Summary: The Couslands and the Howes spend a few days in Denerim.
Note: Using ten_by_ten's prompt of "cheese" for this one.
“Now, remember what I told you,” Eleanor said, sitting primly in the carriage seat next to her daughter.
“Yes ma’am,” Moira sighed. “I’m not to be rude, run about barefoot, or do anything unladylike while we’re guests at the Arl’s estate.” She was excited about her family’s stay in Denerim, especially since they were going to be guests in Arl Eamon Guerrin’s home for the next week. She’d only been there once, but she had been too young to actually wander around on her own, and she was curious as to what their temporary lodgings would have to offer.
“It would be easier to tell her not to breathe,” Fergus joked from the bench across from them. Moira scowled at her brother but refrained from kicking his shin in retaliation, which she thought was a good start to proper ladylike behavior.
“Prince Cailan will be visiting his uncle often, I’m told,” Eleanor pointed out, looking at her son. “I expect proper manners out of you as well.” Fergus was fifteen – a year older than the prince – but his mother thought that even though her son was nearly a man, it never hurt to remind him to behave. “The last time you and Cailan were together, you wound up with a black eye.”
Fergus had the good grace to look contrite. “He started it,” he said. Even Moira hadn’t known the entire details to that scuffle a year and a half ago, but it seemed as if Cailan had come out with a split lip to match Fergus’ black eye. Strangely enough, the two became close friends afterwards.
Moira shook her head. Boys were odd. “Mama, why couldn’t I ride with the Howes?” she asked, looking out the back window of the carriage to look at the one behind them. Arl Howe had chosen to ride on horseback alongside Moira’s father, the two men in deep conversation. She waved at them both: her father waved back while the Arl gave a polite nod. Behind them, Moira could see that Nathaniel had escaped the confines of the small family carriage and was sitting next to the driver. She smiled and waved at him, her smile growing larger when he waved back at her.
“Someone has a crush on our Nate,” Fergus teased.
Moira blushed. “I do not!” After a quick glance to see if her mother was looking, she stuck her tongue out at her brother, who crossed his eyes in reply.
Eleanor looked up from her needlework just in time to see her son’s expression. “Honestly Fergus, leave your sister be.” She tucked the small circular loom back into the basket she had brought with them. “And to answer your question my darling, you can’t ride with the Howes because we must arrive as a family.”
Moira sighed and turned away from the window. It was slightly stuffy for an early spring day and she wanted nothing more than to be out of the carriage and in the open air. With nothing better to do, she leaned against her mother’s side and let the rocking motion of the wheels lull her to sleep.
“Now, remember what I told you,” Rendon said, holding out a hand to help his son down from the driver’s seat.
“Yes, Father.” Fourteen years of age was too old to call his father the familiar ‘Papa’ any longer, even when they were alone at home.
His father gave him a rare smile. “Good. Now stand up straight and fix your hair before your mother nags you about it.” Nathaniel couldn’t help but notice as his father helped the rest of their family out of the carriage that there was a definite chill in the atmosphere when it came to his parents. They never quarreled in front of their children, but something was wrong. He could tell by the stiff way that his father offered his arm to his mother and by the tight manner which Mother held her lips, which she always did whenever something displeased her.
Nathaniel shook his head, deciding that his parents’ affairs were none of his concern. Instead, he ran his hand through his hair to put it into some semblance of order while he watched Teyrn Cousland swing Moira out of the carriage, making his friend squeal in laughter.
“Bryce, really,” Teyrna Eleanor was saying, shaking her head at her husband and daughter.
“We promise my love, that was the last outburst for the day. Isn’t that right, Pup?” The Teyrn then winked at his daughter, who nodded solemnly before winking back up at her father.
“Yes, Papa.” Moira walked over to Nathaniel and offered him a wide smile. “Have your parents told you to behave as well, Nate?” she asked, leaning close to him so they could speak without being overheard.
“They stopped reminding me last year,” he replied, standing up straighter as his mother walked past them. “It is to be expected of me.”
Moira gave him a sad look that he didn’t know how to interpret. Sliding her hand into his, she gave his fingers a reassuring squeeze. “Just wait until the grownups decide to ignore us again. Then we’ll see how much fun we can get into.”
Fergus fell into step on Nathaniel’s right. “Ten coppers say that Moira winds up getting muddy within the hour.”
Moira drew in an angry breath. “I heard that.”
Nathaniel, ever the diplomatic one in their group, stroked the back of Moira’s hand with his thumb. “Don’t be silly, Fergus. It hasn’t rained in days.” He grinned. “I’ll wager you fifteen bits that she gets bored and beats someone up instead.”
An hour later, the only thing keeping Moira from fidgeting was the fact that both Fergus and Nathaniel owed her fifteen bits each once she saw them again. She and Delilah were currently sitting in between their mothers, daintily sipping on tea with Arlessa Isolde. Moira enjoyed listening to the Arlessa speak in quiet tones, her accent so much different than everyone else in the room, but she hated the fact that she had to sit ramrod straight while trying to avoid getting crumbs on her dress. It was difficult; the crackers the Arlessa’s maids had served them were wafer thin and crunchy and the cheese on top of them was crumbly. She glanced over at Delilah. Her friend was three years younger than she but it seemed as if she had already mastered the art of keeping her dress crumb-free while sitting perfectly straight.
By the time that the crackers – and Moira was still hungry after politely eating the two that were offered – were finished, Moira had all but tuned out what the ladies were speaking about. She glanced towards the open window, listening as she heard some commotion from the grounds below. “Mother,” she said quietly when there was a lull in conversation. “May I sit by the window?”
Eleanor looked up from her tea cup. “Of course, my dear.” She gave her daughter a faint smile, knowing that sitting so still was taking a toll on her.
She could feel the Arlessa’s eyes on her as she crossed the room and sat on the window bench. A look down into the courtyard below made Moira wish even more that she could escape. Fergus and Prince Cailan were sparring amongst the trees and flowerbeds with wooden practice swords they must have dug up from somewhere while Nathaniel was sitting under the shade of a tree with Thomas. The mid-afternoon heat must have gotten to Thomas because he was leaning sleepily against his older brother’s side while Nathaniel quietly read aloud from a book small enough to fit into a pocket for easy transportation. Nathaniel must have felt her eyes on him, because he chose then to look up, his mouth quirking upwards when he spotted her. She returned his slight smile with a larger one of her own, her hand rising to wave at him.
“Whoever are you looking at?” Isolde asked curiously, looking over at Moira. Moira guiltily snatched her hand away from the window and swiveled to face the rest of the ladies in the room.
“Prince Cailan is down in the courtyard,” she replied, hoping that invoking the prince’s name would keep her out of any breach of etiquette.
Isolde tilted her head. “Do you know the prince?”
Moira glanced at her mother before answering. “Not well, my lady. We’ve only met a handful of times.” And honestly, she didn’t quite care for Cailan. He was nice enough whenever they had spoken, but she could tell that he hadn’t really known how to approach her when he had seen her wearing her brother’s old clothes while she tagged along or hadn’t known just how much his suggestion for her to run along and play with dolls had bothered her. She didn’t even own any dolls; her toy chest held wooden swords and daggers instead of stuffed animals.
“It is always nice to get to know others,” Isolde said indulgently. “Perhaps if your mothers allow it, you and Dedire would like to join him.”
Moira glanced at Delilah and her mother, noting how the latter’s lips had thinned out into a fine line when the Arlessa called Delilah by the wrong name. “That is a lovely idea. I’m certain that my Nathaniel is down there as well.” The words came out of Arlessa Howe’s mouth in a pleasant manner, but even Moira could detect the hint of steel behind them. Given a reprieve from the sitting room, both Delilah and Moira curtseyed to Isolde before leaving.
“Such pleasant children,” Isolde said as they went to the door. “Eleanor, surely you must know what a match Moira is for Cailan.”
“I thought we’d never get to leave,” Moira whispered out of the corner of her mouth as both girls walked down the stairs and towards the courtyard. She had heard the Arlessa’s parting words and was busy mulling them over. Even though she was only twelve, she was well aware what Isolde meant by being a good match to the prince. Lady Landra often mentioned the same thing to Moira’s mother whenever they talked about her son Dairren. So far, both of Moira’s parents had deflected well-meaning hints with good humor, but Moira knew that she had at least four more years before she’d wind up betrothed to some Bann’s son or another.
And if she was honest with herself, Moira desperately hoped that Nathaniel would want to court her by then. Fergus was far too observant for his own good; Moira had felt fondly about Nathaniel for a little over two years now, though she didn’t know how to express her feelings into words just yet.
She took a breath as she and Delilah entered the gardens. Cailan spied them first, and Moira had to admit that he was a very handsome boy. “Moira! It’s a pleasure to finally see you again,” he said, bowing to her. “And Delilah, it’s good to see you as well.”
Moira gave a deep curtsey, knowing that her form wasn’t as straight as Delilah’s. “You look well, your Highness,” she said, looking over Cailan’s shoulder towards Nathaniel. He was standing there with a faint scowl on his face, making Moira wonder what had upset him so. She would have asked him, but Cailan held out his arm. “Come, let’s tour the gardens together.”
Nathaniel sat in the shade, trying and failing to ignore the way Cailan had all but taken Moira’s attention all to himself. They were making a second round of the gardens, and something the prince had said made Moira laugh.
“You’re brooding,” Fergus said, flopping down beside him, careful not to wake Thomas.
“I’m not brooding.”
Fergus snorted. “Pull the other leg. I know what’s got you in a state.”
Nathaniel picked at a nearby patch of flowers. “I’m not in a state.”
Fergus ignored his friend’s reply. “You’re jealous, that’s what.”
“I’m not…” he paused. “I’m what?”
“Our Moira usually clings to you like a burr. Since she and your sister have come down here, she hasn’t paid you any attention.” He leaned back on his elbows and arched his eyebrow. “What do you think of that?”
“I…” He scowled. Cailan was the exact opposite of himself – where Nathaniel was quiet and serious, the prince was talkative and quick to make a joke. Nathaniel found himself glaring at Cailan’s back. They wore their hair in a similar fashion, but even then they were a study of contrasts with the prince’s golden head shining in the sunlight and Nathaniel’s darker one blending into the shadows.
He frowned at the way Moira smiled up at Cailan. She never smiled like that at him before. “They are a good match,” he said slowly.
Fergus snorted again. “Are you completely insane?” he asked. “Could you see Moira as Queen? Ferelden would fall apart!”
“So what do you want me to do?” Nathaniel asked, looking at his sister. Even Delilah was staring up at the young prince as if every word that spilled out of his mouth was poetry.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you court my sister instead?”
Nathaniel turned his head to look at Fergus. “She’s twelve.”
“And in three more years, she’ll be fifteen.” Fergus lay back on the grass and stared up at the clouds. “Mother and Father have done their best to weed out potential suitors already, but the ones that are left don’t deserve Moira. You’ve known her the longest; out of everyone, I would rather have you as a brother-in-law.”
“You’re just saying that because I’m your friend.” Nathaniel wondered just why he was protesting; wasn’t this what his father wanted in the first place? A marriage to the Teyrn’s daughter would cement their place in society and give the Howe family coffers a sizeable boost with the dowry she’d bring in. That’s what his father had always harped on, but Nathaniel lately found that tactic leaving a sour taste in his mouth. He didn’t want to marry for money, he’d always wanted to marry a girl that he could respect and admire.
Moira laughed again and Nathaniel couldn’t help but notice that her laughter seemed restrained, almost as if she were afraid to laugh as she normally did, lest the prince decide she was unsuitable. He frowned; Moira deserved to be with someone who liked her as she was; not how they wanted her to be.
“You are jealous,” Fergus teased, stacking his hands behind his head. “Oh, Moira’s going to love hearing this!”
“You wouldn’t dare.” He considered Moira a friend. While he might not feel anything remotely romantic towards her, he did respect her thoughts and he enjoyed her company.
“I don’t know. I might.”
Nathaniel frowned. “You’re just saying that because you know I can’t do anything to retaliate.” Protocol dictated that Nathaniel defer to everyone of higher rank than he, which meant that he had to agree with whatever Fergus or Cailan said, no matter how much he might think otherwise. Even in the privacy of the gardens, Nathaniel couldn’t kick his friend because Thomas was sound asleep with his head on top of Nathaniel’s knee. His little brother had been so excited to travel via the family carriage that he hadn’t slept the entire trip. Now that they were at their destination, the lack of sleep finally caught up to him. Nathaniel absently ran his fingers through the fine strands of hair that curled over Thomas’ neck. It was odd; he and Delilah both had thick, inky black hair since birth, but Thomas’ was a dark brown that showed off reddish highlights whenever the sun hit it. As far as he knew, no one in the family had that color of hair.
“And I’m using that to my advantage,” Fergus agreed, brining Nathaniel’s attention back to the present. “I love my sister, Nate. All I’ve ever wanted is for her to be happy. You make her happy.”
“My friendship with your sister means a lot to me,” he replied. “My friendship with the both of you means a lot to me.”
Fergus sat up and lightly punched his friend’s arm. “Come on, let’s go rescue Cailan.”
Nathaniel eased his brother’s head off his knee. Thomas didn’t stir. “I don’t think the prince needs rescuing.”
Fergus brushed loose pieces of grass off his pants. “Then let’s liberate the girls. He’s been hogging their attention for far too long.”
Dinner with the Couslands was always an interesting affair, in Delilah’s opinion. Whenever Father had guests for dinner back home, she and her brothers would eat in the kitchens with Adria. Pretty soon, Nathaniel would be invited to the adult table, seeing that he was going to turn fifteen in the winter. Arl Eamon seemed to follow Teyrn Bryce’s example and had no children’s table to speak of. The five of them were seated amongst the adults, which left Delilah feeling out of sorts, especially when the Arl and his brother Teagan struck up conversations with the children as if they were equals. A quick glance at her mother told her that she was expected to be on her finest behavior and anything less would be frowned upon.
Delilah carefully sipped her water, smiling quietly at Moira from across the table. Moira might be older than she was, but Delilah had always considered her a sister of sorts. She envied her sometimes: Moira had a wide scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose from being allowed outside in the sun. Delilah’s own milky pale skin would have burnt to a crisp if she was out of doors as much as her friend was and she was positive that her dark hair wouldn’t look as pretty with sun-bleached streaks of red and blonde as Moira’s did.
At least the prince had left for the evening. Delilah had a horrible crush on Cailan and it was all she could do to keep her cheeks from permanently blushing. She was proud of herself; it seemed as if no one had caught on to her little infatuation yet. Logically, she knew that she was far on the list of potential wives for the prince, especially since Teyrn Loghain’s daughter Anora as well as Moira were higher up. She was fine with that. Father would more than likely arrange a marriage for her to a suitable Bann’s son when the time came for such matters and she would be the model wife, just how her mother had instructed her to be.
She only hoped that the man she married lived by the sea. She loved making trips to the beach with Adria and she’d be heartbroken if she had to live further inland.
Next to his sister, Nathaniel replied to Arl Eamon’s question as to how his archery skills were progressing. Dinner was interesting, to say the least, even if it was more restrained than the usual dinners when it was just Fergus’ family and his in Highever. He glanced across the table, watching as Moira spoke with her father and Teagan about the sword lessons she was beginning to take. Nathaniel knew about them, but he was amazed that Teyrn Bryce would allow his daughter to be taught such skills. A woman knight was not unheard of in Ferelden, especially in the common classes, but it was rare for a noblewoman to draw a weapon.
On Nathaniel’s other side, he could all but feel the wave of disapproval come off his father. Nathaniel had no idea if it was because of the prince’s earlier visit, or the fact that Moira was currently gesturing with her butter knife as she spoke, or even because Teagan was paying such close attention to the Teyrn’s daughter. Nathaniel doubted that the last was the case; there was an age difference of thirteen years between Moira and Teagan. But still, Teagan was more than likely going to become the Bann of Rainesfere in a few years…
That thought made Nathaniel cut through his portion of roast beef with just a little more force than necessary.
Hours later, Nathaniel lay awake in the guest room the Arl had supplied for him. Delilah and Thomas were sleeping in Adria’s room and Fergus was sharing another room with Moira, so the large four poster bed was his for the remainder of their stay. It was far larger than anything he’d ever slept in, even in Highever when he shared Fergus’ room on visits, and he found that having such a wide ocean of bedclothes all to himself was making sleeping difficult.
He flopped onto his back and stared up at the canopy overhead. Remember what I told you, his father had instructed when they first came into Denerim. The prince is bound to show an interest in Moira. You must do whatever is necessary to make certain that interest is brief. It would be easy to do, he knew it. All he had to do was make sure that she slipped and showed that she wasn’t the prim and proper girl that Cailan thought she was. He wouldn’t even have to do anything past vaguely goading her into behaving like she usually did. One glance would probably be enough to snap her temper, especially since he saw how strained her smile had been when Cailan mentioned how accomplished she should be at sewing or painting and how much Moira had wanted to participate in the boys’ conversation about Grey Wardens. Nathaniel figured that given the opportunity, he could probably have Moira back to her old self - tangled hair, skinned knees and all – in less than an afternoon. Then Cailan would lose interest, Father would be pleased, and Fergus would stop talking about Nathaniel courting his sister just to keep her away from suitors that he didn’t approve of.
Nathaniel frowned. He had a clear idea now as to what his father had planned all those years ago when he had first met the Cousland children, and yet again, he found that the idea of tricking Moira or sabotaging her prospects in any way felt wrong. She was his friend, first and foremost. He wouldn’t do that to her, no matter how disappointed his father would be in him.
The creak at the bedroom door made him turn his head. “I couldn’t sleep,” Moira told him as she slipped inside, closing the door behind her. Her feet were bare, but she had a thick robe on over her nightgown to ward off the nighttime chill. “Why are you still awake?”
He sat up in bed. “I couldn’t sleep either. Do you want to talk about it?”
Moira climbed into bed, her feet cold as they brushed against his legs while she struggled with the sheets. “I don’t want to be Queen,” she declared, laying on her side. “Arlessa Isolde thinks that it is a grand idea and Mama doesn’t seem too much against it either.”
Nathaniel was going to say something, but Moira cut him off. “You know what that means, don’t you? It means that I’m going to spend the rest of my life smiling politely at stupid comments about the weather instead of talking about fighting and battles and laughing at jokes that I don’t really get and wearing dresses, for Andraste’s sake! I’ll probably be made to quit my fencing lessons in exchange for etiquette classes and everything!” She flipped onto her back and threw her arm over her eyes. The quiet demeanor she’d shown the entire day was gone and he was faced with Moira in full tantrum-mode. He’d never been so grateful to see it before. As usual, her outbursts never lasted very long and her expression turned pensive. “The worst thing is that Cailan isn’t a bad person. I could grow to like him, perhaps even come to think fondly of him, but I don’t think that I could ever love him.”
Moira turned so that she was facing Nathaniel again. “What do you think I should do? I know that it’s too soon for everyone to think of marriage, but what happens in three or four years? What then?”
Nathaniel reached out and pushed a lock of hair out of Moira’s face. “Then don’t be Queen. Marry whoever makes you happy that doesn’t mind having a wife who rarely wears dresses and can best him at swordplay.”
“It’s as simple as that?”
“I don’t see why it couldn’t be.”
She scooted over until her head was pillowed on his shoulder. “You’re a good friend, Nate. The only nice thing about living in Denerim would have been that the trip to and from Amaranthine would have been quicker.”
He rolled his eyes even as he moved his arm so that she was curled under it instead of lying on top of it. “It’s a good thing that you’ve decided against becoming royalty. I don’t know if I’d be able to remember to call you ‘your Majesty’ every five minutes.”
Moira smothered a laugh against his chest. “Of course you would. You’re polite to a fault.”
“Only because I have to make up for your lack of grace, as well as your brother’s.”
“Our lack of grace is only part of our charm, good Ser. You wouldn’t like us so much otherwise.” She put her hand up to hide a yawn. “I should get back to my room.”
“You should. Fergus would worry if he wakes and finds you missing.” Both of them knew that Fergus could sleep through anything, so that wasn’t really an issue. He tightened his arm around her shoulder. Relief that he wasn’t going to lose his friend to a royal marriage years down the line made the worry that had kept him awake vanish.
Moira nodded, but let Nathaniel go only long enough to pull the blankets higher up over them. Snuggling closer, she sighed. “It would be entirely improper of me to stay the night.”
He waited until he heard her breathing even out in slumber before letting his eyelids droop. His last thought before he drifted off was that doing something improper had never felt so right.