“You’re late,” Astoreth sighed without looking up from her book.
Cearalaith frowned, rolling her eyes as she unshouldered her satchel. “I’m here, aren’t I?” she sniffed in response, pulling out a chair and dropping unceremoniously into it. She squinted at the chalkboard on the wall, straining a bit to make out the menu options through the beams of midday sun that filtered through the trellises surrounding the bistro patio. “What’s good here, anyway?”
“Everything. I’ve never been disappointed. Order what you want.”
“You’re paying, right?”
Astoreth raised an irritated eyebrow at her sister. “I invited you, didn’t I?” She sighed as she put her book down and glanced up at the approaching waitress. “I’ll have the grilled Highland trout,” she said without waiting to be addressed. “Side salad, balsamic vinaigrette. Bottle of rosé. Cearalaith?”
Cearalaith mused over her options for another moment, golden curls falling in her serious face. Finally she sat up. “Chicken sandwich, please. Salad as well — Thousand Needles dressing. Iced tea.” She smiled at the waitress. “Thank you very much.” The waitress nodded to each of them as she scribbled on her pad, then thanked them, turned and left the two women alone.
The Duskflame sisters were still sitting in silence when the waitress returned with their drinks. She placed a tall tumbler of tea by Cearalaith’s plate, then moved around the table to pour a glass of the wine for Astoreth. She turned back to pour a glass for Cearalaith as well, but the paladin put her hand over her chalice and shook her head with a soft smile. “Just tea, thank you.” The waitress nodded and departed again.
Astoreth studied her sister as she lifted her glass to her lips. “You don’t drink?”
“Not this early.”
The warlock rolled her eyes. “It’s not that early.”
“Whatever.” Cearalaith shrugged. “So. What do you want, Astoreth?”
“To see my little sister?” Astoreth frowned as she swirled her wine in her glass. “Is that so strange?”
“For you, yes!” Cearalaith retorted, though there was far more curiosity than animosity in her tone. “You never just want to get together and talk.”
“Do you?” Astoreth asked in a tone that made Cearalaith scowl and study her plate.
Salads arrived. Silence persisted, save for the twittering of a bird in the jasmine and the far-off sounds of crowds in the Bazaar.
“…how are the girls?” Cearalaith finally asked.
Astoreth smiled despite herself. “Each wonderful in their own ways. Laurelia’s growing like a little weed – she has about a dozen words, and she runs everywhere. Hair like her father’s, eyes like our mother’s – she’s just a doll, Cearalaith. Not that I’m biased, of course.” She smirked at her sister, and was rewarded with a smile in return. “Kuvasei… well, Kuvasei’s going through some… interesting times. You might do best to ask her for details yourself, though; I know you two do see each other even without my interference.”
Cearalaith nodded. “I haven’t had a good sit-down with the peach in a few weeks,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ll have to look her up.”
“You should,” Astoreth agreed. “Just the same, she continues to impress me with her intelligence and her tenacity. Then there’s Anais…” Astoreth stopped and peered at her sister. “…you’ve not met Anais yet, have you?”
Cearalaith blinked, then furrowed her brow and shook her head. “Here I thought you were about to tell me you were pregnant again! No, I don’t know Anais.”
Astoreth nearly choked on her wine laughing. “No, no – see the glass? I’m not pregnant.” She grinned at her sister. “Anais is Westel’s daughter. Since we moved in together, she and Laurelia have been thick as thieves – despite the age difference. Anais just helps her with everything, and they play together and we frequently find them curled up asleep together in the evenings.”
Cearalaith grinned. “That’s adorable, Ast.”
“Isn’t it?” Astoreth chuckled back.
“Oh, I’ll have to come see them soon,” Cearalaith sighed. She hesitated, then fixed Astoreth with a questioning gaze. “Things are good with that guy, then?”
“…yes, they are,” Astoreth nodded. “Very good.” She met Cearalaith’s gaze, but was unable to read behind them. “Why do you ask?”
Cearalaith shrugged. “I want to know that he’s treating my big sister right,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world. “He seems all right, but I need to know for sure.”
Astoreth smirked. “You do, hmm? And what do you think of Westel Firewing? Don’t pretend you don’t have an opinion,” she warned as Cearalaith opened her mouth. “I know you’ve met him, and you have an opinion about everything. And say what you want; we’re the only ones out here.”
The paladin closed her open mouth, and shrugged again. “You could do worse. You did do worse, in fact.”
The warlock chuckled. “You didn’t like Bareris?”
“Darksworne was scum, sis,” Cearalaith said without hesitation. “I wanted to kill him when I got that letter about him cheating on you when you were expecting Laurelia. I was ready to hop the next zeppelin back to Tirisfal – I would have killed him if Stavier and Cor hadn’t stopped me. Would have saved everyone a heap of trouble.”
Astoreth smirked. “You wouldn’t have actually killed him.”
“You don’t know that.”
Astoreth laughed. “All right. So Westel is better than Bareris… but that’s not saying much. What do you actually think of him?”
Cearalaith rolled her eyes again. “What do you care? You do what you want anyway.”
“I care. Cear, please.”
Cearalaith sighed. “I like him,” she admitted. “I don’t know him very well, but what I do know I like. He seems to have an even head on his shoulders. He’s charming and funny. He likes Peach, he gushes about Lala and he’s stupidly devoted to you. Far more than you deserve.” Astoreth smirked, but did not respond to the jab, and Ceraralaith narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t seriously ask me here just to find out what I thought of your latest boytoy.”
Astoreth sighed. “Yes and no. He’s not a ‘boytoy’, Cearalaith; he’s my partner and before that he was my best friend. And yes, I do care what you think of him.” She took a deep breath, and put down her salad fork to look intently at her sister. “He’s asked me to marry him.”
Cearalaith stared at her sister for a long moment, her expression inscrutable. “And you said…?”
“I said yes.”
“You don’t like it.”
“Does it matter?” Cearalaith stabbed her salad. “You’ve already said yes.”
“It does matter. He’ll be your brother in law.”
“And it’s done, Astoreth,” Cearalaith glared up at her. “Just like always, you pretend I’ve got a choice or some kind of a say in something when I clearly don’t, because – just like always – you’ve already gone and done what you think is best. Though to be fair, in something like this I shouldn’t have a say. No, what really bothers me is that you’re the one who hates pretense and false ritual so much; I don’t understand why you decided to drag me into it today.”
“Because…” Astoreth frowned. “Because your feelings matter to me, Cearalaith. You’re my sister. I would like you to accept my husband.”
“You didn’t care last time!”
“I do now.”
Cearalaith bit her tongue on whatever she was going to say next, as the waitress returned to take their salad plates and place their lunches before them. Instead she inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly as the waitress departed again. “It doesn’t matter,” she said calmly. “Your choice is made. Hope it works out.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Astoreth scowled. “Westel’s good to me, Cearalaith – and he’ll be good to the girls. I’m sure about this, Cearalaith.”
“You were sure about the last one too, Ast. Not a great precedent.”
“Oh, so it’s not Westel we’re questioning here, but my judgment?” Astoreth scowled. “I’m not the one who married her first boyfriend – who also happened to be her senior officer – almost straight out of academy. You’re certainly speaking from a position of experience, aren’t you?”
Cearalaith flushed a furious red. “That was different. And I was right, wasn’t I? At least my husband wasn’t fucking around on me every chance he got. Cor was faithful to me.”
Astoreth caught her breath quickly. She frowned and took a deep drink of her wine. She set the glass back down. “How is Corael, anyway?” she asked hoarsely, not looking at her sister.
“Dead,” Cearalaith snarled.
Astoreth’s head snapped up. “That’s not funny.”
Cearalaith’s eyes brimmed with tears. “I’m not joking.”
Astoreth blinked in astonishment. “What? H-how did it happen?”
“I don’t know.” Cearalaith looked down at her meal, and gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Isn’t that the worst? They couldn’t – or wouldn’t tell me. He was on a classified mission in the Twilight Highlands. They said it was quick and painless. They were probably lying to me.”
Astoreth looked away. “Probably,” she agreed softly. “Cearalaith… when did this happen?”
“A few months ago.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“How could I?” Cearalaith asked softly. “A letter? A lunch? Besides, why would you care?”
“Why would I – Cearalaith!” Astoreth stared at her. “Cearalaith, you’re my sister! And I – I liked Corael. V-very much.” She took a deep breath. “He was… he was my friend.”
Cearalaith sighed, closing her eyes as a tear ran down each cheek. “I know… I know you’re my sister. But I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to… to talk to anyone…” She looked at Astoreth, intending to say more… but she saw Astoreth’s face, and her voice faltered. She took in the set of Astoreth’s jaw, the whiteness of her knuckles as she gripped her wineglass, the paleness of her cheeks. “…what did you just say?” she asked in a soft voice.
“I said Corael was my friend,” Astoreth replied quietly, averting her eyes from Cearalaith’s gaze.
Cearalaith’s face darkened, and her jaw worked soundlessly for a moment before she gritted her teeth, grabbed her iced tea and threw it at her sister.
Astoreth sputtered and recoiled. “What the hell, Cear!”
“You – you fucking bitch!” Cearalaith screamed. “You whore, you monster, you – you–”
“Calm down,” Astoreth hissed, her eyes darting around as she mopped at her face with her napkin. “You’re causing a scene.”
“I will not calm down!” she shrieked. “What, you made a piss-poor choice of husbands so you had to take mine?! Is that it?!”
“I said he was my friend, Cearalaith!”
“Liar! You liar, you’re my sister, Astoreth, I know you, I know when you’re lying!” Cearalaith was sobbing as she screamed, now. “How long, Ast? How long was it going on?”
“Nothing was going on,” Astoreth insisted, but at her sister’s glare she faltered. “It was… only a few times,” she admitted in a small voice. “Bareris was dead – I thought Bareris was dead, and I – I was lonely….” Cearalaith’s face broke, and Astoreth reached across the table. “It wasn’t his fault, Cear – I seduced him. He loved you, he loved you passionately – and I was jealous, and he… he felt so guilty about it…! He worried about you – I swore I’d never tell – Cearalaith, I’m – I’m so sorry…”
“Don’t touch me,” Cearalaith hissed, pulling away.
“Don’t talk to me,” Cearalaith snapped through angry tears. “Don’t talk to me. Don’t write. Don’t anything, ever again, Astoreth.” She stood up, grabbing her bag. “Tell Peach I’ll be in touch. And give Westel Firewing my sincerest condolences on his impending marriage to a blackhearted, conniving, fel-born, backstabbing witch.”
“Die in a fire, Astoreth.” Cearalith stormed out of the bistro, nearly knocking over a chair as she went.
Astoreth was still staring helplessly after her when the waitress returned.
“Dessert?” asked the smiling server.
“Go to hell,” Astoreth replied.