Two days before the wedding, Kiara, having stolen half an hour in the late afternoon to shoot arrows at targets she might possibly have spent the entire time imagining festooned in bunting and ribbon and dresses with more skirt than was either necessary or sensible, walked into her suite to find she’d been given the best wedding gift of all.
The room was empty of anything remotely wedding-related. No planners. No giggling ladies whose names she could never keep straight. No swathes of fabric or bouquets of flowers to choose or floors littered with pins from the endless dress fittings. Just Tasia, who looked up from her tidying long enough to say, “Nothing that needs doing this late in the process ought to require the input of the bride.”
Kiara pretended the sudden stinging in her eyes was due to the sweat left over from the practice yard, but the little half-smile turning up the corner of Tasia’s mouth said her maid knew very well what was going on. As always.
“Tasia,” she began, “I can’t tha—”
“And,” Tasia interrupted, “I’ve taken the liberty of having a bath drawn up; it should be ready at any moment. Shall I bring in a cup of tea? A glass of wine?”
“I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” Kiara murmured with genuine gratitude. “You are—”
“Only doing my job, my lady,” Tasia replied, crossing the room, first to relieve Kiara of her bow and quiver, and then to rapidly divest her of her archery gown. She held out a dressing gown and as Kiara slipped her arms through, Tasia chuckled and added, “And because it’s my job, I know you’ll ask for tea when what you really want is wine, so I’ll be in with a glass in a moment, my lady. A large one.”
Having tugged the sash tight, Kiara reached out and enveloped Tasia in a hug. Her maid squeaked—it was always something of a triumph to succeed in startling her—before tentatively lifting her arms to return the gesture. “I mean it,” Kiara said, stepping back. “Preservation of rank be damned, Tasia. I’d never have survived all this without you.”
Businesslike, Tasia brushed her hands down the front of her skirt and arched an eyebrow, but Kiara didn’t miss the faint, pleased smile or the color in her cheeks. “Now you’re just being maudlin, my lady. And your bath is getting cold.”
The bath was not, of course, cold. Kiara sank deeper into the hot water, sipping the slightly-chilled wine that was, as Tasia had anticipated, in every way superior to the more respectable cup of tea she might otherwise have been drinking. Leaning her head back, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The familiar scent of rose and cedar soothed her frazzled nerves even as the heat of the water worked its magic on her archery-sore muscles.
If the room had been any less silent, she might not have heard the slight creak. Attempted relaxation forgotten, Kiara sat bolt upright, cursing her lack of weapon and whirling toward the sound just in time to see Isabela pulling herself over the ledge of the window and into the bathing chamber.
“You’re back!” Kiara cried with unfettered delight, sinking back into the water.
“And you’re drinking without me,” Isabela replied, sauntering across the room. Kiara held out her glass, and Isabela, grinning, took a great swig of wine before handing it back again. “Ooh. Not bad.”
“You’re lucky. I nearly asked for tea.”
Isabela pulled a face, rolling her eyes as she dragged a chair across the room and dropped down upon it, kicking her booted feet up to rest on the tub’s ledge. “You Fereldans and your bloody tea.”
“If I’d known you were coming, I’d have made sure to ask for something stronger. Or at least two glasses.” Kiara took a drink from her glass. “Speaking of which, you do realize you needn’t come through the window?”
Isabela’s expression, already annoyed, went positively stormy. “I tried to come through the door like a supposedly civilized person. But that little blond psychopath of yours wouldn’t let me through!”
Kiara tilted her head as she regarded Isabela over the tub’s rim. “Little blond psychopath?” she echoed, not even making a token effort to conceal her grin. “My, that’s a change of tune from, what was it?” With a smirk, Kiara dipped her voice down to something like Isabela’s husky register. “How do you feel about ships, Tasia?” She tipped her head back and laughed, the sound bouncing off the high-ceilinged room. “Maker, you weren’t even trying to be subtle.”
With a huff, Isabela crossed her arms over her chest and tipped the chair back on two legs. “That was before she tried to assume something as insignificant as a locked, guarded door might dissuade me.”
“It was nothing personal,” Kiara soothed, taking another sip from her glass. “Things’ve been positively mad around here.”
This time it was Isabela’s turn to laugh. Loudly. “Do me a favor, Hawke. Think about what you just said. Then think about the last six months. Now try saying that again.”
Kiara looked at her glass and tried very hard not to do exactly what Isabela told her. And the pirate, too obnoxiously capable of reading Kiara’s expressions, snorted. “Thought so. Why don’t you ring up Buttercup and ask for a whole bottle then? One glass seems awfully stingy.” She rocked further back on the chair’s two legs. “Ask for a second glass, while you’re at it. Normally the bottle would do, but, climbing through windows aside, I can certainly drink like a civilized person. For you.”
“The point was to help me relax,” came Kiara’s mild retort.
“A task better suited to a bottle than a glass.”
The look Kiara shot Isabela was a wry one. “I don’t want to pass out and drown in the tub two days before my wedding.”
Isabela gave her a quick wink, then leered. “Oh, you wouldn’t drown with me around, sweet thing.”
Kiara didn’t miss the moment Isabela’s leer slid sideways into something like concern, however, and, teasing and wine forgotten, she asked, “Do you bring bad news, then? Has… has something happened in Kirkwall?”
Isabela rolled her eyes. “Always jumping to the worst possible conclusion.”
Kiara snorted and, once again mimicking Isabela’s voice said, “Think about what you just said. Then think about the last six months. Now try saying that again.”
Making a face, Isabela reached for Kiara’s swiftly-emptying glass once again, but this time her fingers lingered, their touch oddly gentle. “You’re looking thin, Hawke, and tired. Are you… you know I’ve a swift ship in the harbor and your maid’s forced me to puzzle out an escape route. We could be on our way to somewhere tropical on the evening tide.”
“And never get a chance to wear the dress I’ve had fitted approximately a million times?”
Isabela didn’t smile. Setting down her glass, Kiara reached for Isabela’s hand and squeezed it. After a moment, Isabela’s warm, calloused fingers returned the pressure. “I’ve never been happier, Bela. I swear on the Maker and Andraste and everything holy.”
The last of Isabela’s concern vanished behind a smirk. A genuine one. “Leave off with the invisible deities then, and swear on the true artifacts of holiness: a sharp blade, good winds, and a cask of rum.”
Kiara snickered, freeing her hand to push the damp hair back from her brow. “If you’re not here with news of trouble, would you care to explain what was so very important it required breaking in?”
Leaning back, Isabela folded her hands over her belly and dragged an appraising look down Kiara’s damp figure. “Why, kitten, clearly I came for the view.”
“Don’t you ‘kitten’ me, Isabela.” Kiara swatted at Isabela’s ankles, as they were the nearest body part, and nearly succeeded in completely knocking the pirate off-balance.
“Oh, fine. Spoilsport. I’ve some presents for you, you ungrateful sod. If Her Highness would care to join.”
“I don’t know,” Kiara said, already reaching for a towel. “Are you going to let me put some clothes on, first?”
Isabela gave a deep, long-suffering sigh. “If you insist.”
“Are you going to turn your back so I can put some clothes on first?”
“Absolutely not. Don’t tell me married life is going to make a prude of you, Hawke,” Isabela said, kicking her feet down and levering herself upright in one enviably fluid motion. She turned on her heel and sauntered out of the bathing chamber, leaving Kiara to hastily towel herself dry, wrapping said towel about herself as she followed Isabela.
She found the pirate standing at one of Kiara’s massive wardrobes, both doors flung wide open, hands braced on her hips. Kiara sidled around Isabela, and reached for one of the hanging gowns, when Isabela’s hand clapped around her wrist.
“No, kitten. Not that one.”
“You’ve got an opinion about my clothes now?” She asked, arching an eyebrow the pirate’s way. “What did you have in mind?”
“Unless you’ve got a skulking gown hanging somewhere between your archery gown and your taking-tea-with-bitchy-noblewomen gown—”
“I do not take tea with the bitchy noblewomen, thank you.”
“Then I think you’d be better off with your leathers. Keep it simple and give yourself room to move. Without eighteen feet of skirts in your way.”
“So I’m going to need room to move,” Kiara said, making no move for her leathers, but instead keeping her arms crossed firmly over her towel-wrapped chest.
“You’re getting no more hints from me,” Isabela retorted, and before Kiara could point out that Isabela hadn’t exactly given her any hints to begin with, the other woman began rifling through the wardrobe. “Wear one of those ridiculous confections if you want, but I’m nearly certain you’ll probably regret it.”
“You aren’t exactly filling me with confidence here, Isabela.”
“Would it kill you to trust me just once?”
She snorted, then gently pushed Isabela aside and pulled open the drawer holding the contraband clothing. “Do you honestly want me to answer that?” she asked, dressing herself as swiftly as she knew how.
“You really do wound me, you know. Did you miss the part where I told you I’ve a gift for you?”
“And have you missed the past, oh, seven years? During which I’ve learned to be wary of pirates bearing gifts?”
Isabela’s arm slipped around Kiara’s shoulders pulling her in for a quick embrace. “I’ve taught you so well. Right then, come along. Unless,” Isabela murmured in a low, teasing voice, tugging on one of Kiara’s damp locks, “you need to have someone fluff with your hair and paint your cheeks and pretty you up—”
Kiara elbowed Isabela sharply in the ribs and then danced away on light feet, laughing. She was gratified to get exactly one full second of the pirate’s shock before retaliation came in kind, and Isabela executed a swift move that landed Kiara flat on her arse.
“Maybe you’ve learned to be wary of pirates and gifts,” Isabela mocked, offering Kiara a hand up, “but you still can’t duel worth a damn, sweet thing.”
Kiara grinned, buckling the last buckle on her belt and tugging up her sagging right boot. “I’m an archer. We don’t duel.”
“Said the archer to the Arishok. And the madwoman with a sword made of lyrium. Oh, and the crazed Starkhaven healer armed with poisoned knives.” Isabela rifled through Kiara’s closet again until she found a particularly voluminous cloak. She shook it out, tilted her head, and then swept it around Kiara’s shoulders, tying it snugly, like a mother outfitting her child for a chilly trek outdoors. “I suppose proper lessons ought to be your real wedding gift. I won’t always be here, you know. Finery like this makes me itchy.”
“Ha.” Kiara scoffed. “You’ll note I managed to survive all those battles relatively unscathed. And Maker knows you never shut up about pretty hats. Just think of all the pretty hats a Starkhaven princess might provide, Bela. Just think of them. They could have feathers. Big, colorful feathers.”
She couldn’t stop the little twist of regret in her stomach when she realized visiting with Isabela would no longer be as simple as strolling down to The Hanged Man and (more often than not) rolling her out of bed.
“Don’t you give me those sad eyes, Hawke,” Isabela chided. “When I do feel the need to partake of fine wine and coddling, I’ll come and overstay my welcome until you’ll wish I’d never shown up at all.”
Kiara sighed and followed as Isabela headed for the door. “It won’t be the same.”
“The same is boring,” Isabela said. Then she threw a grin over her shoulder. “I have a ship again. Just imagine what treats I can bring you. Antivan—”
“If you say brandy, I’ll punch you.”
“Torn trousers, then? Pouches of pebbles? Moth-eaten scarves?”
“Sweet thing, you were the one who insisted on lugging your weight in junk from one end of Kirkwall to the other. I’m only the one mocking you for it.”
“And you do like to mock.”
“I enjoy a good mock almost as much as I enjoy a good c—”
“Cask of rum,” Isabela finished smoothly. “What did you think I was going to say? You and that dirty mind of yours.” She clucked her tongue, then winked. “Now, come along, you terrible influence.”
“To collect kitten, naturally,” Isabela said, opening the chamber door with a flourish, revealing a startled Ser Kinnon on the other side. “The other one.”
“Have you ever thought about, you know, possibly branching out with the nicknames?” Kiara asked, following the pirate. “It does get a bit confusing when everyone’s either kitten or sweet thing.”
“You weren’t confused,” Isabela pointed out reasonably. “You knew exactly who I was talking about.”
“My… lady?” Kinnon blurted, gaping incomprehensibly at Isabela. “My lady, how in the Maker’s name—”
“Oh, Lucky, Lucky, Lucky,” purred Isabela, sauntering over and draping a familiar arm around his shoulders, providing—Kiara was sure—a most excellent view down her bodice. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised.”
Kinnon blinked, but somehow managed to arch a sardonic eyebrow, all the while keeping his eyes above Isabela’s neckline. “What, surprised to find you coming out of a room I didn’t see you enter while I’ve been guarding it the last hour?”
“Nope,” drawled Kiara, “surprised she got in using the window.”
The knight sighed. “Tasia’s not going to be—”
“Happy,” Kiara supplied sympathetically. “I know. But,” here, Kiara went to Kinnon’s other side, and swung her arm around his shoulders too, “I trust you’ll figure out what to tell her.”
Kinnon’s expression went suddenly wary, dark eyes sliding over instantly to Kiara. “Tell her? Tell Tasia? But my lady—”
“No tagalongs on this errand, sweet thing,” said Isabela, drawing away—though not before playfully mussing Kinnon’s dark curls—and turning to Kiara. “Shall we? The sooner we collect Amelle, the sooner you get your presents.” The pirate loaded a positively indecent amount of… well, indecency in the word, and though Kiara tried to resist Isabela’s obvious ploys to pique her curiosity, she found her curiosity piqued all the same.
And then Isabela promptly started off the wrong direction down the hallway and Kiara forgot, however temporarily, about her own inquisitiveness.
“Uh,” Kiara began, clearing her throat, “Isabela?”
The pirate turned on one heel, cocking a hip and planting one fist irritatedly upon it. “Hawke, honestly. It’s one evening, everyone present will have an assortment of weapons at their disposal, and—”
“And you’re going the wrong way.”
Isabela blinked without saying anything. Twice. Which was, Kiara decided, some kind of Isabela-discomfiture record. Then a hint of a very pleased smile—the kind of very pleased smile Amelle was going to hate—began to play about the corners of Isabela’s full lips. Kiara allowed herself a brief smirk of her own before heading down the hallway in the opposite direction.
“Strange,” Isabela murmured, glancing about as if she’d never seen this particular hallway before. “Usually my sense of direction is impeccable, and I could have sworn your sister’s room was down the other way.”
“She moved,” Kiara said, taking a left.
“Wanted a room with a better view.”
Isabela uttered a long, low whistle. A very lascivious-sounding whistle. The kind of whistle Amelle was really, really going to hate. “You don’t say.”
To her credit, Kiara didn’t snicker. She didn’t even crow, although she wanted to, and no one would’ve been more pleased to hear the ‘how Kiara Hawke interfered with her sister’s love life and everything turned out for the best’ story. Instead, she only shrugged and said airily, “No accounting for taste, I suppose.”
Beside her, Isabela fairly vibrated with anticipation, her usual gait just a little too bouncy to be considered a proper pirate’s swagger. “Funny,” she said, when they’d rounded another corner and entered a familiar hallway, “My unerring sense of direction’s telling me interesting things about this route, too.”
“You don’t say,” Kiara echoed, mimicking Isabela’s earlier tone with eerie accuracy.
Before Kiara could knock, Isabela bumped her out of the way with a swift hip-check and said, “Oh, no, let me.”
The door, however, was locked.
Kiara, leaning now against the wall, arms crossed over her chest in absolutely feigned nonchalance, said, “Sure you don’t want to go through the window?”
Isabela, already reaching for her lock-picks, flashed Kiara an irrepressible grin. “Don’t tempt me.”
Thirty seconds later, Isabela, ear pressed to the wood, lock-picks still in hand, fell unceremoniously forward as the door opened from within to reveal a very irate, very armed elf who looked liable to burst into lyrium-bright, heart-crushing light at any moment. He stared at Isabela, sprawled inelegantly on the floor, and then looked up very, very slowly, to meet Kiara’s eyes, his expression one of utterly deadpan long-suffering.
“Hawke,” was all he said.
“Completely not my idea,” Kiara interjected, hands up, as if with a gesture alone she could absolve herself of any and all guilt. “I was going to knock. Politely.”
“And why would you knock?” Isabela retorted, pushing herself to her feet with far more grace than she’d fallen. “When you knock, you lose all chance of finding out what was going on inside. Honestly, Hawke, sometimes you’re such an amateur I can barely believe I’ve kept your company all these years.”
Fenris kept his utterly impassive gaze on Isabela and, Kiara noted, made absolutely no effort to move out of her way. “And yet you’ve managed to persevere.”
“That’s me,” Isabela said brightly as she deftly stepped around Fenris and into the bedchamber. “Determination personified.”
“Not the words I would have chosen,” he murmured.
Kiara followed them in, closing the door behind her. “We’re just looking for my sister, Fenris. Isabela evidently has gifts she’s brought back from Kirkwall, and Mely’s presence is needed.”
The door to the bathing chamber opened with a soft click, revealing a damp-haired Amelle, swathed in a silken robe. “Fenris, who’s at the—” But the words died on her lips as she took in Isabela and, more importantly, Isabela’s grin. “Oh, Maker’s sodding balls, Isabela, what is it with you catching me in the bloody bath?”
Kiara turned to regard the pirate, taking no pains to hide her own amusement. The urge to preen, to say nothing of the gloating, was already near impossible to ignore. “Is this turning into a habit of yours?”
“Open admiration of a nice set of tits is hardly a new thing for me, as well you know,” Isabela replied. Over her shoulder, Amelle turned suddenly and intensely red as she pulled her robe a little tighter around her body.
A muscle in Fenris’ jaw jumped, but otherwise his expression remained inscrutable. “Isabela has come bearing gifts.”
“Gifts,” Amelle echoed skeptically, narrowing her eyes. “That isn’t some sort of insane code for ‘completely mad scheme you got yourself into and now can’t get yourself out of without assistance,’ because I’m fairly certain we’ve heard that song before.”
“Keep it up, kitten, and we’ll leave you behind.” Then the pirate sent Fenris an openly speculative gaze. “You know, on second thought it’s definitely worse punishment if we make you come,” she paused, then winked before adding, “with us.”
“Sometimes, sister,” Amelle said, whisking past them both on her way to the wardrobe, “I marvel at the maturity and sophistication of your various and sundry companions.”
“And sometimes,” Isabela said, mimicking Amelle’s tone to near perfection, “I marvel at the fact it took you this long to get la—“
Amelle lifted one hand threateningly. Mana glowed brightly around her fingertips.
“—Late.” Isabela smirked. “My, my, look at the time. We’re definitely running late. Throw on some clothes, kitten. Unless you and your charmingly broody elf have business you’d like to attend to? I could just… wait. In the corner. Unobtrusively. Taking notes.”
The mana took on the shape of flames. Definite flames. Dancing, jumping, decidedly burning flames.
Kiara stepped between Amelle and Isabela, pleading with a look. “Please don’t kill my pirate, Mely.”
Isabela huffed an annoyed sigh. “Do none of you understand the meaning of the word presents?”
“Please don’t kill my pirate until she gives me presents,” Kiara amended.
“You know there’ll be no end of presents two days from now,” Amelle said, but the light around her fingers flickered before dying away completely. “You could probably make do without these ones.”
“But she’s so proud of herself.”
“I’m standing right here,” Isabela complained. Loudly.
Kiara ignored her. “Surely you’re a little curious?”
Amelle gave a delicate little sniff. “They’re your presents.”
“Envy doesn’t become you, kitten,” Isabela mused. “And I never said they were only presents for your sister. I did rather insist we bring you along, after all. Could be I’ve a little something tucked away for you, too.” She looked a little like she was going to tease Fenris, but his cool gaze froze her in her tracks and instead of punching him on the arm or whatever it was she’d intended, she only flicked her hair over her shoulder. “Besides, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that you’re getting the sweeter end of the deal at the moment. You’re positively rosy, Amelle, and I don’t think it’s entirely to do with having come…” She paused for effect, just long enough to earn another glare and a menacing handwave from Amelle. “From a warm bath, I mean. Come from a warm bath. Whereas Hawke looks as though she hasn’t come… from a warm bath in quite some time.”
“I do not even want to pretend I know what you’re talking about,” Amelle muttered. “And I am not getting dressed with you… hovering.”
Isabela sighed. “Spoilsports the both of you. Hawke and I will wait in the hall. Do try to come along quickly. It will be so very hard waiting without you.”
Amelle scowled. “You’re not funny.”
“On the contrary,” Isabela declared, “I think Fenris’ lips just quivered. On anyone else that’s practically a guffaw.”
“I think it might actually mean he’s about to kill you and is just wondering where to hide the body,” Kiara said. “And if you don’t stop it with the bad, thinly-veiled sex jokes, I just may help him.”
Isabela swung an arm around Kiara’s shoulders and pulled her in for a quick hug. “Why, sweet thing, that’s only because you’re not getting any.”
Rum was good.
Rum was so good.
Rum was the best.
Nothing in all of Thedas was as good as rum.
Except Isabela was also the best, and her boat—ship—was the best, and all the presents she’d brought from Kirkwall—Aveline and Merrill and Orana and even Cupcake—were the best. Mely was laughing and Merrill couldn’t stop talking and every five seconds Killer, uh, Cupcake, uh, maybe it was time to decide on one name, snuffled over and covered Kiara’s hands in disgusting mabari kisses and she had never been this happy in her entire life.