Summary: Every relationship has to start somewhere. A prequel to A Rush to the Start.
Note: I’m using ten_by_ten’s challenge of doing a story consisting of ten chapters with ten different prompts. This chapter’s prompt is green velvet.
The green velvet doublet was scratchy and hot. Nathaniel wormed his fingers underneath the neckline, but his mother pulled his hand away. “You’ll wrinkle your suit,” she said patiently, giving him a sympathetic look.
“I don’t know why we have to dress up, Mama,” he complained, staring at the bench across from him where his little sister was sound asleep. At least she didn’t have to worry about mussing her outfit. At three years of age, nobody really cared what you did or said, because you were just so precious, aren’t you? When one turned eight, like Nathaniel was, one stopped being cute and precious and was expected to act in a way that didn’t embarrass their family. Nathaniel still didn’t know exactly what that meant, but apparently it involved wearing stuffy clothing that were normally saved for family portraits or visits to Denerim to see the king.
“We have to dress up because we are going to be Teyrn Cousland’s guests,” Adria softly explained, her hands smoothing Delilah’s dark curls away from her sleeping face. “We must make the proper impression.”
“But it’s itchy.” He couldn’t really remember much about Teyrn Cousland; he’d only seen him once or twice and only very briefly before Adria had ushered him back out of his father’s study and back to his rooms. What he did remember was that the Teyrn was a nice man who had laughed a lot, much more than Father ever did. Father was fun to be with and he occasionally had fantastic stories to share with Nathaniel whenever they were together, but he was quieter than the Teyrn. Nathaniel had said as much to Adria before their current trip and she had agreed, saying that Nathaniel was just like his father in that respect.
Nathaniel liked that idea. Father was well respected and strong, a hero in his own right. He wanted nothing more than to grow up to be just like him.
“I know, my love,” Adria said. “And as soon as we’re able, we’ll get you out of it.”
“You spoil him,” his mother said, rubbing absently at the growing bump at her belly. Pretty soon, Nathaniel would have another brother or sister. He hoped to have a brother, that way he would have someone to play with outside.
“Well, we can’t expect our little lordship to stay in his formal wear once he meets the Teyrn’s children. You do remember young master Fergus, don’t you, Nathaniel?”
Nathaniel shook his head. He could vaguely remember meeting a boy when Teyrn Cousland last visited Vigil’s Keep, but that had been three years ago. “Fergus is a year older than you,” his mother supplied. “He has a sister that you haven’t met yet. Lady Moira is two years younger than you are.”
He must have made a face, thinking that any girls - no matter if they were three like his sister or six like this Moira - were simply bad news because Adria quietly chuckled. “I think that you will get along with her well. From what we’ve heard, she’s quite the adventurous type.”
His mother tisked. “Disgraceful, how they allow her to be such a hellion.” Nathaniel didn’t know what a hellion was, but it must not be good if it made his mother’s nose wrinkle in distaste. “Nevertheless, you must show them the utmost respect.”
“But why?” The question was out of his mouth before he could stop it, and he quickly glanced at Adria to see her reaction.
“Because,” his mother said, her voice stiff. “The Couslands control Amaranthine.”
“Yes, your father rules over the land as Arl, but Teyrns are more powerful than Arls. If they wanted to, the Couslands could throw us out on our ear without two coppers to rub together.”
“Surely you don’t think such a thing would happen,” Adria said quietly, her eyes downcast in a way that Nathaniel had seen many of the maids and other servants look whenever they talked to his parents. “Teyrn Cousland is a kind man.”
“And we need to stay on his kind side just as much as we possibly can. You know how Rendon…” his mother stopped herself, seeming to realize that she was speaking to someone below her station instead of a peer or trusted confidante. She pressed her lips tightly together until it looked as if there was one pinkish white line across her face. “Betrothals to either Fergus or Moira will cement our status. I’m fortunate that I can offer a son or a daughter to the bargaining table, though I think that the task shall fall on Delilah’s shoulders once she’s old enough. I can easily see Moira going to Cailan before she went to Nathaniel.”
Nathaniel’s brow furrowed as he tried to understand what his mother was saying, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of her words. He looked out of the carriage window and suddenly all of his discomfort was forgotten right along with his mother’s cryptic messages. “Is that the castle?” he asked, pointing out of the window. White stone gleamed in the sunlight and a banner bearing twin laurel leaves flapped in the breeze. It was much larger than the Keep, and Nathaniel’s eyes widened as the horse’s hooves clattered along the cobblestones in a pleasant manner.
“It is,” his mother said, reaching over and fussing with his clothes. He hadn’t moved much since being forced to wear the itchy, confining clothing that morning, but apparently he had managed to wrinkle his sleeves. “Now remember what I’ve said; you must be on your best behavior.”
“I will, Mama.”
“Mother,” she corrected curtly, dabbing the edge of her lace handkerchief with her tongue before swiping at his cheek to remove a remnant of breakfast there.
“I’m sure you’ll make us all proud, my Angel,” Adria said, giving him a wink as she gathered Delilah into her arms to fuss over her clothing. Delilah blinked once, her large dark eyes owlish, before falling back to sleep on Adria’s shoulder.
“Of course he will,” his mother replied, leaving Nathaniel alone in order to take a small hand mirror out of her dress pocket to make sure that her hair was still in order. “He is a Howe.”
The castle looked even larger now that they were out of the carriage and in the outer courtyard. Birds chirped pleasantly in the late spring afternoon and the sun shone brightly against the stone walls. “What did your mother say in the carriage?” his father asked him as they walked towards the doors leading to the main hallway.
“She said that I should be on my best behavior, Pa…Father,” Nathaniel recited, catching himself from calling his father by the more familiar ‘Papa’ that was acceptable when they were at home, but never when they had company.
His father put a hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder. “Good. I want you to do something else while you’re here.”
“What is it?”
“I want you to befriend the Cousland girl.”
“Do not question me, my boy. Your mother is certain she’ll be able to endear Delilah to the family, but I have my doubts. It falls on you to ensure our future.”
Nathaniel cocked his head to the side. “I don’t understand.”
His father took a breath, his thumb rubbing against Nathaniel’s shoulder in a way that was familiar. His father was not prone to showing great displays of affection, but Nathaniel knew that he cared a great deal for him. “I apologize,” he said quietly, the pinched look to his face softening for a moment. “You often act more mature than your age; there are times where I forget that you’re just a child. You should not have burdens put upon you so soon.”
Before Nathaniel could reply, the Great Hall’s doors were opened and a man and woman stood in front of them. “Rendon!” the man said, clasping his father’s forearm in his hand in way of welcome. “I trust the roads were favorable.”
“As well as could be expected, Bryce,” his father replied, clasping the man’s forearm in his own hand and mirroring his smile.
“And this must be young Nathaniel. My, he’s grown since I last saw him. How do you do, lad?”
Nathaniel bowed from the waist, just as he’d been instructed. “I am very well. Thank you for asking, my lord.”
Bryce grinned. “You have such good manners. Your parents must be quite proud of you.” Nathaniel snuck a sideways glance at his father, relieved to see that Rendon’s lips were curled upward in a pleased smile. “And here is the rest of your family! Regina, you grow lovelier every time we see you. I see that your daughter is following in your footsteps.”
Behind them, Nathaniel’s mother laughed. “You are too kind, my lord. Eleanor, it is so good to see you again, my lady.”
The lady that had stood beside the Teyrn gave a small curtsey. “As it is to see you. Here, let us go to my garden and sit while we catch up. A woman in your delicate condition shouldn’t be standing long.” Nathaniel caught a glimpse of his mother’s bright red skirts out of the corner of his eye as she handed Delilah off to Adria, the Teyrna linking her arm through his mother’s as they walked out of the Great Hall.
“Surely you remember my children, Rendon,” Bryce said, gesturing towards the two dark haired children standing beside a woman who was presumably their nanny. “My son, Fergus.” The boy was busy running his fingers around the collar of his doublet, much how Nathaniel longed to do with his own, though he didn’t dare risk his father’s disapproval. “And my daughter, Moira.” He laughed as the girl seemed to hide behind her nanny’s skirts. “Come now, Pup. You’ve picked an odd time to decide to become shy.”
After a little gentle prodding from her governess, Moira stepped forward. “How do you do?” she said, her voice carrying a slight lisp. She picked up the skirts to her dress and bobbed into an awkward curtsey. Nathaniel couldn’t help but notice that she stared at him in curiosity.
Fergus spoke up next. “Do you like Warriors and Dragons?” he asked. “We can play if you want to.”
Moira’s face went from shy to interested in a blink of an eye. “No, I want to play Black Fox!”
“We always play Black Fox.”
“Yes, because I’m good at it!” She pointed to Nathaniel, forgetting protocol completely. “And he looks like he’d be a grand Karolis. You’ll play with us, won’t you?”
“I…” Befriend the Cousland girl, his father had told him. Looking up at his father, he asked, “May I?”
His father gave him an indulgent smile and patted his hand against Nathaniel’s shoulder. “Of course you may. Run along now, my boy.”
Moira took hold of his hand and tugged. “Come on! We must plan our ambush on the greedy nobleman!”
Nathaniel allowed himself to be pulled out of the Great Hall, hearing Fergus complain beside them. “Why must I always play the greedy nobleman? The last time, you hit me with a rock.”
“You didn’t duck fast enough!”
Behind them, Nathaniel heard the Cousland’s nanny shout out. “Moira! We have guests!” Moira sighed dramatically and stopped trying to tug her dress over her head with her free hand.
“But it’s so itchy, Nan!”
“And I’m certain you can wait until we reach your room to properly change into your play clothes, young lady.”
Fergus snorted beside Nathaniel. “I think the grown-ups put us in stuffy clothes to punish us for something.”
Nathaniel tilted his head. “What would they do that for?”
“I don’t know, but if I ever have children, I’m never going to do the same to them.” He glanced at Nathaniel conspiratorially. “I’m never going to make them eat lima beans either.”
Nathaniel looked at the two children he was expected to befriend, thinking that their loud and boisterous behavior was a far cry from the quiet of the Keep. He felt very much like a fish would probably feel if it found itself out of its element. “Lima beans are disgusting,” he agreed cautiously, even though he secretly liked them.
Fergus grinned, his cheeks dimpling. “I have a feeling we’re going to be the best of friends.”
It was much later that night when it started to rain. While their family stayed with the Couslands, Nathaniel was to share Fergus’ room. It was fine by both boys, seeing that after the initial awkwardness had worn off, they had indeed gotten along well. Moira was a constant shadow, which didn’t bother Nathaniel either. She was a strange girl; he’d thought that all girls were prissy and afraid to get dirty, but Moira ran about with them all day long, skinning her knees and getting grubby right alongside them. Fergus had finally had enough of her tagging along and had chased her about with a dead spider they had found in the barn, which seemed to be the only thing his sister was afraid of. She had run off crying, but returned later before supper as if nothing had happened.
Even the rain sounded different than at home. There were chains dangling down from the water spouts near Fergus’ window that were fashioned into some sort of cups. When the water filled each cup, it spilled over into the one below, creating a dripping noise that almost sounded musical in nature. It was nice, and it surely beat listening to the rain fall in heavy plops outside his bedroom.
Both boys were still awake, even though they had been sent to bed hours ago. They had blown out the candle at the bedside, and were busy entertaining themselves with making out shapes in the shadows whenever lightning illuminated the room when the door opened.
“Fergus?” Moira’s voice came out of the dark, and for the first time that day, Nathaniel heard her sound frightened. Even with the spider earlier on, she had yelled and screamed as if highly annoyed instead of scared. “Are you awake?”
“Oh, not again.” Fergus got out of bed. Nathaniel sat up and watched as lightning flashed, showing the siblings at the doorway. “How many times have I told you? There are no monsters under your bed.”
“But I heard them growling!”
“That was the thunder. Remember what Papa said about the thunder?”
“I know, but…” lightning flashed again and Moira jumped. “Can I sleep with you tonight?”
Fergus sighed. “Come on then. Be quick about it; the floor’s cold.”
Moira climbed into bed, only noticing Nathaniel just then. “Hello,” she said, ducking her head shyly.
“Move over,” Fergus said, climbing in behind her. The bed was large enough that the three of them could lay on their backs without touching the other, but Nathaniel lay there as stiff as a board, unsure as to what protocol would say when one found themselves in a similar position while one was supposed to be on their best behavior, befriend children of important people, and conduct themselves in a manner that wouldn’t embarrass one’s family. The three of them were quiet for a while and Nathaniel heard Fergus’ breath deepen in sleep.
Thunder rumbled again and Moira jumped, turning onto her side so she faced Nathaniel. Before he knew what to do, she was curled against him, her hands clutching his nightshirt. “It’ll be all right,” he said awkwardly, not knowing what else to say. He glanced to his left, but the snore behind Moira told him that he was on his own.
“I don’t like thunder,” she whispered, her face tucked against his neck.
“Just pretend that thunder is something else. See? Doesn’t it sound like a stomach grumble?”
The next rumble made the bed frame tremble slightly. “That is not helping, Nate,” she whimpered, burrowing closer. “Monster stomachs grumble when they want to eat little girls.”
“My name is Nathaniel.”
“But I like Nate better.”
“I thought that you wouldn’t be scared of anything, let alone silly monsters,” he said, changing the subject. “I thought only spiders scared you.”
“Spiders are icky, but they don’t scare me. I just pretend they do so Fergus can chase me with them. It makes him happy.”
“You’re a weird girl.”
“And you’re a weird boy. You don’t act at all like my brother. Why are you so quiet?” She moved a little ways away from him so she had room to prop herself up on her elbow. The room was pitch black except for the flashes of lighting here and there, so she couldn’t quite make out his expression. “See? You’re being quiet now.”
“I was trying to sleep.”
She poked at his side with her finger. “You’re not going to answer me, are you?”
“I don’t know what answer to give you.” It was strange; this was the most anyone had ever paid attention to him before besides Adria. “Do you always talk this much?”
“Papa says that I’m charming. He calls me his little chatterbox.” More thunder rumbled, but this time, Moira was preoccupied and didn’t pay attention to it. “What does your papa call you?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “I’m his son. He calls me Son.”
“You don’t have any nicknames?”
“Of course not.” He wasn’t about to tell her that Adria called him her little angel; that might lead to teasing.
Moira settled back against him, her head on his shoulder. “Poor Nathaniel. It’s a good thing that I’ve decided to call you Nate then.” She wrapped her arms around his arm and yawned. “You might be weird, but I think I like you.”
Nathaniel didn’t know what to say to that, so he stayed silent until he felt her breath puff against his cheek in even exhalations. “Thank you,” he finally said. Her hair was tickling his nose, so he used his free hand to brush it aside. Moira made a little noise in her sleep when his fingers tangled in her curls, but she didn’t wake up. If anything, she snuggled closer to him.
He lay like that for the longest time, listening to both of his bedmates sleep. It wasn’t long before the combination of soothing rain outside the window and steady breathing next to him lulled Nathaniel into a deep slumber.