the sea takes all who drown
Isabela/Aveline, between Acts 2 and 3. A lifetime of being self-conscious isn't easy to overcome, particularly when Aveline expects nothing but mockery.

There were many things to be said about living close to the ocean. Most of them were bad, particularly whenever the temperatures were warm. While the breeze off the waters was welcomed by guards who sorely needed the relief, the smell of rotting fish was not. Heat encouraged decomposition. And though the Waking Sea should have balanced out the worst extremes of weather - easing the summers, warming the winters - it was lackluster in its duty. It barely bothered to provide insulation against the unseasonable days, which came often to the Kirkwall corner of the Free Marches.

The weather might have been caused by the cliffs, which often trapped the most jubilant of winds like freshly-bought slaves. It might have been caused by the Vimmark Mountains, wedged up along the coast as if yearning to leap off. It might have been the density of people. All of it was unpleasant, true - but secretly, there were many times that Aveline appreciated having an excuse not to feel guilty on the days she caught herself thinking, Kirkwall is an overblown sewer.

The City of Chains typically began hot in the spring, and stayed that way until the winter storms. This year's summer was particularly enthusiastic. Halfway through, and it was already the worst that Aveline could remember, worst even for some of her older guardsmen, who often bragged about marching up and down the coast in full plate. The waters of the Waking Sea stretched out like endless, glassy sheets. Ships wallowed on the failing tides. In the brig, the guards had left open as many doors as they dared without compromising security - as much for their sake as the prisoners'. Summer sapped the strength out of the majority of their troublemakers, but it made it that much harder to bear armor upon one's back.

Standard policy in Kirkwall was to rinse the cells only during vacancies and searches, which meant that in the case of long-term offenders, things got fairly ripe. For the group cells - which were rarely empty - the guards made strategic use of buckets if there weren't any spares to shift the prisoners into temporarily. It seemed that there would always be at least one prisoner who was determined to make their environment as noxious as possible, using any available bodily secretions to do it with. The more miserable they became, the more they wanted to share it with others.

The cells on Aveline's list that day were located in an isolated wing of the brig, reserved for prisoners who were not allowed to mingle with the rest. She did not carry an inventory list. There was only one inhabitant of the cells that week, and Aveline knew them by name.

Ignoring the sweat beading under the collar of her armor padding, Aveline worked her way past the guard stations. The watchpost nearest to the isolation cells was empty; the guard had been reassigned to help haul water, with Aveline's permission. In the overarching scheme of it all, the benefit was worth the risk. With the additional rinsing, the brig's stench had just started to lose the worst of its edge, as long as Aveline didn't breathe too deeply of it.

The last door loomed and opened, and then Aveline was ensconced deep within the inner privacies of the guard. In earlier years - in Jeven's time, and even before that- there had been various abuses of authority that had necessitated the installation of heavy doors and insulating stonework. Aveline had no intention of walking in those same footsteps during her reign, but she was also far too jaded to dismantle the option. Once inside, she hooked the heavy key ring on the peg just past the entrance; no reason to risk letting it anywhere in sight distance of the prisoner, after all. As an afterthought, she closed the door as well.

Without allowing herself to hesitate, she headed directly along the row of cells. All were empty, save for the furthest one, wedged in the back like a half-forgotten child. The blot leaning against the bars stirred as Aveline approached. As she came closer, its identity resolved into the familiar, sloppy figure of Isabela.

Heat had exacted a steep price from the Rivaini. The woman hadn't used her ration of water to rinse herself off - the bucket looked mostly full - and her hair hung in limp, sticky clumps along her neck. It must have been from a lack of desire to move than from any real need to conserve; the guards gave extra rations in the summer, ever since an unfortunate case of heatstroke a few years back when some highly-placed merchant family's son had got his brain baked.

In what must have been a miracle, Isabela had left all her clothes on. Even the lacings of her top were snug, for what little good that was worth; they could still be easily slit up the sides, and lacked any decent protection in combat. Aveline had always scorned the thin linen, despite knowing how the fabric was a byproduct of practicality. The metal of a breastplate would be subject to rust and chafing out on the ocean. Even the eyelets of a sturdier corset could fall prey to the elements. The clothes that survived a ship were ones that could adapt to water, either by drying clean or repelling it from the start. Yet despite all the years she'd stayed on land, Isabela had kept her basic cincher of cloth and boning; Aveline had never been able to figure if it had originally been a bodice or a corset. Knowing Isabela's tastes, it was likely the latter.

The Rivaini was pressed up against the confines of her prison, but she sighed when she recognized the identity of her guest. She cocked an eyebrow at the guardswoman, halfheartedly, and didn't bother to speak.

Aveline took her time in strolling up, not wanting to give the illusion of eagerness. "No matter how much you cosset the bars, they won't let you free," she pointed out dryly when she came close enough to not have to shout.

Isabela made a pout, rolling her spine in a lazy undulation. "This cell's too closed in," she complained. "I need to breathe. I need out."

Aveline stopped well away from the door, planting her feet and folding her arms in a manner that Isabela probably found more humorous than intimidating. "This is what you get for disturbing Lowtown," she retorted, not caring if it came off as a lecture or not. "I warned you once about dueling on public property. Two weeks I kept you in here last time, Isabela. How long am I supposed to keep you now?"

"If it was your pride I touched, maybe I should try it more often." Isabela made a limpid wiggle of her fingers. "You do look like someone in need of a good groping. Is Donnic not doing enough of that yet?"

Aveline ignored the jibe. It would be far too easy to allow Isabela to steer the conversation; rising to the bait would hand over the victory without even a token fight. Instead, she mentally tested her opening quarrels, and delivered the first shot. "You know, there's been something on my mind, ever since the conflict with the Qunari. Maybe now that you're locked up here, I can finally get an answer."

It might have been her imagination, but Isabela seemed to freeze in her motions, daunted for half a second before blossoming into a leer. "Oh? If it's about their natural endowments, big girl, I'm afraid they have to be seen to be beli - "

"You came back."

Isabela's eyes narrowed slightly before she could smooth them out. She gave a short laugh, stretching her neck so that she could eye Aveline down the bridge of her nose; the casualness seemed too deliberate to be anything other than forced. "Everyone seems intent on repeating the obvious."

Sensing blood in the water, Aveline pressed what little advantage she could. "Some would consider it proof that you're trustworthy. Personally, I don't know if I should believe in your supposed loyalties. What's to keep you from having struck another bargain somewhere else, all for the betrayal of a certain newly-restored noble house? How do we know this isn't just some plan for you to get close to Hawke?"

"I should be asking you the same thing, shouldn't I?" Isabela's expression had gone tight and fierce, anger undoing her from the inside out. "I mean, you didn't even know Hawke until you two ran headfirst into one another on the road out from Lothering. Why are you so determined to play watchdog? Do you simply enjoy being ready with a rag whenever Hawke's arse needs to be wiped? Only you would think of armor as a nursemaid's frock."

The questions were painfully blunt. It lodged in Aveline's chest, digging at a wound she had refused to let be reopened. I didn't want to lose someone else on my watch, she almost allowed, but cut herself off at the last second; she would not hand Wesley's memory over to Isabela to be used as fodder for another taunt. "I think you've said enough already, bitch," was the safest phrase that came to mind, regardless of its overuse. With a curt, disgusted shake of her head - another conversation lost, another waste of time - Aveline gave up and turned to leave.

"Don't go." Isabela's tone was instantly contrite. She shifted her weight onto her toes, pressing her belly against the metal. Her lips twisted down into a pout. "Of what possible danger could I be to you right here? Behind these cold, cold bars."

"Danger enough," Aveline snorted. She was already regretting not simply ignoring Isabela from the start, and leaving the Rivaini to rot in a sweaty lump. "Do you have enough water? Wonderful, then goodbye."

"You might at least capture Fenris down here for me."

"Fenris," and Aveline's tone was sharp, "behaves himself. Unlike you. I wouldn't want to subject him to your depravities unnecessarily, whore."

"Ooo, and if that isn't overprotective." Isabela slouched against the bars. Her wheedling changed to singsong mockery. "Hawke had better watch out. There's a new rival for your affections. Now it's Fenris who'll be nannied to death instead."

Antagonized enough to spin back around, Aveline strode all the way back up to the cell before remembering that she couldn't yank Isabela physically out and give the woman a shake. She resorted to looming in front of the bars, shifting her weight from foot to foot like a roused bear. "At least I spend my efforts on people who are worth it.I don't ingratiate myself with... with strangers because I want to steal their purses, or because I'm bored and want to catch new diseases! Or out of some misguided intentions like Anders, putting out milk for strays when it only gets nicked by the poor!"

Isabela snorted. "I hope they do steal it. Milk's bad for cats, you know. Gives them the runs something fierce."

The practicality brought Aveline's irritation up short. "Oh?"

"One of the first things you learn on a ship if you bring one aboard to help with the rats." Isabela grinned. She interlaced her arms around the bars, leaning forward to touch her temples to the metal. "Even if milk didn't spoil almost immediately, you don't ever feed it to a cat. Not unless you want something truly foul beneath your hammock."

Curious now despite herself, Aveline tried not to become derailed, but the question had to be asked. "Are you ever going to tell Anders about this?"

"And ruin his 'misguided intentions'? Never! Anyway, I think the reek of cat diarrhea only improvesthe smell down there. It's my little way of showing that I care."

The conversation - newly born, newly dying - struggled to find its next step. Aveline, suddenly disquieted with how easily she'd been speaking with Isabela, glanced away. When it wasn't something they were arguing over, it was just like talking to anyone else: easy and comfortable. She scuffed her boot over the stone, stitching together the words that would help her excuse herself and escape.

But Isabela didn't let her go free. Her voice turned merry, but her eyes narrowed, sterner than the taunts implied. "I can't help but notice - I'm all kinds of things that you hate, aren't I, Aveline? I flaunt the law, but I get away with it -"

"Oh, yes," Aveline interrupted, "because you're getting away with it right now, aren't you?"

"- and I know I'm not the most attractive, but I don't let it bother me. I don't run from it. I'm simply myself. I don't become a steel-clad pillar that overcompensates for her self-esteem because she's still afraid of her own strength."

Anger slammed Aveline forward, propelling her like a fist ramming against her spine. She had a hand in Isabela's shirt before she fully realized the act, and had to force herself to resist the urge to pull forward and slam the pirate against the bars. Her pride scrambled about disobediently before she could marshal it. Strength was a sore point that continued to ache, particularly from Isabela. Strength was something that had always haunted her to the point of shame: the broad hands, the mannish jaw, the square shoulders and rock-hard muscles that could lift a calf as easily as a bale of hay. Aveline, so tough and intimidating. Just like any other brute.

"Stay down here for a month," she hissed, once she felt she could trust her voice. Her lips were dry; she licked them, and regretted it. "Spread your legs for the rats."

Isabela grinned, limp and relaxed in Aveline's grip. "I could spread them for something else."

"Do you ever stop with your dockside lusts? I didn't come over to hear them!"

Isabela sighed. Rather than hold Aveline's gaze insolently, she was the one who looked away first, the corners of her mouth crinkling down. "Then why did you come to me, Aveline?"

"Because," Aveline started, then floundered. She hadn't netted an answer about Hawke, but repeating the question only would have made her twice as vulnerable to prying. She fell back to an excuse that felt flimsy as paper. "Because I wanted to make sure you weren't inciting my guards."

The skeptical arch of Isabela's eyebrow made Aveline's stomach sink. "That's my brave little soldier girl. Always protecting your people against any threat you can possibly imagine. Anyone could strap on a bit of metal and swan about claiming they're making the city safer for all of us hardworking citizens. But you," she continued sharply, lifting a finger to angle it at Aveline's nose, "it's more than that, isn't it? When you're a guard, you don't have to care how you look in dresses. And here I thought you already came to terms with who you are."

Aveline's other hand came up, burying itself in Isabela's collar. "I did," she said - half a snarl, self-control be damned. "And I don't need your judgement."

Isabela straightened up. The motion tightened her shoulders against the bars, trapped in place by cloth and metal fingers. "You know, I like it when you're confident enough to fight back," she whispered, and then leaned forward into Aveline's mouth.

The kiss shocked Aveline into immobility. Isabela's mouth was full and fierce; her lips were hungrier than Aveline expected. Automatically, she opened against the pressure, so astonished that she could do nothing but yield to the physical commands of the other woman's tongue. She didn't mean to respond, but she had no idea what else to do without looking weak - and then Isabela was sliding both her arms through the bars and around Aveline's hips.

Wary of trickery, Aveline shoved away hard, pushing Isabela back roughly enough that the Rivaini stumbled and slammed against the ground. Aveline did not savor her victory; she rubbed a hand immediately against her mouth, trying to use the hard shell of the gauntlet to banish the sensation of tender flesh. Paranoia urged her to suck at her teeth, trying to analyze the taste on her gums. If Isabela had somehow smuggled a poison in that she was attempting to pass by saliva, then Aveline would have to make sure to hallucinate only when safely out of arm's reach.

But there was nothing, no chemical tang or bright spots in her vision, nothing strange left behind but the sensation of Isabela's flesh. Kissing a woman had been different from a man. It had been softer, the lips more full, and smaller than Aveline had expected, smaller than Aveline herself. Isabela wore such little armor; she was more vulnerable to a weapon, more fragile against a blade, through her bravado always made her seem ten times as large.

All of that meant nothing, however. Isabela may have been on the other side of the bars, but she was the one running the conversation. Bitterness welled up in Aveline like a swelling wound; even after so many years, it took so little effort for Isabela to pluck a few strings and laugh at the results.

She always was the one in control.

Before Aveline could accuse Isabela of trying to steal the absent keys, or a weapon, or her sanity, the other woman was climbing back to her feet, slow and easy, every motion transformed into a threat by sheer casualness. "Oh no, big girl," she warned. "You can't get away this easily. You insult me for who I am, but I've seen how you continue to flinch whenever I tease you on your charms. But you have no reason to, Aveline. Even though you don't let yourself think it much, you are attractive. And you don't have to let me get to you if you don't want to allow it."

Aveline tried to make sense of the words and failed, spun about by the unexpected reversal. "Do you always rely on your tongue to get you out of these messes - one way or another?"

The jibe pulled at the corners of Isabela's mouth. "You really don't believe me," she teased. "Why don't we test that confidence you claim to have? Tell me what you want me to do, Aveline," she continued softly, a purring menace in the filthy gloom of the cell, "and I'll do it."

Snorting, expecting a trick or some kind of lewd stripping act, Aveline crossed her arms and waited for - for something,for Isabela to leer or resort to provocative quips, or start fondling herself to provoke of some kind of reaction. But the other woman just stood there, chin up, hands loose at her side. Her lips were damp from the kiss; the coins of her necklace were askew from the fall. Her hair was tangled, smeared and sweaty along her throat.

Frustrated, unwilling to open herself up to another taunt, Aveline finally blurted, "What are you getting out of this? Is this one of your harlot's fantasies?"

"What, backing down already, Aveline?" Isabela was still smiling, but the words came out hard, and her eyes had gone narrow again in prelude to the next attack. "You said that you knew yourself. Did you give up on that already? Don't tell me you think so little of yourself that you can't even give me a serious order."

Balking at the challenge, Aveline frowned. Isabela wasn't serious; she couldn't be. It had to be a ruse. "Come here," she finally commanded, curious of the result.

Isabela swayed a few steps towards the bars, stopping just out of arm's reach.

The resistance was infuriating, but no less than what Aveline expected. Isabela was lying after all. "Come closer - no," she corrected, trying to think of something that might disprove the other woman's promise. The next order was heavy on her tongue. "Take off your... your bodice."

Isabela's fingers started to rise, but she suspended the motion before they could do anything more than toy with the lacings. "It's complicated," she pouted. "All those knots."

Aveline didn't waver. "Then you'd better get started."

One by one, Isabela undid the crosswork of the lacings, half-twisting her body away rather than present herself to Aveline directly. Expecting a crude joke, Aveline watched, her face schooled to cold stone. Inwardly, she was already hesitating - cringing, really, at all the vulgarities she did not want to command Isabela to do. She was no virgin, but neither had she ever been the type to advertise her lusts. Having the illusion of unlimited control could only be that: an illusion, all to mock Aveline's willpower. Doubtless, Isabela could and would do anything Aveline asked, playing a great game of calling each bluff, only so that Aveline could look twice the fool for trying to beat the pirate's nerves.

But Isabela didn't taunt her. She peeled away the shirt slowly, the linen clinging to her sweat-damp skin, exposing herself without a hint of toying. Her breasts were large and heavy; the nipples were dark splotches. Loosened from their support, they hung low on her chest, ripe with maturity and unmarked by child-rearing. Isabela's hips were still angled away, leaving one breast in profile, the slope of it a descending shadow. The bodice fell with a whisper of cloth; it hit the stones and lay there, a puddle of greying fabric.

It was not seductive. Isabela did not cup her breasts, did not moan lustily as she smoothed the palms of her hands down across her ribs. And it was not - surprisingly - an invitation to gawk. Isabela did not display herself, but neither did she look ashamed, save for the strange conservation of her posture, which hid more than it showed off.

Encouraged, however strangely, Aveline flicked her hand in a gesture for Isabela to come the rest of the way towards her.

The pirate obliged.

Bemused by Isabela's silence, Aveline's curiosity shattered when the hallway torchlight rolled over the pirate's skin, and revealed a wide blotch across the curve of Isabela's ribs. The ball of scar tissue looked far too messy to have been tended properly by a healer. The webbing was pale and smooth, an old mark that was tucked neatly under the curve of one breast, as if a knife had gone in and licked Isabela up and down in a ragged seduction.

Despite herself, she asked, "Where's that from?"

Isabela lifted her head, her dark eyes unreadable. "My husband."

With those two simple words, a sudden cold spiked through Aveline's gut. Her mind started stringing assumptions together, jumping to fresh conclusions as fast as she could process them: why Isabela acted the way she did, why she said the things she did, why she chosethe extremes of her behavior. Isabela had plenty of reason to want to hide herself, or to lie. She didn't.

Along with that came another realization, this one even worse: after all that the both of them had quarreled, Aveline had no right to ask Isabela for the entire story.

She started to draw back out of a slew of emotions - sympathy for unfairness, guilt for intruding - but Isabela lunged forward and caught her hand, shoving it roughly against her own body. Aveline's fingers wedged up against the ugly whorl of tissue. The heat of the woman's body was a distant whisper through the metal; the ridges were faint bumps. Touching the scar with a gauntlet suddenly seemed too brutal an act, too indifferent to the old wound. Aveline found herself suddenly regretting that her glove wasn't off, so that at least she could gentle the invasion.

"He didn't beat me," Isabela volunteered, surprising her. "He enjoyed showing me off too much to the other captains, and a stray broken cheekbone might have spoiled his trophy. But he did like to remind me he was in charge. When I told him that I planned to learn how to use a sword, he said that he wanted to teach me a lesson first. He wanted to leave a reminder that he would always be stronger than me - that I would never be able to defend against him. And so he did." Pressure guided Aveline's hand; she felt her gauntlet nudge over the grooves of scar tissue. The disfigurement had been careful, sadistically so: it had not deformed the breast, only caressed the area near it like a cattle brand.

"This is me, big girl," Isabela whispered into her ear. "This is all me. I don't apologize for it. And neither should you."

Automatically, Aveline started to resist; her glove froze in place. "I'm not apologizing for who I am - "

"No?" Curt as a cutting edge, Isabela spun the conversation back in her favor. "Show me."

Aveline started to scowl, but Isabela turned her face up, and moved relentlessly closer again. Her mouth worked against Aveline's lips, warm and patient, until Aveline finally tried to protest, and found herself opening to Isabela's tongue.

The pirate drew back after only a moment, before Aveline had the time to be wary or frightened or confused. "Say it, Aveline," she insisted; the beat of her breathing rose and fell against Aveline's palm. "What do you want me to do?"

A hundred possibilities slipped through Aveline's mind. Dizzied by the sheer range of options, she picked the first one that slipped out, and heard herself utter, "Yield."

The word could have meant anything. But Isabela gave it meaning anyway, tipping her face up like a gift. It was a strange patience, an intimacy that Aveline had never expected from the other woman: listening to words without waiting for the next sneer, the next underhanded jibe that might slice across oversensitive nerves. None of it was familiar. Like an ocean stretching out in endless emptiness, the situation seemed vast enough to swallow Aveline alive if she misstepped. She could flee from its uncertainty - or walk straight into the depths.

This time when Isabela kissed her, it was a gentler confrontation. The pirate only skimmed the edges of Aveline's mouth in delicate, half-breathy touches, inviting Aveline to move at her own pace, encouraging Aveline to pursue each time she drew back. Made bold by the lack of impudence, Aveline circled Isabela's waist with an arm, keeping her from escaping; distracted, she allowed her other hand to continue moving over Isabela's breasts. The contrast between soft flesh and tight muscle was strangely fascinating - and so delicate, it seemed, beneath Aveline's metal gauntlets, against all the armor that was securely in place.

She startled when she felt Isabela's arms slide over her shoulders, but forced herself to swallow down the burst of tension. A flicker of blue cloth went past her vision as she grasped at Isabela's hair and caught the kerchief instead; a strong tug pulled it free, and she heard Isabela bite back a hiss at the strands that had been pinched along with it. The Rivani's gaze was distant, though, soft and not struggling against the pain, and Aveline reached up again and tightened her fingers.

Isabela's eyes went shut. Her chin tilted up, relenting to the pressure; her throat flexed when she swallowed. She accepted the control noiselessly, for all that Aveline expected lewd moaning. Maker knew, Aveline had heard Isabela often enough, having to interrupt or chase the other woman down through various trysts. She expected a riot fit to bring half of Kirkwall down on them, even despite the segregated cells - but all Isabela did was to lean harder against the bars, pressing herself full-length along the metal as she let her thighs open around the plates of Aveline's armor, warm and welcoming.

It would be so easy, Aveline realized, to hurt the other woman. Close a gauntlet on that bare skin, leave a bruise that would fade away after a few days of lingering aches. It would be easy. Tooeasy, to leave a stain upon a proud spirit like Isabela's - knowing that whoever she bedded next would also see that ownership.

Slowly, carefully, Aveline relaxed her hands.

Freed from the stretch, Isabela moved forward again; she turned her head to nuzzle against Aveline's jaw, making tiny, hungry touches of her teeth against Aveline's skin wherever the armor didn't cover. The pirate's hands slid carefully along the surface of Aveline's breastplate - and Aveline let her, hesitantly tilting her neck to allow access. She could interrupt the pirate at any time if she wanted, just with a word. She could order Isabela to stop.

She chose not to.

The ghost-whispers of Isabela's fingers kept gliding over her armor, the two of them kept apart by layers of interwoven steel and leather and cotton padding. Breaching that space was all the more shocking. Whenever Isabela's hand touched bare skin, the exposure burned like fire; Aveline's nerves hummed with each fresh stroke, sensitizing her to every shift in pressure. She felt Isabela take one of her hands, pulling it down; she watched a bead of sweat glisten on Isabela's neck, felt fresh heat on her fingertips. She watched Isabela bite her lip when Aveline slid a knee forward. As Isabela clutched at her armor and panted harsh, halting breaths, Aveline finally gave in, and bent her head to find the pirate's mouth on her own.

Only when Aveline felt Isabela's weight start to lessen did she snap back to alertness again, straightening up in a groggy defensiveness - only to realize that Isabela was already sliding backwards out of reach, like cliffs being lost in autumn mist. The lack of her body made Aveline's armor feel suddenly cold. She cleared her throat, finding it cluttered, sticky with saliva.

"What now?" she asked, and heard her voice come out rough.

A hint of mischief shone through Isabela's eyes as the woman tilted her chin, settled her hips, and was almost jaunty again - almost, save for the thoughtful line of her mouth, pressed nearly flat. "Now? It's up to you. You're the one in charge, Aveline," the pirate repeated softly. "You say what happens next."

"Why?"

"That's a question you should be asking yourself." One of Isabela's feet compressed her fallen bodice; she turned her toes to nudge it aside, but did not pick the garment up. "It's not about being womanly, or mannish, or even the Guard-Captain. You're already magnificent. You know that, and I know that, but sometimes," the woman continued, "you act like you need a reminder." Both the pirate's hands lifted, presenting empty palms to the air. "So it's your turn. Tell me. What do you want to happen?"

Aveline drew in a sharp breath. The air was rank with the smells of the cells, but the other woman's scent lingered behind like a heady musk. The options appeared the same as before. Either she could fall prey to Isabela's seductions - and allow her to break out of her cell in the process - or dismiss the woman entirely as nothing more than a walking void of principles. It would be easy either way. It would be easy, and then Aveline would be free to go about the rest of her life with the assumption that Isabela was as shallow as claimed.

But there was a third path after all, one that was gradually taking shape in the uncertainty between them, cast from a light that Aveline had never thought to consider before.

She would think about it. She was allowed to take her time to think. No, that wasn't accurate - she didn't need permission, or justification, or any other excuse than what she wanted to do. And that degree of freedom might have made her afraid, once. That kind of rationalization might have been how Jeven started.

Or Isabela's husband.

But Aveline was stronger than both Jeven and a dead man, and she knew it.

Stepping back from the cell, Aveline straightened the cuff of her gauntlet with a nonchalant tug. "You still have the rest of your penalty to serve, whore," she said, but the insult lacked the bite it once had. "Don't think this changes anything between us."

"That's right, my big girl," Isabela replied. Underneath the lazy sauciness of her voice, Aveline could finally recognize the affection that flowed like a deepwater current, that had always been there from the start: running dark and potent, nearly unnoticed until it had finally been touched. "I'd hate to think it would."