Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 8

Pirates and Play

Clearly I lack Varric’s facility with weaving elements into a story so seamlessly you barely notice their beginnings. In telling this tale I have neglected to introduce both another of my companions and the force that complicated the lives of everyone in Kirkwall.

Yet Isabela was as entwined in these events as any of us, perhaps more so at the beginning, and without the Qunari I would never have been named Champion of Kirkwall in the first place. Had I known how byzantine my life would get after returning from the Deep Roads I might have taken my spoils and returned to Ferelden, familial mansion be damned.

There was plenty else afoot in the city to occupy us even before we solved the mystery of the Starkhaven assassinations and brought Sebastuan into our fold for good. It seemed that Fereldens and exiled princes had not been the only folks washing up on the shores of Kirkwall. In the midst of the flood of blight refugees came a ship’s worth of Qunari from Par Vollen.

They had told the Viscount that they’d been shipwrecked in a storm and would stay in the city until their rescue arrived. Four years passed and nothing changed. Yet who could say how long it would take a messenger to journey so far north, around or through the Tevinter Imperium with which they were at war, and then a ship to return for the men. And who could kick the hundreds of them out of town? An uneasy peace reigned with each side pretending not to notice the other.

I’d only ever seen one Qunari before our arrival in Kirkwall, one who had looked human enough despite his rather sickly skin tone and being a foot taller than anyone else. He had murdered a number of people near Lothering and had been in the crow’s cage on the north end of the village where, it seemed, he was to have been left for the darkspawn when we all fled. He had been taciturn, admitting to having killed the farmers but otherwise refusing to speak, even to give a name. The Wardens who had come through town had spirited him away despite the Revered Mother’s objections. I wonder whatever happened to him.

had been rather a paltry example of the race. Most of the others were bigger, greyer, and had horns in varying degrees of impressive. The Qunari had been given a compound near the docks where they could keep to their peculiar religious beliefs without clashing with most of Kirkwall. I’d cast an appreciative eye on one or two on the docks and around Lowtown, their vivid red tattoos showing on beefy chests under the weapon and armor straps that they wore in lieu of shirts, but otherwise didn’t pay them much attention.

The storm that had wrecked the Qunari had claimed other victims, as well. Varric had introduced me to one called Isabela, a pirate and general ne’er-do-well that spent most of her time drinking in The Hanged Man. Her crew had not survived its unplanned grounding so, without them or a ship to sail, she was rather at loose ends.

She had asked me to give her a hand with some bothersome man, a problem I could well believe as she had neglected to wear any pants. This was, apparently, her normal mode of dress: the loosely-laced shift made to measure for a much smaller woman, tall boots, and a scarf left very little to the imagination. No wonder Varric liked the woman so much.

We had dealt with the immediate threat a few weeks before the expedition to the Deep Roads, with Fenris, Varric and I intending to provide backup in case her dueling partner played dirty. He did, indeed, sending a crew to attack near what turned out much later to be my own front door, without even bothering to attend himself. He’d given his underlings written direction, though I was surprised a one of them could read, so we followed along to confront him directly.

The trail led us to the Chantry where the scoundrel had been hiding with another contingent of men, waiting for word of his ploy’s success. Happily Sebastian had been out of town that week and never could prove I had been involved in his rather messy dispatch. The gent revealed that ‘Bela’s ship had contained a cargo of slaves that she had let off somewhere other than their intended destination, much to the consternation of their seller, Castillon. Along the way she had lost another item, as well, one she refused to discuss.

Between the freed slaves and the lost artifact she had earned the eternal enmity of Castillon and his crew, not at all the sort of bother I had been expecting. The distance from Llomeryn and the relative anonymity of Lowtown made Kirkwall her hiding place of choice, at least for the moment. As we’d killed the messenger and his cohorts it would be some time before Castillon could confirm their last whereabouts.

Isabela became a regular part of our band of reprobates, joining us for the occasional raid on mercenaries or bands of thieves around Kirkwall. She turned out to be the most fun, as well, an uninhibited woman that out-flirted even me and whose carefree attitude was sorely needed in our wound-too-tight group. The advent of someone so unreserved into our midst changed the dynamic of my little crew. What had been friends turned into companions and then a surrogate family.

I often found Isabela draped over someone in comradely cheer and soon became as comfortable with the touch of all of my friends as she was from the start, often resting against stolid Varric of a tipsy evening and throwing an arm around Aveline or me when having a particularly cheery discussion. She took Merrill under her wing, calling her kitten and trying more gently than the rest to ease the elf away from her dangerous habits.

Anders seemed no more shy about physical contact than the women and, with Isabela breaking the ice, became quite the affectionate man on his good days. He was in fact more comfortable with casual squeezes and bumps than Aveline, though over the years his ability to appreciate anything casual deteriorated as Justice became stronger.

Merrill found herself in frequent hugs or, on one notable evening when she’d actually let Isabela buy her some rotgut The Hanged Man labeled whiskey, sitting blearily on Varric’s lap for luck during a card game. She’d ended up sleeping with her head on his shoulder and drooling all over the dwarf’s favorite coat while he lost badly. She felt so badly about it that she brought him a potted flower that she was then the only one to tend as it struggled to live in his rooms.

These displays of affection were never desirous or forward. They were simple expressions of trust and affection, the actions of people who had come to regard one another as clan and kin. Indeed I was closer to my friends than to my remaining family, with Bethany locked away and my mother exuding disapproval in every conversation. This mismatched group of strangers became, over the three years since our return from the Deep Roads, the people I loved and respected most.

Only Fenris and Sebastian refused to participate in our more-physical interactions, however much they joined in the conversation and card games. Fenris hated to be touched. I asked him once if the markings in his skin were so very tender but he had shaken his head without answering. I think he simply couldn’t bring himself to trust us not to hurt him. The thought saddened me in off moments when he seemed almost happy, joking and playing with us.

Sebastian, on the other hand, would accept the occasional brotherly clasp from Varric or Anders but a squeeze of his shoulder from a woman made him flinch and move away. He seemed unable to deal with even the slightest physical temptation. Every so often, I would catch a longing on his face when Merrill, Anders, Isabela, Varric, and I sprawled over one another like a litter of puppies around the low card table Varric’s rooms.

Some day, I hoped, he and Fenris would let us draw them into the pile. I was happier in those days than I can remember being since childhood, when life offered simpler joys. The closeness we enjoyed, more than living in the estate, changed Kirkwall from a temporary stop to a place that felt like home.

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