The oaths of fealty

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5. Divided Loyalties

The main hall of the Vigil's Keep is filled with colours: purple and white, black on crimson, yellow gold on emerald green. All the colours of heraldry, in combinations he was carefully taught in childhood.

His father's vassals and retainers.

All have gathered to swear their oath of fealty to the new Arl.

Most of his life, Nathaniel believed that it would be him in whose hands the oath will be pledged.

"The occasion may be perceived as humiliating for you – if not by yourself, then by others. I do not insist on your presence."

Dressed in a plain grey tabard, with the emblem of the rampant griffon on his chest, Nathaniel stands next to the dais with the Arl's chair, carefully maintaining his posture relaxed and his face unmoved. The Howe banners, the great shield of Tobias Howe, who served to King Calenhad, are all gone, replaced by the Wardens' symbols. The portraits of his ancestors remained, though, for some reason: the mixture of the old and new give the room a dream-like atmosphere, as if he was to wake soon, to find things back as they were, as they should be.

As if father was just about to enter through the main door and hold a court hearing like he had seen him countless times.

"I am yours to command."

The Commander rolls his eyes. "I command you to make up your own mind."

And Nathaniel can but curse his own stupidity.

Every now and then, he feels Anders' eyes on him; the mage stands on the opposite side of the dais, his outfit not revealing his profession for once, since he is wearing the same Grey Warden tabard. For once, he even keeps his mouth shut.

There are more curious eyes watching him; Nathaniel has no doubts that neither his identity nor his endeavour remained concealed from the ever-plotting nobles. If but a single person knew or recognized him, all of them were bound to know even before the ceremony started proper.

A part of him finds the curiosity amusing, in an ironic way.

The main door opens once again. Varel enters, bearing the ceremonial staff. "Warden-Commander Ned Cousland, the Arl of Amaranthine!" he announces.

The Commander walks down the lane, to the dais. He is also wearing grey with the griffin symbol, but his doublet is of fine velvet, embroidered with silver; cuts in his sleeves showing the black tunic underneath. He bears himself proudly, the Arl by every inch; it never ceases to amaze Nathaniel what impression the man can create when he chooses to.

And he cannot help but think of his father, whom he saw walk like this countless times; proud of the name Howe and what it meant in Ferelden.

"Behave yourself, Nathaniel! Straighten up, do not cow! Maker, how do you ever intend to replace me if you bear yourself like this!"

How very ironic that it was not Nathaniel's conduct but the father's that brought about their downfall in the end.

Whatever that conduct was.

The history may have been written by victors, but at least they will not see Nathaniel Howe cow from anything.

And so he stands there, exposed to the prying eyes, and watches his father's banns and knights kneel and pledge their fealty into the hands of Ned Cousland, and with the every single oath he accepts, the man kills his father over and over.

The colours in the hall blur before his eyes. Nathaniel sees none of the ceremony anymore, focused on holding back tears. Breathe in, breathe out…

Quit whining, Nathaniel Howe. You had a chance to back out, you didn't. Bear the consequences.

Stubbornness and pride got him here, stubbornness and pride have to get him through.

Breathe in, breathe out.

And then it's finally over.

The easier part, that is. Nathaniel takes one more controlled breath, in expectation of things to come.

"However, if you do choose to be present, I expect you to report to me afterwards."

"What about?"

"Everything. Your position here is bound to draw attention."

As the nobles disperse and the Commander merges in the crowd, the first contact is a matter of seconds. Is that truly you, Nathaniel, how surprising, almost did not recognize you, how very unfortunate, your father's demise, uhm

To Nathaniel's surprise, the concern is sometimes even genuine; unsurprisingly, the curiosity is always genuine, and so is the barely concealed derision in some eyes.

Mighty Rendon Howe's son serves his father's murderer, what a lovely irony. His pulse speeds up but he is not going to provide them the satisfaction. Inconspicuously, he sinks his nails into his palms while he calmly converses and one face follows another. Most pleased to see you, too, dear Lord, and how is your Lady wife? I hope to have the pleasure soon, yes, I am staying indefinitely; yes an unexpected twist, I am sure; no, not at all; oh, you're so kind to have asked, thanks you for your condolences; no, probably not, that hardly matters now; I am not sure I see your point; concerning my purpose here

"Nathaniel has already proved his worth." The Commander appears out of nowhere, and cuts short Lady Packton's overly inquisitive investigation. "The Wardens are honoured by his presence in their ranks."

"That is… most gracious of you, my Lord. Given the circumstances…"

"Blame and worth should be perceived where they lie." The minute change in Cousland's tone causes Packton's square face turn an ugly red. With great effort, she composes a barely adequate reply and quickly takes her leave. With a wry 'I've told you' look, Cousland disappears in the crowd again.

Awkward as it may feel, being saved by Cousland, the minutes to come make Nathaniel feel in need of aid again, come it from where it may.

"Nathaniel? It is you, is it not?"

"Yes, my Lady." What a surprise, after half the hall have come to ask the same.

Bann Esmerelle has put on some weight and the wrinkles in the corners of her cat-like eyes are more prominent, yet she still moves with equal feline grace. "My dear boy… accept my sincerest condolences." Her voice is low, as if she was telling a dirty secret.

"Thank you, my Lady." The slight bow is the best he can master.

"I had no idea you were here," she continues in the same conspiratory tone. "Were you truly so desperate as to end here? I thought you knew who your father's friends were."

And who his whores were. "My standing was rather insecure, and I did not wish to compromise anyone." Or be sold to get you a boon with Cousland.

"That was commendable, though probably unnecessary, given your current… status." There is but the slightest hint of contempt as Esmerelle looks over the griffin on his chest and raises her eyes to the Warden standards above them. Pretending to study the emblems, she adds, barely moving her mouth. "Or were you forced into this?"

"Forced by the circumstances, if I may say so," Nathaniel chooses to reply in a casual conversational tone. "As the last Howe, it is my duty to start rebuilding the family reputation."

Esmerelle turns her head abruptly. "The last? Has anything befallen to darling Delilah?"

Nathaniel stares at her, at a loss, and Esmerelle gasps and clasps her hands. "Oh, I never realized… you know nothing of your family, do you?"

"No." His voice is terse and rasp, and though he is almost sure that Esmerelle knows all too well what she is doing, he still cannot help but ask: "Do you per chance know aught of them?"

"My dear boy…" The sympathy in Esmerelle's face is almost, almost convincing. "Then mine is the sad duty to tell you that Thomas is dead; he fought in the war and died bravely, honouring his name. Your sister Delilah…" she pauses, pressing her lips, "Delilah lives in Amaranthine."

"Delilah lives?" She lives, Maker be blessed. She lives… "How – How is she?" The momentary surge of joy recedes as he realizes that Esmerelle is watching him with predatory contentment. "How is my sister faring?" he asks again, more calmly.

Esmerelle cocks her head. "I cannot truly say – she never deemed it worthwhile to speak to me of her intentions or whereabouts, and I certainly did not intend to obtrude." A little pout makes her mouth seem even smaller. "All I can say is that she certainly keeps strange company, for one of her standing… as you do. I can't imagine what your father would have said."

The arrow is fired with deadly precision, and striking a spot Nathaniel has been avoiding carefully.

Forgive me, father. "In case it escaped your attention, my Lady, father is dead and condemned as a traitor." The words hurt even as he utters them, yet there is no other way he can save his face and shut the harpy's mouth. "And though you may think differently, I have found an honourable way to redeem our name."

"By serving the man who killed your father." Esmerelle's voice is very calm and soft, the green eyes intent on him.

"By serving the man who stopped the Blight and saved us all." The clenched fists hurt, but he will not cow from anything, not even as he feels his cheeks flush. "By serving the man worthy of respect. My personal feelings… do not matter here."

Esmerelle watches him a little longer, with her eyes narrowed, then she slowly nods. "I hope then that your… expectations… do not fail you. – Whatever they are," she adds with a tiny smile. She puts briefly her well-kept hand on his shoulder. "Fare well, Nathaniel, in your… choice. You must know best what you are doing. I sincerely hope so."

As she leaves, her robe in green and amaranth violet, the colours of the plant that gave the city its name, rustles like leaves in the wind.

The dinner that follows takes ages.

Nathaniel is unexpectedly grateful for being seated far at the lower end of the table, in a safe distance from other inquisitors; he is even grateful for the increased appetite which allows him to mouth down enough food so as not to raise suspicion. He is seated next to Anders, who barely ever closes his mouth, indulged in an almost constant flow of speech which makes up for Nathaniel's silence.

"She keeps strange company... I can't imagine what your father would have said..."

He would have said that I betrayed him and everything he ever stood for.