Fandom: Dragon Age Origins: Awakening
Theme: #17; orange, color
Characters and Relationship: Nathaniel Howe/Moira Cousland, eventually romantic
Summary: Of all the things becoming an Arlessa entailed, picking out a dress was her least favorite.
Note: Moira’s dress was strongly influenced by Waterhouse’s Ophelia.
“You do realize that I haven’t known you for very long.”
Moira absently nodded, her back to Anders as she stared into the depths of her wardrobe. “I’m aware of that. What was your point?”
“My point,” Anders said, sitting up from where he had sprawled atop her bed, “is that you’ve let a man who’s practically a stranger into your bedroom and you haven’t batted an eyelash.”
“I could kill you in less than three seconds if you tried anything,” she told him blandly, turning around with an armload of fabric. “Besides, if you want to get technical, I let Ser Pounce-a-Lot into my bedroom. You merely followed.” She smirked at him, carefully arranging the outfits she had picked out onto the area of coverlet Anders wasn’t occupying.
“Well, Pounce is quite the charming kitty, isn’t he?” From beneath Moira’s bed, the aforementioned kitten gave an affirmative meow. “What are you doing anyway? I thought we were supposed to meet with all the stuffy nobles this evening.”
Moira sighed. “Yes, but apparently can’t meet them fully armed and decked out in armor. It would send out the wrong image.”
“Ah. Someone clued you in that looking the part of the gorgeously dangerous and deadly Arlessa wouldn’t win you any popularity points?”
“Varel did, yes. He seems to think that my first impression to the people under my care should be of a woman who is approachable and refined. It might make dealing with them in the future a bit easier. I agree with him,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin. “I just wish I knew what ‘approachable’ meant here.”
“You might want to stay away from the red dress,” Anders told her, sliding off the mattress to stand beside her. “Might come across as too aggressive. The pale blue one you picked out looks far too passive.” He walked over to her wardrobe and pulled out a bright orange frock. “This one is nice.”
Moira shook her head. “It’s also an import. Varel told me how much the people had distrusted anyone from Orlais. Imagine what they would think about me if I wore that.”
“Then why do you own it? You lived in the palace for several years; wouldn’t the sentiment be stronger there?”
“No, it wasn’t. And to answer your question, my friend made me buy it.” Moira smiled at the memory of the shopping day she and Leliana had before the bard went off to investigate Andraste’s final resting place. The two of them had cooed over shoes for hours and Leliana had all but begged Moira to purchase the dress. She said it would bring out my eyes, Moira thought with a grin. But if it complimented anyone, it would have looked far better on her. She smiled again, thinking that Leliana had probably meant to “borrow” the outfit from Moira, but never got the chance to before she left.
Anders dug further into the wardrobe until he was all but crawling inside. “Ah ha! I think I might have found something fitting.” He pulled out a silk gown that Moira had forgotten she even owned. “Approachable and quite pretty,” he said, holding it up against himself. “What do you think? Is it my color?”
She laughed and took it from him. “Strangely enough, I think it might be.”
“It’s a shame that I won’t be required to dress up for the evening. Fortunately, I think you’d look fantastic in it.” He moved over to her dressing stand and unceremoniously flipped the top to her jewelry case open. “And I think I found something that would suit you here as well.”
Moira put her hand on the top of the case and gently closed the lid. “Those aren’t mine,” she said, shaking her head. “They belonged to…” Nathaniel’s mother, she thought. “The former Arlessa,” she said instead.
“But you are the new Arlessa. They belong to you now and it would help remind these nobles just who you are.”
Moira stared at the ornately carved box. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “Now shoo. I have to change.”
“Are you sure that I have to leave? I mean, I’ve been so helpful and everything.”
“I’m certain. Out.” She was grinning as she pushed him towards the door. Ser Pounce-a-Lot seemed to take the hint that he was included in the eviction and was already waiting in the hallway, his paw lazily swiping over his ears.
“But there’s a great many buttons on that dress. And didn’t I see laces in the back that need tightening?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, even as he was being ushered out. “You might need me to watch…er, supervise, just to make certain you don’t mess anything up!”
Moira laughed, shoving the door closed in the mage’s face. “I mean it!” Leaning against the heavy door, she shook her head. Honestly, the reason she didn’t mind Anders hanging around was that he reminded her of Alistair. She rolled her eyes, pulling the tunic she was wearing over her head. A slightly naughty version of Alistair, perhaps, she mused, stepping into the bath that had been drawn for her. But he does make being away from home a lot easier. She didn’t know when she had stopped referring to Highever as home, but being away from Denerim, even for as short of an amount of time as she had, was already making her homesick. Hearing sarcastic banter from someone that almost, but not quite, looked like her friend made the transition a little smoother. Quickly bathing, Moira slipped into her undergarments and stood beside her bed. She looked down at the gown she planned on wearing, finally remembering where she had gotten it. Fashion amongst the nobility was starting to lean towards simplicity instead of garishly ornate garb, probably thanks to Alistair’s extremely vocal distaste for overly complicated outfits. The trend hadn’t quite caught on, seeing that it was still a new idea, but Moira had been presented with the dress from the Royal Seamstress to wear at a banquet. She had missed the event, seeing that there had been a darkspawn sighting that same night that she had gone to investigate, so the gown had gone forgotten in the back of her wardrobe.
It was incredibly stunning, she had to admit. The overdress was a dark forest green with a swooping neckline that was lined with flowering vines embroidered in gold thread. There was a wide stripe of amber colored silk at the hem that held a pattern of embroidered griffons, also in gold. The sleeves to the dress were long and designed to cling to the upper arm before falling loosely at the elbow. More golden vines climbed along the edges of the sleeves and when worn, you could see that the inside lining of the sleeve was the same amber colored material as the hemline. There was another dress that was meant to be worn underneath; Anders hadn’t found it, but with minimal searching, Moira found the lighter olive green underdress and slipped it over her head. The long, tightly fitting sleeves buttoned at the wrist and hid several scars along her arms, but the low neckline was bound to show at least the beginnings of several pale white lines that marred her skin. It can’t be helped, she thought, careful not to wrinkle the overdress as she pulled it over her head. There are just some things that these people will simply have to accept about me. One does not take on bad guys without getting scuffed up in the process.
Slipping her feet into a pair of light brown slippers, Moira stood before the full-length mirror at the corner of her bedroom. The dress fit close to her body, hugging the curve of her waist before slightly flaring out at the hip. She stared at her reflection for a while. Except for her uncombed hair and bare face, Moira finally felt like a lady again. While she didn’t begrudge the fact that her lifestyle meant she was in armor or men’s style clothing most of the time, the one thing she did miss was getting to dress up and act like a female every once and a while. Sitting at her makeup stand, she applied the barest hint of color at her eyes and cheeks and a brighter red stain for her lips. A memory bubbled up to the surface as she stared into the mirror: she and Nathaniel’s sister Delilah were sitting together at the same dressing table, giggling together while they prepared for a party. Delilah was leaning forward as closely to the mirror so she could put on her makeup while Moira piled the younger girl’s hair up into a sweeping updo, securing her dark curls with a golden comb.
Her eyes went to the large jewelry case in front of her again. Carefully lifting the lid, she looked at the contents inside. Many of the pieces were fashioned out of rubies and diamonds – and Moira ran her fingers over the same golden comb she had been thinking about - but there was a golden circlet sitting almost by itself that caught her eye. It was plain looking compared to the rest of the collection, adorned with a scattering of pearls and amber pieces fashioned to look like flowers. Every so often an emerald leaf curled out of a cluster of flowers, and Moira felt herself drawn to it. She took the piece out of the box and eyed it cautiously, wondering what Arlessa Regina would have thought about her wearing her things. There had been a minor stir when the Arlessa had left Amaranthine in order to live at her family’s estate in the Bannorn, but the details had been kept hushed. Moira had never found out the real reason to her disappearance, but she hadn’t bought the excuse that Regina had been stricken by her mother’s death and had wanted to live in the family home to feel closer to her departed mother. Something else had to have happened and she felt that it had something to do with Thomas, especially since soon after her disappearance Moira had received a letter from Nathaniel asking her to keep an eye on his little brother. Thomas had been tight lipped about everything, deflecting her inquiries with his easy charm and redirecting the conversation back onto herself.
Moira lifted the piece of jewelry and inspected it in the light. She remembered the former Arlessa as someone who had been polite yet distant, refined yet cold, lacking the warmth that her own mother had. Regina had also highly disliked Moira, even if she had never said it in words. Moira had always been too rambunctious, too much of a hellion for her tastes. Moira was certain that if one were to take away the political advantages a marriage between Moira and her son would bring, Regina would have been dead set against welcoming Moira into her family, thinking that she wasn’t good enough for either of her sons, especially Nathaniel.
Speaking of, Moira wondered what Nathaniel would think of her wearing something of his mother’s. Would he think that she was lording over the fact that she owned everything his family once had? Would he think that she was shoving her new title into his face?
“Or would he even notice?” she wondered out loud, setting the circlet down on the dressing table. She picked up her comb and ran it through her hair. She started to braid her hair around her head like she normally did, but stopped. Leaving her hair plain, she placed the headpiece on, the pearl flowers and emerald leaves looking like a wreath circling her head, the gold standing out in contrast to her dark hair. Sitting up straight, she pulled her shoulders back and held her head high. “You are the Arlessa of Amaranthine,” she said, mentally forcing herself to stop worrying about everything that was waiting for her downstairs, especially when it came to Nathaniel. Taking a breath, she stood up from her dressing table, walked out of her room and headed towards the throne room. “You can do this.”
Nathaniel stood in his customary corner, his arms crossed in front of him. They hadn’t begun to assemble yet, but he had watched Amaranthine’s nobility gather for the better part of the afternoon from his vantage point atop the battlements. He’d kept to the shadows, not wanting to be seen or be made part of whatever gossip that was sure to spread.
“You could have at least worn something nicer,” Anders told him, brushing off a bit of cat hair from his sleeve.
“Is there a certain reason why?” he replied, arching his eyebrow.
“Well, for one, we’re going to be shown off as the newest Wardens.” Velanna had gotten a reprieve; she was still somewhat groggy from her Joining and was given the rest of the evening to recover.
Nathaniel shook his head. “You and the dwarf, perhaps, but I intend on remaining unseen.” He could just hear it now: the prodigal son, returned from the Free Marches, only to be conscripted into the Grey Wardens. How fitting, seeing that his entire family was labeled traitors to the crown.
Anders frowned. “Well, Mister Grumpy, you can at least tell our Commander that she looks nice when she comes down. She’s not looking forward to this any more than you are.”
Nathaniel was going to say something else, but Anders’ low whistle stopped him. Turning so he could see the door, his mouth went dry at the sight of Moira standing there. She looks more than nice, he thought, I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful in my life. The fabric contrasted with her pale skin, making what showed gleam like porcelain. He was certain that she hadn’t meant to, but the dark green and gold of her dress was an exact match to the Howe family colors. That thought made his chest constrict and he couldn’t help but smile warmly.
Moira’s step faltered when she caught sight of Nathaniel smiling at her. She was taken by surprise at how such a small expression could dramatically change his entire face. Since they’d met again, she’d seen him sneer or twist his lips into a sarcastic sort of smirk, but she had never seen something that actually reached his eyes like the smile he was giving her now did.
She hadn’t known just how much she had missed it, or quite remembered the way that butterflies had always fluttered in her stomach at the sight. “Hello,” she said, coming up to both him and Anders.
“Good evening,” Nathaniel replied. He grunted when Anders elbowed his side. “You look lovely.” The neckline of her dress showed the rounded tops of her shoulders and from up close, he saw how the green complimented her hazel eyes.
She quickly looked away, her eyelashes fanning across her cheeks. “Thank you,” she murmured quietly. When she looked back up at him, Nathaniel could have sworn there was some of the old friendliness back in her eyes. He tried to think of something to say, but words failed him.
“I see you found something in the jewelry case,” Anders supplied, tilting his head appreciatively.
Moira’s hand went up to the side of her head and she looked at Nathaniel. “I…”
“I remember that piece,” he said, stepping up to get a closer look. “Mother rarely wore it; she said it made her look washed out.”
“I think it’s nice,” Moira told him.
Nathaniel shrugged. “Mother always liked to deck herself out with rubies.” He couldn’t do anything but stare as his fingers, seemingly of their own accord, reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind Moira’s ear. “You wear it far better than she ever did.”
Anders watched the two of them stare at the other before clearing his throat. “And when the mage starts feeling like he’s the third wheel, it’s his cue to leave. I’ll just be over there, minding my own business.”
Nathaniel put his hand in his pocket and brought something out. “I’ve been meaning to give you this,” he said, holding out a large signet ring. “Varel said that the king had sent it back to Amaranthine for safekeeping until you were available to take up your duties here. You should make your title official.”
Moira shook her head. “I can’t take that from you.” The last time she had seen it, the ring had been sitting in a pool of cooling blood, the former owner’s hand still twitching. Her stomach curled at the thought of even being anywhere near something that Rendon Howe had once worn.
“I insist.” He reached down and took a hold of her right hand. “It’s a bit big, but I’m certain you can get it resized.” He slid the ring onto her index finger, and as expected, it shifted around, the weighty portion bearing his family’s crest sliding to the underside of her finger. “And I’m sure that you’ll want to replace the crest with your own, or perhaps something signifying the Wardens.” He had been tempted to try on the signet ring himself, if only to say that he had at least one opportunity to do so, but he had refrained. Becoming Arl of Amaranthine wasn’t part of his life any longer; the ring belonged to those in power.
It was odd; he thought that he would feel bitter about it, but he didn’t.
Moira took the ring off and pressed it back into his palm. “I can’t take this from you,” she repeated, folding his fingers over the ring. She looked at him, suddenly realizing that they were so close to the other that the hem of her gown covered the tips of his boots. “With tonight and…” she fought the urge to rest her head against his chest. “I’ve taken so much from you already. Please, let me give something back.”
“Moira…” His hands itched to touch her, to cover her exposed shoulders and see if her skin felt just as soft as he remembered it being. “You’ve taken nothing that hadn’t already been lost.” He gestured towards the circlet again. “And as I said earlier, you wear it well.”
She swallowed hard, trying to get her emotions in some sort of order at the way he said her name. One of these days, she and Nathaniel were going to have to have a long talk to sort everything out, but that night wasn’t going to be that time. “Let’s just get through this all in one piece,” she told him, walking towards the dais. “I don’t even know what to expect.” He put her off balance once again when he offered her his elbow. Heart in her throat, she twined her arm through his, looking up at him when he put his free hand over hers. It was as if time had decided to move backwards; Moira remembered several other times where Nathaniel had escorted her in such a manner. It was something that she had never expected him to do, especially after the careful distance they had put between themselves. It had been a week since he had returned her mother’s wedding ring to her and since then, Moira had noticed that most of the harshness in his behavior had been erased. They might not be on comfortable speaking terms yet, but at least they could hold a civil, if not stilted, conversation now.
“You’re going to do fine,” he assured her, stepping away once they were standing by the large chair at the very front of the room. “As for what to expect, I suspect that some of the younger nobles will be just like their parents. They’re going to bow and scrape to put on a good show, but they’ll be testing to see just how far they can get with their new ruler. Be wary of Bann Esmerelle. She’ll try to charm you into doing things for the city while forgoing every other part of the land, which is what she had attempted to do with my father. She has a subtle manner about her, but I think that she’s a snake in the grass.”
“Thank you. I appreciate the information.”
Nathaniel looked down at her and gave her a small, lopsided smile. “And I wasn’t saying it just to appease Anders earlier; you do look lovely.” With that, he stepped into the shadows behind the chair, instantly melting into the darkness. She tried to focus on him, but it was clear that he had already moved somewhere else.
“He’s right,” Varel said, standing beside her. “You do look lovely.”
“Is this approachable enough?” she asked, steeling herself as Varel motioned for the large doors to open.
“Quite. And excellent color choice, I might say. The nobles will think of the previous Arl, which makes your transition a bit easier.”
Moira stood up straighter. “I hadn’t thought of it,” she said absently. No wonder Nathaniel seemed friendlier. She stared at the sleeve of her dress, thinking that perhaps around this same time, she might have worn the same colors under other circumstances. She glanced down at her left hand, thinking that there might have been a gold band added on, had things been different.
There’s no use lingering over what might have been, she admonished herself. Just focus on the present. “Any last minute pieces of advice?” she asked instead.
“Try not to show too much favor to any one noble,” he said. “Though I’m sure you already know that from your time in court. Any time you want me to clear the room, just give me the signal,” Varel muttered next to her.
“Is now too soon?” she asked, schooling her face into a practiced smile, just as her mother had taught her. If she were to look at herself, she knew that she was presenting the image of the perfect hostess.
“Just a bit. Word of warning: you might have to put up with some minor disputes. I’m certain that everyone won’t be capable of playing nice once they’re all gathered together in the same room.”
“Thank you.” Maker. Give me a room full of darkspawn with only a butter knife to defend myself with over this, she thought. Smiling warmly, she let her voice ring out through the hall. “Greetings. Welcome to Vigil’s Keep.”
“Someone’s going to have to keep an eye on her,” Anders said, leaning against the wall. “That Ser Tamra is getting awful chatty.”
“You noticed that as well?” Nathaniel said, leaning against the column opposite of Anders. “There’s something that doesn’t seem right.”
“Well, it’s a good thing that you’re on board. For a moment there, I thought you’d be off sulking in the corner for the remainder of the evening.”
“I do not sulk.”
“I do not brood, either.”
Anders rolled his eyes. “Fine, believe what you want to. What I’m mostly getting at is that I’m glad you aren’t looking at our Commander as if you wish to kill her any longer.” He leaned forward. “You don’t want to kill her any longer, right?”
Nathaniel scoffed. “I never truly wanted to.”
“Good. I’d sure hate to zap you with a well placed bolt of lightning otherwise. Care to share what changed your heart?”
Nathaniel looked over his shoulder, watching as Moira ended her conversation with Ser Tamra and began one with Lord Eddelbrek. For all her reluctance, she seemed to be in her element, transitioning from one topic to the next with ease. From his hiding places, Nathaniel had overheard many other conversations. The general consensus was that the nobles approved of their new Arlessa. There was also whispers about Father and how he had let Amaranthine go in a downwards slide during the last years of his rule. Could this be true? He didn’t want to think about his father at the moment, preferring to spend his time thinking about Moira. “No, I do not,” he told Anders. Honestly, he couldn’t answer that question, even to himself. He felt conflicted; on one hand, he believed that he should still resent Moira, that his father’s honor demanded it. On the other hand, his feelings and memories of her had said to give her a chance, that perhaps he didn’t have the entire story. “Keep your eyes and ears peeled,” he said instead, intending on moving unnoticed to another corner of the room.
“Aye aye, Captain Broody.” Anders turned his head and frowned, finding himself talking to thin air. “Damn, that man moves fast.”