We sit and chat at length about the Free Marches, high dragons, Andraste's ashes, anything that doesn't touch directly upon tragedy. But eventually, Nathaniel pulls his attention away from the fire and studies the floor, a lock of dark hair falling so that I cannot see his eyes.
"To tell you the truth, I have been dwelling a little on the past," he allows, then hurriedly adds, "I assure you, I am past my initial rash behavior. I hope I have demonstrated as much in our recent travels. But...I am still curious about some things, and I wonder about might-have-beens. I asked Oghren some questions, but he said he wasn't the person to ask. I was hoping I might ask you."
I feel dread, even as I empathize with his need to know more. I drain my wine and pour more.
"Of course. I will always answer you to the best of my ability," I say, facing him. I gesture to him with the bottle, and he nods. He drinks, I refill. "Let me know if we get into territory that requires something stronger than wine. I have a few flasks stashed away."
"This will do for now. Thank you." He sighs. "This is difficult for me to ask, but I must. I want to know how my father died. If he suffered. Oghren says he wasn't there."
"I...can tell you what you want to know. Are you sure you want to hear it? From me?" Here, there is a lump in my throat. I have killed many, many people since I left my home. I have probably left legions of orphans in my wake, but I have never shared a meal and a bottle of wine with any of them. I have never had to explain myself to any of them. It was bound to happen sooner or later—the odds are very much against me on this one—but knowing so doesn't make it any more palatable a prospect.
"Yes. I am sure. Please," he says, in that earnest voice. His eyes focus on the embers in the fireplace.
I take a deep breath. "Your father, as you may have heard, had kidnapped Queen Anora. He stashed her in a guest room in the Arl of Denerim's estate, which he had recently taken over, and had one of his mages seal the door. Her servant heard your father say that she'd be a better ally dead than alive, and so ran to Arl Eamon for help. He asked us to rescue the Queen. We...forced our way through that estate and found people that your father had imprisoned and tortured. A Grey Warden, an elf from the Alienage, a Bann's son, the Arl of Denerim's son, and a templar. Then, we found your father with two of his mages."
I, too, find myself staring into the embers as I drag these words out of myself. I have bragged before about slaying Arl Howe, and now I feel the shame of it. I force myself to proceed.
"It was a nasty fight. Your father was a formidable opponent, and his mages were powerful. In the end, he fought us hard and died cleanly. We did not torture. There was no interrogation." My tongue is dry, but I owe him the truth. "I desperately wanted to make him suffer for what he did to my family, but ultimately I could not let myself. My comrades Alistair and Wynne wouldn't have allowed it, even if my judgment had failed. Wynne will tell you the same, if you find and ask her." Finished, I turn back to Nathaniel, trying to judge his reaction.
"Ah. Just so. Thank you for telling me. I see that the words do not come easily to you." His expression is beyond sad. I inwardly kick myself for including the details about his father's prisoners. Looking me in the eye, he asks, "One more thing, if you are willing. Did he speak? What were his last words?"
Oh, Maker. I fervently wish he hadn't asked that. I speak the words carefully, inflecting them as Rendon Howe had. "Maker spit on you! I deserved more."
Nathaniel's face hardens as he slams his goblet onto the floor, narrowly avoiding shattering its thick glass. I tense, ready to fight, wondering if he will try to strike me. I will be vexed if he does, not because I can't protect myself, but because of all the abject apologizing he'll probably do afterwards.
Instead, he hisses, "Typical. In my blindness, I hoped for better from him. Always, in his quest for more, he stole from everyone else. He was a Blight unto himself, tarnishing the goodness in everything he touched! Did you know, Oghren informed me the other day that my father had moved his personal quarters right next to the dungeon in that estate?"
I make a mental note to have a chat with Oghren.
He continues: "Delilah told me he'd been indulging his 'darker inclinations,' but he'd become a full-fledged monster! I find I cannot blame you for putting a quick end to him." His long-fingered hands clench and unclench as his eyes water. Not a single tear falls.
"Nathaniel." I move the wine bottle from between us and scoot closer to him. "Look at me." He swallows and says nothing, does not look up. He is struggling for control of his face, smoothing it into a mask. The stiff upper lip we both acquired as children still has its uses.
I take his hands in mine to stop the clenching. "You are Nathaniel Howe, a skilled Grey Warden working to defeat the darkspawn incursions in Amaranthine, your home. You have a kind-hearted sister who loves you. You've won the respect of Oghren and Anders, and my respect as well. You are proud of the high points of your family's legacy in these lands. You are not your father. If a Cousland can see that, anyone can. The blot your father left on the Howe name will become a footnote."
He wraps his fingers cautiously around mine, still without looking up. "But what of you?" he whispers. "He destroyed everything. You could have had a good life."
"But he didn't destroy everything. He couldn't. What he did was change my life. Because of your father's troops' delay, my brother Fergus lived. With most of my family gone, I was made a Grey Warden with few family ties to distract me, enabling me to focus on my tasks. I met my first love. I traveled Ferelden and witnessed miracles in unexpected places. When your father convinced Loghain to send an Antivan Crow after me, my little traveling group gained an accomplished assassin who eventually helped me defeat the Archdemon atop Fort Drakon. When your father sent a man to spy on Redcliffe, that spy helped us defend the town from undead. Your father's machinations led me to save the life of the Queen, who is now indebted to me for both her life and her crown. Your father indirectly gave these lands to use for rebuilding the Grey Wardens. I can ruminate endlessly on all I lost, but I find I do better when I consider the gains. I have an unusual and dangerous, but good, life."
The man is nodding, reflecting. Good. "Your first love. That would be Alistair, Maric's son?"
"Yes." It is my turn to look away. "Maybe Oghren told you about that, too. Alistair was a good man. Preferred to do what was right over what was convenient. Died for it. Things don't always go according to plan."
More nodding. He isn't going to probe me on that subject, which is just as well.
"The Crow," he asks. "Zevran?"
"Yes. An elf sent with a team to kill me. I showed him mercy, gave him his freedom, and he repaid me with loyalty. By the by, it was he and a bard in our party, Leliana, who taught me how to listen for stealthy intruders and how to lie in wait for them. I suppose you could say that your father foiled your assassination attempt." I nudge his shoulder with mine.
Nathaniel snorts bitterly, then laughs. "That would gall my father to no end."
"Again, things don't always go according to plan," I say. "He also sent you to me, in a way. Without his schemes, I would be minus one recruit, and we would not be here drinking and talking." I extricate a hand and pour again.
He favors me with a slow smile, his eyes half lidded, inclining his head toward me. "Or we might be. Remember, we might have been married." As soon as the words are said, his eyes widen. "That...was inappropriate of me, I think. I apologize. My judgment may be impaired. I must go."
He stiffly begins to stand, but I grip his arm. He stops and stares at me levelly with a cool, silver gaze.
I tell him, "Don't. You don't have to be appropriate, and I am not offended. If you want to leave because you're tired, go, but don't rush off with your tail between your legs because you fear you've breached the bounds of polite conversation. I prefer people who speak their minds and don't hide their intentions. When you were plotting to kill me, you never hid behind protocol. Why start now?"
My speech gives me time to digest the smile he used, moments ago. I find I enjoyed it. Now that I know the man has spirit, I want to uncover more of it.
He sits back down at slightly more of a distance and mutters, "There's a difference between speaking one's mind and leering at recent widows."
At this, I have to laugh. "A widow, am I? I never married, but that's not what you meant. Listen. I always knew that I would lose Alistair. I had thought it would be in battle, or to a silly fight, or perhaps that he would have to be King someday and find someone to give him an heir. I was wrong about the details, but right overall. Did it hurt me when he died? Very much, though I was hardened by my previous losses. When Alistair chose to sacrifice himself, I was irate, not obliterated. Regardless, he is gone to the Maker. I have made peace with that. If you want me to let you keep leering at me, so must you."
"Becoming a Grey Warden makes one so very practical," he notes. I let go of him. He takes a big gulp of wine. "Very well, then. I shall adapt, as you have."
With no further hesitation, Nathaniel Howe reaches for me and presses his lips to mine. I embrace him in return, winding my fingers through his dark hair. I can taste that delicious wine on his tongue. He smells of leather and moss and clean clothes. Taking his face in my hands, I break the kiss and make him meet my eyes. I want him to feel certain he isn't taking advantage of me, that I'm not some bereaved, spineless lady giving in to his advances. Whatever this turns out to be, I need it as much as he does.
I slowly bring my mouth back to his and give him the lightest kiss, then another, breaking contact just barely each time, sometimes flicking at his lips with my tongue. He learns the pattern quickly. Each kiss, a little more pressure, a little longer between pauses, until finally I kiss him deeply, grazing his lower lip with my teeth. He playfully bites at me, skimming his hands over my back and waist through my robe, deftly removing the pins from my still-damp hair. It feels like an eternity since anyone has touched me, apart from hearty handshakes and the occasional clap on the back through armor. Without disengaging, we stand up together, holding each other. He begins steering us slowly over to the bed.
For other women, this would be far too soon. There are firm opinions on how to grieve properly for a lost lover or spouse, and many lose respect for one who fails to conform. But sod them. I am a battle-hardened warrior with a shortened lifespan, a barren womb, and chronic nightmares. If Nathaniel is offering himself to me, then I'll take him. Zevran had the right idea about taking one's pleasures where one finds them. And, I admit, this Howe man has won me over quietly with both competence and compassion.
"We should be...very quiet," I tell him. "The night guards took their stations outside my door around the time we finished dinner. I don't care if they judge, but all the same I feel the details are none of their business," I close my eyes as he nibbles at my neck.
"Mmmhmm. Agree. We could go somewhere else," he murmurs, working his way up to place a kiss behind my ear. His hand slides down to the small of my back, pressing me closer to him.
"And where," I query, snaking my hand brazenly to his groin, "are we going to go without you being seen in this state?"
He gives a little shudder and pulls back, his eyes suddenly devious. "There are no guards outside my room, correct?"
"Correct." I've worked two buttons on his shirt loose. Before I can get the third undone, he catches my hand and plants a kiss on its palm before pressing it to his chest.
"We could go there. We'd still have to be quiet, but not nearly as quiet." He returns his attentions to my mouth.
"And still," I say against his lips, "We'd have to walk past the guards."
"Come here," he whispers in my ear. "You've made your point about Grey Warden practicality. Now let me show you a little bit of Howe practicality."
He steers us back toward a corner by the window and presses an indentation in the side wall's wood paneling. The panel slides back to reveal a narrow passage, and he pulls me through, closing it behind him. He finds my hands in the pitch black and leads me down the passage, which apparently runs behind some windowless rooms along the outer wall of the keep. We arrive at another door, which opens into his own room. Moonlight streams through the window—the very window he climbed through the night before his Joining. The panel closes behind us with a soft click.
"Practicality and ingenuity. Impressive. How long have you known it was there?" I slip my hands under the hem of his shirt, pulling it up and over his head.
"My brother and sister and I used to explore the Keep as children. It's a warren. Each generation of owners has built their own secrets into it, some for security, some to enable them to visit each others' rooms undetected. I'll walk you through all the passages sometime for, ah, a security review." I feel his lips curve against my throat. His hand works the belt of my robe loose and I shrug it onto the floor.
I am aflame, impatient. I hook my fingers into his waistband and drag him over to the bed. Letting go, I shuck my nightdress and fall back on the bed, arms wide.
"Take those off and join me," I invite, and so he does. We tangle together, feverish with need. There's no point in being tender and slow right now; we're both fully aroused and desperate, clinging to each other, trying to maintain as much contact as possible. It will be over quickly for both of us, and that's fine.
Nathaniel suckles at one of my nipples while rolling the other between his fingers, and my hips shudder beneath him, angling toward his hardness. I find it and let him feel how ready I am, rubbing myself against the head of it. He pulls back, causing me to whimper, and then he simultaneously sinks his tongue into my mouth and his shaft into my wet heat. As he groans against my lips and bucks, burying himself inside me, I mewl and wind the fingers of one hand into the hair at the back of his head, my other hand gripping the taut flesh of his backside. His voice is shadows and silk, his body is warm satin over sinew and hard muscle. I meet him thrust for thrust until I explode with pleasure, panting and shaking against him.
His turn, now. Still matching his rhythm, I grip his hair tighter, nipping at his broad shoulder with my teeth. The fingertips of my other hand drag down his spine, from his neck to the small of his back, and as I reach it, he presses his face hard to my own, his whole body spasming in release. We ride the aftershocks expertly together, kissing and stroking lazily. He grinds into me, causing me to convulse and twitch my hips in pleasure, in turn sending a new tremor through him.
Our heartbeats slow as we enter a sated stupor together. I feel Nathaniel roll to the side, leaving a hand cupped to my breast and one leg thrown over my own. I hold him to me, savoring him. I think I could get used to the convenience of that passage between our rooms. After a moment, I hear him chuckling into the pillow.
"Mmm?" I inquire.
"I swear, I did only intend to drop off your dinner. And I was going to keep the wine for myself."
"Things don't always go according to plan," I whisper, and kiss him again.