And since she finds you marvelously naïve,
While her little heels keep tapping along
She turns, with a quick bright look...
And on your lips, despairing, dies your song.
(Arthur Rimbaud, "Romance")
Once, lost-but-not-lost on a windless night at sea, Isabela told a young sailor, “You’ve got to live like everything can hurt you.”
The sailor, new and green as a beansprout, said it was sound advice. She didn’t understand that it was not. It was fact, like iron in the blood.
Before Kirkwall, Isabela always used to think of the world like a map spread out on a table, You-Are-Here, Ten-Miles-To-Rum-And-Really-Fit-Boys and all that. One slight twitch of the rudder and you’re in Wycome or Rialto or you’re dancing on the docks under the bright-glass lights of Antiva City in the altogether, all the stars smiling upon your good fortune; a single wrong turn, one swift frown of the wind, and your whole life veers off into the Vimmark Mountains, shipwrecked there with the seaweed and mossy scum and strangled in your own sails, going nowhere at all. If you are lucky, you’ll have a spare pair of smallclothes and nothing will be wedged up in your bits. It’s a big, honking if.
That was her theory, anyway. Neat and tidy. Uncomplicated. She could roll it up and fit it in her pocket like a slick gold sovereign.
But then, she’s playing cards with Hawke one night in The Hanged Man, and when she throws her head back to laugh at something utterly ridiculous—Hawke wears ridiculous like a rare and overpowering perfume—it feels so much like being drunk that she grabs the seat of her chair and steadies herself for no reason at all. Something about the way Hawke is looking at her makes her feel like a live wire, and all of a sudden her blood pulls and galvanizes around her feet, surging with Hawke’s crooked mouth and the wisps of crow-feather hair falling into her face. Isabela knows where this is going. She knows where this is going, and even if she wants it, she still can’t stop the way her skin tingles like there’s ball lightning crackling between them, or the way her heart skips one beat and then another until the world narrows down to Hawke and her and their warped-wood table, to the thrill of her heartbeat heating her temples. She can’t stop the way it throws her off balance.
And it is strange, that she’s suddenly all angles around Hawke lately when it’s never been that way before. She chalks it up to the stale summer air and decides maybe she’s coming down with something new and exciting. It sort of feels like the time she licked the underside of a rock, years ago.
“Let’s have a drink,” Hawke says, smiling. She is a tight jangle of energy, laughing Isabela’s favorite laugh, and tonight it goes straight to her head quicker than champagne. “I’ve got a mysterious bottle of a mysterious something, which I think might be cognac. Might. I’ve named her Gabriela.”
“Would Gabriela like to see my boudoir?”
“Gabriela quivers lustfully at the thought.”
“I know she does,” Isabela says, ignoring the way her stomach coils up into a nervous fist. Practiced confidence affords her a certain protection, a certain solitude that comes with years of hoarding yourself like gold; Hawke will never know she’s all fluttery in the girlparts and a little dry-mouthed right now.
It’s good. Much better than good, really, both of them breathless and wild with it by the time they tumble onto the bed, Hawke’s mouth on hers, laughing, mumbling nonsense. At first she worries over the laughing, but then she starts too, and honestly, if you can laugh your way through sex you’re probably doing something right. Maybe it’s not her ideal fantasy of how this would have gone, but it’s better than fumbling in all the wrong places or making undignified, elephant-like noises—and she ought to know, she thinks, her hands pushing Hawke’s clothes out of the way, and then there’s a thigh sliding between her legs, which is about the time all laughter and all semi-rational thought dies in favor of much breathier, increasingly desperate little noises.
That’s also the time Hawke’s mouth is on her, everywhere, and then there is nowhere they aren’t touching. She rasps her hands up Hawke’s sides, smooths them over each rib and bump of vertebra, soft as a secret in the dark of her room, and then it’s just fingers and breath and skin, the heat of Hawke’s mouth on her breasts, the dip of her navel. Eventually, Isabela turns them over and just looks, really looks, decides in the span of a heartbeat that Hawke is the best thing she’s ever had under her fingertips, and then presses her mouth to the insides of her knees, her thighs, between her legs. Isabela slides her fingers around the swell of Hawke’s hips, strokes hard and long with her tongue, and listens to her moan out like a siren on the shore.
So. It’s good. Much better than good, really.
“Well.” Hawke is still leaning back on Isabela’s pillows, sounding very airy and very pleased and wiggling her toes against Isabela’s thigh. “We’ll have to do that again. All of it.”
“Oh, we will. Two unstoppable forces and all that, and there’s only really one thing they can do,” Isabela says around squirming toes. Hawke is smiling wide and wicked at her. “Or two, if—haha, stop—if you—ha, haha stop, I said, you absolute goose.”
“But we’ve been so rude to poor Gabriela, having all this fun without her,” Hawke says. She takes the bottle of maybe cognac from the nightstand and sinks her teeth into the cork. “Here, have a drink.”
She crawls between Isabela’s knees, just as she’s attempting to get her stockings back on, and pushes it against her chest. “Now you’re just using any excuse to get handsy,” Isabela says. The sheets are damp and a little sticky and her room smells of the sea and fresh linen and Hawke. She likes it. She also likes Gabriela, who is definitely a very delicate young cognac.
“I’ll have you know my fingers find you irresistible, as does every other part of me.” Hawke shifts and presses herself up against Isabela’s back, brushing laughter like a blessing to the tiny hairs on the back of her neck; she can feel Hawke’s breasts against her shoulderblades, smells violets and sweat and her hair. Their chests rise and fall out of time, and Isabela, suddenly sensing her own discomfort coming down on a cold northern wind, pulls her necklace a little higher, tighter.
“She’s, mmm, not particularly robust,” Hawke says, pursing her lips around a mouthful of Gabriela. “Anyway, let’s get some dinner tomorrow. There’s this vendor selling Ferelden sausage and I need it.”
“Maybe you do, but I know what passes for cooking in your motherland and it’s an affront to respectable cuisine everywhere.”
“You’re only saying that because you want an excuse to go to the Rose,” Hawke mock-pouts. “Like their food is worth suffering through a sea of sweaty balls to eat.”
“They have to get dressed before they come down now, new rule, something about sanitation and things flopping where they’re not wanted,” Isabela says. She’s stopped struggling into her stockings and is now just lying back with Hawke’s nose shoved into her belly, which is really very sharp but not unpleasant. “You’re just unrefined. Ferelden corncob.”
“Rivaini flounder,” Hawke laughs, a husky, whispery thing that rattles Isabela to the bone. “And afterwards I can wax poetic about your mouth and the space between your breasts.” Her hand traces something meaningless on Isabela’s waist. Or, maybe it’s not meaningless. She wouldn’t know, but it still makes her shiver, which must mean something.
“Is that sexual? That sounds sexual.”
“You filthy, filthy girl. Maybe I just want to work on my prose,” Hawke says. She’s still lying there, still smiling against her skin, and Isabela doesn’t know what else to do so she just awkwardly tangles her fingers in Hawke’s hair, snagging occasionally on a tangle.
“Ouch!” Hawke yelps. One of Isabela’s rings catches, again. “Oops,” says Isabela, who has just yanked out three black hairs with a rough bit of amethyst. Something twinges in her stomach. “Sorry, sorry. I swear it doesn’t show much. You can just tell everyone you lost a duel for your honor.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m telling everyone you attempted to scalp me in the throes of ecstasy.” Hawke yawns, and Isabela tries again, combing her hands through her hair a little slower this time, mindful of the barbs, though she thinks it’s really Hawke who should take her soft edges somewhere safer. “Give me Gabriela, you’ve been canoodling with her long enough up there.”
“You’ll drip all over me,” Isabela says, but she hands her the bottle anyway. Hawke wipes her mouth on Isabela’s hip and they laugh, summer-sweet as the honeysuckle on the air, and Isabela is drawn to it like a pirate is drawn to chaos. Which is precisely the sort of thing she shouldn’t be thinking, but the harder she tries not to, the more it keeps swimming back up to the surface.
“You know, this room would be dashing if you’d decorate. Homey. Almost cottage-y, see, all you need’s some potted plants and you’re set for middle age and beyond.”
Hawke, oblivious to the cyclones currently spinning Isabela’s mind into mashed potatoes, licks her belly button and pushes her face into her ribs. Isabela takes another (longer) drink. “I don’t really think Kirkwall’s my color,” she says, because it’s not. Kirkwall is browns and greys and seventeen different types of beige, and Isabela is all spun up in reds and blues and yellows, a bright, restless star pushing ever on.
“You’re such a wet blanket. You could wear a burlap flour sack and dazzle. Which you do, by the way. You’re very dazzling, and also rather brilliant and insightful and amazing and your mouth, Isabela, Kirkwall would weep at your loss. I might wet myself.”
“I’m sure. I’ll send an offering to the Rose once in a while, may they weep at the memory of my well-endowed visage,” she says. Another drink, another strange twinge. Maybe the twinges are good, though. Good reminders of Things Not To Do. She should feel safer for them, but she doesn’t.
Hawke pulls herself up and kisses her, then bumps their foreheads together. “You’re unbelievable,” she says, softly. “Unbelievably wonderful. You know.”
She doesn’t. “I suppose?”
“No, you are. Amazing. Fantastic. Gorgeous. Delightful. An all-round treasure, you,” Hawke says. She yawns again and settles into Isabela’s side, her face pressed to the curve of her shoulder, hair tickling Isabela’s neck. She is presumptuous and utterly, unrepentantly ridiculous and she is throwing the needle of Isabela’s entire philosophy off-kilter without a care in the world. “My mother doesn’t know where I am,” she says, like they’re seventeen bloody years old in someone’s wheat field. She laughs in spite of herself.
“And you’re going to go right home and tell her you were slagging off with me all night.”
“Bethany’s probably already told her. Jealous, she is,” Hawke smirks. Her eyelashes brush against Isabela’s ear. “Gay as a maypole, that one. Keeps browsing some dressmaker’s wares down in the alienage. More like trying to woo her with low-cut dresses and her Hair Toss of Supreme Lust.”
“Learned from the most unsubtle of us, did she?”
“Shut up. I wooed you with words more delicate than a lilac blossom and meaningful touches and fluttering lashes, and also my heaving bosom. It’s not my fault you’re insatiable. Or that you fell for my dangerous lady charms.”
“Excuse me. I think I was the one who asked if Gabriela might like to see my fancy boudoir, and things happened. If anything, it happened simultaneously, like two shrikes molting. Close your mouth, you know I’m right.”
Hawke huffs against her neck. “Whatever,” she says, and then she does it again. Hrff, hrff, hrff. “I’m too sticky to even correct your abysmal logic. Do you mind if I sleep here?” she asks, curling around Isabela in a way that tells her she’s already made up her mind.
It should be easy. She should get up and leave right now and let Hawke have her bed for the night; she’s done it before. “Only because I can’t turn Gabriela out in the night, poor, sweet thing.”
“Just for that I’m not sharing her with you again, you trollopy seahorse,” Hawke says, muffled by the edges of sleep and comfort and warmth, Isabela supposes. “She’s mine.”
“Yes, in your single sad dream that isn’t about having sex with me,” Isabela says, and Hawke just huffs again before she’s asleep, one arm flung too tight around Isabela’s waist. If she could permit herself the danger, she might tangle her fingers in Hawke’s hair again, because that is what you’re supposed to do, she thinks, that’s how these things are done, and it’s not fair that it’s so easy for Hawke to reach out and pluck her like a harp when Isabela can’t even figure out how to pull the quilt up without feeling too big and unnecessary and wrong. Something burns in her throat and it is not Gabriela.
It should be easy. But, sometimes, Isabela has to remind herself that she is not Hawke, she is not other people, she is Isabela and that is why it can’t be easy.
And it’s underhanded of Hawke, lying there and speaking this language Isabela does not and will not, please please please, let me, you know you’re all I want. Things like that must be trampled down and pulled up before they take root, or else they’ll choke out the sun and trap her in brown and grey and seventeen types of beige. They will blossom into things she was never meant to touch.
Hawke’s arm tightens around her waist and she snorts in her sleep, warm, heavy comfort pressing into her knees and neck. Hawke is easy. Hawke is undemanding. She does not ask for things Isabela will not give and she trusts her as much as she thinks she will ever trust anyone, which is in itself a small and remarkable miracle. She guesses that is loyalty, but loyalty is for dogs and Isabela knows none but for the wind and the sand and the light of the stars above. She is a safer woman for such infallibility.
Her stomach twinges and makes a low, growly sound. Hawke’s fingers brush against her ribs.
This should be easy. Isabela wants it to be easy.
So, she breaks her first rule and turns to curl awkwardly around Hawke, trying so hard to mimic her movements, her haphazard and often incidental grace, but her bangles dig into her arm and one foot doesn’t have any stockings on and it’s just wrong, all wrong, and her stomach is still speaking in tongues when she finally falls asleep, her feet cold, her shoulder numb.
In the morning, she turns over a few times before waking fully to Hawke leaning against the rickety kitchen table with the tea kettle, her smile slicing across her face in the pale, too-early light of a particularly humid morning. It gives Isabela the distinct impression of a wolf lowering its mouth to some petrified, small animal prey, and she sits up quickly and makes a show of stretching.
“Good morning, Sleepyface,” Hawke sings, planting an unbelievably sloppy kiss on her cheek. “I only drooled on you a little. Tea and toast today, with plenty of butter and jam to tickle all your fancies.”
“Maybe toast isn’t my fancy,” she says, scrubbing at her cheek and pulling on her smallcothes. The morning cloys like a bad wine. “Maybe I’m a juice and pancakes sort of girl.”
“Maybe you’re going to get over here and mind the toast so it doesn’t burn.”
She laughs, because this is ridiculous, because this is exactly what she isn’t supposed to do and here she is, half-dressed with Marian Hawke making her tea and her sheets smelling like sweat and violets. “Budge up. I’ll scramble some eggs,” she says, because if she’s going to be ridiculous and let things like this happen, she’s not going to jump in bare-arsed.
“I can’t scramble eggs, you know. I think that’s incredibly sexy,” Hawke says. She’s licking jam off a spoon, and Isabela follows her movements, the curves of her body, how she looks like she belongs here in a way Isabela is sure she never has. “Where’d you get this tea kettle, anyway? It’s downright gaudy.”
“Stole it,” Isabela says, shifting a little, because it is mostly true. It once belonged to her husband, and before him, his mother and probably her mother. Hawke knows that story already, and she has no real desire to revisit it today. A fancy tea kettle is about all she ever got out of the deal. She suspects it might be worth more than she was.
“I am impressive,” she agrees, reaching up and wiping jam off Hawke’s mouth without looking up from her eggs.
“Good thing we’re a matched set, then.”
“Good thing you’re insane,” Isabela counters.
When Hawke leaves, the room suddenly seems too big and too stuffy, and Isabela supposes that is the natural progression of things, once you’ve had Hawke around for a bit. It’s just something that happens. Down at the docks, she steals something thick and ferocious-looking in delicate green bottles just for the fun of it and shares some apples with a beggar while the tide seeps in. She feels strange, volatile and hungry both at once. All around her, the sea roars, endless and proud. Isabela breathes it in and tastes courage, or something like it.
There is an Aveline who has taken up residence in Isabela’s head, saying things like “Time to get up, you port-drenched flooze, it’s a fine day for an arse-kicking,” or “Put that down, you don’t know whose orifice it’s been in,” or “My, those are perky, all things considered,” and “You’re not so bad, you know, you enormous slattern.” It would be amusing if it wasn’t so uncanny and just as insufferably chiseled and manful as the real thing, who is walking beside her as they make their way back to Lowtown from the Wounded Coast. It had been a favor, because she owed Aveline (again), and because there were people who needed beatings (again), and because she, perversely, wanted to. She has no idea when she became so beholden to these people that she rarely turns them down these days when it used to be Isabela was beholden to none but her blood and bones and the chalk-white canvas of her maps. Even if she hadn’t wanted to go, the Aveline in her head would have knocked on her skull and said, “What, and lie here naked and useless all morning? Stop slagging about and get up, you know you want to come. Do it for me,” she’d have said, and that would have been just the thing.
Actually, maybe it’s not uncanny. Maybe it’s just disturbing. Lunatic.
“I think it might be too soon,” Aveline—the real one—is saying. There’s a faint pink tinge to her cheeks, and in the golden light of the morning at this forsaken hour, it makes her look positively dainty. “I mean. Isn’t there a, a, I don’t know, aren’t you supposed to wait a certain amount of time?”
Isabela, far too prone to introspection these days for the good of her health (one ambush and she’d be too lost to even feel the knife in her guts), has missed at least half the conversation. She improvises. “I don’t think so. No one’s going to notice you’re flapping about wearing the same codpiece every day, you needn’t spend all your hard-earned coin on new ones.”
Aveline thumps her in the head, which she has probably been waiting to do all morning. “And no one’s going to notice you’re wearing the same smallclothes two days in a row. Tart.”
“You did,” Isabela leers. “Want a closer look? Here, I’ll bend over this crate right there and you can just have at it for a bit.”
“I don’t need a look, those have no function whatsoever. It would be more modest if you went starkers. I’m amazed you bother.”
“You like it,” she purrs, and Aveline has to work her jaw very hard to make it look like she’s not smiling.
(She is, though, and Isabela knows it. There are some things you learn about people when you share spoils and kills and nighttime prowlings and insults brewed like fine red wines over dinners, and Isabela and Aveline can read each other like sonnets by now. Lewd sonnets.)
“Anyway,” Isabela tries, “what were we talking about? Not your painful attire, surely.”
Aveline sighs. It is the long-suffering sort. “In your expert opinion, if I were to—well, say I was thinking. About—getting involved. With a man. A man I may have already given a miniature of an ox and a handful of marbles.”
“You want Guardsman Donnic to plow you like a bean field,” Isabela supplies. Aveline scoffs and walks into her on purpose, but it doesn’t stop her laughing. Nothing short of a swift and painful death will stop her laughing. “So just do it. It’s not like a pudding. You don’t have to let it sit. Besides, he’s never seen you in those orange trousers, so he probably thinks your legs are fantastic.”
There is a small “Ahem” behind them, elegant as fog lifting, and Sebastian Vael says, “She’s right, you know. You’ll never know if you keep hiding from it.”
“I’m not asking him to marry me, I’m just—oh, I don’t know,” Aveline sighs. Isabela wonders what it must be like, that mad, uncertain schoolgirl sort of love. Pining. She’s never pined. Never ever.
“What’s this, Aveline ‘Boulder-Buns’ Vallen, too scared to give it a go? Bad show, old girl, bad show.” Behind her, Sebastian smiles and looks up at the clouds, slowing down so Merrill can catch up. “Besides, who knows? You may actually get married. Perhaps after a night of passionate manhandling, Donnic will fall to one knee, begging you—‘Aveline, I cannot go another day without having you as my sculpted, firm, stony-arsed bride, please take my stodgy man-hands and—’”
“You are vile,” Aveline says, bumping into her again, more gently this time. “If I do get married I expect you to tart yourself up accordingly. Just for reference.”
“And I expect at least one dance, where I may feel you up as much as I want. Just for reference.” Aveline smiles all crooked at that, her eyes a clear, mossy green in the sun. It makes Isabela want to kiss her sometimes, just because.
At the crumbling Lowtown steps, Aveline leaves them for her regular patrol, her cheeks still vaguely pink. “Hey,” she says to Isabela, “thanks. You know. Hawke’s a lucky woman.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Isabela says, looking down toward the sea and ignoring the tight-throat thrill of panic those words unexpectedly send through her.
“I mean, you’re sort of wonderful.” Aveline glares at her to drive the point home, with only marginal success.
She wanders around Lowtown and then Hightown with Sebastian and Merrill for the rest of the day, rifling through a few pockets when the opportunity presents itself, usually in full view of Aveline’s patrol; she watches Merrill flit about the place like an especially pretty moth in search of brighter things, swooping over to fly-by-night Lowtown merchants and skipping over alleyway filth, unfamiliar with the language of cruelty that built the marble steps she stands on. Isabela was never like that, not even when she was very young. She wonders if she ever could have been like that.
“Here you are,” Merrill says. She is tapping Isabela with a hyacinth. “For you. Hyacinths mean sincerity in some strange shemlen language—it’s mostly useless but I think it may be my favorite thing they’ve ever done, even though they’re a little off—and I sincerely think you’re lovely. Is Aveline really getting married?”
“No. Not yet. Not after he’s seen those trousers, I should think,” Isabela says. She twirls her hyacinth between her fingers; it’s sweeter than honey. “And thank you, Kitten. I sincerely think you’re too good for this whole city.”
“I think I’d like being married, you know. Or—or maybe not. They might not like my soup, and I haven’t really tried to get rid of the mice.” She’s holding a large bouquet of what looks like leeks, peonies and rhubarb stalks. “The mice come with me, I’m afraid.”
“There are certainly worse things than mice,” says Sebastian. He’s staring down at a rose in his hand, unblinking. Isabela thinks his eyes might fall out if he doesn’t close them soon. “Which soup do you mean?”
“Oh.” At long last, Prince Vale blinks. “In that case, you’ve nothing to worry about.”
Merrill brightens even more at that, green-eyed bundle of aches and sweetness, and Isabela thinks she’s beautiful there, sprouting up between the Hightown granite. Between the two of them there with her it’s like a breath of spring coming down from the mountains, all pine and lilac and tiny, soft secrets; Isabela draws some sun-warmed comfort from that, from Merrill and Sebastian and the quiet enthusiasm swelling out from their voices, until she decides it must be catching and smiles up into the late morning sky like it’s going to smile back.
“D’you know, I was married once,” she says. They do know; they just carefully waltz around it when it comes up, which is something Isabela supposes friends do. She’s not sure whether that sort of sideways consideration makes her uncomfortable or not, so she tends to think of it as just another thing to weather and tame. “I got better.”
“Did you,” Merrill frowns, closes her mouth, looks off to the side. Isabela knows that particular look, the way her lips twist up with worry and unbearable and possibly inappropriate curiosity: she is trying to determine whether this is a thing you Do Not Ask. “Did you—you know—did you shank him?”
“Oh, no. Not me, anyway. I didn’t even have to get my hands dirty, and by midnight I had several thousand sovereigns and a mouthful of Antivan Crow.”
“But—you were better after that, right? With your ship, and eating crows, and everything?”
“Right as rain, Kitten. Biscuits and butter.” She chews the inside of her cheek for a moment, thinking of her unmade bed where Hawke is still sleeping and wondering if that is entirely true, but she decides a few broken rules and some strange and unfamiliar stomach gymnastics don’t constitute wrongness. Just bad wine and digestive troubles, more like.
Sebastian is smiling at both of them, his cheeks wind-chapped and slightly red. “There was a time when I wanted to be a pirate. I’d even have gone and gotten a few more interesting scars knocked into me for the job.”
“A few more? Where are these existing ones and why do I not know about them?”
“Well-hidden and old and mostly decorating my back.” Sebastian’s mouth is crooked, color still dappled across his high, extremely well-bred cheeks. “And, no one has seen them. Not recently.”
“Bet Andraste’s seen them, you dirty boy,” she says, flicking him in the ear. He snorts half out of indignation and half out of amusement, his head tipped back into the sun. Lovely, aristocratic even now, and Isabela secretly loves him like this, the prince and the priest in a spiral of chains that cannot be uncoupled. “You don’t hold out on her. Merrill and I are much more interesting, you know, being actual flesh-and-blood women who can bestow much better blessings upon you.”
“I don’t know any blessings,” Merrill says. She looks mildly abashed. “I never thought about being a pirate. Is that normal? Do humans all want to be pirates at some point?”
“Only some of us,” Sebastian tells her. “You still could be, Merrill. Run off and get scurvy and shiver timbers. Arrrrrgh.”
“Arrrrgh,” she giggles.
It jolts the smile off Isabela’s face. Merrill, bright little songbird growing over her heart in thick ivy-vines, throwing herself at the sea because the sea is all the mercy she has left. The whole thought rankles so badly she shakes her head and gives her hyacinth an especially amorous sniff and winds up with pollen in her nose.
“Easy there,” Sebastian says, patting her a little gingerly on the back. His touch has none of the expectant ease she gets from most men, but more comfort. More care. “No petals stuck up there?”
She sneezes. Merrill peers up at her, tilting her head. It makes her look very young. “I think it likes you, Isabela. It tried to pollinate you. What were we talking about?”
“Pirates. But that was before Isabela became, ah, intimate with your flower.”
“Oh! That’s right. Why are you a pirate? I’d think you could have been anything. A painter, a baker, a writer, a witch who’s only pretending to be a witch.” Merrill counts with her fingers stuck out. “A mabari-wrangler. A toad farmer.”
“The gold and the glistening young men, mostly.” The Aveline in her head pipes up to tell her she is being cheap, tawdry and simple; the more rational part of her, speaking from somewhere near her burning nasal cavity, wraps herself up in the half-truth of it like a diamond necklace, like a shield. “Do you know, most of them walk about half naked just waiting to fix you with their smoldering and carnal gaze, thighs a-flapping—”
“I think you missed your calling as a painter.”
“You can just see it, can’t you.”
“Want to talk about it?” she leers.
“No,” Sebastian says, “and I don’t think you actually do, either.”
“Wrong! Oh, how wrong you are, High Prince of Your Disapproving Stern Handsomeness,” she cackles. Sebastian’s nose twitches; Merrill’s whole body twitches as if in agreement. “Fit Antivan men are always at the forefront of my mind. A pity you’re not so lucky.”
Sebastian gives her a soft and infuriatingly knowing look.
The whole conversation reminds her of one she had with Hawke months and months ago, when they sat up drinking and chewing over old bones until the sun bit through her flimsy brown curtains, both of them full of temperamental, dusty things they rarely held up to the light. Hawke just watched her with those endless eyes, moody and rough around the edges as she was, and traced the lines of her palm as the last nightbird crowed against the tyranny of dawn. Isabela had fallen asleep against her knees.
She thought retching up her heart, arteries and half her large intestine in confession that night might actually keep Hawke away, but she’d been there again, and again, and again, most nights for a year now. Sometimes, she leaves little notes for Isabela around her room, or she’ll write things in the margins of shopping lists. She doesn’t know whether it says more about Hawke, that she keeps letting this happen, or about herself, folded so neatly into Hawke it almost looks like she was meant to be there all along. Why she hasn’t burned the thought with yesterday’s rubbish.
So. Complicated. This is complicated. Isabela has never been one for complicated. Complicated is when she skips town, the country, sometimes even the whole continent. Complicated is when you need books and advice and carefully worded and thoroughly embarrassing conversations that involve lots of ooohhhhs and aahhhhhs and hrrrmms and I see, old girl, I see. And that’s just not on.
“How are the tavern beds treating you in this fine weather?” Sebastian, startling her out of her complicated thoughts about complicated things, says tavern like he hasn’t seen as many barroom floors and respectable women’s knickers as she has. It’s charming, in a quaint sort of way. “My father always used to have me dragged out of them. I’m probably still not welcome in a few places up north.”
“You’re always welcome down south, you know.” She flashes him her best Wanton and Debauched Grin. “You’ve only to ask.”
“Are you talking about sex? Was that sexual?” Merrill blinks at them. Sebastian swallows and combs his fingers through his hair. “It was, wasn’t it?”
“What do you think?”
“I think so,” Merrill says. She shifts her bouquet in her arms. “You’re very good at that, you know. All that, that innuendo. It’s hard. Like coconuts.”
“Someday, we’ll find you a man or a woman worth your time,” Isabela tells her, slinging an arm around her and pressing her nose into her ear. “You can be sexual at them,” she whispers, very loudly. Merrill hums. Sebastian looks like someone’s just squirted lemon juice in his face. Isabela laughs.
Merrill wiggles against her suddenly, regarding her with that sweet, dusty sort of contemplation she gives people and certain poisonous flowering plants. Isabela swallows her trepidation. “She does, you know. I told you so.”
“I noticed,” Sebastian says. He’s grinning and he’s not purple anymore, which is a shame because it rather suited him. “It’s lovely.”
“You,” Merrill chirps. “You’re a magpie.”
“You’re looking very glowy, these days. We’ve attributed it to Hawke and a good helping of happy things, speaking of debauchery,” Sebastian elaborates. There’s a wicked quirk to his mouth and a blade-sharp glint in his eyes, which always makes Isabela lament for the things they could have done if only they’d met before Andraste sunk her cold, dead paws into his tender princely heart. Between the two of them—and Merrill, too—they could probably have conquered several small territories and left the rest of Thedas fleeing for mercy.
“We’re happy for you, da’len,” Merrill says gently, squeezing her hand.
Isabela takes a breath and tries to think of something to say but can’t. People don’t get happy for her, and if they do they keep it to themselves, write it down and use it as blackmail material later, but here they are acting like this is something she can and should embrace. It makes no sense. Nothing makes any sense anymore; she truly is one spaghetti noodle short of mental.
“Thank you,” she chokes, and they smile at her, all teeth and eyes and patience. They deserve more. She wants to give them more, but her jaw has glued itself shut.
“The Maker has blessed you both,” Sebastian says, and she suddenly feels itchy with this particular blessing. “Some good came out of your shipwreck.”
“Or maybe Mythal sent her to you,” Merrill wonders. “Or, maybe the whole shipwreck was her doing in the first place. That does sound like her.”
“Perhaps it was,” Sebastian agrees, smiling, the itchy weight of their blessings making the backs of Isabela’s knees sweat. She scratches her nose surreptitiously and chances a shaky smile, and it’s not like it’s a secret, so why does she even care?
The sun is high in the sky and they’re full of corned beef and cheese by the time they round the wide Chantry corridor, Andraste’s stony gaze keeping vigil to the merchants and the thieves. There was a time, once, for about eight seconds and very long ago, when Isabela wished the Chant worked for her; of course, the Chant was never really meant for people like her, besotted as she is with Orlesian negligees and busty bards and the salt-sharp smell of the sea, but there is beauty to be found in the peace here, in the knowledge she thinks must come from being part of something so much bigger than yourself. Sure, she might think it’s boring as prunes and sandwiches with crust on, but it’s a respectable, ethereal sort of boring, the kind that beckons you closer and holds you tight.
Of course, there’s no room for her there, there’s no room for her anywhere, which was why she took to the sea in the first place, long before she fell in love with it and let it enfold her; there’s no room for her there, so she learned to keep her own identity like a religion, folded away with her jewels and the dog-eared books she’ll never sell, and maybe there’s comfort in that too but she figures comfort is mostly useless in the end, anyway. Coin gets you farther; a knife will get you more.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Sebastian tells them at the steps, his voice rolling like green hills. “Going back home, both of you?”
“Yes,” says Merrill. “Haha,” says Isabela.
He smiles and shakes his head at her. “You are a good woman, Isabela,” he says, strong like he means it. She can smell the incense on the air, that thick spice-and-clove smell that always reminds her of Llomerryn, of the market square and shellfish stew. She hates it and she loves it. “Tell Hawke I said hello,” he says, with one last quirk of his lips to Isabela before the Chantry takes him back in again.
She loses Merrill at the steps down to the alienage, where she’s taking her leek-peony-rhubarb bouquet. “Take care, da’len,” she says, leaning up against her. “I’m here if you want soup or cheese or sunflower seeds, or just for gossip, I have been practicing,” and she, too, is gone.
Back up the steps, then, alone.
A good woman. Like she’s not ten years too old for that line and a few hundred petty thefts past believing it. She wonders if he used to say that to all the girls, slip that patent-leather smile onto his face or brush his fingers against a waist while he slipped his other in their purses. She wonders if Sebastian Vael ever broke his own rules so badly his stomach collapsed into his intestines every time he forgot another one, if he spent every cent of his wanderlust and desire until he reached into his pocket one day to find himself all gone. She wonders if he still retraces his steps from there to now.
She buys herself a new ring on her way back to The Hanged Man, blue topaz the color of a muzzy winter sky to ward off the storms and keep her grounded. It glitters in the sun, reflects her face a hundred times over in its clear-cut facets when she holds it up to the light and blinks into it, looking surprised to find herself standing there. You are a good woman, you are a good woman.
From down below, she can see a candle burning already in her room as wind whistles past her ears in the Lowtown street, saying, Hurry, hurry.
Once, when Isabela was as young as the scythe of the moon, her mother told her a sea-green tale of sirens and mermaids and all the manner of beast-women who lay just beneath the surface of the ocean, waiting to lure pirates off their maps and onto the rocky shores of death, women who would devour fishermen whole just for the sport of it.
“They fall in love with their beauty, with their song,” her mother said, and her words were fire as she lit the thick yellow candles on their mahogany mantel. Isabela was seven years old and she was afraid of her; there was a hunger in her like blood spilled, like betrayal. “But they never see the teeth. They don’t pay mind to the claws, to their minds sharper than daggers. They forget themselves.” Her mother’s eyes were golden, appraising as the merchants’ scales in the market; they knew the weight of a beating heart, the mathematics of a back-alley deal. “They are wicked, unworthy creatures, they who know not their own hearts.”
Isabela always thought, being possessed of so keen a fight-or-flight instinct, she would be halfway through her second-floor window with a body bleeding out on the ground before anyone could even think about doing some late-night murdering and/or thieving in her quarters. It does not please her to learn that she is wrong.
“Up! Come on, Maker, you snore like elephants revolting at a three-ring circus.” Something is pressing its soggy, raspberry-scented lips to her forehead. “It’s early. Why are you even sleeping? Up!”
“Ackphhfff!” she squeals. She will later deny this, loudly.
Through the wooly haze of early evening and the half-memory of an enormous barn swallow teaching her to sing falsetto, Hawke filters into view, straddling her thighs and grinning like a loon with something small and shiny.
“There you are,” Hawke coos, sitting back and grinning wider. It makes her look a little deranged, which is maybe just the flesh reflecting what was always swimming beneath the bones of her sharp face. “Look, prune pudding. Freshly plucked from the Gallows.”
She spreads out a scarf on Isabela’s lap and opens it like it’s a picnic. A picnic of strange wooden trinkets, a huge piece of treacle tart, some old and expensive-looking rings, and a pair of the laciest, frilliest, silkiest, unsubtlest garters Isabela has ever laid a trembling finger upon. They slide across her hands like spun silver; she is not woman enough for this. No one is woman enough for this.
“Where,” she asks, voice hoarse with sleep and wonder, nap long forgotten. Hawke leans back against the bedframe and licks her lips.
“I was in the neighborhood, you know, sneaking about to see if they’d got anything on certain people dear to my bosom, certain people whose names rhyme with Barrel and—and, errr, Schmethany, when I thought, do you know what I thought, I thought, let’s see if Meredith has finally expired from her desperate and doomed love for me.”
“You didn’t,” Isabela whispers, smile spreading across her face slow as sunset, “Andraste’s heaving tits, you didn’t.”
“Oh, I did, Captain, I did. Speaking of tits, I found a few other unmentionables which I personally took the time to fondle lovingly. How she keeps them contained in that armor is truly an act of the Maker. Would make a believer out of me, if I wasn’t already pure as driven snow.”
Isabela lets out a sound a little like a dying moose. “You crusty tart. You churl. I can’t believe you went skulking into Meredith’s rooms without me. You know I’ve never been.”
“Buck up, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Besides, you’d not have had much interest anyway, snoozing as you were. Did you just call me a churl?”
“Dried-up boor. Slag.” She launches all three pillows at Hawke, who doesn’t duck in time. “I’d have taken them for all they were worth. Treacle tart, Hawke, when you could have had the First Enchanter’s smallclothes. Honestly.”
Hawke, pushing her hair out of her face, huffs out a laugh. “See, that’s why I need you, mon chou. You always keep me so grounded.”
“Reaching for the stars, us. One of these days we’ll pull the moon right down and do a runner.”
Hawke winks at her. Isabela winks back. Why do they even do that?
She gets out of bed, amused and wide awake, and goes to close her curtains and get some forks because treacle tart, no matter how contraband, is not a thing to be ignored. Hawke pokes a log on the fire and lights a few candles, rearranges the pillows on the bed, and already this has the inevitability of a hurricane. It’s strange, this, how she slips so easily into lazy intimacy with Hawke, how aware she is of it all and how rigid she goes when she thinks about it too much and realizes she doesn’t know what she’s doing at all. All angles and awkward toes, still, maybe because she tries too hard, or not hard enough. Or maybe because she never learned how to do this at all.
“Here,” she says, shoving half the tart at Hawke on a chipped saucer. She sits on the edge of the bed with her own and feels a little like a butler, or a housewife, and the silence does nothing to smoosh those thoughts back down.
Hawke just shoves tart into her mouth like it is her one true purpose, which is a small comfort in itself. Isabela tries to do the same.
“I’ll make it up to you tomorrow,” Hawke says around a mouthful of tart. “We’ll take a few souvenirs from the seneschal.”
“He’ll know it was us. Remember last time?” Isabela taps her fork against her saucer and drops her voice to a nearly pitch-perfect imitation of Seneschal Bran’s haughty tenor: “‘Ahh, yes, Hawke and company, I would offer you a more precise location, but it seems someone has relieved me of my map, as well as every cranberry crumpet in the pantry. Most unlucky. Most strange.’”
“He didn’t even notice you took that pipe or all that rope, either. Kinky old git, but he’s getting lax. Here, give me that wine.”
“Wine doesn’t go with treacle tart. I was saving that for something special.”
“I just brought you the Knight-Commander’s garters and her very own personal treacle tart, and that’s not special? That’s not exceptional? That’s not, like, the best wank anyone’s ever had?”
“Be that as it may, this extraordinary day of days does not warrant chugging all the cabernet. It’s treacle tart.”
“How about for us, then? We warrant it. Our great honking romance warrants it. Also, we’re gorgeous.”
Romance. That is what this is. Isabela considers this for approximately five seconds, stops mid-chew, and grabs the bottle from underneath her table. “Fine. I hope it gives you violent indigestion,” she sniffs, her heart beating the Ferelden coronation anthem into her ribs.
They drink. And they drink. Then they drink some more, and Isabela starts thinking warm, honey-sick thoughts, closing her eyes as the whole world condenses down to this, her and Hawke and a stolen pair of garters. By the time they get to the dregs at the bottom of a second bottle they’re both sloshed, and Isabela has started admiring the bones of Hawke’s lower legs from her spot on the rug. They are delicate, otherworldly, pointy. Isabela loves them. She doesn’t realize she’s said so until Hawke starts laughing, tangling her fingers in her hair, and tells her she loves her ankles, too.
“Look at them. Look at them. They’re so dainty. I want to put them in my trunk and sail away,” Hawke says, poking her bones with her big toe. If Isabela had to describe her confusing and muddled relationship with Hawke at this point, she thinks it would include a lot of big, long words, words like integral and vital and very very. This makes her happy and it also makes her head hurt, which seems to have become her default state of being when she’s around Hawke. “You’re so, so fantastic. Mon chou. Mon petit chou.
“Mon chou. What do you know. That’s a cabbage.”
“You’re a cabbage. You’re lettuce. You’re, you know what, you’re a turnip. Keep your head in the ground. Impossible to pull out.”
“I am not. I’ll have you know plenty of people can pull out of me, difficult as it is for their besotted little heads. Haha. Ha, ha. See what I did?”
“This is what I mean,” Hawke starts, chewing on her lip. Isabela presses her mouth to Hawke’s and chews it for her.
“I’m not a turnip.”
“Are too,” says Hawke, petulantly. They stumble back onto the bed and watch the candles flicker out, all wound up in each other. She is just dozing off again when Hawke says, through her yawn, “You are, you know. You are a turnip. Hiding your juicy turnip-flesh away.”
“And you’re a hedge apple, exploding all over the road and making messes on perfectly innocent shoes.”
“But at least people can see me,” she mutters, and Isabela squirms uncomfortably. Hawke rolls over between her legs and presses her face into Isabela’s stomach. “Tell me something turnipy, turnip queen.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I like it when you talk to me.”
Isabela’s eyebrows knit together and then float apart. “I always talk to you.”
“Talk talk,” Hawke pouts. “Tell me something good. Tell me a secret. A story. Confess your undying and unholy love for Varric’s brother or the smell of soggy bread. Just. Say something.”
It’s just like Hawke, she thinks, to ask this of her, and just like her to find that her mouth has gone dry and her toes are numb. She doesn’t know what she could possibly have for Hawke, feeling too big and too old and too awkward with this bright, beautiful thing wrapped around her, expecting truth and beauty and revelation where there is none to be found. She has earned none of this, Hawke’s warmth or her fondness for the bones of her ankles. Certainly not the Knight-Commander’s garters.
But Hawke is here, and she is looking up at Isabela with huge, patient eyes, and it’s awkward and strange and her toes are still numb but it is hers, in this one dim, quiet moment, and she can reach out and pluck it from the air if she wants it because it’s there, waiting for her fingers to wrap around it. She can hear the clock ticking on the wall.
“When I was a young turnip, I used to love playing in the dirt. I mean, I still do, who doesn’t, you just have to be more discreet about it as you get older, but when I was little, I’d dig little rows in the tiny box of a backyard we had and plant things. I was good at it, too. Never grew turnips, though. Mostly sunflowers and pansies and carrots and tomatoes. There was too much clay in the ground for anything too delicate, but I did manage summer squash once or twice. Pretty impressive, for a girl. And—you know, I can’t remember who taught me,” she suddenly realizes. “Someone must have. Certainly not dear old mother, but I can’t imagine who it might have been. It just… seems like something I always knew how to do.”
She stares down at her hands, where she is idly braiding a bit of Hawke’s hair. “I always wondered if maybe that was why I turned out to be so good at stealing things. Or dueling people. Green thumbs mean battles won, Hawke, and no mistake. But.” She shifts, and Hawke rolls with her, crawling up closer. “I’ve always sort of missed that, you know. Cultivating things. Growing them. And then eating them, sometimes. I was good at it. Maybe I’d have been a prize-winning squash-gardener someday. Maybe I’d come all the way to Kirkwall to let people fondle them.” Isabela stares up at the ceiling, watches the shadows cast from the fire flit across the cracks and get lost there, flickering out and fading away with the aftertaste of memory. “I don’t know why I just told you that,” she says, inexplicably exhausted. “It sounded a lot more profound in my head. I blame you. You’re the one who insisted on the wine.”
When Hawke doesn’t say anything, Isabela tenses, briefly; then, blaming the drink for making her think these things are hers to take, she sits up with purpose.
It starts in her neck and from there spreads to her shoulders, a certain lightness, a loosening of muscles and tendons that creeps down to the tips of her fingers and the pit of her belly, a wild, aching need to move and touch and take. It is the same thing that guides her ship; it is the same thing that charts her paths through the stars, and when she pushes Hawke back against the pillows and kisses her, she knows, somehow, she won’t get it out of her blood or her skull again.
“You,” Hawke says, her eyes a shock of cut glass before she leans up to press her mouth to Isabela’s neck, right where her heart beats rabbit-fast. “You.”
Once, Isabela was a gambler out of necessity, now out of long habit; maybe that’s what this is, maybe it isn’t, but when Hawke touches her in the dark, when their bodies fit together on her oversized bed better than anything ever has or will, Isabela knows, somehow, that this is going nowhere she can chart with a map and a handful of stars. She is casting about blindly, trying to navigate this tender thing full of mouths, full of hands, this elusive thing that calls out to her like a siren, beckoning her somewhere she isn’t sure she belongs.
Her wedding night, and Isabela was a spindly little beanpole swimming in white as she took the long walk back down the wharf ten feet behind a pack of drunk, thick-tongued noblemen with laughs like hacksaws. While the sun turned red and bled out into the clouds, she watched her shadow pool at her feet, wishing for all the world that she could fall through the cracks in the dock and turn herself to salt and seafoam.
“Nothing like a gaggle of humans oozing all over the place to put you off your dinner.” Her mouth was shaped like a question mark and she had a fishing pole slung over her shoulder, one eyebrow arched up so high Isabela thought it might disappear in her golden hair. An elf, stronger than the mast of a merchant’s ship and far from home. “Poor girl. I suppose you’re with them?”
“Don’t mock me,” she snapped, fourteen years old and terrified, but old enough to recognize this. Her new ring was suddenly heavy, too big for her girl-fingers, but then, so was everything else: the day too long, her dress too loose, her belly too small to hold the cold rush of dread and fear and fury. “Don’t.”
“I don’t. And I wouldn’t. I swear it, or, at least I would if I swore.” Her voice coiled around Isabela, put her in the mind of cold seas and pine needles. “Which, I don’t.”
“Swear, or swear swear?”
“Why, both, of course,” the woman said. Her mouth turned up so kindly at one corner that Isabela forgor herself for a moment and smiled, too. “You gooseberry.”
She set her pole down and looked Isabela up and down, lifted up her chin. Any moment now, her new husband would yell for her, would threaten the elf, would do something horrible. “You know, you’re no elf,” she said, nodding as if her blunted ears were not mere physicality, “but you’re a woman. You’re made of roots and leaves and pomegranate seeds, and you’ve got solid legs, you do. And that means you’re stronger than winter’s teeth, girl, braver and wiser than the bones of the dead. In time, you’ll know what that means.” She bent her head toward Isabela’s, suddenly very close; for a moment, she thought this grey-eyed woman might kiss her, but instead, she stuck a finger under her chin and said, “They will tremble beneath a courage like yours.”
She gave Isabela her necklace, right off her neck and still warm from her own sun-touched skin. It was a tiny gold thing, a pendant with a jewel the color of a sea storm at its heart, and when she clasped it around Isabela’s neck, she thought she almost understood. “Thank you,” she said, her voice steady even as the sun set, even as her husband shouted her name, that ugly, foreign barb on his tongue; Isabela was a child again with the soft weight of spring around her feet, a secret around her neck to keep safe the way only a fourteen-year-old girl can.
“Nothing to thank me for, child,” the fisherwoman said, her hand slipping from her shoulder as she stepped back to the dock, and Isabela felt her loss, fourteen years old and swallowed up in the bite of the ring on her finger. “May the road and may the sea both rise beneath your feet.”
That night, when her husband put his hand over her caged-bird heart, he unclasped her necklace and grasped it in his heavy fist. “What is this? Some heathen trinket?” he said. He lifted it up to the light, out of her reach, snapped the pendant off its silver chain.
“No,” she said loudly, her bird bones beating against the iron bars, “give it back. Give it back, it’s mine.”
“What would you do,” she asks, sitting drunk on the docks while they watch the moon rise, full and pale and cold, “if I told you we’re through? That’s it. Just up and sailed away tomorrow morning.”
Hawke, her face lifted to the kiss of the stars, pulls her legs through the water and leans back on her elbows, smiling that soft Hawke smile that always makes Isabela want to curl into her and forget everything else. Somewhere, a nightbird calls out, soft and sweet and so very far away. “I suppose I’d watch you go,” she answers. “I’d watch you sail off until I couldn’t see you anymore, and I’d think of how it was just so you, how very sailor-y of you, and that’d be that. No more cheap wine and seaside melancholy.” She blinks. “Or, maybe some cheap gin and Lowtown melancholy.”
“Wouldn’t miss me at all?”
“Like a wound. Like the moon and the stars.” Hawke takes a drink straight from the bottle they’re sharing, and Isabela wonders if she can taste her on it, too, the salt of the sea and her mouth and the metal tang of her jewelry. Probably, she is too drunk, but she wonders if Hawke can taste her blood, too, the rattle-and-hum of her windswept heart. “I’d tell my stories in The Hanged Man for the rest of my days. Varric would make me his protégé. I’d be like—no, here, just listen: ‘Picture it: a seedy tavern, a Lowtown urchin and the most beautiful shipwrecked pirate you’d ever meet, outdrinking and outscrewing everyone from here to the Anderfels until the pirate took her heart, locked it up and swept it out to sea.’ Like Varric, yeah. But more maudlin. More highbrow, you might say. Prone to taller tales.” She wiggles her eyebrows like two well-plucked caterpillars, and her cheeks flush even more. Somehow, on Hawke, it is very attractive. “They’d never hear the end of you. The one who swam away. The one who was never going to stay. I’d try to swim after you but you know how my legs cramp.”
“That was awful. You should think about what you just said and perhaps knock off the drink, you humongous tart.” She takes a long drink herself and dangles the bottle well out of Hawke’s reach. “I can’t believe you wouldn’t even write me a limerick. The least you could do is immortalize my thighs, or—or, hey, come on, you love it when I say inappropriate things about ship bits.”
“There once was a girl from Rivain, and all attempts to court her were in vain, until her foremast’s folds Marian Hawke did unfurl and take hold, and then—”
“No sense of rhythm. None at all.” She is trying not to laugh, but it never works out for her anymore. She snorts, rather too loudly. “Shameful.”
“You’re just saying that to cover up your lewd and lustful thoughts.”
“No, I’m saying that because you are no poet and it shows badly, you Ferelden cabbage.”
“But I’d learn, you know, out of necessity and my brokenhearted wasting away at the edges and all. You Rivaini jellyfish. In my grief I’d start speaking in iambic pentameter for the rest of my days and drink horrible rum and stuff myself on Orlesian food until I expired from the heartache and melancholy, and also the high fat content. You’ve taught me something.” She presses her nose into the crook of Isabela’s neck and breathes. She smells like honeysuckle and buttered biscuits and violets, always violets, and Isabela can feel her eyelashes brushing her collarbone. It makes her shiver. “A lot of somethings, actually. A veritable boatload.”
“All right, let’s not get so smooshy we seep through the cracks in the docks. You’re already dripping all over me.” She takes a long drink and ignores the way Hawke presses against her and sighs, how she can feel her lips pull into her favorite sideways smile. And she wants her there—right there, here, leaning into her and whispering familiar secrets as the stars wind their way through the sky. It’s ridiculous. Absurd. Foolish. It’s so stupid she takes another drink and wraps an arm around Hawke’s waist. For stability, of course. “You’d not make for a bad sailor, you know. We just need to work on that mouth of yours. Maybe get you a tattoo. Or a scar. I could do both, if you’re up for it.”
“I’d be the worst. I’d puke all over the deck and they’d be so jealous of my position as your personal dishrag they’d toss me over to the dolphins, who would naturally take me in as one of their own.”
“You’d be worser than worse,” Isabela grins. Hawke kisses the hollow of her throat, brushes her lower lip against her heavy turquoise necklace that may or may not have belonged to a Nevarran witch-queen. Sometimes, she doesn’t even take it off when she sleeps. “Fortunately there are other reasons to keep you around.”
“It’s my unbelievable face, isn’t it? You think I’m gorgeous.” Hawke throws her head back and barks out a wine-soaked laugh, the one Isabela likes so much. “Or my untapped-into-potential to buckle swashes? We could run away. And I’ll buckle all your swashes, Captain Commander Queen Isabela of my heartstrings and nether regions.”
She laughs, breathes the salt air and Hawke deep in her lungs so she can feel it in her bones and keep this one seaside night like a bone bruise. Maybe she will even keep the feel of Hawke’s elbow digging into her ribs. Isabela can never decide whether this is Hawke being charming, or Hawke being insufferable or maybe Hawke just being selfish, and it grates but she just doesn’t care. She grates, too. She supposes they could make for a nice pair of orange juicers or washboards. “I love it when you laugh,” Hawke tells her, a great, drunken secret. “You’re all over sunshine and daisies. It tastes like I imagine the Maker’s golden unmentionables must feel in your mouth.” And, then, quieter: “I like making you laugh. You know.”
She does. But. “Even when I’m laughing because you’re so drunk you can’t keep your trousers up?”
“Especialllllllly. Your most favorite.”
“Good thing you do enough of that for half the city.”
“You love it,” Hawke drawls, falling all over her, bright bird in the dark. “My, my allure. My dark and dangerous and trouser-less charms that leave you weak in the knees and girlparts. Or something.”
She laughs again then, because Hawke is warm pressed up beside her and the moon is a bright white seed in the sky and it just feels right, easy as the water between her toes. Like it could be easier than anything she’s ever done, if she could only let it be. “Do you really need confirmation that you’re my favorite? Because you know you are.”
“Your favorite then, mm? How about some confirmation that I’m the loveliest, the splendidist, the one who revs your rudders like no other?”
“You’re insufferable,” she says, but she’s laughing, anyway. “You. I like you. There.”
“Even though I don’t know what I’m doing?”
“You never do. We’ll end up nowhere together, with no pants and probably a lot of treacle tart.”
“I’d end up in your nowheres, if you know what I mean.” Isabela just snorts but Hawke is on her before she can tell her all the ways that made no sense. She kisses Isabela’s neck very wetly, sucks hard enough to leave a mark before she can swat her away, laughing warmly at nothing until Isabela is, too. “Honestly. What a beautiful night. I ought to screw you wildly under the stars, where all the fishes can see.”
Isabela pushes a finger under her necklace, runs her thumb over the gold and turquoise. Liquid-cool. “Save it for the next full moon. We can howl like wanton werewolves.”
“But I’d do that anyway.” She presses the promise of the fact that she very much will do that to the golden stud beneath Isabela’s lip, and that is that.
A plan. They have plans for the next day, the next two weeks, six months from now. A few laid out for the gravelly paths of years to come, concrete slabs of commitments she cannot keep even if she wants, even if Hawke wants, but the moon is full and the stars are wobbling overhead, and all her well-rehearsed excuses for why not get stuck and die down low in her throat. She flicks her tongue out over her lip and tastes the thick tang of metal, fresh as a wound.
When she dies, Isabela wants to be burned with her jewelry, pearls wound around her thighs, turquoise and rubies strung over her eyes, a chunk of citrine in the dip of her navel. Gold in her mouth, down her throat, wrapped around her heart like heavy armor and locked up tight so no one could ever see the stars she hides inside, could never, ever rip the flesh apart and take those glittering things that are hers. They could try to peel the layers away but they’d never find what they were looking for; just gold to the bone and the soul, stronger than the flames that burned her body away. None of that smooshy, gooey stuff humans and elves and dwarves and all those other flesh-things are made of. Just hard, solid nothing.
“To you, Captain Isabela,” Hawke is saying, jarring like china breaking, passing her the bottle. “And me. And the sea. Until it parts us, of course. Or brings you back, like a migrating salmon. Or we run off buckling each other’s swashes and generally being big blights on the landscape. The sort of blight they don’t make a cure for, har har.”
Isabela looks up to the sky and swallows; here is Hawke, laughing, drinking, touching her, here they are and here she is and, no, she does not think her stars will lead her to Kirkwall again once they’ve finally carried her off. Her voice is hoarse, rough with laughter and the chill of the air. “You’d come after me, would you? Shake me down and give my timbers a good shiver, I expect.”
“I wo-oould,” Hawke breathes, and Isabela can taste the rum on her, mournful as the night against her shoulder, “but you wouldn’t want to be found, and I’d know better than to follow. Because I know some things. So, no. Not even if I wanted. Not even if you dared me. Never ever.”
Isabela twists the silver bangle on her arm. Wonders how far she could swim, in nothing but her jewelry and her bare skin. “And you don’t think that’s a mistake? Not to chase after the things you want and damn the rest?”
“Our mistakes are part of us. I think you even said that, once, in your infinite wisdom, oh captain of my ladyparts and all my ventricles.” Hawke twines her leg with Isabela’s under the water, moon-pale in the dark. Again, she leans into it, if only because it is what she wants in this moment, and what are people made of but moments, desire? Maker, she isn’t drunk enough for this. “So do the things we do right. The good. The not-so-good. The in-betweens. The body shots gone horribly, horribly wrong. The unwashed smallclothes. The petty thievery.”
“That one was almost properly poetic, Ser Sloppy Handsy Drinkyface.”
“It’s true, though. You know it’s true.” Hawke only leers a little when she slides her hand down Isabela’s thigh for the twenty-second time tonight. “And besides, I’ve got to get my feelies in before you up and leave and probably take my trousers with you, you beautiful sea-beast.”
She watches the light of the moon illuminate the planes of Hawke’s face and thinks how it’s so much easier to say things like that when you’re not a liar by necessity and a thief by trade, when you have known nothing else but this. She wonders if there’s enough good knocking around in there to outweigh any of it; she’s freed slaves and fed alleyway women who rise like tendrils of smoke above the ground, invisible as she once felt. Hasn’t stuck her knife in anyone who didn’t thoroughly deserve it, made a tiny smattering of friends and fistfuls of enemies, but what does that even make her? Not entirely horrible? A Good Woman? Hawke hums vulgar nonsense beside her, and in the silence that stretches long between them, she wonders if Hawke ever watches her in the dark when she gets like this, tracks the uncertainty of her movements, the hammering of the hungry, frantic heart she smothers away under silk and gold and giggles. Wonders, but she doesn’t have to guess.
Hawke would tell her that she’s more than her past like Isabela doesn’t already know, but what she really wants to do is put all this in her back pocket and keep it there for good. To believe that maybe she is even worthy of this, seaweed and rum and tangled legs, of some sort of future where she buckles swashes or wakes up in the same bed every morning, or maybe just with the same nose slicing into her arm.
The thought is exhilarating. It is tepid. It is utterly, profoundly terrifying, and she takes another drink for the nerves as the cold settles deep in her belly and rattles around with this evening’s mince pie and pound cake.
“I suppose you’re right,” she admits, “as novel as that is for you.” Probably it is the drink, but she can feel the earth shift when she stands like she did on that first night (when, in retrospect, it may also have been the drink), and she could swear she feels the ancient and exceptionally dirty dirt of Lowtown settle, waves clinking together like glass tumblers and all at once she is—she is something. She does not know what to call it but she knows she doesn’t want to lose it; she knows that, at least for tonight, this is where she is going: the sea, her bed with three pillows, her hand closed around Hawke’s. This is where they are going.
When Isabela takes her up to her room that night, she lets Hawke undress her as slow as she wants. Hawke pulls off her boots, her stockings, her smallclothes, all the reverence of soft hands and quirked lips, as if she is a holy thing, as if she is worthy of this. Isabela guides her hands up to the clasp of her necklace, says, “I want you to.” Her heart beats rabbit-fast under Hawke’s hands.
In the dark, Isabela arches up into Hawke, bare skin on her hands, legs wrapped around her hips, nothing but hands and mouths and breath. Hawke’s lips are on her neck, mouthing Isabela’s name on the bare thread of her breath, and when she strokes her fingers inside her Isabela gasps, forehead pressed to Hawke’s, eyes wide open. She kisses her again and again, hair spilling over her shoulders, moves her hips like a vow, like ritual. This is what they are for, she thinks, this is what skin and bones and mouths are for: the firm promise of fingers clasped tight, of lips curving over shoulders and the edges of teeth at fingertips, the slide of palms on the backs of knees, the sweetness of skin on skin. Muscles moving, pulling, sharing, and this—this, the concise, blurred topography of two bodies breathing together in a small, rickety bedroom.
This is what they are for.
After, she watches the moonlight seep in through her musty curtains, drinking, running her hands up her bare arms, her bare neck. She is itchy and her legs are sticky and her lungs are full of something she cannot get out. It is a full moon, for lovers and sailors and the swift bloom of wordless wishes that twine through the air like honeysuckle vines. It is a liar’s moon.
The thing about Merrill—she’s like a sprig of foxglove: beautiful, sweet, deadly as a cottonmouth and as wise as a thousand-year-old mountain, if thousand-year-old mountains were also in the habit of collecting lots of cheeses they will never eat and bleeding all over their own clothes with purpose. She sits with Isabela in her house one night with a bottle of wine (elves do wine better, humans really shouldn’t even be allowed to attempt it) and a voice like a steady stream that courses straight and strong right to Isabela’s center. She is strong. She is wise. She is balancing a half-full teacup on her knees, and right now, Isabela thinks she has all the answers to life and un-life and the whole bloody universe in the crook of her lively little mouth.
And isn’t it funny, this little bit of a thing, listening like a woman three times her age, nodding and clicking her tongue in all the right parts, keeping the wine coming, telling her stories; she thinks it should be her instead, their places reversed, but then, Isabela sometimes forgets how young she really is. It’s a easy enough thing to do, she supposes, when you’ve had to grow into skin you didn’t have in the first place and then went and lost yourself and never quite found all the pieces. She wonders if, in time, Merrill will feel the same way, Keeper of a thousand secrets and a thousand wishes that will never take root for her in the tar and gravel of Lowtown.
“But you’re such a good person,” Merrill is saying, like the word could ever be bent and twisted to apply to her at all. She makes a vague, fluttery gesture with her long fingers and sounds so much like Sebastian in her earnestness that she has to wonder at just how much time she is spending with the priest. They should take Starkhaven together, unite the people under a banner of peace and sweetness and convoluted philosophical meanderings. You are Good People, they will say. You deserve lemon cake and tea with honey in and a whole herd of miniature donkeys! as if it is just that simple. With those eyes and Sebastian’s general princely reprobation, maybe it would be. “You deserve to be happy. The happiest. Happier than a lark in a cornfield, or filth in a chamber pot. No one is perfect, that would be ever so boring, and I can’t imagine you without your adventures, or your stories, or your lucky red smallclothes. I only wish my life was half as interesting. You’re like a, a three-tiered spice cake to my shortbread cookie.”
And, that. As if she would ever inflict her life on Merrill, her cruelty, her foolishness, the promises she left to rot. The thought of it is like hoarfrost on her bones. “You and Hawke don’t know half the things I’ve done or where I’ve been, Kitten. You’d run from me and never stop if you did. Filth in a chamber pot?”
“But it’s your past, and it’s yours, and I wouldn’t run from anything short of avalanches, besides. The Keeper used to say that having a past—that remembering—that it’s part of what makes you a woman.” She catches her teacup between her thighs and looks intently inside, as if she’s pondering the shape of the leaves or maybe just wishing it were full of more wine instead. “I can’t think of much that would be happier. Except, worms on the undersides of rocks, maybe.”
“And what do you say?”
Merrill sits up a little straighter and meets her eyes, nursing a wineglass long empty and a teacup in danger of being crushed by her deceptively noodly thighs. The tattoos on her face make a crown of branches, braided thorns branding her a stranger even in the city she’s made her home; she, like Arianni with her proud head and Isabela herself, looks to the stars and the shift of the wind for her fortune, prays to the trees and the earth at her feet as she learns to read the topography of retreating shadows, the difficult language of brick-and-mortar dreams. Merrill, born of two worlds, who cultivates both in her blood and her bones so she may blossom again, might well understand Isabela better than anyone else. She’s never realized just how much, just how well Merrill knows her, before now. “I say that sometimes, you have to go away for a while before your head can catch up to your heart,” Merrill says, her eyes bright, patient as the forest that bore her. “It’s all right, you know. To feel a little uncertain about it. To not know.”
“It isn’t—I mean,” she starts, takes a drink, starts again. She is fumbling her words. Isabela does not fumble her words; she takes them and sharpens them until they’re good enough to barter or blunt enough to hurt. Whichever works. “I don’t know what I want. I never don’t know what I want. Or maybe—I just don’t. I don’t even know how to talk to her anymore and I won’t—I mean. That is, I can’t—oh, piss on it, it doesn’t matter anyway.”
Merrill pours her some more wine, says, gently, “Won’t, what?”
“Forget myself,” she finishes, sour as salt. “Break all my rules. Muck it all up.”
Herself, being a fork-tongued wretch growing like some particularly tenacious witchweed several thousand leagues beneath the bright thing blooming out for her, who doesn’t know how to untangle herself gracefully and will likely just hack away at the roots and run when the time comes. That self. That Isabela. The one Merrill can’t seem to see.
“Oh, da’len,” Merrill says, with an odd, soft look, and someday Isabela is going to ask her what that means. She reaches over, squeezes her hand with her long, scarred fingers and smiles like the sun. “You’ll always be your own, you know. You’re the only one you’ve got, after all,” she punctuates it with another squeeze, and—yes, she thinks, Merrill of all of them should know about this, the fear of shedding her skin entirely and losing all her stuffing when the threads come loose. She tops off their glasses again and smiles, warm wine and sympathy. The teacup is still balanced between her thighs, which are, as anyone who’s seen Merrill in action would know, nothing but pure, unflagging woman-steel. “Give it time, and space to grow, and maybe a little water now and again, and it’ll all get easier. Flowers must wait for the sun to grow after the winter withers them away. Dead leaves need time to fall.”
She isn’t quite as drunk as she’d like to be by the time they stumble out the door, but she is one part maudlin and two parts giddy-tipsy and maybe another part happy when Merrill drags her down to the docks to stare at the stars; at least, it feels like happiness, or maybe something bigger. (Isabela will realize later that it was the beginning of a stomachache.)
Under the sliver of moon, all the old Kirkwall constellations are too jumbled for her to parse even with the flow of the years and the knowledge they are supposed to impart. Fingers twined with Merrill’s, they map out their own paths, etch out a place for themselves in Kirkwall’s messy, hazy sky. “Dareth shiral,” Merrill says, bubbly and bright, and Isabela feels fourteen years old again with her whole life plotted up above and her hand in Merrill’s. Maybe this is what it’s supposed to be like; maybe this is what she missed for so long.
“Dareth shiral,” Merrill sighs, closing her eyes, and Isabela can almost believe it will all work out, that if she approaches life with a bottle of brandy and a crooked smile, it will sort itself out for her again. “Dareth shiral,” Merrill sing-songs, “dareth shiral.”
On the first night in her new cabin, Captain Isabela drank Rivaini wine straight from the bottle and wore her own skin like a gown of fine Orlesian silk. The window was thrown open to the silver-blue light of the full moon and the balmy air of the sea, the waves pulsing beneath her ship as the compass on the wall glittered with ten thousand directions she never knew she could take. In her trunk at the foot of the bed there sat all the gold she could carry and some truly unfortunate antique silverware which was to be sold to the first willing merchant, because no one ever needed fancy antique silverware. Certainly not pirates.
Pirate. She let it tumble off her tongue and tasted salt and spice, felt the night air against her damp skin as the wind blew in; hurry, hurry, it said, wild and free. She wore a small, golden pendant on a mismatched chain around her neck, a jewel the color of a sea storm at its heart. It was the only thing she wore.
“My dear, but you are thinking,” Zevran admonished, his lips curling over a new scar on her bare shoulder. “And so very naked, too.”
“Why, Zevran Arainai,” she smiled, silky-sly, uncrossing her legs and letting her eyes catch on his hips, his ankles, his arms, “whatever are you going to do about that?”
Her arms wound around him slowly as she felt his weight settle between her thighs, and everything seemed so still, so quiet; his hand underneath her bottom, her knees bent around him, touching for the sake of touching like she’d never done before. “I want to go,” she told him, and her breath caught when he moved his mouth on her neck, again when he slipped one finger and then another inside her. “Starkhaven, Nevarra, Orlais, Ferelden. I want to duel with a Crow. I’m going—oh—I’m going to kill a hundred men. I’ll steal from every noble from here the Korcari Wilds. I’ll have you against every wall in Antiva.”
“And that is what I love about you,” Zevran said, and she would always remember the way that word tasted in his mouth, wine-drenched and brittle and, in that one moment, hers. “You know what you want. But you wait too long. You—your heart knows what it wants, my dear, but you must not deny yourself. Otherwise,” he said, teeth on her neck, “you explode like a champagne cork. You have earned this. You have earned this.” She made some sound of protest, of ridicule maybe; Zevran swallowed it whole. “If you make one vow to me, make it so you never forget that. This is yours, my dear, and so much more.” Zevran moved his hips with hers, then, said her name again and again to the moon and the sea and the holes in the planks, Isabela, Isabela, like a slim, golden prayer, until she felt the tides shift, until this was all she knew; Isabela, Isabela, until she was older and freer and more beautiful than her name.
When the first frost of autumn comes shivering down from the mountains in the year after the stone-wrought tragedy that was the Deep Roads expedition, bringing with it the bone-chill of bad omens and also the sort of weather that’s the equivalent of stale bread and cold tea, Hawke makes a nest in Isabela’s room and settles in for the winter.
It starts out slow: a pair of stockings left on the bed, a corset she couldn’t be bothered to put back on shoved into her narrow closet, half a sandwich left out on the windowsill and a small civilization now making its home in the woodwork; hairpins and a small silver ring on her nightstand, a hundred other tiny trinkets folded neatly into the crevices of her rented room until they are practically cohabitating without knowing so, which, really, is exactly how it started. Hawke insinuates herself so expertly into your life you never truly notice until she’s been there for who knows how long until she’s sitting there with tea just how you like it and oh by the by she’s used up all your soap again. She is lint in Isabela’s pockets, a crease in her dress, and she almost forgets, sometimes, that she’s breaking every single one of her rules each morning she wakes to find Hawke dressing herself with clothes left in her chest, eating her biscuits and trailing crumbs all over the quilt, her boots tucked right beside Isabela’s in some mockery of domesticity. That this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
When Isabela teases her for her familiarity with her dingy tavern room, the way her thin wrists and curves fit into every corner, Hawke just laughs and adds a bit of bacon to the pot of stew she’s stirring. “What is the ground here for,” she asks, one eyebrow arched up toward the heavens as if asking the Maker himself to come down here and defy her, “if not to hold me up?”
Isabela feels that it is a rather stupid and vaguely loaded question, though she can’t quite parse how or why. She has also not spent so much time on solid ground since she was a child, and it is making it hard for her to think, and she therefore probably has the wrong answer. “To just, I don’t know, keep it all from caving in? Hold on to your trousers for you when you lose the ability? Grow grass? You’ve got a fancy estate up the stairs, and you spend half your time slumming in a tavern with a pirate,” she adds, kicking her boots off and leaning back on the bed. “People will talk, you know. And if they don’t, Varric makes sure they do.”
“Mmm. The estate lacks charm. And bad ale. This place has charm, and all the bad ale a girl could want.”
“Meaning, it has a big bed and no mother to tut-tut and hmm-hmm when you cozy up to tavern women and gamble away your smallclothes.” She shakes her head, not without fondness and not without frustration. “Has she found any more suitable and well-oiled young men for you to sink your teeth into? I liked that last one.”
Except, she hadn’t. She’d had That Look on her face the whole time, like Fine Young Man #28 hand-picked by Leandra Hawke herself had just stepped in dog shit and was tracking all over her freshly scrubbed and excessively expensive tile (if, of course, she had either expensive tile or the inclination to scrub it), and she knew it, and no amount of crass commentary or bawdy stories about enormous mainsails could make it any better. Not that it was important.
“You did not,” Hawke yawns. She’s leaning back in her chair by the fire, watching her across the room. “He was vapid. You looked like you’d swallowed a leech.”
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing,” Hawke grins. Her eyes crinkle at the corners. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were jealous of poor, muscly Mr. Lovejoy. You needn’t worry yourself, apple stuffing: you are the sole keeper of my loins and womanly sensibilities.”
And if you knew better, she wants to say, you would know that isn’t it at all. “I don’t know what to do with your sensibilities, since it’s news to me you’ve got them in the first place, but I suppose they’ll just have to suffice. Pumpkin butter.” Hawke is wrapping her scarf around the back of her chair, which she’s still tipping back beyond what should have been its breaking point about ten minutes ago. Anyone else would have fallen on their arse by now, but not Marian Hawke. Hawke does not fall on her arse. Even if she does, she does it very gracefully, theatrically, swan-like and fluttery or something equally attractive, like she meant to do it all along. She could fall face-first in wyvern shit and come out smelling like an Antivan tea rose, and if Isabela is honest with herself, she might be a little jealous of that. “When you bust your head open, I’m not putting your brain back in.”
“Joke’s on you, I got rid of it ages ago. Traded it in for some new knickers and a glimpse of this Orlesian lute player’s third nipple.”
“Explains why you keep hanging around here,” she mumbles. She looks out the window.
The chair clatters back to the ground and Hawke gets up, stretches out, puts on tea. Isabela watches her, moving about like she’s made this place her own, and hasn’t she? Hawke looks like she belongs here just as much as she does. And—maybe, maybe she does.
It is a strange thought, and not quite comfortable, so she puts it from her mind and takes off her boots and then, she, too, belongs.
Then, they have dinner. They wash dishes together, they fold clothes; Hawke shoves her stockings into Isabela’s dresser and paints her fingernails a deep, coppery red at the wobbly table. Isabela takes a bath while Hawke washes her face and picks strawberry out of her teeth. There are words, and there are none; they talk about Aveline, and Aveline’s sturdiness, and whether or not Isabela is going to leave Hawke for Aveline’s toned buttocks (she’s not), and Fenris’ house smelling vaguely of burnt flesh and exotic mushrooms, and do you think Merrill has been putting that little skip in Sebastian’s step, and it’s all so normal. Safe. Lived-in. Easy.
And it hits her, as she’s got her fingers between her toes, that this is the sort of thing old people do. Old people do this. Couples do this. Old couples do this. Soon they will be wearing sensible shoes and planting gardens and having old people sex and darning socks over their evening tea and going to bed at reasonable hours. It makes her shiver, but not as much as it should, and that makes her shiver properly. “Hand me a towel, would you?”
Hawke pushes a towel into her hand without even looking, like they’ve done this a hundred times before. Which. “Do you think I ought to let my hair grow out? I mean, I know you already find me irresistible and all, but just. You know.”
“I’ll shave mine all off and you can have it.” Isabela towels herself off and Hawke spits in the washbasin, casting about for a comb. Isabela nudges her over so she can pluck the stray hairs between her eyebrows and wipe her nose. It is all incredibly undignified, and mundane, and familiar, and Isabela figures they can never do this with anyone else because who else would put up with all their bathroom habits and still like them anyway?
“You know,” Hawke says slowly, combing out Isabela’s hair on the bed, “there’s a party in Hightown next week.”
“A party? In Hightown? What times we live in. Next we’ll have a Qunari colony living down at the docks and making eyes at impressionable young noblemen.”
“Har har, don’t be an ass.” Her hair catches, and Hawke combs it out with her fingers. Her tongue is between her teeth; Isabela doesn’t need to turn around to know. “You should come with me. Lots of food and drink and fun with men in tight leather jerkins. And an excuse to buy fancy dresses.”
“Fun with the appetizer table, more like. You’re just trying to get me into something red and lacy.”
“I’m always trying to get you into something red and lacy,” Hawke says, and Isabela can hear the smile in that, too. Her fingers tangle in Isabela’s hair and tug, gently. It’s nice. “But only because I know how utterly devastating you’d look. Come on. Stop acting like you've got a bee down your shirt.”
“I remember the last time I went to a party with you. Those Tantervale people. Tantervale-ers. Shaughnessy? Shacklebean?” She lies down and Hawke goes with her, head burrowed into the crook of her neck, safe and warm. “That was the one with the washrooms, right?”
“Come on. You get a new dress and some appetizers, I don’t hurl myself out a window in the vain hope that the fall is enough to kill me.” She can feel Hawke’s words vibrating against her shoulder and she shivers for the third time tonight, and maybe for the same reason. Maybe. “And, yeah, it was the one with the washrooms. The spacious washrooms with the incredible Amaranthine tile. It had little ducks on it.”
“We were well-acquainted with that tile.”
“Beautiful Ferelden craftsmanship, that.”
“Isn’t it just,” she drawls, sliding her knuckles across Hawke’s jaw.
“Oh, stop, you know I have a reputation to uphold.” She turns her eyes up, bright and warm, and Isabela thinks it’s wonderful. So wonderful it makes her belly flutter, which isn’t actually as pleasant or romantic as some people would have you think. “How about it, Captain Isabela ‘Devastating’ Rogue-ypants? You can have at it with the canapés.”
“Not a very naked-on-fancy-Amaranthine-tile name, you know.” She pulls the quilt back and over them, makes another nest, just because. “I suppose I’ll do it. We’ll find out how many canapés I can fit in your mouth.”
“Oh, honey blossom. That’s not the only thing I’m going to put in my mouth.”
“Did you hear that? I think it was your reputation, shriveling up with the last of the embers.”
“And whose fault is that? No canapés for you,” Hawke says, and they close their eyes. She is not even half-asleep when Hawke pops hers open again, saying, “Hey. Hey. Tell me a story.”
Again, she can’t decide whether it’s selfishness or earnestness or a simple, human desire for closeness and comfort that makes Hawke do these things. Isabela does not do these things and never has. She does not know how to fold herself into the corners of a room, take up another person’s space, live and grow and breathe together. In the end, she guesses it’s just Hawke, and it’s just this normal, natural thing full of warmth and full of mouths people do that she never learned how and now she’s too old and too hard to let it happen the way it’s supposed to. Isabela cannot nurture this gentle thing, this intimacy which welcomes disaster with open arms. She hates herself for it, hates her mother and her dead husband and she hates Hawke a little, too.
“What do you think this is, story hour at Granny Isabela’s? Eat me.”
Hawke flops over and heaves a shuddering sigh. Isabela swears she can hear the floorboards rattle. “I mean, if you want, sure. But I’m sleepy.” There’s a pause, and Isabela thinks maybe she sounded harsher than she meant (except she didn’t), but Hawke just trudges ever on, oblivious or maybe just taking the blows as they come, same as she always has. “I’ll have to tell one myself. You unimaginative kidney bean.”
“I’d watch it if I were you. You might be asking Mr. Lovejoy to your canapé party.”
“Might have to. You’re getting all pirate on me again and no one’s answered my personal up by the Chantry for a well-heeled manservant.”
“That’s because Mr. Lovejoy, florid with fantasy and jealousy, ripped it to bits. He’s out there looking for you this minute, topless, begging you to tickle his swollen, oiled pectorals with an ostrich feather.”
“Once upon a time,” Hawke yells, drowning her out in the poshest posh crescendo Isabela has heard since the last time she did it, “there was a mermaid. A really, really bloody unbelievable mermaid. I mean, this woman was the epitome of Mermaid, capital ‘M.’ Long black hair, glistening blue tailfins, nice sharp nails for dragging sailors under the waves to their deaths—basically, everything I look for in a woman.
“Anyway, one day, the mermaid met a sailor. Normally, she’d just have some fun with these sailor-men and then leave them for the killer whales and bottom feeders, all mermaid-like, but this one was different. She was a Pirate, with a capital ‘P,’ so of course the mermaid was intrigued. All a-flutter. Incredibly turned on. So she started spending time with the pirate, who often came to see her in these incredibly flattering and revealing nighties, and they roamed the seas by moonlight, and the mermaid hoarded all the pretty things the pirate tossed her way and touched each other in places where no man had ever been. Eventually, they fell in love, because most stories require that and because it is the natural progression of dalliances among pirates and mermaids. But when the mermaid realized her fishbits were blossoming for a human, one of those things that chain and collar the first moment they’re able, she panicked. She did the only thing she could do: she fled to the deepest crevice of the sea, another place where no man had ever been.
“Unfortunately, she didn’t bet on the pirate taking off after her. So, anyway, the pirate swam after her and asked the mermaid where she was going. ‘I’m going where you can’t follow, and you would thank me if you knew,’ she said, and she didn’t look behind her even once as she took off for the dark of the ocean.”
Hawke yawns and turns over, throws one arm around her waist. Isabela wants to tell her that if this is allegory, it is a poor one and so is the innuendo, but her jaw is clenched shut and Hawke is breathing deeply at her shoulder. She says, “I’ll finish later,” and then she is asleep.
Isabela dreams of the sea. When she wakes, it is with Hawke’s head pressed into her belly, swearing she can feel the sway of waves beneath her back.
“So,” she asks over eggs and tea at half past seven in the morning, “did she run off with the pirate’s babies? Lay her eggs in the ocean trench and raise them to be attractive, scavenging murderers?”
Hawke talks though her biscuit and blackberry jam and pours Isabela some more tea. She is trying to stop analyzing what that means. “Mermaids don’t lay eggs. They give live birth, like otters. Don’t they?”
“How would a mermaid give live birth? Don’t they lay eggs? They couldn’t have bits like us.”
“No,” Hawke says, frowning. She’s going cross-eyed. “They definitely do. I mean.”
“But they’re all fish down there. Eggs, I’m telling you,” Isabela says. “Where would they even fit a mermaid vagina? Their physique doesn’t lend itself to it, you know.”
“Isabela, I am going to kill you. Who’s telling the story, you or me?” Hawke frowns, entirely without malice, blue eyes flashing. “Maybe they do it like seahorses.”
“They lay eggs, too, Scholar Hawke. But I’ll be sure to ask the first mermaid I see how she pops them out,” Isabela says, trying to ignore the way this is all so familiar now. They have not-arguments over breakfast. They have breakfast at all. They are old. They are old women. Old old old. Soon she will be wearing overcoats in mild weather and planting herb gardens in her windowsill. It’s lunatic.
“You always overanalyze my bedtime stories,” Hawke pouts. “You loon.”
She needs some fresh air. Some fresh air about five miles away from here.
Hawke kisses the corner of her mouth as she’s pulling on her boots, dry, familiar, bone-chillingly terrifying. “If you’re going to live someplace, you live,” she tells Isabela, and she doesn’t ask what she means because she doesn’t have to. Hawke is hanging Isabela’s laundry over the window, expansive as the air around her, filling up every crack in the wooden walls. “Make it yours.”
She is rinsing out teacups when Isabela leaves, commenting on the leaves clustered on the bottoms. “Boundless love and a head cold for you, constipation for me,” she says, twisting the cup and frowning, “or maybe that’s Mr. Lovejoy with a bulging codpiece and dozen calla lilies,” and as the door clicks shut, Isabela thinks, do you even know what those words mean when you say them?
On early mornings at the market, in the crisp fold of autumn, she buys bushels of apples and pomegranates just because she can. Some days she even keeps her fingers out of the noblemen’s pockets.
“My, but we’ve gone even softer around the edges.” Aveline smirks that bracing sort of smirk she has, the one that always puts Isabela in mind of stony cliffs and cheap cologne. She secretly thinks it’s beautiful, and she will take that with her to the funeral pyre. “If I’d taken you for a woman with taste, maybe I’d have given you a go myself.”
“You certainly could have, with those hands. Like miniature oak branches. Actually—why don’t we give that a shot?”
Aveline’s mouth shifts into its familiar, steely shape of disapproval, though her eyes don’t lose their glimmer. Either she’s genuinely happy to see her, or she’s just ripped off a thief’s balls and fed them to the gulls. Possibly both. “Can’t you wait until after lunch, at least? I’m just saying—you know. You’re all right.”
“What? What have I done? Won a free ride on the HMS Aveline?”
“I’d offer, but you’re awfully busy these days, Madame Hawke.”
Isabela twists the ring on her finger. It feels suddenly tight. “You’ve no room to judge. Playing house with Donnic. You’re so respectable now I’m surprised it hasn’t lodged in your large intestine.”
“There goes your free ride. And to think, I might have dropped anchor in the Great Port of Isabela for a night.” Isabela cackles lewdly and slaps her on the arse, armor be damned, because this—this physical, sharp-edged thing that fills her lungs—is a way of loving someone she can understand, because she supposes on some level she must love Aveline the way one loves her friends. Not love love. Not moonlight and sea salt and indentions in her sheets. Aveline-love. It is a shock, but then, everything is a shock these days; she steals a peach for good measure and lets the juice run down her chin.
She takes the long way back down to Lowtown with the basket of apples swinging from her elbow, feeling young and stupid and wild, like she is coming home to her own funeral.
Once upon a time—because that is how all these tragedies begin—there was a letter.
It comes in the arms of a courier who scurries away before Isabela can get a look at his face, not that it matters; salvation, that glittering, golden thing, lingers just beyond her reach as she sits in her birdhouse of a room with Hawke, who shares a Tantervale rosé with her in the damp, dusty quiet. They wait like bated breath, and Isabela doesn’t even know why she doesn’t say something, and can’t Hawke feel this, the tight throat of danger slipping down all around them? Deliverance is one warehouse raid away, lighting up the way home, and here she is, pacing her room and feeling like she’s about two steps shy of a tango. Her stomach pummels her liver, her kidneys, everything within striking distance.
This is what she wants. It is. Her ticket out of Kirkwall is in her back pocket, six years coming. She twists the ring on her middle finger; she wants this, she wants this, she wants this.
“You know,” Hawke is saying, looking over her own letter, one from Bethany, the same one she read aloud to Isabela an hour ago, and Isabela might as well have hooks for hands, for all she knows how to comfort. Couldn’t do it after Leandra died, can’t do it now, so she just sits and listens and wishes she knew anything worthwhile. Hawke’s eyes are on the paper again, so it must not matter too much; she has read it, Isabela thinks, at least half a dozen times by now. It is clipped and clinical as a blow to the head. “You know, it’s funny. Here I am.”
Isabela presses her thumbnail underneath the golden band of her ring. “Here you are. With your shoes on my bed, moody as you please.”
“I don’t get moody. I get introspective. I compose dirty poetry.”
“Sullen. Glum. Lethargic.”
“I will not dedicate this one to you, then, you wet noodle. Mr. Lovejoy will have the honor.” She smiles at her from the bed, and she still looks so young, even after six years. Young, except her eyes. “Come here, will you?”
There is a shivery sort of wind through the curtains, and Isabela feels—knows, somehow—that something is about to happen. Some devastating, irrevocable Thing.
She goes to Hawke anyway, and when Hawke threads her fingers through her hair and pulls her to the crook of her shoulder, she tells herself that it is not weakness, nor is this for her. It is meaningless. Hawke smells like violets and it makes Isabela’s fingers itch. “You know,” Hawke starts again, mouth against Isabela’s forehead, “we’ve done all right, for a couple of beautiful vagabonds without a thought for anything but slumming our way through it. They’ll write stories about us someday.”
“That isn’t true,” Isabela tells her, softly. Nothing about it is true. Hawke has her family’s estate and no family, has ambition and no aim and nowhere to put it, and she—she has done anything but good. “They’ll leave out the best parts, anyway. Like your magic fingers. And how you always taste slightly breakfasty.”
“You love my biscuit-and-jam kisses. Don’t even.”
“Only when it’s not still in your mouth,” she says, and brushes her lips against Hawke’s, chaste, brief; it feels like an apology and she pulls away, but Hawke does not stop stroking her fingers through her hair. “Mostly, I don’t mind. I suppose.”
“Mmm. And here I thought you just kept me around for my admittedly incredible body.” She stares up at the ceiling, where they’ve mapped out constellations of holes; Hawke is looking at The Great Dwarven Blowjob when a sudden tenseness suffuses her body. Her arm tightens almost painfully around Isabela’s head, but her fingers still don’t stop moving. “I never—you know. Expected this.”
Isabela shifts and tries to ignore the heavy, cold thing that settles in her belly. “Expected what?”
“You, me. Us.” Her fingers are curled still in Isabela’s hair, up against her scalp. It might hurt if she cared to think about it rather than the numbness in her toes. “This.” Hawke turns to look at her now, blue eyes dark and creased with the hot-iron weight of a thousand regrets. Isabela can feel her swallow. “You’re the most constant thing in my life. And lately it just makes me feel like I’m floating very far out at sea. In a good way. It’s warm and no one needs me for anything and you’re there, so. It’s good,” she repeats, though Isabela thinks it is mostly for herself. “You know?”
It feels like someone has just put her throat through a cheese grater. She says something but she doesn’t know what it is, and this, she thinks, is the part where she should wrap her arms around Hawke, kiss her, hold her, promise her all the things one woman promises to another. It is what Merrill would do. It is what Sebastian and Aveline would do, though probably with much more awkward nose-bumping and ruddy cheeks and extremely unflattering giggles. At least they would know what to do. At least it would be right.
Instead, this is the part where Isabela, numb and weary and panicked, plots her escape route out the door and into the mouth of the Waking Forest once she’s got what she never should have lost sight of in the first place. This is the part where she forgets about autumn-blue eyes and her side of the bed and cheap rosé and pulls up anchor from something she does not deserve.
This is the part where Isabela cuts and runs. “No, I don’t,” she says, and Hawke’s fingers tighten in her hair. It is terrifying. Hawke is terrifying. “You never were much of a swimmer. You get sick if you go for too long.”
“Isabela. I’m trying to tell you something. It's important.”
“And so am I.”
Hawke is sitting up. She doesn’t know when that happened. “What do you mean?” she asks. It is very quiet. Isabela tries to swallow but her mouth is too dry.
“I mean I’m not constant. Never meant to be. Can’t even be for myself.”
She’s rubbing her arms, suddenly cold, and there’s another breeze rustling the curtains; run, run, it says urging her away. Every hair on her head seems to remember Hawke’s fingers as she shakes it back into place. “No,” Hawke says, and she’s smiling, an awful, crooked thing, bright-eyed even for the heaviness in her cheeks. “You mean, you just took my raft away and I’d better hope I can make it back to shore.”
“I’m not anybody’s raft. I’m not you damned lifeline to cling to,” she snaps, frightened and furious and sick with it all.
Hawke’s eyes go so wide they look like they belong at a dinner table underneath some shepherd’s pie. “I didn’t—no, you know that’s not what I meant—”
“Look, just stop. Hawke.”
“You were always going to do this,” Hawke bites out, heedless of Isabela’s face pinching in on itself.
“I don’t—” And that’s not true, either, and Hawke knows it and so does she, so what’s the point? Uselessly, she says, “I’m sorry,” and it’s worthless but at least it’s true.
Hawke doesn’t say anything. She runs her thumbs over the rim of her wineglass, and Isabela foolishly, perversely, wants to go to her, wants to touch every callous on her fingers and kiss her breakfasty mouth and bury her face in Hawke’s breasts and cry until the sun bleaches out the night. Hurry, hurry, whispers the wind in the rafters. She wishes Hawke would scream. “You deserve—”
“Don’t,” Hawke rasps. Her eyes are wild, dangerous. “Don’t you dare.”
“You do. Don’t be foolish.” She is supposed to be strong. Isabela, fork-tongued thing, is not meant to need anything but what she can break. She is not worth more. She is not worth this. “Take someone who can give you—who can give you everything you ought to have. What I can’t.”
“Someone who deserves it. What does that even mean.”
“It means,” Isabela says, heart hammering against her ribs, “not me.”
There’s another silence, but Hawke doesn’t look away from her for a long time. When she does, Isabela’s chest clenches up so hard she can barely breathe. “Like it hasn’t always been you. Like you didn’t know.”
Her boots are already laced up again. Isabela wonders when that happened. “Don’t, what? Scare you? Careful there, get too close and I might impale you with my feelings.”
“Stop it,” she snaps, harder than she should be able. “You’re acting like a man.”
“My apologies, Madame! Please, forgive my transgression!”
“Hawke, stop. Stop.”
More quiet, more heavy heartbeats, and Isabela’s stomach twists when Hawke pulls something red out of her trousers and shoves it into her hands. She clutches at it a moment too late and has to pick it up off the floor. “Keep it. Toss it to the gulls. Wipe your arse with it. I don’t care,” she spits, red-eyed, and Isabela twists it like a noose between her fingers.
She tries to say something but Hawke just shakes her head, and maybe that’s for the best, anyway. They both stare at the floor, Hawke in her boots and Isabela with a blood-red promise in her hands, twisting it until it wrinkles. It burns, the paper-thin tenderness of this thing, and here it is, concrete and unmistakable in her palms. Something else that is not really hers. That she could never earn.
“I didn’t mean to—”
“No,” she whispers. Her voice is lost in the wind, shaky and soft, and how she hates herself for it. For all of this. “Neither did I.”
Hawke barks out a laugh and it sounds so wrong that Isabela flinches from it. “And you don’t. You really never—” Her eyes are painful, counting the seconds to yet another loss, so Isabela looks away from them and feels her heart thrumming harder and harder in her chest. It feels like it’s beating in reverse, like she is a child again, frozen with fear and pain and shame. “You’re right. Of course. Let’s never mention this again.”
There is nothing to say, so she doesn’t. Her jaw is shut tight and her fingernails are digging into the red fabric in her hands, her belly twisted up in tight knots. This is it, then, the way they end, and she is left wondering if she will ever be able to rip up the stitches Hawke sewed into her heart. Who figured the woman for a seamstress.
“I love you,” Hawke retches out in the span of a heartbeat, and Isabela, swallowing the dagger of that, says, “I know.”
The door slams. Isabela doesn’t watch her go.
In the end, there is nothing for it because there never is. She packs her trunk so fast it makes her dizzy, doesn’t even see what she’s shoving in it through the stinging in the corners of her eyes, and then she pulls a Fenris, grabs her bottle of wine and drinks straight it from the mouth, scraping her teeth against the glass. Eventually, she curls up like a nautilus on the bed, drunk and numb and too exhausted to even poke the dying fire in the hearth, watching the wind rustle the curtains on the other side of the room. This is the tableau she has chosen for herself and she must carry it with her like a glass of brandy, careful not to spill a single drop; Captain Isabela, the serpent-girl, who knows no surrender but to herself and to her stars.
The wind lulls her into a fitful sleep, and if she dreams, she is blessed not to remember. This is not weakness, she thinks; this is what she needs. This is what happens when you forget yourself. She folds the silk scarf into her trunk, redder than a broken heart, and doesn’t look at her reflection in the mirror.
Two days later, at dusk, there are no stars. The smell of smoke, willowy and fishbelly-pale, sifts through the air and settles around her neck like a cage. Run, run, run, says the wind, urging her onward, anywhere that isn’t here, anywhere that isn’t somewhere she has spoiled, something she has ruined, something that was never hers at all.
The ground shakes at her feet. Isabela runs.
“I think,” said Sister Nightingale, Madame X, La Belle Dame sans Merci, or, on certain days of the week, Leliana, “that there is no such thing as absolution. Forgiveness is worth nothing if we do not believe in it ourselves. Love is the only salvation we will ever know. And it is a horrifying, vicious thing with too many teeth to rend if we don’t know what to do with it. Honestly—honestly, it may always be.”
And Isabela, with her boots up on the wobbly old table, cocked her head to the side and drank to the half-truth of it. “They’ll put you to the stake for talking like that. The Maker forgives this, the Maker says that, Andraste Doth Love All Manne And His Brethren But Not In That Way, bluugh. You don’t think it’s true?”
“Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.” Leliana dragged her dagger across a whetstone, each slow arc of her wrist deliberate, calculating. Isabela wondered how many other women Leliana had been, if she unwound the gauze around her latest creation one day and found herself, her real self, and liked her well enough to keep her. She thought of what that must be like, but she had never been more or less than herself, had never been more than alive. She had never tried to be anything but. “Love is a blade to be sharpened. It is shameless. It is knowledge and desire and beauty and fear. The moon and the stars.”
“Oh, mon trognon, as much as I love it when you get philosophical on me I’m always just one cornflake short of your meaning. Wouldn’t know, either way.”
“Isabela.” Leliana said her name the same way Orlesians said anything, shaping it against her tongue and teeth as if it had always been Orlesian. It was honey in her mouth. “But you do know, ma mignonne. And you will.” Leliana watched her own eyes at the edge of her silver-sharp dagger, blinking slowly into the bite of the blade. “It is a warm coat you grow into, once you sit yourself down and have a nice talk with her.”
“And what if you don’t? What if it’s just not your mug of mead? What if—no, listen. What if you just don’t have it in you? Like, it’s not in your capacity. You can’t do it, never learned, too little too late, and there it goes, and it’s just not meant for you anyway,” Isabela said, pulling her hair up into the shape of something just rumpled enough to be elegant. Eau de Deliberately Tousled, after all, always was the plat du jour in Val Royeaux. “How are you supposed to love people when they’re so unreliable, so unpredictable? And when you’re even worse? When it opens you up for all sorts of festering misery? I mean. How do you just—let it happen?”
“In time, my friend,” said Leliana, who was never anything like a Sister even when she was, “in time, it will bite at your heels, and the dogs at the gate must be let inside. In time, you will look out at the sand, at the sea you know as your own, and you will say, ‘Yes, this is mine.’”
Love. L-o-v-e. Four-letter word, breakable as bone china, older and stronger than the tongues that gave it shape and form. Bite down hard enough and it’ll shatter; swallow the pieces and they’ll sprout up inside and smother you. Isabela says it over and over and over in her mind, sitting in the back of the carriage she is taking to Not Kirkwall until it sounds sufficiently bent and misshapen and all the meaning runs out.
Love is a liability. Love is monotony, manipulation, shackles and chains and a premature burial, surrender of your self to someone who will eventually forget how to read your runes and leave you to rust and fade with the stretch of the years. When the rose withers and dies, you’re left with the moldy thorns. And yet—and yet.
What would she really know about it? She, who was a handful of coins and fourteen-going-on-fifty. That probably does not translate well to understanding the workings of the heart and all its lovesick arteries. She is her own. She is free. Cut captivity by the throat and saved herself and never let go. She gives and she takes and she lives and she does not ask anything, does not expect another soul to understand. Isabela doesn’t let the chickens stand in her way because they complicate things. Chickens peck and squawk with their strange animal needs and are, all in all, a poor investment. You never know what you’re going to get out of them. Chickens—people—hurt. And all those spaces between her jewelry are squishy and smooshy and so terribly vulnerable. They would hurt very much.
“Rain’s coming soon,” says the carriage driver, an old man on his way to Markham with his wife. They are the sort of people who pick up strangers with heavy luggage containing contraband and small nations’ worth of stolen relics and take them to the port just because. Isabela does not understand how they are still alive. “I should have brought my soap. Could just take a bath out here and have done with it.”
“Behave yourself, you old sausage. We have company.” His wife, a brown-eyed woman with her grey hair bound up in a scarf, beams at her. “Don’t mind him, darling. We’ll have you to Ostwick soon. If it does rain, just use his nose for cover, it’ll keep the both of us dry.”
“I always did say it was my finest quality. Saved this little sparrow many a time, it has.” He taps his nose and winks at Isabela. It makes her smile. “Would you believe she married me for my hands, though? These dried old prunes.”
“His cabinetry is breathtaking, even arthritic as he is,” the woman says. She takes one of his hands and rubs her thumb over his knuckles, kisses a tiny scar beneath his ring finger. “But I married him for his words, and his eyes, and the way his hair sticks to his forehead in the mornings. I did.”
“You still do,” he says, and kisses her. She wonders when they met, how long they have sat in this carriage together, how many times her lips have pressed against his knuckles. It is so easy for them, so easy and so good that it makes her chest tighten up. It hurts. If people actually do have heartstrings, hers are twinging right now and she could really do without it. Something is burning in her belly, and rather than marveling at this alarming new medical development, it just makes her ache for her bed, the laundry over her window, for the breathing body pulling the quilts up beside her. She wants. Suddenly, she is aware of every movement, every murmur of their voices, the way they could fill this entire carriage with the set of their mouths, the softness of their fingers, and it bears down on her until she can hardly breathe. The old man’s hand brushes over his wife’s neck, strong and sweet like a vow, and Isabela thinks, I will never be able to do anything like that. To touch another person like that. To just let it happen.
She thinks, before she can stop it, I want to.
And then, right on cue, regular as oatmeal and tulips, the Aveline who lives in her head says, “But you already have, you salty trollop.”
Her stomach flutters—actually flutters, and not too unpleasantly. The woman smiles and whispers something to her husband, something that flickers bright as a promise, and it makes Isabela feel so alive that it sends sharp little pinpricks all the way down to her toes.
“Look at you. Does it really take an old couple fondling each other in a carriage to knock your rocks back together? There is something wrong with you. There is something wrong in your head,” Aveline tells her proudly. She is frowning so hard Isabela can hear it.
She is running away from lazy mornings and knickers in her pantry and creaky floorboards. She is running away from the stars on her ceiling, laundry on cool afternoons, too many apples for one person. Routine. Familiarity. Desire.
Because, Isabela is afraid. With her trunk packed in the dark, far from Kirkwall, it is easier to admit to it. She is afraid of Hawke, afraid of this patchwork thing that is theirs. She is afraid of herself, just a little, and she doesn’t know what that means.
In the back of the carriage, Isabela stretches out and tries to slow her heart, which is running out to sea somewhere ten thousand paces ahead of the horse. Her ring catches the moonlight, keeping its old vigil to her soul. You are a good woman. And, isn’t she?
“Where are you headed, darling? Only, Ostwick’s such a terrible bore. You look more like a girl for Tantervale.”
“Yes, and she would know.”
Isabela takes a breath. Her heart is beating out of time with the horse’s hooves; it is jarring. “You know, I—I don’t know. I thought, maybe Antiva, but it’s so—it’s so obvious, you know?”
She cannot imagine they know, because she is rambling and she doubts they have ever been beyond the Free Marches, but they nod their heads anyway, and the old man says, “It is, though. That’s just it.” Antiva is a safe den of filth and assassinations and general debauchery. It’s always she always goes to shed her skin, because Antiva is depraved and miserable and beautiful and just the place for a woman to disappear when she needs to. Antiva would be perfect. The problem is—it’s not where she wants to be. It’s not where she needs to be.
She thinks, anyway.
The moon fades out behind a cloud as they go, and soon the stars are choked out, too. They must be halfway to Ostwick by now. She rests her feet on her trunk, where there lies a thing that would start a war if it hasn’t already. Merrill is probably at home, steeping herself in tea leaves and stories. She wonders if Qunari would kill children, burn down the Chantry, and she can’t stop thinking about it. The sky is a blank black slate. She could go anywhere in the world.
And even then, she would still be herself. She could go anywhere, do anything, and what good would it do her when her compass keeps pointing her straight up to Kirkwall, to The Hanged Man, to a handful of safe, familiar faces.
The Aveline who lives between her ears grins, which is both attractive and vaguely monstrous. “Told you so, old girl,” she says. “You know what this is about. No, don’t give me that look, you’ll go cross-eyed and it’s unbecoming.”
It’s so sudden it’s like being hit with an eight-horse chariot. Or, maybe not so sudden. She has a feeling it’s been there for a very long time, these things she is only beginning to decode.
This is about Isabela. It is about the restless, keyed-up need to hurry and move and run and run and run, because staying in one place means surrender and surrender means you lose yourself and all your marbles, too. Getting too close means the walls close in and your guts fall out. It is about learning that she is wrong, sometimes. It is about keeping herself. It is about pain. It is about that old shame that never quite came out in the wash. It is about learning not to confuse the risk for thrill, the blood for sweat, the danger for sex and love and comfort. It is about her, and Hawke, and this thing that has taken root in her bones. This language of theirs, this warm, tidal need.
She is a good woman. She supposes she will be a good woman anywhere in the world. Maybe she always has been.
She is a good woman, and she is loved. Loves. Will love. L-o-v-e. It is hers.
She is in love.
Isabela is in love, and is still free. She does not know how she’s arrived at this conclusion—probably it has been wanking behind her back for six years while she wasn’t looking—but right now she thinks she might be able to prove that two plus two equals bollocks and lemon pancakes. She can do anything.
She is in love. She is in love.
“Oh, Maker, oh Maker, I’m so stupid. I am—I am so, so stupid,” she laughs, quivery and wild. She feels insane. Maybe she has always been that, too. “And I’m about to get stupider.”
The old woman hums. “Nonsense. You’re just a woman who’s got herself in a bit of a caper. Nothing stupid about it, darling.”
“Exactly! See, this is why you ought to try Tantervale instead. More adventure than Ostwick, that’s for certain,” the old man says. “Have you decided where you’ll go, yet? Hey, when you get there—write us, will you? Spin us a yarn. It’s how we get our jollies.” The old woman nods happily beside him and clutches his elbow.
In Kirkwall, there is a woman with the sun in her eyes and uncharted territory in the corners of her mouth. Isabela wants to scoop out her place in the earth; she wants to count the stars in her ceiling. I am yours, yours, yours and you are mine, mine, mine.
“I’ve—I’m sorry,” she gasps, so suddenly her heart thuds in her chest again. The old man and the old woman incline their heads in unison, and she is torn between laughter and terror. Nothing was ever so beautiful. “But I have to go back, I just—I left something in Kirkwall. I have to.”
The old woman meets her eyes. It is starting to rain. “You heard the woman, potato mush. Turn this ship around.”
“No, I—I can find another, I mean. I’ll pay you, I’m just—I’m sorry,” she says. The words rush out before she can even think them, and it just figures that she would learn one thing and forget another. Stupid. Stupid.
But the old man is already turning the carriage around, twisting the reigns in his hands. “Kirkwall! What a wretched place! Barking, scratching mad, that city. Why, this is the most exciting thing we’ve done since we took that crazed blood mage across the Minanter! I do wonder what he’s doing with himself these days.”
“How grand!” says the old woman. “Let’s stay a spell. Let’s hassle some city guards.”
“We’ll see the whole ding-dong city!”
Isabela smiles and lifts her trunk up beside her. This is stupid. This is too stupid to be happening.
And she’s about to do it.
“I’m sorry, really, I am, I just—let me pay you. I’ve plenty of coin, just,” she says again, casting about for her purse. The stars are still out in spite of the sprinkling of rain, and she can see her own burning bright as a wound in the western sky. She takes a shaky breath. “Let me,” she says, but the old woman reaches back and puts her hand on Isabela’s, firm and warm.
“Darling, it needn’t cost you a copper,” she says, softly. Isabela would always remember the color of her eyes in the dark.
When certain circumstances and the imbibing of certain liquors forced her to be even more introspective than usual, Isabela always used to think herself a glutton, but the thing is, gluttony works toward an end and she really likes to think herself insatiable. Time has told her, however, that she is neither, no matter how hard she may posture and pretend, and she never feels this so acutely as she does when she takes her first steps into Kirkwall again, up the white stone stairs of Hightown and into the Viscount’s Keep, where she marches, tome in hand, up to the unmoving stone slab of the man she took it from in the first place. She rips the regret out of her heart like a weed and dumps it in a heap on the floor, head held high in challenge. Here is where she was going. Here is where she wants to be.
“I came back,” she tells Hawke when it is done, ragged, because there is nothing else she can.
“You came back,” says Hawke, bloody-nosed and bruised to the bone because of her, for her, and her eyes are bluer than the summertime sea. She does not look away from Isabela. “Did you pick up all your rocks, then?”
“I think.” Hawke moves, and Isabela thinks she is making to leave, but she grabs her by the elbow and pulls her aside. She smells like violets and blood and sweaty metal.
“You know how that story ends? The one with the pirate and her mermaid and the feelings.”
“The one where her mermaid vagina was blossoming shamefully for a human?” She cannot believe they are discussing this. It makes no sense. She laughs, because she is stupid and insane and Hawke is dripping blood on a flower pot and everything hurts and she does not know if this is even all right. If they are all right.
“There was a storm,” Hawke tells her. There is a look in her eyes Isabela has never seen before. “And before—before the mermaid could get to her, the pirate was pulled under and drowned.” Hawke sways a bit, but Isabela has her by the waist; Isabela has her by the hand. “But the sea is alive, and the mermaid breathed life into her again, and they lived there in their shipwreck, raising tortoises for the rest of their days. How about that. Bland as biscuits.”
These are the first words they speak to each other in this sudden, bone-white armistice. It is enough.
Nobody prays like the dead, Isabela thinks, sitting in the Chantry courtyard with Sebastian and Merrill while the lost and the damned and the so-far-gone bow their heads in penance and Aveline stalks by like a buffalo with indigestion once an hour. She thinks what these people really need is some seaweed and salt water and some more sugar in their diets, then maybe they wouldn’t look so dead; no one ever told them mistakes are best kept folded at the bottom of your trunk so you don’t dwell and you don’t have to run them through the wash them a second time. She thinks she ought to write that one down somewhere. Write a book. How to Iron Out the Creases in Your Soul and Also Shiver All Her Timbers, or something. Sebastian would buy twelve copies.
All along the edges of the city, people are still cleaning up, still burying their dead. Kirkwallers are as hardy as the stone from which Isabela supposes they just sprang up one day, and if she’s going to be shipwrecked anywhere, she slides into place nicely between the dirty bookshop and the dirtier tavern; the shipyard bells and the raggedy old Lowtown banners shivering in the wind keep time as well as anything ever has, and—yes, that is part of it, too. Settling into the brick and mortar and not fighting it every step of the way. She still has the sea. She is still her own, and she can even see the worth in owning her very own self, strange as it is to acknowledge. But she has a side of the bed and a favorite tea, too. She has a small, red miracle tied around her arm. It swells in her blood until she is drunk on the salt air and apples and herself, and it still smarts and sometimes she still forgets to breathe, but it is getting easier to just let it be. If she had to guess, she’d say she is thawing.
So, she supposes she’s all right.
“Will you look at that,” Sebastian meanders around a bite of green apple. Aveline is hoisting a cutpurse up by his collar. “What a sight. My day’s not right without Aveline making a man twice her size feel inadequate.”
“Or throttling his nadgers up between his eyeballs,” Merrill adds. She looks very pleased with herself, swiveling around on the bench with one hand on Sebastian’s knee to get a better look. He just blinks into his lap, stuck mid-chew. “It makes her look so, so ex-uuuu-ber-ant. Like a porcupine with a sewing needle.”
“You do know why she’s looking like that, don’t you?” Isabela asks, very loudly. Aveline doesn’t turn around, but she does go even more stiff than normal. “It’s because Donnic’s been needling her buttons. Diddling her fiddle. Stroking her stoat.”
“I like stoats,” says Merrill.
“If I have to turn around so help me,” says Aveline. She is sorting out the stolen baubles she’s recovered, which appear to include an exceptional pair of stockings.
Isabela smiles. So prim, Aveline, as if she’d have to turn around to know she’s got that stupid grin breaking like sunrise across her face. “No, no, don’t. This way I’ve got your ass all to myself.”
“I do hate to play right into your dirty hands.” It sounds like it’s coming out through Aveline’s Tooth Grind of Righteousness, but she wiggles her hips a little, just for Isabela.
“You know that only works when I do it.”
“I’ll remember that next time your lecherous gaze drops down to my more delicate parts. Scurvy tramp.”
“Chiseled. Your parts are chiseled. I could clean corduroy on your washboard of a bum. Come here and we’ll give it a go.”
Aveline laughs and catches her eye as she stomps off up the stairs again, and then smiles in a way that’s so disturbingly fond it would have made Isabela bristle, once. From the corner of her eye, she can see Sebastian’s shoulders shaking, Merrill’s hand still pressed rather unnecessarily to his knee, grinning and grinning.
Yes. This is all right.
In retrospect, these people have been her friends for years and years, so it is strange that the realization still smacks her around the head sometimes, like braids of garlic and spices you’ve forgotten you hung up in your kitchen. It’s not that she’s never had friends before; it’s more that they are piecemeal and few, and not exactly the sort of people to write letters or show up for dinner and forgive you your trespasses. They’re more the sort you run into at riots and prison lunches. They are convenient getaways, debts repaid. They are not friends just because. (Well. Maybe a couple might qualify, by now, but that’s beside the point.)
Isabela, contrary to Lowtown wisdom and rumors she encourages with great delight, is very good at stitching herself to the shadows and disappearing into the background of life. She’d never have survived this long if she couldn’t. She is good at watching, and waiting, at reading people and their desires, just this liquid, tight-throat bundle of energy waiting to spark. She is good at watching Merrill gesture wildly and make a noise like a duck that’s just been stepped on, at hearing Sebastian’s unabashed laugh, good at watching Fenris leaf through Sebastian’s books and Aveline hide her smile when Varric swears to immortalize her torrid, muscular romance in writing.
They are different as doorknobs and dragon tongues, and they like each other enough to spend time together without killing each other. They eat apples and stroll around Hightown and split green beans in the summer. They talk and they don’t and they stretch out with the years and will likely end up wrinkly with creaky knees that give out. Who knew they’d be the ones to slide up beside her and ignite.
“We got you something,” Merrill warbles at her. She thrusts a hard, lumpy bundle into her lap. “Peaches!”
She unwraps the little bundle and inhales pink peachy sweetness. “Thank you. Is there… a particular occasion?”
“Oh, no,” says Merrill, “only you.”
Sebastian tosses his apple core to the birds, which scatter to the rooftops until they’re more certain a hungry lion isn’t going to pop out of it. “You are quite your own occasion,” he says. His smile is like staring down sunlight.
“Oh, Brother Vael, and here you are tempting me in the Chantry courtyard. What sin! What scandal!”
There is a silence, of the sort most people call companionable. Comfortable. Warm. Merrill hums something completely tuneless; her hand is still on Sebastian’s knee. Neither one of them seems to care, and Merrill is content to lean into him just a little when she smiles up at Isabela. “You know, if you ever do skip off downstream again, you’ll have to take us with you. We want to skip off, too. Like stones. We could even steal something if we had to.”
“Nothing says friendship like becoming fugitives overnight, Kitten. It will be very educational for you.”
“Or at least write,” says Sebastian’s princely voice of Reason and Sensibility. She does not find it as insufferable as she should. “We’d put you up whenever you needed a safe spot.”
“You sweet little popinjay. You know I can’t write.”
“I’d need a pen name.”
“Whosherface Nopants,” Merrill beams. “We’ve talked about it.”
“Extensively,” Sebastian adds. His nose is so crooked and so unnaturally handsome it is practically its own person. “I’m glad, you know. That you’re here. We all are.”
In the dying light of sunset, a woman is scrubbing a spot of blood behind one of the courtyard pillars, and something twinges in her. It is gentle enough that she pushes it away. “I had to. I’d be sloshed and screwed all the time without your angelic influence.”
And this—this warm, dusky moment with the gulls crying out distantly—is hers, too. Really, she is a very rich woman, which is such a boring, soppy thing to think, so she leans over and sticks her tongue in Merrill’s ear, and then Sebastian’s, who turns such a beautiful shade of scarlet Isabela wants to bottle it up and keep it in her pocket.
“You know there are people who would give the skin of their teeth to have me grope them.”
“I’d probably skip breakfast for it,” Merrill says. “How do I taste? I do wash my ears, you know. First thing in the morning, right after I see to the birds.”
She’d tasted sweet and salty and vaguely of cloves. It is not altogether a delicate flavor, but. “Like endive and a young chambourcin.”
“I always thought I’d be spicier. Maybe with cinnamon and allspice in.”
“Hot cocoa, then,” Sebastian supplies, looking up at the flat-edged moon. “The spicy sort. Thicker than buttermilk.”
“Oh, you’re sweet. You’re just scrumptious.” Merrill squeezes his knee and Sebastian tries very hard not to look like he’s about to vibrate out of his skin. Isabela thinks this is very funny, says as much, and watches him turn purple, which is strange, because it’s only one moment but it feels longer, everything compressed. “Corned beef sandwiches and apple pie. With a dash of cabbage, maybe, and some lemon. Just darling.”
It is still strange when she thinks on it, that she can sniff these people—her friends—out when she needs to, feels their moods like a sudden, imperceptible lightening of the clouds or a scent on the wind, something she has trained herself to do without even recognizing it. Her laughter slams full-force into theirs like a warm front. Normal people probably don’t think about these things, but as she’s already established that she is one, insane and two, having something of an emotional orgy, she just shrugs and settles her shoulders into comfort, familiarity, relief.
And maybe that’s what love is really about. Fluidity, transience. Shifting from one thing into the next, melting and flowing and changing.
It is Leliana, wearing her faith like a shield as she slipped out of a third-story window. The kiss brushed to the corner of her eye, a whisper so soft it might not have happened at all. You will know.
It is Zevran Arainai, who opens his door to her without a word and without question. It is Zevran, because in those moments she wants nothing more than to hold him until morning.
It is Merrill, wise as tree roots, nurturing the tiny, precious seeds of her life in the Lowtown dirt. It is Sebastian, whose hand never falters; Aveline, wielding her own love like a rebel for a revolution.
It is the sea. It is the warm gold wrapped around her neck and the sun between her toes; it is the holes in her ceiling and the body curled up on her bed that is there for her and her alone.
It is her, and Hawke, and it is home. It is a map schematic, redrawn. It is a constellation given form and function.
It is all of these things, as much as it is her feet treading the familiar ground back to Lowtown.
And, to Hawke—to home—Isabela needs no map but the one her muscles know.
At The Hanged Man, in the same room with the same creaky floorboards and a fire burning low in the old stone hearth, the stars have not shifted on the ceiling. She kicks her boots off by the door. She shoves Hawke’s trousers out of the way. She shoves the woman herself over from where she’s sitting in front of the fire, bright-eyed and lethargic.
“Look here, petit chou-chou. All the way from Darktown.” She dangles a bottle of something dark and grimy in front of her nose and grins. Isabela thinks she can see chunks of sediment floating in the bottom. “I call her Greta.”
“Full-bodied and flavorful, with a delightful crunchy core. Who was the unlucky corpse?”
“Some salacious little thug a stone’s throw from Tomwise. There I was, rifling through his pockets—oh, the potions he had on him, sear right through a young maiden’s eyes—and I thought, I know someone who’ll treat you right, old girl.”
Isabela turns it over in her hands and finds, on a tiny label on the back, that it is apparently meant to be brandy. “If you’d just read labels once in a while you’d see her name’s not Greta at all. It’s ‘Bathtub Brew #13.’”
“I like Greta,” says Hawke. “Besides, you know I can’t read. Only the newspaper, in the loo.”
“You know how I love a woman who reads her personals in the bath,” she grins, and that’s not a confession, but it might as well be.
Hawke’s fingers find her wrist and pull her close, and then closer, until they are curled up together on the floor with their noses pressed tight, all caught up in each other. The lines of their bodies blur together like waves, shadow fading into shadow.
“Let’s have a drink,” Hawke says, and Isabela, who is free, Isabela, whose home is the flush of the summer sun and the heart beating against her own, answers, “Always.”