‘…And three kings. There. I win,’ Isabela declared, settling back in her chair and swigging the last of her bottle of ale. ‘I hope this time you’re not betting anything you’re not prepared to lose, Kitten.’
‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ve brought my money pouch this time,’ Merrill said amicably, sliding the silver coins across the table to where Isabela’s cards lay face up beside her. ‘I still can’t work out how you always win, though.’
‘Because I cheat, Kitten,’ Isabela chuckled, putting her bottle down. ‘As I believe I’ve said before. Another drink?’ She signalled Norah, who rolled her eyes and pointedly ignored them. Isabela didn’t press the point; Norah would come round eventually, and Isabela had been living in the Hanged Man long enough to know all its ways and wiles – including Norah’s.
‘Oh, no thanks, that’s quite alright,’ Merrill chirped, finally picking up her own untouched bottle of ale as if she’d suddenly remembered she had it. She eyed the dark bottle thoughtfully, took a cautious sip, and pulled a face. ‘I don’t think I will ever get used to this,’ she said, staring at the bottle sadly, while a scowling Norah walked over and clattered two more bottles down before walking off, grumbling something about Corff not paying her enough for the extra work.
‘Drink enough of it, and you won’t notice the taste,’ Isabela told her, picking up one of the bottles Norah had brought. She was about to draw her first gulp when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shock of white hair in the Hanged Man’s doorway.
Isabela paused for an instant, then casually gulped down her ale, pretending she hadn’t noticed him. ‘Good at matchmaking, not so good at the analogies’ was how Isabela had described herself to Carver at Chateau Haine – when the templar had inadvertently revealed his feelings for Merrill – but what about setting herself up with the man she had long laid her own sights on?
Isabela certainly had proved good at matchmaking for other people. Merrill was now re-reading the letter Carver had sent her, blushing and smiling furtively at his words, the words he could never explicitly say in a letter that risked the Knight Commander intercepting it, but which held all the promise and tenderness of the next time a templar knight would be able to meet clandestinely with his apostate mage lover.
Not that Isabela wasn’t proud of her success regarding Carver and Merrill, of course. Isabela had a generous heart, no matter how much she denied it, and seeing her elven friend happy was enough to kindle a quiet satisfaction within her, no matter what was going on in her own life.
But Fenris – well.
Isabela was no stranger to going after what – and who – she wanted; she’d had her share of beautiful men and beautiful women and didn’t regret any of them. But Fenris, lithe and prickly and lyrium-lined and more beautiful than anyone she’d seen in her life, remained tantalisingly out of reach. He’d gradually relaxed into returning her flirtations over the years, and she could swear the hungry look in his eyes meant he wanted her as much as she wanted him, yet nothing ever came of it. It was frustrating and fascinating, and none of the other arms she’d found comfort in during her years in Kirkwall had ever managed to curb her craving for Fenris; something she never understood.
Until Fenris, Isabela had always managed to seduce anyone she wanted, and remained unfazed about the rare few she couldn’t. The fact that it bothered her that Fenris seemed to be one of the rare few, however, was a new feeling entirely.
He moved across the tavern floor with the silent grace of a cat, his green eyes smouldering at her even from a distance; and for the first time in her life, Isabela felt strangely unsettled. Fenris loomed over her and paused, his sleek figure emanating a heat that turned her insides to jelly, before sliding into the chair between her and Merrill.
‘Fenris,’ Isabela greeted him smoothly, giving him a wide smile and a saucy wink that belied her true feelings. She waved confidently at Norah for another drink, ignoring the second bad-tempered eye-roll the waitress gave her. ‘How unfortunate. We’ve just finished our game of cards.’
Noticing her for the first time, Fenris glared at Merrill, but Merrill remained happily (and perhaps stubbornly) absorbed in her letter. Isabela sighed inwardly; Fenris had always remained at odds with Merrill no matter how hard the latter tried to be friendly – even Merrill’s destruction of that wretched mirror with her own two hands hadn’t seemed to help matters, and Isabela had no interest in being caught between her two favourite elves. (Well, not in that way, of course.)
Fortunately, Fenris turned his attention back to her. ‘Unfortunate, you say?’ he rumbled in his deep, deep voice, raising one dark eyebrow, and Isabela’s insides went unexplainedly soft again. ‘I would have said my timing was perfect.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Well, quite. I would hate to think I was… interrupting anything.’
‘Well, look at you,’ Isabela smirked, amused now, ‘all Mr Smooth all of a sudden. If you could throw some cold insolence in with that smoulder of yours, I should be most grateful.’
‘You have asked me this before,’ Fenris smirked back, ‘and I still don’t understand how you want me to be hot and cold at the same time.’
You’ve been blowing hot and cold on me for months, Isabela thought to herself, but aloud she chuckled. Even if she’d been getting seemingly nowhere with Fenris after years of flirtation, she wasn’t about to give up so easily. Seduction was sometimes a long game, after all, and Isabela was more patient than she let on. ‘I can certainly think of ways I could make sure you were.’
Fenris chuckled. ‘And now I’m curious.’ His deep green eyes bored into her intently, and suddenly Isabela was very glad no one could ever see her blush.
‘I’d best get going,’ Merrill said suddenly, standing up. ‘I’m meeting Car– I mean, I have to be at home for – something, later,’ she stammered, and Isabela almost laughed out loud at the elf’s own reddened cheeks, ‘and I had a lovely time and I’m sorry I couldn’t finish the ale, and – I’m babbling, sorry,’ she finished, cheeks even redder, and Isabela waved away her concerns.
‘Don’t worry, Kitten,’ Isabela said, feeling secretly relieved at the clumsy distraction. ‘You just get going and I’ll see you later. Have a great time tonight,’ she added, with a knowing wink, and Merrill smiled at her warmly before nodding politely at Fenris and leaving the tavern. Fenris, however, kept his attention firmly on Isabela.
‘So,’ Isabela started, to break the silence that had descended upon them. ‘What brought you here tonight?’
Fenris’s eyes burned into her, a predatory smirk playing on his lips that Isabela had never seen before. ‘Perhaps… you did.’
So it was going to be one of those nights. Well, two could play that game. Not that it was anything new; Isabela and Fenris had been dancing around each other for years even though all her flirtatious attempts to seduce him had been in vain – it had almost become habit. ‘Really?’ Isabela swigged her ale bottle thoughtfully. ‘Did you want me to guess the colour of your underclothes again?’
‘Hmmm.’ Isabela took another draw from the bottle. ‘Red.’
‘Guess again.’ Fenris was smirking again, his gaze intense and unreadable, and there was something different this time, something about his demeanour that told Isabela that this wasn’t one of their normal fun flirtations. Could it be –
‘What’s in it for me if I guess it right?’ she asked lightly.
Fenris leaned forward, eyes burning into her. ‘Whatever you want.’
Now we’re talking, Isabela thought to herself. She put the bottle down on the table, and leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘And if I don’t guess it right?’
Fenris’s smirk grew even wider, predatory even; and finally, Isabela understood. ‘Whatever I want.’
‘Hmmm.’ Isabela sat back, looking thoughtful, but inside her heart was pounding. ‘And what would that be,’ she said, hoping to goad him into a reveal.
To her surprise and shock, Fenris grinned, stood up, swept her into his arms and carried her up the stairs to her rooms.