Tankards and dishes clanked against the large wooden table. The sound of cards being shuffled was all but drowned out by laughter, music, and the many conversations floating around.
“Pass the ham, will you, Dorian?”
“Does this one taste like despair, or should we complain to the cooks?”
“I think we should complain if it did taste like despair.”
“And then there we were, running around in circles trying to get away from this bear, when Seeker over here starts screaming and lets out with a mean right hook. Knocked old furry butt out cold.”
“I did not scream!”
“And yet you don’t deny the bear punching.”
“Do you know how many times I’ve found Hard in Hightown lying around this place? Do we seriously need over thirty copies of that book? They’re taking up valuable shelf space that could be better used to bring in quality novels from Tevinter.”
“We probably need more. The copies that I’ve found have made their way around the barracks and are in pretty sad shape.”
“Don’t let Ravena know; she’ll beat your recruits’ heads in if she finds out they’re abusing books. I just might join her.”
Cole sat perched on a stool nestled between Josephine and the Iron Bull. His eyes moved over the group as he tried and failed to keep up with multiple conversations. “You’re happy,” he said with a smile, tilting his head towards Ravena. “All of you are.”
“Well, it isn’t every night we can all get together for a friendly game of cards,” Varric replied, dealing another round. Money hit the table as everyone glanced at their cards.
“We deserve a night off,” Ravena agreed, discarding one of her cards for another one off the top of the deck. “This reminds me of this one time in Starkhaven.”
Bull laughed. “Any story that begins with this one time… ought to be good.”
“Well, what is it?” Raoul asked, discarding three cards and frowning at the ones he picked up. He held his cards close to his chest and leaned his elbows on the table to listen.
“I was staying at the Chantry in Starkhaven while doing some basic text repairs. One night a bunch of us scholars decided to head into the local tavern for drinks.”
“Shame, shame. Whatever happened to Chantry folk being pious?”
“What can I say; there were a few scholars there who wanted to go to the tavern for…academic purposes. Most of us were repentant the next day when we suffered through services with hangovers. Anyway, there was this big mountain of a man challenging anyone he met to a game of Wicked Grace. Most of my colleagues were too intimidated to take him on: he had to have been over six feet tall and three hundred pounds of pure muscle. He had this bushy red moustache and was missing a tooth, which he explained he had lost in a fight when he had been younger.”
“So, what happened?” This from Josephine, who was shrewdly looking over everyone assembled at the table to discern their tells.
“I accepted his challenge. We played cards until the tavern kicked us out.”
“And did you win?” Cullen asked.
Ravena laughed. “Maker, no. I got my ass handed to me that night and lost all my weekly wages the first three games in.” Still laughing, she leaned against Blackwall’s arm. “Liam liked me so much that we had gone from strictly playing cards to playing while seeing just how many shots of fine Starkhaven whisky we could down. I very nearly drank him under the table, but apparently we were getting too disorderly for the barkeep’s taste and he cut us off. Liam, being the gentleman that he was, saw my friends and me back to the Chantry before wandering off down the road to his house. It so happens that I met up with him a few days after that when he answered my paper I had tacked to the Chanter’s Board looking for hired muscle for an expedition I had been planning on taking. He hadn’t known it was me when he saw the advertisement and I hired him on the spot, no questions asked. We spent several months adventuring together and getting into all sorts of non-Chantry sanctioned trouble. We still get together at least once a year for a game of cards and a bottle of good scotch.”
Cassandra sighed. “Were the two of you…”
Ravena shook her head. “Me and Liam? If there’s one thing I could tell you about him, it’s that if you get him talking about his wife, he’ll never stop talking about her. I’ve never met a man more vocal about his devotion before.” She threw her cards down when she realized she had a crummy hand. She thought back to Liam and Hannah. The two of them were good people who clearly loved the other. Liam often looked at Hannah as if the sun rose and set in her smile and she looked at him with equal adoration. She had longed to find someone to have that sort of relationship with. Giving Blackwall a sideways glance, she believed she might have just found that someone.
More cards were dealt and Varric and the Iron Bull tried to out bullshit the other. Blackwall shook his head as he got up to retrieve another round of drinks from the bar, his arm sliding from its resting spot on the back of Ravena’s chair. When he came back, everyone was laughing at something Raoul was saying.
“And that was when Madame Hastings got to see more of the Trevelyan family than she bargained for,” Raoul concluded, much to everyone’s amusement. “Robert couldn’t pass by the poor woman’s house for a month without getting embarrassed.”
“Serves him right for being a poor gambler,” Ravena said. “And if I remember that story correctly, Robert wasn’t the only one streaking back home that night.” She looked pointedly at her brother.
Josephine hid her smile behind her hand. “It sounds as if there’s more to that story than you’re letting on.”
“Let’s just say that there was a sixteen year old moon in the sky that evening.”
Raoul cleared his throat and tapped at the table. “Perhaps we should start up another round,” he suggested, trying to change the subject.
“I think he’s onto something,” Cullen agreed. “Deal again. I’ve figured out your tells, lady ambassador.”
She grinned. “Commander, everyone knows a lady has no tells.”
“Then let’s see if your good fortune lasts one more hand.”
Raoul raised an eyebrow. “This sounds like a worthy challenge. I’m in.”
Ravena shook her head. “I know when I’ve given away too much of my coin. I’m out, but I can’t wait to see Josephine fleece the pair of you.”
“Hah, as if that would ever happen, sister dear.”
Several rounds of cards later, Ravena looked at her brother. “Famous last words, brother dear?” she asked, not even bothering to hide the smug grin on her face.
Cullen glared at Varric. “Don’t say a word, dwarf,” he growled.
“I tried to warn you, Curly.” He looked over at Raoul. “You too, Slick.”
“Never bet against an Antivan, Commander,” Josephine crowed, holding up Raoul’s shirt. “And you, I would have thought you’d know better, Raoul.”
“Can I at least have my pants back?” Raoul asked, scooting as close to the table as his chair would allow.
Josephine looked at him with a critical eye, her gaze lingering at the table’s surface as if by staring hard enough she could see what it hid. “Let me think about it.” She tapped her index finger against her lips and raised an eyebrow. “No.”
Cassandra stood up. “I’m leaving. I don’t wish to see our Commander and Ambassador’s walk of shame.” The low light in the tavern did nothing to hide the dusting of pink across her cheeks as she tried to look anywhere but at Cullen.
“Well I do!” Dorian said, leaning across the table.
Ravena stood up as well. “I have no desire to see something that can’t be unseen,” she said, turning her back to her brother. “No offense, Cullen.” Everyone soon followed suit. The sounds of bare feet slapping against the floor and the tavern’s door slamming shut rang out as the two men made a mad dash towards Cullen’s tower office. Bull laughed uproariously when a scandalized shriek ran out somewhere outside, telling everyone that their escape hadn’t been spectator-free.
The party broke up soon after that, everyone going their individual ways. Cassandra shook her head as she gathered up Cullen’s clothing, explaining that she was going to leave it at the Commander’s door. Josephine did the same for Raoul’s, the two women leaving together.
Blackwall finished stacking cards together and shuffled the completed deck in his hands. “You know, Cole was right about tonight,” he started. “I don’t think we’ve ever had an evening where so many of us have let our collective hair down before.”
“It was a good night,” she agreed, stacking empty tankards on top of trays. They could have left the mess for the cleaning crew to pick up, but Ravena felt bad about even thinking of leaving a mess of platters and dishes lying about. Between the two of them, they carted everything back over to the bar where the tavern staff could get to it easier. “And yes, Cole was right. Everyone was happy.”
“Well, almost everyone,” Blackwall said. “I wager Cullen and your brother aren’t feeling too terribly jovial at the moment.”
She grinned. “Shame on you for bringing their state of undress up,” she teased. “Where’s the sense of solidarity? I seem to recall a certain Warden explaining how he had to run back to his quarters with only a bucket to cover his bits after Solas cleaned him out during a game of Diamondback.”
“That was said with complete solidarity and sympathy. At least my run of shame wasn’t witnessed by some poor woman.”
Ravena ran her finger down his chest. “A pity. I would have dearly liked to have seen it.”
He stepped closer to her. “Would you, now?” He held up the cards. “It so happens that I have a deck of cards in my possession. Although with your streak of luck, I might be the one catching an eyeful instead.”
“Now there’s where you’re wrong,” she countered, taking his free hand and leading him towards the tavern’s exit. “I might be rubbish at playing when there’s money at stake, but when there’s a chance to get an attractive man naked…”
She leaned close to him, her breath warm against his ear and creating goosebumps in its wake. “When it comes to you, I play to win.”
Blackwall pulled her close. “Oh my lady,” he murmured, tilting his head down for a kiss. “This is a game I think I can bear losing.”