In the viper's nest.
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19. Mind War
The music is soft and unobtrusive, the servants skilful and attentive. The food is delicious, the cups of exquisite Orlesian glass, the wine the best Starkhaven brand, though somewhat too rich for Nathaniel's liking.
Nothing in the room is to his liking, in fact, and their hostess, beaming with smiles and glittering with gold and emeralds at the head of the table, the least of all.
"You would actually accept? Dine with that – that viper who nearly got us all killed?" Anders is not the only one to express his disbelief, only the fastest, as usually.
The answer comes with that little innocent smile Ned Cousland uses to soothe his opponents. "Why not? Whatever I think of the said viper, she is no fool. Her house is probably the safest place under the sun right now. She has much and more to fear if she makes a mistake, and once we have eaten of her bread and salt, she won't take any risk that we might come to harm under her roof".
"But she wants you dead!"
"Wishful thinking hasn't achieved the effect so far. – That said, do take care, though. There's no reason to give the viper a chance."
Taking a small sip of his wine, Nathaniel inconspicuously touches the bracelet tightly fitting to his wrist under the sleeve. The runestone remains as cold as before, throughout the whole dinner. No poison in the cups today, but the food and drink still stick in his throat.
What are you up to?
After Esmerelle expressed the necessary consternation at the dramatic circumstances of the Commander's arrival in Amaranthine – horrible, my Lord, truly horrible what we face these days – she switched to smalltalk: easily flowing and meaningless, exactly the sort which makes for a good atmosphere at feasts.
And Ned Cousland, being the social charmer he is, seems to be gladly contributing.
Nathaniel himself rather welcomes the opportunity to remain silent and watchful, while Esmerelle's cronies participate to the extent their wits allow them: not much, in the case of Ser Timothy. Seated next to Nathaniel, the man's constant nodding constitutes a good excuse why Nathaniel doesn't have to participate. The remaining two, Ser Tamra and Ser Temmerly, seated opposite, each carefully bid their chance to quip in and earn themselves recognition.
Tamra and Temmerly. Despite the resemblance in their names, the contrast between the two is particularly enhanced as they sit side by side. Tamra is slender and elegant, almost attractive, with her glossy blonde hair and green eyes, but a face a wee bit narrow. Temmerly is a bulk of a man: broad shoulders, broad face… even with his height, which far exceeds the average, he is simply… broad.
Little wonder he is called The Ox.
The Ox and the Weasel.
Every now and then, Nathaniel sees Tamra's eyes shoot quick glances around, keeping her lips shut tightly between her turns, as if to prevent a secret from escaping.
More often than not, these glances are directed at the Commander… or Nathaniel himself: a fact that he finds somewhat disturbing, together with the way Tamra tugs at her napkin or sleeves every now and then whenever her attention is directed elsewhere.
Nervous. The woman is nervous, though she is trying to conceal it.
Apart from that, she also twitches whenever Oghren produces a belch.
"That ain't a good idea, Commander." Oghren, uncharacteristically uneasy, shuffles his feet. "I, er, well… give me a good measure of ale and a chunk of somethin' to bite on, but them noble feasts… Don't wanna cause trouble, Commander."
"Trouble?" Ned raises his brows. "You? I'm sure our good Bann will show understanding for the dwarves' different habits at the table. Just, don't comment on the qualities of her bosom or other parts, like you did to Wynne, otherwise you need not restrain yourself at all. In fact, I don't even want you to, and I'm sure neither would Esmerelle herself. You're a guest, so just be yourself."
As it seems, Oghren has taken up fulfilling the command to the letter: belching, gurgling, occasionally roaring with laughter at a joke only himself seems to understand, much to the dismay of the rest of Esmerelle's household, seated at the lower end of the table. The dwarf has apparently come to enjoy his role, especially as Anders remains somewhat reticent for this once, and Oghren rules the field.
Unlike the mage, Nathaniel makes sure that his own face remains perfectly undisturbed whenever Oghren breaches on the etiquette.
The way the muscle on Esmerelle's jaw tightens ever so slightly at each such occasion is almost endearing.
Stewing in your own fury, are we? I just hope you didn't serve the same vintage all around the table – given the pace at which Oghren is emptying his cups, he is nicely drinking through your supplies.
Besides, there's a good chance that he'll throw on the table, or on that pretty Orlaisian carpet.
For all her annoyance, though, it seems that Esmerelle has found the time ripe to pursue her main interest: the conversation has returned to the events at the gate.
"A shame, my Lord, truly a shame." Esmerelle places her hand above her heart. "Even more so that the fault is partly with me, I must confess…" A sigh, and fluttering of lashes. "With full trust, I placed the responsibility for taking care of the refugees in Constable Aidan's hands, and despite his previous achievements, the man has failed me most miserably."
Lying through your teeth, milady. When it comes to putting weight in either Esmerelle's or Constable's words, Nathaniel has no doubt where the truth lies. Pretty white teeth, for a woman of your age, but lying nonetheless.
A fist in those teeth would do.
The Commander keeps nodding most sympathetically to her detailed account of her troubles with Constable Aidan, and finally, Esmerelle puts her small hand on his sleeve. "I was so sorry to hear you were injured, my Lord… it was a complete failure on Aidan's part that he was unable to ensure the safety of our liege. I assure you this will not happen again. My word has its weight in the city council and I will have the man removed at once."
Nathaniel would almost applaud her. Plotting against the Commander and removing the man who was a pain in the ass for your little smuggling friends and for yourself in one move. Splendid, milady. Did you figure out that it was Aidan who turned the Commander's attention towards that lot of yours?
Ned produces one of those charming smiles of his and leaning towards her, he places his hand over the Banns. "By no means, milady."
Once, Nathaniel watched a fat self-confident cat walk across the yard to grab hold of an unwary chick, only to have its prey snatched away by a falcon suddenly stooping from the height. The cat's expression then remarkably resembled Esmerelle's.
"Dear Lady." The Commander's voice is brimming with sympathy. "By having Aidan removed, you would admit that you were at fault yourself. The man is well respected in Amaranthine but it is widely understood that he does not act under his own authority in this. If you intervened, you would be perceived as looking for a scapegoat, and I will not have your name besmirched. Surely, our good Constable did not perform in his task as well as I would have expected, so I assume he could use some support in his uneasy position. I have already made the necessary arrangements with the city council, to establish a fund for sheltering the refugees, as well as raising the city guard's wages to allow Aidan to expand their ranks. – No, do not thank me," he stops the Bann as she opens her mouth, "I know you were going to do the same once you learned how critical the situation has become. I have promised the Council your full support and that you will supply half the funding, as your gentle heart beckons you." Taking Esmerelle's hands, he brings it to his lips. "Thank you, milady."
Nathaniel does not laugh, though he'd much want to. He does not even snicker, only raises his cup in a silent toast to Esmerelle. His gesture is immediately taken up by the Commander. "To the Bann!"
Esmerelle's blush thus can be attributed to the praise. The twitch of her mouth when Oghren finishes the toast with a loud gurgle, seems almost natural. So does her silence, when the Commander takes to entertain the company with the latest court gossip. Resting her chin on her entwined fingers, she watches him with a properly pleased expression of a vassal who has just been praised by her liege.
Yet, it seems to Nathaniel that every now and then, another expression appears behind the smiling mask.
The cat has pawed at a chick, and found out it was a falcon. He takes another sip of his wine, watching the Bann over the brim of the cup. Could she really have made such a mistake?
Looking at Ned, smiling and nonchalantly leaning in his chair, Nathaniel realizes that she probably did.
An average young man, far from formidable to look at… quite the contrary, in fact. Nathaniel's memory of Teyrna Eleanor is rather vague, yet he is quite sure that her son's fine features reflect her face rather than Bryce's, though devoid of the striking beauty that she possessed. If it weren't for a scar or two and a certain gauntness of the cheeks, the Hero of Ferelden might easily be labelled as cute.
Especially when he is smiling like that.
A social charmer proficient with his sword. Did she really think that this was all there was to him?
After all, she never saw that seemingly harmless face changed with determination… never saw a violent emotion in it, held back by the will of steel.
The man who defied – and defeated – Loghain, built an army from scrap and put his sword through the Archdemon's skull.
It seems, milady, that you spent the war safely behind your walls and never fully realized what impossible odds he had to overcome to get where he is now. You tried to bite, and he bit back where it hurts you most. Consider this a fair warning, you won't be getting another. Step back and keep low… because if you stick out that scheming head of yours too far, he'll cut it off without hesitation.
Then, a belated realization dawns on him. But why scheme against Cousland at all? What do you expect to gain?
In frustration over his own folly, Nathaniel barely stops himself from gritting his teeth aloud. The years-long dislike of Esmerelle clouded his reason: he gladly jumped at the subtle leads to her person, and never stopped to consider her motives.
Truly, why? Will the blow to her purse cow her, or only fuel her determination?
Racking his brain over their encounters, he has to admit that he has no clue.
As if drawn by his thoughts, Esmerelle smiles at him and leans to address him, the first time since they were seated, while the Commander is engaged in conversation with Ser Temmerly. "I had a full report of what transpired at the gate. You acted most bravely, Nathaniel. If it weren't for your intervention…"
Nathaniel is already becoming tired of the farce, and religion has always been a convenient resort. "The Maker placed me where I could be of best use," he retorts. "Him be praised, not me."
"He placed you, but the effort was yours. You needn't have acted the way you did."
Eat it, viper. I won't be dancing to your tune. "But of course I had to, milady. Couslands are somewhat rare these days, and I won't have their ranks diminished any further than Father already did." May he rot in the Fade for that.
Esmerelle's eyes are cold like her emeralds, as if she could sense what remained unsaid. "The Commander is lucky then to have you by his side," she concludes before she turns to Ser Timothy on her left. "Maker watch over you both."