An aftermath of the oaths of fealty, with some unexpected outcomes
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The fresh wind blowing over the battlement soon pierces to the bone, yet Nathaniel keeps staring into the darkness, in the direction of Amaranthine. He retreated here in hope that the solitude might help him calm his mind, yet the hope failed him miserably. The ceremony, the prying questions, Esmerelle’s cat-like eyes inquiring into his soul…
He is lost so deep in incoherent thoughts that he totally misses Anders’ arrival. “Wow, never imagined that I might sneak to you,” the mage chuckles at his startle, but his comment lacks the former edge. “The Commander asks if you are fit to see him now. – I could tell him you were in an imminent need of beauty sleep, if you wish.”
Never cow from anything… “I’m fine,” Nathaniel grunts, probably not very convincingly, as the mage raises his brows but, most fortunately, remains silent.
As he approaches the Commander’s door – Delilah’s door – there is a sound of raised voices. “You certainly needn’t remind me of the consequences of my father’s misplaced trust!” he overhears just as he is about to knock.
When he enters, Cousland is still glaring at Varel, who doesn’t seem disquieted in the least. Both are holding a cup of wine, half empty; a third cup, already filled, is standing in front of an empty chair to which Cousland beckons Nathaniel.
Grudgingly, he takes the seat but leaves the cup untouched; his thoughts are disorganized enough as they are. “Commander.”
Ned Cousland nods to him. “I hope you do not mind being summoned at this late hour, but, as I have said, there are things concerning today’s event that I need to discuss with you.”
Bloody well important smalltalk. “I’m afraid I will not be able to relay every conversation precisely.”
Cousland chuckles. “I certainly do not expect you to, and it’s unnecessary, I got the picture as I went by. Who was that overzealous crone, by the way? I keep confusing the lot.”
“Lady Lisa Packton.”
“She tends to jump at an opportunity whenever she sees one,” Varel fills in. “She’s of no real importance, though she would love to.”
“Interesting. Is she someone’s pet?”
“Esmerelle’s, I suppose, though not openly.”
Cousland responds with a smirk this time, while Nathaniel keeps wondering why he was summoned. The Commander, though, takes his time, sipping the wine and watching Nathaniel over the brim of his cup. Finally, he says: “What I wanted to ask you is this: of all that rubbish you had to go through, did any conversation deviate from more than simple curiosity?”
“Your sister keeps a strange company.” “I’m not sure what you would like to hear.”
Cousland produces one more smile, yet his eyes over the brim are sharp as daggers. “As you may have overheard, we had a little disagreement here. Our good seneschal is not sure whether you should be briefed in; however, I’ve decided to take the risk.” He drinks from his cup again, his eyes never leaving Nathaniel. “The thing is that I was warned of a brewing conspiracy among my freshly sworn vassals, aiming for nothing less than my very life. Do you happen to be privy to such intentions, Nathaniel?”
Chill and heat war over his body, and it is the heat of his hurt pride that prevails. “Just how base do you think I am? Do you think so lowly of me as to presume that I have given up my revenge only to become a puppet in someone else’s plans? I hardly expect trust or affection from you but do not at least slight my dignity!”
His outburst leaves Cousland unaffected. “I do not intend to slight you, and I do trust your common sense.”
“I am certainly honoured,” Nathaniel grunts.
“Don’t be. I’m telling you mostly for your own sake.” Seeing Nathaniel’s frown, he explains: “If this rumour is true and there will be an attempt on me, you are in a perfect position for a scapegoat.”
The realization dawns on Nathaniel even before the sentence is finished, and Cousland smirks again. “Yes. The lovely irony that it is now in your best interest to watch my back is certainly not lost on me. However, now that the cards are laid on the table, I must repeat my question: did any conversation deviate from more than simple curiosity?”
“Your sister…” “No. None of the kind.”
Ned Cousland, though, is hard to fool. “And of other?”
Nathaniel carefully measures his words. “A personal matter.” He hesitates. “I’ve learned that my sister Delilah lives… lives in Amaranthine.”
Cousland raises his brows. “Well, that is certainly good news. You would like to see her before we leave for the Wending Wood, I presume? That should be easy to arrange, there is still enough time left.”
Baffled, Nathaniel stares at him. “You – you would actually let me see her?”
Loudly, Cousland places his cup on the desk. “Nathaniel,” he says, his annoyance uncharacteristically obvious, “just how base do you think I am? Why should I wish to prevent you from a reunion with your sister?”
You prevented me from a reunion with my father, after all. Nathaniel downcasts his eyes. No, he doesn’t think Cousland base, yet he truly expects no goodwill from him. He abruptly raises his eyes, startled, as Cousland suddenly reaches over the desk and briefly touches his hand. “Never mind. Let’s consider this a misunderstanding and carry on, shall we? – It wouldn’t be wise to travel alone, so take a couple of Garavel’s men along.” A pause. “Bring Delilah here, if she will.”
For eternity, Nathaniel stares back at the man, sure that his ears must be playing tricks on him – or that he is being played tricks on.
“Why?” he manages in the end, feeling suddenly something inside dangerously close to breaking. Why are you so damned kind?
Cousland briefly looks somewhere past him. “Once I claimed I would not pursue my revenge beyond the person of the one who harmed me. Seeing you bear the brunt of consequences of something you had no part in brings me no satisfaction, and though such is the custom of our time, you were right that it shouldn’t be so. Besides, you are my responsibility now, and it is well within my powers to ease your lot, so I will.” He makes a gesture towards the door. “I mean it, Nathaniel. Go talk to Garavel before he retires to bed, so that you can make your arrangements and set out in the morning.”
“I…” Maker, I cannot. Nathaniel musters the remainder of his strength. “I hope that you will not think me an ingrate but… I – I’d prefer to go on my own, at a later date.” Especially on my own. He clasps his hands to prevent them from shaking and lowers his eyes again, unable to withstand the scrutinizing gazes.
“I hope you do not think I’m offering you this only to have you both in my hands,” Cousland says softly.
The thought is nauseating, but within a heartbeat Nathaniel realizes that he never considered this possibility plausible. “No, I do not,” he replies. “It is only… it seems that my sister…” Keeps strange company.”… has settled for a new life and I do not wish to disquiet her by my sudden appearance.”
To his left, Varel moves and clears his throat. “Nathaniel… what exactly is it that you learned about Delilah?”
Nathaniel keeps staring down but there is no escape: there is no way he can prevent them from investigating and learning on their own. His mouth is dry and the wine seems very compelling now but he is loath to show any more weakness. “I was informed that my sister… maintains a company unworthy of her status. I’d like to find out what that means before… beforehand.”
“That is a rather peculiar thing to say,” Ned Cousland remarks, turning the empty cup in his fingers. “Who was it that expressed such an opinion?”
“And she told you no details? Even more peculiar. Does she have a grudge with you or your sister?”
“She seemed upset that Delilah did not seek her aid, but otherwise no, none I would know of.”
“And in what… standing… was she with your father?”
“On good terms.” And why do you ask if she spread her legs for him if you apparently know already?
Cousland slightly twist his lips. “Good enough to wish me dead?”
“I do not believe she would go to such lengths. She is an opportunist: if you do not touch her venues and even grant her a chance to multiply them, she will be all yours.” Literally.
Varel shifts again. “There were rumours of Esmerelle getting handsome coin out of the smuggling business in the city. If you do intend to carry out your plan against the smugglers, she might actually have a reason.”
“She would have to know my intentions in the first place. – But we’re digressing. For what reason should the viper tell Nathaniel what she did, the way she did, other than harass him needlessly?”
Was Esmerelle truly intending something? “As you have said yourself, she is a viper.”
“Vipers generally don’t strike without a cause. – Though, it is at least good to know who we are dealing with. The question remains, what do you wish to do about your sister? It would be certainly desirable to find out, it is well possible that she might be in need of help.”
“I believe this can be easily arranged,” Varel interferes. “Before you set out on your mission, the Commander will surely wish to dispatch a courier to Amaranthine, am I right?” Receiving a nod from Cousland, he continues: “I can arrange with my contacts in the city to ask around, discreetly. As you return from the Wending Wood, I will have had a word for you ready. Would it be convenient with you, Nathaniel?”
His knuckles are already white with pressure. “More than so… thank you.” Unsure how long he can still control himself, he raises his eyes. “Is that all, Commander? May I retire now?”
As he reaches the door, though, Cousland addresses him once more: “Nathaniel. Whatever Esmerelle may have meant, I am sure that you will find nothing dishonouring in your sister’s conduct.”
Nathaniel only nods, no longer caring that his hasty departure resembles flight. Blinded with tears he can no longer hold back, he hastily makes his way to his room. The Maker turns a kind face to him, and so he encounters no-one before he can finally fall on his bed and let go the sobbing he has been suppressing for eternity.
It takes long to be cleansed of his grief: for his father, for Thomas, for his own lost hopes and future.
And for Delilah: the gentle little sister, cast out and debased.
The thought of Cousland’s compassion in this matter feels like ash in his mouth; no worse, though, than the thought of his sister, who, despite all the reassurances, may well have been forced to sell herself for provision.