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Corvin Pavell

"I doubt you'd think so, but you're looking at the luckiest elf in Thedas."

0 · 509 views · located in Orlais

a character in “The Canticle of Fate: Silver Lion Stanza”, as played by The Valkyrie

Description





We all fall on hard times, you know
Each day is a high climb, you know
Some days your body has to carry on

So you gotta show a little backbone.





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Full Name: Corvin Pavell
Titles/Nicknames: Cor, usually. Also Captain, for those who like ranks.
Age: 26 (9:45)
Race: Elf
Gender: Male
Sexual Orientation: Comfortably bisexual.
Class: Warrior
Specialization: Champion.

Hair Color: Ebony.
Eye Color: Wintergreen.
Height: 6'0"
Build: Lean-looking, but surprisingly solid.

Appearance: While most of his positive physical attributes can be firmly credited to years of excellent training, Corvin's genetics have never really done him any harm, either. Some combination of luck and regular nutrition in his adolescence enabled him to reach a height somewhat rare for elves, and a muscularity rarer still. The latter takes a lot of active maintenance, of course, but he certainly doesn't lack for it, given his profession and organizational affiliation.

For all that, though, it's hard to mistake him for anything but the city elf he is. His face is bare of the distinguishing marks of the Dalish, still a little more youthful than his actual age warrants, but sharpening with time. Years on the march and in the sun have darkened his naturally fair complexion to a sparsely-freckled medium tan. The calluses on his hands testify to the work he still puts in on a regular basis, with armaments and without. There's something fundamentally rough around the edges about him in that way—he lacks the visual refinement of the kinds of elves who make their livings indoors or among the upper classes.

Cor’s attitude towards his appearance is somewhat contradictory. While he dresses for function, he also has a clear and particular consciousness about how to look good doing it, and feels no shame about that. He's not particularly boastful about the roguish charm of his dimpled smile, or the remarkable deep green of his eyes, but neither does he pretend they aren't there. He used to be rather impressed with his looks, actually, and while he still certainly doesn’t think himself homely, his confidence in this respect has been tempered somewhat. Where his former preference was for loose-necked tunics, he now goes to some trouble to make sure he’s always wearing at least one solid layer of linen over most of his body. This is a precaution, as his chest, abdomen, and parts of his neck and arms bear extensive scarring: an absolute hash of white and pink tissue, smooth with time but webbed over much of him. Excellent healing means he isn’t missing any large chunks of flesh, but it’s certainly not pretty regardless.

Still, he takes care of himself, from keeping his gear in good shape to ensuring that the nearly-black hair he wears long is clean and lush rather than disheveled and ragged. There's a certain kind of risk in this—elves that walk too tall and take too much visible pride in themselves are likely to be accused of thinking themselves above where they should be, or putting on airs. The accusations are often enough made by others of their kind as well as humans, actually.

If that concerns him, though, he does a poor job of showing it. Typically, Corvin's body language conveys consummate ease, the kind of comfort in his own dimensions that he utterly lacked as a reedy teenager. He wears armor as though it were a second skin, and carries any number of weapons like extensions of his person rather than foreign objects. While he'd never go out of his way to seem dangerous or threatening, sometimes that utter familiarity and competence with instruments of death can make him so anyway.

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“I guess I've learned to look the part.
Kind of have to, with so many eyes around.”

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Personality: Corvin Pavell is a liar.

Not the kind of liar that deceives with his words, exactly, or even his actions. Rather, it's his demeanor that is deceptive, that works to hide the layers of him from perusal and understanding. He affects a rather superficial personality to those that do not know him well, one that allows him to be passed off as a sort of empty-headed youth, concerned with the pursuit of personal enjoyment and theatrical heroics. A little cocky, a little vain, more than happy to crack a joke in just about any situation and incapable of taking anything too seriously. The quintessential young mercenary, wet behind the ears and greener than the first shoots of spring, as many young men of his age inevitably are. He's got a swagger to his walk, a veneer of polished lassitude, and a laconic, wry tongue. All of these things match well with the fresh-faced, crooked-smiling look of him, and because it all adds up, it presents a complete picture just as it is.

Really though, almost every part of it is a flat-out diversion, a way to draw the attention in one direction so that the rest is easily missed altogether. Peeling back the layers is something that takes a great deal of time and effort, as well as the kind of trust he does not easily grant, but those whom he considers his friends eventually come to understand that while the sense of humor and a certain amount of his apparent joie de vivre are genuine enough, most of the rest is not.

Cor is a deeply-sensitive sort of person, one ill-disposed to make genuine connections because he takes each one that he does have so damned seriously. There is scarcely a more loyal friend to be had, and the depth of it in him is such that there is painfully little he would not do for his friends. He also tends to care about their opinions a great deal, perhaps too much. It makes him at once brave and cowardly: brave in what he is willing to risk, cowardly in his fear of expressing the same. He prefers to let his actions speak for him, if anything must speak. Truthfully, he'd just as soon not be noticed at all, but the nature of his work and his position relative to both the Argent Lions and the Inquisition make that all but impossible. The amount of charisma at his disposal is rather exceptional, and he feels it's his responsibility to put that to use, meaning that he doesn't get to linger in the back of groups or behind people who might enjoy attention more but command it less well.

And so he deflects instead of hiding, presenting the facade for scrutiny and knowing that the criticism it endures never quite strikes to the heart of him, because he doesn't leave his heart exposed. He idolizes his mentor Lucien, takes fierce pride in his fellow Lions and friends, readily leaps to the defense of the Inquisition and anyone in it, and almost happily throws himself on the line, body and soul, for any and all of the above, but he has hardly any pride to spare for himself, in truth, or any of the same protectiveness.

At his core, he is—or aspires to be, at least—a protector. The kind who stands in the way of anything that should aim for the people he loves, regardless of how he stacks up to it. some part of him wants more than anything to be a hero, a real one, just once in his life, whether anyone knows about it or not. And if that takes dying in the right way for the right cause—well, he can't say the thought really bothers him much. He's alarmingly unconcerned with his own safety, or even his own life, which makes it perhaps very fortunate for him that he's more defender than aggressor.


“I've got a lot more to live up to than most.
And a lot more to make up for.”





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STR:

DEX:

INT:

WIS:

CNG:

MAG:

WIL:

CON:
▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [5/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [0/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [9/10]


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Equipment: When given the choice, Corvin prefers to wield heavier two-handed blades like his mentor, though none but the most exotic or unusual weapons are outside his repertoire. Likewise, he can work with most armor configurations, though he tends towards a mix of light plate and ringmail. If he has cause to wield a shield, it's usually a medium kite-type, as Cor relies on deflection and mobility more than outright strength—though he doesn't especially lack for strength either. Given his flexibility, there are no specific blades, shields, armor, or other items he's particularly attached to; he's happy with anything functional. At a distance, he’s a talented amateur but certainly not a sharpshooter; the talent remains largely undeveloped due to his preference for melee. He still does fine with a bow or crossbow in a pinch, though.

Fighting Style/Training: Anyone who has ever seen the Emperor of Orlais on the battlefield can recognize the genealogy of Corvin's combative style. He's no exact replica of Lucien, but the resemblance is strong. As a champion, his focus is on drawing the foes to him, be it with taunts or just being the single most threatening thing on the field, allowing his allies to fade into the background and pick and choose their targets at their leisure for maximum effect. In the meantime, Cor himself must be capable of weathering enemy assault without breaking beneath it, and so his style is by default defensive. The majority of his effort and energy goes to deflecting, blocking, dodging, and turning attacks; he only takes the opportunity to strike if it doesn't risk backfiring.

Or at least that's how it works in theory. In addition to being well-trained and talented, Corvin is yet young, and a bit on the reckless side in the way that confident youth so often is. To his credit, he doesn't usually allow his tendencies to get away from him, but he can, occasionally, be a bit of a show-off, and he's taken punishment for that in the past. Still, he's got a valiant heart, and while his own defense sometimes suffers for his cocksure attitude, he goes well above and beyond in the protection of his allies, even at great personal risk.

The rather violent introduction of lyrium crystals into his body has produced a number of side effects, ranging from a marked increase in physical strength and stamina to a rather impressive resistance to magic, though it should be noted that he is harder to heal or buff because of this as well. Though he's still in the process of working out the ability, he seems to be able to produce blasts of force akin to a templar's smiting ability—but these are both more powerful and much more unpredictable than what most templars can do. As of this point, they're more often accidents than anything he does on purpose.

“I might not always be the biggest thing on the field,
But I like to think I'm usually the baddest.”

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Place of Birth: Amaranthine, Ferelden
Social Status/Rank: City elf; mercenary captain.

History: Corvin's origins are just about as humble as they come. He was born in Amaranthine in 9:19 Dragon, to a city elf mother and Dalish father, followed a couple of years later by his younger sister Nera. His father ran off to the Brecilian Forest when Cor was six; ostensibly this was to find and rejoin the Dalish and then send for his family later, but the truth of it is more likely that he just didn't want to deal with life in the city anymore, including the family he'd started there and come to regret. That left Cor's mother Desne to look after both of her children, which was a rather difficult task considering that she spent much of the time unemployed.

Amaranthine in the later years of Arl Howe's reign was hardly the safest of places for the elves, and though kidnappings and disappearances were not quite everyday, they weren't uncommon either. Corvin's entire family was taken at once, the three of them siezed from their beds at night and packed along with a few others onto an already half-full ship headed for Tevinter via the Waking Sea. An arduous period at sea was cut far short of its intended duration when the ship was boarded upon docking near Kirkwall, a party of several people killing the slavers and setting the prisoners free. Most of those prisoners moved into the Kirkwall Alienage, but Cor and his family were part of the overflow—a small number who simply couldn't fit in the available space of the oversaturated slum.

Rather than having to make their homes in a cramped alleyway or attempt the journey back to Ferelden, however, they were offered lodging with one of their rescuers, a man Corvin came to know as Lucien Drakon. An uneducated city elf, he could make no connection between the obviously Orlesian name and one of the oldest dynasties in Thedas, and for a number of years, he simply believed the man to be a particularly odd sort of human mercenary. It was the very same year that the Argent Lions were founded, and Cor was immediately intrigued. He became a fixture at the barracks in those early days, though he was only fifteen when he landed in Kirkwall.

He joined as soon as Lucien let him—and he'd started drilling with the mercenaries long before that. Lucien taught him to read and write as well, skills he'd had only in the most rudimentary of fashions before. The Lions gave him a place to belong and a task to apply himself to, both things he sorely needed. Oddly enough, he found that he had a serious talent for weaponry and fighting, and also that he got along surprisingly well with the older mercs in the company, and by the time he'd officially taken a commission and gone on his first job, it felt like a real home, in a way Amarathine never had. The Lions saw more than a little action in the years of Meredith's reign over Kirkwall, playing a role in stopping the madness that resulted from her overzealous actions. When the group split, Corvin said goodbye to his mother and sister and followed his Commander and friends to Orlais.

In the intermediate years, he was promoted to Lieutenant alongside his friends Estella, Hissrad, and Donnelly, and then in 9:41, the events of the Divine's Conclave made one of those friends a Herald of Andraste. On Lucien's orders, Corvin and several of the other young Lions joined up with the Inquisition on loan. He personally served as an officer for the enlisted, training the patchwork army as well as he could. He fell into a leadership role quite naturally, and the Inquisition's army commander Leon promoted him to Captain of the regulars in short order.

It was on the mission to rout the red templars that Corvin had his closest brush with death to date: in infiltrating a quarry used to mine red lyrium, the Inquisition encountered a trap. A lyrium explosive, designed to collapse part of a cave wall on them. Without much thinking about it, Cor sacrificed himself, jumping on the charge and shielding his comrades with his body. It was partly luck and partly very good, immediate healing that meant he survived the blast; in all honesty he probably should have died. The injury left him with severe scarring and some pieces of lyrium permanently lodged in his body and bloodstream, not entirely unlike the red templars themselves. Fortunately, the lyrium in the charge was uncorrupted. The side effects have been developing over time, but so far, they're contained.

With the success of the Inquisition's immediate aim of destroying Corypheus, Corvin finds himself at the job of helping to tie off loose ends, and also going wherever the Lady and Lord Inquisitors ask him to. Most recently, he and Lia have been sent to Val Royeaux, to investigate a matter of some delicacy brewing in the Alienage there.




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Image| Evie Lafleur |

"Quote."

They've not yet met.


Image| Vito Sansone |

"Quote."

They've not yet met.


Image| Lia Tael |

"She's incredible, you know? I'm lucky to call her my friend."

Cor rarely has trouble making friends, and found it especially easy to do among the Lions. Even having said that, though, there are few he's as close to as Lia. They were both particularly young when they joined, and green, and they sort of came up through the ranks together. It didn't hurt that they're both elves, either—some things are just easier to relate to when people share background like that. He deeply admires Lia's strength of spirit and the things he knows she's overcome to reach her position, and they get along well and easily. Of late, he's noticed his feelings shifting a little bit where she's concerned, but he doubts this would be something she'd welcome, and so intends to just wait them out without letting on. Their friendship is deep, warm, and uncomplicated; he doesn't intend to risk it for anything.




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“It might be crazy for someone who's been through what I have to
think of himself as lucky. But that's what I am.
I'm damn lucky—and it's my responsibility
to do right by the people who aren't.”

So begins...

Corvin Pavell's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell

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And the People heard the truth in Shartan's voice,
And some cursed themselves and their fate and despaired.
And others began to fashion spears and bows
From the branches of trees, and girded themselves
With bark and scraps torn from their sandals
And dug pits in the earth with their hands.
-Canticle of Shartan 9:8

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It was an odd sort of nostalgia, that this place provoked.

Honestly, Corvin wasn't even sure that nostalgia was the right word—he'd never been much for notions of home. Every place he'd lived that other people had called home had been busy, crowded, more than a little uncomfortable. Far from the sort of cozy warmth that he figured a word like nostalgia was supposed to cover. Now provoked, on the other hand—that was a good word for Val Royeaux. An assault on the senses, sometimes a giddy deluge of color and sound and light, and at other times just so much noise. Chaos, neatly packaged into bits for the rich and left to sprawl and fester for everyone else.

Really, it was just a matter of time before something gave, but if Lucien asked him to stave that off, he'd hold the proverbial doors closed with both arms and the rest of his body too.

The rhythmic clopping of their horses' hooves on the cobblestones was drowned out entirely by the bustle of traffic in and out of the Sun Gate, thrown wide for the people bleeding into and out of the city. Caravans, painted brightly and covered in dyed, fluttering canvas, were in the minority; most of the trade came in the other way. But here, there were dignitaries aplenty, people dressed in silk and smooth linen in rich hues, soldiers with polished, plumed helms and glittering armor, messengers weaving amongst the horses and carriages like lives depended on their fleetness. Jangling, clanking, creaking, voices mixing in volume and pitch to something he found almost musical in a good mood and aggravating beyond belief in a bad one.

Taking his eyes off the path for a moment, Corvin reached down into one of his saddlebags, pulling out the simple, lined leather mask he used inside the city. Other than the slight suggestion of a feline nose, the buttery white material was largely plain, designed to cover little more than the eyes and the area immediately around them, minimizing damage to his peripheral vision and not obstructing his breathing at all, like some of the full-face ones could do. For now, he held it on his knee, reins held loosely in the other hand. It wouldn't do to just push through, despite the urgency of the visit. Anything could keep for a few more minutes around here.

"Feels kind of strange to be back after all this time," he observed, eyes flicking to the edge of what his visor would let him see, where Lia rode beside him.

She was already masked, a strip of her face concealed by maroon-dyed leather associating her with the mercenary company to which they both belonged. Back when they'd lived here that was all they'd belonged to. She hated wearing it, he knew, but if it was something she needed to do to better deflect attention, she'd do it.

"I'd almost forgotten the sound," she said, lifting her voice only as much as she needed to. "And the volume. Puts Kirkwall to shame. Compared to Lydes or Skyhold, it's..." She shook her head, loose blonde locks sliding back and forth across her upper back. She lacked the word for it, apparently, but it had to be something close to overwhelming. Lydes was a quiet, peaceful place for the Inquisition to move into, its calm a near opposite to the activity of Val Royeaux.

Lia's posture was tense. Corvin could easily remember a time when that would be caused just by riding. Back when they'd first left Kirkwall she'd hardly had much experience at it. It wasn't the horse that put her ill at ease, though, that much was clear. It was the looming gates, the masses of unfamiliar people, the grandeur of the Castle District. Val Royeaux was not often as friendly as it looked when standing before the Sun Gates.

Gradually, traffic flowed past the gate proper, spitting them out in the most glorious district of what he knew some people considered the most beautiful city in the world. Corvin figured that was really an eye of the beholder kind of thing, and his eyes had a bit of trouble seeing beauty here, of all the places.

Still, there were bright spots, and counter to his instincts as it was, the Imperial Palace was one of them. Almost entirely white stone, with thin spires and towers more ornamental than functional. Architecture aside, though, Corvin fancied he could almost feel the warmth and dignity exuding from it, thrown off by its two most famous residents. As he turned his horse, Sable, so that her nose pointed towards it, he tugged off his helm, breathing a sigh of relief even as the chill air his his face. Winter was quite frosty in the region, about as much as it had been growing up.

Running a hand through his dark hair to pull it out of his face, he settled the mask on. He didn't hate them half as much as Lia did—honestly he welcomed the opportunity to be a little less... open. Not that he'd ever say it. The helm was tied to his saddle, and from against his chest he extracted the formal request that had summoned the two of them here, which he presented to the guard at the palace entrance.

It was hard to mistake the Emperor's signature, even if the masks hadn't been enough to identify them as welcome here, and they were waved through with little fanfare, allowed to dismount and pass their horses off to grooms. "All right, now let's see if I remember where their offices are..."

They were subjected to a dizzying level of opulence in the Palace, though apparently it had been even worse back when Celene had called it home. Inside, the halls could be labyrinthine in nature; the building itself had been expanded several times over the ages, Emperors and Empresses trying to outdo their predecessors in splendor, and it led to some floor plans that were intrinsically confusing. Thankfully, Lucien and Sophia had situated their workplace not too far off from the main hall and entryway.

"Oh good, you're here!" Their attention was drawn down the hall to their right, where the Empress herself approached. A fellow outsider to Orlais, she was known to forgo the mask here in her own home, even when greeting guests. Lia's eyes were obviously drawn to the fact that Sophia had grown rather large since the last time any of them had seen her, back in Halamshiral last autumn. She couldn't have more than a month or so before the baby would arrive.

Lia forcibly pulled her eyes away, and dipped into a quick curtsy. "Good to see you, Sophia."

"You can stare if you wish, it's all right. Maker knows I've done enough of it myself." She nodded to Corvin next. "How was the ride? No trouble on the road, I hope?"

Corvin shook his head, donning a personable smile. It wasn't a hard thing to do, for the Empress, someone he'd met for the first time in the Lions' training yard in Kirkwall. "Nothing we couldn't handle." It was true that two elves traveling by themselves with gear as nice as theirs weren't exactly unappealing targets, but the more intelligent would-be thieves backed off before starting anything, recognizing the familiarity with which both he and Lia handled that same gear. It probably helped that he didn't look much like an elf in full armor with a helmet on, being as tall as he was.

"Looking forward to being able to move around like a normal person again, I'm guessing?" Even as he said it, he slowed his stride a little to accommodate the fact that the day was a ways off yet.

"Looking forward to training again, too. It's been a little difficult to keep in practice with the bladework. But yes, there's a great deal I'm eagerly anticipating." She turned to her right, and they neared a pair of spear-armed guards in steel polished such that Corvin could easily make his shape out in their breastplates as he passed. They saluted the Empress, the guardsman on the right reaching out to open the way for them. Sophia offered them a smile as she led the way inside.

"Lucien, Julien. Our cavalry has arrived."

The front room had plenty of space to hold all five of them and then some, and the offices off a side hallway were just as spacious, but here the furnishings were kinder on the eyes, more practical and understated. It was no doubt one of the few places in the building that truly reflected the tastes of the occupants; Corvin recognized some of the furniture as being from Lydes originally.

Standing in front of the large window on the rear wall, conferring in quiet tones, were the Emperor himself and another face Corvin recognized, Marquis D'Artignon's. The head of Lucien's advisory council, as far as Corvin understood it. Politics had never been his thing; he tended to think of it as all a little above his head. At least this kind, the kind that happened in richly-appointed offices and formal meetings and ballroom floors.

But discomfort was the furthest thing from his mind, at least for now. Because even dressed like he belonged, Lucien looked more General than Emperor, but the smile on his face was—something else. Corvin had always been hesitant to put an exact name to it, because that could be presumptuous or too... ambitious of him. But he knew he admired this man more than any other, and maybe that was enough to say about it.

"Wonderful," Lucien replied, and as always, Corvin believed it. And as always, he was just the faintest bit surprised before it faded into being pleased instead. "It's good to see you both again, though I'd prefer the circumstances were a little bit more... leisurely."

"If it means I get to visit the Commander, I'll take it." Lia grinned at him, venturing a little further in. "And it's good to see you too, Julien." Her greeting for the Marquis was more reserved, but of course they didn't know him half as well as Lucien, even if all of their interactions had been far more pleasant than either of them would normally expect between nobility and elves. That was more or less the base of the Marquis' beliefs.

Corvin let that speak for the both of them, flashing the Marquis a brief smile. Julien nodded easily. "And you two, of course. It's been quite a while." He'd been present for the last battle at Skyhold, but understandably there hadn't been a lot of time for catching up then.

"I wish we could offer both of you a chance to rest right now." Sophia eased herself slowly into a chair beside Lucien's desk. "But we need you at work as soon as you're able."

"That's no trouble." Lia glanced sideways at Corvin as though to confirm it. "We're headed for the Alienage, right?"

"Yes." Lucien looked grave, an expression he only wore before the Lions' most troubling jobs writ over his face. "We've been getting... reports. Not specific, but worrisome all the same. About unrest in the Alienage. Some of that's to be expected, of course—but lately it seems to have started to boil instead of simmer, and the concern is that it might soon devolve into violence, on one side or the other." He looked to Julien and gave a short nod.

The Marquis expelled a short breath, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against the wall behind him. "The first report came in a month ago. Someone threw stones through the windows of an entire row of storefronts in Riverbend. It might not have been anything but garden variety vandals, except the doorways were smeared with ash. Handprints." He glanced between them. "I don't suppose Estella ever explained to either of you what we learned about Kestrel?"

"I think I got the short version," Corvin replied. Estella had thought it only fair that he know, after—well, after everything. Lia hadn't been there at the time, though; come to think of it he had no idea if she knew much about it at all.

"I know what that symbol represents," Lia said, brow lowering with concern. "The handprints, that is. And frankly it sounds a little more... petty, than what I'd expect of them. What's this about Kestrel?"

"She's one of them," Corvin said, before Julien could. His teeth clenched for a moment, but he forced his jaw to relax. "Stel found out the hard way." The details were a little more extensive, but he figured if she wanted them, they could be saved for later.

Julien inclined his head, picking the thread of conversation back up. "Yes, and I agree with you about the triviality of the vandalism. It was why I thought to connect it to several others—small things like this, perpetrated both in Riverbend and the Alienage. Incidents with little risk for the perpetrators that nevertheless keep residents on edge, feeling unsafe."

"You think that's the goal, then? Making the tension worse, forcing it to a breaking point?"

"I do. But I don't have any proof of that yet. You can understand why it might be a problem to send obvious agents of the crown into that milieu right now—and none of my friends are native to Val Royeaux or familiar with its Alienage and surrounding areas, so they haven't been able to get much, either. It's all very... vague." When Julien said 'friends,' he meant it, but he also meant 'agents;' probably he'd had a few of the elven members of his household asking around. Apparently not very successfully. It was starting to become very clear why Corvin and Lia had been sent for specifically.

"As I recall," Lucien said, "the two of you have several key connections in the neighborhood between you, and I thought it best to try and figure out what was going on the discreet, harmless way. If someone in particular is behind this, I'd like to know what their goal is and why. If it's something we can solve diplomatically, I'd be overjoyed to hear it, but..." he trailed off, lifting his shoulders. "We definitely need to know if it isn't."

"We'll get to the bottom of it," Lia assured them. "I know just where to start."

"You'll be reporting to Julien on this assignment," Sophia said. "While we'd love to oversee this personally, it's far from the only concern we need to deal with. I've instructed the guard that you're to be allowed to come and go from the Palace as you please. We're willing to trust your judgement on this, though; if you come across something that needs to be acted on immediately, do not hesitate."

"We won't." Lia bowed briefly for them. "We had excellent teachers, after all. We'll act as they've taught us to."

"Definitely." Corvin, for one, had no plans to let any of them down.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell

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Even as a young girl Lia had heard about the Val Royeaux Alienage.

They told stories of it all across Thedas, she knew, and it took her until her adolescent years to really understand why. They spoke of the sheer number it held, easily ten times the bodies that were crammed into Alienage of Lowtown. They spoke of walls so high that the vhenadahl could feel no sunlight until midday. Walls that, despite their oppressive nature, did more to protect the Orlesian elves than imprison them. For those that ventured out into the rest of the city, to find new homes or opportunities, they would be forced back in a matter of weeks, their houses burned and looted. And that was if they were lucky.

That was always the moral of the story, Lia learned. That she was lucky to live in Kirkwall, where their vhenadahl could live and breathe, where some of them could occasionally find work in the rest of Lowtown. Where their ruler didn't order Purges on their people to keep them in line.

Lia would never forget the first time an elf told her she was lucky to grow up subjected to Kirkwall.

She also couldn't forget this place. It wasn't quite like the stories made it out to be. The Tree of the People wasn't as suffocated as she was led to believe, as the walls and the buildings weren't built to such towering heights. In some places, yes, the cold stone around her felt more like crumbling castle walls, but the vhenadahl itself was given some respectful space in the center of the Alienage, nurtured to a modest height since the last time it had been burned and replaced.

"We should see Riris first," Lia suggested. She was glad to have the stupid mask off again, and she reached up to quickly tie her hair back in a ponytail. "She's always had her ear to the ground with this sort of thing." Her son, too, but Lia wasn't certain she'd find him there. Arrin worked as a courier, employment that often took him outside the Alienage to the city's other districts.

They didn't make it far past the vhenadahl before there were children chasing after them, a boy and a girl that couldn't have been more than ten or eleven years old. Drawn to the sight of uniformed and armed elves walking their streets. "Cor! Cor!" the boy shouted exuberantly. "It's you! You came back!"

Cor, now barefaced as well, made a show of squinting at the two of them as though he weren't able to see properly. "What's this? Are my eyes playing tricks, or have I found myself two saplings that grew into mighty trees?" Lunging with no real intent, he scooped the boy off the ground with both hands, swinging him up onto his shoulders easily. "It's Fyn and Firri!" The girl clung onto his arm like a limpet, which didn't seem to bother him, either; he gave her a swing without breaking stride, glancing up towards Fyn with a grin.

"Of course I came back. I told you I would. I hope you kept your promise, too."

Fyn nodded vigorously, squirming around and probably catching some of Cor's loose hair in the process, from the way he winced. But since one arm was busy holding Fyn's leg in place and the other still had Firri hanging from it, he couldn't do much about it. "I did! We've practiced every day, just like you said. I can throw the knife really far now, and hit the target!"

"Not as good as me," Firri bragged, and Cor huffed a laugh, lifting her up until he could brace her against his hip and carry her that way.

"Oh, sounds like a challenge to me. We might have to have ourselves a contest pretty soon." He met Lia's eyes and grinned, shaking his head too faintly for the kids to notice. They were fighting to assure him of who was the better knife-thrower anyway, and naturally the disagreement was rather heated.

The whole sequence of events didn't surprise Lia in the slightest. A lot of young people around here had looked up to Cor back when their presence had been a regularity in the Alienage. She could only imagine what they'd think of him if they heard the full extent of the things he'd done with the Inquisition. Dragon slaying, for one. The biggest, meanest, most evil dragon to fly the skies of Thedas. Lia didn't think these kids could handle that.

As for her, she wasn't bad with children, but if she was walking next to Cor it was always going to be him that got the attention. That was just his personality. "Does Riris still live down the street here, Firri?" She asked, tilting her head so she could see around Cor to the child attached to his hip. The girl screwed up her face in confusion at her.

"Riris? You mean the hahren?"

"Riris is hahren now?" Lia expected there would be a new one by now, but she'd figured the choice would be someone a little...

"Isn't it weird?" asked Fyn. "She's not even old."

Lia came to a halt, suddenly realizing they were likely headed the wrong way if it was the hahren they were on their way to see. That was good news, actually. Riris had always been friendly with the Lions before; having her as leader in the Alienage would be beneficial. And old or not, it was a good choice for the job. Lia jerked her head sideways, beckoning Cor and his attachments to follow her back.

The hahren's house was easily identified, its door facing the vhenadahl, its approach better cleaned and maintained, its size just a little larger than the rest around it. Such things stood out a great deal in the Alienage. "It's probably best if you run along now, kids," she said. "We need to speak to Riris alone for a little while."

"Sounds boring anyway." Fyn had already started the process of climbing down Cor's back.

"Right? Grown-up stuff is such a pain." Cor made sure Fyn made it down without incident, setting Firri carefully back on her feet. "You guys go find something fun to do, so we can catch up with you later and be jealous."

Obviously finding this idea agreeable, the two were off with waves and farewells, leaving Riris's doorstep rather quiet by comparison. Cor raised a hand to knock, stepping back so he wouldn't be right there when someone answered. He was tall enough to sometimes seem like a human at first, which was not necessarily a good first impression to make here, even accidentally.

It gave him a second to handle the hair, some of which had apparently got stuck in between his pauldron and the layer of leather underneath. "I swear kids do more damage than bandits without even trying," he groused, though it was clearly not a genuine complaint.

A few moments later, the door opened. Unlike many here, Riris did not keep the thin chain fastened while she ascertained who had come to visit. Perhaps it was partly because that kind of fear would be unseemly in a Hahren in a way it would not be for anyone else. But then, she'd been like that even before.

Her face brightened considerably when she saw who was on her doorstep, and she favored Lia and Cor with a smile—small, but genuine. "Well, look who it is." She'd cut her hair since last they saw her; it was now no longer than her chin in the front, and even shorter behind. Her face bore a few new lines, but she was indeed quite young to be called an elder. "My two favorite Argent Lions, back in Val Royeaux. Please, come in."

She stepped aside to allow them to pass, admitting them into what was admittedly still a cramped living space, room enough for a small kitchen along one wall and a sitting area with a few squat chairs arranged around a circular wooden table with a crooked leg. The space was warmed by hand-knit, roughspun fabric blankets and wall-hangings, some of them Riris's own work but several more being from Kanna, once Arrin's intended, now several years gone.

"Would you like something to drink? I have tea today, or a bit of lemon for some water, if you prefer."

"Tea would be wonderful, thank you." Lia pulled off the bow and quiver from over her shoulder and set it against the nearby wall before she took a seat at Riris's table. "So you're the hahren now. How did that happen?"

Riris hummed a short note as she picked up the kettle from the hook in the fireplace; it sounded like there was some dissatisfaction in it. Or maybe frustration. "Truthfully? I think the elders wanted someone with a bit more... vigor this time. With all the running back and forth I do, I sort of understand why. This place is—well, you know how it is. How it's been, since the Purge. I'm hopeful things will be different—even we have a sense for the kind of man your Emperor Lucien is. But... him being there doesn't solve all our problems, and there are always going to be people making more." She sighed, shaking her head and pouring hot water into a teapot on the counter.

"For now, I just try to manage it as best I can, but I'm only one person, and sometimes I feel like there must be a lot more on the other side of things."

"So you think there's a chance some of the people stirring this up are elves, then?" Cor leaned back a bit on his chair, but he was careful not to ruin the material with all the metal he was wearing. He removed his gauntlets, though, setting them carefully next to one of the table legs. "We heard there were handprints found after at least a few particular incidents."

Riris sighed, turning to lean back against the counter while she waited for the tea to steep. "Honestly, I'm not sure. Someone's rabble-rousing, probably more than one someone, but... I don't know. It doesn't seem like the typical Ashfingers style. Not that I know too much about them—it's better for everyone involved if I don't." That almost went without saying. Everyone, even humans, knew that a Hahren was the person to go to if you wanted to know something about the Alienage, and that it would be very risky for Riris to know anything at all about who the Ashfingers were and what they were up to.

The scent of herbs slowly permeated the room; at some signal only she knew, Riris turned and poured the tea, handing a cup to each of them before settling down with one herself. "Having said that... I don't think it's just our people. The humans are the furthest thing from blameless here, too. It's not elves that come through here at night, looking for trouble."

So if it wasn't the Ashfingers... it had to at least be someone that knew of them. "Have there been any regular troublemakers? Or... any new groups outside the Alienage that would want to bring the hammer down on us?" It wasn't unheard of for groups among the shemlen to organize themselves a little in their efforts to be shitty to their lessers. She doubted there'd be something so easy as a name they could track down, but anything was better than nothing.

Crossing one leg over the other, the Hahren blew softly on her tea, the steam falling to curl around her fingers where they wrapped around the ceramic. Someone, possibly Riris herself, had painted the plan cup with little flowering branches. It matched neither of the other two. "There are probably a few repeat offenders. Mostly it's just young human men, blowing smoke. Shouting things in the wee hours, harassing anyone still out. Nothing's come to blows, yet, and I don't think any of them has the courage. I worry more on the nights where there are larger gangs of them." Even a coward could be dangerous in a pack of their fellows, after all.

"Groups..." Riris pressed her lips together. "Nothing comes to mind. The newest organized group I know anything about is run by a dwarf. Kotter, he calls himself. There have been one or two deaths in recent weeks from taking too much of what he sells, but he sells the same things in Riverbend, and doesn't seem to have any agenda against anyone here. It's hard to pick out anyone or anything in particular, when the incidents are such a combination—I have a feeling that if it is someone's plan, they were counting on that."

"How about individuals?" Cor asked, pausing to take a swallow. His cup had little birds on it; it looked almost comical in his hands, clearly made for smaller ones. "Anyone new in the Alienage that stuck out at you?"

"Recently, there's only been Fennas." Riris halted for a moment, apparently deciding that was worth a little more explanation. "Dalish fellow, professional hunter. He's... not very sociable, honestly. Seems to prefer being left alone. I doubt he's got anything to do with it, though I know he's none too fond of humans. Still calls them shemlen at every opportunity."

Before Riris could get any further, the front door opened, sticking slightly in the frame. The person on the other side grunted softly, pushing against it and stepping through. The past few years had finally put some height on Arrin, it looked like, though he was still probably just a little shorter than Lia. His dark hair was kept much shorter than Cor's, just long enough to brush his nape; probably only his mother saved it from being a knife job, as he wasn't the sort to take particular care with it. Like Lia, he dressed to blend, and never to stand out, which for him meant somewhat-ragged tunics and loose trousers tucked into his scuffed boots. A knit hat was jammed over his head to protect his ears from the cold, but he tugged it off as he entered, putting it on one of the hooks on the wall along with his patched coat.

Only then did he seem to notice that there was company. "Lia, it's you!" A momentary pause, and then much less warmly: "and you brought him."

Cor snorted, looking like he was trying very hard not to make a sarcastic remark, or laugh—one of the two. He lost both battles, covering the smile by speaking lowly into his cup. "Nice to see you, too, Arrin."

Lia wasn't sure what to say at first. She wasn't sure she'd get a warm greeting, considering how suddenly she'd left the city. It wasn't like she'd planned for the disaster at the Conclave and everything that had happened afterwards. She'd originally thought to return to Val Royeaux as soon as the job was done, and a result she'd left things with Arrin... rather unfinished. Not complicated, necessarily, but she'd made a fairly significant request of him before she left, and had never been able to ascertain if anything came of it.

"We've got some catching up to do, I think." She drank the rest of her tea, a little more quickly than she should have, and set her cup down. "Thank you again, Riris." She slid her chair back, standing and grabbing her bow and quiver, glancing to Cor. "We'll just be outside." They'd never really meshed well, Arrin and Cor, and she had things she needed to speak to her friend alone about, anyway.

Riris looked a bit puzzled for a second, but then nodded graciously. "Of course, Lia."

Cor tipped her an ironic salute, obviously aware of at least some of the reasons she preferred to speak to Arrin more privately and not inclined to make a fuss.

"Sorry to drag you back into the cold." She smiled awkwardly as she reached the door, already fastening the quiver's strap across her chest. To be honest she hardly noticed it herself. Long winters at Skyhold had hardened her against this sort of thing. She shut the door behind her, unsure where to begin after that. "So... it's been a while. I'm sorry for leaving so suddenly like that."

Arrin made an uncomfortable noise, tugging slightly at the point of his left ear. Nervous tick. She couldn't be sure if he'd failed to train it out of himself or if he was less guarded simply because he was talking to her. Probably the second, if he was still in one piece. "I'll admit I had to make it up as I went, but word is you had something to do with that big green thing in the sky going away, so... can't hardly complain, can I?" He shrugged.

"You made it, then?" She lowered her voice considerably. "Into the Ashfingers?"

For a moment he looked vaguely put-out, though the expression flashed across his face for a second at most, followed by a slight nod. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers, shoulders bunching up near his ears. The gusty sigh he exhaled clouded into the air in front of them. "Yeah, I did. Wasn't much worth knowing at first—they gave me grunt work and no more information than absolutely necessary. Go here, watch this, report what you see, that kind of thing. I'm not bad at it, though. They noticed."

"Well that's good." It was one of the reasons she'd given him the idea in the first place, when he kept asking for a way to help. She knew he was good at what he did, and obviously the Ashfingers had an eye for talented elves. "I'm sorry I'm no fun right now. I'm here on the Commander's orders, looking into the tensions in the city, trying to keep the peace, that sort of thing." Of course, back when she'd last lived in the city, the Commander hadn't also been the Emperor. It made no real difference to Lia, but she could understand why it might be a little daunting for others. "The recent attacks in Riverbend, with the handprint marks... you didn't hear anything about that, right?" Truly, she would've preferred to be able to talk about other things right now, to properly catch up, but she had a job to do, one with lives likely at stake. And that had to come first.

"It wasn't us, no. At least not that I know of." The mention of the Commander seemed to put some of the same urgency into Arrin; his face scrunched a little and he started fidgeting again. "I'm not exactly leadership, mind you, but it's not the kind of thing we'd bother to do. One half's too subtle and the other half's too... uh, you know what, we can get into this later. Probably not related to this thing with the prints."

It was getting late, the sun starting to dip behind the taller buildings. It was going to be a cold night. Lia pushed down feelings of frustration that threatened to well up. There was something going on, but their leads were sadly slim. It was entirely possible that it was just random and unlucky events pushing things towards a breaking point, but somehow Lia didn't believe that.

She shook her head. "You know what? Enough of that. It's good to see you, Arrin, and I'm glad you're doing well. I've got some good stories for you, next time we're both free. If you're interested."

He managed a grin at that. Arrin didn't smile often—didn't have a lot of reasons to, as he put it. "I bet you do. And yeah—I'd love to hear them. Drop by when this all blows over, eh? I'm sure mom'd love an excuse to stuff you with tea and cookies."

At that point, there was a knock on the door from inside. "About done, or am I gonna have to use the back door?" Cor sounded more amused than anything; Arrin rolled his eyes and tugged the door open.

"We're done. I'll see you later." That part was unambiguously only meant for one of them, but as always, Cor just let it slide right off his back, eying the door with a slight arch of one brow and a shrug when it closed.

"Anything?" he asked, already starting to move away.

"Nothing." Lia slipped her bow over her shoulder and fell in beside him. She was practiced at fighting off fatigue from long nights of watching mountain passes or enemy positions, and knew she was going to have to put that to use here. They didn't even have a starting point yet. "We... could try Riverbend. Ask around for this Kotter guy. Or maybe go check in with the Lions, see if any have had jobs recently that might point us somewhere useful?"

Cor clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Yeah, we should probably check in anyway. Much as I call Donny an idiot, you know he and Hissrad have been keeping their thumbs on the pulse here." It would be harder for them to get anything certain, considering that they were human and Qunari respectively, and neither had been back in Val Royeaux for more than a few months. But there were people for whom the maroon tunics counted more than someone's race, and some of them lived in the Alienage. "Maybe they know something we don't yet."

Lia could only hope. She hated the idea of needing to go back to Julien empty-handed.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone

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Unfortunately, while Donnelly and Hissrad, now co-Captains of the Val Royeaux Lions, had noticed a lot of the same things as everyone else, they hadn't been able to add much. While Lia had been talking to Arrin, Corvin had pressed Riris for a few more details on the dwarf and his outfit, but all he learned was that the overdosed elves had apparently broken a lot of their own stuff before they succumbed—an odd detail, but one he wasn't sure he could do anything with at the moment.

He knew quite well that illicit alchemicals were an issue in a lot of places, prominently Alienages. Kirkwall had never had as much of a problem with them as Amaranthine or Val Royeaux, probably because it was a lot smaller and Meredith had a chokehold on pretty much all the worthwhile alchemical production in the area. Well... except Rilien's shop and Amalia, but neither of them made drugs. Mostly it was drunks, in that city. Here, though—the infamous decadence of Orlais extended to this as well as everything else, though it wasn't like Amaranthine hadn't had its own share of problems. None of it went any way to explaining what was behind the discontent beyond the obvious: no one liked being poor, and that only got worse when poor humans and poor elves resented each other instead of resenting the rich. Not that that would have helped much, either, honestly. Resentment was not productive at all as far as Corvin could tell.

So the next best idea had been to get back out on the streets, try to see what kind of danger they might attract in the wee hours, which were by then still a little ways off. So they'd had something to eat and taken rooms in the barracks, where he was presently propped against his window-seat, staring almost sightlessly out the window.

Ever since the accident, Corvin had felt... different. It was subtle stuff, things he hadn't noticed at first, aside from the pain. But he found these days that he ate like three people, and slept like a third of one. As long as he got a couple hours a day, or a full eight every three, he just... never felt tired. Most of the time that didn't bother him: the extra hours were still awkward to fill, but he was getting used to them. It did mean he didn't get to shut off his brain very often, though, so he had to find other ways of doing that. Curling his toes into the seat cushion, he let his head fall back against the windowsill and expelled a breath.

Another hour or so and they'd—wait. Was that...?

Squinting, Corvin peered through the dark. His window was one of the less desirable city-side ones; no view of the harbor for him. But there was a faint glow at the very edge of what he could see, and for a moment, he wondered if the last few years hadn't all been a dream, because the last time he'd seen something like this, it was—

"Corvin." Hissrad's voice broke him from his reverie; the big guy had opened the door without knocking. Normally, he'd have made an off-color joke about that, but the Qunari's voice was even graver than usual. "The Alienage. There is a riot."

"Shit." Of course there was a riot. "Someone get Lia!" He waved a hand in a banishing gesture and scrambled off the window seat, the thuds and shouts of the barracks coming alive around him probably making the request unnecessary. He contemplated his armor for a moment before deciding that there just wasn't time; instead he grabbed a lighter leather chestplate and his sword, hauling both out of the room and casting his eyes around in search of the other officers.

What little leather armor Lia did wear was easy enough for her to sleep in, so it wasn't more than a few moments later when she appeared in the hall as well, blinking drowsiness from her eyes as she pulled on her weapons. She looked conflicted about the dagger she sheathed at her thigh in particular. As always, actually putting their weapons to use in the city was never as straightforward and simple as it had been with the Inquisition. They very likely weren't going to run into any demons tonight, just scared or angry people.

She left her cloak behind, shutting the door at her back. "Something must have happened. It was tense when we left, but not ready to explode like this."

Corvin had to agree. "What do we know?" The question, he directed at Donnelly, even now covering a wide yawn with one hand and blinking the sleep from his eyes. Despite the drowsy appearance, though, he exchanged a look with Hissrad and spoke quickly.

"Full-on riot, from the sounds of things," he replied. "Started on the fringe of the Alienage, where it blurs into the north side of Riverbend. Seems like there are a lot of pockets of people causing problems: breaking stuff, looting, the occasional fight—but that was just when our patrol came across it, and they got back here to report as soon as they did, so we probably don't have the whole picture."

"I saw fire," Corvin added, pulling his leathers over his head and settling them snugly across his back and chest before starting with the laces. "From my window. Probably Alienage side."

"Shit... okay, here's what we'll do. You guys get to the fire, see if you can't find some way to contain it. We'll cover the Riverbend side. Don't want to march a bunch of us into the Alienage all armed." The reason for that was obvious: while the Lions regularly employed nonhumans, humans were still the majority of their force, an an armed force in the Alienage would too closely resemble other events to win any trust at all. Better to send Corvin and Lia, recognizable as friends.

Corvin nodded, stepping into his boots. It would take the rest of them longer to fully assemble, but he and Lia could move now, and time was of the essence. Shrugging his sword on, he made sure the strap lay flat across his chest before nodding briskly at her and heading for the door.

"Careful out there, guys," he called back.

"You too!" Corvin just barely caught the reply before he was out of earshot, stepping into a ground-eating lope.

They covered long distances easily and without tiring quickly, Corvin especially. The nearest entrance to the Alienage was close to them and still in the Harbor District, allowing them to skirt around what seemed to be the hotter areas of the rioting. Riots on both sides of the Alienage walls was unusual; typically it was just the elves that might work themselves into an anger, only to be sealed inside their own section of the city by the guards, and left to rage amongst themselves until they tired of it. This time the guards had rioting on both sides to deal with, and Riverbend's population was not so easy to ignore.

"Damn it!" Lia hissed, catching sight of the gate. The city guards were already out in force, the usual detachment on watch here reinforced by at least two dozen more, standing at the ready. Most of them had their eyes pointed inwards at the Alienage rather than out at the rest, but a few watched their backs, and loudly called out Corvin and Lia's approach.

"Halt, elves!" Called a booming voice from a rooftop on their right. "Not a step further unless you want to be filled with bolts!"

Lia growled audibly, though not loud enough for the guards to hear at a distance. "We're with the Argent Lions! We're not here to fight."

A few of the guards on the line turned. One of them carried a hefty sword and shield combination, and lifted the visor of his helm. He appeared to be the leader. "State your business, sellswords. If it involves the Alienage, know that my orders are to keep this gate sealed, for the safety of Val Royeaux."

Corvin felt the first bubbles of frustration rising, sparking hot over his skin. On the other hand, there was always a chance that was just the lyrium. It did weird things sometimes. He did his best to clamp down on the feelings and tried for calm and reasonable. "And our orders—from the Emperor, I might add—are to contain the situation in the Alienage, for the safety of everyone in Val Royeaux."

It was easy to get mad about the fact that elves implicitly counted for less when these things were considered, but doing that right now wasn't going to help. Unfortunately, it didn't seem that throwing Lucien's name around helped too much, either. The guard wore a sort of mulish stubbornness Corvin was familiar with. The kind of person who would stick to his orders regardless of their logic.

"None of these gates open unless Guard-Captain Bernard says so," he insisted.

At least that was something Corvin could work with. "Then where do we find Guard-Captain Bernard?"

The first guard looked very much like he didn't want to say, but one of the others called from over his shoulder. "Gate on the Riverbend side, Lions."

Corvin expelled a breath, half-turning to address Lia in a lower voice. "Don't think we're going to get anywhere here. Riverbend gate shouldn't be more than another five minutes, if we don't hit trouble on the way."

They'd need some luck for that, though. They were skirting the Alienage around the outside, which meant the human side, and as a pair of elves they were none too popular at the moment. Thankfully they had other deterrents. The Lions uniforms clearly separated them from the vast majority of the city's elves, as did their weapons. Lia wasn't well equipped to deal with riots, at least not nonlethally, but Corvin had a presence that took more than a riled up thug to overcome. They were the opposite of an easy target, even as just a pair.

Their breath clouded in front of them as they ran, always alert for sounds of fires and imminent danger. At one point Lia collided with and had to push over a young human man that failed to see her coming; it might've caused an issue if they'd stuck around, but they weren't about to do that. Before long they'd passed out of the district and into Riverbend proper, where the crowds became more frequent and larger, their ire fixed on the walls that separated them from the elves, who in some places could be heard on the other side, agitated enough for their shouts to carry over the wall.

The fact that the riot was motivated by hostility to the elves on this side hadn't prevented the humans from destroying or damaging their own property—or more accurately the property of whoever was unlucky enough to live on the side of Riverbend that was almost indistinguishable from the Alienage. Mostly ramshackle tenement buildings and a few squat shops with impure glass in the windows, the kind as much brown as transparent, and warped in wavy patterns where gravity had worked on it over years and years. Small fires burned freely here and there, carts overturned in the streets and even a few animals loose and running about—dogs, chickens, stray cats dislodged from their haunts.

They took a slightly less-direct route to the main entrance, not wanting to get caught up in any of the large crowds. Difficult targets they might have been, but a confrontation would only cost them time they might not have to spare—even against the dark sky, they could see the plumes of smoke rising from the Alienage. There was no way to tell how far the fire had spread, but if the Purge was anything to go by, there would be little to stop it.

Their path took them past several storefronts, but only one of them was currently on fire, bright orange flames licking out from a broken window on the first of two floors. It had caught on the wooden sides of the building, casting a warm pool of unsteady light onto the street in front of it, where a man and a young woman stood.

Even bathed in the glow of the flames, they were dark, Antivan or Riviani by descent from the looks of things. The man said something Corvin could not hear, gesturing for the girl to stand back, then spread his arms, firelight glinting off smooth fabric. Purplish mist gathered around his hands, and then he brought them together in front of him, conjuring a jet of water and timing it for the source of the flames. It hit the window's edge with enough force to blow out some shards still clinging to the frame, dousing whatever was inside that was on fire. One arm stayed steady, the other reaching back as if to pull more water into the stream, circling like one of those mill-wheels in a river.

By the time Corvin and Lia drew within earshot, the flames were gone entirely, and the man sighed, pushing back the dark hair plastered to the sides of his face. "And now there is water damage. Wonderful." His accent was thick, settling the matter of his heritage—as Antivan as they came.

They certainly didn't look like rioters—though the irritation in the man's tone was clear enough, Corvin figured he'd be pretty irritated if someone set his shop on fire, too. But the effectiveness of the way he'd put it out was a worthwhile observation. Corvin had met more than the average share of mages in his life, but he'd never known any of them to be particularly skilled with water, so this was quite possibly a brilliant stroke of luck.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Before Lia could really answer the question, Corvin was stepping forward, careful to hold his hands out and away from his body in such a manner as to make it obvious that he wasn't holding any weapons. Not that the hilt protruding from behind his shoulder was subtle, but at least he wasn't gripping it in his hands.

"Excuse me, sir." The man looked a fair bit older than either he or Lia, so he notched up his formality just in case. "I'm Cor, and this is Lia—we're with the Argent Lions. That thing you just did, with the water? How big a fire do you think you could put out with it?" Time was still of the essence, so he kept his words direct. Hopefully he wouldn't be one of those humans who saw that as arrogance in an elf.

The man turned, eyes sweeping over Corvin first, then Lia slightly behind him. There was a sharpness to the scrutiny, noticeable even in the dark, which he swiftly banished with a gesture, deep purple lights escaping from his fingertips to make them all readily visible to each other. What the valence of his assessment was wasn't entirely clear, at least not until he smiled with surprising warmth.

"Argent Lions. I can't say it's a surprise you're here, but I'd not thought to run into you myself. I'd much prefer to be asleep right now, if you take my meaning." But he, too, seemed savvy to the urgency, keeping his hands visible in much the same way Corvin was doing, though it was even less a guarantee of safety when the hands belonged to a mage. "As to your query, I've yet to meet a fire I can't extinguish. Did you have a particular blaze in mind?"

"The one in the Alienage," Lia answered quickly and clearly. "They've sealed it, but we're going to get in and help. That fire could burn half of their homes down before anyone is able to stop it. We're not going to let that happen." She obviously wasn't assuming the strangers would be on their side, by the way she almost bristled where she stood. Then again, that could've simply been the stress of the situation.

The man pursed his lips at that, casting a glance in the direction of the Alienage, then at the young woman beside him. It wasn't hard to tell what he was torn about—she couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen. "I would help you," he said after a moment, "but I cannot leave Marisol here. The window is broken, and if anyone came inside..."

"No one is going to want to rob a burned out store," Marisol said, pointlessly patting her unruly mass of hair. Clearly she too had been woken from sleep for this. She soon gave up, her hands falling back to her sides. "There's barely anything left worth stealing. You should go. I'll stay out of sight, I promise." A moment passed, at which point she shooed him towards the two elves. "I'll be fine."

He certainly didn't look happy about it, but he relented with a sigh. "Very well, then. Keep the knife from under the counter with you, and do not try anything brave." When she'd disappeared back inside the storefront, he smoothed down his shirt—silk, it looked like, but old enough to be worn a bit thin in places. A few spare bits of jewelry glinted at his nose and ears.

The man dropped into a theatrical bow, laden with more than a little irony. "Vitorio Sansone, at your service. Please, call me Vito—and lead on."

Well, that wasn't so bad. Corvin tended to think a lot of his own luck, and as far as he was concerned, this was just another example in dozens. The city could have spat up a complete asshole with the skills they needed, or no one at all. While he'd certainly not trust someone he'd known for two minutes, he could sure work with him.

With a short nod, he took the suggestion and led on, his mental map of Val Royeaux good enough to get them to the gate in another two minutes. The sight outside it was not discouraging; city guards stood in a three-deep formation in front of the gate, holding but not using their spears. That was because there was another large cluster of humans here, some of them demanding access to the Alienage. The rectangular tower shields faced outwards in a gleaming wall of steel, keeping the crowd back more by intimidation than outright force.

Corvin scanned the area and spotted who he thought might be the Guard-Captain, slightly to the side. More to do with how she stood and the condition of her armor than anything. Sliding their group of three around the periphery of the crowd, he tried to avoid as much notice as possible until he approached her.

"Guard-Captain Bernard?"

The woman he'd spotted turned her head at the name, the flat visage of a visored helm making what might have been eye contact. The cloak around her shoulders, dark blue and clasped with bronze, was probably a rank indicator, because no one else was wearing one. After a moment, she lifted both hands to the helm and pulled it off. Medium brown hair was braided tightly to her head. "That's me. Who are you?"

"Argent Lions," Corvin replied. That one of them was not, or what their names were, probably didn't matter to her, particularly not now. "We need access to the Alienage. There's a fire in there, and we have the means to put it out."

The Guard-Captain knit her brows at that, expression skeptical. Clearly she was having difficulty seeing the means he was talking about. "You look like two elves and a human to me," she replied flatly. "Not much of a reason to open up this door and risk all these getting in." She jerked her chin towards the rabble, currently still stymied by the shield wall. "The fire will do less damage burning itself out."

"Two elves and a mage," Lia corrected, her tone harsh. "No one else needs to get in or out, just us. The Alienage knows us, they'll listen to us, just open the damn door and let us try to put a stop to this. You keep worrying about your side, and we'll take care of ours."

Vito looked vaguely uncomfortable for a moment, but recovered quickly, flourishing his hand until there was a sphere of water hovering just above. "I'll do a fair bit more against a fire than your typical bucket of sand, no?" He canted his head to the side, banishing the water and tugging gently at the end of his goatee. "Perhaps you can open the gate just long enough to let us through, then close it behind us. No more problems for you, and a better chance for the people inside."

Guard-Captain Bernard considered that for a moment, lips pursed, then nodded sharply. "Very well." With a sharp whistle, she caught the attention of the guard nearest the gate. "Open it up; let these three through."

The closest guards snapped to it, working together to unseal the narrow entryway into the Alienage so that the three of them could slip through. Corvin, giving the captain a brief dip of his chin, took point, not drawing his sword quite yet but still hyper-alert, conscious of the fact that they were going into an unknown situation here, and with at least one relative stranger to the people here.

It certainly wasn't going to be as pleasant as that afternoon.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone

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While the smell of burning had been fairly thick before, Vito now had to work not to gag on it, pervasive as it was. He swallowed down the bile at the back of his throat. Grim as the scent of burning flesh could be, he'd long since developed an iron stomach, and for the moment, the important thing was to focus on following the two elves in front of him.

Curious pair, they were. Anyone in Val Royeaux knew of the Argent Lions, the Emperor's very own mercenary company. Or at least the one he ran up until being Emperor. Sellswords with more than a few scruples, as he understood it—a luxury they could afford with such a gilded history. The two leading the way now were quite young, but he didn't doubt they were officers, especially Cor, as the fellow said he was called. It was something about the way they held themselves. Or perhaps the boldness of their speech. Few elves would allow their irritation to show in the presence of the Guard-Captain the way the young lady had—Lia, was her name.

There was little time to think about any of it, however, as sliding past the half-open gate put them immediately in front of another angry crowd, this one comprised of elves. There was a decisive clang as the gate shut behind them, dashing any hope of escaping if indeed that was what any of these were after. Vito was often conscious of his status as a not-entirely-legal immigrant into Orlais, and even more often conscious of his status as a mage, but rarely had it ever been his humanity that made him wary. No doubt many elves felt this way often, though he liked to think that most of them didn't end up staring down what was effectively a mob.

He didn't let that twinge of apprehension chase away his good sense, however, and shifted his eyes to his two companions. Better that they did the talking than he, here.

The two elves naturally split to take up positions on either side of him, acting as his escorts here. At once they were met with a cacophony of shouts and anger, coming from just about all sides as they got farther from the gate. Very few of them were armed with anything; the bravest among them had makeshift weapons, spears fashioned out of broom handles or blunt objects better for swinging than stabbing, but no doubt more of them had smaller weapons concealed.

The atmosphere on this side of the wall was unmistakably different, though. Among the humans there was mostly rage, anger that had boiled over the top. Here there was a palpable fear, particularly among the elves that ignored Vito's presence entirely. The crowds looked caught between desiring safety in numbers, and fearing those very same numbers, leading to constantly shifting masses of people, like a lake in a fierce storm. Fleeing, only to find there was nowhere to run.

Lia had to step in front of an elf with a cloth wrapped around the lower half of his face. The young man carried a brick in his hand, eyes locked on Vito. Lia barred her left forearm across his chest, her right hand visibly hovering over the hilt of her dagger, something the elf couldn't miss. "Don't try it. He's here to help. Under our protection." The youth's eyes finally fell down to meet Lia's, finding them unwavering, and then he backed off, disappearing into the crowd. Lia didn't even begin to ease when he was gone, only picking up her pace and leading them forward.

Bit prickly, she was, but he couldn't deny the effectiveness. "Thank you." Vito kept close pace behind, far enough not to interfere with her mobility, but sticking in a tight formation with the two of them. They clearly knew what they were doing, the both of them—that much at least was rather reassuring.

He need only have followed his nose to reach the fire eventually, but the streets here were labyrinthine and twisting, narrow and not easy to navigate in the spare light from torches and the insides of grimy windows. Vito considered casting another light spell, but at the moment their unobtrusiveness was clearly an advantage, and he didn't want to sacrifice it for a better sense of his location. Cor and Lia would simply have to take care of that part.

He had the sense that they were approaching the center of the neighborhood, and sure enough, when they stepped into a large courtyard, he noted the young tree in the middle, dangerously close to the fire. The conflagration burned brightly in a cramped, ramshackle building, pressed up against several more of the same and at risk of spreading. He didn't want to think about how many people lived inside of it. From the screaming, just audible over the roar of the flames, the number was not zero.

Grimly, Vito stepped out in front of the other two, exhaling heavily. He didn't usually conjure outrageous amounts of water, preferring to pull from whatever was nearby, but since everything around here was dry as bones right now, he'd just have to try. Stretching both arms out, he felt around for the fade, trying to provoke that shift in mindset which meant he was touching it even while standing in the ordinary world. It was almost a tactile sensation, like running his fingertips along slippery silk. Hooking his fingers, he imagined himself gripping the Veil and pushing it aside, pulling the water towards him like tide, and it formed around his arms, liquid gloves that left his skin dry. Thrusting both hands forward, he flung it, and it became a torrent, aimed at the base of the flames at the tenement's front.

"Shit." Cor was unsettled at Vito's side, looking from the flames to the mage and then back again. "There's still people alive in there. Can you—can you concentrate on the doorway?" He was already unclasping his cloak, rearranging it so that he had a hood and a length of fabric over his nose and mouth, his intentions clear enough.

"And douse me? Might help."

Lia simply looked incredulous for a moment, and though she opened her mouth to say something, no words came out, and she eventually shook her head and returned her attention to her surroundings.

Vito frankly thought that was a very stupid idea to be having, but he also didn't think he was in any position to object. "That, I can do." Separating his hands, he kept up the jet of water with one of them and made a few pulling gestures with the other, forming a large bubble of it over Cor's head and then letting it drop to soak him through the cloak and his armor, no doubt.

After a moment, he added. "If you have to jump out a window, let me know. I can soften the fall." The building wasn't too tall—only three floors. Any higher and it would have been all but useless, but at only thirty or so feet up, he could help.

"Yeah, sure. You got it." Checking himself over briefly, the elf pushed a few strands of wet hair back from his eyes and gave Vito a nod. Lia got a shrug instead, coupled with a lopsided smile, but then Cor was off, making for the building with all due haste and then some. By then, Vito's efforts had dampened the fire at the door to a smoulder, though exactly what he would find further inside was a little less clear—several of the windows still had flames licking from them smoke rising in heavy dark plumes towards the sky.

Vito did his best, but there was no putting out a fire of this size quickly, not when he was the only one at it. If he'd had another dozen of himself, that would be one thing, but this was quite another. Trusting Lia to watch his back wasn't as much a choice as a necessity; he could hardly afford to split his attention now.

When the fire on the bottom floor seemed mostly under control, he shifted one upwards, mindful of the fact that a structural failure on the second floor would be worse than one on the third. Since he had no way of knowing where any of the people inside were, that was really the only logic he could use.

"Hey! Stop, you're hurt."

The call came from Lia behind him, but the command seemed to be directed elsewhere. When Vito chanced to look he spotted a elven man approaching at a quick walk, face halfway disguised by the hood of his tattered cloak. There looked to be a pretty nasty wound in his lower left side, a puncture by all appearances, perhaps inflicted by one of those makeshift spears they'd sighted. He didn't seem bothered by it, not even caring to put pressure on the wound as he made his way straight for Lia.

She held her hands out towards him. "Can you hear me? You're wounded, you need to—" She was cut off by the man's hands suddenly rising up and closing around her throat. Lia clearly hadn't been expecting him to attack her, and the elf was stronger than he looked; within a few seconds she was tipped over to crash hard on her back on the street, her attacker falling on top of her. His hands refused to release their hold on her throat, even when she managed to draw her dagger and press the flat of its blade against his side. It was clearly fire enchanted, as the elf's clothes burned away there, flesh soon sizzling underneath.

Still the elf did not relent, and Lia's more frantic efforts to escape after that began to show signs of real panic.

Vito grimaced, stopping the flow of water to the fire and drawing the knife from his belt. Admittedly he preferred the magic, but he couldn't take the chance that a blast wouldn't be enough to dislodge Lia's attacker. Instead, he strode swiftly to where the man held her, deliberating for only a split second before grabbing the elf's arm by the elbow and slicing over his forearm.

The tendon there snapped, forcing his grip slack, and Vito yanked back on his shoulder, spilling him back onto the ground. When he tried to apply a sleep spell to him, though, he found a strange resistance. As though he couldn't quite catch on the elf's mind the way he knew the spell worked. Something wouldn't let him. He glanced at Lia, pinning the elf down with a foot to his throat—from the force of the thrashing, he wouldn't stay down long without something more decisive.

Vito suppressed the impulse to be sure he wouldn't do anymore harm. Too late, perhaps; with a buckling heave of his entire body, the elf threw Vito's leg back, forcing him to stagger several steps to keep his balance. "Merda!"

Lia struggled to get back to her feet in the meantime, gasping for air and fighting a bout of coughing. She looked vaguely horrified, and it wasn't hard to guess why. The elf they'd been struggling against was also back to his feet despite the multiple injuries that were adding up on him. His skin was partially drained of color, the veins in his neck standing out to an unusual degree. Every muscle, at least every one that still functioned, was tensed, and in his eyes there seemed to be a dull red mixed with the brown of his irises. Perhaps they were just bloodshot; it was hard to tell given the way he kept moving.

He swung for Lia again with his uninjured arm, but she was ready for him this time, dodging sideways and striking her dagger deep into the back of his leg. He went down to his knees, and Lia didn't hesitate to bring her own knee up into his forehead immediately afterwards, a brutal blow that toppled him limply over onto his back, knocked unconscious.

"Help Cor," were the first two words Lia was able to wheeze out, momentarily doubling over to plant her hands on her knees. She only had a moment to rest, though, as screams drew her attention to her right, where a young elf was being chased by another two pale-skinned and red-eyed figures.

"I'll slow them down," Lia said, straightening again and already moving to intercept. "Just help Cor."

Given how damn strong they were, Vito wasn't entirely sure how long she'd be able to do that, but for the moment he did as she asked, refocusing his attention on the house. A few spots had flared back to life with his neglect, so he set himself to dampening the exit again, hoping that Cor would be using it sooner rather than later. Smoke inhalation was a serious danger even if the flames themselves didn't get to him.

No sooner had he thought it than Cor did indeed come stumbling out of the building, someone flung over his shoulder in a rescue carry, and another person—this one a child, by the look of it—being half-dragged along with his free hand. He caught sight of them almost immediately and picked up his pace, suffling them off to the side and briefly disappearing from sight again.

He appeared again in enough time to jog towards them, face streaked with soot and balance slightly off, if the shambling stride was anything to go by. He didn't ask questions, just headed into the fray to cover Lia's back.

She wasn't having the easiest time of it, deliberately restricting herself as she was by trying her best to avoid killing anyone here. One of the elves had a crude cudgel, and it whooshed through the air with each swing, so far not catching anything other than wind. Lia managed to trip the elf wielding it, kicking his feet out from under him before she had to turn her attention on the woman of the pair, who was unarmed. A heavy swipe from her landed against Lia's ribs, but she managed to avoid the second and twist around behind the elf, snaking her arms around the neck and head in an effective choke hold. Try as she did the woman couldn't escape, but the elf with the cudgel had regained his feet, and went for a swing aimed at Lia's back.

Cor intervened, thrusting his arm into the trajectory of the blow to intercept and turn it, catching the cudgel-wielder's bicep and absorbing most of his momentum before following up with a heavy punch to his midsection. It was enough to double him over a bit, but not to stun him for more than a second, something Cor discovered unpleasantly when he caught an elbow to the jaw that sent him reeling for a moment.

He shook his head and recovered in time to avoid the follow-up, the cudgel whistling by his ear. It was enough, though, and he drew back his fist, landing a punch square on the other elf's nose. There was an audible crunch, and the attacker dropped like a stone.

Lia's choke hold on the other elf took effect sooner rather than later, and before long the woman's efforts to escape ceased, her arms falling limply to her sides. Lia lowered her slowly to the ground before she stepped away, eyes passing up and down over Cor. "You're okay, right? You dumb idiot." It was clearly meant in an affectionate way.

He flashed a too-bright grin. "Not dead yet."

By this point, the flames were dying down, Vito's persistence winning out in the end as the last of the smoke tapered off. He doubted very much that the building would be livable without extensive repair. For now, though, they'd done what they could.

Well, with one exception. "Those people you brought out." He turned to Cor, shaking out his arms. "If you take me to them, I'll see what I can do."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone

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Sleep did not help Lia feel any less drained.

They'd been out in the Alienage until just past dawn, trying their best to keep the peace, to keep the fires out, and to keep the wounded alive. Vito had proved to be an effective healer in addition to an elementalist, and he'd saved more than a few lives by the time the sun came up. Even that first elf to have attacked Lia survived, though it had been a close call, and the Antivan suspected he would not wake for some time yet, both from his injuries and from whatever mysterious stupor he was trapped in.

It had taken every ounce of Lia's restraint not to kill him, not to turn Parshaara the other way and plunge its blade into him. It would've been so simple, with her arms free as they were, to stab into his unprotected sides, or under the arm. She'd thought burning him would be enough, but whatever affected him clearly pushed all thoughts of pain from his mind. It had to be a drug of some kind. Riris had mentioned something of the sort, overdosed elves that had destroyed property before they'd collapsed.

Others had not been lucky enough to survive, either killed from the drug itself, or put down by those other elves with the tools and the skill necessary to defend themselves. Lia couldn't see the Alienage walls from the window of her room, but she knew the smoke was likely still rising. Not from buildings now, but from bodies at the pyre in the central circle. She didn't envy Riris the work she'd have to do today.

But Lia couldn't just keep sleeping. It was overcast and grey today, making it difficult to tell what the time was, but Lia suspected it was well into the afternoon. She ignored the ache in her muscles and pushed herself out of bed, almost tripping over where she'd shrugged off her gear and clothes on the floor. She dipped a washcloth into a half-filled bucket and cleaned herself, finding new bruises that she owned, and bloodstains she did not.

She felt as though she'd failed, that despite her lack of information going in the day before, she should've been able to prevent this somehow. She should've been able to track down the source, the instigator, and put an end to it before it could begin. The simple truth was that she simply hadn't had enough time. There was new work to do now, however. This drug that had poisoned the minds of elves had to be in part responsible, and it had to have come from Riverbend somewhere. The district was huge, but she'd knock on every door, peer through every window if she had to. She was not going to let something like this happen again.

Dressed and geared up once more, Lia pushed open her door and quietly closed it behind her, trying to rub the weariness from her eyes. Not surprisingly, she found Cor already awake down the hall, probably waiting for her. "Don't suppose you have anything to eat?" She didn't have much of an appetite, but she needed something to at least keep her from keeling over.

He looked almost obnoxiously energized for the little rest they'd had, tossing her a fruit through the air just on the heels of her question. "Went down to the Belle Marché this morning," he said, breaking a wedge off the orange in his other hand. "Tried to see if I could figure anything out about this drug." No doubt it wouldn't be sold in quite so public a location, but the market was a hub of rumors and information. "Nothing we haven't already heard, unfortunately. The riot's what most everyone is talking about."

He popped the wedge in his mouth and chewed, swallowing before he spoke again, pushing off the wall he'd been holding up with his shoulders. "Mostly the elves are being blamed, of course, but there's enough muddling that I don't think there will be any immediate retaliation. Part of that's people kicking blame too high, though." Which wasn't great for other reasons. Still, Lucien and Sophia could withstand a lot more unsubstantiated rumor before anything bad came of it than the Alienage could.

Lia finished the bite of her apple while she thought. None of it was surprising, of course. The more extreme among the humans would be calling for another Purge by now, and then calling Lucien and Sophia all sorts of awful things when they refused to do it. Anyone in Orlais knew that this had been building for some time, starting of course with Lucien's claiming of the throne, but only really being exacerbated the final day of the Grand Tourney, when an elf had won the melee and not faced punishment for it. It gave the elves a hope and a boldness they'd never had before, and it gave the worst of the shemlen all the more reason to hate them.

"We need to follow the trail of this drug, then," Lia concluded. "Maybe one of the ones Vito saved last night is awake by now. They have to be able to point us somewhere." They didn't just find it, after all. Lia had to imagine someone was making a profit off of this, and while cutting off the flow of the drug wouldn't ease every racial tension, it would at least kill the thing that appeared to be pushing it over the edge.

"I do believe I just heard my name." As if speaking of him had summoned him, the Antivan man appeared, flanked by one of the younger Lions, who must have let him into the barracks. He was a bit more obviously put-together than the night before—his draping garments somewhat less threadbare and considerably more metal to be seen: several necklaces, studs in his nose, ears, and eyebrow, and the telltale clink of more than one bracelet. He offered Lia and Cor a half-turned smile, setting his hands on his hips. "And as a matter of fact, I've come with news, though I'm not sure how effectively it will lead to action."

Lia was surprised to see him, frankly. She hadn't used the deftest touch in enlisting his help during the riot, and though he'd said he would keep an ear out for any useful information, she honestly hadn't believed he'd follow through. She wasn't about to look the gift horse in the mouth, though. "What have you got?"

"Two things: firstly, one of my patients reports a couple of encounters with someone who clearly didn't belong in Riverbend, where she works. Said he dressed like one of the residents but didn't fit otherwise. Military posture, for one, and he smelled like flowers, apparently." There were definitely places in the city where one could pick up a scent like that, but none of them were in Riverbend. Still, it was hardly much to go on, and Vito seemed to know this, moving on to the second item with no further prompting.

"More promisingly, I talked to an... acquaintance of mine. He claims that this local padrone named Kotter isn't too happy at the moment. Something about some new product he's been moving. Seems he's calling in his distributor for a meeting about it. Bit of a coincidence if it's about anything other than last night, yes?" He shrugged.

Cor looked a little confused by the use of the Antivan term, but context made it clear enough what was meant. "A drug dealer's upset about product the day after a new one contributes in a big way to a riot—yeah, I'm guessing that's connected." He grimaced, tossing his orange peel into a wastebasket across the room. After the soft thud, he returned his attention to Vito. "You know where this meeting will be?"

Vito hmmed, scratching the beard on his jawline. "Not precisely. Operations like this always have at least a dozen locations that would suffice. But if he's upset and it's at an outsider, I'm willing to bet he doesn't spring for any of the very secret ones. We can try his warehouse on the docks—it's a legitimate-looking front, so probably the supplier would prefer it."

A chance to talk to Kotter seemed like just the break they were looking for. Or if he wasn't the source of this, then maybe whoever he was meeting with was. Either way, if there was a meeting going on, they needed to be in attendance.

"If you can lead us there, that would be much appreciated. We'll handle the rest." If just anyone had brought her this information, Lia wouldn't have been willing to trust it, but Vito had worked with them already to stop the riot and save lives. She was willing to trust that if nothing else, he was on their side of this issue.

"If you prefer." Vito seemed almost amused by something, but he didn't go to the trouble of specifying what, and shrugged instead, turning to lead them out of the barracks.

The outside air was cool, chilly enough to help Lia wake up to full alertness. The idea of an imminent mission and possibly a fight had a way of doing that too. She didn't imagine either party of this meeting would come alone or unprepared. While they needed to take someone alive, someone with knowledge that could help them, the rest Lia had to see as fair game. Criminals that chose their path, or monsters that wanted this drug spread. Either way, the type of people that would know full well the risks of fighting Argent Lions.

They had a bit of a walk to the warehouses, despite already being in the right district. Harbor District was huge, considering that this was the most major hub of naval trade in the south. The mood in the city was tense, it was easy to feel in the air. All the people they passed moved quickly, efficiently going about their business. It was much quieter than usual now. Everyone knew there was potential for last night's events to repeat themselves sooner rather than later.

"There wasn't any trouble at your shop while you were gone, right?" she asked, keeping pace with Vito.

"No, thankfully." He smiled a little. "I do tend to worry about her, but Marisol was right—no one was particularly interested in what little we had left. It will need some work, but that is to be expected, I think." Vito was oddly watchful for a shopkeeper, she could tell from this close; he scanned his surroundings fairly often, but never lingered on anything in particular for long.

Cor, walking about two paces behind, was easily within range to join the conversation, and he did. "If you need any help with it, I'd be glad to lend a hand. You did a good thing for us, after all. And Marisol—she's your... daughter?" Vito looked a bit on the young side to be her father, but not by much, and things like that weren't exactly uncommon, especially not in places like they'd lived.

"Mio caro, yes. The only family I have. Also very likely to be the death of me one of these days, but that's how it goes." He grinned then, flashing teeth for just a moment. "I think she was feeling a bit envious of me yesterday. Not for the situation, of course, but for the fact that there was something to be done about it. Quite some time has passed since either of us have had anything you might call an adventure. A pity the circumstances were so foul, else I might have enjoyed the change."

"I know the feeling. I've seen a lot of amazing places for a lot of terrible reasons." It had been rare that she'd gone anywhere on Inquisition orders that didn't involve war, or hostages, or to plan attacks or ambushes. "I just try to focus on the good I'm doing, rather than the bad that necessitated it."

Vito led them towards the waterfront and then along it, past warehouse after warehouse, dock after dock. On the other side of the harbor were the University District and the Gardens, tranquil as could be, protected by a gap of water from the rabble of the poorer districts. Lia could count on one hand the number of times she'd had cause to visit those places.

She held one hand out to grab Vito by the sleeve and gently tug him sideways out of the street. "Lookout ahead," she whispered, pointing him out. He was human, mercenary in appearance, armed with an axe and shield. A fairly run of the mill Riverbend thug, but that was probably why he got watch dog duty. "This has to be the place. They might already be meeting inside." It was a tall warehouse, with entrances on both visible floors and a lot of space to work with. There looked to be a staircase on the back side, but it too was guarded. The windows, though...

"What do you think?" she asked the others. "I can get inside without being noticed, take the high ground. How do you want to play it?"

"I probably can't," Cor admitted wryly. He was decked out in full plate today, and not exactly inconspicuous, even at the best of times. "I think it might be best for us to wait nearby. We can prepare to rush the place on your signal, and hope we don't have to." He glanced to Vito, as if to confirm that the mage would agree to the arrangement. "If you don't mind sticking around after all, that is."

"If we do need to enter, I can always create a distraction a ways off. Magic's good for that." He smiled, nodding easily to Cor. "But to answer your question, yes. I am more than happy to help."

"Okay. I'll get inside and see what I can overhear. Maybe we'll get lucky and one side will leave. We only need one reliable source here, after all." It remained to be seen who exactly the sides were, but they at least knew that fighting everyone present at this meeting as just three was a bad call. Taking in and exhaling a slow breath, Lia set out.

She climbed the neighboring warehouse rather than the one in question, wanting to get onto the rooftops. The gaps between them were just short enough that she could clear the distance without needing to make too much noise. She timed her ascent carefully, wary of the patrolling thugs, but they didn't seem to be keeping a lookout up high, only watching the street-level approaches. With a leap Lia landed on top of the meeting warehouse. She then carefully lowered herself over the edge, squeezing feet first through a half-open window.

She set her weight down carefully on the inside, finding herself on an upper-level platform of what seemed to be a boathouse. A small vessel that looked like a trade ship in construction was hung in the air by thick ropes in the center of the space. Both the upper and ground floors were littered with crates, building materials and tools, offering plenty of places to hide. Lia made a quick and quiet hop onto the ship itself, already hearing voices. The first was low and gruff, the accent placing him as a dwarf born of Orzammar.

"... so you're gonna need to explain this one to me, grandpa. I was promised profits, and what I got was a fuckin' riot. Word's already spreading what this ember shit does to you. If you want me to keep sellin', I'm gonna need some reassurance. Dead customers and a burned down city ain't on my agenda, and I'd really hate to hear if it was on yours."

Carefully checking for any lookouts nearby, Lia chanced a look down from the edge of the ship at the people below. The one speaking was indeed a dwarf that had be Kotter. Tattooed face with the Casteless brands of Orzammar, with similar designs running down his arms after his Carta-leathers cut off. He carried a hefty maul near the head in one hand. At his side was an Orlesian man, rogueish of appearance, his long hair already touched by grey. By the staff he openly wielded, he was a mage. They were a stark contrast to the man they looked to be dealing with, however.

Lia had been around an army long enough to pick out an obvious military bearing when she saw one. The man was garbed in poorer clothing, but didn't match his posture or the longblade that rested on his back. Unlike the mage, his hair and beard was entirely gray, the years having robbed them of their color. He stood above both dwarf and mage, his hands on his hips and with a scowl on his face. He did not seem to enjoy having to explain himself to the dwarf.

"What did you expect when you started selling this shit?" the man snarled.

Kotter shifted his grip on the maul to the end, lifting it to rest atop his shoulder. "I expected repeat customers, not dead ones. Now I have weeks' worth of the filth, and I've half a mind to burn it. Embers to ashes. Better it than this city. My home now, just as yours. I don't know what your crusade is, old man, but you can count me out of it."

The man mimicked the dwarf, letting his own hand come to rest on the longblade's hilt over his shoulder, his feet settling into a defensive posture.

"You're shortsighted, dwarf. You would've gotten your damn customers if you were patient. Give the elves a little taste of power in their worthless lives, and you would've had the whole fucking slum buying from you. So what if they burned it down?"

The rest of the bodies in the room tensed as well, slowly starting to point weapons at each other. Kotter didn't look at ease, either. "I do business in that slum. I recruit in that slum. I lost some friends last night. Some of my people lost their kids, and they're asking me why I'm working with this Castle-town knight who wants their babies butchered. My answer? I'm not. Fuckin' psychopaths under that armor, the lot of you."

He exhaled, taking the maul into both hands before he glanced sideways at the mage. "Do it, Bleeder."

"Aye, boss." The mage, flicked his hand, sending several sharp daggers of ice towards the boat—or rather, towards the ropes holding it up. His aim was excellent, and the shards cut right through the weave of three of the four of those closest.

Without any more warning than that, the boat fell, and for a moment Lia was entirely weightless, before she crashed to the ground in the wreckage that fell between the two groups.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone

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Corvin wasn't unaccustomed to the waiting around that happened when scout units were sent places. In fairness, those units were usually more than one person, and he couldn't claim to be especially happy with the plan even though it was the best one they had. Perhaps that was why he'd chosen to plant himself and Vito a little closer to the warehouse than he'd usually dare. The normal signal in these scenarios was a whistle, but there were a lot of ways things could go wrong when there was only one scout, even one as skilled as Lia, and he wanted to be near in case the 'signal' turned out to be shouting or the guards being called in from outside or something.

In the meantime, they stood against the wall of the next warehouse over, far enough under the lip of the roof to be in deep shade. His armor wouldn't let him look like a common loiterer or anything, so staying out of sight was the order of the day. So far, their watch had been silent. Corvin had trouble staying completely still, and ended up mostly fidgeting with his gauntlets to try and ease his restlessness, but after more and more time without the signal, it was no longer enough, so he turned his attention to Vito, speaking in a quiet voice.

"So, if I can ask, what part of Antiva are you from?" He'd never been, and unlike Donny or Stel knew not even a lick of the language, but he'd seen maps at least.

"Rialto." The reply was just as soft, but gave no hint of any of Corvin's restlessness or anxiety. Vito actually sounded quite relaxed—untroubled, even. "Coastal city. Not near so big as this one, of course, but busy all the same."

Corvin nodded; he'd heard of Rialto. One of many port cities on the bay of the same name, centers of Antivan trade. "I've spent most of my life in—" There was no chance to finish the sentence, however, as a tremendous crash sounded from inside the warehouse they were watching.

That could be a lot of things, but it honestly didn't matter which. The guards at the back door immediately abandoned their posts, drawing their weapons and running in. Corvin loosed the blade from over his shoulder, nodding to Vito. "Stay close, but don't be afraid to use me as a shield." It was what he was for, more or less: to stand at the front and absorb blows so his allies didn't have to. The faster they got into the warehouse, the faster he could do the same for Lia.

He didn't bother with subtlety, taking off at a sprint and ducking in the same back way the guards had used.

The scene inside had erupted into chaos, both sides of the meeting engaged in combat. It clearly wasn't just against Lia either, as Corvin couldn't actually see her yet, though he could see Kotter's thugs and the hired hands of whoever they were meeting with already clashing arms. There was a lot of cover and places to hide, concealing archers trying to line up shots on the perimeter. The centerpiece of the battle was the wreckage of a ship that had fallen from above, no doubt the source of the crash.

A dwarf and a mage approached them, making for the same exit they'd just come in through. That had to be Kotter. He wielded his maul defensively, but after a moment to take in Corvin's appearance, his armor identifying him as an Argent Lion, his expression became confused, and extremely wary. When Corvin didn't immediately move to engage, Kotter kept his distance, skirting around him and Vito and making for the exit. A moment later and both he and the mage were gone.

On the other side of the debris, a particularly upset human knelt coughing into the crook of his arm, the other holding onto the hilt of a longsword. Even in the poorly made clothing, there was a dirt stain on his shoulder, and the way he stared at the wreckage suggested that he had to dive out its way. He glanced downward near the base of it and snarled, perhaps spying something in particular, but he payed whatever it was no more attention.

He used the longsword to push himself back onto his feet, and began to search the warehouse for something--or someone, if Kotter's quick exit was any indication. After not finding what he was looking for he spat onto the ground and barked orders to one half of the fighters. "Deal with this mess!" he ordered as he too turned to take his quick leave. "And keep an eye out for that fucking dwarf," he added, raising the longsword to rest on his shoulder as he made his way toward the nearest exit rather quickly.

The top of Lia's head appeared over the wreckage when she got to her feet, right in the middle of the chaos. Corvin knew she wouldn't be there by choice; she had to have been on the ship when it was somehow cut down from the ceiling. She drew her bow rather than her dagger, even when the first of the fighters rushed her with a mace and a kite shield. She dodged his downward swing, smacking the whitewood of her bow across his temple and stunning him.

The first arrow she drew was directed at the longsword-wielding leader of the group, aimed low. She let it fly right into his left calf, the arrow punching into the muscle there and temporarily stopping him in his tracks. Clearly Lia had prioritized him above all else, as the time she took to land the shot let the fighter closest to her slam his mace into her abdomen immediately after. She doubled over, and a follow up from the shield hit her head, planting her flat on her back.

Fortunately, Corvin and Vito were there to back her up. These weren't innocent people drugged out of their minds, and he didn't feel particular guilt about running that one through from behind, yanking him sideways to absorb a few arrows shot in their general direction from behind the cover. The efficiency of the maneuver gave another of the approaching fighters pause, and Corvin left him to Vito, reaching down to grip Lia's arm and help her back to her feet. Both of the hits she'd taken had left her bleeding, and though she was still dazed she remained upright, and drew another arrow.

She'd prioritized the man with the arrow through his leg, and so he would do the same. Tilting his chin up, Corvin hefted his sword in one hand, gesturing the old guy forward with the first two fingers of his other. "Come and get it, shem."

This man in particular wasn't goaded so easily however. He'd snapped off the shaft of the arrow in his calf and turned to face them. Apparently the arrow had been enough to draw him into the fight, as he pulled the longsword about and began to hold it in both hands, holding it to his front, sitting at his waistline with the tip angled upward. A conservative stance, one that belied his non-reaction to the taunt. He was careful to keep an eye on both Corvin and Lia, and moved around in measured steps to give her a less than stellar target.

He did, however, reply to Corvin's taunt. "Fuck off," he growled.

The mood was rather starkly different behind Corvin, where Vito seemed to be humming, of all things, carrying some kind of tune with the rocking lilt of a shanty to it while he kept himself busy intercepting anything that looked to take advantage of his ally's turned back. He took the right to Lia's left, shifting his limbs in broad, fluid strokes that looked almost like shadowboxing, except that each forward thrust of a fist or a foot carried with it a powerful jet of water. One such blow, a smooth windmill kick that released an arc of the magic, caught a couple of approaching thugs hard enough across their chests to pick them back off their feet and hurl them back against the wall with hard thuds.

The man to the left went out cold from the blow, the other struggling to her feet until a punch launched a round of ice needles at her. One of them caught her left eye, sliding through with the brutal ease of an intentional shot for it—the hit was no accident nor miscalculation. The shanty didn't even pause, it and the flow of motion timed to it sliding easily to the next.

With the pressure taken off of her, Lia was free to scramble up some of the boat's wreckage to higher ground, separating her from the melee while also giving her better sight lines and angles to hit her shots. Dazed or not, she made every arrow count, targeting first the archers of Kotter's that had taken up positions on the second level, and then picking off more down below. Kotter's thugs clearly weren't looking for a fight to the death; they were there to buy time for their leader to escape. Now that he had, the sight of a few of them dropping with potentially fatal wounds was more that enough to send many of them running. That brought more pressure on them from the men fighting for the other side, who still had a numbers advantage on them, and still had their leader in the fight.

Not that Corvin intended things to stay that way much longer. They needed this man alive, to be sure, but at the moment, he wasn't feeling more than that minimal amount of necessary mercy, considering what it seemed the swordsman was responsible for.

He'd sort of expected his taunt to have more of an effect, but the fact that it didn't and the way the old guy moved, suggested a level of military or mercenary training well above the norm. It meant Corvin didn't have to check his blows much, anyway. Propelling himself forward into a sudden lunge, he swung for the man's hip on his off-hand side, the harder one to guard. He wasn't wearing armor, and Corvin knew that would drive him to be more cautious and careful, because even one solid hit could put him down.

The counter was basic, but effective. The man simply pivoted to the side allowing his longsword to meet Corvin's. In the same smooth motion, the man lifted his own sword, allowing Corvin's to slide down and meet the crossguard. He then tilted the blade, the point angling toward Corvin's neck.

So he disengaged, talking a measured half-step back and letting the point whistle by in front of him before stepping back in, placing the palm of his gauntlet down on the sword that went by, then winding his armored fingers around it. He held it in place, long enough to flip his own blade in his other hand, swinging down with the hilt-end for his opponent's head in an improvised mordhau. With only one hand in the swing, it wasn't at full power, but Corvin was a lot stronger than most people, and with his hold on the other man's blade, there wasn't anywhere for him to go unless he gave up his weapon.

The man avoided the worst of it by jerking his head and body to the side, so that that hilt came crashing down on the thicker part of his shoulder. At their distance, Corvin could see the pain shoot through the man's face, but to his credit he made not a sound, and continued on. He let the offhand slip from his longsword, and though unarmored like Corvin's, reached up for his sword. Instead of grabbing the blade, he went to the guard, and pulled back as much as his positioning would allow while issuing a kick aimed at the thigh on the side that Corvin held his blade.

The kick hit where it was aimed, but the plating on Corvin's legs absorbed most of the impact, so the net effect was only to stop him from pressing too far forward. Instead he took hold of his sword with both hands, locking them both in the struggle for control of it, shifting away the other sword with a sharp sweep of his foot. It scraped over the ground, but he kept the blade under his foot for now.

Uninterested in a tugging match where he had less leverage, Corvin dug in enough to force his opponent to really put his back into the struggle, then abruptly let go, sending the other man staggering backwards with the crossguard still in his hands. No doubt it was made even worse by that leg injury from Lia, and so his recovery was slow. Corvin used the time to pick the other longblade up off the ground instead. One sword was the same as another to him.

Fortunately, he didn't even have to exploit his opponent's upset balance on his own. A hard jet of water smacked into his injured leg, courtesy of Vito, now sporting a broken arrow in one shoulder and a cut lip from somewhere, but apparently quite capable of casting regardless.

The series of events had their desired effects. The man stumbled backwards, fumbling with the new sword in his hands, and before he could wrap his grip around it, Vito's jet took his legs out from under him. He hissed out of either pain, or frustration, probably a mixture of both, before rolling over and rising to a kneel, repositioning Corvin's sword in his hands to a new guard, above his head and out to the side, obviously expecting a counter.

A crash on Corvin's left was Lia bringing down another of the sellswords, her dagger buried in the woman's throat. She wielded her bow in one hand and the dagger in the other, making it a quick transition for her to sheath the blade at her thigh again and draw an arrow in its place, which she nocked and drew back, aimed at the leader's side. She stood several full strides away from him, enough space that he'd have trouble reaching her before she loosed the arrow. "Yield!" she demanded, though she couldn't hide the mix of pain and rage on her face. "It's over." Indeed, the sounds of fighting had reduced. None of Kotter's thugs remained in the warehouse, and the sellswords fighting for the other side had been reduced to one desperately trying to fend off Vito's magic, and another slowly crawling away and dying of a abdominal wound.

The man spat, insulted. "Not yet, elf."

He said the word with a seething hatred, and shook his head. "This won't end with me," he said, cocksure and confident.

"Never does," Corvin muttered, laying the blade in his hands over his armored shoulders. He'd feel better about this if the man wasn't holding his sword still, but between him, Lia, and probably Vito in about thirty seconds, there was no way he was getting out of this. "Do yourself a favor and surrender, old man. Your mercs are dead, your distributor's gone, and the only thing you have left to bargain with is information. Time to start bargaining—with us or the Emperor's interrogators. It's your choice."

The man looked around, first at Corvin, and then toward Lia and Vito. Though he never took his eyes off of them, it was clear he was contemplating something, before finally he shook his head. He closed his eyes and then steeled himself. "I won't bargain with the emperor's lions," he said, releasing the grip on Corvin's sword to let it clatter on the ground beside him.

"Death before dishonor," he stated proudly, before drawing a dagger from his side and plunging it into his chest.

"Fuck. Vito!" Corvin dropped the sword and headed to the man's side, pulling away all the weapons in the proximity but careful not to dislodge the dagger. "Anything you can do about this?" Corvin hadn't expected the guy to be crazy enough to off himself when he lost—that was all kinds of messed up.

Vito hurried to the man's other side, already reaching over to check the pulse at his neck, grimacing down at the blood staining his tunic in an irregular blotch. But the aim had been true, from the looks of it; even without removing the obstruction, the stain continued to spread. The Antivan man shook his head. "No—no, he is already gone. Squilibrato."

"Shit." Lia eased the tension on her bowstring before she removed the arrow entirely and returned it to her quiver. "He was responsible for the whole—damn it, I should've..." She cut herself off with a wince, glancing down at her wound and deciding it was best to lift a hand and put some pressure on it.

Corvin exhaled heavily. "Well, there goes that." He sat back on his legs, glancing over the interior of the warehouse. It was completely destroyed at this point, from the smashed boat in the middle to the broken boxes and crates. Large puddles of water soaked the ground, diluting the blood to the faintest of pinks in places, but the only sounds that remained were the ones from the three of them.

"I'm thinking chevalier," he said, probably needlessly. The way he fought suggested training beyond the ordinary soldier, as did the whole death before dishonor bit. It was weird to hear it from someone with such a perverse cause. Corvin knew the reality well enough, it had just been... a while, since he'd come face-to-face with it. Lately he'd heard those words mostly from the likes of Khari. A much better voice to carry them. "I guess we can bring him back with us, see if anyone knows his face."

Someone would have to; Orlais's elite knights were not so numerous that any idiot could pass muster, even before the restrictions on bloodline and race were considered. Maybe if they could figure out who he was, they'd be able to salvage the lead.

The process of getting the body and themselves back to the right place happened in several steps, over a couple of hours. Vito begged off reporting in, taking his leave after seeing to Lia's injuries. It seemed like he wasn't especially comfortable with the idea of walking into the Imperial Palace, which Corvin supposed he could understand. But for his extraordinary luck in life, he probably wouldn't be, either.

But they were back in Julien's office inside three candlemarks from the fight's end, the dead man left with considerably more discretion somewhere agents of the crown could begin the process of identifying him. In the meantime, Corvin and Lia delivered their report, including the account of the conversation taking place inside, something Corvin hadn't known about.

When it was done, Julien sat back in his chair and sighed through his nose. "Well. This goes further than I was expecting. Both further up and further down, if we've chevaliers making deals with crime lords." He paused, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I'm not sure how much there is to be done between now and whenever we figure out who this man is, unless you can convince the dwarf to talk to you or one of the patients wakes up."

"I don't know that either is going to be an option," Lia said. She stood ill at ease, not nearly as comfortably as when they'd walked in here the first time. "Kotter saw both of us, so he knows the Argent Lions are going to be looking for him. Surely he'll be laying low for a while. As for the patients, I don't know how much they'll be able to provide. Kotter didn't sound happy with the product, so even if they can tell us where they bought it from, that information might not be useful anymore."

She sighed, reaching halfway up to scratch at the healing cut on her temple before she thought better of it. "We wouldn't have been able to get this far without the tip from... our friend, I guess I'll call him. He proved very resourceful. I might suggest some compensation is in order. He's not having the easiest time of things, after the rioting in Riverbend."

Julien nodded. "Of course. I'll get something together and one of you can take it to him." The implication that Vito wanted to remain anonymous wasn't lost on him, obviously.

Corvin exhaled. "Then I guess... just let us know if they find out who he is. We'll try to figure out anything we can about the drug in the meantime, I guess. Maybe we'll get lucky." He shrugged, feeling a little uncomfortable himself. He should have reacted faster, should have anticipated that the old man might—there was a reason he'd been taught to disarm whenever possible, and he hadn't even seen the damn knife. Careless of him, and he'd been trained so much better than that.

"Do that, then," Julien replied, then frowned slightly. "But perhaps not until you both get some rest. You don't look like you've had an easy time of it."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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In the absence of light, shadows thrive.
-Canticle of Threnodies 8:21

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The Castle District was positively buzzing.

Not about the riots, though. Unrest in the Alienage or Riverbend wasn't something that really concerned people here, at least not day to day. The fire probably gave some of the wealthy pretty lights to watch in the distance, and at most the drifting smoke was a mild inconvenience. For most, it didn't matter that elves and poor humans had died. That was just business as usual in Val Royeaux, a necessary uptick in the tensions that would lead to a natural trough now that they'd expended themselves. A few days time and the riots were as a distant memory to Val Royeaux's Game-playing elite.

No, the Castle District was buzzing about a play.

Quite the spectacle it was going to be, so far as Lia overhead on the Avenue of the Sun, and again as they passed by the Grand Cathedral, and the Grande Royeaux Theater where the play in question would be performed. The subject? Supposedly it was something to commemorate the new Emperor and Empress and their illustrious history together. That was all well and good, though Lia was willing to bet the two people in question didn't care a bit to see their pasts dramatized.

Their visit to the district had nothing to do with the play. It was a ways out, in any case. Lia and Cor were there, half their faces suffocated in masks, to meet with Julien again, and receive their next directions. The days following the fight against the chevalier had been largely useless, with no leads on Kotter's whereabouts, and nothing good from any of the people recovering from their drug-induced rampages. Ember, they were calling it. Ingestible fire.

"I feel sick," she said to Cor, not lifting her voice enough for any of the humans to hear her. Not that they would, anyway. She was all but invisible here. "It's times like this I really hate this city."

"You and me both," he muttered, holding his head high even among the crowds here, dressed in silk and brocade and velvet. In some ways, the chill of the season was just another way to allow for extravagance, in the cut of coats and the expensive ermine furs that lined cloak hoods, silverite toggles and buttons glinting in the light of the weak winter sun. Cor didn't hate all of it, she knew—the news about the play at any other time would have amused him, and he might have even taken to teasing Lucien about it, if gently. Finery and luxury themselves did not chafe him.

It was what they stood in opposition to. It was that people would be so preoccupied with this when that was so far from done. But he still managed to make a show of things, taking the brunt of the eye contact and the polite greetings the maroon uniforms sometimes saw lobbed their way, hidden barbs in the brittleness of the words and the askance glances. Being Argent Lions only protected them from so much. On this battlefield, the parries and ripostes were in the way they held themselves, the way they did not stand aside to allow any human to pass just because it was expected. In daring to take up space and make eye contact, and in Cor's case at least, lilt greetings in return or presume to wink at pretty strangers.

"If the fire had hit a mansion, right?" He thought about that for a moment, then frowned. "Probably better it didn't."

He had that right, Lia knew. The state of things would be much, much worse in that case. Apathy from these people had to be preferable than active and directed hatred. When they didn't feel threatened, they weren't a threat. Not usually, anyway.

As before the guards at the Imperial Palace granted them entry without so much as a word, demanding neither identification nor weapons from them. If they had any reservations about it, they hid them underneath the masks of their helms. Lia didn't care much either way. Sophia and Lucien were nowhere to be seen, but they had to be extremely busy in the aftermath of the riots. The tension may not have been obvious on the streets of the Castle District, but that didn't mean it wasn't burning hot behind closed doors. The guards posted outside Julien's office announced their arrival to the Marquis, and then admitted them.

"Ah, good, you're here." Julien looked up from where he was hastily finishing some kind letter or documentation—he rushed through his signature with a spiky flourish, then gestured to a woman sitting in front of his desk. "Cor, Lia, this is Lady Evelyne Lafleur. Lady Lafleur, these are Captain Corvin Pavell and Scout-Captain Lia Tael, of the Inquisition." No doubt he used their full titles quite on purpose, to make their importance clear.

"Lady Lafleur has information she wishes to share, regarding the events of the other day." He put it carefully, but most likely he meant she had something to do with the dead chevalier.

The woman stood as the pair entered the office, and inclined her head respectfully during Julien's introductions. Her skin was darker than the usual Orlesian, hinting at a bloodline dating from either Antiva or Rivain. The clothes she was garbed in were fine--or at least, were at one point. They'd been cared for, but by an unskilled hand by the looks of it. Wrinkles hung at her sleeves and her shoulders, and there were evidence of hasty stitches near her cuffs. Noticeably however, were the pair of well worn boots that peeked out from beneath her coral pink outfit.

"Please. Evie is enough," she added with a smile, seeming rather uncomfortable at being addressed as Lady, though she told them that more then Julien. "And, well..." she continued, chewing on her bottom lip as she apparently thought about how best to say what she wanted to say. "The chevalier you encountered was my uncle," she said, sounding saddened by her own admission. "His name was Jean-Louis," she added, her eyes dropping to their feet.

Cor's eyebrows were inching towards his hairline, and the last part nearly got them there, before he got his expression back under control. He smiled, a little tightly, Lia could recognize, but extended his hand towards the woman. "Evie it is, then." His tone was measured, far from unfriendly, but not warm, either, and his eyes dropped to his own hand for just a moment before they returned to her.

There wasn't much hesitation in her, as she accepted the offered hand in her own and shook, a respectful smile forming on her lips. "Thank you, Captain," she said, sounding genuine in her thanks.

Lia did not bother trying to force a smile, nor did she offer her hand. "Your uncle would've had the entire Alienage burned to the ground, if he'd gotten his way." Not to mention that encountered was a very kind word for their experience with him. "Did you know anything about his plans?" She probably didn't have to say that her mood would only worsen if she did. That said, Julien had allowed her in here, which earned her more leeway than anything she could say herself.

Evie seemed taken aback by the accusation, her eyebrows rising in surprise before she composed herself and shook her head.

"No, no, I didn't know anything about it, I promise," she said, before her eyes drifted back down, and she began to chew on her lip. "But... I wish I had. I would've said something to someone, or stopped him, or something, I don't know," she said, shaking her head and sighing at herself. "Honestly, I haven't seen him a lot in the past few years, and not at all the last couple of months. I had no idea this is what he was up to."

"Okay, so... why are you here then?" Cor looked between Julien and Evie, but the former seemed inclined to let the latter speak for herself. "If any information you've got is months old, I'm not sure how it's going to help."

Evie looked unsure for a moment, casting glances between Cor and Lia, before finally settling back on Cor. "Jean was my uncle. Whatever he was tangled up in, I want to make it right. I need to do something, I can't just let it sit. Our name can't take many more hits like this," she added. "Please, before we lost contact, Jean and I were close. If there's anything I can do to help, let me."

Again her eyes were lost for another moment before she spoke again. "I've got to make this right."

Lia wasn't sure if closeness to a man like this Jean-Louis was a good thing for her to be admitting or not. If he had any other family in Orlais, Lia was willing to bet they'd be making themselves pretty distant from him right about now. Being linked to someone inciting riots wasn't a good look for anyone. "Does he have a wife, children?" she asked. "Any other family in the city? Property somewhere here?"

"No family of his own. Just my father and us," she said, blinking as she thought. "He did have a small home in the Gardens though."

"Procuring the legal documents necessary to perform a search of the house would be a tedious process," Julien added, frowning slightly in Evie's general direction, though the reason was hard to figure out. "Even dead, Jean-Louis Lafleur has certain legal protections; more specifically, his family does, where his property is concerned. It might be a week before permission came through from a judge." A week in which it was possible that someone—maybe family, maybe a co-conspirator—could destroy anything they wanted. "If, however, a member of his family waives those rights and admits you voluntarily, the law is satisfied, and so are the demands of timeliness."

"You think he's going to have kept incriminating evidence in his house?" Cor asked.

Julien shrugged. "It's only incriminating because someone cares, which I daresay most nobility are still getting used to. Besides, he hardly strikes me as a criminal mastermind. There's a good chance you'll find something useful."

Evie had watched the exchange between Cor and Julien, until finally she raised her hand. "I'll be more than happy to take you to his home," she said without any resistance. "I know where he hid the key-- if he hasn't moved it since the last time," she added, thinking about it.

"But I'm going with you."

Lia didn't see any problem with that. Evie had to know the house pretty well, if they were as close as she'd said, which would give them a better chance of finding something useful. She wasn't concerned with helping this woman salvage her family name; for all Lia cared it deserved to go down for what Jean-Louis had done. What she wanted was whoever he was working with. Unless he was hiding some great skill at alchemy and the means to mass produce a powerful drug, he'd gotten them from somewhere else. That was the person Lia wanted to meet.

"Let's get going, then," she said. "The sooner we're there, the sooner we have a trail to follow."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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It'd felt like ages since she last walked the streets of the Gardens, when in fact it had probably only been a month or so. Still, Evie couldn't deny feeling awkward walking the district with the way she had left it. She bore her mask in the area, a mildly fancy silver mask, with the upper right side emblazoned in an ornate fleur-de-lis. It felt odd even wearing it again. If all that didn't make her feel awkward enough, behind her were two Argent Lions, and not just that, but officers of the Inquisition. Captains, meanwhile, she was barely lucky enough to keep her own title. Plus, she had a feeling they weren't too fond of her, due to her relation to Jean.

So Evie strode forward, eyes ahead, one foot after the other, with only the minimal of glances behind her.

Even those were enough to tell her a few things. Corvin, the tall, dark-haired male elf in chainmail, walked with a sort of surety and ease usually reserved for confident young military men, as far as she knew. It wasn't the peacock-saunter of some aristocrats, being too measured and controlled for that, but it looked like it came easily all the same. He kept his head up, eyes regularly sweeping the surroundings. She hadn't seen enough to discern the color, and he was masked besides, a silver-white leather one, free of any unnecessary flourishes or anything that might block his sight.

On one furtive check behind, he caught her eye, tilting his head to the side as though perplexed by her behavior. Sharing a glance with his companion for a moment, he adjusted his stride, taking a few loping steps to draw even with Evie. He was quite a ways above her height, a bit unusual in elves, where even the men were often roughly her size. At least the ones she knew.

"So Evie," he said, flashing a bright smile for a second, "Whereabouts are we headed?" The Gardens was not a tiny district, after all; it wasn't unreasonable as far as questions went.

Evie returned his smile with one of her own and pointed in the general direction. "It's just past the Valmont flower park, near the University District's border. It's a lovely little neighborhood, and always smells like flowers thanks to the park, but I always remember it being a trek from where I lived with my parents," she said and adjusted the direction she pointed in to give him an idea where she'd lived at one point. With the direction given, she let her hand drop. She frowned at herself, having unconsciously slipped into nostalgia, back to a simpler time. "It's a tiny place, with a tiny yard."

She glanced at Corvin and finally took a moment to look the man up and down. He was... unlike most of the elves she'd seen. Both of them were, she supposed. They seemed capable, confident, and strong. Walking beside that made her feel even smaller. She stole another glance at him and raised a brow. "So... You're a Lion too?" she asked, "What's that like?"

He hummed, lifting his shoulders in a shrug every bit as casual as his stroll. "Sort of. I mean, we were Lions, and we're kind of still part of the company, but we definitely don't go out on missions with the main group anymore, or anything like that, and I don't get to tell my old squad what to do." The smile appeared again, there and gone in a flicker. "But... it's been great, in my experience. I know it might be hard to believe, but I wasn't always this impressive, thank you for noticing by the way." He winked, drawling the words so obviously they could only have been a joke, but the sentiment didn't seem entirely false, either. The other elf, Lia, scoffed quietly where she walked, a pace behind the two of them.

"What about you, though? If you don't mind me saying so, you don't really give off the impression of the... let's say the Game-playing type."

"Who me?" Evie smiled while she asked, lightly placing her hand on her chest for a moment. A rather ugly and ill-made stitch in the cuff of her sleeve caught her eye and she frowned. He certainly wasn't wrong.

She let the hand fall back down to her side and she spoke. "I'm not really, I didn't really need to. Or don't, I guess," she added quickly, reflecting on her current state of affairs with a sinking feeling.

Corvin made a noise that sounded like sympathy. "Seems complicated," he said, but he didn't push her to talk about it. "Anyway, that's our park, I think, so I guess we're almost there. Anything we should know? I've been jumped by private guards a couple times, so maybe let us know if he has any of those, eh?"

Evie shook her head in the negative. "No private guard that I know of... But a lot's changed apparently, so I can't promise anything," she said. Perhaps it wasn't the wisest of decisions to leave the estoc at home, now that she thought about it.

"We need to be careful of more than just guards," Lia added. Her eyes rarely lingered on either of the two she walked with, instead always watching their surroundings. Scout-Captain, she'd been called. Wasn't hard to see why. She seemed more wary here than in the Imperial Palace, even. "With your uncle's name getting out, it won't be long before whoever he was working with hears, if they haven't already. We might not be the only ones interested in visiting this place."

"Uh, maybe you two should be the first ones through the door then," she said with an awkward smile. All the talk of private guard and other hostile entities planted an inkling of paranoia in her mind, and she found herself missing her equipment far more acutely. He had just intended on meeting nobility about this matter, had she known there'd been a bit more danger involved... She'd feel guilty about it, but at least Corvin was broad enough to take most of the heat.

Fortunately, as they came up to Jean's home everything seemed relatively calm, for the moment. Evie gestured toward it for the others to see, and kept close to them as they approached. It was identical to the last time she'd seen it. A small, nondescript home-- cozy, rather than cramped. Nostalgia took her and her pace slowed as she took it all in. How long had it been since she'd last been? Years? Her gaze then went to the small yard, and a patch of discolored grass. She paused completely, staring at it. The memories in that spot... She glanced at the two of them and shook herself out of the stupor she found herself in.

"I'm sorry, it's just that," she said, pointing at the grass, "was where Jean trained me. Swordsmanship, the forms, everything he could. The grass still hasn't grown back right," She said, looking at it for one more second. With that she peeled her eyes off of it and went to the door. Instinct told her to knock first, but she reminded herself that even if she did, no one would be there to answer. Instead she reached for the top of the doorjamb, hopping to get the extra height she needed and pluck the key Jean had hidden then.

She glanced back and offered Corvin and Lia a wary smile, before inserting the key and turning, pushing the door open to allow them entrance first.

Corvin ducked in first, raising a hand to place it on the top of the doorframe as if to keep track of where it was. It was large enough to accommodate his height, so it might have been a habit from somewhere else. They stepped into the main living area of the house, elaborate rugs thrown over rich wood flooring, with enough furniture for company and a small bookshelf set against the far wall. There was a desk next to it, still strewn with paper. It would seem Jean had left an inkwell open, too; it was probably mostly dry by now.

Directly ahead lay the arched entryway into the kitchen, the coal-black woodburning stove connected to a flue just visible from Evie's angle. Corvin gave it no more than a glance, though he did open the door to his immediate left. "Bedroom," he observed, addressing Lia and then stepping further into the living space. "I'll check the desk."

Evie hung back near the entrance as the two began to search the house. Another twinge of nostalgia struck, and she crossed her arms as she looked the place over. She knew she should probably be helping them look for... something, but she couldn't help herself. Seeing Jean's home empty and cold was difficult. She instead took a seat on the nearest chair and she leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and her chin resting on her hands. The emptiness really drove it home. Jean was gone--while in the midst of such horrid actions as well. Truth be told, she didn't have much time to process it all, but now in his home, the gears were beginning to turn.

She couldn't even begin to hope to justify what he did, nor would she even try, but she also remembered the man who had trained her when her father wouldn't, the man who thought that she could do something. He had been wrong, of course, but that belief in her still meant the world to her. It left her confused, lost, and in dire need of answers. "Dammit Jean," she mumbled under her breath, getting back on her feet. She wouldn't find them lost in her own head, and followed Lia into Jean's bedroom.

Inside the room was a small single person bed, immaculately made. In the corner of the room was a stand where Jean's arms and armor rested. Judging by the fine layer of dust resting on the ordinarily spotless plate, he hadn't been home for a week at least. Remembering Lia's words from earlier, she entered the room and went toward the armor stand, and took a sheathed longsword that rested from a hook by its strap. She drew it just enough to inspect the blade before letting it slide back in, and slipped the strap over her head.

"I feel a lot better now," Evie admitted, "Find anything?" she asked, loud enough for Corvin to hear as well.

"Maybe." Lia answered, just a few paces from where Evie stood. "Move." She stepped around her to the corner where the armor stand was, eyes down on the wood floors. She traced a shallow, almost unoticeable groove there with the toe of her boot, a line running along the floor to the base of the armor stand. There were others like it running to each point where the stand made contact with the floor. She glanced back behind her. "Cor, help me move this."

He appeared in the doorway not a moment later, blinking, but comprehension dawned on him quickly, and he took up a spot at the side of the armor stand, noting the grooves in the floor and picking the right. Bracing his hand and shoulder against it, he pushed with his legs, taking a couple steady, slow steps as the armor stand slid to the side with a faint protest.

It was clearly something Jean had done himself quite often judging by the worn down lines in the floor from the stand sliding over it repeatedly, but it wasn't immediately clear why. It didn't reveal or expose anything on the wall or underneath it. Lia frowned, stepping into the corner and crouching down. She ran her fingers over the floorboards, feeling for something, before she planted one knee against the floor and drew an uncommon-looking knife from its sheath. It looked to be carved from bone of some kind, an obvious enchantment worked into the blade.

Lia didn't use the blade, however, instead pointing the pommel towards the floor and gently knocking a few times, listening closely to the sound. They were sturdy, all save for one, and when she found it Lia sheathed the dagger again, carefully applying pressure until the piece of floor popped out of place, exposing the compartment beneath. She didn't seem all that surprised to have found it, her expression controlled and even as she reached her hand inside, and withdrew a lockbox, decently-sized but slim enough to fit through the floorboards.

She stood and tossed it onto the bed. "I'd pick it, but it might be quicker just to smash it open. Sounds like there's papers inside."

Evie leaned over the bed to get a better look at the lockbox before she shrugged and glanced up at Corvin. "Think you can get into it?"

He scoffed a little under his breath. "Not a problem." Picking the lockbox up off the bed, he set it down on the floor, checking his gauntlet to make sure it was in place. Curling his fingers into a fist, he studied the box for a moment, then lifted his arm and punched downwards. The force crunched the top panel of the box, and Corvin tore away the broken parts, fishing out the papers in question with a bit more care. Aside from a few splinters, they were free of damage; the blow had been very controlled.

Sliding the box away with the side of his foot, he shrugged, looking vaguely uncomfortable for a second before his face settled. "I suppose we'd better get to reading, then."

Evie agreed and leaned over to get a better look at the letters.

They were all very vague and never used anyone's real names, which fit the bill for what she thought secret correspondence should be. Apparently that particular letter was sent to Jean by someone with the initial M, the letter stamped near the bottom of the letter. As she read along, the letter also mentioned someone with the initial B, and he or she seemed to be above either M or Jean by what was said about them. She tilted her head she continued.

It also contained orders for Jean to smuggle unnamed contraband through customs and into Val Royeaux. Evie figured that with Jean's chevalier status, that would be something he could do. Near the end, the letter finally gave them one piece of solid information. An address to somewhere in Riverbend, though Evie didn't know exactly where. She wasn't too familiar with the place yet.

Evie closed her eyes and sighed, presented with even more hard evidence that her uncle had dealings with people and things that he had no business with. She shook her head, still a little pained and finally spoke to the others. "Anything stick out in particular to you two?" From what she understood, they'd been investigating the matter before she met them, maybe they could connect a few dots for her.

"Aside from your uncle being the worst kind of shem imaginable?" Lia's eyes lifted from the letter she was reading along with her brow, but they soon fell again. "This 'B' is the person I'd like to track down, and 'M' sounds like the way to get to them, if we could find them. At least, the only way I'm seeing right now. There's mentions of Kotter and his gang here, but everything points to them being a recent addition to the plan. And an unknowing one. Doesn't make them any less of scum, but they're greedy, not hateful. Less of a priority."

Evie sighed and let her head dip a bit low. It wasn't like Evie could refute her claims about her uncle with the evidence staring her in the face. It stung, yes, but there wasn't anything she could say to defend him, definitely not now. "Thanks for reminding me," Evie mumbled under her breath.

Corvin was frowning down at his letter, but he looked up from it as the other two spoke. "It's the ember that's the connection," he said. His eyes fell on Evie. "The drug, that is. If Lafleur was part of something bigger, they were probably using his name to move things through the port. Ember's not normal street poppy—and they'd have to make it somewhere. Anyone see an address or anything? Someplace more specific than 'Riverbend' or 'Harbor District,' maybe?"

"Yeah, this one has a specific address in Riverbend," Evie answered, pointing at the address she had found earlier. "But I haven't lived there for long, I don't know where it leads," she admitted. She hadn't had much inclination to explore the place much yet.

"That's kinda where we come in," Corvin reminded her, not unkindly. "Tell us the address and we'll take it from here."

"Yeah it's-- wait," Evie caught herself looking up from the letter with a frown. That sounded sounded like they intended to go along without her, and that didn't set too well with her. Unconsciously, she drew the letter closer to her chest. "I'm going with you," she said quickly, "This," she continued, tapping on the letter, "is Jean's mess, I want to help clean it up."

Lia thought about it for a moment. "You said this guy trained you to fight?" Her arms were crossed, though she unfolded one with her palm facing up, eyes on the letter. "Let me see that."

Evie eyed the hand suspiciously, before glancing down at the the letter one last time and committing the address to memory. "Ever since I was a young girl," she replied, placing the letter in Lia's outstretched hand.

She looked down, eyes passing back and forth rapidly across the page. "18 Alphonse Street. I think that's a residential area. Just off the Mudway, right?" She glanced to Corvin quickly as though to confirm. "Not a nice part of town, in any case. The letter seems to be responding to a request of Jean's, inviting him to see the progress for himself. That does seem like it might lead to a place of production."

Lia folded the paper and tossed onto the bed with the others, resting her hands on her hips. "No idea what we'll find there, but if it's a sizable facility there might be some numbers." She shrugged at Corvin. "If she's willing to stick her neck out for it, we could use an extra hand."

He considered a moment, obviously less sure, but then nodded slightly. "Works for me. Speaking of, though... you think we should stop by Vito's shop? Seems like we ought to at least update him. I get the feeling that guy wouldn't say no to another fight for this, either."

"It's just about on the way, too. Might as well ask." She looked back to Evie. "You need to pick up any gear, or... you fighting in that?"

"I'd rather not," she said, glancing down at her outfit with a self-depreciating grin. "I was going to ask, but I have a bit of equipment I'd like to pick up first."

Well, she was glad that that was rather simple.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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In the interest of efficiency, which for all they knew they sorely needed, the group had split up. Lia would scout the location in advance of everyone else's arrival, as she'd done countless times in the past and would do countless more in the future. Corvin had nothing but faith in her ability to do it, but that didn't stop him from occasionally wishing he was a bit more disposed to that skillset, too. He didn't do well with not knowing how his friends were doing, or sitting back and waiting around while they did risky things.

Then again, the twinge in his chest reminded him that he'd probably given her a couple things to worry about before, too. He absently pressed the heel of his hand into the chainmail over his sternum, feeling it through the thick shirt he wore against his skin. The ache didn't ease much—didn't ease much for anything.

At that point, Evie emerged from her house, which he'd been surprised to find was in Riverbend... and not even the good part. Corvin didn't pretend to understand how nobility worked, and even he knew why is your house so much shittier than your uncle's was not a question you asked someone you'd just met. Disinheriting wasn't that uncommon in Orlais—spare kids were everywhere because of the mortality rate of that damn Game they liked so much.

"Ready?" he asked, arching a brow and affixing a smile to his face. He wasn't wearing the leather mask anymore, but it really made no difference.

She adjusted the visor attached to her helmet to make sure it stayed open for the moment before she nodded in agreement, "I am."

Her armor matched her house, in a sense. Far from the decorated armor that rested in her uncle's house, hers seemed to have seen much more wear and tear. There were obvious efforts in attempting to maintain it, but scratches and dents were difficult to buff out, and the chainmail she wore beneath the breastplate was likewise tarnished and a few rings were still bent. Still, the armor looked sturdy enough would probably do its job well enough. Also, she had noticeably traded out her uncle's sword for her own--with a much thinner blade. "Take the lead captain," she said without sarcasm.

Corvin shrugged and started them towards Vito's shop. It would have been ordinary for him to keep up a steady flow of conversation as they walked, but he kept a lid on it mostly out of an even mix of deference to her situation and straight-out discomfort that it didn't seem to be necessary. He wasn't sure how he'd feel if he learned a relative of his had been responsible for something like this, but it would be manifesting much more openly than whatever reaction Evie was having—he knew that for sure. Rage, shame, the desperate and intense desire to either prove it wasn't so or tear through whatever he had to do to begin making it up to people... whatever it was, he knew he'd never be able to remain still and contained in the face of it. No one had ever accused him of being stoic.

He didn't know what to make of it—of her—and so he kept his step light and half his attention behind him at all times. She didn't seem like a threat, but that was no excuse to drop his guard right now.

Vito's place was a fair bit closer to the Alienage, and it wasn't long before they were in front of it. The sign in the door indicated that it was open, so Corvin pushed it open and stepped inside.

It was open, though only nominally, from the looks of it. The shelves were mostly bare, several of them stained with whatever had once lined them, the air thick with the scent of elfroot and the sharp scent of juniper. Bundles of herbs hung to dry from the ceiling, but the main cause of the smell was probably the squat, fat-bottomed cauldron sitting square with the fireplace in the back left corner of the shop.

Vito wasn't attending it directly, instead sitting crosslegged atop the least water-stained counter in the room, using what looked like a small knife to clean under his fingernails. He glanced up at their entrance, though, setting aside the knife and hopping down to greet them. "Ah, Mattone. Welcome to the Elixir Mixer." He swept a hand before him in what could only be an ironic gesture. "Sadly at present I am rather bereft of elixirs, though I daresay you look like you might wish to procure some?" He lilted the last word up to turn the sentence into a question, but it was very clearly an observation nevertheless. One thick brow arched, and he flicked his eyes to Evie for a moment before returning them to Corvin.

"There has been progress in the matter, I take it?"

Mah-toh-nay. Corvin didn't know the word, and probably would have butchered it if he'd tried to repeat it, but from context it sounded like a form of address. He didn't typically much mind whatever people wanted to call him, so offered no comment, instead feeling his mouth curl up into a real smile at Vito's dry humor. "You take it just right, Vito. Lia's scouting the place now—it looks like we found one of the places they're making ember. It's actually not that far from here."

Sounds of movement in the back of the shop preceded the appearance of the girl that had been with him the night they'd met, his daughter Marisol. She was significantly more put-together now, and seemed to share some of her father's flair and taste for jewelry, the most obvious of which being a pair of jingling earrings, and a circlet of some sort threaded into her thick hair.

She came to stand behind the counter, observing the two visitors with a smile and clearly remembering Corvin. He was difficult to forget, after all. She soon turned her smile on her father, the glimmer in her eye turning mischievous. "Are you in danger of making a friend, Papà?"

"Perish the thought, Caro." Vito curved his fingers over the short length of his braided goatee, sporting an ornament of its own today, a band of bronze near the end. "But perhaps if you are not here for supplies, it might be skills you seek instead?" There was little mistaking his interest in the prospect, eyes keen even as he leaned back against the counter with what otherwise looked like nonchalance. "There seems to be a new associate in the raiding party, no?"

Evie raised her hand and waved in acknowledgment once Vito pointed her out. "Hello," she greeted, "Evie Lafleur," she introduced herself with another respectful incline of her head.

"If you don't mind," Corvin said afterwards, referring to the earlier question. "I have no idea exactly what we'll be looking at when we get to the facility. Could be empty, could be a bunch of alchemists, maybe some guards. Having a mage on hand would definitely help." Not to mention someone who might be able to tell them something about whatever substances were going into the ember, so they'd know what to look for elsewhere.

That bit seemed to have taken Evie by surprise, first raising her eyebrows at Corvin, and then looking back to Vito, like she was reexamining the man in front of them. She chewed on her bottom lip as she inspected, clearly in thought until finally she shrugged, mostly to herself it looked like, and said nothing on the matter.

Vito sighed softly, a little smile on his face. No doubt he knew exactly what that reaction meant. Nevertheless, he turned his attention to Corvin. "I suppose she'd have learned in little time regardless. It seems I'm to have another adventure."

With a small nod, he turned to Marisol. "Watch the shop for me?" Vito grinned. "You can have the day off tomorrow."

"I'll take it." She didn't seem as enthusiastic as before, though. "Just be careful, please."

"Of course, Mari." He laid a hand on her head and leaned across the counter, pressing a brief kiss to her hair, then extracting another, longer knife from under the worktop. Attaching it to his belt, he gestured for Corvin to precede him. "Let us be away, I think the saying goes."

One more pair of hands in tow, the little group made its way back out onto the streets of Riverbend. It had been a while since Corvin needed to navigate them, but the memories didn't take long to surface, and he only took one wrong turn, a mistake easily corrected.

The Mudway was an informal name for one of Riverbend's main streets, of which there were many. This one earned its named through the fact that it had never been paved with even the cheapest of brick or stonework, and the dirt was prone to becoming nearly unusable for carts and carriages in most rainstorms due to the severity of the mud. The street they wanted, Alphonse, was just off this thoroughfare, a residential section of the district where more of the city's unfortunate and poor humans came to live.

Lia waited for them shortly after they'd turned onto the street, her hood concealing her ears and partially her face as well, though her uniform still identified her as an Argent Lion clearly enough. She drew the hood back as they approached, offering Vito a nod. Not the most amiable greeting, but more welcoming than she usually gave for a newly acquainted shem.

"As far as I can tell, the address in question is a one-story house on the end of the street here," she explained. "The house itself isn't what we want, though. There's a hatch in the alley alongside it going underground, and three people are guarding it. They're just sitting there smoking, but I know they've got weapons under their coats. More of Kotter's thugs, I think. This has to be one of his places.

She didn't sound pleased by that. "Maybe we find 'B' or 'M' inside. Otherwise we can at least put a stop to whatever they're doing here, and hope it helps. But this is going to be a fight for sure. Three guards outside, and then funneled underground into tight quarters? No way we're doing this quietly."

"Then we'd better do it quickly," Corvin replied, tapping out a rhythm on his thigh with his metal gauntlet-tips. If these were just garden-variety street thugs, he wasn't interested in killing them, particularly since, while hardly morally upstanding, it was unlikely any of the drug cookers knew what on Thedas their product was meant to be used for. He glanced between the other three, rapidly formulating a plan.

This was his element, much more than the awkward stumble earlier with the letters, and he found himself stepping back into it much more comfortably. "Let's catch the first by surprise at least. Vito, if you can work up a spell to stun them, the rest of us can go in for the takedown, one apiece. We're trying for nonlethality here," he added, for the benefit of the humans. "But if it's them or you, make sure it's them." He had no idea how good or bad Evie was with that sword, even if he was pretty sure Vito could take care of himself. "Once we're in, Vito, if you could just keep an eye on it and help anyone who looks like they need an assist, that's probably best. Make sense to everyone?"

Evie pulled the visor down on her helmet over her face and drew the longsword from its sheath. Upon closer inspection it actually appeared to be an estoc, with the only sharp bit being its tip. "Nonlethal, got it," she replied, resting the sword on her shoulder for the moment. At least the blade would help in the nonlethality route.

At Vito's suggestion, the group moved a little closer, utilizing a connected street to put themselves closer to the guards without crossing their line of sight. The mage spent a moment studying the street around them, then nodded to himself, making quick eye contact with Corvin to confirm that he'd proceed. Once everyone had indicated their readiness, Vito circled his fingers in a deceptively gentle gesture, like he was trying to stir something with them. Within moments, he had what seemed to be a current of air moving around them, near invisible save for the way it loosed the occasional wisp, one that feathered over his loose clothes.

The purpose of this was not completely clear until he stepped around the corner back onto Alphonse Street.

Then he thrust his hand forward, and a blast of wind followed, picking up the loose dirt on the road and slamming into the reclining men like a physical wall. From the cries of surprise, followed by a couple of thunks, it would seem the force had been enough to knock the unwary watchmen over, probably with a fair amount of dirt to their eyes for the trouble.

Vito stood well back, allowing the others to bypass him and get into the fight.

Corvin was first in, drawing his zweihänder and gripping the blade with both hands. The nearest man was already starting to recover, rolling to his feet and reaching for the brass knuckles under his clothing. Before he could so much as slip them on, though, the pommel of the sword struck him in the temple, a measured blow that stunned rather than cracking his skull. Hooking the crossguard around the man's ankle, Corvin yanked, sending his off-balance opponent once again sprawling. A second knock to the head put him under, fortunately: he'd have felt bad about needing a third.

One of the guards had turned to flee rather than engage them after recovering from the stun, no doubt to warn somewhere else or bring back help. One of Lia's arrows put a stop to that, whistling through the tight space available to bite into the back of the man's leg. He cried out loudly in pain, his gait disrupted enough to pitch him face forward into the dirt. Lia was quick to pursue, dodging a swing from the third and pushing on, drawing her knife as she drew close. Before the thug was in a position to defend himself she was on him, landing a hard blow of the dagger's butt to the back of his skull, dropping him.

The guard that swung wildly for Lia was left to Evie. In the midst of all of the confusion and with his attention momentarily on Lia, he didn't have the time to react to Evie dashing in. She darted an angle, leveling her estoc into a sideways swing from her shoulder into the man's belly. The impact doubled him over, and gave Evie the opportunity to take a step backward and put him back into the ground by swinging the blade from the other side at his head. It sounded like she pulled up on the blow enough to issue a thud instead of a crack.

That was all three down, and by the time the last fell, Corvin was already tying his up, dragging the unconscious man to the side of the building where he wouldn't be seen by anyone walking past. This—groups of confined criminals left near the site of the company's operations—was something the Guard referred to as a lion's tail. Always trailing after the Lions themselves. Corvin found that somewhat amusing, though he was sure the city watch got a bit tired of it after a while.

The others soon joined the first, and he straightened, dusing his hands off on his pant legs. "Let's get underground, then, shall we?"

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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It was all quite startlingly-efficient, really. A practiced sort of operation, at least on the parts of the two Lions in the group. He could see the ways they understood and compensated for each others' strengths and weaknesses, no doubt so practiced that it hardly required consideration anymore. Automatic. He'd had that once, or at least something close, with a group. Though he doubted such noble souls as theirs would welcome the comparison. Few of the upstanding liked to be compared to Vito's ilk, after all.

When the guards were tied up and gagged, Vito led the way to the hatch. It wasn't especially well-concealed, but he doubted the average observer would pick it out as anything unusual. Crouching next to it, he ran his fingers along the sides, humming slightly when he found the catch he was looking for and flipping it open. That allowed the handle to be used smoothly, and he pulled it upwards, letting the more armored members of the group pass through in advance of him before dropping in behind.

It put him in a short, narrow passage, one that wouldn't allow them to go more than single file. The end seemed to be dead, but he was betting the boards in front of them were just plywood, easily removed and replaced. The hatch had the feel of an emergency exit to it, which meant there were probably other egress points.

Reaching over Evie's shoulder in front of him, he tapped Corvin's. "Mattone, I think we are likely to encounter problems keeping everyone in place down here. There will be several exits, probably up into more than one house on the street above." Chances were good that this was larger than one basement, particularly if they were moving the amount of product Kotter was rumored to. Even one of four or five such locations would need to be large to cover all the padrone's operations.

No doubt Corvin could break through the flimsy cover at the end of the passage if he so wished. But there was no telling exactly how things would be arranged behind it, or how many people would bolt as soon as they did.

Corvin paused, and in the dim light, Vito could see him turn so that he was in profile. "Got it," he said softly. "I don't think we'd be able to contain everyone anyway. Better to let them run if they want to, and fight the rest." There would no doubt be some that wanted to, and information was the priority. Still, he nodded slightly. Appreciation.

"I'm going to put us through this wall now, before someone finds the guards outside," he added, making sure everyone else was prepared before he did, gesturing everyone a few steps backward and taking three paces away himself. The wall was about five feet in front of him, and all at once, Corvin burst into motion. Shifting his body, he collided shoulder first, splintering the plywood with a loud crack that would no doubt get them noticed immediately. He didn't seem to much care, grabbing a large chunk of the split barrier and hurling it at someone Vito couldn't see further in before drawing his sword.

"Drop what you're doing and show me your hands!"

From the amount of noise, some people at least did just that, though more shouting followed, suggesting a less-than-cooperative audience. "Kill 'em," shouted one, and at that point Vito made it through the opening behind Evie, knife in one hand, sphere of water already in the other.

It looked like whatever this place normally did in terms of production had been halted—nothing was cooking in any of the alchemy equipment, at least. Paper-wrapped bundles, tied with twine, were stacked on nearly every available surface, halfway to being packed in the crates that lined the floors immediately next to the tables. The workshop was indeed larger than one basement, stretching far enough in either direction that it had to take up the space under the next three houses at least. The ventilation was poor, from the smell of it, but not nonexistent, from the fact that anyone could still breathe.

Even now, a cluster of those working had their hands in the air, backing away from the intruders as quickly as possible. More importantly, though, others were drawing weapons and hopping over worktables to draw closer. The confines of the room were going to make maneuvering difficult, and Vito would have to be careful with his magic, too. If those packages contained ember like he suspected they did, letting it into the air could be a disaster.

One of the faces was familiar—he'd been fleeing the warehouse with Kotter when the fight broke out there. A man of middling height and rough exterior, a large scar cutting across his brow and the same side of his face and forehead. He drew a knife from his side, sliding the blade across his forearm without any hesitation.

Vito barely had time to think blood magic before the first spell, a nasty blood lance, was streaking across the room towards Corvin. Quickly, he shaped the water in his hand and froze it, propelling the ice dagger towards the mage in an effort to draw his attention.

It slammed into the man's unprotected shoulder, staggering him before he could get the second spell off, and he adjusted to face Vito, lips pulled back from his teeth. The return volley of ice was in needle shape; Vito grimaced and waved his hand, flash-melting them back into water and gathering them over his hand, thrusting it out towards an approaching melee combatant instead. It hit him square in the face, leaving him vulnerable while he tried to recover his sight.

Corvin took the mage's first attack at close range, the lance slicing into his thigh, just under where his chainmail fell. The leg almost buckled, but held, and he swung the flat side of his sword into the head of an approaching rogue, rendering him unconscious outright. The wound on his leg limited his mobility, and he had to shift around tables the long way, slowly orienting himself towards the mage Vito was fighting, though it would take him some time to move through all the fighters standing between them.

Evie on the other hand hadn't traveled as far from Vito yet, and helped to clean up the man he'd left stunned. She flipped the sword in her hand, grabbing it near the tip instead of the hilt and used it as an improvised club. She struck the side of the man's head with the steel pommel and dropped him. She stood over him for a moment, sword raised in case it took two swings, but it didn't seem like that was required. She turned the blade back around in her hand, gripping it by the hilt again and scanned the area--seeming a bit overwhelmed by all the activity at the moment.

She lingered on her back feet for a moment or two before finally she began to work her way into the room.

Lia didn't move much from their entry point, kicking over a rectangular wooden table to use as cover if she needed it. Her first arrow went for the mage, and he only barely shifted to the side enough to dodge it, the arrowhead skimming over the side of his torso and leaving a shallow cut along with the tear in his clothes. Her second arrow he was ready for, a fast arcane spell shattering it out of the air.

The sound of sudden movement drew Lia's attention left, where one of the workers who had been appearing to surrender now rushed her with a short knife. Her first swing caught air as Lia dodged away, whipping the end of her bow up across the woman's cheekbone. It made sliding around the stab easy for her, and reached behind her opponent's head, grabbing hold and shoving down hard, propelling her forehead down into the solid wooden edge of the table she'd tipped. It was enough to dent the wood, and the worker dropped unconscious, the knife clattering to the floor. Immediately Lia drew another arrow from her quiver.

The blood mage was skilled; Vito was having difficulty concentrating on anything but deflecting increasingly-aggressive spells from his direction as they got a sense of each other's magic. While he would discard the injunction not to kill if it became necessary, the prospect of something going awry and loosing any of the contents of those parcels into the air was hardly appealing. It forced him to check his blows regardless, and there wasn't much time to do anything but deflect. It left him only a few opportunities for the kind of careful aim that meant he could safely attack.

One such moment came after a lash of blood magic caught him across the face, opening up a deep cut on his cheek and forcing his head to the side. The other mage let up for just a second, as if to assess the damage, and Vito used it, bending back and shooting a compressed pocket of air over the tables. It caught the other man in the stomach, hard enough to double him over, and the follow-up ice needles pierced him in several places, leaving him with a multitude of minor cuts to go with the arrow-wound Lia had delivered.

Corvin was still moving slowly, but steadily through those who moved to attack him. Several had abandoned the effort outright, dropping weapons and fleeing to the stairs, and he'd reached the point where he was almost close enough to threaten the mage. A few steps more, and he swung.

Kotter's underling just barely avoided the worst of it, catching a long, bloody line on his right arm for the trouble. Staggering away, he used his left to launch a fire spell right for one of the nearest piles of narcotics. Vito didn't need his alchemical know-how to understand what that was going to do.

"Get down!" Taking his own advice, he dropped to the floor, holding his sleeve over his nose and mouth, and importantly his cut. Without knowing more about just what kind of substance this was, he didn't want to risk exposing his blood to it, to say the least. The jagged slice on his face stung hard enough under the pressure to make his eyes water, but when the spell collided with its target, the resulting explosion was enough to make the floor tremble, and heat pass over his skin. Worth the pain for the protection.

For several long moments, everything was silent. The noise of the impact had deafened him, only a slight tinny ringing registering to his senses. Still breathing through his silk sleeve, Vito clambered to his feet.

Powder fell over the room like snow, settling on the remaining surfaces. Tables had been blown to the far sides of the workroom with the detonation, a few of them broken or warped out of shape. Touching his free hand to his ear, Vito found that his fingertips came away red and sticky. His eyes sought the others—they'd all been closer to the blast than he was. Of the blood mage, there was no sign.

Lia's cover seemed to have saved her from most of the damage the blast could do. She'd drawn up a cloth mask over the lower half of her face, conealing her nose and mouth, but her eyes were already peering through the cloud, searching. One of the first sounds to cut through to Vito was a shout, one of the gang members charging Lia from the side, emerging from concealment in the dust. Lia reacted quickly, turning and loosing the arrow she'd already drawn right into the man's chest. He staggered forward a few more steps, already losing control of his body, and Lia was forced only to step back out of the way for him to crash and fall to the floor.

She didn't linger on him long, though, drawing another arrow and stepping forward cautiously. "Cor!" she shouted, eyes searching the room for him.

If Vito had been deafened, it wasn't a bad guess that Corvin had been as well, as close to the mage as he was, and on the wrong side at that. There was no immediate response, but eventually, someone coughed, and the groan that followed sounded like him. A hand appeared at the edge of one of the overturned tables, gripping the wood, and the elf hauled himself upwards, still coughing. He didn't really have any way to cover his mouth, Vito could see, given that his upper layer was all armor and no scarves, hoods, or cloaks supplemented it at the moment.

He reeled backwards, shoulders hitting one of the walls, and blinked blearily, eyes unfocused.

Cursing softly under his breath, Vito summoned another wind spell, using this one to push the remaining airborne powder away from the lot of them. He wasn't sure if Corvin had inhaled enough to constitute a dose, but he watched him warily, just in case. "I can flush his system if we get out of here." That, he directed at Lia, in case Corvin was still deaf or in fact under the influence of the ember.

That still left one member of their party unaccounted for, though.

And she looked to be in even worse shape than Corvin. While he'd at least made it to his feet, Evie was having trouble staying on both her hands and knee, much less trying to stand. When she did finally manage to hold herself up with her hands, she arched her back and vomited into the ground. The force was enough to take one of her arms away from her and she toppled over to the side, appending an agonized wail onto it. She tried to get back onto her hands once more, but her body didn't seem to want to cooperate with her.

Lia remained in the center of the room for a moment, bowstring drawn back while she waited for anyone else to try attacking her, or at least for the dust and powder to settle. The silence won out, however, and it seemed the fight was over. She looked back towards Vito, making sure she had his attention before she gestured to Evie with the arrow still in her hand. She returned it to her quiver soon after though, and slid her bow over one arm onto her shoulder.

The priority was clear: get their allies moving and get the hell out, before anything else could pose a threat to their team, now down almost at half strength. Lia went to assist Corvin, grabbing one of his arms and placing it over her shoulders, saying something into his ear that Vito still couldn't hear from the ringing. But they were clearly on their way out.

Vito had a bit more work to do, as Evie wasn't in much shape to be walking on her own. Fortunately for her, this was not the first time he'd had to carry a patient, and while she was hardly feather-light—especially in all that armor—he managed to arrange her in a rescue carry over his shoulder.

"Let's get back to the shop. I can treat them there."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Lia would've preferred to stay with Cor and Vito and make sure everything turned out okay there, but someone needed to fill the city guard in on what had just happened. They'd left an absolute mess behind, with criminals tied up, knocked out, or dead that needed tending to, and a whole load of dangerous drugs just sitting around for the taking. Their group had been too beat up to do much of anything about that.

When Cor was able to get his feet under him and keep them there enough to walk, Lia split off from the group, letting Vito get the two of them back to his shop for healing while she brought the news to the guard headquarters in the Administrative District. It wasn't something she was looking forward to, but it had to be done.

She tried in vain to sort out her appearance a little as she weaved her way out of Riverbend. She made a brief pause at the river itself to attempt washing her face and hair of the damn powder and dust, though she had no idea how successful she was. Getting it off her clothes and gear would take even longer, so she didn't bother. There were sporadic bloodstains on her, some of Cor's, some of it belonging to Kotter's thugs, and somehow none of it her own. All in all, it was pretty obvious she'd just been in a fight.

The guard headquarters were strategically positioned near the end of the Avenue of the Sun closest to the markets, Riverbend and the Harbor District, since that was where the majority of the city guard's most important work had to be done. Lia jogged up to the entrance, not bothering with a mask, and holding her hands up and open when the two guards at the front door barred her way with their spears, noting her suspicious appearance.

"I need to speak to the guard captain, Bernard," she stated clearly, keeping her tone from becoming impatient. "It's about an incident that just happened in Riverbend. I have information regarding Kotter's gang. She'll want to hear that, right?"

Those certainly seemed to be the right words, some combination of what she'd said and the color of her uniform relaxing the guardsmen enough that they shifted their spears back. "Aye, miss." The one on the left shifted his hand down to the latch on the door, lifting it and pushing it in. "Captain's office is first floor, end of the hall."

The path inwards took her first through a large, central room, many desks arranged into rows. Only a few of them were currently occupied, but even despite her disheveled appearance, none of those present tried to stop her. The hallway in question was a relatively short one, with only a few doors, and the one she wanted was already half-open, brass nameplate with "Captain Bernard" just visible at her angle.

The captain herself was out of her armor at the moment, behind a desk and dressed in the dark blue characteristic of the Guard, the bronze bands on her sleeves the only indication of rank she wore. Her appearance was otherwise quite tidy, short hair gathered into a neat queue at the nape of her neck, uniform free of wrinkles. She glanced up as Lia entered, fixing her with dark eyes.

"It's Scout-Captain, right? Come in." She said no more than that, doubtlessly trusting that Lia would make the relevance of her appearance here obvious in short order.

"Thank you, Captain." She stepped inside and came to a stop before the captain's desk, remaining standing for the sake of the furniture. "I just came from Riverbend. Alphonse Street. There was a drug production facility there run by Kotter's gang, but it's destroyed now. We weren't able to secure the area, though, so I thought it best to warn you immediately. You'll want to send guards there if you haven't already."

The captain grimaced. "A moment, please." Shifting her eyes to the open door, she raised her voice. "Jardin!" After a few seconds, a young man's head appeared in the doorway.

He smoothed away a bit of tousled blond hair. "Yes Captain?"

"That disruption Martin reported, near the Mudway? It was Alphonse Street. Get your squad and hers down there right away. You're cleaning up after the Lions, and you're going to want a wagon—sounds like a bust. Don't let your guard down."

Jardin nodded a few times before he remembered to salute, but Bernard was already shooing him out of the room with a gesture. Lia could hear him snapping orders to some of the others in the front room, before the noise faded out entirely. Bernard, meanwhile, turned her attention back to their end of the conversation.

"Thank you for that. Can I ask how you came to have involvement in this matter? I can't imagine someone hired you to raid anything of Kotter's. At least not anyone you'd take a job from." A tinge of skepticism entered her voice, but she wasn't outright dismissive.

"It's a bit of a long story," Lia explained, "but it's actually Inquisition work. Captain Pavell and I were brought here to find the source of the recent racial tensions. Since the riot, we've been trying to track down those responsible. Kotter's responsibility is only partial. The drug he's been peddling, Ember, it induces a mindless rage in those that take too much, and helped to start the riot, but he's only looking to make money off of it. There was a former chevalier involved, but he's dead now, and we don't yet know the true source of the drug." It wasn't anyone in Val Royeaux, Lia had to feel. Maybe they had hands here, pushing Jean-Louis and Kotter around, but whoever was behind this couldn't be local.

"At the Alphonse site it looked like Kotter was preparing the drugs for transport. From a conversation we overheard, he didn't approve of the riot. I think he's trying to move the rest of his product out of the city, and soon."

Bernard expelled a weighty breath, one that became a low whistle at the end. "And here I thought my biggest problem was going to be keeping people from getting upset enough for round two." With a small shake of her head, she set aside her idle quill. "We'll set up some extra protections at the roads out, see if we can't catch this and get it out of circulation. Thanks for the information, and if we can help you prevent another riot, let me know."

"Thank you, I will." Honestly, Lia hadn't been sure what to expect of Guard Captain Bernard. Their only encounter had been an uncomfortable one at the Alienage gates, and she was a new emplacement at the position besides. At least, Lia didn't remember her from before she left the city. She found herself pleasantly surprised; the Guard Captain was going to be someone they needed to work with often, if they were going to root out the real problem in the city, and it was a relief to find she wasn't the sort of person they'd need to struggle against.

"I should be getting back to my friends," she said, glancing at the door. "It wasn't the cleanest attack, as I'm sure you can see. Thank you again, Captain."

"Of course. Take care."

Lia didn't waste any time getting out. Though the guard captain seemed amiable enough, she wasn't about to go easy around the rest of them. She kept her pace at a jog, just barely catching sight of the group of guards making their way into Riverbend before she ducked down a different street, following the now familiar path that led her towards Vito's shop. She could see the girl, Marisol, watching over the entrance, and she preemptively pulled open the door for Lia as she approached. Vito appeared to still be at work inside.

"City guard is taking care of the rest," she informed them, pulling off her bow and quiver and setting them carefully down across an empty table. "How are we doing here?"

Vito had dragged a couple of canvas cots out from somewhere, and the debris of a rather involved healing process were scattered around on the counters. Empty glass flasks, half-used rolls of bandages, and soiled clothing, among other things. The man himself had swapped shirts for something with shorter sleeves, probably to make working near injuries easier. There was a fair amount of blood on his hands; apparently Cor's, since he was just stepping away from where her friend sat.

"Oh, we'll live." He said it sardonically, almost, but softened the tone of the words with a slight smile. "I've flushed the Ember from their systems and started on the wounds. Mattone here is... oddly difficult to heal." He patted Cor on the shoulder and stepped to the counter, pulling a washcloth out of a small bucket there and wiping down his hands and arms. "But I've stitched his leg to keep it closed, and the other injuries were minor. Evie's a bit worse off, but at least I'm not worried that my magic's suddenly terrible in her case." He nodded to where the other woman lay.

"It's not a problem unique to you," Cor reassured him, shifting a bit stiffly. Either he or Vito had removed most of this armor, but the long-sleeved tunic and trousers were still the standard Lions' uniform, down to where the blood from his leg wound had soaked into the pant leg a bit. Even injured he seemed rather hale; without the Ember to worry about it seemed he wasn't put out by his wounds much.

He pursed his lips a bit, though, then focused on Lia. "Guards were civil?" It had been sort of an open question whether they would be, when the Lions had first come to Val Royeaux, and while eventually most of the company had won at least grudging respect and cooperation, that didn't always hold for their non-human members.

"Surprisingly, yes." She sank into a cushy chair, pulling her hair free and slouching fairly low. She'd never been the best with posture. "The captain seems reasonable enough, and the rest didn't give me any more trouble than was warranted. The uniform still comes before the race, I think." It didn't mean things were ideal with the guard, but it meant they could at least work together if they needed to.

She appreciated Cor asking the question. It was concerning to hear that he still wasn't healing well. Vito wasn't the first healer to report that, as Cor mentioned. Ever since Emprise du Lion... but that wasn't a topic they needed to cover right now. "How're you holding up, shem?" She lobbed the question in Evie's direction. "That fight got a little hairy."

Evie was awake, and had been though she hadn't moved much since Lia had returned. She still laid in the cot Vito had found, her head turned toward their conversation. She too had been peeled out of her armor and was left with the coral shirt she wore when she'd found them. When she was finally addressed, Evie slowly raised a hand and gave her a thumbs up, before letting it fall back to her chest. The expression on her face revealed that she wasn't pleased with the result, but she was alive and that counted for something.

"So..." she said, quietly, "What now?" A minor coughing fit followed.

Lia shrugged. "Not sure. We dealt a blow to Kotter's drug trade today, but he obviously doesn't want to sell it here anymore. Seems like it'll work its way off the streets soon. That should help keep things calm for the moment, but we still don't have much of a lead on who your uncle was working with, who's really behind this." Unless there was something she'd missed, it seemed to Lia that they'd more or less broken up the plan by now, if indeed the plan of their enemy was to create multiple riots and bring about chaos in the city, for whatever reason. But since they didn't have those responsible in chains, they had to assume they'd try something else, and sooner rather than later.

"So for now, we wait. Ask around where we can, see if any leads come up, and take care of what work comes our way in the meantime." She paused, crossing her arms. "Any chance the rest of your family knew anything about what your uncle was up to? You all live here in the city, right?"

"I don't think so," she said with a shake of her head. "Father is too concerned about our image to have let things progress this far," she said sourly. It sounded like she apparently wasn't on the best of terms with her family presently. "Everyone else has too bright of a future to have known and not said anything," she said, her frown deepening. She closed her eyes and inhaled, and shaking her head and wincing. "I'll... try to talk to them, see if they know anything that could help. If they'll even talk to me," she added.

"Seems like that's all we've got for now." Cor flexed his hand a few times, rubbing absently at the spot on his leg where Vito had stitched him up. "The rest of us will just have to keep our ears to the ground." Knowing him, he considered this something of a defeat, but he also wasn't the type to show it in front of people.

Bracing both hands on the sides of his cot, he stood, testing out his leg and nodding slightly. "Thanks for the help, Vito. We'll be at the barracks if either of you need to see us. If we're not around, ask for Captain Donnelly."

"Think nothing of it, Mattone. I'll get Evie here back on her feet, and tell some people to keep their eyes open for me."

Evie adjusted herself on the cot to get a better look at him "And I thank you for that... Hey Vito?" she said, looking thoughtful for a moment.

"What kind of muffins do you like?"

Vito's brows arched, then furrowed. With a soft huff, he shrugged. "If you're in the market for thank-you gifts, I accept standard rate for my services." Having said that, though, he amended. "Chocolate is also nice."

"Seconded," added Marisol.

"We'll get you more than standard rate for today," Lia promised him. He certainly didn't have to come along and fight one of the most dangerous criminal elements in the city with them. Lions were expected to do that kind of work, but he was just a shopkeeper by all appearances, and poking the hornet's nest like this too many times would eventually put a target on his back. That blood mage he'd traded spells with came to mind. The man had disappeared into the wind.

As for the shem... Lia supposed she held it together well enough. Helped them get the information that led them to the site, and didn't hesitate too much when it came to blows. Took an explosive blast pretty well, too, for someone who clearly wasn't the most experienced with that sort of thing.

They were no Inquisition Irregulars, this little group they'd formed, but they'd gotten the job done so far.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell

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It didn't ultimately take Corvin very long to recover from his injuries, even in the absence of a full magical healing. It generally didn't, anymore.

More importantly, Riris had sent word to the barracks that one of the drugging victims had finally awakened, which was their first lead since the botched raid on Kotter's cookhouse. Corvin and Lia were going to pay him a visit this afternoon, something for which he forewent the armor and reduced his normal weapon loadout to a bastardsword at his hip and a knife concealed at his back. Not that he figured he'd need to use them, but if his life in general had taught him anything, it was that he hated being caught unprepared, and danger was always a possibility.

Straightening his deep maroon tunic, Corvin made sure his sleeves were all the way down, gathering his hair into a tail at his crown and tying it off quickly with a length of twine. The polished oval of mirror-glass in his room at the barracks indicated that everything looked in order. He tugged his collar upwards just to be sure, leaning closer and grimacing. He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but sometimes he could swear his veins were darker than they should be. And... tinted the wrong color.

Probably just paranoia. He'd been paying too much attention since he took to covering the scars. Too apprehensive they would show. That'd they'd—change things, in a way he didn't want. But they already had.

Breathing out a heavy sigh, Corvin turned away from the mirror and threw on his cloak, and then a scarf he'd bought yesterday, just a cheap one made of grey wool. It was scratchy; he wasn't used to wearing things around his neck and expected it to tear soon anyhow. But he wasn't about to be caught without any protection from that Ember stuff again. He headed outside, fully expecting Lia to have beaten him there.

He was right to; Corvin found Lia leaned up against the front wall, licking at her fingers. When she caught sight of him she lowered the hand and lifted the other. "Sweetroll? Svalda forced me to take a pair, told me all the Lions are welcome to a free meal after the riot." She was a clever dwarven lady, renaming her tavern The Smiling Lion after the mercenary company that set up shop so close by. It certainly helped her draw in business.

"Don't mind if I do." Svalda's food was delicious, and Corvin ate like multiple people anyway. He accepted the offering from Lia and bit into it while she continued, starting them away from the building while he was at it.

"Not surprisingly, she hasn't overheard anything but useless drivel, since people don't usually discuss clandestine activities at the bar." She fell in beside Corvin as they headed out for the Alienage. "Hard for her to pick out strange travelers, too, what with the variety here. Rivaini, Antivans, Anders, Vints, Tal-Vashoth Qunari, all just another day in the Harbor District."

Corvin made a noise in the back of his throat that he hoped passed for agreement since his mouth was full and he had slightly better manners than it would take to talk like that. The Harbor District was the type of place where no one really looked strange. He actually liked that about it, the way anyone could fit there with little effort. It did make their jobs harder sometimes though, like now.

Swallowing, he popped the pad of his thumb in his mouth and rid himself of the last sugary traces. "I hate this," he said at last, free to express it without outsiders around. "Our best lead's gone up in smoke, and while we got one asshole off the street, there's dozens more that could fill his place." Humans with status and little sense were what Orlais was known for, honestly. And even if that was an unfair exaggeration, there were still plenty of people who fit the mold. Finding one of those who hated elves was like spearing fish in a barrel.

"None with the connection he had, though," Lia pointed out. "At least not that we know of. Jean-Louis was in league with someone that needs to find a new partner in the city now. And even if they do, who's going to peddle their drugs? We know for a fact Kotter wants no part of it anymore, especially after the hell we've been giving him." They kept forwards rather than making the turn they'd used on the night of the riot, heading for the Harbor District gate into the Alienage. "I think we've bought ourselves some time. Either we find a way to sink our teeth in during it, or our enemy, whoever they are, makes another move. Either way, we'll get our chance."

Guard duties had been increased on the multiple Alienage gates ever since the riot, but the doors at least were no longer barred for those brave enough to enter, or those elves brave enough to leave. The guards on the Harbor District gate didn't give Corvin and Lia a second look, recognizing their uniforms if not their faces.

The Alienage was a mess, still reeling from the havoc it had inflicted upon itself not long ago. Though the fires had been put out, the damage wasn't something the elves had the skills or the resources to repair in an efficient manner. They were greeted by sunken faces as they passed, a number of individuals and families forced out onto the streets now that their homes had burned. They wrapped themselves in fraying, thin blankets, peering up at the healthy, strong pair of elves that walked by with expressions that were hard to read. Some mix of awe and envy, perhaps.

They found Riris outside by the vhenadahl, not surprisingly. The tree itself had somehow avoided the blazes, though its modest height gave off the impression that it was almost cowering beneath the burned out, hollow shells of buildings that surrounded it. The hahren looked to be dealing with those bold enough to request anything from her, leaving Lia and Corvin to patiently await their turn at a distance.

"Are you... doing okay?" Lia asked, her tone a little more quiet than usual. "With the healing, I mean."

"Huh? Oh." It took Corvin a split second to remember why she might feel the need to ask that. The concern was warming, honestly, but it also wasn't something he wanted to talk about at any length. He smiled, crooked as usual, dimpling his cheeks. "Yeah, no problem. You know me." He paused to strike himself in the chest for emphasis; he barely felt it, honestly. Too much scar tissue. "Never stay down for long."

She'd come out of that one pretty unscathed, or he'd have returned the question. Instead, he let one hand rest at the hilt of the sword and dropped the other to his side, searching the crowd for nothing in particular. It was disheartening, to look at those he considered his people and see so much misery.

"Don't suppose your, uh... other friends know anything?" Corvin wasn't totally clear on what Lia did when she wasn't doing official Lions' business, but he knew she did other things. Other than Arrin, though, he wasn't completely sure who the other parties involved were, and that might be for the best.

She clearly wasn't pleased with the quick changing of subjects, but she didn't try to force the issue. "Nobody told me anything I didn't already know. Kotter's 'Untouchables' selling the Ember, but no one knows where it came from. I asked Arrin to tell me if heard anything but... I think everyone's still reeling, just trying to find their feet again." It seemed like that was all the time they had for discussion, as Riris was heading their way.

Her face was set into grim lines, but it did lighten a little when she reached them, and she managed to offer the both of them a small smile. "Sorry for the wait." She tapped the butt of a gnarled walking stick against the ground—something of a mark of station, though there was no way anyone in the Alienage didn't know her face. "We're still taking stock of the damage, and the supplies we'll need to fix it. I'm glad the fire didn't spread further, or we'd be looking at a lot worse. I hardly need to say how grateful we are to you, but I will anyway. Thank you."

Corvin felt himself relax slightly. Riris had a point—this scene could be a lot worse than it was. All these people were still alive to be miserable, and they'd had a lot to do with that.

Though he preferred to give credit where it was due elsewhere, too. "It wasn't us alone, but you're always welcome, Riris. You know that."

She eased upon hearing it, smiling a little more fully. "We're lucky to have you." Expelling a breath, Riris shifted her weight, glancing once over her shoulder. "But I expect you've come to see Garith. He woke this morning, as you know. His state is still a bit... fragile, but he might be able to tell you something. He's on the first floor of the red house, next to the herb patches. We're using it as an infirmary, for now."

"Thank you," Lia said with a nod of her head. "We'll see you soon, I'm sure."

They followed her directions without a word, still somewhat taken with the state of the Alienage, which even in the best of times was not particularly pleasing to look upon. Lia was less armed than usual as well, having left her bow behind, though as always she carried her dagger. Corvin knew it meant about as much to her as he did. Maybe more. Not the most pleasant thought, but considering where it came from, he could almost understand.

The house in question looked to have been one of the many communal homes, where groups of elves without families to belong to found shelter. Now they'd likely been forced out if they couldn't find anyone to take them in, to make room for the sick and wounded that had resulted from the riot. The wounded had largely sorted themselves out one way or another by now, but there were still a great many elves bedridden from the effects of the Ember that they'd foolishly consumed.

The one they wanted, Garith, was the only elf sitting upright in his bed, near enough to the entrance that they didn't have to take another step to make out his features. Young, pale, red-haired and freckled with brown eyes, he was thin but no more than was typical of Alienage elves. He was riddled with injuries, bandages covering some sort of weapon wound in one side, and what looked to be a burn on the other. One of his forearms was heavily wrapped, as was a leg around the knee.

Lia stopped quite suddenly upon seeing him, and when Garith's eyes settled on them he too seemed momentarily surprised, though perhaps not in the same way. "Sorry, I know I'm a mess." His voice was quiet and weak, injected with forced humor. "Argent Lions, right? You're mercenaries?"

"You're Garith?" Lia asked.

He nodded slowly. "I am. Do I know you?" He seemed vaguely familiar with her, but just unable to recall from where.

Lia maintained her distance. "No, but you did try to choke me to death the night of the riot. You might've succeeded if my friend hadn't been there."

"Oh." His eyes fell for a moment. "Sorry, I... I don't remember that. That—I wasn't myself. I would never knowingly attack an Argent Lion, you've gotta believe me."

Corvin didn't have too much trouble believing it. Not from what he'd seen of the things this drug could do to people. Even with the dose he'd gotten...

"We know," he said quietly. "The world gets... blurrier, right? You don't quite recognize things anymore." Leaning over to grip the back of a chair, Corvin scooted it over to Garith's bedside and dropped into it, careful that his sword didn't knock against it. "We were hoping you might be able to tell us a little more about it, actually. Have you been using it a while?" He deliberately kept any and all accusation out of his tone, adopting a careful, understanding one instead. It seemed to be what the situation warranted.

"No, not long," Garith claimed. "The night of the riot was only my second time. The first was just a few days before. You know that feeling when you've had a hunger for weeks, gnawing at you, and then it finally goes away after you get a decent meal?"

"I think every elf knows that feeling," Lia answered quietly. She still regarded Garith warily.

"That was the first thing I felt. No hunger, no pain, no drowsiness. It was bliss, honestly."

"And the second?"

"The second... I only took a tiny bit more, but maybe it hadn't worked out of my system from the first time. Once it was done, I just... that time is gone for me. I don't remember any of it. Vaguely I recall some agitation, but then nothing. I woke up here, with all these injuries. Riris said I didn't really hurt anybody, and that's probably thanks to you, I guess. I appreciate you... you know. Not killing me."

Corvin wasn't really in a position to take credit for that decision, as he'd been elsewhere at the time. But he nodded anyway, letting a deep breath release from his lungs. "Do you remember how you heard about it? Or where you got it the first time?"

"Yeah, uh..." Garith winced, his eyes momentarily averting them both. "I got it from an elf in Kotter's gang. Look, I'd tell you the name, but the guy's a friend of mine. Gives me good prices on way more than just drugs. You know how it is, a lot of elves get mixed up in this because they've got no other way to get by. I don't want to bring you two down on him; I don't think he knows anything useful anyway."

"We need something, though," Lia pressed. "We're not really after Kotter or his gang at this point, though I wouldn't hesitate to take a shot at him if we cross paths. We're looking for the people responsible for Ember, not the people selling it."

He chewed on his lip a moment, scratching at the bandage over his burn nervously. "Okay. Um... there was something he mentioned, somebody he heard Kotter was concerned with. Some noble here in the city, I think. A chevalier. Yeah, that was it!"

Corvin sighed. It didn't sound like they were going to get anything new or useful out of Garith. It was unsurprising, but still disappointing. "Well, thank you for passing that along, Garith. Take care of yourself, all right?" He looked askance at Lia and shrugged.

Another dead end.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone

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The shop's only ladder was not the sturdiest construction, but if he intended to repair his gutters, Vito had little choice but to use it. And unless he wanted his roof to collapse at some point in the near future, fixing the gutters was hardly optional. There was already a worrying amount of rot in the attic storage, something he'd have to stabilize next before re-tiling his roof. Later. When he could afford the tiles.

He was a fair hand with wood and repairs to wooden things—he'd been a sailor too many years not to have acquired anything transferable, but rigging and masts were a lot more stable to his mind, and no sooner had he made it to the top of the ladder than he felt it start to tilt. Hissing a breath through his teeth, he lobbed his hammer and nails onto the roof and grabbed the edge with both hands, stabilizing his feet until he was sure the damn thing would stay put for a while. One of the nails rolled right off the roof to hit the ground with a ping, but he'd worry about that later.

Curling his bare toes against the wooden rung, he took up the hammer again. The gutter had come unmoored from the side of the building; for now all he could really afford to do was pin it back in place with a few cheap nails and hope it held long enough for him to construct himself some new ones from the lumber he'd bought. Mostly scrap timber, or boards measured to the wrong size, and therefore easier to convince a supplier to part with for well under market rate.

He leaned forward, driving the first nail in and reaching up for the second when he felt the ladder slip again, teetering sharply to the left.

Just before it would have fallen, though, it stabilized, returning to both legs. From below, Vito could make out a quiet sigh. The identity of his 'rescuer' didn't remain unclear for long, though. "You okay up there, Vito?" Corvin kept his hands on either side of the ladder, craning his neck to try for eye contact.

How very timely of him. "Yes, thank you, Mattone. Something tells me you've a talent for last-minute saves." Since the ladder was currently as stable as it was going to get, Vito drove a second nail through the side of the gutter, tacking it into place to his satisfaction. At least for the moment.

He slid down the ladder with greater surety, sighing himself when his feet touched the ground. At this level, the elven youth was taller than him by a fair margin, something which amused him a little. "Can I invite you inside? You look like a fellow who knows his way around a little work, if you were looking for some." He flashed a smile to show that he need not be taken seriously. Not that he'd say no to free labor—he just didn't expect it.

Corvin laughed, setting his hands on his hips for a moment and studying the storefront. "Believe it or not, that's actually why I'm here. Well, that and this." He reached down to his belt and untied a plain linen purse there, lobbing it through the air towards Vito. "Fair market rate, for risking your life for complete strangers. Three times. That's called a hat trick, right?"

Vito raised his arm and caught the purse deftly, arching his brows at the weight of it. Apparently, Corvin and his allies had an interesting idea of fairness, not that he was going to complain. The shop needed the repairs, and some of Marisol's clothes were beginning to look a bit threadbare. "Speaking of work, do let me know if you come across any more than needs doing, hm?" He drew out the last syllable with a grin and opened the door, gesturing Corvin in front of him.

The interior of the shop was in slightly better shape now, especially since he and Marisol had replaced the draping fabric that decorated the walls and ceiling in lieu of paint. The nice thing about them was that they were colorful, and tended to hold the pleasant herbal scents of their work, giving the shop the gauzy, dreamlike atmosphere Vito was going for. They still needed to replace a lot of the paneling and shelving, though. "Mari, we have a visitor!" Vito hooked his bare foot over the leg of a stool and scooted it up to the counter for Corvin to take.

"Can we get you tea? Coffee? I think there might be a muffin or two leftover from the other day, if you enjoy chocolate in your confections." He grabbed the draping shirt from its hook in the wall, sliding it over his bare arms. Not even he wore satin to do outdoor work, and he was willing to sacrifice a lot for his personal sense of aesthetics.

Marisol's light footsteps preceded her arrival at the bottom of the stairs, barefoot just as Vito was. She had a book in her hand, fingers keeping her page, and she offered a bright smile for their guest. "Hello again. Nice to see we've got at least one regular here." She slipped behind the shop's counter and into one of the few chairs they had there, her near violet eyes shifting over to Vito. "Did you get that nail you dropped out there, Papà?"

"This one?" Corvin held it up between his thumb and forefinger. His smile was just a touch smug, in a way Vito could easily recognize as harmless. "At your service." He dropped into the stool, tipping his head a bit to the side and squinting.

"Reading anything interesting?" he asked Marisol. "And no thanks, Vito. I don't need anything. If you've got sanding or staining or something, though, I helped build the Lions' barracks. Both of them, actually. So I can help."

"I heard about that big deal coming up, the play," Marisol answered. "Not like I'll be able to see it, but I thought I'd read something by the author, see what all the fuss was about." She lifted the cover so Corvin could see it, showing him the very romanticized-looking knight painted on it. "It's... interesting, so far." She quite obviously held back a wince as she said it.

"That is one way of putting it." Vito grabbed a dropcloth, two buckets—stain and sealant—and a few brushes. Frankly he could use the help and was glad to get it from someone who had the first clue what he was doing. A slapdash or amateur job would only result in having to do it over all the sooner.

Corvin looked to be failing to contain a grin. "Yeah, Varric's prose is... special. Heard more than a few dramatic readings at the Hanged Man back in the day."

Vito hummed, shaking his head faintly. "I'd say you were a bit young to be talking about 'back in the day,' Mattone, but I suppose you're quite rich in life experience, aren't you?" He set the equipment down carefully on the countertop in front of Corvin. "Remind me that I owe you your choice of tinctures. Something tells me the ones I have for resistance would be pointless though, no?"

The young elf's smile was a bit more awkward that time; he reached for the cans and scooted them across the counter, using what seemed to be his utility knife to prize them open. "I... yeah. I had an accident last year. With some lyrium. It's been like that ever since. Everyone says it's hard to heal me. Even potions don't feel quite the same anymore, but they work a little."

He shrugged. "If it's all the same to you, ask Lia what kind she wants and make them for her instead."

It was, in fact, all more or less the same to Vito, so he nodded amiably. The topic was clearly an uncomfortable one, and while his curiosity was undeniably piqued, he let it drop as casually as he'd brought it up. "Happily."

Grabbing another brush, he dipped it in the stain and pulled up one of the boards to work on the opposite end of the counter from Corvin. "Anyway. These are the panels for the walls, so don't worry too much if it's a little uneven." He gestured to the fabric drapes. "No one will see." His own strokes were smooth, practiced; not that he stained wood all that often.

"So I have to ask," Corvin said after a bit. He'd studied what Vito was doing it and replicated it rather effectively. "Your shop must be pretty new, right? I think I'd remember you if you'd have been here last time I was."

Vito chuckled, shooting an aside glance at Marisol. "We are fairly memorable, I suppose, but I do not think that's quite true. There are many alchemists in Val Royeaux. We are not even the closest to your barracks." Still, it was a fair question, one he did not mind answering. "We arrived in the city three years ago, give or take. The shop just happened to be the thing we fell into doing. I've been mixing tonics since I was a boy. Not in a Circle, mind you."

"And you, Marisol?" Corvin looked up from his work long enough to make momentary eye contact with her. "You have a mind to do anything in particular with your new start?"

"It's been hard to think about lately, since we've just been focused on keeping a roof over our heads." She gave it a moment's thought. Vito knew well by now that she carefully measured her words most of time, even around him. "I think I'd like to run a business someday. This is good practice, and before the riot I think we were doing pretty well for ourselves." She shrugged. "Or maybe I'll run off and join a theater group, become an actress."

Corvin's eyes narrowed with the force of his smile. "You know, my little sister's a musician. Well... as a hobbyist, anyway. Good enough to be professional if she wants to, though. Maybe you should start a theater group, since that's both things in one." It didn't seem to be all that serious a suggestion, but the part about his sister at least was clearly true as far as he was concerned.

"Maybe stage something that wasn't written by Varric. Though I'll be honest: I'm not sure how even he could possibly overdramatize that story. Even just being around it made me feel like I was caught up in all kinds of important things, and I was just a scrub at that point."

"You know, Mattone, if you have stories, we are the most willing and captive of audiences. Neither of us has ever been to Kirkwall." Vito had a feeling there were more than a few good ones to be had, as close to the source of historical happenings as he professed to be.

He made a small noise in the back of his throat, considering it. "Fair point. There's a lot to choose from. You want a serious one, or a silly one?"

"Let's start with something silly," Marisol suggested, setting her book aside. "I've had my fill of drama for today."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Lia was better than most at waiting around.

Patience was the difference between a good scout and a dead one, after all. Or in plenty of cases, it was her friends' lives depending on her information, not herself. With the Inquisition she'd sat and watched roads for hours on ends, observed enemy troops walk along battlements, well within range of her bow. How many times had she been forced to sit still in some place where giving herself away would likely mean death. Times like the boathouse where she'd been exposed were the exception. She'd been lucky both sides fought each other, and that she had friends ready to bail her out.

Waiting in uncomfortable positions was something Lia was good at, but this bothered her. She wasn't waiting for an objective; she had the objective already, she just had to wait for a way to complete it.

When last she'd lived in Val Royeaux, she'd been able to seek out opportunities on her own in the times when contracts weren't readily available or no positions needed filling. She always kept busy, setting her own goals if she had none given, but now she needed to stay available. She found she couldn't make herself get involved in much when she could be needed at any time on whatever Julien tasked her and Cor with next. Something would turn up eventually, but whether eventually was hours or weeks was impossible to know.

In the meantime, there was always training to do. And since she and Cor were still in a sort of awkward place between Inquisition agents and Argent Lion mercenaries, they were ideal training partners. The others had actual contracts to take care, and all that.

For the moment Lia was working on testing Cor's defenses in a drill forcing him to remain on his guard and block whatever she threw at him. She fought with a training sword, not her usual weapon, but one that suited the practice better. Her blade was lighter and quicker than his, forcing him to react extremely quickly to block everything. "Come on, faster," she urged.

"Make me," he shot back, shifting one arm out and grabbing the blade of his hand and a half with the other, blocking a jab at this left side and thrusting up sharply to deflect. To make the exercise even more difficult for himself, he'd drawn sharp lines in the sand. It simulated the need to hold a single position and removed most of his footwork from his arsenal. He'd worked up a thin sheen of sweat by this point, but he was holding admirably steady under her swift assault.

He lasted several more minutes before a particularly clever strike forced him a large step backwards and over his self-imposed line, at which point he held a hand up in surrender and sheathed the blade, rolling his shoulders out. His breathing was still steady and even, but he seemed satisfied by the duration anyway, and mussed the lines with his boot, picking up their canteens from the ground near the fence and lobbing hers at her in a gentle arc. "Anything you want to work on?"

She took a long drink from her canteen, pausing to wipe the sweat from her forehead afterwards. "I'd say moving target practice, but you'd probably accept."

"I'm ever at your service, my friend." The grin he flashed her was all cheek, but that was entirely ordinary for him.

Before they could move on to the next training exercise however, they were interrupted by a familiar face. Evie seemed surprised to find them so easily, and maybe even a little bit relieved. From the short time they'd known her, she didn't seem to be as protective of her facial expression as some of the other Val Royeaux natives. She stood awkwardly for a second, obviously unprepared and whatever mental script she had thrown out the window. She blinked once and then finally moved to speak. "Oh, hello. I thought I would have to ask for you inside," she said with a tilt of her head.

She was in some armor, as chainmail shirt peeked out from beneath a simple sky blue tunic, and her boots were heavy. Her estoc rested against her back this time, but most curiously was a covered basket she held in her hand, which she apparently just remembered she had, glancing down at it and then holding it up for them to see. "I brought shortbread cookies," she offered.

Lia wasn't sure how to react. She wasn't sure what to make of Evie, either. The noble family had been established, and though she didn't seem to be a chevalier herself, she clearly fancied herself some kind of fighter. Sword and mail or otherwise, she still reeked of the Gardens. It wasn't a smell, though. Smells were easier to cover up. Some people felt at home in places like Riverbend and the Harbor District, and some people just didn't. It was clear enough that Evie fell into the latter category.

"Thanks?" Lia flipped the practice sword over in her hand and went to hang it up on the rack. If she expected them to sit around eating cookies together because they'd hit one gang hideout together, she was going to be disappointed. "What are you doing here?"

"I... had questions," she answered, her eyes flicking to the building behind them, "About the Lions, I mean. I know I asked you once before," she said, looking at Cor while she spoke that time, "But I just wanted to know more."

Her eyes fell down to the basket in her hand and then back up to them, "I was hoping I could bribe you with cookies."

"Uh... how about we go inside for a bit?" Cor offered, stowing his practice gear as well. "I don't see the others turning down free food, though—maybe don't call it a bribe. We're kind of against that sort of thing as a rule." His tone suggested a light remark, but as with a fair number of things he said, there was a more serious thought beneath it.

Lia was glad she'd been training with Cor, as she wasn't sure how well she'd be able to navigate the conversation here otherwise. She'd always thought of the Argent Lions barracks here as a sort of safe haven in the city, free of any possibility of nobles too sophisticated to immerse themselves in such a mess of people lower on the social ladder. And again, Evie wasn't threatening in the same way the shrewd Castle District masks were, but she was still a noble.

The mess hall was sparsely populated at this hour of the afternoon, allowing Lia to pick a table for them near the edge of the room that gave them some degree of privacy. She untied her hair and sank down onto a stool, laying her hands down on the table. "I can't promise you we'll answer every question, but... ask away."

"I understand, I'm just happy you both are talking with me," she said with smile, setting the basket down on the table. She flipped over the cover to reveal the cookies beneath. "I'm sorry if they're a bit plain. I don't have all of the ingredients that I'd like, my pantry's a bit bare these days. Vito got the last of my chocolate," she said, sounding a bit put down by her own comments. Obviously she was used to having more. "But please, help yourselves," she said, attempting to sound a bit more chipper.

She then took a seat opposite of them both and appeared to try and collect her thoughts. She slowly seemed to formulate where she wanted to go in her head before finally speaking again. "Have the Lions changed much since you two joined?" she asked, apparently trying to ease into her questions.

Lia found the whole situation vaguely nauseating, not to mention confusing, but she did her best to suppress that. If Cor wanted to try the cookies, he was welcome to go first. "Sure, of course it's changed. Sort of had to once we moved part of our numbers out of Kirkwall. New city, new home, and eventually not the same Commander." As much as she wished Lucien could still manage their day to day affairs, like how it had been years ago, she wasn't dissatisfied with the current setup. Donnelly and Hissrad were more than up for it.

"Not like our numbers have ballooned that much, though. Most of the people here joined back in Kirkwall, not Val Royeaux." That was both because one of Lucien's methods had always been to keep the company's numbers small and tight-knit, and also because the process of joining was a strenuous one, testing more than just a mercenary's capabilities. They were far from the only mercenaries in the city, and some of the other companies had little love for the Lions at this point, given how many people that they'd turned away had eventually ended up elsewhere. No one liked rejection.

"Any reason in particular you're curious?"

Evie straightened in her chair and inhaled, but she didn't look too surprised at the question. Rather she looked like she expected it eventually, if not immediately. She nodded and offered them a mild smile. "I was hoping to make an attempt at joining," she offered, looking between the two of them when she answered. She didn't retreat when she stated it either. "Eventually, of course. I want to prepare myself first, take my time this time-- thus the questions," Evie added with an outstretched palm.

For some reason, Lia hadn't expected that. Now that she said it, though, it seemed obvious. Bit strange that she and Cor were the two seemingly being interviewed in that case, and Lia wasn't sure what she'd wanted to hear out of the first question, either.

"This time?" she echoed. "Have you tried to join other mercenary companies or something?" If so, Lia wasn't sure what her chances would be of sneaking into the Lions. It was strange of nobility in general, too, to seek this particular profession. Not unheard of, but people of Evie's class often had other means of making their wealth. More wealth, even, and with far less personal risk involved.

That was the question that made Evie shift uncomfortably in her seat, though she didn't try to avoid their eyes either. "No, not a mercenary company," she began with a sigh, "The chevaliers."

She was quiet for a second afterward, taking to chewing on her bottom lip before she shrugged and continued, offering to explain more than that of her own volition. "I thought having been trained half of my life by chevaliers, the Academie would be a touch easier than it was. I was wrong. Really wrong. Turns out, I'm the first in many years to wash out of the Academie in my family, which led to my current predicament," she deflated as she spoke, placing her elbows on her table and hunching her shoulders.

"Lost more than just joining the chevaliers," she stated quietly, almost to herself.

Cor made a sign Lia recognized as uncomfortable, shifting in his seat. Despite his more welcoming attitude, he had sat quite quietly through the explanation, hands folded on the table, cookies untouched. "I think you should consider that very carefully," he said at last, with an uncommon firmness. "We're not the place to go because you couldn't do what you really wanted. And it's... for a lot of us, this, getting here—it's a huge part of who we are. It's made us who we are." His jaw flexed when he exhaled, but he kept his tone measured and calm.

"It's a life, not a job."

"I understand that," Evie said thoughtfully. "This isn't just a passing fancy of mine, I've thought about it for a while now," she said. She slipped into chewing on her bottom lip again before continuing. "I've had time to think about it, since the Academie. I was... lost and confused for a while, and wasn't sure what it was I wanted to do. But... I know I wanted to do something. I worked too long to be a chevalier to just... forget everything I learned," she continued, clasping her hands together and placing them in her laps.

"And the Lions do things. Heck, maybe even more than the chevaliers. That's why I wanted to try and join," she said, her shoulders stiffening. "You guys don't just take any job for the coin, and you don't let just anyone in. There's principle and honor here. I want to do some good, somewhere, and I can't do it on my own. The Lions do good," she said, letting her eyes finally fall to the table.

She inhaled and shook her head again, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ramble, but it's a process. That's why I wanted to talk to you two first instead of the other Captains. I want to make sure this is what I want to do, I want all the information I can get. I want to be prepared to make this choice."

Lia had tipped her head over slightly to rest against one hand as she listened. She wasn't sure Evie meant for it, but she still reeked of the noble's mindset. Denied the chevaliers, apparently out of any employment altogether, yet still being incredibly picky about what organizations she was willing to work for. It was either honorable or stupid, but then again the two often weren't that far apart, and treading the line was difficult. There seemed to be a compliment in what Evie was saying about them, and Lia was willing to accept it.

"Well..." She lifted her head and let her hand fall flat onto the table. "Cor and I can't deny you the chance to try joining, if that's what you really want, but we can't make you a Lion, either. You'll have to present yourself to the Captains, and then there's a long series of evaluations after that, both in training and in the field." Lia supposed she or Cor could vouch for her to help the process, but she wasn't sure Evie had done anything to warrant that yet.

"So... you're sure you want to start down this path?" She'd be lying if she said she was thrilled about it. Lia was predisposed to dislike Evie's type, and her family's activity did nothing to help that. But if this was what she wanted to do, then that was that.

Evie nodded and smiled mildly. "Yes, I think it's time I finally start somewhere."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Another week later, and the case still hadn't moved forward at all.

The Alienage and Riverbend were both quieter, the last echoes of the riot quiet for now as everyone turned their focus to their own neighborhoods and repairing the damage. Corvin had helped out where he could—it wasn't like he lacked for time at the moment. Between helping out Vito and Marisol and Riris and the Alienage, there was never any shortage of menial tasks that needed doing. It took his mind off other things for a while, anyway, and he could work for long stretches without breaks, so he liked to think he was at least putting a dent in the long list of things to do.

But this morning, Julien had sent for them, claiming that he had a job for them to do. Not related to the riot directly, apparently, but if it was Julien asking, there was bound to be a reason he was asking for them in particular. And nothing settled Corvin better than a mission—no amount of mundane work compared—so it was off to the castle again for he and Lia.

Winter wasn't giving up on Val Royeaux yet, and this morning had proven to be especially chilly, enough to cloud his breath in the air and frost the barracks' windows. It wasn't unreasonably early, but he had the feeling they'd been sent for first thing, so to speak.

"I hear Varric's coming to town," he remarked to Lia as she joined him at the entrance. "When Sophia does, so like a week or so? Must be for that play of his." Sophia, of course, was making the trip because it was probably a bigger deal than it should be that the heir to the Orlesian throne actually be born in Orlais. Corvin didn't really understand the split-residence thing Lucien and Sophia did or how exactly it was timed, but he supposed it made sense to visit Kirkwall in the winter, which was milder there and a more social season in the Free Marches than it was in Orlais. That was the thing to do, right? Be in the place during the social season? It was all sort of over his head.

Lia tugged the maroon scarf away from her face a little to be able to speak more clearly. "You think Julien could get us tickets? If Varric's writing it, it'll have to be... interesting, at least." Probably not the exact truth in many places, no doubt, but that was because the exact truth in this case was a messier and probably less inspiring to the average audience than the romanticized version. All the more meaningful to the people that had lived it, but perhaps harder for the delicate sensibilities of the Orlesians to swallow.

"I wouldn't mind seeing it, anyway." She shrugged. "Just out of curiosity."

"I think we'd be able to get in," Corvin replied, shrugging. They'd been there for a lot of it, after all. That was probably good for something. Julien's influence would be good for the rest, no doubt.

He tugged his own scarf a little tighter around his neck and stepped forward, only to pause a moment later as he caught movement from the corner of his eye. "Huh. Wonder what she's after?" The approaching figure was Evie, it seemed.

She seemed startled to find them out in the street, though she recovered soon after. The chill in the air looked to force her into heavier clothing, as well as a pink knit cap that sat over her ears. Just like the last time she found them earlier than she thought to, she hesitated, but found her footing a little more quickly this time. She offered them an apologetic smile and a little wave. "You're probably tired of me by now," she said, sounding embarrassed.

"But I don't think I've taken the opportunity to say a few things that I need to say, if you don't mind. I'll try to be quick," she said, noticing that they appeared to be in the middle of something.

It wasn't hard for Corvin to see Lia's lack of patience, but it seemed she had just enough to pull up to a stop, settling hands on her hips and waiting expectantly. "Please do. We're on our way to the Castle District." It went without saying that the two of them wouldn't be going to that part of the city unless it was for something important.

"Yes, of course," she said, visibly relieved by the chance. She inhaled deeply and began to speak, somewhat practiced, probably rehearsed in her head on her way over. "I... know my uncle is-- was," she added, with a wince, "a terrible person, and what he did to the Alienage is unforgivable. I was too blinded by everything that he did for me that I overlooked a lot of his shortcomings but," she continued, her lips pursed, "I can't overlook this one. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it all, but I wanted to just... apologize. I know it probably means next to nothing coming from me," she said as she chewed on her lip.

She wasn't really wrong about that, and they weren't really the people to be apologizing too, either. On the other hand, probably better them than Riris or somebody.

She tilted her head, nodding herself forward and kept speaking. "Which brings me to the next thing I wanted to tell you. It... wasn't right of me to look so far ahead at trying to join the Lions' when Jean's mess is still in the present. I can't move forward until I can do, I don't know, something to try and fix the damage he caused, but I can't exactly go into the Alienage to try and offer my help there. They probably wouldn't take too kindly to that suggestion," she added, absent-mindedly rubbing a nail on one of her fingers.

"All I am asking for is a chance to try and make things right. Jean trained me, it's only right that I try to fix some of the things he did. So, if you two need anything, an extra sword, another pair of eyes, another hand, whatever it is just let me know, and you'll have it and I'll try my best to be as useful to you as possible," She dropped her hands and straightened her back to look at them straight on, though she still seemed a bit awkward. "I shouldn't try to move on while his actions are still lingering."

Make things right, huh? Corvin exhaled a long breath, darting a glance at Lia before returning it to Evie. "I can't promise we're going to be able to help you with that," he admitted honestly. "I don't know what it would take to make something like that right, but... I can appreciate the desire." He smiled slightly. Evie seemed like a person who honestly had a lot to learn about what the world was really like, but then he'd been the same once. Everyone had. If most of the people he knew had to learn a lot earlier, well, that wasn't her fault, exactly.

"So... how about we try this out? Julien's got a job for us, and if it's something that you could possibly help with, we'll take you along. If that goes well, and you still want to take the risks, we can keep doing it." Maybe an extra pair of hands wouldn't always be necessary, but it would be nice to have, especially when the other Lions were busy. "But here's the catch: you've gotta be willing to follow orders. Even—especially—the ones you don't like." The Lions left room for personal ethics, but not for glory hounds or cowards or personal vendettas of any kind.

It wasn't audible, but something in Corvin's words made something in the young woman click. Her posture remained straight, but her shoulders went rigid and it looked like she finally figured out what to do with her hands, as she held them rested against her sides. Evie did say that she attended the Academie, albeit briefly. It was probably muscle memory kicking in.

"Yes sir, I'd expect no less," she stated.

Pretty unnecessary, by his lights, but he wasn't going to nitpick. "All right. Let's go then." He figured she was prepared enough for a visit to the Castle District this morning, and if she wasn't, she'd know to be next time. Corvin led the way, selecting a few of the Lions' more frequent shortcuts to avoid the inevitable merchant traffic at this time of day, but the trek was still the better part of an hour.

When they were admitted to Julien's office, he didn't react much to the extra presence beyond a slight nod before he redirected his attention at Corvin and Lia. "We've had a request from the Chantry," he said, leaning back against the front of his desk. He didn't bother with his mask in his own office, and scrubbed his hand freely down his face. "Not Galatea, mind you. Camille Duret, one of Val Royeaux's Revered Mothers. It seems some lyrium shipments have gone missing en route to Val Foret."

"Bandits?" Corvin asked. Normally, he expected that the Templars would handle this sort of situation, but there still weren't that many of them, and he could see where an extra problem would need extra hands.

"The Revered Mother seems to think so. I'll let her expound upon her theories in person, though I do apologize for how unpleasant that is going to be."

Lia seemed to pick up on something there, tilting her head to the side a little. "If you don't mind me asking, is there a reason you're sending us specifically? Not complaining about having something to do, just wondering why we're the ones helping the Chantry." She was obviously referring to her and Corvin's race with that.

Julien's mouth kicked up into a half-smile, and his eyes narrowed. "Challenging preconceived notions is something often best done directly," he replied, shrugging offhandedly. "You're more than capable, the job will get done, and Camille's just going to have to live with the fact that her problem—the Chantry's problem—was solved by some elves. At least in the main."

He lifted his arms to cross them. "Also she'll be insulted, which is good, because the manner in which she demanded imperial assistance was also pretty insulting. If you don't mind me putting you to use that way, there are many birds with a single stone here." With a lot of people, the caveat would have been a real formality, but Corvin knew that Julien meant it—if they were uncomfortable with being used for some petty revenge on top of the actual job, he wouldn't do it.

But Corvin wasn't above a little petty revenge at all, honestly. "Sounds like a bonus to me."

Lia didn't look so sure, but she raised no arguments, and it wasn't hard for Corvin to know why: it was either this or back to the waiting game. "All right. Where are we meeting her?"

"The Grand Cathedral," Julien replied, tilting his head to the left, which happened to be where the building was visible out his window. "Her brother, Duke Mathias de Churneau, should be on hand to receive you. Normally I would send someone with a bit more political expertise with you, but..."

It almost went without saying that all kinds of hands were in short supply these days. The downsides of a rebuilding empire and a job with short notice.

"Don't worry," Corvin cut in. "I'm pretty good at talking to people who don't like me at this point." They didn't have to like him, really—a job was a job. If they wanted it done, they'd be cooperative enough.

"So you are." Julien dropped his arms and pushed off the desk. "Best of luck."

Within a few moments they were out of the palace and back on the streets. It wasn't far from here to the Grand Cathedral, but the Orlesians did like to make their streets wide, long, and as impressive as possible. All part of the show, of course.

"This is something you're interested in, I'm assuming?" Lia asked, glancing back towards Evie. "Stopping bandits from harassing the Chantry, making sure those poor templars can get their lyrium?" Lia didn't have the highest opinion of templars, Corvin knew. It was better than it used to be, after her time in the Inquisition, but not enough to make up for her experiences in Kirkwall's Alienage. Frankly he wasn't the biggest fan himself, but he'd trained alongside the remaining ones too closely and for too long to give his lingering discomfort much weight.

She nodded as she followed the two of them, though she didn't note her own opinions of the templars. "No doubt that the bandits don't have any good uses for lyrium. The quicker we get it out of their hands the better," she said. She had been quiet during their meeting with Julien, lingering mostly in their shadows and simply listening as they spoke.

For a moment, Corvin wondered if she had any opinions, or if the insulation of her position had protected her from the need to form them. She didn't really seem to express any, but that might have been discomfort with them or some odd concept of politesse. His confidence aside, he knew the likes of he and Lia weren't exactly everyday personalities, even in a city as big and varied as this one.

Unlike the Imperial Palace, the Grand Cathedral was at least in principle open to all, though the sweeping elegance and obvious richness of it had a way of making undesirables uncomfortable, anyway. So much of the city's exclusion worked like that: instead of being forced away from things, the people the nobility didn't want around were just made implicitly, silently aware of the fact that they didn't belong, and the divisions took care of themselves.

Corvin made a point of fighting back against that kind of thing whenever he could, and so he walked into the Cathedral straight-backed, chin tilted and head high. Not enough swagger to be ridiculous, but enough to negate the way even he felt out of place anywhere so obviously designed for the affluent.

A group of four guards met him after he'd taken no more than five steps inside. No city guards, either, judging by insignia on their breastplates. Personal household guards, then. The man they were guarding put a hand on one's shoulder and halted them, slipping between two to stop before Corvin. He was right around a match in height, short blonde hair shorn on the sides, his broad shoulders garbed in a two-tone scarlet and deep blue cloak. His own armor was a scaled and bronzed breastplate and pauldrons. He had to be none other than the Duke Mathias Duret.

"Argent Lions," he commented, his voice quiet and controlled, kept respectfully low in the echoing halls of the Grand Cathedral. He spared a glance for the two women with Corvin, but obviously judged him to be the lead here. "You're the ones Marquis D'Artignon sent?"

"That's us," Corvin replied, at about the same volume. He wasn't inclined to jump to conclusions about their reception, or get defensive, so it came out even and neutral. "We understand you have a... supply issue." Even quiet, it was probably better not to mention lyrium theft in such a public place.

A soft grunt was all the assent Mathias gave him. "D'Artignon has some cheek, doesn't he?" The question was entirely rhetorical, as the Duke immediately and gestured with a finger for them to fall in behind him. He and his personal guards escorted them further into the Grand Cathedral, though they were turned aside before they could reach the great central chamber, where the voices of the choirs singing the Chant of Light in perfect harmony filled the air with constant, soothing noise. Divine Galatea would be here somewhere, if her work hadn't taken her elsewhere for the day.

But they were not due to catch up with the Divine, instead stepping into the Revered Mother's office chambers behind Mathias. The Duke's sister was seated and writing at her desk, her red cowl set off to the side, leaving visible her short hair, the same sandy blonde color as her brother's. Her eyes lifted to them as they entered, fell, and then lifted again, narrowed this time. "What's this?"

"The Marquis's best," was Mathias's answer. He gestured for them to step forward as he situated himself off to the side.

Camille rolled her eyes. "Of course they are." She pushed her chair back and stood, her height a few inches shorter than her brother's, but that still left her above both Lia and Evie. She came around to stand before her desk, inspecting them a moment before she turned her eyes on her brother. "This is insulting."

Mathias didn't seem as offended. "D'Artignon's not so great a fool that he'd send them just because they're elves. If they fail it only reflects poorly on him."

"I suppose that's true." Lia shifted behind Corvin on his right, where she'd come to occupy his shadow, her typical position when they had to deal with people of this sort. Camille didn't spare her so much as a glance, though, her attention instead settling to Corvin's left, on Evie. "And you? No Argent Lion, no elf ears. You don't seem like Julien's type. Who are you?"

"Lady Evelyne Lafayette Lafleur, your Reverence," Evie answered with a respectful bow. She appeared to feel a bit awkward to find herself under the Revered Mother's scrutiny. "But... Evie is fine. I'm here to simply help in whatever way the best that I can," she continued as she rose, her hands clasped in front of her. She still managed to offer Camille a warm smile at the end.

"Lafleur, is it?" Camille seemed surprised to hear that, arching an eyebrow. "I think I understand now. No matter. The task I have for the three of you is to attach yourselves as guards to a lyrium shipment departing the city tonight. You're going to be bait for some bandits for me."

"Our caravans have been attacked en route to Val Foret," Mathias explained. "In Clairtaillis, more specifically. The forest offers the attackers cover and concealment for their strikes. They take no prisoners, and leave nothing of their own behind. The bodies we found had the arrows pulled back out of them."

"They're Dalish," Camille declared. "No clan has wandered this close to Val Royeaux in living memory, but then, we seem to be living in an age of absurdity. If they're not Dalish, then they are some organized group of elves that learned to fight like them."

"Whatever they are," said Mathias, "We want them caught, dead or alive. We could attach guards or even chevaliers to the caravan, but then they'd simply let it pass and wait for the next. We're not interested in a deterrent. We want these thieves caught and ended."

"Will that be a problem for any of you?" Camille's eyes swept over all three of them.

It wasn't hard to read the intent under the question. Seeing as how Evie didn't seem to be doing much better in front of nobles than she did in general—though not much worse, either—he took the liberty of answering for the group. "Your Reverence, if your caravans are being attacked and their guards killed before the supplies are stolen, then you're asking us to chase down murderers who are attacking for supplies that are not even survival-necessary. It's not a problem."

Corvin hadn't lived the kind of simple, safe life that led him to reason in moral absolutes. Not all killings were the same. Not all thievery was the same. But the lyrium black market was alive and well all over Thedas, and people killing and stealing for profit got no passes from him, elves or otherwise. If it turned out to be something else, then they could reassess in the field. He wasn't stupid enough to say that in front of these two, though. No use getting into the nuances unless the situation forced it.

"Good," Camille nodded. "The caravan leaves through the Night Gates at sundown tonight. Mathias will provide the details." Her brother held out his hand, indicating for them to turn and lead the way out.

Well... that wasn't so bad. With a short nod, Corvin exited first.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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While she was glad to finally be doing something, Evie had to question why the caravan had to travel through Clairtaillis at night. Logistics like these usually eluded her, and like a good little soldier she did as she was told, but still. At least in the day time they would be able to see their would be attackers. Presently, their only light sources were the the number of lanterns that hung off of the side of the half-dozen carts they were to be escorting and the moon above, and even that was obscured by all of the trees.

She'd taken a seat next to the driver of the fourth in line, where she leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and scanned the darkness in the trees on the side closest to her. Fortunately, they had time until they had to meet at the Night Gates to better prepare. Evie had donned her armor, as well as a scarf and another tunic over her breastplate to escape the night's chill. Her estoc rested in the middle beside her, while another shortsword was strapped at her waist. They'd also collected Vito as well before they had set out.

"I can't see a darn thing," Evie said, squinting to try and get a better look into the forest. Still, she was happy to be doing something other than sitting at home feeling sorry for herself. The last time she had left the city on something like this was before her attempt at the Academie with her father on patrol. Of course, that trip was during the day, and along a more traveled path. They were able to see the troublemakers.

One cart ahead of her, there was soft laughter. Vito had kept the driver of his section of the caravan entertained for the better part of several hours, telling stories too softly to catch most of them, the conversation occasionally punctuated with chuckles or exclamations in jovial Antivan. Apparently the driver was from there, or had learned the tongue from someone. But the mood had sobered as night fell, and though Vito still carried on as if nothing was amiss, he did so with even less volume now, meaning that she only occasionally caught snatches of words she did not understand.

Lia had taken up a seat on the front cart, and ever since the city walls were out of sight behind them she'd had her bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready. She seemed a little tense at all times, but honestly it had been worse in the Revered Mother's office than it was here, in a dark forest expecting an ambush. The few regular caravan guards with them were all on edge, knowing full well what happened to some of the other crews. The timing of this shipment was just begging to be attacked. No doubt the Revered Mother was counting on that, and wanting to see if Julien's agents were as good as he said they were.

A hand went up from Lia to bring the caravan to a halt. Some ways ahead Evie could barely see a thick tree trunk fallen across the road. The carts hadn't come right up to it, but turning around was still a difficult prospect in the forest, where the road narrowed and room to maneuver was limited.

She exchanged a few words with Corvin, after which she disembarked from her cart and headed off to the left, disappearing into the darkness of the woods. Corvin proceeded to move back along the line of carts, explaining to each what the plan was.

When he finally reached Evie's spot, he gave her a grim smile, the gleam in his eyes betraying excitement for whatever was to come. When he spoke, his voice was low and urgent, quiet enough not to carry far beyond them. "There's crossbows in the wagon behind you," he said, tilting his chin towards it. "Loaded, so be careful taking them out. We're going to hit the ambush soon. When we do, Vito's going to throw some lights up into the trees. Pick a target, fire the bolt. The archers will be the only threat for the first few seconds." He glanced between Evie and the driver, an aging man who looked like he'd seen more than one ambush in his time.

"After that, reload if you're a good shot, drop it and get into melee if you aren't. The strikers won't be far behind the first volley. Keep them off our shooters, and mind your head. Some archers I know take visor slits as a challenge. Got it?"

"Got it," Evie answered, and swiftly slid the helmet's visor down over her face, though she didn't forget his comments about the slits. She ventured a glance into the cart behind them and then spoke to the driver on her side. "Are you going to be okay, mister?" she asked the older man, to which he answered with a grunt and nod of his head.

She felt her heartbeat rising already in anticipation, and the adrenaline was already making its way throughout her body, putting a slight tremor in her hand. The waiting had always been the worst part. She caught sight of a crossbow that Corvin was talking about and nodded, formulating her own plan for the next few moments. She was decidedly average in her aim, but both her uncle and her father made sure that she knew how use one, just in case. She was a lot better shot with one than a bow in any case.

Evie inhaled and exhaled measured breaths to try and to slow her heart, at least until it began.

The warning had been timely; it wasn't more than a minute or so before the first arrow whistled through the air. A shout went up in the front, and Vito reacted quickly as promised, flinging magelights into the air that scattered towards the trees, flaring amidst the boughs. They cast several dark-clad figures into eerie, purplish relief, making them for a moment appear to be more shadows than people, crouched with bows drawn taut. They didn't seem to have much armor—probably for the sake of stealth.

A few were dazzled by the sudden appearance of lights so close to them; at least two outright fell, thudding to the ground below. But the rest recovered, and the steady hum of arrows splitting air only increased in volume, dark rain descending towards the caravan and its guardians.

Evie didn't wait around for one of them to find her. She shoved the older man down and then rolled into the cart behind her. She could hear the arrows thump into the other side of the wood, just an inch or so away from her head. She was able to find the loaded crossbow Corvin spoke of and took it into her hands, careful not to set it off. She waited for a lull in the thumping before risking poking her head up above the lip. With Vito's lights, she was finally able to get a better look at their surroundings. Not for long, however, as she zeroed in on her first target, one of the ones that had fallen to the ground.

She drew the crossbow to rest on the edge of the cart's siding and loosed a bolt at them. She didn't take the time to see if she made contact however, slipping back down behind the side, and quickly set about reloading. Her father had drilled her in a lot of things, and reloading a crossbow had been one of them fortunately. She stuck her foot into the stirrup at its mouth and heaved on the string until the mechanism that held it clicked, and then slipped another bolt into it. Like before, she tossed it on the edge of the cart's siding, and carefully found another target before loosing it.

Again, she didn't wait to see if she hit. Instead she dropped it after the second shot and reached for her estoc still sitting in the front seat. She drew it from its sheath and tossed the sheath into the cart before hopping over the edge.

By that point, the melee part of the ambush was in full swing, the first line of assailants hitting the defenders hard and fast. They were well-coordinated with the archers, letting one last volley fly before darting in, and the sounds of steel clashes filled the narrow corridor between the trees. There was a shout—someone going down, perhaps—and she could just make out Corvin further up near the front, turning a knife aside with a kite shield and making some kind of attack with the shortaxe in his other hand, blade flashing in the dim light. Whatever it was, it felled his opponent, and he caught a pair of arrows on the face of the shield before slamming the edge of it up into the chin of the next attacker to step close enough.

More cries sounded out from within the woods, accompanied by the telltale thuds of Lia's arrows. The foliage gave her much better cover to work with than if she'd remained with the caravan, and closer range to the targets held aloft by the tree branches. Two more fell with arrows in them before Lia was found out, one of the archers turning a shot on her. She dipped sideways behind a tree, but not before the arrowhead opened a bloody line across her arm, a minor injury in the scheme of things. When Lia turned to shoot again the archer leaped from the tree, hoping to plunge down on her with the sword he'd drawn. Her arrow hit him in the throat on the way down, wrenching his head back violently before he smashed into the ground.

A blinding flash of lightning tore across the road, hitting the lead cart and igniting it, forcing the guards on it to abandon their cover. One took an arrow to the chest and went down. There was a mage somewhere up in the trees with the archers, no doubt preparing another spell.

An unnatural breeze skimmed through the visor of Evie's helmet, then abruptly shifted direction, almost pulling her a step forward when the balance of air pressure around her suddenly changed. Vito concentrated the force into a blast, only barely visible as a distortion in space, the debris that went with it glinting in the light. It must have hit something, because a startled cry could be heard even over the rest of the din, though the thud she would have expected afterwards was swallowed by other noise. Since there was no more lightning, it was a safe bet Vito had hit the mage.

He refocused on the ground level, firing occasional blasts of wind into the trees with his left hand, but channeling a steady spray of water towards the burning cart with his right. The coordination wasn't perfect; sometimes his focus shifted, and the unattended spell flagged a bit, but he was still effectively managing two jobs at once.

Unfortunately, that left his back rather open, and she could just catch a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye—a darkly-dressed rogue was trying to flank him with a knife.

Whatever indecision that may have plagued her soon evaporated after that. She had a heading, Vito was only a cart away and after tossing one last wary glance into the trees, Evie ducked in and set off into a dead sprint toward him. Undoubtedly as the sole mage in their party, Vito was garnering attention from more than the rogue, and would need backup--rogue or not. As she ran, she readjusted the grip on her estoc so that she held it by the blade instead of the hilt.

There was still a bit of distance between her and the rogue before he could plunge the knife into Vito, but her estoc closed that distance quick enough. She hooked the crossguard around his neck just in time and yanked, pulling the rogue past her and putting herself between him and Vito. He recovered quickly, quicker than she could completely reverse the grip on her sword. With one hand still on the blade and the other finding the hilt, she caught the stab meant for her throat between them and pushed it away-- though the blade screeched where it drew a line across the side of her helmet. She didn't hold it for long and readjusted her position so that while the dagger was up and away, the tip of her weapon was pointed down and at him.

She guided the blade with both hands down into his chest, piercing up to where her hand still held the blade and retrieved. She took a step backward and reset her stance, both hands finding the hilt as the rogue dropped. She nodded and spared a glance for Vito, but the momentary distraction proved inopportune, as an arrow found a gap in her breastplate in the upper part of her shoulder. "Dammit!" She hissed through her helmet as the arrow punched through the chainmail. Still...

"At your back," Evie grunted at Vito between grit teeth.

"Grazie."

Up ahead, Corvin's situation was taking a turn for the worse as well. A group of three raiders had swarmed him, led by someone wearing some kind of hooded cloak or cowl. The light scattered from it as though it were a fur or pelt rather than simple linen, blending into the night behind and leaving their silhouette indistinct, as far away as Evie was.

Corvin staved off an attempt at a lunge from one, only for the second to leap onto his shield, latching on and weighing his arm down. The cloaked figure took the opportunity, darting in and sinking some kind of dagger into a weak spot in his armor. He half-choked, hurling the attacker off his shield in a tremendous heave. The first one was back, though, throwing herself just as recklessly at him the second time. A frustrated growl and a crack followed, a hard elbow finding her temple, but the seconds were enough for the leader to twist the knife and tear it out, the blade dark and unmistakably shiny. Corvin staggered, swiping at the figure with his sword, but they bent back, blade whistling over their nose and missing by a matter of inches.

An arrow came in from the left, striking the cloaked fighter in the upper chest near the shoulder. Lia had worked her way up the flank, shooting and carving through the enemy as she went with a brutal efficiency. She hadn't struck the figure's throwing arm, it seemed, as the knife they'd just pulled free from Corvin they flipped over and hurled in her direction with speed and accuracy. She was forced to duck down and bring her bow up to block it, the blade clanging off the wood and falling aside, and the figure drew another in its place. The distraction was enough for another on the treeline to charge into Lia, driving her away until her back hit a tree. The woman that had caught her by surprise drew a knife of her own, trying to plunge it down with both hands, but Lia managed to get her bow in the way, blocking her at the wrists. Her guard was steadily being pushed down, though, a contest of strength Lia was clearly losing.

Vito had obviously noticed; with a grimace, he stopped flinging air at oncoming projectiles and drew the curved knife at his belt instead. It had an unfamiliar shape to Evie; clearly not anything that typically showed up in chevalier training. But the heft was clearly good—it settled comfortably in his hand and glowed for a brief moment before he thrust it forward. The light flared, coalescing as ice. A lance of frost extended from the end with the motion, streaking towards the woman who had Lia pinned. More precise than most of what she'd seen him do, it sunk into the spot between her second and third ribs with almost surgical precision. Vito snapped the knife off the end, leaving the frozen spear to sag towards the ground.

Without the constant shifting wind to interfere with their aim, though, the few archers remaining in the trees had time to aim, and the common sense to aim at the unarmored mage. An arrow thudded heavily into Vito's thigh; he staggered, then collapsed sideways as his leg gave out underneath him, smacking his temple on the wooden wheel of the cart as he went down. Two more melee fighters broke off from another skirmish, closing rapidly. There was no one else around; Evie would have to deal with both.

She didn't have another curse for the predicament she found herself in, simply a drawn out hiss of a sigh. She reached for the arrow still in her shoulder and snapped it near the tip and tossing the shaft away. Then she slipped into another stance, her estoc held up and away from her head, tilted inward-- a form meant for parrying. The first fighter to reach her had a sword in his hand, and went low and at an opposite angle from her own blade, obviously believing her open in that direction. She proved him wrong as she quickly shifted the stance to meet the blade, and with the tip still pointed inward was aimed at his chest. The fighter proved quicker than that however, and pulled his body out of the way of her thrust and she found her estoc countered by the other combatant and her twin knives.

Evie opted to disengage and step backward, contorting herself just in time to avoid another stab from other's sword. She whipped her sword around desperately and got lucky, striking the man across the head with the blunt blade. That still left the woman with the knives, and she was not so quick as to avoid the downward stab of one, impaling her on her already injured shoulder. She yelped out in pain unconsciously, but soon turned into a bracing hiss afterward. She grabbed the rogue's arm that held the knife in her shoulder and pulled hard, bringing her into a hug and repositioned herself so that so that the rogue was between her and her partner. He seemed conflicted, but only for a moment as Evie thrust out with the estoc, and impaling it through his gut.

That left one to go, and she was already bringing her other knife around to plant into her back. She felt the impact and the shearing of metal as the dagger punched through the back part of her breastplate and the chain beneath, but fortunately slowed it down enough that it wasn't immediately fatal, though she could feel the blade being worked in deeper. She let her estoc fall with the rogue, and drew the shortsword at her side, her other hand still bound with the woman. She stabbed upward into the woman's chest, and she felt the grip retreat as they both slid to the ground.

Evie panted heavily, blood spilling from her shoulder wounds, and dripping down her back, but still she pushed the woman off of her. From there, she part hobbled closer to where Vito laid and fell to her knee in front of him protectively, her shortsword held across her body with one hand, the other no longer any use to her. "At your back," she mumbled this time, unsure if he could even hear her.

In the same span of time, Corvin had dispatched the two raiders with the cloaked one, but he was down a sword, now with a shield strapped to one arm and his other hand empty. If that threw him, though, he didn't make it obvious, still moving around with more agility and precision than should have been possible, at the rate that wound was bleeding. It was like he didn't properly feel it.

If anything, this unnerved his foe, who had since drawn a slightly longer dagger. They circled each other like wary cats, placing their feet carefully and fluidly, some kind of waiting game only they were at proximity to understand.

The raider's patience ran out first, and the figure lunged, seeking to exploit the wound on Corvin's unshielded side. But without their allies to help, he was faster, and his deflection was textbook-perfect, the turn of the shield throwing the rogue's arm wide. He had no stabbing implement for the natural follow-through, so he reached out instead, pulling the figure in by the cloak and bringing his forehead down on theirs, the helm thudding hard against what was probably no more than a layer of fabric. The figure reeled, lashing out blindly, but Corvin leveled the shield until it was horizontal, twisting his whole body and slamming the edge of it into their jaw.

They dropped, the brute force of the hit more than enough to shatter their jaw outright.

Corvin took a few rapid steps backwards, leaning against the nearest cart and bracing himself with his free hand. It was hard to tell with the helmet, but he seemed disoriented, or maybe lightheaded.

In the time it took Corvin to dispatch them, Evie had fallen off of her knee and sat in front of Vito now, her short sword trembling from both pain and adrenaline. The blade would prove to be unnecessary going forward however, as apparently with the fall of the cloaked figure, it took the courage out of their allies. The others began to disengage from the battle and flee back into the woods. Evie kept a grip on the sword until she was sure the last of them had turned tail and escaped before finally letting it fall to the ground.

Her hand instead went to the wounds in her shoulder, careful to avoid the arrow tip embedded somewhere in there. She bunched up what was left of her tunic to help stem the bleeding and leaned forward. As the adrenaline ebbed out of her, she was left with her whole body shaking, and a rumbling in her belly. It was all she could do to frantically paw at her visor to raise it before she vomited off to her side. "Again?" she asked herself as another fit wracked her frame.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Well, that took care of that.

It was an unearthly scene, with Vito's magelights still hovering in the trees, creating a disorienting mix of bright light and deep shadow, no longer punctuated by glowing orange and red from the flaming cart that had now been put out. The sounds of battle had been replaced with the sounds of the aftermath. Screams of injury were replaced by groans of those now steadily dying, unless Vito could do something about it, though he needed to tend to himself first. A few looked to have gone already. Cor was injured, Lia noted, and Evie even worse. Still alive, though, and that counted for something given what they'd come up against.

Lia had escaped with just the slice to her right arm, which stung as it bled, but in total was only a minor annoyance. She slung her bow over her shoulder, drawing Parshaara instead in case any of the dead attackers were not so dead after all. They seemed to have fled entirely, though, disappearing into the woods. The group was in no condition to pursue, but even if they were Lia would be against it. They weren't being paid to do that, and when working for someone like these Duret siblings, that was really all that mattered.

"Nobody's dying, right?" she asked, making her way towards the head of the caravan, where Cor had gotten himself caught up in that fight.

"Not any faster than usual." Vito answered first. The fight had bunched up, at the end, and he wasn't too far away. Within earshot, clearly. There was a gash on his temple that would probably be a livid bruise the next day, but of greater concern was the arrow buried in the meat of his thigh. Swilling from a potion flask, he gripped as close to the head as he could with steady fingers and clenched his jaw, tugging it out with a decisive pull, a grunt and heavy, forced-slow breath following before he put a purple limned hand over it. "Spina, can you tell me how quickly he's bleeding?" From context, he could only be speaking to her, about Cor.

She wasn't sure what he'd just called her, but the tone didn't make her think it was anything rude, and she had more important things to worry about anyway. "He'll keep for the moment," she assured him. "I think that one could use you a little more to start." She pointed to where Evie was downed by some mix of her injuries and the weight of the fight, it looked like. She was quite visibly bleeding, too, but unlike Cor she'd have no difficulty receiving Vito's healing magic. Lia pulled a healing potion from a pouch on her belt and shook it at the mage briefly. "I'll give him this in the meantime."

She stepped over more than a few bodies on her way to the front of the caravan, and Cor. Black-garbed, lightly armed and armored. There were already troubling thoughts swirling in Lia's mind, looking at their physiques, their choice of weaponry. She pushed them aside for the moment as she came up on Cor, lightly touching her knuckles to his upper arm and offering him the potion. "Hey, drink this."

He sat on the edge of the lead cart, his helm and shield discarded behind him and sword nowhere to be seen, for the moment. He blinked a few times, shaking his head slightly—more to try and focus than in denial of anything, because he reached out and accepted the potion readily enough. Downing it, Cor made a face and exhaled heavily. "Thanks." He managed a brief grin, but he still didn't quite seem to be able to find her eyes right. Already the rate of his bleeding had slowed, though whether that was the potion, the hand he'd pressed there, or something else wasn't completely clear. There was still plenty smeared and drying on his armor, probably not all of it his own.

With a frown, Cor shifted his attention momentarily to the front of the cart, where his last three opponents lay. "I tried not to kill a few, but... I think—" He winced. "I think I misjudged the force."

She shifted her attention with him, adjusting her grip on her dagger and approaching the bodies. Two of the black-clad figures were definitely dead already, but this one in the wolf pelt cowl... Lia took a few cautious steps to her side, crouching down and carefully reaching out, knife at the ready. She removed the cowl and tugged away the black cloth mask underneath, finding the face of the enemy's leader to be a female elf. Cor had done a number on her, though, inflicting significant damage to the jaw that left the lower half of her face a bloody mess. Lia found a pulse, but it was a weak one.

"This one's alive, but... not for long, I don't think." She had other wounds, like the arrow Lia had shot into her, and if she had to guess, there was also some skull or neck damage. Hard to say if she'd even be in a state to speak if she woke. "Could see if Vito can save her, though I think some of our own need the healing more right now." It wouldn't do to let any of them die for the sake of an enemy.

Lia wasn't particularly surprised to find that the leader was an elf, but it still left her with a sinking feeling in her gut. She carefully unmasked the others and found the same: more elves. "Shit." She stood, sheathing Parshaara and pacing a few steps back and forth before she forced herself to stop, take a breath, and look at them again. "They're no Dalish, no vallaslin. Honestly, it might've been better if they were Dalish." At least for Val Royeaux. Instead it was just as Camille Duret had predicted. Some gang of aggressive elves bold enough to attack caravans of Chantry lyrium. News of this would bring nothing but trouble if it spread.

Vito stood from where he'd knelt next to Evie, handing her a potion as he went. "No one you recognize, though? Not that I expect you to know every elf in Val Royeaux, mind you, but as I understand it the Lions have a lot to do with many of the ones who can fight, yes?"

"We didn't teach them this, though. We were trying to help them defend themselves, not teach them how to become bandits." The company stirred up some ire as it was, teaching the locals some self defense techniques. If anyone had thought they were preparing the Alienage to execute guerrilla warfare, there'd have a lot more trouble to deal with.

Still, that was beside the point. "I don't recognize any of these three. I'll, uh... I'll check some of the others." Her thoughts were annoyingly flustered, already thinking ahead to what they should do about this.

"Their tactics were all wrong," Cor agreed, seeming to regain some equilibrium. Despite the persistence of his injuries, he pushed away from the cart, pausing to steady himself on his feet. It didn't take long to figure out that he was checking the faces too, just in case. "When these three came at me, the first two were almost..." He grimaced. "They were too reckless. Throwing themselves on my shield like that—it's not smart, but surprising for that. It was like they didn't care if I got them as long as it opened the way for her to stab me." And that kind of disregard was definitely not part any Lion-taught self-defense lesson.

He crouched, as if to see about helping the cloaked woman, but the attempt ended early, in a grimace. Gone, apparently. With a soft sigh, he turned her pockets out instead, looking for anything that might provide a clue as to who these people were. "No ashes," he murmured, then hmmed thoughtfully.

When he stood, there was something dangling from his fingers: a leather cord with a crude wooden pendant on the end of it. Nothing of value, clearly, but an odd thing to carry into a fight. Perhaps a personal trinket of some kind.

Vito sighed. "Hold still for a moment, Mattone." Picking his way to where Cor was, he wreathed both his hands in light green for a moment, passing them in the air over him and expelling another short breath. "This would be easier if you sat and removed the armor, but I'll just stop the bleeding for now." The light changed colors to something more blue. "So suppose this is in fact a gang of discontented city elves. Lyrium seems a strange choice for theft. There's a thriving black market for it, to be sure, but it's much more difficult to offload than mundane goods, and it's not useful to most people. Why not steal from merchant caravans? Less guarded, less likely to bring professional retribution, more lucrative."

Lia tore the mask from another of the fallen, finding another unfamiliar elven man's face staring blankly back up at her. "They're not after money, then. At least, not by stealing this lyrium. They must want it for something else." Lia wasn't an expert on the uses of lyrium, and she doubted anyone else here was, though Vito probably knew more than the rest of them. She did at least know that it was a versatile thing, used for far more than powering flagging mages and helping Chantry templars dredge up their powers. What a bunch of angry city elves would want with it was beyond her. The quantity too was an issue. There was no way their gang had enough mages in it to demand ambushing entire supply caravans of the stuff. "Any guesses?"

"Explosives?" Cor's tone was hard to read. "Angry people tend to like blowing things up—just ask Kirkwall." It would be extremely grim news if true.

"An alarming possibility." Vito lowered his arms and stepped back from Cor, apparently satisfied with his condition for the moment. "Enough of it, or in the right form, would be highly toxic. Poison is an option, though there are a number of plants that would be much easier to procure and kill someone just as dead, so to speak. This seems too dangerous to have been a mere distraction for something else; the number of things that would be worth this much risk is... limited."

Evie finally seemed to get a bit of air back in her lungs, at least enough to move around without any aid. She'd sheathed her shortsword and retrieved her estoc, now carrying it loosely with a hand. The other still didn't look like it was in the best of shape as she cradled it close to her chest, and her tunic had been more firmly tied around her wound.

She crouched near the last fighter she'd felled, and inspected her face, though even in the dim light Evie looked like she was a bit green in the face. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand and turned away, instead going to look at them. "What else--" she paused for a moment, pressing her hand back to her mouth until the episode passed, "What else can lyrium be used for though?" she managed to ask. "I highly doubt they have any templars in their employ."

"Whatever they need it for, they aren't getting this shipment here, and now they've got actual losses to deal with." Lia had no idea how large of a group they were dealing with here. It was possible they'd just killed their leader here, and it was also possible that this was just the tip of the spear. Either way they'd been dealt a blow.

"Cor, a word? The rest of you should keep working on these bodies, and clear the lyrium from one of the carts." There was enough room in the others to divide up one so that they could take it back while the caravan carried on. Grim as it was, the bodies also needed to be taken back for possible identification and then proper disposal. She was willing to bet the gang would take care of them themselves if they left them here, but on the off chance a lead could be provided, they had to try.

When she and Cor had separated themselves from the others, she started working on binding the cut to her arm, keeping her voice low. "They aren't Ashfingers, but... I don't know what else they'd be."

He grimaced, clearly having thought something similar. "Slim chance that there are two well-trained groups of city elves with a penchant for disrupting the the powerful," he agreed, reaching up to scratch his cheek. He was biting the side of his tongue, she could tell, and clicked it softly against the roof of his mouth before continuing. "But we don't have enough evidence to confirm, and honestly I think it's better if we don't even mention the similarities to certain parties until we do." He had to be talking about the Durets.

"I can try finding Kestrel. No guarantee that'll work, but it might. She'd know one way or the other." His brows knit. "It doesn't quite seem like her style, but... neither did that vandalism, before the riot."

Lia had a much easier way of reaching Kestrel, but it wasn't one she wanted to take unless she had no other choice. Considering how anonymous the Ashfingers were supposed to be, she couldn't imagine Arrin approaching Kestrel and asking for an audience on Lia's behalf would go over well. But Cor was right: first the vandalism, and now this. Intentional or unintentional, the Ashfingers were going to have a much harder time staying hidden if this kept up.

"So do we lie to them?" she asked. "Try to pass this off as run-of-the-mill bandits getting way too aggressive? I don't know how long that'll hold up." The Revered Mother could just have her own people questioned, and while Lia had no love for her, Camille Duret and her brother weren't enemies she really wanted to make right now.

"Why lie?" he replied with a shrug. "These were bandits, with no detectable affiliation with any known group, and we can't say more with any certainty. That's the truth. They're going to draw their own conclusions no matter what we tell them—we might as well just give it to them straight, and keep the guessing out of it. Their people will be able to say exactly as much as we do, and we live up to our reputation of honesty. For now, it's a win-win."

She exhaled a long breath, and nodded. "All right." She cinched bandage around her arm, offering a somewhat guilty smile up at him. "It's times like these I'm glad you're the one that does the talking. I never did learn how to not piss people off."

He grinned back at her, more than a little sly. "The people who matter find it charming." With a gentle little shove to her uninjured side, he pulled in a deep breath. "Back to damage control we go."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Vito wondered if his mother would be disappointed that, after more than three years in Val Royeaux, this was his very first visit to the Grand Cathedral.

He hoped she'd understand that it was a desire for anonymity more than a lack of faith that kept him away—and suspected she'd be both awed at the grandeur of the building and a little disappointed that so few of the people inside were of the lower classes. He didn't think about it quite so much; there were plenty of other Chantry buildings in the city, and this was the stately one where the nobles went and the high-ranked clerics had their offices. It was hardly surprising there were few poor penitent in attendance, that the charity took place elsewhere. Even the religious had to worry about things like image and reputation. And just like with criminals, a concern with image didn't necessarily reveal a flaw of character.

Nevertheless, he was as out of place as he'd always suspected he would be. More perhaps than even the elves he walked behind, and certainly more than Amatrice. He eyed a shadow behind one of the back pews, feeling the unmistakable urge to meld into it. Old habits died hard, and even now, his discomfort at being potentially noticed was prickling the back of his neck. Seen was fine, noticed not as much.

But he was not the sort to leave a job undone, and perhaps in a group of this sort, he would not be noticed much at all.

They were escorted through the halls towards the office of their employer for this job, the Revered Mother Camille Duret, who was apparently expecting them. The ride back through the depths of Clairtaillis and into the city had taken up the rest of the night, a bright and clear morning greeting them as they had entered the Castle District. The Chantry, as always, was not one to sleep in, and the Cathedral was alive with the Chant, welcoming them in, or so it seemed. The armed guards flanking their little group didn't look like the singing types.

Camille Duret was already standing when they were shown into her office, browsing a selection of tomes on a nearly floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, while her brother Mathias was reading one such book from an armchair nearby. At their entrance he snapped the book shut, rising to his feet, and Camille paused her search, turning to face them and taking in their battle-worn appearance.

"Bloodied but alive. I'll take that as good news. What happened?"

As expected, Corvin took up the conversational burden. "We got pretty deep into Clairtaillis before they took the bait, but they did. Set up an ambush. There were about twenty-five elves or so, with a clear leader. Most of them are dead now; a few ran off into the forest once things were clearly hopeless for them." He frowned, a pensive expression dominating his face. "We found no evidence of connection to any known groups in Val Royeaux, but they weren't Dalish either, so in terms of information, there's not much to say. They were dressed to blend, no emblems or distinguishing tattoos, items, or features."

Camille seemed pleased, of all things. "Elves. Did I not say so, little brother?"

Mathias's arms were crossed, and he briefly rolled his eyes. "You did say so, yes."

"It's ridiculous. In two years they've come to see us as soft. Push, and we give ground. Demand, and we acquiesce. And when there is resistance, they now feel the need to take what they desire by force. That's the state of this city and this empire now." The pleasure of being right had drained from the Revered Mother's face, replaced with sheer irritation. Her words seemed directed at her brother more than anything. No doubt she figured those she'd hired would have deaf ears for it.

"We've come to believe there is an active group of elves in the city working to sow chaos," Mathias explained to them. "This all but confirms it. They were subtle in Celene's day, but now they've grown bold, confident. They'll make a fatal error sooner or later, and be forced into the light."

"None of you would happen to know anything about that, would you?" Camille asked, narrowing her eyes at them. "No doubt your work enables you to hear a great deal."

"Hearsay and rumors," Corvin replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Little concrete information, and nothing about these recent changes. If the pattern continues, I'm sure all of us will know more soon enough." He shifted his weight slightly from one foot to the other, but he didn't look uncomfortable. There were no obvious signs of deception, probably because he was walking a very fine line between telling the truth and holding it back from them without actually lying.

It was quite impressive, in truth. Vito probably would have just outright lied to them in a similar position, and he was quite good at it, but there was something to be said for indirect deception instead. Plausible deniability was powerful, moreso among those who cared about legal distinctions than those who did not, but not burning bridges was usually the better call.

Perhaps he'd been a bit too hasty in likening the kid to a brick, even if it was only gentle mockery.

The Revered Mother hardly seemed surprised by Corvin's answer, and neither did her brother. "If any of you should happen to hear something reliable," he said, "we would be very interested in having it passed along. Whoever these people are, they've made a powerful enemy by attacking the Chantry."

"What about you, girl?" Camille asked, turning her searching gaze on Lia next. "You've been awfully quiet in this one's shadow."

"It hasn't been my place to speak, Your Reverence." Lia's answer was ready, recited quickly and clearly, her eyes only meeting Camille's for as long as it took for the words to come out.

She hmmed softly. "And now that it is, I assume your answer is the same?"

"Yes, Your Reverence."

Mathias uncrossed his arms, glancing sidelong at his sister. "I think that concludes our business? They've served their purpose."

She held up a hand. "I'm curious, though, about the people the Marquis chooses to rely on, and by extension the Emperor and the Marcher Queen. Their effectiveness is not in question, at least, judging by the body count in Clairtaillis." Her eyes shifted to Vito. "And who are you? I think I would've remembered had you been here before."

Vito laid one palm flat over his chest, dipping his head politely. "Merely an alchemist, Your Reverence." He was not as pious as his mother had been, by quite some margin, but he prayed nevertheless, and had long made study of the Chant. He respected Camille's position, even if he reserved judgement on the woman herself. As such, his use of the title was a little less perfunctory than the others' had been. "Bloody business is best attended by someone who can help repair the damage." She didn't seem especially interested in names, from the way she'd addressed Spina, and that suited him just fine—he didn't give his.

There was no mistaking his accent, though, and he didn't even try to hide it. While he doubted it would much move Camille, there were some here who found it charming, and it was one more layer he could pull over himself to divert attention from his actual secrets, such as they were.

"Argent Lions have useful friends to call upon, it would seem." Camille studied them a moment longer before she shook her head, discarding whatever thought had formed there. "Well, we had three payments prepared, but I think it can be made four easily enough. Mathias will see to it."

The Duke nodded, gesturing out the door. "If you'll follow me..."

Before long each of them had a small pouch of sovereigns for their trouble in the woods, and they were back in the sunlight of the Castle District, the morning going on as usual around them. There wasn't much point in parting yet, though, as they were all headed back towards Riverbend and the Harbor District anyway.

"They're going to be trouble," Lia commented quietly. "If they don't find their target soon, they'll end up making one instead, just so they can hit something."

Vito pursed his lips. He didn't think she was wrong, in all honesty, and there didn't seem to be much they could do about it, except hope that the real perpetrators revealed themselves sooner rather than later. Not a guarantee by any means. Perhaps he could speak to some people, see if any of his contacts knew more than he did. He had the distinct feeling that both Lia and Corvin already did, but now hardly seemed like the time to question them about it, if any time would be appropriate. "Something to warn your Marquis of, I suppose—if he doesn't already know."

"He probably does," Corvin admitted. "I wouldn't put it past him to have arranged this whole thing partly to warn us. He's like that sometimes." He pushed out a breath, glancing back and forth between Vito and Evie. "Thanks for your help, though. Both of you. Don't think we'd have managed so well without you."

"I'm sure you would have found a way," Evie answered genuinely. She still weighed the coin pouch in her hand, looking like she was trying to count them through the bag. Her other arm was still tied up in a makeshift sling. "But I appreciate the opportunity," she added with a smile, and tucked the coin away into a pocket.

She then gazed up at the sun still rising, trying to gauge the time of day. "I would offer breakfast," she began, bring her eyes back to toward them, "But I don't think I'm in any shape to cook something," she said with a measured roll of her injured shoulder and an apologetic look.

"Saves me the trouble of turning you down, at least." Lia seemed to add the comment without much in the way of thought, and after a moment she hesitated. "But... yeah, Cor's right. You did okay. If we come across anything else where we can put you to use, we'll... we'll keep you in the loop." She obviously had some difficulty parting with the words, and once they were out her eyes remained on their surroundings, wary as she always seemed to be.

"You're also welcome to my help, if you've further use for it." Vito injected his own words to smooth the transition over a bit. Fortunately, he didn't think they'd have daily jobs or anything of the sort—he did still have a shop to tend and Marisol to look after, though she needed it less and less as time passed. But he'd enjoyed helping, and wouldn't mind the occasional odd outing to continue doing so.

It had been a while since he'd really been able to relish danger. Perhaps a trait of his that could find better use here and now than it once did.

The company wasn't half-bad, besides.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell

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In about another hour, give or take, Val Royeaux would have something new to talk about.

Not that the impending birth of Orlais's heir wasn't the topic of plenty of conversation already, but by this time tomorrow, there would no doubt be word out about the baby's name, gender, and general state of health, the final confirmation of something that could well have gone wrong at a number of stages. And a cause for much celebrating, of course. Even those with no great love of the Emperor would appreciate the additional stability of the line of succession.

That wasn't quite happening yet, even in the palace itself. Corvin and Lia had come up for the occasion, which was hardly the journey either Rilien and Stel or Ashton had made to be in attendance. All five of them were in Lucien's study, helping themselves to very nice alcohol, books, or other distractions as they preferred. Corvin had elected to practice his Graceface against Rilien, which was never a contest he was going to win, but they were only betting small change, so it didn't bother him much. Stel and Lia were both playing and both also much better than he was, but it did give him the chance to try and play them all off each other.

Lucien himself was more obviously anxious than Corvin had ever seen him, seemingly unable to settle. Things were still in their early stages, and the healers had wanted time to get Sophia settled and comfortable before allowing anyone in the room not strictly necessary, and even an Emperor wasn't going to count. Not that he'd try—undoubtedly he'd take a healer's word for the Chant at this point. Presently, he paced, smoking his way through a pipe of fragrant tobacco.

"So Ash," Corvin picked up his new hand and tried to keep the frown out of his features. In addition to having a flawless Graceface, Rilien could read even tiny cues in a way that was frankly terrifying. Plus Stel and Lia knew him better than he liked to consider, sometimes. "How's the old neighborhood doing?" He got some updates from his mom's letters, or occasionally from the Kirkwall Lions, but he wasn't really good about writing people, and hadn't had fresh news since he'd last spoken to Sophia.

"Well it wasn't under siege or on fire when I left. I always count those as good days," he answered with a smirk. Ash sat behind Rilien, undoubtedly with a good view of his cards, but turned askew. He had brought or found a block of wood somewhere and had set about whittling into it, though whatever he had in mind for a finished product was not yet apparent. He was also polite and aware enough to have a handkerchief spread underneath him to catch the shavings.

He glanced at Rilien's cards, pursed his lips, and then resumed his whittling. "There's still some rebuilding going on," Ashton noted, "But it's coming along nicely. It's actually been quite peaceful of late," he said, looking up from his hands for a moment. He looked liked he wanted to add something onto that, but apparently decided against it when he shook his head. Instead he glanced at Lia and spoke for her, "Ithilian is the hahren for the Elven Quarter, and he's doing quite well at it from what I understand. I imagine at the very least his and Amalia's presence makes the whole place feel a lot safer," Ashton noted thoughtfully. "I'm certainly not dumb enough to try something in there," he said with a toothy grin.

The sound of Ashton's knife sliding across the grain of the wooden block continued. "The guard also has its first pair of elven recruits. Good, strapping lads with good heads on their shoulders. Think they might have a couple of personal heroes," he said with a grin and wink.

Lia scoffed softly, her reaction muted either by her focus on the game or by something else, but she'd soon put her bet down and let her eyes wander. "I very much doubt they're taking after me, if they ended up in the guard. I'd never be caught in one of those awful bucket helms." Orange wasn't a color Corvin had often seen her in, either. Or silver, for that matter. "That's good, though. Good that they want to, too. I'm not sure the elves here would join the guard even given the chance."

There was a certain animosity that went both ways in the city, with the elves none too eager to beg for help or assimilate well into the human society they lived right next to, and that attitude only worsened with each new difficulty they encountered. Kirkwall was absolutely the exception rather than the norm these days.

"How's Lydes?" Lia asked, glancing between Stel and her longtime mentor. "Feel like home yet?"

"It appears to be approaching that." It was Rilien who answered first, unconcerned with Ashton's presence over his shoulder, apparently. Then again, there wasn't a lot that could bother a tranquil. "The last of the reserves were sent home three weeks ago, leaving the Inquisition's numbers at the treaty-specified number. The remainder have mostly settled." No doubt there was a lot less for some of them to do than there used to be. But if the temperaments of the leadership were anything to go by, they'd be plenty busy keeping their skills sharp, at least.

Some of that leadership would be leaving, in time, Rilien among them. At least a slow transition let them train up their replacements so they'd be prepared if anything happened. Rilien slid a few coppers across the table into the pot, passing the turn to Stel.

She smiled slightly as she placed her own wager, though it didn't seem to have anything to do with the game itself. Stel didn't look much like the Lady Inquisitor at the moment, which made sense since she was here as a friend and not an official visitor. Her appearance called back to their days with the Lions in its simplicity, save that she'd braided her hair loosely over one shoulder and carried no weapons. “I think I'll always miss Skyhold a little, but we're doing well. Doesn't quite feel the same without you two around, but it seems like you've got your work cut out for you here."

"I regret the need to keep you here so long," Lucien added, finding a mild smile despite his obvious distraction. He'd stopped pacing at least, leaning against the wall in such a way as to be included in their circle. Probably still too anxious to really sit. "But the issue is apparently much bigger than we thought." He exhaled, smoke billowing from his mouth and nose. Not so unlike the dragons his family was named for, for a moment.

"It's fine," Corvin replied with a shake of his head, barely paying attention to his own bet. "We're obviously needed here." He didn't say it, but Inquisition or no Inquisition, he'd always do what Lucien asked of him. Hell, he'd always make it his first priority. He owed him that, and it had nothing to do with his royalty or anything like that. Stel was his friend, and he cared a lot about the Inquisition, but this was where he was supposed to be right now—not Lydes, and not Kirkwall. He could just feel it.

A knock on the door called a temporary halt to the game; Lucien was across the room in a flash to open it. Whatever words he exchanged with the servant on the other side were brief and quiet, but spurred him to a flurry of mostly-superfluous action. He closed the door, cast about as if he was looking for something, then grimaced. "It's happening. I'm going to go—well, I'm going to go." He made it halfway through a gesture before aborting it and remembering to set the pipe down. "I'll just—" He looked at the lot of them, clearly more at a loss than Corvin had ever seen him.

Stel only laughed and made a shooing motion. “Go. We'll be here when you get back."

Lucien nodded, and turned smartly on his heel to do just that. Only after the door had fallen shut behind him did Corvin snort and shake his head. "That's new."

"Yeah, and a little unsettling," Ashton agreed with a grin. He'd set the knife and block of wood on the floor to lean back in his chair, his hands now resting behind his head. It almost looked like he was favoring his ring finger as well. "But I can't blame him. This is a big moment for them," he said with the accompanying hand gesture. A tilt to his head and a thoughtful purse of his lips and he added, "Maybe even bigger than their crowning ceremonies."

He smiled and glanced at the others, "I kind of envy them, honestly."

Rilien's eyes flickered back to his friend, then resettled on the cards in front of him. "I understand that it is customary to place wagers on such occasions. Perhaps Corvin could win back some of the funds he is so egregiously losing."

Corvin laughed almost despite himself. "Wager on what? The kid's gender?" He supposed it would have to be things like that—eye color and so on too. Much else would take too long to determine.

“I suspect there's been extensive speculation about much more than that," Stel observed, collecting the pot from the round and then the cards to deal out a new one. “Whatever else is true... this is really a new era for Orlais, and for some people I think this marks the real beginning of it."

Corvin could understand that. As just himself, and even married, Lucien could well have been a very temporary presence on a throne. But with an heir—he supposed probably two—it was more official or something. More likely to last. Become a real dynasty.

"It's a boy," Lia declared, dropping off her next bet alongside it. "Spitting image of his dad, but with mom's blue eyes." She shrugged, giving away that it was little more than a guess. "He'll be a handsome little Emperor, though, that's safe to say."

Corvin huffed a laugh, shrugging himself. "Uh... I'll bet girl, then, I guess. Dark hair and her dad's eyes." It was sort of an odd thing to do—to name features by reference to the parent that had given them. Maybe only because he looked so little like his mother and almost never thought about his father. Almost never wanted to. Still, whoever the kid turned out to be, they'd have incredible parents. He felt a little twinge of old envy at the thought, but mostly it was drowned out by warmth. Lucien and Sophia deserved a family. One as big and as happy as they wanted.

“I'll say girl, too, but... ginger. Lady Veronique was a redhead." Estella clearly didn't much mind whether she was right or wrong, either.

"Agreed," Ashton added, "For Lucien's sake. He's the type that would want a little girl, I'd say. Someone that'll wrap him around her little finger. Bet she'll be a little spitfire, too."

He paused for a moment and pressed a finger to the beard growing at his chin. "A polite little spitfire anyway."

A lull in the conversation followed, everyone likely more in their own thoughts more so than they were focused on the game, which they continued to play almost absent-mindedly. No doubt it was rather more intense at the moment elsewhere in the palace, though waiting for the result here wasn't exactly stress-free. More than once Lia glanced towards the door Lucien had disappeared behind, possibly expecting him to return with an announcement at any second.

"Any new developments, Stel?" she asked, filling the silence. "With, you know... the search?" No doubt she referred to what had been foremost in Stel's thoughts since not long after they'd defeated Corypheus: the disappearance of her brother, her uncle, and their friend Astraia.

Corvin hadn't known any of them all that well, but Cyrus had seemed like a fun guy, and there was no overstating his importance to the Inquisition. And no doubt personally to his sister, of course. He bit his tongue as he placed his next bet.

Stel shook her head slowly. “No, not really. Occasionally there's a rumor of a group fitting their description, but they're all over, and nothing solid. Gone by the time anyone gets there, if they're ever really around at all." Her tone was melancholy, tempered by an obvious effort to keep it light for present company.

Before any response to that could form, the door at the other end of the room burst open, admitting Lucien. He looked as if he'd managed to age half a decade in the short span he'd been gone. "She's here," he said immediately, half-tripping over the words. "She's—" For some reason, his eyes moved to Ashton; he took a deep breath and straightened.

"Arielle. Our—our daughter. Would you care to meet her?"

Ashton didn't answer immediately, the slack in his jaw pretty telling that the name struck something deep inside him. When he moved, it was his hand moving up to his chin to rub at his beard, until finally he managed to eke out a smile. "You bet uncle Ashie wants to meet her."

Apparently Lucien wouldn't be the only one wrapped around her finger.

She certainly wouldn't lack for people to love her.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Image


And Shartan looked upon the Prophet Andraste
And said: "The People will set ourselves free.
Your host from the South may march
Alongside us."

The giants of the South rose to their feet as one
And bowed. And Andraste said:
"It is done. We march as one."
-Canticle of Shartan 9:27-28

Image

Of all the things he expected to encounter on the way back from the Imperial Palace, Corvin couldn't say the soot smeared on his windowpane was high up the list. It was barely visible as he and Lia approached, given that the night had drawn into dawn by this point. Their visit had extended to a lingering stay, much of it spent with Stel and Ashton and Rilien, though they'd been invited to meet Arielle themselves just after Ashton did. Corvin wasn't much for babies, even if he liked kids well enough—but something about this one had been charming. Maybe it was simply the infectious joy of her parents. Predictably enough, the bet had gone to Rilien when no one else was right: she was the spitting image of her mother, but for Lucien's steely grey eyes.

The warmth of the thoughts left him rather abruptly upon return to the barracks, its cause obvious. There was no way his window had been chosen by accident; it was the only one marked in the entire large building, as far as he could tell. There was no damage, no other signs of disturbance, but he knew at least one Ashfinger who would hardly be stymied in the least by the lock on the window. He tensed almost against his will, grimacing and turning to Lia.

"Something tells me we're not going to be sleeping for a while."

Lia stopped and reached up to rub at her forehead, clearly in fatigue. Both of them had come back here expecting to fall into their beds for much needed rest. This was a sign that couldn't be ignored, however. The Ashfingers were not a group that they could tell to wait and still expect to meet them, nor were they a group that called to outsiders lightly. Whatever this was, it was important. Tired or not, they'd have to find the energy for this.

"Okay," she said, exhaling. She seemed to shrug off the comfortable mood she'd been in the whole night, settling back into a more familiar unease. "Whatever this is, let's deal with it. Gear up and meet back here."

Corvin exhaled harshly, then nodded. Parting from Lia inside the door, he made his way down the hall to the room that served as his, checking the door just in case before opening it slowly. He didn't think the Ashfingers would want to harm him for any articular reason, but he tried to be careful when he could. Nothing seemed to be amiss, not even when he stepped inside and glanced around. His armor was still on its rack, undisturbed, and the rest of his gear left in its ordinary places.

The only thing that seemed to be different was the square, white envelope sitting atop the tucked blanket on his bed. Well, that'd be the reason for the ash, then. Grabbing his breastplate from the rack, he dropped it on the bed and hurriedly changed his shirt to something that would sit comfortably underneath it, pulling the armor down over it and fixing the straps in place before he took up the envelope. It was entirely blank, nothing stamped into the grey wax seal on the back.

Frowning, he broke it, extracting the small piece of paper inside. The handwriting was beautiful, to the point of artistry rather than utility alone. His brows knit; he scanned it several times, murmuring the words as he went.

Corvin,

I understand you've recently encountered a conundrum for which no easy solution has presented itself. I may be able to help you rectify this, if you're willing to solve one of my problems in turn.

Redthorn Tavern serves a respectable breakfast. I'd love to meet your new friends.

-Q


Corvin's breath left him in a short gust, something uncomfortable turning in his gut. Kess.

Donning his gauntlets and greaves, he strapped a longsword to his side and a kite shield to his back. Redthorn was the opposite of upscale; patrons in armor would hardly be uncommon, and he expected that whatever she'd want them to do afterwards would require it.

Exiting his room, he reconvened with Lia at the front, handing her the note without a word.

She was geared up in full now, leather armor sitting over her Argent Lions uniform, dagger at her side and a stuffed quiver resting on her back next to the whitewood bow. She read the text carefully, before folding the letter up and handing it back.

"Great. 'Your new friends?' Vito's going to love this." It made sense that she would know who they'd chosen to work with on the job for the Durets, but clearly Lia was surprised Kess wanted to meet with all of them. Perhaps it was only fitting. "I'll fetch him, if you want to go wake up Lafleur."

"Sure. I think the shop's closer to Redthorn, so we'll meet you there if she's up to it." He certainly wasn't going to force her to come along, though he had the feeling she'd be more than willing. Corvin had seen more than one young soldier who wanted to prove themselves before, and while the desire didn't seem to burn as bad in Evie as it once had in him, he figured she might have a bit of it, at least. Maybe he was just projecting.

Parting from Lia with a nod, he set himself on the rad to Evie's house. He'd only been once, but he was pretty good with directions, and only had to stop to orient himself once before he reached what seemed to be her front door.

It looked a lot like the last time he'd seen it, though a few boards had been nailed up across the window. A broken table also leaned against the wall on the other side of the doors, the bottom legs broken off. Other than that, her house was as nondescript as all the others along the row.

Stepping up to the door itself, Corvin knocked. Loudly enough to wake a person, but not so loud he'd be doing it rudely, hopefully.

There was a moment of silence before something began to scurry behind the door. It continued to scurry for a minute or two, the walls or floors or both thin enough for Corvin to hear her footsteps from outside. Eventually they made their way to the door. The sounds of a pair of locks being undone proceeded her opening her door.

"Hello?" she answered still in her nightclothes. She seemed surprised to see that it was Corvin and looked the man up a down for a moment before she raised a brow. "Should... I go put on my armor too?" she asked, her eyes still on his own.

"Only if you want to." Corvin made a point of fixing his eyes over her shoulder. For some people this sort of thing wasn't a big deal, but he knew enough others who guarded their privacy to opt for decorum when he wasn't sure. "There might be a lead on the investigation, and the person offering to trade for it requested you and Vito as well as Lia and I, so it'd be appreciated."

She ran a hand through her hair and nodded, "Give me ten minutes." The door closed soon after and the shuffling began anew.

Eventually after around the allotted ten minutes she returned to the door. She had donned her breastplate and chainmail-- both sporting a few not unsubstantial patches-- along with her shortsword tied off at her waist. In one hand she carried her helmet, and the other she held her estoc by the sheath. Her short hair was also tied back into a ponytail, probably to save time trying to straighten it and forcing it to sit flat on her scalp.

"Okay," she began, looping the estoc's strap over head so it came to lay against her back, "So, where are we going and who are we going to see?"

"Redthorn Tavern." Corvin gestured for her to fall in step with him, and started to lead the way to Vito's. "We're meeting... a friend, of sorts. I'll let her explain whatever she wants to, but the important part is that she apparently knows something about what's behind the riots and all that."

He knew he really had no reason to keep Kess's secrets for her. Not after everything that had happened. But he was hesitant to say more, especially to someone he hadn't known long enough to trust. Whatever else they were now, he and Kess had been friends, once, and he didn't want a slip of the tongue to end with her execution, as her crimes would almost certainly warrant if ever they were proven.

It was really too much to think about on this little sleep, so for once in his life, he erred on the side of caution. They reached the storefront shortly after, and Corvin lifted his arm to wave at Lia and Vito, slowing long enough for them to join the procession as well. Redthorn wouldn't be far.

"I'm guessing Lia gave you the basics, Vito?"

"Enough to understand the importance of the summons." Hardly a precise answer, but probably good enough for present purposes.

Corvin nodded, and the group made its way to Redthorn. At this time of the morning, it wasn't much occupied; a pair of laborers sat in a corner table, eating breakfast and ignoring the single bleary-looking waitress, as well as the figure at the far end, sitting at a medium-sized table by herself.

Kess was more or less as Corvin remembered her: lustrous dark hair braided and then gathered into a knot at her crown, eyes sharp, features exceedingly delicate-looking even for an elf. She cultivated this impression on purpose, of course. Even when he hadn't known who she really was, he'd known she wasn't half as fragile as she looked. At the moment, she was dressed to blend, her garments well-maintained but plain and in drab colors, as was typical for the area. She didn't make any overt gestures to draw attention as the group entered, merely glancing up and making brief eye contact before gesturing to the table with her chin. An invitation to sit.

Of course, it was an invitation with the weight of an ultimatum—and there wasn't much choice about it. Corvin took the spot directly across from her himself, falling more heavily into it than he really needed to, and holding eye contact longer than was polite.

"What am I calling you today?" He'd never learned her actual name, whatever it was that her parents had called her before she was Kestrel. Now that he thought about it, maybe that should have been a hint that they weren't as close as he thought they were.

As if she'd read the direction of his thoughts, she smiled, more a sly quirk of her lip than anything, and tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. "Kess will suffice." She tilted her head, eyes flickering over his face and armor perhaps a bit too long before she turned her attention to the others. "I hope nobody minds, but I've taken the liberty of ordering breakfast for us all. It was a bit of an early summons; I thought it the least I could do."

Vito, at least didn't seem to lack for alertness, and immediately smiled broadly. "I'd think that remarkably kind, if I believed there was any such thing as a free lunch. Or breakfast, I suppose."

Kess's eyes narrowed with mirth. "Something tells me you'd know, wouldn't you, signore?" She paused only long enough to move her attention to Evie. "Some of us are come to such realizations much more recently, though, no?"

Evie seemed confused by the insinuation, a subtle tilt of her head, though the slight narrowing of her eyes also said that she wasn't fond of the tone used. However, she had nothing to say on it for the moment.

Kestrel raised both eyebrows. "Well, I suppose we can't all be interesting." She shrugged, bypassing Evie and giving Lia a small nod instead. "In any case, perhaps I should move more directly to the point. In the interest of being sure we're all on the same page here, you've been sent to cool the heels of recent insurrection? How much do you know?"

"Not much," Lia admitted. She might've been as delicate-looking as Kess if she didn't make almost every effort to cultivate the opposite impression. She sat at the end of the table, one hand resting loosely atop her bow, which she'd needed to remove to properly sit down. "The group responsible incited the riot in part with the drug Ember, using the Untouchables to distribute. And more than once they've tried to make it look like you and yours are behind it. But one thing the Ashfingers have never been is careless."

"Unfortunately, that's both true and false as of the last few weeks." Kestrel looked genuinely bothered by that, brows knitting.

She paused a moment when the waitress approached, laden with a large tray with several plates. Corvin was served eggs and toast with a side of potatoes; Lia's plate was much the same, minus the starch and with the eggs over hard. Vito received a small quiche, and Evie wasn't given breakfast so much as a snack—a fruit tart drizzled in honey.

"My favorite." Vito sounded somewhere between surprised and amused at this fact, nodding slightly to Kestrel before he tucked in.

Kess herself inclined her head in return, then cut carefully into a pain au chocolat, lifting a small piece and chewing a bite before she elaborated.

"My hope is that you will agree to carry a message to an acquaintance of mine. I would do it myself, but he knows me and the people I'd trust to make the delivery, and I doubt at this point that any of them would be able to approach. But if the message is satisfactory to him, it may end the recent troubles we've been dealing with, and I would like very much to accomplish that without further violence."

He couldn't help but believe her. Maybe it was some residual sense of trust, or perhaps it was merely the fact that he couldn't imagine she had any reason to lie. This would have been a needlessly-elaborate setup for anything but what she was asking. Corvin exhaled through his nose, swallowing a bite of toast. "Does your acquaintance have a name?"

"Presumably." She arched an eyebrow, but then shrugged, slicing off another bit of pastry. "To us, he is Braven. You'll find him at a bolthole just off the main road on Sunshore. I will, of course, be happy to mark it for you on a map. As I said, he won't allow me or my agents close, but you should be careful, too. There's no one in this line of work who isn't paranoid, and he's worse than most in that respect."

"Braven," Lia repeated, reaching down into the bag she'd set at her feet. She looked none too pleased about being served breakfast how she preferred it without even being asked, but had reluctantly begun to dig in. From the bag she pulled her map of the area, which she unfolded and slid Kess's way. "I'm getting the sense there's a lot of trouble in your organization. Do you think Braven might be responsible for some of the things that have happened recently?" Corvin knew Lia well enough to know that if he was, she'd be inclined to aim for further violence, not avoid it. Especially after what they'd seen.

It was entirely possible Kestrel had guessed as much also, because she paused slightly before answering. "I have my suspicions. But you have to understand: Braven is a founding member of the Ashfingers. That means he has been operating within our boundaries for years. It's true that he's always been more inclined to push for open action—but not like this. It is this discrepancy that concerns me, and that's why I am trying to get a message to him instead of simply..." She frowned, contemplating her phrasing for a second, perhaps. "Well frankly instead of just asking you to be rid of him, though I don't think that would be an easy task, either."

She exhaled, almost a sigh. "He's always been so adamant that we protect the community. You can see why I would doubt he is really capable of the recent unpleasantness. But if he is, that is something we all need to know, however different our reasons might be." She leaned forward enough to mark a small 'x' on the map with a piece of charcoal, then straightened.

She wasn't wrong, and Corvin suppressed the remains of his personal unease with the situation. No use letting history get in the way of doing the right thing now, and this was evidently important enough to do.

"All right," he said quietly. "Give us the message, and we'll get it to him." One way or another.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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This whole thing just rubbed Evie the wrong way. She poked at her tart hesitantly before ultimately deciding to not take a bite. It was her favorite treat that her mother used to make for her when she was a young girl, and though it felt like ages since she'd last had one, it just felt... off. She trusted the tart about as much as she trusted Kess. How this woman managed to find out her favorite treat however, was concerning and it only made her wonder what else she knew about her and her family--probably because that was the intention. She tossed a sidelong glance as Kess took her leave and maintained it until she was well and truly out of sight.

"Well, I don't like this," she said in a matter-of-fact manner, pushing her tart away. "But I assume we're still going to deliver the message," she added with much of the same tone. It wasn't as if they could decline the task, that much was made clear. Plus, maybe the message could do some good. Evie had always been an optimist of a type.

She shook her head and sighed, "Sunshore is a ways out, anything you guys think we should worry about between here and there?" She asked the table at large.

"Well I should think the main concern obvious." Vito, in sharp contrast to Evie's suspicion, had tucked into his food with enthusiasm, and when he pushed his plate away, it was entirely clean. His eyes flickered to the tart with apparent amusement before he shrugged, clearing his throat and finishing the thought. "If Kestrel cannot deliver her message because this Braven knows her and her people on sight, we should be prepared for a rather unenthusiastic reception once he finds out we are acting in her stead. Possibly even before then, depending on the extent of his paranoia, ?"

He expelled a deep breath, more from satisfaction than anything, if the otherwise content slant of his posture was anything to go by. The table had a small container of toothpicks at the center—he took up one of these between his thumb and forefinger. "I sensed little deception in her words, personally, but the two of you know her better than I, of course." He left the observation there, an indirect invitation for input if ever there was one.

"I don't know how much experience you have with liars," Lia said, sliding out of her seat, "but Kess only lets you sense deception if she wants you to." She'd cleaned her plate as well, albeit with less enthusiasm than Vito had. As far as Evie understood it, she and Corvin had both been out all night, so no doubt they were starving coming in here.

Lia rose to her feet and secured her bow back in place over her shoulder. "Evie's right, though. Sunshore is a good walk, and these aren't the kind of people to react well if we keep them waiting, I think. So let's get moving."

Corvin nodded slightly. "Look alive, I guess." Tucking the message itself away into what seemed to be a waterproofed leather courier's pouch, he tied it to his belt and led the way out.

The first part of the journey out to Sunshore was quiet, at least on their end. The city itself was beginning to rouse in earnest, the rising sun tingeing everything with a mellow golden light. They exited through the busy Night Gate, bypassing clusters of merchants setting up in the markets and weary caravaners making their way in from the settlements between Val Royeaux and its many, many tributary cities. Seeing everything like this made it impossible not to understand just how much it really was the beating heart of Orlais, tides of people coming and going like so much lifeblood.

Traffic thinned out considerably on the road proper, though; they'd elected to go without horses since discretion was advisable. Not that Evie owned a horse anyway. It was unlikely Vito did, either, so maybe it was easier this way in general.

Corvin dropped back a little once they'd reached the expanse of road before them, the morning frost already melting away from the grasses to either side of the packed earth. Evie could tell that he was deep in thought about something, but he didn't seem inclined to share. At least not right now.

This was obviously not a problem Vito had, as his thoughts were given voice. "Ashfingers." He tried the word out on his tongue, drawing out the sibilants slightly and rolling the r by what may have been instinct. "I think I have heard vague murmurs of this word, but until this morning, I had not even been sure it meant anything. But the two of you were neither surprised nor confused." It wasn't an accusation—or it didn't sound like one. Just an observation.

"I don't suppose there is anything more you are able to say? I am willing enough to take things on faith if needs must, but I confess I find that difficult when I could have information instead." He shrugged, evidently content to leave the decision to Corvin and Lia.

"I'm surprised you've even heard vague murmurs," Corvin said, shaking off whatever malaise had settled over him. He furrowed his brow blinking a bit at Vito like he was seeing something different from usual. "But, uh... the Ashfingers are probably either freedom fighters or dangerous insurgents, depending on what your opinions are about... related issues." He grimaced. "Mostly—maybe entirely—elves, and set either on the goal of getting us equal rights or just toppling the government in general. It's sort of hard to tell, even for us."

The elf rolled his shoulders, adjusting the strap that held his shield to his back. "Pretty much all of them are sleeper agents, I guess you could say. Hidden in other places. I'm kind of surprised Kess showed you her face, but she must have figured you weren't a threat to her, or something. She's the only leader of the group we know personally, I think. And know is a bit of a stretch." That part was noticeably acrid, especially for someone normally so friendly.

"Thought we knew, more like," Lia clarified. "She used to be a friend of ours, a while ago. She might say she still is. As for the Ashfingers, they're half a step away from being our allies sometimes. Some of our goals are the same, and to be honest I'd rather not fight them if we can ever avoid it." She'd grown uneasy, as she often seemed to, a demeanor that only worsened as she carried on. "But they have a habit of threatening things we care about outside of the elven world. So we do what we have to."

She looked back to Vito and Evie. "Word of advice? Don't tell anyone about them. They really hate being in the light, and they don't deliver warnings to people who piss them off."

Evie absently played with the strap of her helmet that dangled from her chin, finally shrugging after Lia spoke. "It's not like I have a whole list of people to tell in the first place," she replied. The lack of familial contact tended to curb the number of people she could gossip with, and she wasn't quite on first-name basis with her neighbors yet. "But duly noted," she nodded. She'd still make the mental note to not let the Ashfingers slip into casual conversation. This Kess made it abundantly clear that she could get to her if she truly wanted, and Evie wasn't about to chance it.

It all felt a bit too cloak and dagger to her, and maybe even a touch overly political. She was more of a creature of action anyway-- though she was just presently getting back into the action. "I don't think I'll be asking many questions about them, personally. Plausible deniability, let's say." Less of a chance of her waking up to something more worse than a tart that way. She'd trust Cor and Lia to keep her looped in with the need to know information.

Kess herself on the other hand... "Did you know her before or after the Ashfinger thing?" she asked.

Corvin shrugged. "After, but not too long after, I don't think. She was a bard back then. Or her cover identity was—however that goes. Not really the subterfuge type myself." He indicated his plate armor with a wry flourish. "Honestly, I get why she did what she did, mostly. And why she still does it. But sometimes I think she enjoys it too much."

"Elves started to learn about the Ashfingers after Celene decided to purge the Alienage," Lia explained. Her tone was understandably harsh regarding the event. "When fighting back only gets you, your friends, and your family imprisoned or killed, it's easy to see the need for a group willing and able to put up a silent resistance. But what to resist, and how violently to resist it, isn't so easy to decide."

"No, I imagine not." Vito tugged absently at his goatee as they walked, squinting slightly against the still-low sun. "That decision seems to be the crux of our problem here, no? Judiciously-applied violence is one thing, but if this Braven has anything to do with recent events, I daresay he forgot the 'judicious' part."

"No kidding." Corvin paused a moment there, pointing to what seemed to be a very faint trail diverging from the main road. "I think this is our most direct line to the bolthole. I don't know if that means we should take it, but I don't know the landscape out here well enough to have any better ideas."

"Good thing I brought my hiking boots," Evie said with mild sarcasm, tapping the ground with them. Without any better ideas, they took the trail and followed it for a time. Evie had not seen a lot of Sunshore, to be honest, only what little she could see when her father or her uncle had decided to take her out on one of their patrols, and even then they never ventured too far off of the main path. What she knew of the land, however, was that it was mostly comprised of rather impressive hills and rather tall grass. However, she wasn't prepared for how tall.

As they followed the path, their sight line became impaired due to the length of the grass, in addition to hills that hid their sight to the horizon. The gentle wind rolled the grass in waves, making it seem more like a sea of green than a field of weeds. "Er, do you have a better view?" Evie asked the taller elf.

"I can see over the grass a bit, if that's what you're asking," he replied, grimacing slightly as a soft tail of some wild plant brushed his cheek. He'd elected to pass through with minimal disturbance, at least as much as someone of his dimensions could.

"You know, I almost understand why Lucien used to carry a scythe around," he grumbled. "Would have been useful out here."

"No kidding." Lia hadn't looked at any of the three of them since they'd split off from the main path, her eyes always up on the hills, peering at the grasses watchfully. Soon she held up a hand, commanding the group to a stop. "I really don't like this. I'm going to take a look around."

Nimbly she scrambled up the face of the hill on their left, climbing through tall grass off the path to gain some elevation and get a view. Something made her stop halfway up, and for a moment there was nothing but the sound of the coastal winds blowing across the hills.

"Ir him din'an!"

Evie didn't have to know the meaning of the words to recognize an elven battle cry. More echoed across the hills, and it was hard to tell their exact location from the way the sound bounced around them. Two of them quite obviously popped up out of the tall grass in front of Lia at close range, though, their bows already drawn. There was no time for her to draw her own bow or close to melee range and still have a chance; her only choice was to dodge and fall back.

She avoided the first arrow by luck more than anything, ducking and stepping out of the way preemptively, but the second found her left leg above the knee. She cried out briefly, tripping and falling and tumbling back down the hill to the path. When she thudded to the bottom she twisted around in place, putting her back to the hillside for the visual cover the grass provided, and drawing her bow to aim at the other side.

At nearly the same moment, two more emerged onto the path behind them, giving themselves clear shots at the group's back, currently occupied only by the unarmored Vito. The first arrow struck him square in the meat of his shoulder, an alarmingly-small number of inches from his neck, where it had probably been aimed. The second was turned aside by a sharp gust of wind, diverted somewhere into the grass. The archers did not wait to be countered, disappearing into the grasses as quickly as they had emerged, only a whisper of sound left behind.

"Lovely."

Corvin was a bit more fortunate; the arrows aimed in his direction pinged off his armor instead of hitting him. He immediately grabbed both shield and sword, remaining on the path itself, the clearest area there was. The shield stayed in guard position—the blade, he thrust experimentally into some of the grass, then shifted sideways, bending the stalks aside.

"Vito, stay between me and Evie. Backs to each other, everyone." It made sense—if any of them exposed a vulnerable spot, they could find an arrow or a knife in it quite quickly.

"Got it." She answered Corvin, already in the process sliding her visor down and facing outward from their little group. Evie settled in a neutral stance with her estoc, but she wasn't sure how helpful it would be at this stage. Without visibility or the sight line to their enemy, she felt exposed and vulnerable. She forced herself to take measured breaths as she awaited the next attack, and she needn't wait a long. A face appeared between the grass with a bowstring pulled taut against his cheek. An arrow followed soon after, and it was all she could do to shift just a tiny bit to her side. It was enough to save her from catching it in exposed flesh, instead embedding into the iron shoulder strap of her breastplate. The tip raked her skin beneath, and the barbs meant it wouldn't come out easy.

She would just have to deal with it, and she broke the shaft off near the tip. It was more out of frustration than anything that she fanned her blade out in the grass in front. It revealed nothing of course, and she took a small hack at, the blunt sword bending the blades of grass. "Any other suggestions?" she asked, taking careful steps backward toward the rest of her group.

Lia had her back to Vito, her weight heavily favoring her left leg. The arrow shaft in her right had snapped during her tumble, the back half of it hanging on by a few stubborn splinters, while the front half had only worsened the wound such that crimson lines ran down the lower half of the leg. She made a quick shot into the brush the next time on of their enemies popped up to take aim, a loud shriek all the confirmation they needed to know that her arrow found its mark. There was no doubt about it now: these were more of the elves that had ambushed them in the forest aiming for the lyrium caravan. Their tactics were too similar, the occasional sight of a wolf's pelt headdress all too familiar.

"Is water all you can do?" Lia asked over her shoulder, at the mage in their party. "Something a little warmer would be nice right now." To flush them out of hiding, no doubt, or otherwise drive them off.

"Ask and you shall receive." Fire didn't seem as quick to his fingers as the water from before, but the grass was plenty flammable, and the gust of wind he pulled in fed the tongues of fire until they were eating through the ground cover at an alarming pace. Fortunately, that also meant none of the smoke blew back into their faces.

It almost seemed to be a force of its own, actually; Vito made some push-and-pull motions with his hand that dropped the dark grey cloud into the grass. If the ambushers weren't worried about burning, they should probably still be worried about that. He left the space near the group open, both in front and behind, the controlled burn sweeping in such a way that if they didn't flee the fight entirely, the only way for them to safely move was into view before either Evie or Corvin.

Flushed from the grass, one of the archers all but staggered into the path in front of the elf. With a grim frown, he stepped forward and swung, smashing his kite shield into her head. The blow was hard enough to produce a ringing sound, almost like a large bell. Unsurprisingly, the woman dropped, unconscious at the very least.

To their credit, the ambushers were quick to adjust, and with the stealth option so emphatically-removed, they shifted into swarm tactics instead. Corvin knocked away a second rogue, only for a third to jump on his shield and drag it down with his weight. Corvin shook him off, but not before another of them managed to slide a knife into a gap in his guard, the blade sinking to the hit between his ribs, in a joint of his armor just under his elbow.

The knife's wielder was paid back with a sword in the belly, but two more were already incoming.

Evie had shifted her stance away from neutral and into aggressive. Her sword now rested on her shoulder, elbows bent in anticipation for a heavy swipe. The blunt blade meant there would be no cutting, but hitting someone hard enough would break enough bones to put them out of the fight regardless. What little grass that wasn't on fire in front of her began to sway unnaturally, and Evie readjusted her grip. It wasn't long before the ambusher struck, leaping out from the grass with his dagger glinting in the sun light. Evie timed the blow and swung diagonally across her body.

The elf proved wily however, and pulled up short to let the estoc cut harmlessly through the air. However, Evie wasn't foolish, and remembered her lessons from her teachers on that particular stance. She pulled her blade at it's lowest point, the tip still aimed for the elf. She took the step the same time the elf did, and running him through the with point. The dagger still found enough purchase to bite through her chainmail sleeve, but he was dead before he could work it in any more and leave the arm completely useless. Evie grumbled and she threw the body off of her sword with a shoulder and took a step back, stance shifting in anticipation to counter. She could feel the blood run down her arm as she lay in wait, and she grimaced beneath her visor.

As they had in the woods, these attackers crumbled when they began taking casualties. The fire was clearly not something they were expecting, and it gave them immense difficulty in keeping up their attack for long. Another fell to one of Lia's arrows, and already the assault was lightening. A few more, and they'd clearly broken off. The tall grass concealed them, but it no doubt also made it difficult for them to communicate with each other, and without solid leadership of the smaller groups, they cracked one by one after they encountered more than they bargained for.

Lia waited through a few tense, silent moments, the only sound being that of the crackling magical fire, and a few groans of those not yet departed. She then groaned softly herself, limping over to the side of the path and lowering herself to the ground. "I think we're clear for now. Might want to put that out, Vito. Once we're patched up we can follow their trail."

Vito's expression twitched slightly, and he exchanged his wind for water, hosing down the flaming grass until the fire had been suppressed. Once that was done, he clapped his hands softly, rubbing his palms together and flexing his fingers in what looked almost like an attempt to restore circulation or something like that. "Very well then. I probably won't be able to fix everything on the spot, but the potions should help. Who is hurt?"

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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Ambushed by elves again.

Lia much preferred when her opponents were racist and deluded shemlen trying to wipe her people from Val Royeaux. The victories felt a lot less hollow that way, like she'd actually done some good, rid the world of some scum. After these last two ambushes... she only felt like it was a waste. All of these elves could've contributed, made real progress in improving their lives in the Alienage. All they were doing was setting themselves back, and worse, setting every elf back, even the ones who wanted no part of this. A disgusting waste.

She finished carefully checking the dead, retrieving a few of her arrows in the process. No wolf pelt this time, so she had to figure whoever was leading this bunch had been among those that retreated. She'd worked the arrowhead out of her own leg with Vito's help, and given it some healing and bandaging. It was going to be stiff and sore, but it was nothing she couldn't work through.

"They went northeast, as far as I can tell," she reported, returning to the group and sliding the last of the arrows she could find into her quiver. "Not the easiest trail to follow, but I can get us wherever they're going." What they found there would probably be unpleasant, but Lia was all the more invested now that they'd tried to kill her before she could reach it. "I suppose that ambush was meant for Kess, then. Or her people, at least."

"Seems she was a bit too optimistic about the chances of this working out." Vito, just now finishing up with Cor's injuries, rose from his kneeling position and dusted off his knees. "Or she wasn't, and simply failed to warn us of the danger. I confess I don't have enough sense of her to say which is more likely."

"I'd like to think she wouldn't do that," Cor replied, prodding at the spot under his arm where he'd been stabbed earlier. He winced, but it was more theatrical than genuine—they'd both fought through a lot worse than this before. "Anyway, lead on then, Lia. I think it'd be best if we all tried to keep as quiet as we can so... watch your steps." The last was obviously not directed at her, but the others.

"I've a bit of practice being quiet." Vito said it with a hint of amusement, but shifted his eyes to Lia, clearly still of the mind that she was the expert here.

It wasn't easy going by any means; they had to leave the path behind and trek over and through the hills instead, as their quarry seemed to be taking a direct route to wherever they were going. Favoring speed for the price of making their trail easier to follow. Maybe they knew they'd be tracked down regardless. It wasn't just light footprints and broken stalks of tall grass Lia followed; drops of blood here and there caught her eyes, red against the pale yellow of the grass. Someone she'd hit with an arrow hadn't been killed by it, and the elves were taking the wounded back with them. Dangerous, but it would be extremely cold to leave them behind, and though these elves had shown themselves to be killers if need be, they were still people that cared to look out for each other.

Lia felt no guilt at using that against them. She wouldn't kill any of the common fighters unless they tried to kill her first. Their leader, however... if they were taking her back to this Braven, and he was indeed responsible for some of what had happened recently, she didn't know what she'd do. Ashfingers were dangerous enough, volatile enough. A violent, aggressive offshoot of that was far worse. One arrow could put a stop to it, cut off the wolf's head and leave the rest to flounder until their will broke, and they simply went back home in peace.

She didn't know how long they walked for, but it was around midday when she thought of the time again. They'd moved deep into Sunshore, to the point where the shore and the sound of the sea weren't really noticeable anymore. The others stayed some distance behind her, never far enough to lose sight, but with enough space that she'd be able to work, and make sure the way ahead was clear for them to proceed. It wouldn't do to walk into another ambush after they'd just survived the last.

It was as she neared the top of the next rise she heard voices, a pair of men from the sounds of things, one much angrier than the other. Lia lifted a hand in caution behind her, lowering herself and ignoring the protest of her sore leg. She crept up to the top of the hill for a better look.

"Get the wounded inside!" The man barking the order was an old elf, light brown hair beginning to fade into gray, long and coming together in a sharp widow's peak. Older though he was, he did not lack for physicality, and carried a long, slightly curved sword on one hip. Not at all unlike the blade Ithilian used to wield alongside Parshaara. His most notable article of clothing was the great white wolf pelt around his shoulders, not drawn up like a hood as the other leaders had. No doubt to better show his face. Whoever these people were, he was the leader of them. This had to be Braven.

"The rest of you, fan out and keep your eyes open. Our business here is not concluded yet. Yevvin, with me. I'll have your report once we're through." He turned and marched away, the pelt-wearing leader of the ambush group following him. It seemed they'd almost caught them in their pursuit, if they'd only just arrived. They entered a large wooden house, two stories tall and quite old by the looks of it, in serious need of some repairs. Likely abandoned. Lia figured it would make for an excellent meeting place, if that was what Braven had meant when he said his business was not yet concluded.

"I want in there," Lia whispered to the others, who had crept up quietly alongside her. "Braven's inside, and I don't think he's alone." Getting there was no simple matter, though, as taking on all these elven fighters would be difficult in of itself, not to mention it would ruin their chance at any valuable information they could secure here.

"Well I don't think we're walking through the front door," Cor replied in a similarly-low voice, grinning slightly even in present circumstances. "And they know they haven't put us down, but they did injure us pretty well. They might not be expecting company quite so soon." Braven might have set a watch, but that didn't mean all areas of the hideout would be covered equally well. "You think we can get in through the side? Window maybe? It looks like a normal house to me."

"Loath as I am to suggest anything that further divides our little strike force here, I think perhaps if there is to be sneaking about and looking for windows, Lia and I should handle it." Vito smiled a bit to gentle the assessment, waving vaguely at the metal armor the other two were wearing. "I assure you that if we enter a dangerous situation that requires a more percussive solution, I will be happy to provide the two of you with an obvious cue."

Had she only intended to eavesdrop, Lia would've suggested she go alone, but if the people inside the house were as high-value of targets as she suspected they might be... she wanted some form of backup, for the all too likely scenario in which she chose to strike. Somehow she doubted Kess would even mind, given that Braven clearly didn't care if she died. And Vito had a point: there'd be no one better for making a signal if they needed help, and also no one better to enable a retreat if they needed to make it.

"I'm fine with this," she said, taking another glance to make sure none of the insurgent elves were creeping up on them. "We'll get this done, and be on our way. Agreed?"

Cor clearly wasn't especially happy about the idea, but he had to see the practicality in it. He wasn't graceless like some armored fighters, but he would certainly make more noise than either she or Vito. He grimaced and pushed a breath from his nose, sending a baleful look in the direction of the house. "Last time we split up, you fell off the ceiling in a boat," he pointed out, managing a tinge of levity in his tone that his face just couldn't make convincing.

He abandoned it altogether after that. "Just... look after yourself, okay? You're good at that." If he'd guessed at the likelihood of Lia using the opportunity to take out a target, he wasn't showing it—with him, that probably meant he hadn't guessed. Cor was decidedly less-ruthless than she was, at least in that sense. The option probably hadn't really occurred to him, not as a serious choice.

He nodded shortly to Vito. "And maybe use that signal at first hint you need to."

"We'll be waiting for you both," Evie said, giving them a thumbs up in return.

Lia nodded, and then with a sideways tilt of her head she directed Vito to follow, and they separated from Evie and Cor. She knew he worried about her, she wasn't blind to it, and it wasn't unwarranted; what she did carried great risk with it, and required the utmost care. She worried for him, too, when he led the way into every fight he got into, when he felt the need to be every bit the hero Lucien always was. When he did idiotic things like diving on explosives to take it all himself.

But she couldn't manage to make herself put her own safety first and foremost here. Not if she was given a chance to do what Lucien and Sophia had brought her here for. She'd failed to bring them any kind of results for long enough.

The house was situated in a natural valley of sorts, with a thin stream running through it and heading towards the sea. Lia paused at the edge of it, before leading Vito quickly over into the grassy cover on the far side when it was clear. She kept her bow over her shoulder for the moment, and her hands free. She wanted optimal balance for this.

Cor's suspicion was right: they didn't seem to be expecting company immediately, especially not from a flanking direction. Most of them had spread out to the front of the house, leaving the rear approach largely vulnerable once they slipped past two of the elves. They didn't have a choice about leaving the windows open; most were shattered and completely unobstructed, letting the air pass freely through. Lia crept up quietly to one of these, pausing just below to listen for any occupants on the inside. Nothing.

Cautiously she grasped the windowsill and pulled herself up, silently planting a boot there as well to help get the rest of her through. Her feet touched down on a large rug in what looked to have once been a study or office. The room was empty now. Turning, she helped Vito climb in behind her. She could hear voices coming from the room beyond, one of them strangely familiar. She took slow steps across the room towards the open doorway. On the way she noticed a small hole in the deteriorating wall, much better for spying through to the other side than poking her head into the doorway would be. She pointed it out to Vito, and then lowered herself into a crouch to take a look.

He'd kept up pretty well thus far, and didn't ruin it now, crouching next to her and cocking his ear towards the gap.

"—supplier was one thing. I don't care much if one mule dies, though finding someone with the same connections will not be easy. Of more concern is the Chantry issue. We need that lyrium, and we don't need any idiot humans figuring out what we're doing with it." The voice was distinct: low, almost raspy, but feminine and tinged with an accent not completely unlike Stel's.

Through the gap, Lia could just make out a fall of deep red fabric and the glint of gold against dark skin. Only northern elves ever looked like that, and even then it wasn't especially common. The woman faced mostly away from her, but Braven was in three-quarter profile just beyond her.

Braven answered with something, some less than pleased response about the worth of the lyrium, but Lia barely heard it, suddenly feeling breathless, her heartrate picking up rapidly. It clicked for her who was in the room with Braven a few moments after she spoke. She'd only heard the woman's voice a few times, and seen her just as rarely, but it wasn't someone Lia would forget. Leta, the apprentice of Marcus Alesius, the man who had been the general of Corypheus's army, and the leader of the now shattered Venatori. Perhaps not as shattered as they thought.

Leta was many things. Spy, assassin, a vicious fighter and a powerful mage. Skilled enough to fight alongside her master against Lia's father and Amalia. She hadn't been there when Lia helped her mentor cut down Marcus once and for all, imprisoned as she had been at Skyhold. But in Corypheus's attack she'd escaped, vanishing into the wind. It seemed the wind carried her here.

"My people have shouldered the burden thus far," Braven said coolly. No one in the room sat; Lia could make out another Venatori by the front door, staff in hand. They weren't wearing the white robes anymore, but a few of the armor pieces were unmistakable. "The Vhenallin have fought and bled to light the fire, and what has it burned so far? The human highborn are untouched. Perhaps it's time your Venatori came out of hiding and demonstrated their worth."

Vhenallin. Not a word Lia heard often, but Ithilian had taught her enough to deconstruct it. Friends of the People. The name of Braven's rogue detachment of the Ashfingers, no doubt. And they were working with the Venatori, now led by Leta, apparently. Lia wasn't sure what more she needed to hear. Lighting the fire... they'd all but admitted responsibility for the riot. Slowly, Lia reached a hand up to draw out her bow, carefully sliding an arrow free from her quiver with the other.

Leta sniffed, shifting slightly. It was just enough to compromise Lia's shot—she could still take it, but there were enough obstructions in the way that it would have to be a damn good one to hit her. "If by 'shouldered the burden' you mean 'tipped your hand,' then certainly." She expelled a breath through her nose. "But fine. The growing is moving quickly enough. Find me a suitable venue, and I'll help you burn the heart out of the Empire."

Lia shot Vito a look, one that was less worried over what was just said and more apologetic for what she was about to do. Her intent was clear enough, though. One arrow would be enough for one of the leaders, at which point they'd need to make an immediate escape if they wanted to live. Lia didn't have to think hard about who she wanted to take aim at. Leta would kill both of the two people closest to her if she got the chance. She'd been twisted by a horrifying past to the point of no return. She would never be forgiven for her crimes, and so she would keep committing them until someone stopped her. These were things Lia knew when she'd trained to capture Leta to begin with, and they still held true now.

But the angle wasn't right. The hole in the wall was barely big enough for the arrow to begin with, and with the obstructions... she'd be lucky to get a life-threatening hit on her, let alone a kill shot. She'd have to use the doorway. She'd be more exposed, but the shot would be clean. One room length, right through Leta's heart to leave no doubt.

She visualized it happening, took in a breath, and then made the one step necessary to place herself in the doorway, drawing back the bowstring as she did, and letting her arrow fly.

But the release of a bowstring wasn't noiseless, and the proximity was just enough that Leta must have detected it. She twisted, not enough to escape the hit, but enough to thwart the kill, and the arrow struck her well to the left of where it had been aimed, embedding itself just below one of her shoulderblades. Her cry of pain was muted, cut off by sheer force of will, it seemed, and she didn't pause to assess who had shot her before she turned and fired a barrage of icicle daggers for the doorway.

Lia didn't have time to get back into cover, her only defense being to throw her arms up and turn her face. Several shards deflected off her archer's bracer; Amalia had crafted her a dragonhide one a long time ago, and it still held up strong. She couldn't block everything, though. Both of her upper arms took slashes, and the lowest of the daggers pierced deep into her abdomen, striking her just under the ribcage. She staggered back into the wall, a splotch of blood falling to the floor where she'd stood.

"You've been breached." Leta's words to Braven were hissed more than properly spoken, but she paid him no more mind, tearing the arrow out of her back and advancing for the doorway.

"Time to go, I think." Vito was already making for the same window they'd entered through, shooting a cluster of lights out the broken pane in advance of his exit. They'd certainly make a bright-enough flash to alert Cor and Evie.

Lia looked up and made brief eye contact with Leta. They were both injured, but Lia was aware enough to know that she faced certain death if she stayed. She pushed off from the wall just as a lightning bolt from the other Venatori mage cracked against it. She vaulted out the window after Vito, a sharp pain from the dagger still embedded in her forcing her landing to be none too graceful. She fell briefly to a knee, but forced herself up and pushed forward. They needed distance, and they needed cover to make their escape.

"Fire," she managed, pointing back. "At the window."

"On it." There wasn't time for lilting pleasantry or lighthearted jokes at the moment, and in the absence of such, Vito's expression was hard, his motions swift and efficient. It took him a couple casts to have the ruined wood burning merrily, but he managed to cover the exit before anyone got to it, in any case. A frustrated shout from within could well have been Leta, but it would take her time to exit some other way, and in that time, they could be gone.

Between the lights and the fire, though, some of the Vhenallin outside the building had figured out that something was going on, and their reactions were quick enough to prove problematic. Three of them came around the side of the house before Lia and Vito could slip away, the first to spot them raising a cry of alarm.

Fortunately, the shout was cut short—Cor and Evie fell upon the small group from the side. A heavy shield to the side of his head silenced the first of the group, and his nearest compatriot took a broad slash across the chest with the longsword. Evie intercepted the last, and the way was once again clear. At least for a moment.

Lia chanced a look down, finding that the ice of the dagger hilt had been coated red by this point. The magic's chill had started to seep into her, making her limbs feel sluggish. She was suddenly and painfully aware of the fact that she hadn't gotten any sleep the night before. They were in the clear for now, but they had a long run ahead of them, with no clear indication of when they could stop.

With Leta on the hunt, there was no stopping, not really. Not until someone was dead.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur

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The walk back to Val Royeaux was hardly a triumphant one.

Vito honestly thought they'd done quite well, considering all that had been stacked against them. But he could see how it might be difficult to see things that way when they were essentially retreating, message undelivered, its answer perhaps sufficiently clear in other ways. He'd done what he could to attend to the fresh injuries, but that would be no substitute for bed rest and extended care—he was hardly a worker of miracles, even minor ones.

Disinclined to leave silence to reign given their relative safety back on the main road towards the city, he instead turned to Lia. "The woman inside, with this Braven fellow. You recognized her?" He could hardly imagine her risking their cover to take a shot at a complete stranger, even if her words did suggest some alliance with these Vhenallin.

She hummed a quiet confirmation, the first sound she'd made in quite some time. Of the four of them, Lia was easily the most injured, the magical attack she'd suffered having done a significant bit of damage. Their need to flee at speed from the scene meant she'd lost a fair amount of blood, too. At first she elected to continue walking on her own, but she'd since started using Corvin for some support, falling-over tired as she appeared to be. Talking would likely do her some good, at least until they reached a place she could sleep.

"Her name is Leta," she explained. "She's with the Venatori, or whatever's left of them. I helped capture her with the Inquisition, but she escaped when Corypheus attacked Skyhold. She's..." Lia paused, either pain or hesitation forcing it. "She's extremely dangerous. I should've—" But she cut herself off, frustration clearly responsible this time.

"The Venatori?" Vito had heard stories, as one inevitably did in Val Royeaux. "If that's so, I think we were all quite fortunate to escape with all our limbs intact." He thought perhaps she was blaming herself for not slaying this Leta, but that seemed unfair to him. No doubt such a one was quite the formidable foe, and the mere information that she was involved in all of this had to count as revalatory.

He wondered, now, just how much Kestrel had known when she sent them out to the bolthole.

Corvin's expression had contorted in obvious surprise when Leta's name was mentioned, but it wasn't until then that he spoke. "It's a little more even than that," he murmured, shaking his head but keeping his steps steady. He apparently took his task as partial support for Lia quite seriously. "The man she used to work for was the Venatori's leader, and probably the second-most dangerous person in that army aside from Corypheus. She's... a hell of a mage, and I wouldn't put it past her to be capable of a lot more than what we've seen from these people so far."

He pressed out a breath. "Did you two manage to hear anything? We're in serious trouble if this is actually an alliance."

Vito hummed softly. "I wouldn't say they seemed to be on the closest terms, but they were definitely working together." And really, for something like that to work did not require that the people involved were close friends, by any means. Mutual interest was often sufficient to do the trick, and that he suspected they had.

"They admitted responsibility for the lyrium thefts," Lia added, rubbing at her eyes with her free hand, the one not latched onto Corvin's armor. "Leta's using it for something. Braven mentioned starting the fire, I don't know if he was speaking metaphorically, or if..." She paused a moment to swallow. "They may well be responsible for triggering the riot. Braven seemed frustrated that the nobility hadn't been hit much yet."

"So... The Ventatori are involved in all of this now," Evie had been keeping quiet during the whole of the conversation, soaking in the information, only now offering her own words. All things considered, she appeared to still be in good shape, only minor wounds centered on her shoulder and arm. Mention of the Venatori had deepened her frown and deflated her shoulders. It was abundantly clear this was all far deeper than she expected it to be. "And they're targeting the nobility," she sighed and shook her head, before she continued, "I'm willing to bet that they're going to start getting even bolder now."

She stared ahead distantly and deadpanned, "That isn't good."

Corvin shrugged his free shoulder. "Actually... it could be a lot worse. You can't get at a bunch of the nobility as easily as you can get at a bunch of ordinary people. A riot in the street won't touch them." He paused a moment, giving all three of them a significant look. "Narrows down both the methods they could choose and the venues they could target. And believe it or not, that makes our job easier."

Ah. Clever lad. "I suspect you've friends in the information business. At least it's not nothing to tell them." The temptation to think more deeply on it was there, of course. Vito knew some people he could lean on, but the trouble was that when one made a habit out of that sort of thing, one could very well accidentally wind up at the center of a dubiously-legal enterprise, and that was something he wasn't looking to do. Better to let the real spies do their spying, and confine his adventures to the aboveboard and preferably anonymous. He had a lot to look out for these days, after all.

They entered the city a great deal wearier than they'd left it, any lift in their steps rather weighted down by injury and the slight bitter aftertaste of a job that could have gone much better. Not entirely surprisingly, Kestrel was already inside the shop when he brought the others by for more thorough treatment; she looked as any other customer, browsing the wares with vague interest. When they entered, she took in their condition and frowned, but did not immediately speak. Apparently, the choice of priority was theirs to make.

Marisol broke the silence first. "Merda, Papà. What did you get yourselves into?" She stepped around the counter and approached, taking in the not-insignificant amount of dried blood on their clothes. It inaccurately reflected their current states given the patchwork healing they'd received, but still had to be somewhat alarming to look upon. She suddenly turned to Kestrel with an apologetic look. "I'm very sorry, you'll have to come back later."

"She's here to see us," Lia explained, separating from Corvin so she could lower herself slowly into a chair, exhaling deeply when she'd finally taken all the weight off her legs and could try to relax. "Probably figured something happened when we didn't come back right away."

"Oh." Marisol regarded Kestrel with a wholly different expression, no doubt seeing the woman in a new light. "I'll... be upstairs, then." She turned, and quickly disappeared, headed for her room.

"Three of the red ones next to your elbow, please." Vito figured as long as Kestrel was going to stand there, she could make herself useful. He'd have some explaining to do to Mari later, but for now the space to work was appreciated.

Kestrel didn't seem inclined to argue, and obligingly retrieved the items in question, sliding them down the counter towards him but maintaining her distance from the group of them.

"I take it Braven was not receptive to my message." Her expression pinched, a flicker of strain showing through the practiced placidity of her face.

"We did not in fact get a chance to deliver it. But I'm going to suppose he is not." Uncorking the first bottle, Vito handed it to Lia directly. "Slowly, please—that's the strongest one I have; it's been known to turn the stomach." She took his advice, taking it a sip at a time. It seemed she preferred to leave the explaining to Corvin, though.

"How much do you know about the Venatori?" he asked, exhaling heavily and leaning back against the counter. It was the first time he'd expressed any fatigue yet, though there was a certain tension to him that gave away the fact that he wasn't entirely out of energy even now. "Because your friend is making new ones without you, and they're not exactly upstanding people, even by your standards." He lifted his arms to cross them over his chest, exposing the bloody side of his mail, where the ambusher's dagger had found purchase. If he remembered it was there, he was doing a very good job of not acting like it.

"The lot of them are calling themselves the Vhenallin now, apparently. And they're looking to trade any hint of subtlety for outright violence." His eyes fell to Lia for a moment before he flicked them back to Kestrel. "It sounds like they're moving a lot of stolen lyrium, and that they started the riot, so I'm willing to bet those two things are connected."

Kestrel blinked, then furrowed her brows. "You think the drug contains lyrium? That would explain some of its properties... but lyrium is quite expensive for something mass-distributed that way."

Vito, setting another potion down next to Corvin's elbow, shrugged slightly. "Actually, it's not. The Chantry keeps a tight lid on it, especially in this country, but there's plenty of it to be found if you know where to look." Such alternative sources were the entire reason he could afford to make lyrium-based potions himself, though they were weaker than standard. "Besides, the amount you'd need in something like that probably isn't very high. Just a pinch of the dust would do, if the goal was to amplify the addictive properties of something else, which I presume is what they'd use it for here."

Kestrel blew out a breath, halfway between a sigh and something more ironic. A huff, perhaps. She shook her head, briefly disturbing the wisps of dark hair against her neck. "Well. This is quite a lot to think about. It seems we've all upheld our ends of the bargain to the extent circumstances permit, so I'll call it even in any case." She paused a moment there, almost hesitant.

"I will... look into this. I suspect we will be in touch. In the meantime, do try not to die." With a swift nod, she took her leave, the bell on the shop's door jangling softly in her wake.

Corvin smacked his lips together with a grimace, setting the empty bottle back down where Vito had placed it originally. "That's, uh, something." Shifting his attention to the door for a moment, he straightened, flexing his hands in their gauntlets. "Julien's going to want to hear about all of this as soon as possible. I can handle that, if you all want to get some rest."

"Appreciated." Lia looked to be about halfway through her potion, her pace of drinking it slower now than when she started. She didn't seem to have paid all that much attention to the conversation with Kestrel, lost in some of her own thoughts instead "I'm just gonna..." She trailed off, lifting her eyes until they found Vito's. "You have somewhere I can lie down here? Just for a little while." It was a safe bet she'd be asleep for more than a little while if she was allowed to.

Not that he minded. "Of course. We've a spare cot upstairs that you're welcome to." With a sturdy smile, he nodded his thanks to the other two. "The rest, I think, can wait."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell

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Lia slept the sleep of the dead, undisturbed for the rest of the day and night after she arrived.

Well, mostly undisturbed. She was woken briefly shortly after collapsing into the bed, as Vito informed her she'd need slightly more extensive healing on her wound than a simple potion could mend, even the strongest he had. Lia found she was too tired to put up any argument. As it turned out, she fell right back asleep, and any further magic after that didn't wake her again.

When she finally did wake up again, it was to the uncomfortable twisting of hunger in her stomach, piercing through the general grogginess. She'd only removed her armor and her boots, preferring to sleep with the rest of her clothes on. Had she not been so tired and still in need of healing she would've never allowed herself to sleep in another person's house, but the circumstances demanded it. And while she was always wary, Vito had proved himself a friend, enough that she could trust him to watch her back while she slept rather than fearing anything from him.

She sat up slowly, pushing her mess of hair out of her face and lifting up her shirt halfway to get a look at her new scar. It was a few inches long, starting just below her lowest rib on her left side and running down about a third the length of her abdomen. Probably the worst one she had, actually. In all the action she'd seen with the Lions and then the Inquisition, Lia had somehow avoided all but minor injuries.

She should've known better than to attack someone like Leta alone. She'd given her an arrow for the trouble, but it probably only slowed her for a moment.

"Thought I heard you stirring." Lia looked up to find the girl Marisol in the doorway. "Good morning. There's some food left downstairs if you're hungry."

"Morning?" The storage room they'd put her up in didn't have so much as a window.

Marisol nodded. "Mhm. You definitely needed the rest. I thought Vito was going to have to knock you out to keep working on your side, but you're a heavy sleeper."

"Not usually." She mumbled the words more than anything, before shaking her head. "I'll be out in a minute. Thank you." She'd missed a whole day, which meant Cor had been left to report to Julian without her. By Marisol's relaxed demeanor she assumed nothing else had happened in the meantime, but still... she pulled on her boots and started fastening them. She needed to get moving.

She tried to make a quick escape once she was ready to leave, but Marisol was an effective host, and the lure of breakfast food could not be ignored. "Papà's off at the markets," she explained. "We saved you some, though. Seriously, you should eat. You must be starving." Lia couldn't argue with that, and found herself shrugging off her bow and pack again, and helping herself to the still warm scrambled eggs and toast.

About halfway through the process of polishing off the food, the front door jingled, just loud enough to hear from the kitchen upstairs. "Marisol?" Cor's familiar voice followed almost immediately, pitched to carry but not to startle.

"Come on up!" she called, recognizing the sound. "Thought you might be by."

With permission to enter the 'home' portion of the building, Cor obliged, the stairs creaking slightly with his ascent. He rounded the corner into the kitchen a moment later, face lighting in a smile. "She wakes," he said it with a light tone, but did a pretty terrible job of keeping the actual concern at bay, his expression considerably more serious.

Taking up a spot in the doorway, he leaned a shoulder against it. No armor today, which could be good or bad depending. "Feeling better?"

"Good enough," was her answer, and it was honest. She'd need a few hours to get up to full speed again, and it was a good thing it didn't seem like they had a job to do today. And while Vito did an excellent job with the healing, he wasn't a miracle worker. She'd known one before, and this wasn't that. But she was alive and relatively well, and that was a much better outcome than what she could've ended up with.

She noted Marisol's somewhat speedy exit from the room, heading back downstairs to keep an eye on the shop and give them some privacy. "Did I miss anything worthwhile?" she asked. She wasn't really sure what to expect from Cor, honestly, but then, Lia hadn't really processed what she'd done, and what it could mean, just yet. That was going to take some time.

He'd eased a bit at her answer, but Marisol's departure and the question seemed to return a bit of the tension to him—he wasn't really all that good at hiding things, in general. "Not really," he replied, shifting uneasily. "Vito filled me in on the parts of the story I didn't get earlier, and then I made a report to Julien. Unsurprisingly it's going to be a while before he can get back to us with anything useful."

He almost looked like he went to cross his arms, then decided consciously against it, hooking his thumbs into his belt instead. She could just see the hilt of a shortsword behind him that way—it was just his everyday sidearm. "You took a shot at her," he said plainly. He offered no more than that, regarding her expectantly.

"Of course I did." She couldn't help but let her tone become slightly defensive. She wasn't mad at him, though, nor was she surprised he'd want to bring it up. She was more frustrated at herself. "Should've been the only shot that was needed. But I screwed up." She should've been more careful, she should've waited for a better moment, she should've anticipated Leta's movement and adjusted for that. She should've been better.

"If I'd killed her, everything would've fallen into place. The Venatori would have no one left, Braven would fold to Kess or be destroyed, and everyone here could start moving forward again."

"Maybe," he conceded, though he didn't sound as certain as she was of the fact. "But you also could have died." His brows knit, a troubled frown settling onto his face. "Not that that's new, half the things we do could kill us, but—" He expelled what was left of his breath through his nose.

"Just... we're in this together. I wish you'd come back and let us plan something. Then it could have been my problem and yours, right?" A flicker of frustration pinched his features before it faded, but it didn't seem directed at her.

"I said I screwed up, didn't I?" She thought it was just a little hypocritical of him, given some of the things she'd seen him do, and other things she'd heard about and knew to be true. But she wasn't going to bring that up. "I saw a chance to make a difference right then and there, something I feel like we've barely been able to do here so far. And I took it." All she could think of was how hard Ithilian and Amalia had to work for every shot they got at Marcus, and how likely they'd be to pass up a chance like that if it fell into their laps.

But she wasn't either of her mentors. And Leta wasn't Marcus, no matter how much she'd learned from him. It was foolish of her to put Leta in the same light, and foolish of her to forget her own limitations. She sighed, not really feeling like finishing the food in front of her anymore. "It's everyone's problem now, I guess."

Cor nodded carefully, pursing his lips. "Right. I—never mind." His eyes fell just momentarily to his feet before he pulled in a deep breath and straightened. "I'm glad you're okay, anyway. It's been a really crazy couple of days." And the vacillation between the high of Arielle's birth and the low of basically everything after that had been extreme. He offered an almost-tentative lopsided smile.

"We'll work the rest out as we go. Which, uh, I guess I'm going to do. Are you heading back to the barracks?"

She shook her head. "Not yet. I'm going to stop by the Alienage first. But I'll head there right after." He'd know by now that if he was welcome to come along, she'd have offered it to him. But this was definitely a conversation she needed to have alone, and she figured Cor wouldn't really want a part in it anyway.

"Thanks, by the way," she added. "For coming by. And I'm sorry if I scared you. I'm, uh... still trying to figure how to do all of this." If her history was anything to go off of, Lia had a tendency to be rash. But that was something she thought she had in common with Cor.

He relaxed a little more at that. "You and me both. I'll see you later, then." As good as his word, he pushed off the doorframe and departed without further fuss. She could hear him say something to Marisol downstairs, though not exactly what. Probably just a farewell or something. Then the door jangled again, and the shop went quiet.

She picked at her food a little more, some of her appetite returning now that the conversation was more or less salvaged. She was glad he didn't seem to have a problem with making the attempt to eliminate Leta for good, at least. Just the manner in which she'd done it. Lia didn't know if she could accept someone like Leta going back into a dungeon to rot. Somewhere she could still have power, somewhere she could get away again. No, she needed to end, and the Venatori needed to end with her. While she lived, some trace of Marcus still flittered in the air, and that was something Lia could not ignore. Could not allow.

She cleaned up after herself a little, though Marisol was quick to return and help. It was a little awkward, with Lia getting the sense that Marisol didn't really want her to hang around but absolutely not willing to say it. She could understand that. Lia and Cor had brought Vito some significant income recently, but it came at the cost of a lot of trouble, and some dangerous people knowing their names where they otherwise wouldn't have cared.

Lia bid Marisol farewell and took her leave before anyone else could show up to delay her. She'd have to thank Vito later. For now she headed towards the Alienage. Contrary to what she'd told Cor she didn't actually go inside, instead taking up a spot along a side street where it was relatively secluded and quiet, even during the daylight hours. She knew Arrin took it on his route, which at this time he'd probably be in the middle of. She just had to be patient.

It took a while for him to appear—carrying messages and deliveries was an irregular job, and where he was when often depended on who'd paid him to do what on a particular day. But after about an hour and a half of waiting, her patience bore fruit. Arrin approached from the west, tucking a bundle of parchment envelopes into a ratty, but well-patched, canvas bag slung over one shoulder. He did not initially seem to notice her, which was odd. He was far from as practiced an observer as she or even one of the other Lions, but he wasn't usually oblivious to his surroundings, either.

He finally picked up on her presence just before he would have passed her, head snapping up to blink blearily at her. Shaking himself slightly, he plastered on a smile. "Oh, uh... morning, Lia."

She wasn't surprised he'd be a little off from his normal self. No doubt he'd caught wind of some of the recent events from other Ashfingers. There had to be plenty of turmoil and doubt around with the organization essentially splitting in two. At least they weren't likely going to enter open conflict, since they did ultimately want similar things, even if they'd have very different ways of going about it. Attempted assassinations or no, Kess wasn't likely to want them all dead. Just the ones necessary to bring back the rest. Lia was hoping for something similar.

"Hey. Don't mind the look, I'm fine." Blood blended in pretty well with maroon, especially once it dried, but he'd probably notice when he got closer. "Just had an unfortunate run-in with some angry former members of a certain faction here." She glanced around one more time to make sure they had privacy before she patted the spot next to her on the bench she'd chosen. "I'm assuming you've heard some things recently?"

Arrin grimaced, but sat down without further prompting. "Yeah. It's been—it's been tense. Last couple days, the lines are really getting drawn. Word is Braven laid an ambush for Kestrel, but someone else sprung the trap." He looked pointedly at one of the patches of dried blood. "Guess you'd know more about than than me."

He expelled a breath and leaned back, raking a thin hand through his hair to pull it back away from his face. "Everything's starting to separate. Informants are choosing sides, and the ordinary members like me. No one's died yet that I know of, but there's a few places some people aren't all welcome anymore, you know? It's like they're dividing up the city for now." Probably with at least some intent of clashing once the lines were in place.

Lia hoped it wouldn't come to that. The last thing they needed was the elves killing each other over a disagreement. That said, the current predicament was not as bad as the thought of Braven winning the confrontation, and having the Ashfingers absorbed into his Vhenallin. That kind of power in his hands would do nothing good for anyone.

"Braven's in league with some Venatori remnants. Very dangerous people. Guess he sees them as a means to an end, but I doubt he really knows what he's getting into." Whatever sympathy an elf such as Leta had for her people had to be overshadowed by her hate of other things. Clearly she didn't care if elves died to help her get what she wanted. She met eyes with Arrin. "I'm going to take care of this, but I can't do it on my own. Information is what I need most right now, and I don't have a lot of ways to get it. You, on the other hand..." She shrugged lightly, though her tone was quite serious. "I'm not asking you to get mixed up with Vhenallin, but if you can put yourself in the right place at the right time, and you hear something I can use... we can't let this get worse, you know?"

Arrin hunched his shoulders, features pinching, almost like a drawn-out wince. "I dunno, Lia. I was thinking about trying to... kind of sit between the two, see what I could see, all that. But—Braven doesn't mess around. Neither does Kestrel, come to think of it. I'm not sure how well I'll do, you know? If someone catches me—I can talk my way out of a lot of things, but I'm not sure that's one of them."

She wasn't fond of doing this. Like many city elves, Arrin didn't have the most confidence. She was much the same once, as there simply wasn't any reason for it. No reason to believe things would turn out okay. But unlike Arrin Lia had seen that they could turn out okay, and consistently too. It was just a matter of effort and skill. She knew Arrin had the latter, more than he gave himself credit for. But sometimes the former had to be forced before it would roll on its own.

"There are a lot of people in your position right now, though. Caught between the two, and forced to choose. Both of them have to know that, and they have to respect it. If they pull too hard, they're going to lose. And I know you can do this. Start with whatever you're comfortable with, and go from there. Anything helps." And if the time came where he absolutely had to pick a side, he could always fall in with Kestrel. Whatever their disagreements, she was absolutely the lesser of the evils here.

He pressed his lips together, but slowly nodded. "Okay. I—yeah. All right. I'll give it a shot." Shifting, he stood, brushing down his trousers and curling his mouth in a small smile. "We've all got to do our parts, right? Between you and my mom, I guess I'm convinced." No doubt Riris wouldn't especially approve of this, but like the rest of them, she had to work with what she had. Arrin had often expressed a desire to help her, even if he did it in ways she would never have asked him to.

"I guess I'll keep you updated, then. Take care of yourself, Lia."

"You too. I'll check in every few days for now."

She expelled a breath that had been pent up in her when he was gone, and she was alone again. She hadn't really been aware of it. She waited another few minutes before she started back for the barracks. The work was done for the moment, but somehow Lia felt she wouldn't really be able to relax for a long time yet.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone

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Corvin tugged his tunic down, making sure it lay properly before winding his belt around his waist. The shortsword attached lay comfortably across the small of his back, unobtrusive but there if he happened to need it. He wasn't looking forward to summer, when layering would prove to be less convenient. Flexing his hands, he felt the scar tissue on his arms pull slightly and grimaced. No use thinking about it now.

Satisfied that he'd stick out as neither particularly well or poorly attired for his plans, he left the barracks quietly, tracking the by-now-familiar route to Vito's. The shop was closed by now, of course; it was about an hour after sundown, and, he hoped, late enough that the Antivan wouldn't still be working.

He knocked on the shop door to be polite before he opened it—that it was still unlocked was somewhat promising. "Hey Vito? You around? It's Corvin."

A full head of dark hair appeared popped up from behind the counter, but it belonged to Marisol rather than Vito. Her expression wasn't the easiest to read. Forced politeness, perhaps, indicating she wasn't entirely happy to see him. "Hello, Corvin. He should be down in a minute." She took in his appearance, noting the shortsword but also the overall lack of armor. "Did... something happen?" No doubt she'd started associating him and Lia's arrivals with imminent trouble.

It wasn't hard to put two and two together there, and Corvin hastened to reassure her. "No, no trouble. We're actually just going to the tavern to grab a couple drinks, is all." He half-smiled. "I can't promise he'll be home at a decent hour, but I swear there won't be any fights."

A laugh echoed down the staircase; clearly Vito at least found this thought amusing. He appeared a moment later, dressed in his usual fashion, with his curved knife at his belt. It would seem that Corvin wasn't the only one who went armed as a matter of habit. Probably for the best, considering how dangerous it could still be to make one's magic known, even if the Circles weren't exactly operational at the moment.

"You'll see to that, will you? I do believe I've acquired my very own bodyguard. Charming fellow that he is, I suppose I'll be the recipient of much misdirected envy." He winked at Corvin, such an obvious, over-the-top one that it could only have been meant in jest, and bent to press a brief kiss to Marisol's temple. "I'll be back later, caro. Don't forget to lock up behind you if you go out as well. And leave me a note so I know who you're with."

"Yes, yes, fine. Do have fun."

He grinned, ruffling her hair slightly before using the same hand to gesture towards the door. "Lead on, my friend."

Corvin grinned at that, and nodded. Time to blow off some steam, then.

Really, it hadn't been that hard to decide to invite Vito along; he seemed like the kind of person that wouldn't mind the fact that the company's favorite bar wasn't upscale. Not to mention the kind that knew how to have a good time. Donny and Hissrad were plenty busy running the actual company these days, and aside from Lia, Corvin just wasn't that close with any of the Val Royeaux Lions these days. Too many years, too many faces moved on or brand-new to him.

The Smiling Lion might not have been a fancy place, but it was clean, and the location included a pretty nice view of the harbor, something its second-floor balcony took plenty of advantage of. When they entered, Svalda—the tavern's heavily-freckled dwarven proprietor— ushered them promptly to the best seats in the house, so to speak. In this case, a table right at the edge of the balcony railing, providing both the crispness of a night breeze and an excellent command of the scenery.

Once their initial orders were taken and delivered, Corvin sighed and eased back in his chair, tipping onto the back legs and resting his tankard on his knee. There was easily enough space between themselves and the closest others—a trio of elves playing cards—to give a sense of privacy.

"So, stop me if I'm overstepping here, but uh... Marisol didn't seem too happy to see me. She worried about you?" It made perfect sense to him that she wouldn't have the highest opinion of the near-strangers who kept dragging her dad into dangerous situations.

Vito smiled; clearly the question did not count as an overstep for him. "Oh, no doubt." His reply was unusually soft, but then he cleared his throat. "I really do need to talk to her about this; I think part of the issue is perhaps how suddenly it happened, and how little I consulted her about it." He shook his head, setting the thready ornaments at his ears to jingling lightly.

"It is not long we have lived as a family; I think I'm still getting used to it."

There were a lot of things that could mean, but Corvin wasn't quite nosy enough to ask which. At least not without a little more lubrication. Taking a deep draw from his tankard, he sighed heavily and nodded. "It's probably not really the same, but my family got pretty concerned when I took up mercenary work. At the time I thought they were just worrying too much—mom especially. I didn't think it'd be that much more dangerous than just living in the Alienage could get."

He'd been wrong of course, but in fairness to his original thought, it wasn't exactly most mercenaries that found themselves opposite things like dragons and Red Templars and whatever else. In his actual case though, he had to admit his mom had been right to worry. Probably why he didn't tell her half the truth about what he did.

"Do you have a lot of other family, back in Rialto?"

As if the mention of it had set him to seeking the place, Vito looked out at the water. It took a moment and a large swallow of his ale before he replied. "In a manner of speaking. We are... estranged from most of my family. We came here so that they would not bother us, for the freedom to live apart from them." Knitting his brow, he shifted his focus back to Corvin. "Nothing so noble as the beckoning of duty, I suppose, but then we aren't very noble to begin with." He finished off what was in his tankard, setting it down gingerly just before the next arrived, along with their food.

Corvin thought for a moment of his own father, then grimaced. "Yeah, I can understand wanting to not see someone again." The thought was extremely unpleasant, though, and he really didn't want to dwell on it. He doubted Vito did either—it wasn't exactly the stuff of a fun night out. For that reason and a few more to boot, he avoided asking after Marisol's mother, though he did wonder.

"But, uh... I dunno that there was really anything all that noble about me coming here, for the record. Don't get me wrong, I think the Lions do good work, but in those days I'd have followed the Commander anywhere. Still would, honestly, but it's... different. I was a kid. Wanted to see more of the world, maybe get a little of that greatness to rub off on me." Maybe find something he was missing, hard to name but keenly felt. A little less keenly when he leaped into battle beside Lucien and his friends.

It wasn't the worst motive in the world, but it was still pretty selfish, in a way.

"You'll forgive me for saying so, I hope, but I find it difficult to believe that it hasn't." Vito smiled, pausing a moment to tuck into his food. He was actually quite precise with his table manners, if considerably more relaxed than people in actually formal settings. Careful, was the word. Or something like it. "Perhaps it doesn't look like it from so close, but from where I'm standing, you're really quite extraordinary—you and Lia both. There's the Lions, of course, but I recall mention of the Inquisition as well?"

It was clear that he knew the answer to his own question when he continued. "Between the uprisings in Kirkwall and all that, well... it's quite a bit beyond an ordinary man's reach, to say the least. Close enough to greatness to look like it to me, at least."

Corvin cleared his throat, unsure whether he felt more amused or embarrassed. There was something about being complimented in such a matter-of-fact way—either Vito was genuine, or he was a hell of an actor. "The Inquisition part was mostly other people," he said in the end, half-smiling and leaning back in his chair. "But... I mean, I definitely feel good about having had any part of it."

Pausing to chew over some of his food, he admitted something he hadn't planned to. Honesty invited the same, maybe. "It's kind of messed-up, actually, but I don't feel... exactly right unless I'm caught up in something big and dangerous like that." His friends called him reckless, and they were right—but the decision to be that way wasn't itself a careless one, really. "I guess that's hard for other people to understand. Most of them try really hard to be safe, and risk and danger are trade-offs they have to make for doing the right thing. But for me, it's like—" he paused, trying to find the words.

"I can't really explain it, except to say I want that. Risk. It feels right."

Setting his utensils down, Vito leaned back a bit into his chair, shifting so that his elbow hung off the back of it. It gave his posture a few slants, so that he wasn't quite square-on with Corvin anymore. "I've known more than a few reckless people, but none I think who had thought so carefully about it." His smile had the same ironic suggestion to it as his words did, but he didn't seem inclined to admonish, nor to claim that his own personality shared the thread. It probably took at least a touch of something like that for anyone to regularly put themselves in danger, but from what Corvin had been able to observe, Vito could hardly be considered careless in any way.

He turned to study the water, spare light catching on the metal at his ear. "I almost hesitate to ask what you do for fun."

Corvin half-smiled, the expression a little more subdued than he'd meant it to be. Fun had used to be this—only generally with more people. A night of drinking, telling stories, playing games, making fun of Donny, and probably winding up following someone home for something easy and uncomplicated, if he happened to strike someone's fancy. He liked to think he often did; at least he'd never had trouble finding those amusements when he wanted them.

But all of that was more or less gone now, parts of the regular group sacrificed to the split, then the Inquisition, then the kinds of responsibilities that kept them from indulging so often. And death, of course—the Lions had lost no few of their number to missions, either. As for the other bit, well... he didn't really do that anymore, either.

He pressed his knuckles to his sternum, easing a tightness there and shrugging. "What, you mean getting shot at and stabbed on the regular isn't enough fun for you?"

Vito chuckled. "It's certainly more than enough excitement." Glancing down at his tankard, he frowned slightly. "Few more of these, and I might have some stories to contribute, if being shot at makes for good fun. Next round's on me."

It wasn't the first time Corvin had gotten the sense that there was a lot more to Vito than there appeared, but no doubt he wouldn't get much if he pressed, and he didn't want to do it anyway. There were things he wasn't that comfortable talking about himself.

So he nodded instead. "I'll take you up on that."