Two days after the hurricane stopped – and frightened sunlight began to push through still-lingering storm clouds – Anders finally dared a peek into Hightown again.
It was not quite the same mess up here, scattered among these noble boulevards, that hung dripping levels below in Darktown. Wind left the under-city distraught with ragged, detached tarp walls; in Kirkwall proper, it left seaweed stuck to stone balustrades. Their sewer stench was rotted fish, overflow, ammonia; above, it was mostly salt and sodden harbors. There'd been a terrifying moment three nights ago when briny water sluiced in beneath Red Candle Clinic's door – when a wave reared higher than the safety posts and smashed foam inside their block – but it only flooded a few nobles' cellars. Chilly, saline breeze helped scour away sandy mud beneath a wet grey sky. Elven roustabouts from the dockside were already heaving boat debris away for sour quartermasters forced to shell out extra coin. While boards rattled off Darktown's hinges – shutters drenched, burlap torn down, windows broken out of every house that hadn't nailed them over – in Hightown, driftwood and closed shopfronts were the foremost inconveniences. Their children hopscotched through puddles while ragamuffins below picked live urchins off the concrete, fingers careful, lest they earn a toxic sting.
Kirkwall's main bazaar was still clear cobblestones, but the Lowtown border market managed to set up a few supply stalls this morning. Pawners handed out basic necessities, repair tools and refreshments for winded laborers. Most of this equipment was charity from City Hall, but the guardsmen themselves were largely preoccupied elsewhere – keeping brats off slippery bulwarks, hauling dead horses from neighboring farms, eyeballing crates of personal belongings as rich denizens sorted out their damaged sheds. Anders couldn't really complain about a lack of lawmen skulking about, though. He'd gathered a complimentary bundle of fresh wood, tacks, hammers and paint from Lirene ("Glad you didn't rinse off with the tide!" she'd cried and slapped his back), stacked them all into an orange crate, then staggered back the way he'd come. Narrow stairs took him up before leading down to the dregs again. Algae clung to each step in a very precarious fashion; someone had tossed down pebbles to traction slippery concrete, but the healer's boots squelched nevertheless. He wrinkled his nose.
"Nigh a full week stranded inside a rickety building with leaking walls, and this unsettles you?"
"It doesn't unsettle me," Anders muttered, half-aware he was speaking aloud. There was enough ruckus milling about the souk that no one heard him, anyway; a man carting logs would've knocked the apostate flat had he not ducked, birch bark swinging five inches from his nose. Ocean spray and sweat in equal portions began to dot both temples, sticking hair strands, tickling mercilessly. "It's slippery. And this box is ungainly. Heavy, too – and I've still got to find Elegant upstairs for ink," he pouted.
"Indeed. I wish you would take my advice to improve your musculature seriously."
"I wish your mouth had rusted shut," Anders snapped. Before Justice could retort with something boring about the physical impossibility of that statement, the mage hiked on, vigor suddenly renewed.
He'd just emerged at the stairwell summit again, trying not to teeter, when a familiar shock of red caught the mage's eye.
They were a tidy group beneath Hightown's heavy air: religiously clean Sebastian Vael, armor replaced by a tunic of even crisper white; two smooth-faced aristocrats he did not recognize, one in skirts and the other slacks; Mistress Amell, standing with back facing him across this slick stone square. The blood color of her coat stood stark and recognizable beneath a maudlin, smoky sky, screen of dark brunette pulled into a tight knot. And if not for either of them, you could still pick Cala out from the way she comported herself – a stance stronger than typical gentry, arms crossed, weight placed on one leather boot. She'd been looking mildly between the foppish black-haired boy and blonde dame, whom appeared to be locked in some mundane sort of argument. Vael listened with his usual bland politeness. The four of them had gathered outside a slumping, rain-battered minstrel gazebo to chat; it was quite possible they'd already been loitering there when he'd passed by the first time, but destitute doctors didn't tend to scan flocked nobles for their friends very often.
Anders didn't particularly want to shoot the breeze with a repurposed fruit box full of building tools in both hands. He ducked his head, decided finding Elegant wasn't worth it, and shuffled to leave the bazaar.
"It not it strange behavior to avoid one's friends?" Justice asked, and his host had an odd inkling that lecturing tin can just kicked both plated heels smugly onto a metaphorical tabletop.
'I suppose you'd know if you ever had any,' the mage shot back, a cruel jibe, but one that hardly affected sanctimonious spirits. He had much more important chores on his daily list, anyway. Patching up Red Candle was priority number one, but Anders also had yet to check in on Merrill (who'd dashed back to her modest home this morning) and make the usual healer rounds. No doubt harsh winds, saturated walls and cold seawater would have him giving away most of the medicine stores in minutes. Then he'd have to go traipsing about the woods to forage fresh components, clambering over downed trees, toting a closetful of weeds home… not to mention work his arms sore pestling elfroot into juice…
Wouldn't you know it? Sebastian, that damned pony, spotted him two steps in and sounded the alert.
Anders lifted his hand in a gesture more defensive than it was welcoming; the healer looked away at the same instant he waved, looking curlike, and hurried on. Hopefully they'd just let him pass unmolested. Hightown's echoing, water-stained square was of considerable size – a gaggle of young lordlings oughtn't be seen shouting like rabble across the way, hands cupped around mouths – much less at some ragged apostate hauling repair gear about. To tell true, he wasn't keen on being spotted rubbing elbows with that lot, either. Kirkwall's slums were a place fueled by rumors, anxiety and wanting self-worth, an environment where trust was hard-earned and easily fractured. Not to mention that a free mage stuck out like beardless Carta dwarves in all this latticework and carnival tarp. There were two parties Meredith's skirted hounds loved just about equally… matter of fact, considering the ruckus this weather caused, it might be a good idea to-
Someone's hand – hard and compact – hit his arm and half-steered, half-yanked the abomination about-face.
"Anders!" Hawke yelped – yelped being the only word for it, really. Mist and cloud cover shadowed the progressively paler face. She looked excited by the general ruckus around her and a touch bewildered by it. "Didn't you see me?"
"Oh. Well, yes, sort of…" He fumbled with the sagging crate. Nails jingled inside with the surprise of being forcibly about-faced; loose tacks rolled every which way. The slightly winded Fereldan hardly noticed. Murky eyes glinted cordially at him over slatted wood; her short chin just cleared the upper ridge, walnut locks pinned neatly around highland cheekbones and that lowborn scar. "But-"
"Glad to find you still in one piece after that storm," she babbled, plowing right past whatever excuse the uncomfortable mage might've given. Movement flickered in the shallows of this woman's stare; nobility had settled upon the restored Amells in earnest, now, made manifest by a new spryness of poise and clear jut to her words. Titles and court company could not, however, stamp out the assuredness of movement – sharp brow, bold presence, masculine stride that remained a bit too heavy for her build – nor could they snuff the lingering amazement at having been caught up in a shrew grandmother's glorious bloodline. She looked particularly enthused by what a great mess this hurricane had left behind: tons of seawater, buckets of broken clamshells and beached fish, one sturdy kick to the hornet's nest of Kirkwall. "Got nasty during those last few nights, didn't it? Shipping Master says the marina damage is the worst in ten years. Certainly the worst since I've been here! Heard they closed every one of the harbor breaches."
"Yeah, don't have to tell me so! Where do you imagine all that backup goes?" Anders, brow arched, prompted. Hers furrowed on cue. He was painfully aware of the immaculate company milling a stone's throw away. "Looks like a heard of brontos stampeded straight through my alley. Ripped breakers clean off the boardwalks. All the canvas torn down. Planks, tarp, lanterns… you name it. Gallons of salt flushed right into my backyard, I swear. My metaphorical backyard, anyway. Everything just completely smashed." The crate gave a sullen rattle-and-jank at Darktown's rambling damage account. Imagination refused to stay put and his mouth wouldn't shut. "All my hypothetical petunias…"
"I imagine. We were concerned about you. Got word the Alienage flooded, but that it was mostly-" Cala caught the other end of his tool box. Stout hands hefted the weight with little effort. "Did you hear about the wharf smashing? Ship hurled up and spat down right on that bloody dock! Still fishing bits of the bow out."
"Oh, I see! So that's why there was a giant wooden breast sticking out of the schoolhouse roof."
Bizarreness twisted her face into an odd frown, stuck between scandal and humor. "That's horrid."
"I'm joking," he reassured. Maker bless Hawke's dead sense of humor, the corner of her that never developed; it had to be brushed off or directly attacked. "I mean – hmm – I think I am. I haven't exactly been scrounging for chunks of mermaid. And, you know-"
"Other things to do. I know. Aveline's about drowning in clean-up duties. Still, you can't be sure. I wonder if anyone will come looking for their figurehead. We've already had people stop by our street hunting down garden décor. Our neighbors next door had an Andraste hand statue sail through their bed chamber window. Have you-"
"No hand statues – that's the upside of Darktown," Anders cut in, almost meaning it, trying not to titter at how true that seemed. "No deadly meditation stones or escaped shrubberies. But I think a free-flying dolphin broke my door knocker."
True horror descended upon that severe northerner face. "You're-"
It must've looked strange – two chattering Wallers, Cala in her pretentious lord's jacket and Anders in worn crow-feather, each on the other side of a sad hauling crate – talking too fast and saying too little. There was awkwardness in that she simply did not seem to realize how awkward this meeting ought to be. Perhaps it was merely the steely, oblivious way Hawke addressed her world, tones cast in narrow blacks and whites; perhaps it was good old Fereldan brusqueness, or perhaps simple agitation over this dwindling storm. Did it really matter which? The mage felt uneven in his nervous discomfiture around her, which only made the fidgeting and fast-talking worse. Furthermore, it was difficult to ascertain if aristocratic status made this woman more or less dangerous to converse with in public. She was unschooled, yes, unglamorous, with manners and face offensive to the delicate Orlesian tastes woven strong into Marcher history. But she was her family's head. Meredith could not openly damage her, perhaps – not without due cause. Still, suspicious connections could pan out poorly for either of them. The guise of normalcy had been scrubbed from him long ago, but it was not clear if anyone knew about Cala's first inheritance, an unwanted gift from a dead father. Well – no one beyond a penniless healer, a syndicate story-teller, and Ser Carver Hawke.
She was still prattling on in that brisk, oddly childish way. "It wasn't so bad up top besides the lightning. Rain kept anything from catching afire, of course. Our basement's dampened. And Mother." Her eyes widened – conspiratorial, exasperated. This frank expression – and the abrupt, no-pretense way Cala had righted his crate – were welcome reminders of that ragged refugee girl she'd been but months ago. "Saw the water leak – just an inch; not a flood – and carried on like you wouldn't believe, mage. Damned near thought we'd wash away. You'd think it never stormed in the thrice-damned Bannorn. We'll probably get mold, but I'm just relieved the shingles held."
"Amell!" The summons came from her group. That raven-haired lad with a waifish, watery face was looking impatiently in their direction, silk sleeves rumpled in the heavy breeze. It was unclear whether Cala had not heard him or simply didn't care to respond.
"Do you want to come by the house later?" she asked, looking happily at him. "Varric's dropping over for dinner. I'm sure Mother won't mind one more."
Behind her, the impatient noble boy appeared unsure of what to do with himself; Sebastian Vael chatted offhanded with their female companion, whose half-mast Orlesian eyes communicated mild interest. She was curling a twirl of caramel hair round her finger. The one who'd called out adjusted his weight between feet. They directed no attentions towards the healer, waiting on their party member, but there was a significant amount of expectation in those six eyes. He wasn't sure how Hawke could handle them all staring at the back of her head. 'If they only peer a little harder, there's a real risk of explosion…'
"What! You suspect these nobles are casting dark magicks at the woman's-"
'Haven't you learned how to take my jokes yet?' Anders wondered, shushed Justice's sudden righteous concern, and had to suppress a sigh.
"Thanks, but I probably shouldn't." It was a flimsy excuse; he couldn't claim dining at the Amell Estate sounded enjoyable, but personal reasons didn't factor. The decorated group standing beyond Hawke caused this renegade mage justifiable unease. There was a moment of real disappointment on Cala's face as those strong lines straightened themselves. "A lot left to be done, you know."
Her expression struggled to correct itself. Optimism pushed forward in the form of a weak grin, but she'd always been a terrible liar. "Right to work, then? Might as well let everything dry off. It could shower again."
"Well, we had a little damage," he confessed – on the off-chance she hadn't deduced as much from the heavy box of tools they were currently balancing between them. "Nothing that can't be patched, though. Nice thing about Darktown – smash it up as much as you like, stick everything back together, and it still looks good as new."
"Amell!" Hands cupped around mouth, looking pasty and overeager, the man shouted out again. His clear voice echoed over salted tiles with little strength but much entitlement. "We're heading to the quay!"
"I hear," she hollered back, dark, dark locks twisting to face Anders, waving them down. He slumped forward when her hands unexpectedly dropped out from beneath the carrying crate. "A minute, Saemus!"
There was a brief silence as everyone seemed to shuffle themselves out.
"Stay for awhile, then," she suggested, amiable as ever, acting like nothing had changed.
The apostate winced. "You're busy."
A snort and throaty chuckle was his answer. "Hardly," Hawke dismissed, flicking one hand. There was a world of proletarian perspective wrapped up in that gesture, even as the brave signet ring flashed on her thumb. "Come talk with us."
His wince caught on a tooth and became both grimace and smile – hesitant, not unkind, but clearly unaccommodating. "I can't see that ending particularly well."
"What? Why?" Cala's odd smile conveyed she did not realize his meaning. Her arms crossed loosely over a wrinkled tunic, hip cocked. "Is it Vael? Is it because he preaches? I have to tell you: say what you will about Sebastian – he's actually not a terrible conversationalist, once you're past the holy proverbs. None of them are completely unbearable. Saemus is a bit of a limp wrist, to be sure, and Joyce du Puis could learn a few manners, but they're all-"
There was only another second of confusion before the inequity hit.
Hawke's face fell.
"Oh," she said, brow denting, murky eyes both sober and embarrassed. It was the stumble of a woman forced to recognize that her accomplishments had halved her life neatly into two: what came after being wealthy, and what came before. There were well-pressed gentlepeople loitering on one end of this soaking square and one tattered healer on the other, toting a carton full of tacks and glues. They were two worlds that could not meet. In that instant, it occurred to Hightown's new family head why old friends had become so scarce of late – dawned upon her where sacrifices had been, almost unwittingly, made. It seemed like something sharp had barbed her in the throat. "Oh. Yes, I… I didn't think… I wasn't thinking. Sorry. I understand."
"Maybe I'll see you around the market sometime," he offered, a half-hearted piece of consolation. Cala nodded – it was a sharp, distant reply. The Fereldan's frown was all her own.
Suddenly there was nothing to say. Except: "Goodbye, take care." Her hand was short and cold when it moved to shake his and found none free. They laughed clumsily about it. They tried to navigate some sort of farewell. Hawke had to settle for giving his forearm wrap a quick, artless pat, almost like one might tap a child's mop. And with that hurried sentiment, she about-faced – militant in response to feeling troubled – and rejoined her companions, and they all left. Cala did not glance back to wave or toss another dinner invitation. Neither Saemus nor Joyce du Puis bothered to ask. Sebastian dipped a genial, infuriating bow. They'd move on towards the waterside with that.
"You have upset her."
Anders watched them walk away, a small pack of nobility in a limping city, hustled by the girl in that cardinal red coat. He flashed a look that no one saw. 'Whatever would I do without your incredible insights, Justice? It's astonishing I ever made it this far without you. Inexplicable, really. Boggles the mind.'
Suspecting he was being poked fun at, the spirit sulked, and clanked inside his host's head all the way down that central stair.
Though the mage appreciated a moment of quiet amidst all this commotion and persistent dripping, Anders couldn't say he enjoyed enlightening Cala about her current station. Hawke had an odd bone of naiveté for all her discipline and offhandedness. It was understandable for someone who had never waded social classes – Lothering was a spit of a town, less than a puddle, divided between beat farmers and holy folk – but that made the practical implications of "decency" no easier to discuss. You chose your company carefully in Kirkwall or you did not fraternize at all. Forget for a moment which one of them stood to lose more ground; lopsided friendships didn't generally do very well in this city segmented by tiers.
Merrill was wrong about many things, but about this she had been right: it didn't make much sense for Hightown nobles to associate with Darktown hideaways.
The healer descended back to his lot, ducking fallen ropes and sopping flaps of canvas where coarse sea sun shone through, crate clinking. It was humid and familiar down here. Cool wind rolled off the water, comforting against the sting of salt, rippling in shady areas. Doors creaked on loose hinges to welcome fresh air. True – there was much to be done, many worried faces, dozens of bedraggled citizens fretting over holes torn in their rooftops. But beneath the discord of it all, Anders had begun to see a strange harmony. Boat boards may have washed ashore down below, but the normal sounds of Kirkwall's harbor were already returning: gulls, workers, chatty fishermen, morning bells. Radishes cooked on ember grills. Children picked their way carefully among broken glass, looking for squirming conchs or colorful snails stuck to tarp. It was a perseverance, quiet and humble, that did not exist in the districts overhead; here the process of rebuilding was not about next season's economy, but homes.
You could see life returning in these short hours since the gales waned. Osan was out in force, commanding his neighbors with great folded arms, overseeing wood-chopping to fix the broken rafters. Two of Evelina's younger boys were hollered at as they skirted recklessly by. Abbey, Cedany and Terrowin had gathered outside the clinic block, elbows hanging over banisters, squinting silently – girls again instead of prostitutes – grateful to feel daylight on their faces again. They smiled briefly at Anders as the mage walked by. And – for all the damage done and distance made between new friends – he was oddly content. This hidden borough beneath the glister and shine of Kirkwall was grim, to be sure; joy became a rare and precious find amidst wretchedness, hardly the commodity those simpering noble markets made it. But it was real. Darktown was genuine and unpampered. And it was, in some strange way, his – a hovel made into a hospital.
Anders was not accustomed to picking up messes, whether the messes his own or those great earthly events beyond a single man's control. Easier to leave them and move on. Escaping the Circle made nomadic existence both appealing and necessary, a selfish lifestyle that never bothered him much before. It was not as though he had no compassion; however shallow his bravery reserves and however foul or craven his past deeds, a good heart was a prerequisite for becoming a healer. It was not as though Anders did not have any regrets or enduring doubts about his failings, because "being an opportunist" didn't erase every shame. It was simply that, due to rootlessness and his own self-investment, the mage never really rebuilt anything. He had no compelling reason to stay and piece together disaster zones. He never even thought about what that might entail.
It felt… good, actually.
Anders realized it might have seemed – well, sick was the only word that came to mind – taking pleasure in all this destruction while single mothers stood outside their gutted tenements, orphans ate kelp and rotten herrings were sloughed over the drops by broom sweeps. Justice would just have to trust that he didn't mean it that way. There was nothing particularly thrilling or loyalty-inspiring about a bunch of driftwood piled outside his clinic door, to be sure. This good feeling wasn't personal relief after a disaster – building and body intact – while others surveyed their losses. It was a grounding sort of goodness, sincere and simple. Perhaps it was merely having a home to rebuild.
"I understand what you meant, Anders."
Maybe he could eventually come understand what Amaranthine had been to Nate; much as it scorned the Howe legacy, that city had been his birthplace, anchor and (though Anders hated this word) duty. It was a responsibility he adopted willingly – not because he was a deluded noble, an exile-in-denial – but because it came as naturally as walking through the wet highland moors at the end of every day. There were some things you gave up for the sake of being yourself – warmth, stability, friends left to sink or swim. But this is not something the man was sure he could. His courage had yet to really be tested in Kirkwall, and perhaps freedom would always mean more than a home to him, but Anders was not about to carelessly abandon this small niche he had cut for himself. That would be a decision made with time, hesitation and honest regret. He was not about to off and leave just because storm winds howled at these city walls, at least. Not because Meredith Stannard and her templars horned their bigotry about with axes instead of chains. And not for the friendship of a family of Hawkes.
"Watch where you place your feet, mage," Justice reminded him, warning about all this broken glass, but It felt more like his quiet acknowledgement of I'm proud of you.
Before Anders could reach his warehouse doors, now propped open again after many days bolted shut, Tomwise caught him. The shifty elf, slowed by that persistent limp of his, informed their resident surgeon he was needed down by the Overlook. It was a popular Darktown fishing spot, less of an overlook and more a ragged patio of wood and stone forking over the Amaranthine shallows. Bored laborers would set out makeshift poles crafted from twine and broomsticks; feuding lovers or bragging adolescents threatened to jump off into a wave; adventurous children rappelled over the rails (though that was generally discouraged). Anders's very pessimistic first thought was that the whole rickety foundation had collapsed and been swept halfway to Orlais, leaving battered bodies in a heap below. Tomwise assured him that wasn't the case, but you learned to always expect the worst as an apostate, even if you did so with a smile.
"Nothing that dramatic," the ex-assassin informed him, picking splinters from one spindly hand. Tomwise worked at what he could. You had to wonder who those hands had killed in years past – diplomats, blueblood stock or petty enemies? – but Anders had the personal experience to know better than asking. No reason to start conversations of that nature with quiet neighbors or with casual friends, and this beady-eyed alchemist was both. "Next door block just needs help moving some debris that's too large to lift. Cement support burst its hinges, I suppose. Can't cut it. Evelina's already gone to see but says she'd prefer to wait for an extra hand." A pause. "That's one horrific imagination you've got there, though. My compliments. "
"Thank you; I've worked very hard on it," the mage joked. (Mostly.) "Guess I'll be heading right over, then."
"A good idea – before Smithton gets wind of this and snaps his back trying to haul a ton of limestone alone. I'll direct traffic from the clinic for you."
Anders was not sure how either one of them had inferred about the other's history – for they had shared very few specifics – but somehow, both had. Almost instantly, too. It might have seemed like a rivalry-in-motion, poison-brewer and doctor, both hidden amongst the filth of Darktown with their own quiet aspirations of helping. But cooperation certainly made management easier. Tomwise kept his nightshade out of the alleyways and the mage patched up rare accidents without crying Watch.
Anders was not yet at a place where he recognized his commitment to Kirkwall as repentance, but that did not matter so much. Redemption was in gestures, not speeches; as a somber Warden from the last promise he'd left said, let your actions define you. Maybe contrite refugees simply flocked to the same dark spots.
In the business of evil deeds and inglorious pasts, it was always who you would never expect, wasn't it? – runaway healer and the elf with the dopey ears.
En route to the Overlook, Anders caught Walter by a tunic scruff and handed his supply box over, instructing him to leave it at Red Candle. (A joke name by this hour, since there was neither hide nor hair of candle or lantern to be found at the moment.) He then headed over to confirm Tomwise's story: lo and behold, one menacing colonnade had buckled its supports and crunched a foot into these already questionable floorboards. It had taken out most of the outcropping's rails after smacking several shoe-sized holes straight through to the green, dirty sea lapping foam and rubble beneath. A fair crowd had already gathered to discuss fixing it and to gawk.
True to the elf's word, Evelina was already standing a few yards away, gaunt arms crossed as she frowned at this disarray. "Fine start to the day, isn't it?" the woman gruffed, thin mouth twisting into an unhappy expression. Her skirts were battered more so than usual, saltwater clinging to frayed edges, auburn hair in fringes. Bright rays shone callously into their eyes, making the refugee peer through her mop of bangs. She looked not to have really slept in several days. This in mind, there was no idle catching-up or good mornings to exchange. "Suppose this one's on you and me, then."
"Better scare off the bystanders first. How about a deftly-placed Firestorm?" Anders suggested, attempting to lighten the mood. His humor failed. A bright pink starfish had stickered onto a bit of cement and was currently crawling its way upwards. He picked it off and dropped the mindless creature down to the ocean below. A tiny, tiny soul – easy sympathies that Justice didn't have time for, but Anders still believed in.
"We're not going to lose hold of it," she dismissed, more so a reassurance than a fact. "It's been a few years, but I'm as much of a force mage as I ever was. And I wasn't no slouch. Could've handled it myself, I think, but I didn't fancy a nosebleed before noon. How's your telekinesis?"
The healer considered it. "Passable if I'm lucky."
"It'll have to do. ALL YOU: BETTER STAND BACK," Evelina shouted – then with little more warning and no further delay, drew both knotty hands back, cupped them into air-claws, and let fly a Stone Fist directly into the pillar's crumbling center. Shale exploded. Thick dust erupted. There was a menacing, overloud CRACK as the thing split messily in two. Through the leftover fog, you could hear bare, startled footsteps running away.
When the mist settled, Anders and Evelina were plastered head-to-toe in grey. They squinted. He choked. Rock powder puffed away from a mop of yellow hair and made the other apostate's eyebrows disappear completely.
"Subtle," he observed, and she squinted at him with narrow, soot-creased eyes.
Two more impact spells from her and a pot of fresh water from the closest homestead's wife later, they had split that barricade into manageable chunks. Four slabs lay waiting in broken piddocks and moss. A few more wooden boards fell away from their foundations in the process, too, making them hop over gaps in the floor. Evelina, feeling those telltale migraine flicks of mental exertion, caught her breath while Anders tried his best (futilely) not to look taxed by the weak telekinesis he channeled. His knees began to grow sore with the weight pressing down upon his mind. Justice reminded him he was an elementalist, not a force-caster. His host gave a half-hearted thanks.
One way or another, alternating efforts, they got the wreckage cleared. Evelina remarked that this particular corner of Darktown barely looked any better-off without the colonnade than with it, but you took triumphs where they came. He cut messy bandages from someone's lost curtain to make a Caution – Watch Your Step sign. She thumped the front of his coat and sent dust wafting off it. They bid each other goodbye with a crude templar joke and a tired see you in a bit. Everything was too close down here for real farewells; what you could not fix could be swept away or kicked into the sea.
The grim storm-day sun had blushed to orange then evening rouge by the time Anders was walking back to Red Candle Clinic, gravel squeezed in his boot soles, breeze damp and heavy. Light was a frail warmth at the mage's back. Rain clouds still threatened at the far horizon; their black predecessors, however, were now stampeding over Sundermount, casting gloom on pale mountain face. You could smell more weather in the water. The waves looked worn-out as they rolled into shore, crests darkened by great patches of dulse ripped away. Clusters of debris and dead fish made menacing monster shapes beneath the surface. You could only wait on sailors' bodies to come tumbling in over the course of another week.
There was still an incredible amount of work to do before nightfall. He'd spend an hour or two nailing new planks over the compromised patches in his building and call it a day – best to just worry about repainting tomorrow. There would doubtless be several pulled hamstrings or dislocated shoulders to keep him busy between now and then. You know, that in mind, it was nice to have a moment for himself… now that these scraggy streets began emptying of labor recruits, leaving a dwindling crowd mostly made of the disheveled homeless and a handful of loitering peasants. Tattered canvass flapped soothingly in low air.
Anders shoved one hand in a pocket and sighed as the hospital door came into view, a few waiting, people-shaped shadows moving behind it. The other he ran along a wet banister, collecting droplets in his palms. It was getting cooler quickly. Hopefully the temperature change wouldn't cause an unseasonal frost, killing all the-
Someone unsavory is standing behind him, aren't they?
The apostate turned around at Justice's urging and was promptly face-to-face with a lanky-looking vagrant, shoulders hunkered, holding a knife.
"Oh, you're kidding me," the mage whined. "Can't even wait till the ground dries off? I mean, the sun is still out, and-"
It was a decent attempt, but street-side ruffians who took advantage of natural disasters and poked daggers at doctors were notoriously hard to convince. The sandy-haired boy cut him off with an overdramatic, sloppy jerk of his blade. It looked like a makeshift kukri, and his tunic pouches were jingling with what could only have been stolen currency. "Turn out your pockets," the boy barked, trying his best to menace with a ferretish face. "Hand over whatever you've got, an' you can leave. But if you call for help, I swear I'll…" He was almost recognizable – some cutpurse or pimple-faced beggar from the Lowtown market district, perhaps?
Not that familiarity really mattered at present. Anders remembered the hand clenched in his robe pocket, probably looking suspiciously full of coins right about now. The man might have been wafting dust, but snowy feathers on his outfit and a confident stride marked him as a well-to-do of this wretched city quarter. That thought could've made Justice laugh if he wasn't busy preparing to blast this hostile into a glade.
Not particularly wanting to light the street afire over a misguided mugging, Anders pulled both pockets inside-out – completely empty – and gave the robber a flat look. "Here they are. You see? Are you satisfied?"
He imagined anyone who spent a great deal of time in Darktown wouldn't have bothered a legitimate maleficar like this, so at least there was the comforting observation that not every thug in Kirkwall knew who he was. Not that it provided much consolation with a fishing knife being jabbed in the direction of his jugular. Varric paid monthly Carta protection fees so that Red Candle was left well enough alone, but nevertheless one did have to occasionally deal with straggling purse-takers. It was simply a main symptom of urban life; it couldn't be helped. The healer squinted in a feeble display of passivity that went ignored. His assailant frowned angrily, almost to himself – a conniving child with this latest scheme foiled.
"You got to have something," he protested, cheekbone hues nearing embarrassed. The lad tried to compensate for his mistake by twisting into a fiercer expression. He waved a bony hand. "C'mon, I know you have something. Give it over and you won't get cut. What about…" Eyes scanned him over, searching for golden buttons, imported fabrics or places where money might be stashed. "What about that clasp there?" was the brigand's helpful suggestion, pointed chin snapping towards the brass chain of his outer coat.
"Really?" Anders was about to say, and had just given serious consideration to Justice's sage suggestion of "broil this shameless thief" when another interruption sprung out from behind.
Well – roared, more like it.
"HEY, LUCKY – YOU CLEAR THE HELL OUT, OR I'LL DRAG MY HOBBLED LEG OVER THERE, I WILL, AND MAKER AS MY WITNESS I'LL BEAT YOU TO GODDAMN DEATH WITH IT!"
The shout had come from just outside his clinic door, throaty and vicious enough to shower spit across the floorboards. Sounded more like a leashed pit dog had lunged out and growled it than any respectable vigilante, but these words – or was it that hoarse, ragged voice? – sent this greenhorn troublemaker wheeling backwards. He scattered off somewhere into Darktown before Anders could laugh or whirl around to see who'd saved him.
Except he could hardly feel much safer for it – not really – because the woman standing aggressively in Red Candle's threshold was less of a watchman and more of an obvious pirate.
In his wilder years, this free-spirited mage had been heckled many a time for sporting what some perceived as "too damned much jewelry" for a meek occupation like healer. They expected him to be mousy, self-effacing and contrite – to be soft-spoken, monotonous, wear a lot of brown – as was in fashion for professionals whose job description involved an incredible deal of death. Metals did not mesh well with this traditional image, particularly when they were decorative. Families of sick children or wounded soldiers preferred their attendants to be focused on suffering at the expense of all personal matters. So went popular opinion, at any rate… and given how ragged this occupation could run a dedicated man (or lady), he could understand why most people tended to feel that way.
Anders also thought most people were awfully boring. Fortunately, he did not listen to them enough to be shaped by dry and dreary standards.
Never in his life, though – not even during that hilarious stint in which the apostate decided he was a bandit – had there been as much jewelry as what currently glinted around this outlandish woman's neck. She glistened in ancient gold from head-to-toe: bangles, coined earrings, lip stud, dingy rings, a torque and medallion necklace that looked like it alone weighed five pounds. Dirt and sweat had burned through all trace of newly-mint shine, but under slots of direct sunlight through the overhead rafters, it was almost difficult to discern a woman beneath this jeweler's rack. Kohl smudged and stained chestnut skin, the tough complexion of one who spent many hours laboring outdoors. Her build was strong and its posture lilted slightly, an old alleycat, language robust. Messily bandana'd hair – like blackbird wings – had been gnarled by rain, dried by salt. Her eyes were blacker still, and though the paint around them sunk into shallow creases, you could tell they'd seen things far beyond the flooded harbor rocks below.
She also had an angry splinter of wood sticking straight through her middle thigh. You could discern this immediately, because it also seemed – despite oversized boots and unwashed, poorly-laced tunic – the lady didn't really care too much for pants.
Anders completely blew past the matter of expressing gratitude. "Who the hell… how in the hell did this happen?"
All flares of aggression faded quickly from her glare when Lucky galloped off. The woman slumped against Red Candle's door frame, then, threatening arm dropping; her injured toe turned inwards, pressure limping upon it almost instantly. Blood droplets sprinkled the floor dust. She sighed and spat haggardly. "S' a long story, kit," would have to suffice as an explanation. Where once it had bellowed and rasped, her voice turned simpering and tired; words ran together, toothy, badly-pronounced. She winced and ignored how blue cloth and tendrils stuck to perspiring temples. It sounded like one of her back teeth had been broken a long time ago. "But, unlike some good people, I've got coin. Somewhere. What say you get started on fixing me and I'll fill you in on the important details?"
Remembering he was a doctor, Anders rushed forward with much authority, propped himself under one braceleted arm, and assisted her onto the clinic table.
"How did you manage to get here?" he asked, perplexed, not sure to fumble for forceps or ointments first. The grimacing rogue shifted her wounded thigh carefully onto a sanitary spot of hardwood. Frightening expression aside, exhaustion was evident in the heaviness of her posture, a well-worn and worn-out pain. Her tunic was not dirty, but soaked through with sweat and saltwater. You could smell cheap disinfectant and used gauze seeping from the places where flesh rumpled up. Its edges were starting to fray and blacken. "How can you walk? How are you even conscious…?"
The woman puffed weakly. She managed a smile, bleary with fatigue and the self-medication of strong liquor. Brass jangled at every joint and gold flashed deep within her mouth. "You'd be surprised what your body can do with enough incentive. I consider a sword-waving patrol regiment phenomenal incentive when you look like me. Um – and while we're on the subject…" One eye wrinkled at him, thick with runny paint. There was a ghost of familiarity in the tinkle of dark metal and fickleness he could not account for. "Nice elf docksman told me this place was shelter from the punitive hand of the law. Was he truthful, or ought I be more concerned than I am?"
Anders had an uncorked carafe in one hand and at least six bandage rolls tumbling about in the other. He snagged a pair of intimidating steel clippers with one index finger. The mage probably didn't look much better than his patient, having stomped around downtrodden slums all day, ponytail gone dusty and ragged – and he was now approaching her with a very nasty-looking cutting utensil. "I won't report you" might have and might not have been a comfort from someone whose current appearance was a toss-up between saintly surgeon and crack-brained psychotic. Impaled scallywags didn't have much room to be picky, however… and her physical agony must have been, all evidence to the contrary, unbearable. He dumped the materials in an empty chair and dragged it over. "I'm just amazed you're sitting up, speaking to me…"
The glittering lady swiped away a potion he'd been offering, and swigged it with one reckless, jocular swing of her arm. It went down with a cold knock to every rib. She came up wearing another pain-skewed grin. "I am an amazing individual."
The healer's hands, long and animated, looked ungainly – but they moved very quickly. Within minutes, Anders had cut the protruding splinter in two sections, chucking excess aside and moving to consider a more manageable piece. It was stout and arid inside the grip of her leg. Fortunately for the rest of her, this menacing, makeshift stake had hit neatly between two major muscle groups; not only had it avoided crippling bone, but also puncturing an artery. Two days she had been like this, the survivor explained; their recent storm trapped her inside a shanty with few supplies and three other criminals, one of whom bundled it up as best he could. It was all sort of a blur, how exactly this came about. Someone's bitch had stuck her with it during the ass-end of a tavern brawl because she'd hit one sod or another upside his mug with a glass gin bottle. Made a hell of a mess. (The stab wound, not the smashed noggin.) Turned oddly yellowish a few hours afterwards. Hadn't started bleeding again until this morning, though – when she spotted sunlight outside, rolled off a sodden pallet, and walked herself here.
He selected a set of pliers, thought about it a while longer, then finally ended up poking and yanking at the thing until it came loose. Every centimeter was mopped up by a handful of cotton and vociferous curses. Her knuckles blanched around the edge of his operating table. Fresh and crusted red smeared into knotholes; splotches had soaked the tall boot neck and glued everything together, pulling irritably when Anders rolled it away. He'd procured a bit of bark to keep her teeth from chipping but she ended up biting through it five minutes in, anyway. By the time they were through with the removal – rotating between liquid sedatives, freezing palms and maniacal clippers – her nerves had been so confused that she barely felt a single stitch.
He snapped a length of horsehair and wiped the needle clean in a tuft of unused dressing. "Well, you're patched up nicely, but there's some moderate structural damage," the apostate informed her, not sounding altogether concerned about what your standard pirate might've found to be an intimidating medical term. "It might fix itself, given five or six months. But I'm going to use magic to heal it. Unless you have a problem with that."
"Me?" the swashbuckler drawled back, lying shoulders-flat across his table – and if she hadn't been drugged out-of-her-mind earlier, she certainly was now. It was hard to tell which had more effect: medicinal herbs, booze or simply the peculiar way she spoke. Her other leg was swinging over the side like a little girl's. "No. Zap it. Freeze it. Hell, light it on fire. I'm just peaches, doctor."
"That's good," Anders replied, because by the time she'd said so, he already had; frost cracked off his finger nails and fogged the buckles of both coat sleeves. The buccaneer gave one good shiver but that was all.
"Did I mention how appreciative I am of this very important service? Because I really, truly am," she mumbled, tongue lazy, piceous eyes filmed. The bandana was bunched into a knot at the crown of her head. "I'm even going to tip you extra. Don't look at me that way – I am! Soon as I get my payout from my last job. Maybe I'll just kill Lucky and take his. How much does a spitted leg set a girl back these days, anyway?"
The mage snorted his skepticism – "I'll make up for it later" was a tale he'd heard (and given) plenty of times before. "A lot more than I'm guessing you have if you're knocking on my door. But this is a charity clinic. Pay what you can afford to pay me. Though I never say no to donations."
"Aren't you an angel of mercy? OUCH." He upturned an entire vial of antiseptic onto the tightly-sewed laceration, skin turning ferocious purple. It bubbled for a few minutes before the apostate moved to wrap everything snugly up. Still looked gruesome – still painful, inspiring horrendous images of how such an injury had been inflicted – but notably less festering. Another three days and the whole appendage might've had to come off on account of this mean-spirited splinter, sawed right to the hip. (There was a First Mate Pegleg joke somewhere in that observation, but considering how much of an episode amputations always were, he reined it in.)
Anders wound the length of bandage around his forearm, stuck one end down, and quickly bound her limb from knee to – well, just about as close as he dared to get to a drunken pirate's underthings. It was generally a risky business, tarrying around pirate underthings. Some of them kept knives down there. Up there, even. You never knew.
"I find that difficult to believe," Justice, who had been silent enough to let his host work, couldn't resist digging a criticism. To this, the abomination gave an inscrutable little mental laugh – one that clearly disturbed his spirit guest more than he'd admit.
"Thank you for chasing that bruiser away, I forgot to mention." He reached for a band of tape to secure the dressing. "Not too unusual for them to be here. But I can't believe they'd hound me so fast after the storm. Sort of a dismal comment on humanity, isn't it..."
"Oh, that." One wink – indolent and utterly unashamed. "It was my pleasure, pretty."
Anders stopped short with a handful of cotton and his knuckles stained in blood.
"Maker's ass, it can't really be."
"What? What?" She lunged worriedly halfway off the table, upper body bent, straining to see. "Did something start spurting?"
The mage was staring hard at her from his rickety chair, rust eyes narrow, calf in both his hands. He did not smile or flinch. It looked as though he was trying to discern a map from the faint, dirty lines in her face. "I have to ask. You can't be – Isabela? Captain Isabela? Of The Siren's Call? You are, aren't you? Hah! Aren't you?"
This name resonated. She dropped all traces of humor or concern and propped up on both elbows. It was an odd bolt of severity in the dry, empty hospital air. They stared. "Shit. Should I know you?"
Anders thought about this, tapped his chin, and still wasn't sure of the answer.
"We had sex several times," he offered – neutral and pleasant as a nurse with good bedside manners.
The woman who suddenly began to make sense as Captain Isabela sat up. One gloved, jaded hand rubbed at the back of her neck. "Tell me there isn't a child."
If there had been any doubts before, that statement – and that scraggled, rough-edged gesture –packaged them up and sent them packing.
It had been about ten years.
Ten years was longer than it felt like.
Ten years ago had seen Anders, shaky and amateur, act his way out of bondage. He'd faked insanity – made himself chatter, reel, vomit and faint – for one chance. Once chance out of this lightless hellhole was all he needed. There was no genuine plan in-place; the captive healer simply knew he needed to make that opportunity, make that leeway, for freedom. If he could be convincing enough, someone would take pity. If he could talk his way down into the infirmary, hinge on the lip of death, then he could slip away from this prison. If he could find a long stretch of ground on which to run, they would never be able to catch him. Not this time. This time, he was going to run so hard and so fast, those metal-clad sentries at their college gates would barely see him – not before it was much too late. He was going to stab a doctor in the face with their own surgical instrument, kick out one of those green glass windows with the fragile panes, and fall two stories to soft earth. He was going to sprint into the tall pines where no one could see him and never stop. Before anyone could sound an alarm or put words to their thoughts, he was going to leave this place in a bad memory, and vanish right into the country wilds.
He did it once. He could do it again.
Six times again, to be exact, but those valiant attempts were quite some time in the future from where he stood then.
The second instance in which Anders escaped Kinloch Hold, he hadn't been prematurely caught by town guards or mage-hunters or lucky templar patrols bumbling down a country road. He hadn't scattered his hopes among Ferelden backwoods in a fitful attempt to disappear, head full of half-cocked ideas that this city-born child could live as a magical hermit for the foreseeable future. He had made it all the way to Denerim, in fact, convinced by the astute observation that fugitives hide best in throngs of likeminded people. The apostate carried nothing but one slim set of working clothes on his back and two silvers left after a bumpy carriage train from Lothering. He had stepped onto a cobblestone loading yard with empty hands and a sense of mute amazement at having come – locked into a tower sill for all his young life – so very, very far.
He'd venture back here some months later, dogged mad by templars, of a mind to crush his phylactery. But for now, the place his country crowned from was very new. And it was astonishing.
This astonishment had lasted not weeks, not days, but hours – just until Anders's stomach started growling its hollowness. Hunger was a remarkable pessimist. Destitution occurred to him while sitting on a marbled bridge during a glorious sunset – a pink-orange-purple sunset, one of the really good ones, warm weather mildly dancing against polished white stone, the kind of light you never see over that depthless blue of Lake Calenhad. His legs had been dangling over the banister and mouth turned slackly towards castle curtain walls spearing fierce yellow heaven. It was under these lean clouds of city beauty, rough northern civilization, the reality of his situation struck. Anders realized that, unless he found some source of income in fairly short order, he would starve to death beneath this humbling Denerim sky. Either that, or be driven into a Chantry for aid… which was, he admitted, the far less desirable option. They'd catch him and send him south in a heartbeat. There were doubts circling many things in this granite and straw metropolis, but none about the final result of waving soup bowls under priestess noses.
'Andraste's girdle, Anders – you're a mage,' his inner realist cried. 'This was a terrible idea! How am I to pay for anything – to get an actual job? I've been in that damn Tower my whole life. What practical skills do I have?'
At least in the forests of this country he could hunt (badly, mind you) or boil edible plants. Here, there was nothing to fill his thinning gut but coin. When you'd been coached in only one art since childhood, however – a fear-inspiring, highly illegal and extremely noticeable art – the prospects of jumping into peasant workforces weren't grand. Manual labor did not seem a likely field for scrawny, underfed mages. Actually, sans magic, the list of things this man truly excelled at seemed confidence-killing small. Insignificant, really. He could not cook, keep books, herd sheep, break horses. He could not teach, write poetry, paint shutters or fix chairs. Anders didn't have enough muscle to spare for milling logs, mining ore or shipping crates; he certainly did not have the body for becoming an estate's new favorite housekeeper. What experience did he even have?
The runaway chuffed. 'Too bad I can't get gold for—'
And then a light seemed to click on behind his eyes.
"I am a genius," Anders decided, shoved hands into pockets, and whistled his way to The Pearl of Denerim.
And that, of course, is where Isabela came in.
Ten years later, here she'd washed up again: sitting on the operating table in his clinic, bloody splinters cast onto the floor, eyes slender and trying to determine whether or not he was truthful or absolutely bonkers.
"Andraste's tits, I can't believe this," the mage cussed, chair scooting backwards, palm heel to brow. He wasn't sure if that cuss had been happy or not – Anders was, however, quite sure he sounded as flabbergasted as the feathery healer really was. Isabela had been staring at him cautiously for the past five minutes since she heard her name in this dim and dust-moted light. Her leg kept oozing; her calculating gaze was narrow and sidelong. He couldn't contain the revelation. "What are the chances you'd be all the way out here – after all these years – come strolling out of legend and into my shitty hospital?"
"Yes, funny! The fates are strange, mysterious beings!" she agreed, sliding both feet towards the floor. Then, more serious – and, perhaps, prepared to become seriously disturbed – the pirate's smile faded into impatience. "Now please tell me who in the hells you are."
Anders couldn't say he was offended or surprised she didn't remember him. Here, crutched up and glancing suspiciously within his offices, was a walking fisherman's tale from a hundred other port towns; how many boys like him must she have smuggled away from their woes? How many shackled people had she freed? Actually – considering the liberal way swashbucklers tended to drink, brag and… well, swash about – spouting their tales of glory or beneficence, it was probably better this one didn't recall his face. Changed though it was.
Still, he decided – considering her bleeding limb was currently being held together by his magic and bandages – the apostate didn't see any harm in trying. "Do you remember a place called The Pearl of Denerim?"
"Remember it?" she snorted, ten fingers gripping the furniture edge. Isabela began to test her weight on both shoes with varying success. One side of ebon hair was glistening dust; the other had been sweating, rumpled, pressed against sanded wood. "Give me a bit of credit. 'Remember it,' he asks me! I'll have you know I am quite partial to that fine establishment. And I can't say I've ever seen you there." A glare. She hopped a bit when an unexpected bolt of pain snatched at the injured muscle. "Don't tell me some yarn about me being saucy and three-sheets-to-the-wind, either, because I would've remembered. I remember everything when I'm drunk…"
"Then you'll surely remember laying over there on the way to Alamar – maybe six, seven years ago? Terrible storm. Smashed sail, landed on one of your boatswains? Had to stop for repair and pay for the funeral…? You were awfully annoyed about it," he noted, studying his nails, willing down the smile as Isabela's look dilated. You could almost hear the little mechanisms clinking and whistling inside her brainpan.
"I might recall that… vaguely." The woman was still pinning him with an exacting and mistrustful glance. Maybe she thought he was going to ask her for money. (Hell – and maybe he should. Given her reputation over these past seasons, someone crewed on the fearsome Siren's Call couldn't be worn too bare in their pocketbooks. Maker's ass, you could probably pawn the clinking rack of jewelry she'd come with and buy a better house than this one! Huh. Come to think of it, what on earth was this woman doing crawling down here with the rats and mossy basements instead of pouncing high upon some dirty merchant's throat?)
Anders handed her another tumbler of diluted belladonna juice for the pain. She jerked it away from him and sniffed.
"So I don't suppose you recall," he wondered – a note of nonchalant finality – relishing in the flippant attitude of this story and the certainty of being right. The mage polished his tools and set them neatly back on the shelf. Sinister eyes watched his back with skepticism… and a growing realization. "On a dark and stormy night, staying at The Pearl of Denerim, one very particular companion lifting a keyring off your buckles and catching a ride in your cargo hold?"
She spat out all the medicine.
"Pretty?" Isabela choked, sounding strangled – and then, not knowing what else to make of it, the captain then threw both hands wide in celebration. "You're here!"
The first thing Captain Siren's Call had said to Anders was: "I'll take that silly knife-ear frown downstairs, the beauteous strumpet with all the tattoos, and how about blondie here wraps things up?"
It wasn't really to him, actually. But she'd pointed at the apostate – who'd been wearing nothing but some highly uncomfortable trousers at the time – and tossed him a wink and a gold coin. The sovereign's flat face stared contentedly up from his palm, glossy and new. It was the largest amount of money he'd held in months. She'd thrown it like nothing. "Advance payment! Split it with your friends! More where that came from if you don't bore me to sleep," the pirate promised, then cantered sloppily upstairs with a stomach sloshing full on cheap beer. She had been a little lither and smoother back then. Her face was younger, not as sun-scarred; her messy mane had been browner than black; her liver was (marginally) cleaner. But she was still unmistakably herself. He remembered. It would have been hard to forget.
The second thing Isabela said to Anders, some days later in the dark of a rocking ship, had been: "Pretty, you're here!"
She'd cried it out with a scimitar at one hip and a smile on her face. The seafaring woman was bold, only somewhat tipsy, and fresh from her hammock. She was aggressive and thundering; friendly with a distinct bully's bite. She was larger-than-life. She was beaming down at the dismayed little runaway on her cargo hold floor, his face covered in dirt.
Her oversized boot had slammed down on the crate he'd just pried open. There was a butter knife in one of his hands and a broken lock in the other.
They stared at each other in silence – threatening teeth, mannish posture, spooked copper eyes. His cheeks and fair hair were covered in black soot. He crouched there frozen for several moments in the belly of a cutthroat's galleon, mouth slack, rather horrified.
"Dear me," Anders had said, voice cracking, equipped with nothing but a dull eating blade and his most charming grin. "This is embarrassing."
"Andrew! It was Andrew, wasn't it? Something like that. Hardly matters. What an occasion this is!" Leaving him no room to correct her or spring away – for there was nowhere really to spring, twelve hours outbound to rocky Brandel's Reach – she leant forward, menacing. Sailors' footsteps hammered overhead as they attended to duties; boards creaked loudly; wind scraped sails, churning their ocean trail. You could only wonder how many sharks and other fiends were following now. Barnacles sutured the other side of this deck, ribbon fishes clung fast, bubbles roared beneath a smarting bow. That frightfully sharp weapon glinted under meager candlelight. He could see all the way up to her… "Never expected to see you again – and so soon! You must have missed me something fierce, sweet thing. But if you've come to sweep me off my feet, I must regrettably inform you that my only mistress is Old Lady Blue out there. She's a swell old chum, she is. I could introduce you… real personal-like, if you please." There was a dangerous flicker in blurry, brackish eyes. An elbow perched atop one bruised knee. "Right after you tell me why you're here. And what in the world you're doing with all my fine Antivan cheeses."
An empty water bottle – very recently drunk – was rolling about somewhere behind him. Her stare looked like fresh-minted spurs. "Andrew" swallowed a dry mouthful of air.
"I am… stowing away, sadly," he sighed, a ridiculous thing to be truthful about – but it wasn't as if there were any better excuses. She watched the repentant apostate (and one-time prostitute) cast his gaze theatrically to her flagship floor. "Forced into a life of crime by my unfortunate birth and bitter occupation, no doubt. I probably couldn't bear the shame of what I was doing anymore, or some similarly heartrending excuse… so I turned to theft and trespassing to escape. Likely am half-starved and desperate. Quite possibly was abused. Or at the very least unloved as a child. You see, it's really a very tragic set of circumstances." A hopeless story… followed by an equally hopeless gesture to the food goods box. "And I'm hungry."
She studied him a few more minutes – perfectly poised, more acidic than toxin – in which Anders sincerely thought he was going to die by the hand of a brawny, voluptuous woman calling him Andrew.
Then the captain cocked her head, and collapsed into laughter. It rang boisterous and brilliant through the hollow gut of ship. Bushy hair tumbled; canines flashed; her throat, strong and unafraid, tilted skywards. She laughed for a long time. He was a little put out.
"Boil my garters! You filthy little spell-slinger, you. Knocked me out for a wink and nabbed my keys, did you! Hah! Hah-hah! And all this time I was wondering where they went to. Then I come down here, find you nibbling up my reserves, gnashing for blood as I was – what? Thinking you're up to no good for the constabulatory. Runaway prostitute! Skedaddling mage-boy! That's precious," Isabela blurted, bending over to breathe, clapping the scabbard still glistening perilously at one side. Then, quite suddenly, Captain Siren's Call thumped to sit on the crate she'd once stepped on. It clattered enough to make Anders jump upright. One of her powerful legs swung over its partner, and the attached foot tapped, murky gaze leveling at him like a poor 'ickle thing. "Twinkle-fingers," the rogue tutted. He didn't approach her. "Having been on the lamb myself a time or two, I appreciate your effort… hiding here in the muck and wine barrels. It's a classic routine. But really. Loverly, darling – if all you wanted was a ride on my nice boat," she sighed, "you had only to sidle up and ask nicely."
"Yes," he acknowledged, an exhale, alarmingly pleasant considering the current situation. His tunic had been spotless at some point. Now it was a bleached, threadbare grey. "But I'm going to Alamar and I don't have any money."
The pirate rolled her eyes, chin pressed neatly into a hand. She took a long and lascivious look. Then Captain Isabela simply waved him forward, patient, patting the box-turned throne. Anders edged over and gingerly sat. Her clothes still smelled like the incense at Madame Sanga's most expensive backrooms. "Chickadee, Alamar isn't that far off, you know. I am sure we can work something out." She grabbed his face like a fussing nanny… and wiped the grime on her blouse. "Right after we get you a washing cloth, that is. You look like someone's old sock."
The mage's optimism was guarded. His hair, less wheat in color now than grunge, itched at the neck beneath. "Do you mean it?"
"Sure. My heart's black, pretty – doesn't mean it isn't there," she slurred, unclipping a canteen from her hip, taking a pull and thrusting it at him. He sipped. It tasted like rum mixed with cider, sweet enough to hurt. "I think it's rotten what they do to folk like you."
"Well, thank you."
The woman took back her alcohol and swirled it. "You are most welcome. And don't you worry. I'm plenty good enough a captain not to shake for those bad luck tales. Matter-of-fact, I've had your people on my ship before. Apostates, that is. Not prostitutes. Aprost… Apostitutes…" Snickers echoed into the half-drained tin. Anders thought it was a terrible joke, but beggars can't be choosers, after all. He managed a chuckle. All these years, and it had been a lesson learned: whatever the time, weather or mood, you could never really tell how drunk Isabela was.
"Have to hide you from the men, of course," she added, frowning, all business again. "They'd skin my ass alive and chop me out for chum 'f anyone knew I was keeping a mage onboard. And such a many-talented one, besides." Something occurred to her. "Ooh! Does this mean I have my very own cabin boy?" the swashbuckler asked, swiveling around on her crate, firewood eyes lit up like a magpie in Orlais. "I've always wanted a cabin boy!"
"I think I prefer the term 'companion,'" he noted with a sniff.
"What about 'bed-warmer?' 'Special bunkmate?' 'Personal stress management assistant?'"
"The last one. I like the last one."
"Then it's settled. Now put this on and look like a rug," she suggested, yanked a tarp from its pegs – and the next thing Anders knew, he was leaping off a ladder onto the bleak ash stone of Brandel's Reach.
The stones in Kirkwall were yellow and sand, not pale Fereldan white; Captain Isabela is burnished and world-weary; this mage hasn't been a carefree runner in a long time… but with the smell of ocean and a broadening sun overhead, not so much has changed.
Or, at the very least, her language hadn't.
"Maker spank me raw if I ever thought I'd see you again!" the scallywag shouted, raspy exclamation caught between snorting laughter and surprise, attempts to stand forgotten. Her face and posture were slumped with pleased but somehow humorous shock. Medicinal liquid shimmered across the cabinets where she'd spurted it. There was no move to clean or readjust. Justice bristled at all the vile imagery their conversation had dredged up in his host's mind. "Figured someone collared, roped and dropped you years ago!"
"You know—" Anders grinned. "Likewise."
"Then you made it out for yourself, after all! And you're a doctor," she noted, winking, a mothering bit of praise. The medallions jinked at her ears. Stitched skin continued to ooze beneath gauze, liniment and horse hair. "I'm so proud of you, pretty."
"What about you? What are you doing in Kirkwall?" Anders asked, scratching his head. He tugged a rag out of his belt loop and made to wipe up her mess: blood, oak shards and spittle, all. She left a lot of them. It was an essential piece of her urban myth. "I figured all these Chantry tariffs would keep smart opportunists like yourself well enough away. So long as Meredith is in-seat, that its. Maker, you're exactly the same as I remember," the healer mused, and would've been lying had he claimed this didn't make him happy. He considered her with a smile, cloth in one hand. "Save you look different. Good, but different."
"You, too, pretty! Skinner than I recall, but I was drunk most of the time, and hey – who's perfect?" She said so with leg knotted up in cotton and black hair wafting around her head. Anders stopped long enough to shake her hand. It was brutish, genuine and a little too loose. Fitting. She still emitted that same aroma of cooked apples, oil and liquor. "Sorry to say my being in Kirkwall isn't a matter of business. I'm beached here, as it is… currently without ship. Hence the pathetic and peasantish state of affairs I'm in. And the minor health disaster. But this – this has made me feel a little better about it. Truly glad to see you," she promised, thumping him, warm without being familiar. This maleficar was nothing more than a short footnote in her ruthless and infamous past, to be sure, but that didn't spoil the sentiment. He felt like it was true. "And how sweet of you not to call out my arse dimples, because I'm fair sure they're a new development."
"Didn't see a one," Anders swore.
"That is a lie. You counted at least three." But he stepped on Justice's toes before the spirit, blissfully silent as they both listened to her speak, could finish. She patted his head like one might a tot.
"You're a good boy, you are. Isn't that something? Running into each other halfway to Antiva – all the way up here. Beats all."
The mage chuffed. It was a comment made in jest, but there were real tones of frustration there. "Yeah, and the longer I stay, the more I think I ought've just joined on with your crew."
"You? Oh, no. No offense, love; some's just cut to be sailors and some isn't. I'd have gotten you killed years ago. But listen," she decided, slowly rising, making certain her heel could hold the weight. The pirate's wince fought down any lasting tingles of discomfort; healing poultices soothed whatever remained. He caught her forearm and helped pull the captain upright. "I'm usually laid up either at The Hanged Man or Blooming Rose these days. I can't pay you now, but I will. Til' then, you need anything – you have any more trouble with Lucky and his lot, pretty – you drop me a note there. Isabela will take care of you. Soon as I get this damned leg healed up."
"Sounds like a bargain. Although." He tapped his lip. "I never did repay you for that ride…"
She brightened. "True! Then we'll call it even, and you consider that offer my honest gratitude. And besides that, let's – what?" It took her a few seconds of thinking. "Go get pissed together, or have dinner… or something. You know, do what old friends do! When I can walk nice and attractive again, that is."
"Can you make it-"
The brigand cut this question off, wiggling her arm away from his fingers even as she did so. "Made it down here on my lonesome, didn't I? Things are leagues improved since then! Besides, kit, I don't think you'd do to be seen stutting on into my neighborhood. Too rough over there for you," she said – gently, though it might bruise his feelings. "And too many lawman raids."
"Well, take these," he added, handing two vials of henbane wrapped in fresh bandage. "Make sure to keep the wound clean as you can. Stay away from the harbor, too; might stoke infection. If it starts to smell funny or itches, don't wait to come back. I'll… you know. Be here."
"Less the templars come," she joked through the sting; gave him a pinch in the ribs.
Anders agreed and limped her over to his door. "Unless the templars come. In which case, I'll be in the Gallows. In which case, I'll be dead!"
"And then I won't owe you any money," Isaebla concluded, a little mistily. She managed a lopsided smile. "G'day and thank you, then, lovely."
They peered at each other for another minute in the warehouse threshold, trying to believe it, not quite able to. Anders opened the door. Two sets of brown eyes stared, different shades in this musty light. The captain didn't say anything. She just started laughing.
She was still laughing when the pirate turned around and left. No rhyme, no reason. Certainly no explanation. She simply couldn't not. And so she laughed herself, limping, all the way down the sodden Darktown street.
"Well, fuck me blind," Anders noted, bemused at the coincidence, and went back to mopping the hospital floor.
Rain in Kirkwall was brutal, destructive and darkening. But there were things to be gained in the small spring mornings that followed all storms – and sometimes strange riches washed in with the tide.