She could remember a time when she found the Denerim approach oppressive. The city sat a short distance from the sea, its cramped docks clustered at the innermost point of a narrow bay. Hills rose to either side, throwing their reflections down upon waters that had always seemed much to shallow for her liking. It was just deep enough, they said, but the crossing was always a nervous one for ships with a deep keel.
That was before Kirkwall, of course. Isabela could still remember sailing from that place, its walls and gallows putting these pitiable hillocks to shame. But from was the important part, wasn't it? Hawke had won her a ship and they had left that place together, only one of them looking back. Isabela was almost glad she had never had to sail into the city.
Her sigh held a twinge of relief when the steersman finally angled them toward an empty pier. There were more of those than there should have been.
"I am surprised. You have learned something of punctuality." Fenris joined her at the rail, his eyes slipping sideways to watch Surin perched upon the prow. How long the boy had been there, Isabela could not guess; he had already been holding his vigil when she emerged from her cabin.
"You're talking about that thing with the Qunari again, aren't you? Why can't everyone just let that go?" She rolled her eyes with feigned exasperation, but the elf had a point. It was the first of autumn. They had reached the city as she had known they would.
"Denerim is a large place."
She nodded absently, watching as two of the men leapt over the side to tie them off.
"And you know where Hawke will be?"
"Not a clue."
"Captain Isabela of The Maiden's Froth?" Peering over the rail, she saw a contingent of half a dozen guardsmen waiting on the pier. The speaker's face was shadowed by his helm, but she could hear him flush as he stumbled over the name.
"Vulgar name," Fenris muttered behind her.
"Castillon named it. It's bad luck to change the name of a ship." Calling down to the guardsman, she grinned. "What have I done now?"
"You're to come with us."
"Just like that?" She caught sight of Surin slipping closer and moved her body to shield him from view. "And what of my ship?"
"Your ship may dock. Your men may go where they will."
Another spoke now, his voice sounding almost amused. "We will not board without your permission, Captain."
"Damn right you won't." She gestured and one of her men tossed down a line. Putting her back to the guardsmen, she looked to Fenris. "Take him to the Pearl. Ask for Sanda. I'll meet you there."
His brows drew low as he looked to the boy. "And if you don't?"
Surin stood between them, not looking up, not making any attempt to sneak a glance at the crowd below. But Isabela had no doubt that he understood every word.
Swinging a leg over the rail, she took the line between her hands and shrugged. "I will... eventually. What's the worst that could happen?" With that, she leapt over the side.
She'd never been one for goodbyes, but there was no time to think on it now. Sliding down the line, she landed in an easy crouch and straightened to brush a strand of hair from her eyes. "So. You're still not going to tell me what I've done? Or what you think I've done?"
"Something, I'm sure." One of the guards moved behind her, slipping the blades from her back and tucking them behind his belt. Isabela did not stop him, but he made no move to search her further. She was either very lucky, or he was very stupid.
"Ooh, you're cute. Or you might be if you took off that hideous helm."
He looked down at her from behind a mask of shadow as the others formed up around them, herding her toward the city. As they crossed beneath the walls, Isabela breathed deep. It was not the same as the sea, but port had a current and a scent all its own.
She looked again to the guardsman at her side. "I don't suppose we could make one, tiny stop first? Before we get to... wherever we are going."
He sighed exasperated. "You are a prisoner, Captain. At least have the decency to act like one."
Isabela gaped. She recognized that voice. Tilting her head, she attempted to peer beneath the shadows of the man's helmet. "Donnic?"
"You mistake me, serah." He emphasized the word, so out of place here in Ferelden. "I am Guardsman Donnal."
He nodded, keeping his eyes on the street ahead, but the tightening grip on her arm cautioned silence.
She guessed their destination soon enough. The broken stones beneath their feet gave way to tended streets, the stench almost fading with the disappearing hovels. Isabela slowed them as best she could, keeping an almost leisurely pace beneath the wondering stares of passersby. Let them look. For once, she had done nothing wrong. Well, almost nothing.
They stopped before the palace doors and Donni— Donnal pulled her to the head of the starirs, handing her over to a waiting guard with a slow bow. "Guardswoman Avella."
"Thank you, Donnal."
Isabela's gasp was audible, but the shorter guard took her forcibly by the elbow, steering her away from the others as they made their way into the palace.
"Avella? Just steal half my name, why don't you?"
"Shut up." But there was a smile peeking from beneath that awful helm. "It is... good to see you again."
Isabela snorted. "Oh, I doubt that. But what are you and Donnic doing here?"
Aveline glanced behind them, making sure that none of the others had followed. "We couldn't exactly remain in Kirkwall after siding with Hawke, could we? But King Alistair has been... sympathetic. I'm not in command, of course. That's impossible now. But it's a good job. A good life."
"Not happy unless you're all law-and-order, right?"
She chuckled. "Something like that."
They passed a great pair of gilded doors, pausing a moment as Isabela tilted her head to look up at them. She had been in palaces before, but never this one. Of all the hovels in a city, the pretty ones were always the most dishonest. But they continued on, past any of the places where visitors might be entertained, moving instead to a side hallway and what she guessed were the king's more private chambers. When at last they stopped, it was before another door – still ornate, but crafted of simple wood.
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me what I'm doing here?"
"If you haven't figured that out yet, you're really more stupid than I gave you credit for."
"You gave me credit?"
Pushing aside the door, Aveline sniffed. "Not much."
When she made no move to venture further, Isabela stepped past, letting her eyes roam over the domed ceiling, the bookshelves ringing the walls, the circle of chairs at the library's center. One of those faced the door, its occupant rising as she entered. He had aged, of course, but the sudden uncertainty that flashed behind his eyes was the same as she remembered.
Isabela laughed. "Couldn't get enough of me, could you?"
"It explains so much. The clandestine meeting, the guards— Nice touch, by the way, if that's how you want it. Shall I still pretend I'm your prisoner?"
Alistair, King of Ferelden and Lord of all the land, was flushing from his hair to his toes. "I... no! We're not... here for that. Or to talk about that. Ever again."
She shrugged, pouting in disappointment as she strolled into the room. But she stopped then. The chair facing Alistair's was also occupied, a lazy boot dandling over the arm. Isabela could not see the woman, but she didn't need to.
"Hi, 'Bela." Rising slowly, she stepped around the chair and smiled.