread across Nathaniel’s darkened vision as he came, the feeling of hot warmth coursing through his veins. His eyes shot open as he groaned with pleasure, fully expecting to see Anastasia covered in his spend. Instead, as he came to, he saw the empty darkness of his room, a few burning embers lighting the corner of his room from his fireplace. He wasn’t nude and bathed in moonlight, and he certainly wasn’t in the company of the most beautiful woman in Thedas. He was alone, in his room, laying on top of his bed, with a sticky stain on the front of his sleep pants. Nathaniel sat up, resting his head in his hands.

“Not again,” he muttered to himself. “When will this end?”

Shamefully, the young man stood and kicked off his dirtied pants. He threw them into his hamper with the rest, wandering over to his dresser to find a clean pair. It was empty. All that was clean were sleep shirts. Nathaniel groaned. He tossed his shirt off, searching through the drawer to find one of the shirts that was particularly long--one that would cover his ass, The best one was made of a thin material, and wouldn’t keep him particularly warm on that winter night, but it would have to do. He threw it on and padded over to his bed in defeat. As he climbed into bed, he prayed to the Maker that he when he fell back asleep, he would have a dream that wouldn’t include Anastasia in it.

The Maker had granted him his humble request. He hadn’t wanted to crawl out of bed when his servant woke him at the break of dawn. After his sinful fantasy, he had dreamt of a field of lilac flowers, sashaying in a gentle breeze. However, the previous dream was still haunting him, filling him with guilt. As much as he wanted to see her, he didn’t know if he could look her in the eyes after such a vision. How could he? Nathaniel was no better than a street urchin, holding out his last gold coin for a lewd touch. As much as he told himself that it was just a dream--that he’d never act on such fantasies--he doubted himself. How would he be able to keep his hands to himself when he finally saw Anastasia, face to face, when for the past three weeks he’d dreamed of her every night?

Nathaniel still got out of bed, washed up, and set out with his guards to Cousland Castle. By starting out so early, they’d arrive just before the sun set. They’d stopped for breakfast and lunch. It had been hours since the dull meal of stale bread, cheese, and apples. The landscape was starting to become familiar. Nathaniel’s hands shook, despite holding onto the reins of his horse’s harness. His sad lunch threatened to come back up. At least it wouldn’t be much.

He wanted this. He had begged to come here. He could do this. He had to do this. It had been mere hours since he’d uttered the words “I need her.”

The castle was in sight. Only a few more minutes, and he’d be there. He’d finally see again—for real, this time.

“Is something the matter, sir?” one of the guards asked.

Nathaniel turned from his spot on his horse. They were stopped—with him at the lead.

“Sorry, my apologies,” the young man responded. “Simply got lost in thought.” He gently kicked the side of his horse, urging him to move forward once again. He could do this.

Chapter Text

In between the trees Nathaniel spotted Castle Cousland. It was hard to miss, standing nearly as tall as the Circle Tower. Its white alabaster stone walls fortified its entrance, protecting its inhabitants from any unwanted guests. Stone pillars covered in ivy held up arches that opened to a courtyard with numerous statues and topiaries. From there, iron gates leading to the interior of the castle could be seen. The gates were guarded by at least a dozen men, all with the Cousland family crest emblazoned on the chest of their armor. One stepped forward when the small group approached. He was a little taller than the others, and rather thin.

Must be a new recruit.

“Halt. Who wishes to enter Castle Cousland?” he asked, a noticeable tremor in his voice.

“Nathaniel Howe, eldest son of Arl Rendon Howe,” he replied, sitting up straight in his saddle. He silently prayed that his voice wasn’t anything like the young guard’s. “I’m expected.”

“Oh, uhm,” the guard stuttered. “I’ll alert the teyrn. You may wait in the gardens.” He looked over at another guard, almost as if asking for approval. His companion nodded. “Yes. The gardens. Ser James will guide you.”

The older guard slowly walked forward, a slight limb in his gait. He gave a slight bow to Nathaniel and his men.

“This way, my lord.”

He lead the small group to the left of the castle, following an over growing collection of greenery. Long veins of ivy crawled up the stone walls, mimicking the pillars Nathaniel spotted earlier. Bushes and shrubbery were sculpted into a variety of different shapes. Ser James lingered at one shrub in the shape of a bear.

“This one is a new addition,” he noted.

Nathaniel stopped to admire the leafy creature. “Any particular reason for his joining the collection?”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with your family’s crest, my lord,” the guard replied with a smirk.

Nathaniel swallowed hard.

They walked past more black iron gates and into the garden proper. Stone sculptures stared down at them. A pot of lavender flowers was held by a statue of Andraste. Nathaniel couldn’t remember if those particular flowers had anything to do with her or the Maker. As the young man tried to recall its significance, he couldn’t help but remember his dream. Anastasia had smelled of lilacs, similar to the beautiful purple flowers that grew in that pot. Nathaniel prayed, trying to dismiss the thought.

The new recruit returned, the teyrn following behind. He greeted the boy with a large grin, similar to the one he had shown him at the ball only a couple of weeks ago.

“My dear Nathaniel! I’m so happy to see that you were able to make it. Your father had been so set on keeping you locked away in Amaranthine—it’s wonderful that he changed his mind.” He pulled him into an embrace.

“Well, he didn’t exactly allow me to come…I may be rebelling some,” he admitted. “Though, I do have my mother’s support.”

The teyrn let out a deep and joyful laugh. He pulled Nathaniel into another hug, this one much tighter. His entire body was rumbling from the laughter.

“Good on you!” he grinned.

Nathaniel gave the man a sideways glance. “You approve of this sort of behavior? You do realize that I’m directly disobeying my father.”

The teyrn pulled back, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. He turned to face the statue of Andraste that the young man had previously been looking at.

“You’re thinking for yourself. Those who blindly follow orders are easily corrupted.”

The serious tone in his voice took Nathaniel by surprise.

“Besides, your visit will bring much joy to my darling Anastasia,” the teyrn added with a wink.

Heat rose to Nathaniel’s cheeks despite the chill of the weather. “O-Oh? Why is that?”

“Don’t play dumb with me,” he said, turning away from the sculpture. “I saw the way you two looked at each other at the ball. She’s enamored with you, and I take by the blush on your cheeks that the feeling is mutual.”

Nathaniel’s guards snickered behind him.

“There’s no reason to hide your true motivations, son,” the teyrn said, his voice softer now. “The truth is always welcomed here.”

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just…embarrassing.”

Bryce smirked. “I understand. We’ll talk more on this later, perhaps after dinner? I have some work to finish before the sun leaves us for the day.”

Nathaniel nodded. “Of course. Is Anastasia…?”

“She’s out horseback riding with her brother. Until they return, please make yourself at home.”

The teyrn had been kind enough to call forward one of his servants—a small elven woman with corn-yellow hair—to guide Nathaniel and his guards to their rooms. The guards were stationed alongside the Cousland’s own soldiers, and seemed rather happy to be there. The moment the two were behind the doors to the guard’s quarters, loud shouts of welcome could be heard, even from behind the thick oak doors. Nathaniel was put in a room closer to where the family slept. For a guest room, it was truly beautiful. Back in Vigil’s Keep, the rooms that were reserved for visitors were just a couple steps above what the servants were given. Here, it was a completely different story. A grand bed sat in the middle of the room, covered in soft blankets and blue and white pillows that must have been filled with feathers instead of the wool Nathaniel was so used to. Cold stones in the flooring were interrupted by a large, ornate rug with the Cousland family crest embroidered on it. A tall oak dresser sat in the left corner, a lounge chair covered in velvet beside it. In the right corner of the room, a decorative oak divider stood, a large porcelain tub and oak end table on the other side. The glint of a mirror shone behind the ornate wood.

“Do you need anything, ser?” the small elven servant asked. She stood in the doorway, holding her hands nervously.

“A bath would be greatly welcomed,” he smiled. He needed to clean up before dinner. “I can make do with a basin of hot water, though, if that is easier.”

“I’ll see what I can do, ser,” she nodded, bowing before leaving.

Nathaniel sat on the edge of the bed, taking in a deep breath. He leaned down and began to unlace his boots, taking his time with each stubborn knot. The servant returned, carefully carrying two wooden buckets filled with steaming water. She shuffled behind the divider, and the sound of water being poured into the basin filled the room. The elven woman returned, damp spots on her work dress. Her hands were dripping wet, and all her efforts to dry them on her apron were fruitless. It was simply too wet to dry anything.

“You’re rather fast,” Nathaniel noted, slipping his boots off. He stood and walked over to the girl, offering a handkerchief from his pants pocket.

“The young mistress always takes a bath after her rides. We already had plenty of hot water ready for her.” She took the cloth, saying a quiet thank you as she wrapped her tan hands around it.

“Oh.” Nathaniel turned away, trying not to picture Anastasia in a bath. “Hopefully she doesn’t mind my taking some of her water.”

The servant chuckled, standing up and handing the wet handkerchief back. “I’m sure she won’t mind.”

“Thank you. I’ll be sure to give her my thanks when I see her.” Nathaniel uneasily played with the wet cloth, unsure what to do with his hands.

“Let me know if need anything else, ser.” The servant excused herself and walked out of the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

Slowly, Nathaniel disrobed, neatly folding his clothes and placing them on his bed. When he stood only in his smalls, he found the soap and towels he had packed. Compared to the grand elegance of the bedroom, he felt out of place. He ran his thumb over the soft, creamy feel of the honey bar of soap. It would be nice to relax some and clean up—perhaps then he might match the elegant environment he found himself in. It seemed ridiculous, but until now, the young noble hadn’t noticed just how grimy the ride to the castle had made him. He’d need a good scrubbing if he wanted to be even remotely respectable.

Slipping his small clothes off, Nathaniel lowered himself into the bath. The heat was welcomed as he ran a damp towel over his skin. As he washed himself, his mind wandered, going to the inevitable. His heart skipped a beat as he pictured Anastasia doing the same thing at any moment—maybe even now. His hand faltered at the idea, dropping the wet cloth into the bath water.

No. He shouldn’t be thinking about that. It was wrong. He turned his eyes towards the painting of Andraste at the pyre and sent out a silent prayer, begging for strength to fight his desires, and peace of mind. Nathaniel forced his mind to be blank and took in a deep breath. As he exhaled, he slid underneath the hot water, completely emerging himself for a moment before returning for air. This was exactly what he needed. The young man allowed his sore and tired muscles to relax. It seemed as though he’d been teetering on the edge of an anxiety attack for years, despite it barely being more than a day. He’d been so anxious, so worried about seeing Anastasia again, that being forced to sit and just relish the silence, he slowly became at ease. Lazily he scrubbed every inch of his long, pale body, even taking time to wash his shoulder length hair.

By the time the bath water had cooled, Nathaniel felt divine. He hoisted himself out of the porcelain tub and dried off. Beside his pack lay his traveling clothes—which desperately needed a good cleaning. Scrunching up his nose at the thought of wearing the dirtied clothes, he dug through his pack for one of the two other outfits he’d stashed away. His hands swiftly found the fine leather vest, stiff black pants, and white dress shirt. Taking his prize with him, Nathaniel went behind the divider and began to dress. He’d just finished braiding a lock of his hair and pulling it back into a small ponytail when a knock was upon his door.

Before doing his hair, he’d managed to pull on his smalls, slacks, and shirt. That was decent enough to open the door for any visitors.

“Come in,” he called, coming out from behind the room divider. As the door opened, he shrugged into his vest, taking care to lace it up properly.

Bright yellow hair appeared in the crack before revealing the kind elven woman who had helped him earlier. Her cheeks flushed as she spotted him not completely dressed.

“I’m not interrupting anything, am I ser?” she asked timidly.

“Not at all. You’re fine.” He gave her a slight smile as he smoothed the vest down his chest.

“Dinner is ready, ser. I’m sure the family would enjoy your presence,” she said, holding the door slightly ajar.

“I’ll be ready in just a moment,” Nathaniel responded, pulling his boots back on his feet. “Would it be alright if you guided me there? It’s been some time since my last visit,” he lied.

“Of course, ser,” she nodded, giving him a puzzled look. She must have known that he came here on a regular basis somehow. Though, he wasn’t sure how. He’d never seen her before this day. Once he was fully dressed, the servant started down the hallway, leaving Nathaniel to jog to catch up with her.

“I’m not walking into a trap of some kind, am I?” Nathaniel asked the servant, a sly smile on his face. They’d been walking for quite some time. The dining room couldn’t possibly be that far away, could it? Maybe there really was a trap. His father could have sent word ahead and managed to orchestrate something without him knowing, and this elven woman was leading him to his doom. Or were the nerves finally back, simply making seconds feel like hours once again?

The woman looked up at him as though he had two heads. “What do you mean?”

Ah, so it was the nerves. Nathaniel fretfully tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear as he struggled to keep his stomach from turning against him. “I can’t help but feel as though I’m a sheep being lead to the slaughter,” he winked. “The teyrn said we were going to have a talk after dinner.”

“You really shouldn’t be afraid of the Couslands, ser. They’re the kindest people in all Thedas if you ask me,” she said, turning a corner. “I’m sure the teyrn means to do exactly that—talk.”

After a few moments of silence, the woman spoke again. “My people don’t usually get the best treatment…but the teyrn and his family treat us as though we were their own blood.”

Nathaniel nodded.

“I don’t mean any offense to the other nobles of Ferelden,” she added quickly.

“None taken.”

The two stood before a mammoth door, ornately decorated with detailed carvings of various fruits in its wood. The servant began to push it open, but stopped. “There truly isn’t anything for you to worry about, ser.”

He wanted to believe her. He truly did. Yet, he knew better than to foolishly give into such a lofty idea. At this meal, he’d likely be judged by the family—especially by the teyrn —on his character and whether or not he was worthy of Anastasia. Bryce Cousland hadn’t said anything about it, but it was obvious when Nathaniel had arrived. The look in the older man’s eyes was all he needed.

“I know. Just nervous, that’s all,” he said, trying to appease the woman. It must have worked, as the servant pressed against the heavy door and opened it for him. She stood just a few steps in, holding the door for him. Inside, a few members of the family were already present. At the head of the table, on the other side of the room from where Nathaniel stood, was the teyrn. To the man’s right sat his wife, Eleanor. A handful of guards lined the walls, chatting amongst themselves. Neither of the younger Couslands were present.

The knot in Nathaniel’s stomach tightened. Was this meal just going to be between the three of them? Had the teyrn changed his mind and decided to have his inquisition right here and now? Was the pretense of a friendly dinner gone out the window, running alongside Nathaniel’s courage?

Eleanor rose from her seat and elegantly made her way across the room to Nathaniel. Thank the Maker she was coming to him—he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to will his legs to move at his current stage of fright.

“Oh my darling Nathaniel,” Eleanor cooed, pulling the young man into a gentle embrace. “Have you grown even more? I just saw you only a couple weeks ago! If you keep this up, you’ll be as tall as those Qunari giants!”

The soft, motherly tough of the matriarch brought him back to life, his limbs finally moving, responding and hugging the woman back. “I’m sure you’re imagining things, my ladyship.”

She pulled back and lovingly tapped his nose. “No, I’m certain of it. You’re taller,” she chuckled. “Come, come, sit beside me. The children are taking their time coming down, so we should have a few moments to catch up.” The older woman dragged him down to the small gathering of chairs by her and Bryce’s spot at the head of the table. As they took their seats, she patted his hand, much like his own mother did.

“Bryce tells me that you’re quite a deviant by coming here,” she smiled, giving his hand a final pat before taking ahold of the fine wine flute in front of her.

“Nathaniel and I will be discussing that later this evening, Eleanor,” Bryce noted dryly, as if he was saying it for the twentieth time that day.

“I think it’s wonderfully brave of you, dear,” she chimed, ignoring her husband. “Defying your own father, all in the name of love! It’s what legends are made of.”

Heat flushed to Nathaniel’s cheeks. “I don’t think—“ he began to protest.

“You’re getting ahead of yourself, Eleanor,” the teyrn scolded. “Shouldn’t we speak about this at a later time, perhaps in private?”

Nathaniel nodded furiously, his eyes darting to the guards and servants filling the room.

“Oh, you’re such a stick in the mud,” the teyrna teased.

The teyrn opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by a loud bark. A mammoth mabari, with a dark brown coat, charged into the room, running into nearly every guard and servant in its path. The beast jumped into the chair closest to the teyrn, as if he was going to be joining the family for its meal. He sat proudly, a deep blue collar around hits thick neck. Before Nathaniel could even ask, the young red headed guard came running in.

“You know you’re not supposed to be here, Bear,” the man panted. The dog barked in response, as if protesting such an obvious statement.

“You can’t sweet talk me, mister. I’m not your mistress. I’m not as easily swayed,” the guard frowned, placing his hands on his hips. “You come down from there, right now.”

The dog barked again.

“Oh, let Ana deal with him, Gilmore,” Eleanor chuckled. “He won’t listen to anyone else.”

Nathaniel sat silently in his seat, simply watching this all unfold before him. This was the absolute last thing he was expecting when he walked in this room for dinner.

“Lady Anastasia has asked me to look after the mabari when is otherwise occupied. If I don’t take care of this, she’ll be disappointed,” the guard stated.

One of the men lining the walls snickered. Another one leaned over and asked, “should we tell him?”

“Gilmore—“ the teyrn began, but was silenced with a slap on his hand from his wife.

“Don’t spoil it!” she whispered angrily.

The young guard looked to Nathaniel, hoping for an explanation. He simply shrugged his shoulders, just as clueless as he was. Gilmore then moved to the dog, trying to pick up the beast. The creature refused to budge.

“Oh dear,” a soft voice chimed.

Nathaniel looked away from the guard and the dog to find the source of the voice. In the middle of the tall stone archway was Anastasia. She wore a deep maroon gown of soft velvet, adorned with lace of gold. Around her neck was the Cousland family crest in a small silver pendant. Her copper hair looked more of a chestnut, still damp from her bath. She lit up the room with her smile—far brighter than any candle. Her eyes seemed to linger on him. Upon such scrutiny, Nathaniel couldn’t help but sit up straighter and put a stray lock of hair behind his ear. He hadn’t noticed it, but he was mirroring her smile with one of his own.

Her gaze trailed away from him and back over to the struggling guard. She set her shoulders back and puffed out her chest, as if putting on an air of authority. “Ser Gilmore, are you having difficulty with your assignment?” she called out with a stern voice. Her sweet smile had turned into a scornful sneer.

The man tensed at the sound of her commanding and disdainful inquiry. Slowly he turned from the dog, a crimson blush spreading across his face. “No, no, my lady.”

Anastasia marched over to him, looking laughably terrifying beside the knight in silver armor. Gilmore was more than a full foot taller than her, and if he really wanted to the man could probably break her arm with ease, yet here he was, practically shaking in his boots at the sight of the girl.

“So, Bear is supposed to sit at the table?” she asked slyly, knowing the answer to her own question. The dog barked happily in response.

“No…” the guard stuttered, looking away in shame.

Anastasia’s face softened at the sight. She went from a force to be reckoned with, back to a sweet angel in seconds. “Oh, I don’t have the heart to carry on,” she sighed, visibly deflating.

“What are you talking about?” the knight asked. “Is everything alright?”

The other guards burst out in laughter—the teyrna even joining them. The teyrn smiled sympathetically.

“It’s a bit of an initiation…a prank that Anastasia and Fergus play on the new recruits,” Bryce explained.

“It was Fergus’ idea when we first got Bear. He only listens to me, so he thought it would be funny to see how long the guards would put up with him,” Anastasia blushed, now her turn to look away.

Gilmore looked around in disbelief at this revelation. “But…” he stuttered, “I’ve been taking care of Bear for six months now.”

“It’s the longest anyone has held out with the beast,” a guard noted with amazement. “No one has lasted more than a week before.”

“I knew he’d do it,” the eldest guard said in a dry voice. “You all owe me a sovereign each.”

The knights all mumbled and dug into their pockets, counting out coins and handing them over to the greying man. The teyrna even got up from her seat and placed a single gold coin into the man’s awaiting hand. Anastasia tapped on the mabari’s back, and the creature hopped down from the chair. His mistress took his place, sitting down elegantly. Gilmore chuckled at the sight, plopping down in the seat beside the young woman.

“I think I deserve a reward of some sort. It’s not fair that Ser James benefits from my suffering and I do not.”

The teyrn smiled. “How about we start with a cold drink and a hot meal?”

Anastasia placed a sympathetic hand on Gilmore’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. A hint of jealousy pulsed through Nathaniel. To his luck, though, the elven servant returned, carrying a basket of bread. She set it on the table in front of him, along with a plate with a stick of butter. He began to reach out for a roll, but withdrew his hand. Fergus wasn’t there yet. Holding back his desire would be incredibly difficult—the hot smell of honey and wheat was enchanting. An almost silent giggle caught his attention.

Anastasia had seen him. The young man bit his lower lip, feeling self-conscious. It wasn’t that it was embarrassing that Ana had caught his display of hunger. That was nothing. He’d lost count just how many times his mother had slapped his hand back at the dinner table. It was simply that she had been…watching him. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but what if she had been looking at him because she was…interested in him? Nathaniel didn’t care allow his mind to go past that. He was already hopeless in his affections for her—he didn’t need to encourage his poor heart. It was overwhelmed as it was.

The red headed guard didn’t seem to care about propriety or the unspoken rules of etiquette when it came to dining—he reached out and greedily took three rolls, stuff the first one into his mouth without any sign of hesitation. The elven servant shook her head disapprovingly.

“Do we have any idea when Master Fergus will be joining us?” she asked to no one in particular.

“If he wants any bread, hopefully he will arrive soon,” Anastasia smirked. Gilmore nodded, his mouth full of bread, and took a roll, gently placing it in Anastasia’s hands.

Nathaniel frowned. He wouldn’t have minded if Gilmore had put the roll on her plate. Instead, the guard had taken her hands, opened them, and placed the roll in the palm of her hands. That was far too much contact for his tastes. He must have been staring, because Gilmore pushed the bread basket back towards him. Nathaniel nodded in acknowledgement and took a roll for himself, splitting it in half so he could add butter.

“Eating without me? And Gilmore in my spot? Have I been replaced?”

Fergus stood in the doorway, his arms crossed and brow furrowed in mock anger. “I didn’t think I rode that badly today.”

“You’re late!” his mother scolded, motion for him to sit at the table next to Nathaniel. “We have guests. It’s rude to keep them waiting.”

“Gilmore and Nathaniel aren’t exactly distinguished guests,” he scoffed. As he took his seat, he smiled at Nathaniel and said, “He’s been coming to visit for years.”

“Yes, but he’s never come without his father,” Eleanor noted.

The young man raised a brow with surprise. “Oh?”

Nathaniel barely looked up, trying to appear preoccupied with spreading butter on his roll. “I’m on my own this time. Just brought a couple guards with me.”

Fergus leaned back in his chair. “Good. I’ve never enjoyed how your father looks at me.”

The black-haired man chuckled. “It’s an acquired taste.”

“Enough of that,” the teyrn frowned. “The food must be getting cold. Lauriel, could you bring everything out?”

The elven servant nodded and disappeared into what Nathaniel assumed to be the kitchen. She returned moments later, hands full of steaming plates, two other elves behind her, their hands full as well. The parade of dishes coming in were beautiful. Steam rose from a whole boar, a bright red apple placed in its mouth. Roasted potatoes sat in a bowl, garnished with rosemary. An elaborate silver platter was filled to the brim with strawberries, grapes, oranges, and other fruits. Two bowls filled with spinach sat at the end of the table, the last items to be brought out.

“Now, don’t eat everything at once,” the elven woman winked.

Dishes were passed around to each person sitting at the long table, all taking their share. Once the last person’s plate was piled high, Eleanor held out her hand to him, palm up. Her eyes were shut, and her head bowed in reverence. Across the table from him, Ana was doing the same. In fact, everyone was doing it, except they were holding hands.

Prayer. They were going to pray.

Nathaniel hurried and took Eleanor’s hand. He grabbed ahold of Fergus’ as well. What he wouldn’t give to be seated next to Anastasia. Instead, she was in between her father and Ser Gilmore. Swallowing his jealousy, he bent his head and shut his eyes.

“Anastasia, would you say grace?” Bryce asked.

She quoted a few verses from the Chant of Light, never hesitating or pausing with uncertainty. Never before had Nathaniel heard such eloquence outside of a chantry. Even in all his visits to Denerim and Redcliffe and speaking with nobles from all across Ferelden, they had always hesitated, trying to choose just the right words to better further their own personal agendas. In Anastasia’s voice, there was only certainty and religious devotion.

“Amen.”

As the others took their hands back and began to eat, Nathaniel couldn’t help but gape at the beautiful young woman across from him. How had she managed lock his heart away, for her and only her, so quickly? Two options popped into his head--either she was a mage, and had cast a spell on him, or it was love at first sight. Either way, he was doomed to pine after Anastasia Cousland for all his life. No other woman held even the slightest bit of appeal to him anymore.

It seemed that he would only be able to look, never to touch. Even with all these feelings, there was a slim to none chance that the relationship could be. There was no way a Cousland would stoop so low as to court a Howe. His family was grasping at little straws of power. Without Amaranthine, no one would pay them any heed. It was a miracle for the Couslands to even associate with them. Nathaniel quietly thanked the Maker for the rebellion against Orlais. Without it, his father would never have met Bryce, and in turn, he would never have met Anastasia. He’d rather dream of being with her for all his life rather than never know her.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit next to you?”

The voice brought him back to reality. The elven servant who had walked him to the dining room stood beside Fergus, her plate full. He briefly recalled the teyrn calling her Lauriel.

“Sit down, you silly woman,” Fergus frowned, though the light-hearted tone of his voice spoke of his true feelings. “You should know by now that you don’t need to ask.”

She laughed and sat, quickly digging into her plate. As Nathaniel looked around, he saw that while he had been thinking, all the knights and servants who had been in the room earlier were now seated at the table, eating dinner alongside the family.

The help was eating with the family.

Never before had he seen that. Not even in the local houses in Amaranthine. Anastasia must have sensed his bewilderment and spoke up.

“We always invite our helpers to eat their meals with us, as long as they aren’t busy otherwise.”

Bryce set his fork down. “It’s only when we have visitors that we ask them to eat separately. Sadly, it isn’t seen as proper to eat with those who are deemed below one’s station.

There was a sudden hush around the table. Lauriel looked down at her plate and pushed a potato around. “If you’d like, we can leave.”

“No!” Nathaniel exclaimed a little too loudly. He glanced at the assortment of elves and armored men and cleared his throat. “It’s completely unnecessary for you to leave. Your company is more than welcome.”

The quiet fell back into a dull roar of metal utensils hitting against porcelain plates, chewing, polite conversation, and requests for specific food dishes to be passed. Nathaniel let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Lauriel found his gaze and mouthed a silent thank you. He nodded, giving her a smile in return.

“I think it’s ridiculous to force workers to eat separately,” Anastasia growled. “It’s a true disgrace. Most of our workers live here, alongside us! It’s only fair that they be treated as equals.”

For an unexplainable reason, Nathaniel’s heart swelled with love for the fiery woman sitting across from him. Perhaps it was the passion in that statement, or because it displayed how much she cared for those seen as lesser. He desperately wanted to crawl across the table and attack her with his lips, showering kisses all over, but he held back. Instead, he popped a potato into his mouth and nodded thoughtfully. Close enough.

The teyrn chuckled. “Be careful who you say that to, pup. I’ve already been lectured by one arlessa and three banns for your sharp tongue.”

Ana stuck out her tongue, as if to prove that it, in fact, was not sharp. “They deserved to be scolded. Their behavior was unacceptable. Just because they have a title it doesn’t mean they’re better than anyone else.”

“Here, here!” a knight down the table called out.

Slapping a smug smile on her face, Ana turned to her father. Nathaniel couldn’t help but echo the knight, holding up his glass in a toast.

“Kill them with kindness, darling,” Eleanor smiled, not even looking up from her plate. It was as if they had this conversation every night.

“Yes, mother,” the girl sighed.

The rest of the dinner passed without incident. There was polite conversation about the travel from Vigil’s Keep to Cousland Castle, the weather, and tomorrow’s activities. Ser James, the eldest and most senior guard at the estate, and Ser Gilmore, the new recruit, would be training Fergus and Nathaniel. It seemed an odd combination to the young Howe, but he figured there was a perfectly good reason for it.

As the family and servants stacked empty plates together, and not so discreetly gave their table scraps to Bear, there was a tap on Nathaniel’s shoulder. He turned and found the teyrn facing him.

“Ready?” he asked.