The Gnawed Noble's door banged opened more forcefully than Alistair had expected, and he offered hasty apologies to the patrons glaring at him as he struggled to close it against the frigid winter wind. Whew. He turned around, brushing the snow from his coat as he caught his breath. Surely she would be here. He'd checked the Pearl first, of course, and a couple of other taverns that seemed to be her style, but had come up empty-handed.
Alistair pulled off his gloves and hat and tucked them into his pockets. As he scanned the room, he was relieved to find most folks had gone back to their drinks and conversations. Candles flickered at each table, giving the inn a cozy atmosphere heightened by the howling of the wind outside. The Grey Warden took his time walking down the center aisle, checking each booth and table, doubt and disappointment growing with each step. From what he could recall, she was hardly the sort of woman to blend into a-
There. Coal-black hair, dark skin...she was staring down at a shot glass filled with amber liquid - presumably from the bottle at her elbow - so he couldn't be sure, but there weren't many Fereldans with those features. As he arrived at her table, she lifted her head, and his heart sank; this woman didn't look like the one he remembered. Still, he was standing there now - he'd better say something, or he'd look like an idiot.
"Um, excuse me. Sorry to interrupt," Alistair glanced down, finally noticing that there was only one glass on the table - she was alone, "your evening," he finished awkwardly. The Grey Warden cleared his throat. "I'm looking for a Captain Isabela, and I thought you were her for a moment…"
The woman gave an exaggerated pout. "I know it's been a while, Alistair, but I would hope I'm a bit more memorable than that."
Alistair's cheeks grew warm at the intimacy her tone seemed to imply; to be fair, they'd only known each other briefly, and that had been ten years ago, during the Blight. "Sorry - you look a bit different than I recall."
"So you do remember." The Rivaini winked, and Alistair wasn't quite sure if she was seriously flirting with him or just having a bit of fun; best to steer the conversation towards business in any case.
"I've been told you're for hire. Your ship, I mean," he hastily added, seeing her lift an eyebrow at him.
She laughed - a rich, warm sound - and waved at him to sit down. "Perhaps. It depends on the job - and the money."
Before Alistair could elaborate, the barmaid arrived. He ordered an ale, and waited until she had brought his drink and sauntered off before continuing.
"I need to get to Orlais as soon as possible."
Isabela shivered. "Orlais is even colder than Ferelden; why would anyone in their right mind want to go there?"
"Well, I won't claim to be in my right mind - I'm a Grey Warden," Alistair said, grinning at his own joke. "But, I received a message that the Grey Wardens at Adamant Fortress are having trouble with darkspawn and need reinforcements as soon as possible."
"So you want to sail to…where?"
"Jader - I can get resupplied and take the Imperial Highway from there."
Isabela nodded. "Well, you'll certainly get there faster that way, but I've heard that icebergs have been spotted on the western end of the Waking Sea. It might be safer to travel through Gherlen's Pass instead."
She had said that last reluctantly, as if she felt it her duty to inform him, even if it cost her his business. I didn't realize pirates were so principled. "Unfortunately, it's impassable - snowed in."
"Oh? I didn't think that was possible."
"Well, it's never happened before…but we've never had a winter this cold before, either." As if to underscore his words, a particularly strong gust rattled the windowpanes just then.
Isabela nodded. She slowly poured herself another shot, a small crease forming between her eyebrows as they drew together, then sat the bottle down. Instead of drinking, however, she just stared at the shot glass thoughtfully. Alistair took a sip of his ale as he waited. Her long, dark, thick lashes were even more noticeable with her gaze cast downward like this, and, since she wasn't looking at him, he felt it safe to study her for a few moments. The way the candlelight made her skin glow was so beautiful…like the glow of a sunset…
Thankfully, he was taking another drink of his ale when she looked back at him, because there really was no way for a man to explain himself in that situation without sounding like a degenerate. 'I was just enjoying looking at you.' Yeah, not creepy at all. That really was all it was, but no woman would believe it, and the last thing he needed was for Isabela to get the idea he was interested in anything other than passage to Orlais.
"We can try - the Waking Sea is sheltered waters, so we shouldn't have to worry about strong storms, at least. I can't guarantee we'll reach Jader, but I'll get you as far as any ship can right now." In one smooth motion, Isabela brought her drink to her lips, tilted her head back, drained her shot glass, and slammed it back down on the table. "Now, about my fee..."
"I don't have much coin with me, but the Grey Wardens in Jader would be able to make up the difference, I'm sure." Alistair's eyes took on a pleading, puppy dog look he hoped would work.
"Or I could find some other way for you to repay me," Isabela said in a sultry tone.
Whoops, too much. Alistair's cheeks heated up again, but before he could reply, the pirate gave another one of those lively, full-throated laughs.
"You're absolutely adorable." She poured herself another drink and tossed it back. "Okay, how much do you have? I need at least enough up front to resupply my ship."
To his relief, Isabela smiled and nodded. "I'll round up my crew - we should be able to set sail the day after tomorrow, if we can get provisioned quick enough and the weather clears." She eyed his mostly empty stein and raised her hand to waive the barmaid over. "Now that business is over, shall we move on to more enjoyable pursuits?"
"Ah, no, actually I should get to bed," Alistair said with an apologetic smile. "It'll be a long day tomorrow - I need to resupply myself as well, and it would be impolitic not to pay Queen Anora a visit before I leave."
Isabela's pout seemed more harmless flirtation than sincere disappointment. "Suit yourself, sweet thing."
Alistair awakened to a cold, grey light filtering in through the small porthole in his cabin, relieved to find his stomach seemed to have finally made its peace with the sea. After two days of subsisting on broth, his appetite seemed to be back to Grey Warden levels, and he quickly dressed and made his way to the tiny galley. Because the voyage would take less than a week, the cook had brought a few laying hens aboard, and he ate several eggs accompanied by plenty of flatbread. He grabbed a few oranges, putting them in his pockets for later, and stepped out onto the main deck.
The air was bracing, but fairly calm, and along with his gloves and hat, his thick coat kept him comfortably warm. Above him came the sounds of the crew in the rigging, adjusting the sails in response to changing wind conditions, accompanied by the bellows of the first mate as he directed the men from the quarterdeck. Alistair had been on a couple of short voyages during his years as a Grey Warden, and despite his inevitable seasickness, he loved the sights and sounds of a sailing ship. He spied Isabela standing at one of the railings, and walked over a bit unsteadily, having not yet gained his sea legs. She was gazing at the horizon through a spyglass, although he wondered how she could see much, with her shivering making it impossible to hold the instrument still.
"You know, you'd be much warmer if you'd just wear a proper hat."
Isabela took the glass from her eye and turned to him with a moue of disgust. "Are you kidding? It's bad enough I have to wear ten layers of ugly, shapeless clothing that completely hide my curves - I'll be damned if I'll give up my favorite headband too." She wrinkled her nose. "Besides, hat hair."
He shook his head slightly, grinning in amusement, but didn't comment. "So, how's it look?" he asked, nodding his head in the direction she'd been scanning.
"We've been making good time." Isabela turned back towards the horizon. "A few icebergs have been spotted here and there, but small enough to easily avoid so far. We should be close to Jader by morning." She faced him again, shifting her weight to one leg and putting a hand on her hip. The effect belied her earlier words - apparently, nothing could completely hide her curves. "Now that you are feeling better, I insist you join me at the captain's table for dinner tonight."
"Of course; I'd be delighted," Alistair replied with a short half-bow.
A small, cat-that-swallowed-the-canary smile appeared on Isabela's lips, but her eyes seemed to convey more genuine pleasure that mischievousness. "Wonderful - we'll eat at six."
Alistair had spent the day trying to be as helpful as possible, which consisted mainly of keeping out of the way. But he'd taken turns as a lookout, and had been a bit nervous to see ice showing up with increasing regularity. The crew seemed to be unconcerned, however. Not wanting to seem like a total landlubber, he'd concealed his apprehensions.
Now he sat across the table from Isabela, surprised to find he was still somewhat nervous, although for entirely different reasons - everything on the ship was a bit cramped, of course, but here, in the small room next to the officers' quarters, the effect was more cosy than confining. The warm glow from the lanterns hung from the rafters heightened the feeling of intimacy.
The cook's helper brought their food - roasted chicken and boiled new potatoes - and he was grateful for something to do while he tried think of something more to say than idle comments on the cuisine. To his relief, Isabela chose that moment to speak up.
"So, what have you been up to since the Blight? Been in Ferelden all that time?"
Alistair chuckled. "No, I've been all over in the last ten years. For the first couple of years, I did stay in Ferelden to help the Warden-Commander in Amaranthine. But then I was sent to Weisshaupt for reassignment. I've been on various missions here and there since then..." He trailed off with a shrug, not wanting to elaborate. "What about you?"
"Oh, I ended up in Kirkwall for a while," she replied just as vaguely, pouring herself a glass of wine.
"Really? I passed through there with some other Grey Wardens just as the battle with the Qunari was heating up. Were you there at that time?"
"Um no, actually...I left just before then."
Her tone was just a bit uncomfortable, so Alistair changed the subject. "You know, I'm impressed by how well your crew runs the ship. Funny, I never pictured pirates being so professional." He was gratified to see her posture relax as she gave a throaty laugh.
"Oh Alistair, you obviously haven't spent any time around pirates." Isabela shook her head, grinning. "Those are able-bodied seamen. I have to admit, being a captain is a lot easier when I don't have to constantly keep the crew in line. A bit boring, as well…" She shrugged. "But I decided years ago it was better to make a living honestly." Isabela took a sip of her wine.
"Oh? You don't strike me as the type of woman to play it safe." Alistair kept his tone light and teasing, so Isabela could easily laugh it off if she didn't feel comfortable elaborating.
But to his surprise, she paused, as if considering his question. "I don't think it's a matter of safety - life at sea is hardly safe. It's just..." She hesitated. "I've never believed there were 'good guys' and 'bad guys' - people are more complicated than that. But..." Isabela turned her gaze to her wine glass, swirling the contents around thoughtfully. "I've come to realize there is 'better' and 'worse'. And I don't want to be on the 'worse' side." Alistair caught a glimpse of a little half-smile appearing on the Rivaini's face before she hid it with another sip of her drink.
He speared a potato with his fork and took a bite, chewing slowly as he reflected on what she'd said. Once he'd finished, he replied, "You know, I used to believe there were 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. That seems a lifetime ago now - almost as if it were somebody else. Still, I agree with you - I'd rather be on the 'better' side, if possible." Alistair grinned at her and raised his glass. "To the not-so-bad guys."
Isabela clinked her glass against his with an answering smile. "To the not-so-bad guys."
When they'd finished their meals, and the dishes had been cleared away, they'd discovered that neither of them wanted the evening to end. Spending time with Isabela made Alistair realise just how lonely he'd been these last few years. Being with her was somehow easy - once he'd gotten over his initial nervousness, their conversation had flowed smoothly, both of them sensing when they'd broached a sensitive topic and changing directions without missing a beat, almost like a dance.
Alistair hadn't known her for long, all those years ago, but he did remember a vivacious woman with an unapologetic lust for life and a sexual energy that had radiated from her like an aura of electricity, giving off sparks. He still caught glimpses of that, but now it was more embroidery than essence, an adornment that set off a maturity and quiet self-assuredness that both intrigued and attracted him.
Isabela shuffled the cards she'd fished out of a drawer. "Do you know how to play Wicked Grace?"
"I've played a time or two, but I've never been much good at it." Lousy poker face.
"Well, let's see if I can teach you a thing or two," she said with a wink as she dealt out the cards.
Without warning, a bone-rattling jolt had them falling out of their chairs. There was a long grinding noise that Alistair's shocked mind couldn't place. "What happened?" he asked, as they picked themselves up from the floor.
"I'm not sure."
Isabela was the first to exit the cabin, with Alistair right behind her.
"What happened?" she called out to the nearest sailor, hands cupped at the corners of her mouth.
"We changed tack to miss a chunk of ice, and hit another instead." The man's tone was apologetic.
By the light of the moon, Alistair could see that there were a lot more hunks of ice floating in the water than there had been earlier that day. Judging by the fifteen degree list to port, they'd collided with one substantial enough to cause a breach in the hull. As he looked around, however, he saw the men moving with a sense of urgency, but no panic.
Just then, the first mate appeared at the opening of the hatch leading to the lower decks. "It's flooding faster than the bilge pumps can handle, Cap'n!"
"Where's the breach?" Isabela replied, her voice pitched loud to be heard over the sounds of the crew striking the sails in an attempt to slow the ship.
"For'ard to port, Cap'n."
"See if you can thrumb a sail and fother her."
"Aye aye, Cap'n."
The meaning of those cryptic words soon became clear as a spare sail was hauled out, and a group of sailors were employed in covering one side of it with tar and oakum, while others busied themselves with tying ropes to the corners. Alistair pitched in, and soon the men were hauling the sail under the ship's bottom in an attempt to patch the leak.
Once the canvas was securely tied off, the first mate disappeared below decks again, and Alistair took his place in the line of men passing buckets of seawater from the lowest deck to be emptied over the railing. The repetitive motion of his movements caused him to lose track of time, so he couldn't say how much had passed before the mate finally reappeared, but he was close enough to overhear as the man reported back to Isabela.
"The leak's slowed, Cap'n, but not enough - we can pump 'n bail as fast as the water leaks in, but we're makin' no headway."
She appeared to consider that. "Have we passed any land lately?"
"Aye, Cap'n. We passed a cluster of islands to port not long ago."
Isabela briefly disappeared into her cabin, then reemerged. She climbed to the starboard side of the poop deck - now the highest point - and used her spyglass to scan the horizon.
"There." She took the glass from her eye and pointed, although there was nothing visible to the naked eye in that direction - at least that Alistair could make out. "There's a small island forty-five degrees off our port bow. Have some of the men make ready the dinghy - we can tow the ship to land."
As the boat was lowered into the water and tied off to the ship, Alistair and the sailors continued bailing as fast as they could, trying to get on top of the leak. Everyone not busy with those two tasks started heaving any extra cargo they could find overboard.
It seemed to take a lifetime, and Alistair's muscles were burning in agony by the time the landmass was clearly visible to the naked eye. The sight gave them new vigor, however, and soon he could hear the keel of the ship scraping against the bottom.
They were still almost half a kilometer away when Isabela called out, "That's as far as we can risk going. Weigh anchor and abandon ship."
The ship was in shallow enough water that - once the men had stopped working the pumps and bailing, and she'd settled to the bottom - only the lower decks were flooded, leaving the officers' quarters, the galley, and the foc'sle, where the crew slept, dry.
On solid ground, Alistair was in his element, and he took command of the situation without conscious thought. The sailors had briefly looked to Isabela, but a nod of confirmation from her, followed immediately by her pitching in, was all they had needed. Alistair worked as well as directed, so that the whole group functioned as one body.
Three-quarters of the way up a medium-sized sand dune covered in scrub grasses, they found a concave area the prevailing sea winds had molded, leaving a hollow that had some shelter on three sides of it. They quickly built a roaring fire from the driest driftwood they could find. All of them had gotten soaked to varying degrees in the evacuation, and with the temperature as low as it was, hypothermia was a real danger. The 'walls' around them reflected the heat back from the fire, and they built those up even further with all the brush they could find.
Alistair took a group of men with him and went back to the ship to scavenge what they could. It took several trips, but they managed to bring back dry clothes, provisions, and blankets, some of which they used to construct makeshift tents to further block the biting wind.
By the time they were done and settled around the fire, they were all bone tired. Alistair sat down next to Isabela, mirroring her posture - knees drawn to the chest, arms folded on top of the knees. He was surprised to see that the sky had started to lighten a bit. They sat in silence for awhile, Isabela staring into the flames, a pensive look on her face. He could imagine how she must feel - the ship wasn't a total loss, but it would require extensive repairs to be seaworthy again, and she was unlikely to be able to afford that kind of coin, especially with her livelihood taken away. He was still searching for words of comfort when she spoke up.
"I'm sorry we couldn't get you to Jader. But if we are where I think we are, we should be just to the east of there. Hopefully you'll still be able to make it to Adamant in time."
He frowned slightly, and shook his head. "Don't be silly - you and your crew did your best. And you warned me at the outset you couldn't guarantee anything." He studied her face, the play of firelight on her skin reminding him of the way she'd looked the night he'd arranged this trip. "What will you do now? I'll be able to pay for the rest of my fare, of course...but it won't be enough to cover the cost of repairs."
"No, I don't expect it will. But, I'll think of something." Isabela turned and gave him a smile. "Always do."
Alistair thought for a while. "You know, it might be a good idea for me to pay the Inquisition a visit - you've heard of them, right? New organization that's declared themselves independent from the Chantry."
She snorted a laugh. "So I've been told. Saviors or heretics, depending on who you talk to."
"Yes, well..." The Grey Warden bit his lip. "I think they would be willing to pay for your repairs."
"Oh? Why would they do that?"
Alistair could feel his cheeks heating up, and he turned to look at the fire. "I'm afraid I wasn't completely honest with you about the reason for my trip." He pitched his voice lower, although as far as he could see, all of the sailors were sleeping. "The Grey Wardens are having trouble with darkspawn - that much is true - but I believe they're mistaken as to the nature of the threat, and are planning something that will make the situation much worse. I tried to persuade them, but..." He shook his head. "They wouldn't listen. They have to be stopped, and the Inquisition has offered to help me do that." There was so much he was leaving out - it was likely his explanation had just confused her more. But it was as much as he felt he could share.
"Alistair, you didn't owe me an explanation - the reason for your trip wasn't any of my business anyway."
He looked at her in surprise. Then it occurred to him that she was right, of course. "I suppose - but I still shouldn't have misled you. I'm sorry for that." He was glad to see her smile again; it seemed she really didn't harbor any ill-will towards him. "Anyway, that's why I think they'll be willing to pay for your repairs. It couldn't hurt to ask, at any rate. I was told I'd meet with a contingent of them in Jader, and they'd have coin and supplies waiting for me. Perhaps they'll have enough with them to get the ship towed and repairs started."
"I am not sure about starting repairs, but the amount you owe should be enough to have the ship towed, and to pay my crew." Isabela's gaze drifted away, her expression thoughtful, and Alistair waited patiently. "You know, I've heard an old friend of mine - Varric Tethras - is working with the Inquisition. I wouldn't mind seeing him again...I wonder if he'll be in the group you're meeting up with?"
As she refocused on him, a hopeful expression on her face, he realized that he wanted more time with her. Maybe she felt the same? "I don't know, but you're welcome to join me - if he's not in Jader, he may be at Inquisition headquarters. I suppose you don't have anywhere pressing to be for a while?"
She gave a full-throated laugh. "Not for a while, no."
"Great; then it's settled." As they watched the sunrise together in companionable silence, Alistair couldn't help being pleased at the thought of a few more days - maybe even weeks - in her company. The world was changing, and he didn't know exactly what would happen, or where the road would lead. But it would be refreshing not to be alone in all this, if only for a little while. And who knew what tomorrow would bring? He'd learned to live in the present, because the future was uncertain - today was all they had. And it was enough for him.
Thanks to the lovely Suilven for beta reading this chapter, and for agreeing to be my beta for the story. Duty and Desire is a secret santa fic for Clafount (thinkdragonage here on ffn). It was originally meant to be a oneshot, but halfway through writing it I realized there was so much more to the story than I could fit, so I decided to continue.