The first memory Aedan has of Nathaniel Howe, or at least the first time he really notices him as anything other than Delilah and Thomas's quietly intimidating older brother, is when he is eight.
Aedan and Delilah are playing on the ramparts of Vigil's Keep while Fergus and Nathaniel practice their archery in the courtyard below. Delilah is the kidnapped princess and Aedan the brave knight come to rescue her, but Delilah has gotten bored of listening to his speechifying to the imaginary dragon that has captured her, and is playing out some complicated melodrama with her dolls involving secret lovers and assassination attempts.
Thomas is bored. Like Aedan, he would rather be down in the courtyard with the older boys but after getting in the way one too many times he has been sent up here to play with Aedan and Delilah and he resents it. Rather than joining in their game he is using a fallen bit of masonry to bash chips of rock off the wall to drop through a gap into a puddle on the ground far below.
"Don't do that," says Delilah. "We need those walls to defend us if the Orlesians come."
"Shut up," says Thomas, and throws a bit of rock at her.
"Don't throw rocks at girls," says Aedan.
"I will if I want!" says Thomas. He grabs a fist sized stone and runs up to Aedan, pulling back his arm to hit him with it. Aedan grabs his hand and stares Thomas down. Aedan is older and stronger, and Thomas quickly relents, rubbing at his wrist with a belligerent expression. He drops the stone.
"Do you want to play?" asks Aedan. "You can be the dragon." He doesn't like Thomas very much but Mother says they should try to be friends, and he is only little.
Thomas looks at him, conflicted. On the one hand, it means admitting a sort of defeat. On the other hand, it also means getting to run around roaring at his sister and pretending to set her on fire.
"Yes, I'm the dragon," he says at last. "I'm a big scary mean nasty dragon and I'm going to EAT YOU." He roars at Delilah, but rather than looking scared she just giggles. Annoyed, Thomas grabs one of her dolls.
"Delilah is smelly and gross," says Thomas. "I'm going to eat your doll instead." And he bites the doll, his small teeth pulling at the stitching. He makes a face: it seems that the doll doesn't taste very nice.
"No!" says Delilah. "Let her go! Don't eat her!"
"Return that fair maiden, you foul beast!" says Aedan dramatically. He flourishes with the hoop-stick he is using as a sword.
"I'm flying away and you can't catch me!" shouts Thomas, and he runs as fast as he can to the other side of the tower. Aedan chases after him, his thin satin slippers slipping on the slick ancient stone.
Thomas is standing on the edge of the wall, waving the doll around by one foot. The wall is very high here, too high for Aedan to reach without danger of making Thomas fall.
"Come down!" shouts Delilah. "You know we're not allowed up there!" But Thomas refuses to budge.
Aedan climbs up after him. It is very high, the wind whips at his skirts and he feels nauseous.
"It's just a doll," says Delilah. But it's the principle of the thing.
Aedan hold out his hand to Thomas. "Give me the doll," he says.
"You're a stupid girl and this a stupid game," says Thomas, and he drops the doll.
Without thinking Aedan grabs for it, and he falls.
It's a long, long way down. But Aedan barely has time to repent his folly before the ground rushes up to meet him, hard and unforgiving. There is a thud and a crack and the taste of blood in his mouth and then his whole body shudders with pain.
Through the ringing in ears he can barely make out that people are shouting at him, or around him, Fergus and Nathaniel and then various servants, followed by Delilah after she rushes down the stairs. Thomas is nowhere to be seen.
Aedan becomes aware of a healer wrapping his leg in bandages. It hurts, but in a distant way, and he recognises the strange tickling warmth of magic. He slowly looks around and rubs his head. He sees the doll fallen just slightly out of his grasp, it has survived the fall rather better the Aedan though it is a little dusty. Aedan picks it up and offers it to Delilah. "Your friend, milady." She curtsies and kisses Aedan's hand.
"Thankyou, ser knight."
Aedan smiles and then rests his head back on the wall behind him.
"All this for a doll?" asks Fergus incredulously. "Come now Elissa, I thought you more a more sensible girl than that."
"I was rescuing it from the dragon," said Aedan. "And I'm not a girl, I'm a knight."
Fergus smiled indulgently. "Of course you are. You're a girl knight. Like Mother was before she got married. Nathaniel, can you look after the girls while I go find our parents? That servant is taking too long."
Aedan burns with frustration. He knows that girls can be knights but it's not the same. To his extreme embarrassment Aedan feels tears prickling at his eyes. He sniffs.
Nathaniel sits next to him in the dirt and offers a handkerchief.
"I'm not crying," says Aedan. "Knights don't cry."
"Yes they do," says Nathaniel. "Especially when they've just broken their leg defending a damsel in distress." He smiles and Aedan can see nothing in the older boy's face of the indulgence of a young girl's fancy that he sees in the smiles of his family. "You should have seen me cry when I broke my arm last year falling off a horse. And Ser Giles here is a real knight, I'm sure he's cried lots of times, haven't you ser?"
The grizzled retainer who had been silently standing to attention beside them looks down in surprise. "Errr…yes, Master Howe. Many times."
Nathaniel frowns at Aedan, though more with concern than anger. "Something else a good knight does is know when to back down from a fight. You or Thomas could have been killed. And he's younger than you, and can't be relied upon to be sensible." Aedan nods, while Delilah mutters to herself that she is younger and she is sensible. "Still, we appreciate your chivalry, don't we Delilah. I'm sure Miss Molly appreciates it too." Aedan looks up sharply, worried that he is being made fun of, but Nathaniel's grin includes he and Delilah in on the joke.
Aedan had been looking forward all trip to returning home: he doesn't like Arl Howe, or his insistence that Aedan dress and behave like a "proper lady" while in his house, nor does he like being away from his friends in Highever. But for the rest of his time in Amaranthine Aedan has a purpose: to watch Nathaniel, and use him as a model for what a real knight should be.
Aedan's first real memory of Anora is in Highever when he is ten. She is visiting while her father and Teyrn Cousland are away at some gathering but despite being only a few years older than Fergus he and Aeden see very little of her, she spends most of her time in conversation with Teyrna Cousland and her friends.
Aeden does not like spending time with his mother's friends. They mean well, but they keep telling him how pretty he is and what a fine wife he'll make and it makes him uncomfortable. Fergus doesn't like them much either, especially the overly friendly Lady Landra, and the two of them sneak off to a quiet room to spar.
They have been fighting for about half an hour, Aedan doing quite well for someone his size, when they notice Anora watching them.
"Oh don't mind me," she says. "Despite the best efforts of my father I am quite terrible at fighting but I do enjoy watching other people. You are both very good. I admire your form particularly, Elissa, I'm sure I was never so disciplined at your age."
"Thankyou," says Aedan.
Fergus blushes and laughs awkwardly. Aedan feels a little embarrassed on his behalf, and hopes that he will not be so awkward around girls when he gets older. Their mother says that Aedan will outgrow his "tomboyishness" as she did, especially once he discovers boys, but he is certain that this is not true.
"I may not know much about fighting," says Anora, "But I do know a little about military strategy. Eleanor says you have some interest in the subject too, is that right Elissa?"
"Yes," says Aedan.
"Well, if you ever visit my Father and I in Gwaren you must look at our library, we have some books you might enjoy. Most of them are a little dry but some are quite readable. And I will endeavour to bring some next time that I am here."
"Thankyou!" says Aedan. He tries to think of some way to express his gratitude. "I can teach you to fight if you like." He holds up his practice sword. Seeing Fergus's expression he adds "Or Fergus could."
Anora laughs. "Thankyou," she says, "Though I think I am a lost cause." She indicates her long impractical skirts. "Perhaps another time."
Aedan discovers boys at the age of twelve, under the most embarrassing circumstances he could imagine.
The Teyrns have come to Castle Cousland this time, along with the King, and the castle is full of strange men and women and lots of unfamiliar servants. The heirs are there as well: Anora and Cailan and Nathaniel, as well as many other young men and a few women learning the ropes of the complex web of power they will one day have to negotiate. As a second child Aedan is not invited to these meetings and he continues with his lessons and everyday activities as well as he can amongst all the chaos.
This afternoon he has hidden himself away in a small room near the kitchens, and is eating an apple while writing out some exercises in Orlesian grammar. The room has a large window into the central court, and since it is a heavily overcast day he is sitting on the sill behind the curtains to get as much light as possible.
He hears voices.
"I don't like all this skulking about, it doesn't feel right," says a man, or at least a male youth. The voice is familiar, and peeking through the curtains Aedan can make out through the darkness that it is Nathaniel.
"Well then perhaps we should stop," says Anora, coming into view. She does not sound like she means it, though, and her hand is placed flat upon his chest.
"I think we should stop skulking," he replies. Nathaniel takes her hand gently and kisses it. "Marry me." He looks at her intently, his eyes adoring, and Aedan's heart stops.
"I want him to look that way at me," he thinks, and then recoils from himself in horror. Is this is it? His inevitable slide into girlishness? Is he going to start sighing over boys and happily wearing dresses and lose all interest in fighting in order to make babies? Aedan tries to imagine himself in Anora's place: would he want to marry Nathaniel? The idea is attractive and alarming and utterly alien all at the same time, and he feels mired in confusion.
Unaware of the turmoil taking place a few steps away Anora sighs irritably. "I can't marry you, you know that," she says. "You're the seventeen year old son of an Arl and may not even be made heir. I'm marrying Cailan and becoming Queen, I told you that at the start. This youthful infatuation will pass, but our duties remain."
"It is not duty you speak of but ambition," replies Nathaniel bitterly.
"It is my duty to make sure that this country is run properly," says Anora. "Cailan simply cannot do it without me, and who knows what sort of woman he might marry if left to his own devices."
Nathaniel turns away, towards the window. He looks miserable and angry, and Aedan feels deeply how wrong it is to witness such a private moment. He looks at the latch on the window and tries to figure out how to open it silently.
"Must we fight?" asks Anora, as Aedan puts down his apple and tries to fit his fingers into the narrow mechanism. It is jammed tight with age and lack of use, the wood of the window swollen in the humidity, and he doesn't have much luck.
Anora and Nathaniel have stopped talking but Aedan is uncomfortably certain that they haven't left the room. He keeps pulling on the latch and at last it opens, but in doing so it lets out a loud squeak. Aedan swears and tries to push himself out the window onto the ground a foot below but to his horror discovers that the window is only designed to open the width of a handsbreadth or so.
Nathaniel opens the curtains and pulls Aedan into the room before shutting them again.
"What are you…Elissa? What are you doing here? Were you listening to us?" He speaks in a tense whisper, his eyes dark with anger.
"I was doing my lessons," he replies. "I swear, I did not mean to listen. I won't tell a soul."
As his eyes adjust to the gloom Aedan notices that Nathaniel's clothes are unkempt, and that Anora is in the corner trying to surreptitiously relace her corset. "See that you don't," says Nathaniel. He runs his fingers nervously through his hair and Aedan can't help but notice how attractive being so disheveled makes him look.
Anora is not so nervous. She places herself in front of Nathaniel and gets him to finish tying her corset then smiles wryly at Aedan. "Thankyou for keeping our secret," she says. "When you are older you will realise how much more complicated life is than the roles we're supposed to fit into. Though I suppose you already know that a little." She tilts her head and looks at him thoughtfully. "Really, you are too kind. If you wish to survive amongst the Ferelden nobility you should learn not to give up an advantage so easily. When you discover someone's embarrassing secret you should find some way to turn it to your advantage."
"Anora," says Nathaniel. His tone is annoyed but also affectionately amused. He gives a small tug on her corset. "Do not corrupt Elissa with your wicked ways, she is an honourable young woman. And it is hardly to our advantage to encourage her to demand we give her…actually I'm not sure what we could offer that she doesn't already have." He pauses and then mutters to himself "The ear of the future Queen of Ferelden I suppose."
"I…" says Aedan. "Actually there is one thing." He does try to be honourable, and feels a little ashamed to be taking advantage of them this way, but Anora is right, this sort of power play is an inherent part of being a noble, and it is not such a large boon.
They look at Aedan in surprise and wait for him to finish. "Could you call me Aedan?" he asks. "I know it seems strange, and I'm sure you think it's a phase, but…but it is the name I would prefer. Even if it is only when…if we are alone. Mother and Father call me that sometimes but it is like a joke to them, a pet-name like "Pup". It is not a joke to me."
Aedan feels himself blushing. Part of him waits for the sickening humiliation of hearing them laugh, but they do not.
"That is more than reasonable," says Anora. "If I was being really ruthless I'd make things difficult so that you lowered your price but I am not quite so heartless as I appear." Aedan remembers his mother telling him that Anora has had trouble being accepted by the other noble women because of her tomboyish attitude and common birth, perhaps this has made her more sympathetic to Aedan, and quicker to notice that he has trouble fitting in himself. Or perhaps she simply doesn't care: Aedan has never been able to understand Anora.
Nathaniel does not answer right away. He looks at Aedan in confusion and says "But Aedan is a boys name."
"Yes, it is," says Aedan, staring him in the eye staunchly and daring him to say something further.
"I see," says Nathaniel slowly. "Very well then, Aedan." And then he grasps his hand and shakes it.
Aedan takes his things and leaves to find somewhere quiet to think. As he walks up the stairs to his room he bumps into Cailan coming in the other direction.
"Have you seen Anora?" he asks. The future king of Ferelden is tall and blonde and beautiful and entirely free of guile.
"I think I saw her in the chapel," replies Aedan, thinking of the furthest point in the castle from the room that Anora and Nathaniel are in.
"Thankyou!" says Cailan. As the prince bounds off with cheerful enthusiasm in completely the wrong direction Aedan wonders again exactly what sort of man he's growing up into.
The first person to kiss Aedan is Vaughan Urien when Aedan is thirteen. To a large extent Aedan manages put the incident out of his mind, but it does add some extra satisfaction to seeing the look on Vaughan's face when Aedan guts him a decade later.
The last time Aedan sees Nathaniel before everything goes to hell he is sixteen and Nathaniel twenty-one. Arl Howe has come up with some fairly transparent excuses to bring Nathaniel and Thomas to visit (but not Delilah, not since Fergus got married), and Aedan can tell from his not-so-subtle remarks that the Arl is angling for Aedan to marry one of them and give the Howes a foothold into Highever. Thomas and Nathaniel can clearly tell as well and respond with disgust and embarrassment respectively.
Seeing that Thomas and Aedan are barely more able to be civil to each other now than they had been as children, Arl Howe says "Come, Thomas. Let us look at that horse the Teyrn said might suit you," and leaves Aedan and Nathaniel alone with only Aedan's dog Hafter for chaperone.
Nathaniel smiles apologetically. "I apologise for my father. I'm sure he didn't used to be so…transparent."
"I thought it was just me getter older and more cynical," says Aedan.
"No, when Thomas can figure out the subtext to a conversation I think we're beyond the requirement of cynicism." Nathaniel leans back into his chair and gives a heavy sigh. "He means well. And soon I won't have to worry about him any more, I'll be in the Free Marches and a free man."
"Leaving me to the charms of your brother," says Aedan sardonically. "Lucky me."
"You don't want to be Arlessa Aedan of Amaranthine? All those pretty dresses? All those interminable parties to host? Thomas, waiting in your…I don't want to finish that thought."
"Please don't," says Aedan. "But yes, some other lucky fellow will have to experience that joy."
"Ah well, we shall have to remain happy bachelors, you and I, much to our parents regret," says Nathaniel. He smiles, but there is an unhappy undertone to it.
Nathaniel and Anora are two of the very few people Aedan has told of his real self, and after all this time are still possibly the only ones who really take it seriously. It is a relief to have people he can be himself around, and this honesty has helped foster a friendship between he and Nathaniel (Anora he still finds a bit intimidating), but there are times when Aedan finds it inconvenient.
"She refuses to see me," says Nathaniel. There is no point asking who "She" is. "I think she's punishing me for calling off the affair, she says there's been 'talk' and she must protect her reputation. As if Cailan hasn't been sleeping with half the women in Ferelden since the wedding. As if anyone but me even cares who she sleeps with as long as any heir to the throne looks blonde and pretty enough to be a Theirin." He runs his fingers through his hair and as always Aedan is charmed by the gesture and then annoyed at himself for being charmed. "Do you think I did the right thing?"
"Yes," says Aedan. "Beyond the morality of the situation, cuckolding the King is a very dangerous proposition, even when that King is as even tempered as Cailan. And…" here Aedan laughs internally at himself for being a hypocrite, "…and you need to move on. You will always be third in Anora's affections after Ferelden and Cailan."
"You're absolutely right," says Nathaniel. "But I miss her, you have no idea…ah, but there is no point dwelling on it. Maybe while I'm in the Free Marches I'll meet some nice girl and get over it. Or a nice boy, I hear they're more open minded about that sort of thing over there." As he says this last part Nathaniel looks coolly at Aedan to note his reaction.
Aedan stiffens in surprise and confusion. "…yes, so I have heard," he replies. He has never spoken to Nathaniel about his interest in men, it cuts too close to things he would rather avoid. Aedan had experienced a mixture of relief and disappointment when adolescence had not made him any more the girl he was expected to be than childhood, and had eventually realised that, like so many things he'd thought were integral to manhood, an interest in women was rather less universal than he'd been taught. But he'd never thought that Nathaniel…
Aedan hides his embarrassment by patting Hafter, who does not look remotely fooled by his apparent sudden interest.
"Anyway," says Nathaniel, "What are your plans for the future? Just going to hang around being the helpful second son?"
"For the moment," says Aedan. "I'm not an old man like you, I can afford to be aimless for a while." He pauses and rubs his chin self consciously. "Don't mock, but part of me likes the idea of joining the Grey Wardens. There's no mucky moral ambiguities when you're fighting the Blight."
Nathaniel does laugh at this, much to Aedan's annoyance. "Have you been talking to Cailan? Anora says…well. You know they don't fly on gryphons any more, yes? You wouldn't catch me joining such a strange order, I've heard some disturbing stories. If you want to go around hitting things with swords, you should…"
But then Thomas and Arl Howe return with Fergus and Oren and Aeden's parents, and the conversation is all horses and saddle leather. Aedan's family do at least help steer the conversation away from marriage, since they know that Aedan finds the topic unpleasant, but he does not get a chance to speak to Nathaniel alone again before the Howes leave. And then he is gone and it is all too late.
The first time Aedan kills a man he is twenty one.
He has always longed for battle, but not like this, not woken in the middle of the night in his own home by soldiers he thought were his allies. The first man through the door stares at him, the sword in his hand momentarily forgotten, and Aedan remembers that they had spoken once or twice at Vigil's Keep. But he only hesitates for a moment. Aedan had thankfully grabbed his sword after being woken by Hafter's barking, and he pulls it up and strikes at the attacker's chest before he even realises that Aedan is armed. Aedan barely has time to notice that the man is dead before he must defend himself from another, hacking and parrying in a bloody fight for survival with little resemblance to his good natured sparring matches with Fergus and their mother.
Aedan wipes his sword on his already ruined nightshirt and steps over the bodies to get back into his room before changing into his leathers, the familiar armour making him feel a little more able to take on whatever unholy disorder has infected the castle. He leans against the wall for a moment to get his bearings. What is this? How are they under attack? Were those Arl Howe's men? Why did they come for Aedan, what threat is he to anyone?
Or was it not an attack on Aedan in particular, but an attack on everyone?
A sick fear pooling in the pit of his stomach Aedan rushes out to check the other rooms. He encounters his mother, and the brief joy at knowing that she is alive buoys his spirits... until they find Oren and Oriana.
After a while, Aedan loses track of the bodies.
Teryna Cousland is magnificent. Aedan had always known that she was a powerful warrior, had seen her fight to victory in many matches with her sons and the castle's knights, but it is quite another thing to see her in the fray, her eyes afire with anger, battling her way through Arl Howe's soldiers like a spirit of vengeance made flesh.
But it is all for nothing, their enemies are too many and the betrayal too great. Oren and Oriana, Lady Landra, Dairren, Iona…all dead. The few survivors in the great hall seem doomed, and now here is Aedan's father, his heart's blood flowing out onto the floor.
Aedan's last vision of his parents is of his father lying collapsed in his mother's arms, both of them smiling bravely and so much surer than Aedan can be that he will survive and bring Howe to justice. He looks backward, sick at having to leave them, wishing there was any other way, until Duncan kindly but firmly pushes him forward and they escape into the dark.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It appears that Aedan has a talent for killing.
For the first few weeks that's all he can think of. Kill the darkspawn, kill any bandits that attack them, kill the archdemon invading his dreams and above all kill Howe.
As he slowly emerges from the fog of anger and grief that has consumed him Aedan starts to worry about how much he enjoys the constant violence. To begin with his companions are no help: Alistair is still consumed by his own pain, and Morrigan is possibly the most bloodthirsty person Aedan has ever met. He's glad when Leliana joins their party, she too has suffered loss but is more determined not to be consumed by it, and Aedan enjoys being able to talk with her of subjects more peaceful than soldiers and the bringing of death.
But he is still plagued by dark thoughts: Did Nathaniel know of his father's plans? Did Anora know of hers? Was the attack on Aedan's family all part of Loghain's plot? It is probably for the best that Alistair has put Aedan in charge: after so completely failing to notice any signs of Howe and Loghain's coming betrayal, despite speaking to them only hours before, Aedan has no faith in his ability to know who to trust and sees dark motives behind everyone's actions.
Then again, Aedan has a feeling that he is right to doubt Flemeth and Morrigan. Perhaps he just resents Morrigan for expressing such intense disappointment when Aedan tells her and Alistair to refer to him by his right name: She has a very low opinion of men, and cannot understand why Aedan would wish to live as one. Still, he cannot shake the gut instinct that she is playing some deep game that goes well beyond any unselfish desire to save Ferelden from the Blight.
Life as a Grey Warden is not quite what Aedan expected. His parents had both told him of the rigours of the road, but the reality had still come as something of a shock. There is nothing quite so unpleasant as returning to camp bruised and battered from a day's battle only to have to stand in your bloodsoaked clothes cooking dinner because you have forgotten to wash your laundry, and a small part of Aedan resents not having all these menial tasks taken care of for him. Beyond these petty irritations, the seemingly straightforward task of defeating the Blight is constantly complicated by compromise and ambiguity, Aedan sometimes wonders what real difference there is between his party and the thugs and mercenaries they spend so much time fighting.
Aedan ruefully thinks of Cailan and the naive dreams of glory that helped lead to his death. Despite the superficial similarities to his brother Alistair seems much more aware of the stark realities of life and of battle. Visiting Redcliffe and seeing how Alistair was raised, Aedan is struck by how much easier life is for those who grow up noble.
Aedan had always known that he lived a life of privilege. Even for nobility the Couslands are (or had been) very rich and powerful, and his parents had emphasised many times how important it was that he use the power he wielded responsibly. Aedan had liked to think of himself as a friend to those beneath him in station, but it is one thing to chat to Nan and her assistants in the kitchens and another to live amongst commoners for months on end and receive no special treatment. You can't spend the first twenty-one years of your life having almost every mage and elf you meet being a servant without finding it a little difficult to adjust to having an elf complain about your cooking or a mage constantly question your judgement.
Take Zevran for example. The first man to express interest in Aedan as a man and he's spent the whole time since they met studiously avoiding him. It's stupid. And yes, there is the fact that Zevran did try to kill him, and that doing anything more physical than holding hands brings up the prospect of all manner of awkward conversations, but that's no reason to be rude. Aedan can't help but suspect that his main problem with Zevran is that he's both arrogantly self confident and an elf.
So Aedan decides to get past it. There is no guarantee that he will ever return to his old social position, and if he is to be just another Grey Warden amongst equals then he needs to learn to act like it. He asks Zevran about his past as an assassin, and takes over Alistair's turn to do the cooking, and discover's Sten's secret soft spot for paintings, and by the time they arrive in Denerim looking for clues about the ashes Aedan finds himself feeling shocked and angry when other human nobles don't treat his comrades with complete respect.
A year passes and then two. Aedan is no longer the callow youth whose knowledge of strategy came only from books and fireside stories, but the hardened veteran of many successful battles, criss crossed with scars and willing to do whatever it takes to defeat his foe.
But for a moment he is a boy again, scared and alone and angry, as he stands at the door between himself and his vengeance.
He's not sure what he'd expected from Arl Howe. Some acknowledgement, perhaps, of the extent of his treachery, some apology from the man who'd been counted as a friend for so many years by the family he'd betrayed. But all he gets is anger and bile.
"Well, look here," hisses the Arl. "Bryce Cousland's little spitfire, all grown up and still playing the man."
Aedan laughs. As if those old taunts could hurt him now, in this moment. Howe starts to spit some venom about Aedan's family and Aedan decides he's had enough and draws his sword.
It is almost too easy, so many years waiting and yet soon with a sweep of his sword it is done, the agent of Aedan's misery just another dead body, his blood soaking away into the dirt.
Aedan hadn't put much thought into what would happen afterwards. But the Blight doesn't care about his vengeance, and Loghain's regime won't collapse with the death of a single lieutenant. He barely has time to look at the Arl's body and check that he's really dead before they have to move on.
Anora does not wear the mantle of damsel in distress very comfortably. She's obviously trying to give the impression of being in need of rescue and afraid for her life, but for the most part just comes across as irritated. But Aedan has saved (and not saved) enough damsels in distress for a lifetime, and whether or not she's telling the truth about her father Anora is a powerful ally.
Her regret over Aedan's mother's death seems genuine enough, at least. So does her desire to remain queen.
"I have no doubt Alistair is biddable enough," she says when they are alone, "and decent, but even with his blood he is no king."
"You may be right," says Aedan. He likes Alistair a great deal, but is under no illusions about his flaws. "And I will admit that he has no enthusiasm for the role." Anora smiles slightly, and her fingers stop their nervous twitching. But it's not going to be as easy as that. "What do you think about marrying him? With your experience and his blood you would have a much stronger claim on the throne."
Anora makes a face. "Ignoring that the man looks so much like Cailan - my recently-dead husband, if you'll recall - my main fear is that he might govern like Cailan as well. And I am tired of ruling in a husband's name." She frowns at Aedan. "Why not let me rule alone? You know that it is I not Cailan who has ruled Ferelden for the last five years. Do you not think that I was competent?"
"Competent enough," says Aedan. "Certainly the wheels of the nation turn smoothly. But you lack Alistair's compassion, I have seen the lives of the everyday people of Fereldan, how the elves and mages are treated in particular, and I would not want to submit them to more of the same."
"I never took you for a man of the people, Aedan," says Anora, with wry amusement. It is the first time she has used his name since his family's death. She gives a resigned sigh. "If I must marry Alistair to keep my throne then so be it, but you will not be serving the best interests of either of us nor of your country."
"Well I cannot marry you myself," says Aedan, "And the idea of marrying Alistair appeals no more to me than it does to you." Anora's eyes widen briefly, and Aedan wonders if she'd suspected him of wishing to gain the throne through that route. He has no doubt that she would be willing to do much worse herself to gain power. "Would you be willing to have me act as an advisor? The Loghain to your Maric, so to speak?"
Anora raises an eyebrow. Yes, perhaps that was not the best choice of metaphor. Aedan wonders if Anora still sees him as the endearingly precocious daughter of her old friend, a child in need of her advice rather than an adult in a position to give it. Well, if she underestimates him all the better, and though Aedan would never be willing to make the sacrifices required to take the throne they both know that he could.
"Fine," she says. "If you defeat the Archdemon then you will in your way be as much the hero as my father ever was. And if you do not then we will have other more pressing concerns to worry about."
The Landsmeet is …strange. Luckily, while he does make use of what recognition he can gain as his father's child, Aedan is not forced to fully return to his former role. And for the most part the bannorn do not seem to see him as a fellow noble at all, he is instead "The Grey Warden". It makes him wonder what his position will be when this is all over. Assuming he isn't dead.
Vengeance is a parasite, it feeds and multiplies and can take over your mind until it's all you can see. Aedan has heard tales of feuds between families going on for hundreds of years, fueled by retaliation on retaliation going back so far that noone knows how they started. Aedan's own need for vengeance was for a while the only thing that kept him going, but now that it is done he has not found the peace he was craving, Howe's death did not bring back his his family or the life he lost, but only filled him with a numb emptiness.
Aedan tries to explain this to Alistair, but does not expect to have any success. There is a look in his eyes that Aedan recognises from himself, and regardless of what is just (and Aedan isn't sure that he can tell any more) he has a dark feeling about what Alistair might do if his chance for vengeance is taken away.
He imagines seeing that look on Anora's face. Would she be able to forgive Alistair for killing her father? Would Aedan be able to forgive her if she killed Alistair in return?
Someone has to draw the line somewhere, and Maker help him it looks like it's going to have to be Aedan.
Nan always always used to say that the Maker had a cruel sense of humour. Aedan certainly can't think of any other explanation for his most holy relic being protected by a wall of fire that only lets you past if you are naked.
And he can't help but imagine the old spirit up there laughing with glee as Aedan finds himself trying to persuade Loghain, who was until recently his greatest enemy, to have sex with the apostate Morrigan for the good of Ferelden. And then laughing further when Loghain, slaver and king killer, lectures Aedan on morality and then sacrifices his own life rather than put the world at the mercy of an Old God reborn.
And so Aedan is a hero. The Hero. He finds himself less comfortable with the name than he'd expected.
He hopes that, wherever he is now, Alistair has heard that Loghain is dead, and that it brings him some measure of happiness. It certainly brings none to Aedan, he found himself respecting Loghain more than he thought possible by the end. But in his more cynical moments he is glad that at least this way Anora cannot blame Aedan for her father's death.
They are partners now, of a sort, he and Anora. He hadn't been sure that she would keep her promise, but as Chancellor Aedan has genuine say in the running of the country, and he likes to think that he makes a positive difference.
And Fergus is alive! With Highever returned to what's left of his family and the Blight defeated, it's almost as if the last two years were some strange and sometimes horrible dream, and that now that it has passed Aedan can live the life he would otherwise have had. But he cannot go back to those boyish dreams of a simple life, or of leaving his responsibilities behind in the pursuit of glory. For the moment he is committed to helping Anora rebuild the country, and after that …he's not sure. He does not wish for glory any more, but only for some measure of certainty that the path he is on is right.
I rather glossed over the events of the game in this chapter and the next, but personally I've gotten rather bored of reading and writing fic which goes over those events and unless they apply to the particular story I'm telling they've lost their dramatic appeal.
A lot of the dialogue in the first two scenes comes from the game, but the rest is mostly original.
Aedan finds it hard not to think, during that first day in the Keep, of how Nathaniel would feel (will feel, if and when he returns) about what has happened to his childhood home. His family ousted from their lands, the name of Howe dragged through the dirt, and Vigil's Keep turned into little more than an over-large guard house for an order Nathaniel had shown little respect for. It doesn't seem fair, and Aedan has visions of Nathaniel hurt and angry on his return, perhaps even holding Aedan responsible for the loss.
But he never imagined that Nathaniel would ever look at him with an expression of such pure hatred.
"If it isn't the great hero," says Nathaniel with a bitterness Aedan has not seen in him before. "Aren't you supposed to be ten feet tall? With lightning bolts shooting out of your eyes?"
"The darkspawn probably think so," replies Aedan. He still can't get over the strangeness of seeing Nathaniel here, arrested as a thief and imprisoned in his own home. He looks much the same as he did the last time Aedan saw him, but older, his face gaunt and lined and his hair longer and unkempt.
"And then you kill them? The Grey Wardens do that a lot," says Nathaniel. "As my father found out too late." Nathaniel's glare relents at last, for a moment, and he looks at the floor. "I came here... I thought I was going to try to kill you."
Aedan stares at him in disbelief. "Kill me?" he says. "To avenge you father? But…he killed my parents! And Oriana and my nephew and…and everyone. Fergus and I were lucky to escape with our lives! And the things I saw in his dungeons…I had no choice Nathaniel. The man was a traitor."
"So they say," says Nathaniel. But his voice has lost it's fire. He looks up at Aedan again. "I thought I was going to kill you. But then I realised that all I really wanted was some of the family's things. It's all I have left."
"Then you will have them," says Aedan. "But…I still can't believe that you would even think of killing me. Does our friendship mean nothing to you? Do you know me so little that you think that I would murder your father without provocation?"
"I knew you seven years ago," says Nathaniel. "And I valued our friendship more than you can know. But the Aedan Cousland I knew then is not the man I see before me now."
And that is true enough.
Nathaniel shifts his feet uncomfortably within the bounds of his chains, his thin boots already coated in a visible layer of dirt and whatever other filth lines the cell floor. "I am sorry about your family," he says. "I had heard that your father was dead but I had thought…I assumed it was an unfortunate accident of war, not an assassination. If my father was responsible, if he stooped to killing children then…then I suppose that I cannot blame you for wanting to avenge them."
He balls his hands into fists and scowls at the rough metal bars that contain him and he is still, Maker take him, the most beautiful thing Aedan has ever seen.
"But if you killed my father as a traitor, why not Loghain? He was by all accounts the architect of all that transpired, and yet he died a hero's death by your side. And why kill Vaughan, and Lady Isolde? I have heard that you used blood magic, that you surrounded yourself with apostates and murderers, that you formed alliances with werewolves and monsters. I discounted the stories at first, but even your supporters agree that you committed more terrible things than I could ever have imagined…what happened to you? What dark bargains have you struck to gain such power?"
"I did what I had to do to defeat the Blight," says Aedan. "I am not proud of all the things I have done, but they were necessary. Do not think you have the right to judge me."
"And was it necessary that you become Arl of Amaranthine? That you turn my family into pariahs and take our lands for yourself?"
Aedan sighs. "No it was not. But that was Anora's doing. The Grey Wardens needed a home and she…for whatever reason she decided that Vigil's Keep should be it. It was not done on my account, I am fairly sure she would have made an Orlesian elf mage the Arl if circumstances required it. In fact I sometimes wonder if she gave me this post to keep me distracted and out of Denerim. As for your family's name…people needed someone to blame for the civil war and everything else that happened. Loghain killed the archdemon, which makes him a hero, and your father made a more convenient villain. And I'm sorry Nathaniel, but he was a villain."
Aedan can see the doubt in Nathaniel's eyes. He had always seen the best in his father.
There is no chair in the cell, nothing but chains and a bucket. Looking tired and dispirited, Nathaniel sits on the floor and leans against the wall. "You know," he says, "there is talk in Denerim, about you and Anora. They say that you are the reason she refuses to ever remarry. That you live openly as a man, that you have seduced her and are King of Ferelden in all but name."
"So I have heard it said," says Aedan.
"There are other darker rumours," continues Nathaniel. "That your lover is an elf, an Antivan assassin, and that it is he who really decides what happens in Ferelden. That this is why we are suddenly so open to forming alliances with other nations, and why the elves have been receiving so much special treatment. That…"
"Enough," says Aedan. He had not been aware that anyone thought Zevran the real power behind the throne. Under other circumstances he might almost find the idea amusing.
"Do you deny it?" asks Nathaniel.
"No," says Aedan. Nathaniel looks shocked. Well, that's something. "Because if you can believe that," Aedan continues, angrily, "Then I see no point in talking to you any further."
Seneschal Varel has arrived, and is standing patiently waiting for Aedan's decision. Aedan turns to him. "Give him his family's things, and let him go."
Nathaniel exclaims in shock and Varel rejects the order. "Commander, that's... I must object!"
"He is not his father," says Aedan. "And at worst he was trespassing. But I will not be so lenient if he trespasses again."
Unconvinced but obedient, Varel starts releasing Nathaniel and retrieving his effects. Aedan does not stay to watch, he has wasted enough of his life dealing with the consequences of Howe betrayal.
It is no easier to put Nathaniel out of his mind after meeting him again than it was before. Every room of the Keep holds memories of their childhoods here together. Aedan thinks of Thomas and Delilah as well. It seems that Thomas is dead, drowned in his own excess, but he doesn't know what happened to Delilah and hopes she has somehow escaped the fallout from her father's betrayal.
And yet the Keep is not the same as it was. The Orlesians have left their mark, changes made out of a mixture of practical necessity and foreign tastes keep catching him unawares. On the whole he prefers it, Vigil's Keep is a much more pleasant place now that it bustles with dwarves and merchants and soldiers happy in their duty than it was when Arl Howe's presence loomed in every shadow.
Even though he did not seek the position, Aedan is glad to be Arl. There are many challenges to overcome, but he hasn't spent the last half year helping run the country for nothing, and Amaranthine is not even as large as Highever. Which is not to say that it is easy, especially in the wake of the Blight. But on the whole he is more concerned with the state of the Grey Wardens. Having only three in the whole country is perhaps not so bad when you consider that they defeated the Archdemon with two, but back then the darkspawn didn't talk. He desperately needs more recruits.
And to be honest Aedan isn't entirely sure of the ones he has. Anders is powerful enough, but not exactly trustworthy. Aedan doubts that he has anything as nefarious in mind as summoning an ancient evil, but he wouldn't be surprised to wake up one morning and discover that the apostate has escaped.
And Oghren…Oghren is not the man he once was.
It is with these thoughts preying on him, with the number of tasks that must be completed building up with never enough men or resources to do them, that Aedan encounters Nathaniel again.
They are just outside Vigil's Keep. Everyone is tired and looking forward to finally finding some rest after a long day walking the streets of Amaranthine chasing up hunter's tales and tavern gossip, and Aedan doesn't notice Nathaniel's approach until he is right in front of them.
"Careful," says Oghren, "This one might just go all Zevran on you." But Nathaniel no longer has that dangerous look in his eye.
"You set me free," he says. "Just let me go, despite what I said or what I might do. I want to know why."
Aedan looks at him sadly. "You know why."
Nathaniel lets out a breath. Aedan starts to turn away.
"Wait," says Nathaniel. "Take me with you. Make me a Grey Warden."
A Grey Warden! Aedan's first instinct is to refuse. But Nathaniel is a skilled fighter, and whatever his opinion of Aedan he is a good man who will do his duty, and they need all the help they can get.
"You think this will redeem your name, do you?" says Aedan.
"I don't know." replies Nathaniel. "Maybe that's not even important."
Aedan wonders if Nathaniel realises what he's signing up for. He thinks of Mhairi and Daveth and the Orlesians. But it is not his choice to make. "Very well," says Aedan. "Come. We'll see how you do with the Joining."
As they walk to the Keep Anders looks at Nathaniel with distrust. "I remember when he was captured," he says to Aedan. "Nasty business. In your future, I sense a knife in the back. Just saying."
"Yes, because I should never trust anyone I met in a Vigil's Keep jail cell," says Aedan.
"Guess it just goes to show we'll let anyone into this outfit," says Oghren. He tilts his head up at Aedan and smirks. "You know, those were some pretty significant looks you two were sharing. Maybe we should be expecting this one to go all Zevran on you…"
"Shut up, Oghren," says Aedan.
It's really quite remarkable how quickly Nathaniel manages to charm himself into everyone's good graces. Even during the first few weeks, when he spends his time snapping at everyone and glowering at shadows, he manages to at least give Anders some entertainment by acting as his grumpy straight-man. And by the time they finally meet this Architect and start to figure out what is going on with these talking darkspawn he has Oghren and half the staff openly singing his praises and has even managed to flirt with Velanna, despite her having been only recently been persuaded not to kill all humans on sight.
"Still have a thing for blondes, Nathaniel?" asks Aedan. They are sitting up on one of the battlements, high above the Keep and only accessible via an out of the way attic. Delilah had shown it to Aedan when they were children, it was a favourite hiding spot for she and her brothers when Arl Howe was in a temper. The view is spectacular, and it's one of the few places Aedan can go to where he knows noone will find him. Well, noone but Nathaniel.
"Jealous?" Nathaniel replies.
"Not as such," says Aedan. "But it would be nice if she didn't hate me quite so much. Not that she doesn't have some justification, I suppose." He looks out at the forest that extends tendrils around the Keep and wonders if any elves live there, and if Velanna would know them. "Perhaps you could tell her that I'm part of the elvish conspiracy to take over Ferelden," he adds. "That might bring her on side a bit."
Nathaniel doesn't answer for a while. Ever since meeting Delilah again and hearing the truth about his father he has stopped doubting Aedan's motives and wallowing in the perceived injustice, but things are still a little awkward between them. "I am truly sorry about that," he says, eventually. "I never really believed those rumours I just…I just wasn't sure what to believe. One day my father is a war hero and you're an inexperienced boy, the next you're the war hero and he's an evil traitor, dead at your hands. I couldn't believe it. More fool me for having a lack of imagination, I suppose. I think I always knew what my father was, deep down. And anyone who'd been paying attention would have seen you for what you are, even then."
"Which is?" asks Aedan.
"A great man." Nathaniel smiles, the wind whipping his hair around his face. "And a good friend."
"Hit him again!"
Nathaniel staggers, the force of Velanna's spell bringing him to his knees. He groans and tries to stand, but is knocked down by another arcane bolt.
"Come on Nathaniel," says Sigrun cheerfully, "You can do better than that! Didn't you say you'd been toughened up by a whole month of life on the streets?"
"Do you think he'll be alright?" asks Anora. She been avoiding Velanna ever since the elf had cornered her at their first meeting and demanded to know exactly what Anora was going to do about land rights for the Dalish. Anora had only been able to make her escape once she had promised to set up a meeting between the local Keepers and their more independent counterparts in the south, and every time that Aedan had seen the two of them after that Velanna had been taking Anora to task for some injustice or another, specific or general.
"Oh, yes," says Aedan. "I and Oghren had to put with the same thing when we learned how to block magic. He should just be glad he never had to defend himself against Morrigan."
Nathaniel has pulled himself up onto his elbows and gives Sigrun a pained, apologetic smile. "It is possible that I overestimated my stamina. Could we perhaps postpone this…experiment until I have had a little longer to practice what you taught me, Sigrun?"
"Of course," she says with just a hint of condescension, "I know how delicate you nobles can be. Let me know when you think you're ready."
"You're stopping?" says Anders. "But I didn't even get to have a go!"
After the first attempt on Aedan's life Anora had declared that she would make a formal visit to Amaranthine.
Aedan was against it: it is one thing for danger to threaten an Arl, and quite another for it to threaten the life of the queen. The country is not ready for another argument about the succession.
But Anora had been determined. Doubts about Aedan's position damage the Grey Wardens and the stability of the region as a whole, and the quickest way to stifle those doubts was with an explicit show of support from the crown. "Besides," she had added in her letter, "You have been too busy to come visit me in the capital and I miss having someone sensible to disagree with."
Having Anora and her entourage at the Keep makes it almost feel like a real castle rather than a glorified military base. They even have a proper feast, with musicians and dancing and an embarrassing amount of food. (Sigrun refuses to be convinced that such profligacy can be justified when the peasants are starving, though she is slightly mollified by Aedan letting her organise the giving of any leftovers to the poor)
Aedan dances with Anora of course, in an absurdly expensive outfit that his tailor assures him is the height of fashion and with a complicated sequence of dancesteps that make him constantly feel like he's about to fall over his feet. Such is the price of politics.
As they spin and turn in the long line of couples Aedan says "You know this won't help with all the rumours about us."
"Let them talk," says Anora. "I am a young royal widow, people would talk if they thought I didn't have a lover. And I could certainly do worse." She smiles lightly and they whirl away from each other to grasp the hands of the next set of partners. Aedan bows to the tall young woman in front of him, the daughter of one of the local lords, and she curtsies and looks bored. Aedan glances over to see how Anora is doing and sees that, whether by accident or design, she is dancing with Nathaniel.
Nathaniel and Anora have spoken before during her visit: she was introduced to all the Grey Wardens, and the two of them were both included in several discussions with Varel and Aedan on various affairs of state to do the with arling. But Aedan is reasonably certain that this is the first time they have spoken alone since Nathaniel left for the Free Marches.
Anora is smiling at least, which is a good sign. Still, it's none of Aedan's business. He turns back to his partner. "Catherine, isn't it?" he says "Lord Eddelbrek's daughter? Am I right in remembering that you like horses?"
It's hard to tell whether or not the feast is a success. The nobles all seem happy enough when they leave, laughing and full of fine food and wine, but the conspirators had on the whole seemed happy enough after they gave their oaths of fealty. Anora and Aedan stand smiling and waving and trying to look as untroubled and united as possible as the last reveller is sent on his way. As the door closes Aedan says "Is you face sore from smiling? Because mine is."
"You should see the functions I've been forced to attend in Orlais, they can go on for days," she replies. "Sometimes by the end I could barely stand. And I think that went well. Now if you don't mind I shall go to bed, I have a long journey back to Denerim ahead of me tomorrow. If I don't see you before then it was good to talk to you, Aedan, I thank you for your hospitality and I hope to see you again soon."
He nods and wishes her goodnight, before wandering towards the high table, where Oghren and Anders are rapidly demolishing what's left of the wine. Aedan grabs a few pieces of food, having been too busy during the night to find much time to eat, and looks for somewhere more quiet to sit.
He eventually sits himself next to Nathaniel, who is dozing against a pillar in a darkened corner of the throne room, half falling out of his chair.
Life as a Grey Warden seems to be agreeing with Nathaniel, he doesn't have the haggard look he did when Aedan found him in that prison cell two months ago. It's strange to see him in formal clothes again after only seeing him in armour for so long. He wears them well, though Aedan still prefers the leather skirt.
Nathaniel opens his eyes. "Were you watching me sleep?"
"Maybe," says Aedan.
Nathaniel looks at him oddly for a moment then rubs his face and sits up. "Did I miss any more assassination attempts?"
"Not that I noticed," says Aedan. He offers Nathaniel a chicken leg from his plate and the two of them eat in silence for a while.
"So," says Aedan, "Let's pretend I thought of some tactful way to ask how things are between you and Anora."
"Fine," says Nathaniel. "More than fine, really, we got along surprisingly well. I think that in time we might even be able to be friends." He smiles, but then raises his eyebrows quizzically at Aedan's expectant expression. "What you were expecting more than that? I still care a great deal for Anora but I'm not in love with her. I think we'd be much happier as friends, anyway. It's been eight years, Aedan, I'm not such a romantic fool as to hold onto hope for that long."
"No, of course not," says Aedan. "That would be foolish indeed." He pokes at the remaining scraps of food on his plate. "Do you want some wine? I'm suddenly feeling thirsty."
Justice is dead.
Perhaps that is all that needs to be said.
Aedan had not known the people of Amaranthine as he had those of Highever, had not been raised to see their fortunes as an extension of his own, but in his months as their Arl he had started to feel some connection to the land, and to see it's inhabitants as his people. As he walks the barren streets of Amaranthine, it's windows boarded up and alleyways only recently emptied of the bodies of the dead he feels like a part of himself has died, a part that had barely begun to heal after the betrayal of Highever. But Highever had rebuilt, as had Denerim, and so would Amaranthine.
The Keep has faired a little better, it's inhabitants kept relatively safe behind it's strong dwarf-built walls. But they are not without their losses.
Aedan and the others had not known Justice well, had barely begun to get to know the spirit before the Mother had attacked and brought the whole sorry mess to it's violent bitter end. But he had been a comrade, and a Grey Warden, and they all feel the loss of his passing. Aedan likes to think that Justice passed back into the Fade, and looks back fondly on his brief journey into the mortal realm.
It is only Nathaniel and Velanna who know that it was Aedan who killed him.
Velanna does not appear conflicted about it. She has, after all, killed for her sister's sake many times before, and often with less justification. Still, she is quiet afterwards, and later insists that they hold a ceremony in Justice's honour, separate to the one for Kristoff.
But Nathaniel is horrified. When Aedan insists on helping the Architect and Justice retaliates against Aedan Nathaniel immediately come to his aid, but he does not attack, only blocking Justice's sword with his own and trying to persuade him to stop, saying that there must be some compromise they can come to. But you cannot compromise with justice.
When Justice is dead, Kristoff's rotten body collapsing into dust on the slime encrusted floor, Nathaniel lets his arms drop, his blades hanging by his sides, and looks at Aedan with dismay. "How can this be right? To take the side of this monster, this…ambomination against the spirit of justice itself? Is this what you meant when you said that you would do whatever is necessary to protect Ferelden? Is this the kind of man you became to defeat the Blight."
"Yes," says Aedan. "It is. I learned to stop putting my faith in justice a long time ago. And I'm sorry it came to this, I really am, but we do not have time to stop and discuss your moral qualms. For now let's just focus on defeating the darkspawn."
When the battle is over, when they have returned to the Keep and counted their losses, when they have gathered what is left of Kristoff's body to return to his wife and begun the long process of burying the dead, Aedan lets himself stop and consider his own moral qualms, and asks himself those same questions. Did he make the right choice? Could it be right to trust the word of a darkspawn, one who has already shown himself willing to kill and experiment on Grey Wardens to suit his own ends? Even if the Architect was telling the truth, are more intelligent darkspawn really something the world needs more of?
But the decision is made and there's no going back on it now. If Aedan let himself wallow in regret about every questionable decision he's made he'd never have time to do anything else. Better to accept what is done and enjoy the unexpected peace while it lasts. Because it never lasts for long.
"Tell me Anders," says Zevran, "Is it all women mages who have such magnificent bosoms, or just the ones I have met?"
"Not all of them, no" says Anders, laughing. "Or I might not have run away from the Tower quite so many times."
The subject of their discussion has blushed a bright scarlet and crossed her arms over her robes. They are, it must be admitted, quite low-cut, but that's no reason to make her uncomfortable.
"Leave Velanna be," says Aedan. "Or I'll give her permission to set you on fire."
"Ah, I apologise if I have caused offence," says Zevran. "I only meant to compliment your beauty, fair mage."
"Then you should remember that I am a Dalish keeper," she says coldly. "Not one of these paltry Circle mages. Please word any future compliments with that in mind."
They are all sitting around a large table sharing drinks after the evening meal. Zevran has been entertaining the Wardens with tales of his daring defeat of the Antivan Crows, while they have been telling him about how they came to join the Wardens and of the goings on in Amaranthine. Aedan had just finished telling Zevran how they'd unexpectedly encountered Wynne in the city, and that had inevitably led to the discussion of magical bosoms.
"Your friend is very…demonstrative, isn't he?" says Nathaniel. He and Aedan are sitting a little apart from the others, after Zevran had shuffled over towards Anders and Velanna to discus mages and then wandered off to the library to find a book he'd heard about from Sigrun.
"That's one word for it," says Aedan. Zevran's boat arrived from Antiva only yesterday, and he's already made a serious stab at seducing all the new Wardens except Oghren. (Who made it very clear he wasn't interested back during the Blight, and is regardless off with Felsi making another try at being a decent father)
"Does it bother you?" asks Nathaniel.
"No, not really" says Aedan. "Zevran and I don't have that sort of relationship. We were never really that compatible anyway, we just got thrown together during the Blight. Not that it isn't good to see him, but if he does somehow manage to entice Velanna to overcome her disdain for city elves I will be very happy for them both. Assuming they don't kill each other." He looks at Nathaniel. "Does that bother you?"
"Not as long as you're happy," says Nathaniel, but he does not sound entirely sincere. Nathaniel and Aedan have mostly come to terms with each other since Justice's death, but Nathaniel has been a little odd around Aedan since Zevran's arrival. "I must admit…I would not be satisfied with such a relationship myself. I suppose I am too selfish to share."
"I can be pretty selfish too, depending on the circumstances," says Aedan. "I've actually been thinking of properly breaking things off with Zevran, the ambiguity can…get in the way, sometimes. And I feel certain he'll find some way to console himself for the loss."
Zevran has returned from the library and is happily reading the contents of his book to anyone who'll listen. He is also trying to conscript Anders and Sigrun into helping him do the voices without much success.
Nathaniel smiles at Aedan, the first real smile he's seen from him in a while. "Yes," he says, "I think you may be right."
The first time Nathaniel kisses Aedan it is both unexpected and inevitable.
Zevran has left to finish his business in Antiva, unflatteringly comfortable with the breakup and promising to return in a few months to see how everyone is going.
Aedan is thinking of leaving as well. The Keep has mostly recovered from the darkspawn attack, and while the city of Amaranthine is still being rebuilt it's people have found a sort of interim stability, and with Varel's help the arling is mostly able to run itself.
"Will you be back?" asks Nathaniel.
"Of course," says Aedan. "I have a responsibility to the arling and the Grey Wardens, I'm not going to give that up. Not to mention that I like it here. But I have unfinished business in Denerim, and I want to visit Fergus and see Highever again." He looks at Nathaniel. They are sitting in Aedan's chambers, in a light airy room whose window looks out onto the Keep. Nathaniel's hair shines red and black in the afternoon sunlight. "What about you?" asks Aedan. "Thanks to the Orlesians we have more than enough Grey Wardens here to deal with what darkspawn threat remains. Will you stay on or would you rather find some other purpose?"
"Would you want me to go?" asks Nathaniel.
"No," says Aedan, reaching across his hand to lay it on Nathaniel's.
"Well," says Nathaniel, "I have no intention of leaving."
"Good," says Aedan. He finds his hand slipping off Nathaniel's hand onto his knee, and he shifts forwards slightly on the bench they are both sitting on. He looks up at Nathaniel. "What do you think of me?" he asks.
"What do I think of you?"
"Yes. When I was a child you were the ideal I aspired to, my model of who I wanted to be. My love for you then was that of a child, a dream, and I realise now that you're just a man like any other, with your own problems, your own flaws. But you are still my closest friend and I admire you more than I can express. I feel as if we have found something together now, something new. And I need to know. What do you think of me?"
Nathaniel looks at Aedan seriously. He puts his hand on his shoulder. "Well…" he says. And then he kisses him.
The world stops and then slips away, until it consists of nothing but Nathaniel. The experience is at once familiar and strange and entirely wonderful.
"Wait," says Aedan, a little breathlessly. "You didn't answer my question."
"Yes I did," says Nathaniel.
"Well I find your answer ambiguous," he replies.
"Then you weren't paying attention."
Aedan pokes him in the stomach.
"Fine," says Nathaniel. "You are also just a man, one with many flaws, one who has been scarred by the path he has had to tread." He runs his fingers gently over Aedan's face, his thumb pausing on the edge of his lips, where the scratch of a drake's claw has never quite properly healed. "But you are a good man, possibly the best I have ever known. And whatever path you choose to take from here, I can think of no greater honour than to walk it by your side."
And then Nathaniel explains again until his meaning is clear.