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Vitorio Sansone

"True strength is not loud. And true danger does not announce its presence."

0 · 609 views · located in Orlais

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

Description





Walked through the doors of my home again
To find the shoes of another man
Well I can't change the choices I made
And I sure can't stop the rain





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Full Name: Vitorio Dion Sansone
Titles/Nicknames: Vito. He'll insist upon it, given half a chance.
Age: 35
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Sexual Orientation: Asexual, but a hopeless romantic.
Class: Mage
Specialization: Spirit Healer. Sort of.

Hair Color: Dark-ish brown.
Eye Color: Amethyst-purple.
Height: 5'9"
Build: Generally fit, otherwise average.

Appearance: Vito's is not the kind of face that wins cartloads of admirers by any means. He's put together well enough, certainly, but the cumulative effect of his prominent nose, deep-set eyes, and squared jaw is one more striking than conventionally attractive. He's definitely interesting to look at, between his features, the evident springy texture of his hair, and his flashy taste in clothes and jewelry. The last stops short of being gaudy or ostentatious, but not by much. Most often, he's only wearing a few of several possible articles: his ears are pierced several times each, and he has additional holes on the left side of his nose and at the end of his right eyebrow as well, to say nothing of ample space for bangles around his arms and ankles, and of course his custom of layering interesting necklaces of varying length and thickness. It somehow isn't too much on him, squaring with his appearance and mannerisms in such a way that he might seem odder without the baubles.

He's right around average height, though he can seem a little taller due to the way he carries himself: he has the smooth, rolling gait of a sailor, despite the fact that he seems very much to be landbound, and doesn't ever seem to need to worry much about where he's placing his feet. Old instinct, perhaps, for he has the hint of weatherbeatenness to him that suggests years of exposure to sun and salt air, a rather obvious contrast with his presently-indoors lifestyle. His complexion is a smooth, even medium brown with warmth in the undertones, broken only very occasionally by scar tissue, and nowhere that's especially visible considering his usual sartorial selections.

As far as build goes, Vito's is unclear at first glance, given his penchant for loose, draping shirts and similarly relaxed trousers. That said, he often leaves the shirts open about halfway down his chest, which together with the line of his shoulders suggests a level of conditioning uncommon in Orlesian shopkeepers. His hands, too, are incongruous, hardened by years of both labor and fighting, from the looks of the callusing. He takes good care with his appearance, keeping both his mid-length dark hair and short goatee in trim condition. His hands are occasionally inked in intricate patterns, concentrated around the fingers, with some kind of natural dye that wears off in a matter of weeks rather than years like more conventional tattoos. Those with the cultural knowledge can easily identify them as Antivan in origin, the result of a practice usually undertaken by the working classes but occasionally the wealthy as well.

But no such sophisticated background information is really necessary to divine his place of birth: he still speaks with the accent, a mellow tenor rendered velvety with the typical pattern of emphasis that his countrymen often bring to the trade tongue. He's been known to play it up for fun or when it otherwise suits his purposes, but even without this, it's still quite thick, though comprehensible to most people.

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“Marisol says I have one of those faces that looks like
it was made of parts the Maker had left over.
Just a paragon of kindness, isn't she?”




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Personality: Vito considers himself to be something of a work in progress, in many respects. He's at an interesting point in his life now, one where his past still looms but his future is gaining some solidity as well, so he's in the valley between a downhill coast an an uphill climb, so to speak.

The man he was was ruthless, cunning, clever, and brutal when he needed to be—the kinds of traits that one has to acquire in order to survive the cutthroat world of raiding and crime syndicate wars severe enough that most of the leaders have Crows on payroll. When a person starts out as a largely unprotected bit player as Vito did, the learning curve is steep, and surviving the initial few years means coming to terms with the fact that in such a business, no one's hands ever stay clean. That said, though, he did manage to hold on to some principles, whatever that fact may be worth when his soul is one day weighed and measured.

But he's left the life, and these days he has ample motivation to try and stay out of it. Marisol, to be specific—the young woman he calls daughter is not the first other person he's ever looked out for, but she's the first one he's ever taken away from their previous lives. He wanted something better for her, in a way he couldn't hope to achieve for his mother and didn't think to want for himself. And so he tries to be better as well, to open his heart and show more compassion than he's accustomed to. To nurture and grow his softer emotions and sentiments, long repressed but not quite dead yet.

Vito's warm, and enjoys the opportunity to act that way. There's something he finds—has always found—undeniably wonderful about being the cause of someone else's happiness, and now that he's free to seek that feeling, he does. His genial demeanor comes replete with a playful sense of humor, and at times he can seem almost comically exaggerated. But his skill, long developed, at reading the emotions of others means he's quite good at taking cues, and he can adopt seriousness when the situation calls for it. Though not old by any stretch of the imagination (least of all his own), he's accumulated a wealth of life experience, riches he will share with others if they are sought. He doesn't want to be a bother, however, and so rarely volunteers his insights unsolicited.

The kindness and gentler affectations can feel like ruses to him at times, especially because he can't quite help the way his mind still works underneath it. Usually he doesn't see this as hypocrisy, because he does it in the interest of trying to habituate himself to kindness, to make it who he is.

Make no mistake, however: the years away from Antiva have not dulled his instincts in the least, and some habits are very hard to break.


“Here's the thing about facades:
eventually they turn into the truth.”





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STR:

DEX:

INT:

WIS:

CNG:

MAG:

WIL:

CON:
▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [8/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [7/10]

▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ ⎭ [6/10]


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Equipment: Old habits, as they say, die hard. Though he seldom finds himself with any sort of need for it these days, Vito does make a habit of carrying on his person a forward-curved knife, somewhat longer than most types of dagger, but not quite as long as a shortsword. Called a kukri, it's considerably rarer in the south than in Antiva, where such blades are often worn by the military, Crows, and pirates alike, usually as a sidearm. Vito almost never enters combat anymore, but he nevertheless maintains his old set of leathers, light and strengthened somewhat by a fortifying enchantment. Still, unless he has a very good reason, he much prefers to attire himself in loose clothing, mostly silks, and conspicuous—but tasteful—jewelry. He is very obviously enamored of the color purple in all its iterations, but any saturated, rich hue will do.

Fighting Style/Training: There are no Circles in Vito's history. No places at all, in fact, where he could come under the tutelage of more experienced mages than himself and learn what there was to learn in digestible, curated pieces, building a solid foundation before daring to reach for that which was beyond. His skill was earned in moments of quiet and moments of trauma, either when he had the ability to sit and figure things out unassisted or when he had to will the magic into being because failure was not an option. As a result his magic is... unconventional, to say the least. His healing is a combination of alchemy and spellwork, with physical concoctions standing in for the aid of a spirit. His mind-affecting and elemental spells have a different feel to them than those of a Circle mage, too—his illusions are pulled from the depths of his own dreaming and the invocations most natural to his fingertips are those of the sea and the wind. He doesn't consider himself particularly gifted, but experience and diligence earn him what the gifted don't always attain: success.

He prefers, if caught in confrontation, to cast from a distance, but the knife is there for a reason, and those aggressors expecting a defenseless weakling in close quarters will swiftly meet the business end of it. His casting style is very kinetic; he will often throw spells by making literal throwing or punching motions, because these actions helped him learn to control his magic in the first place and in his head they're inextricably connected. This isn't to say he can never cast without doing this, but it becomes much more difficult for him if his movement is impeded enough. The upside to this is that even his larger spells are precise, his training in more martial areas feeding into his skill as a mage and vice versa, and he can use them somewhat subtly, particularly given the relative lack of flashiness in his elements of choice.

“I used to look at the distant towers on the shore and wonder
what my life would have been like among them. The books—can you imagine?
So many books, so many things I just don't know.
Such is the way of things, I suppose.”




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Place of Birth: Rialto, Antiva
Social Status/Rank: "Free" mage, much to his own chagrin.

History: Vito was the product of a failure in contraceptive alchemy, something he has seldom forgotten. His mother, Francesca, was a working woman at La Rosa Bianca, one of the many bordellos in the coastal city of Rialto, Antiva. It was there, among the workers and clientele, that he spent many of his formative years. Children in the brothel were expected to be quiet and make themselves useful, something that Vito learned how to do from necessity. It's hardly the kind of life anyone would envy, but he honestly liked it: his mother was good to him, as were the other employees and bordello staff, and had Francesca not taken ill when he was seven years old, he might well have passed the rest of his childhood and adolescence there.

Instead, the illness rendered her unable to work, and after months of leaning on the manager's generosity, they were at last forced out. Francesca remained in poor health, forcing Vito to find a way to take care of them both, lest they starve and die, just more chattel in a shantytown gutter. There wasn't honestly much a seven-year-old could do, and it wasn't long before he turned to his father's associates for help. Vito had always known who the man who sired him was, and even if Ignazio's involvement in his bastard's life was minimal, he wasn't entirely without a heart, and Vito found a living running messages for the Castell Syndicate, one of Rialto's many criminal enterprises.

Eventually, he was shuffled to the crew of a raiding ship, which took him more often away from his mother, but also allowed him the opportunity to earn more—something that became a practical necessity as her condition progressed. To save money on potions, he learned to brew the ones she needed from the raw ingredients. At about the same time, he discovered his magical talent. Unlike most people who discover themselves to be mages, Vito actually liked the idea of joining a Circle—though he knew how to read and write, barely, he knew there was little other opportunity for developing his talents or even getting an education. But leaving his mother behind simply wasn't an option, and so he remained within his syndicate's hierarchy instead, accepting more and more responsibility as he grew. In 9:30, Francesca at last succumbed to the wasting sickness that had first troubled her thirteen years prior.

By then, Vito was entirely ensconced in the lifestyle of his father and his compatriots, a hardened criminal of twenty years old. He had several advantages to his name, ones that made him formidable even as such a young man. For one, there was his magic, developed spasmodically throughout the years but extremely effective for the things he needed it to do. Though never well-educated, he was clever, too, and canny—he'd learned very early in life how to read people, to pick out which ones had violent intentions and which meant well, whatever their appearances might suggest.

He was also notoriously difficult to bribe or persuade, having never developed the vices of many of his rival and allies. He drank, but not to excess, smoked, but only occasionally. He never grew addicted to opium or lyrium-laced tobacco like some favored, and generally found himself utterly uninterested in the so-called pleasures of the flesh, all of which left him with an exceedingly clear head and good judgement even when others might have found themselves less thoughtful. So too did he refrain from developing wanton cruelty: though many parts of Vito's life have been violent and bloody, he learned always to use those tools in calculated, rational ways, for maximum effect, and never came to take pleasure in inflicting pain.

But he did grow cynical, his ability to keep his head above the fray—so to speak—giving him a very clear perspective on it. Though he thought of himself as unable to be anything but the raider he was, he also acknowledged that it was a hollow life, especially once the need to care for his mother was no longer there to drive him forward.

The circumstances that led him to Val Royeaux twelve years after her death, a teenage daughter in tow, are something he has never shared with anyone. Though he may have left the raiding life as far behind as possible, he did not leave the paranoia that kept him alive, nor his distrust of most everyone around him. His daughter, Marisol, is now the driving force in his life, and the life he has built in the Orlesian capital is, by his reckoning, entirely for her sake. His alchemy business is struggling somewhat, for two reasons. Firstly, he's learning the trade as he goes, much as he's had to learn everything else he knows. Secondly, the shop is in the poorer area of the city, where Vito is more confident he can blend, and as a result, few of his customers are wealthy enough to afford what he should be charging for his work. But being underpaid is better than not being paid at all, so he generally lets people walk out with more than he probably ought to.

It's a life, if not a particularly-exciting one, and though he still feels the itch to get his hands dirty every once in a while, he's trying to suppress it. For Marisol's sake, mostly, but also for his own. Vito is conscious of the fact that he's not an especially good person, but he's doing his best to change, little by little.




Image| Corvin Pavell |

"I've always loved a good paradox."

And on this count, Corvin certainly delivers, perhaps moreso than almost anyone he's ever met. It would be easy to say that he's the more straightforward, heroic foil to Lia's more pragmatic, ruthless agent. But that's much too quick, because there's more to the both of them than that. Corvin, however, is considerably more open, and this has afforded Vito the opportunity to start poking at his complexities, so to speak, unraveling the layers that make him up. It's an immensely interesting exercise. Enough so that occasionally Vitorio must remind himself that it's no longer his job to know the people around him so well. And, perhaps, that he should be putting less effort into deciphering Corvin and more into being companionable. Old habits die hard.


Image| Evie Lafleur |

"It's hard to say we have much in common, but she seems pleasant enough."

Vitorio has in some ways the opposite of Evie's personality. She's rather retiring, if perhaps a bit stubborn beneath it. He, on the other hand, considers himself gregarious and personable, as well as the type that ultimately goes with the flow. Being a believer in the principle that contrasts are often strengthening, he might have initially suspected that they'd get along swimmingly, or at least in a way that was interesting. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have happened. Perhaps it is because Evie is very... businesslike in her work, and at other times appears to him to be rather—it's hard to find the right word. Unrelatable, perhaps. Pleasant, certainly: Vito of all people cannot fault her demeanors. But 'sweet' is a flavor rather without complexity, and he prefers the company of people with a bit more depth, so to speak. At the moment, she's yet to do anything to spark his interest, but he's not closed off to the possibility that there might be more to her than there seems.


Image| Lia Tael |

"That ruthless streak is rather intriguing."

Though no doubt the others have been able to infer at least some of what happened in the Vhenallin safehouse, Vito was the one who actually saw it. Of particular interest was not so much the fact that Lia took a risk to hit a target—he'd expected that. It had something more to do with the utter lack of hesitation, and also what appeared to be a glimmer of connection, between herself and Leta. There's a story there, to be sure, and he's willing to bet his last two coppers it's an interesting one. Beyond this, he just finds it interesting that Lia has so much history for one so young. His instinctive nosiness means he wants to ask questions, but he suspects they would not at this stage be welcome.




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“I suppose I am what you might call a 'scoundrel.'
Perhaps I will not be forever.”

So begins...

Vitorio Sansone's Story

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.

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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."

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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

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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: 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

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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."

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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.

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Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur
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It was a lovely day--well, as lovely as it could be in Riverbend, Evie supposed. The air had always retained an essence of desperation here, instead of the rolling scent of flowers on the wind like in the Gardens. The place was oppressive in comparison. Maybe it was the ambiance that she missed most of all... Or maybe it was her kitchen. Attempting to bake a half-dozen muffins in a rundown shack with what would be an insult to the wood stoves she was used to cooking in took the better part of her morning. The ingredients? The better part of her coin. Maybe she could have skimped on the sugar, or used cheaper flour, or even less chocolate--but Evie didn't do such things in half-measures, especially not her baking.

Not that she couldn't say she didn't enjoy the time she spent over her tiny oven. It was one of the few times she could take her mind off of every thing, even for a moment, and there were plenty of things that wanted to weigh down her shoulders. Even now, she couldn't help but let the thoughts bleed in during the short trip between her now-home and Vito's shop. The revelations that her uncle was well and truly involved in this dark business stung, and no matter which was she looked, there was no escaping it.

So she had to bottle it up. Keep her head down and keep pushing forward. One foot after the other. With her sword on her back. And a covered basket of fresh muffins in her hand. She glanced back up and looked around carefully. Riverbend was dangerous for those unprepared-- her sword maybe the only thing keeping her from getting mugged for the basket. Regardless, she picked up her pace until she finally reached the familiar storefront.

The Elixir Mixer.

Her mother would've enjoyed the shop's name. The sign in the door still indicated that the store was open, and she took the invitation to let herself in. "It's Evie," she announced, "I have presents."

The interior of the shop was still in poor repair, the front window boarded up. Someone—Vito, probably—had lit some magelights to compensate, and they floated freely in the air, a deep purple in color, casting a moody, low light. Timbers were stacked against one wall, what looked to be a large, wrapped glass panel and several buckets of something next to them.

Despite this, the shop was extremely clean, the counter currently manned by Vito himself, a thick book on the table in front of him. He turned a page just as she entered, absently stirring a small cauldron with some kind of implement in his right hand.

He looked up at her announcement, blinking slightly. "Ah, Amatrice. I am always in the mood for accepting gifts. Please come in."

Amatrice. She hoped it was complimentary.

She did as asked and entered the shop properly, shutting the door behind her. It looked much like the last time she'd been there, though this time her view wasn't restricted from a cot. She'd felt helpless, having done nothing of note during the raid just to get unceremoniously laid low by an explosion, all just to be carried back out by Vito. All just another screw up in her cap, it seemed.

She set the basket on the counter near Vito and pulled back the handkerchief to reveal the muffins. "Chocolate, right?"

Vito hummed, tilting his head to inspect them for all of a moment before he plucked one from the basket. Removing the baking paper from the bottom with only one hand was an exercise in deftness, but he managed it, breaking off a chunk of the confection and eating it about as politely as one could, with one's hands, while still in the middle of potionmaking. His brows arched; he hummed something that sounded like approval.

"Chocolate indeed. You've a bit of a knack, don't you?" The question seemed to be rhetorical, because he flashed a brief smile before turning his attention momentarily to the cauldron. Something he'd chopped, some kind of leaf, went in then, before he was able to return his attention to her. "You should feel free to have a seat, by the way. We're a bit lacking in chairs at the moment, but the countertops are clean."

Evie nodded and accepted the open invitation, slinging the sheathed blade off of her shoulder and leaned it up against the counter she lifted herself onto.

"I was raised in a café, though I fell in love with the baking side of things," she explained, half smiling, "I always told myself if nothing else worked out, I could always open up a bakery," she said, only partly in jest. Opening a bakery would require capital, coin she certainly didn't have at the moment, and it wasn't like she could take a loan out any time soon. She definitely couldn't ask her parents. She then frowned at how low her own aspirations had lowered of late. She considered it a success if she could scrounge enough money together to survive the month.

She crossed her arms and looked at the shop once more, biting her bottom lip as she thought. "The riot got to you too, huh?" she asked.

"Too?" Vito inquired, glancing at her askance. It as hard to tell from far away, but this close she could tell that his eyes were actually violet. Not an unheard-of color, by any means, but a rather unusual one. "Did your home also suffer some form of damage?" He raised his stirring-rod, tapping it a few times on the edge of the cauldron to rid it of the last drops of near-blood red and setting it aside. He had a sort of slow, methodical care with the process, it seemed. Unhurried.

He closed his fist, killing the small flame beneath the cauldron, then formed an ice spike in one of his hands and eased it into the iron pot. Steam hissed sharply and rose towards the ceiling, but the smell was only mild—something earthy and slightly bitter.

She leaned over, curiosity finally tweaked by the contents of the cauldron. She pursed her lips trying to deduce the concoction, but was eventually stumped. She simply shrugged and nodded at his question. "I had a rock violently introduce itself to my window." Her only window, might she add. Without that little bit of natural light leaking into her house, now it always felt dark and dreary, even on the sunniest days. "Something it looks like we might have in common," Evie added, pointing at Vito's own boarded up window. Chances were, that was how it'd stay for the foreseeable future too. She didn't really have the income at the moment to replace an entire glass window yet.

"What's that you have there?" Evie finally asked, the curiosity of the pot finally getting to her. "If... you don't mind me asking," she added, reeling herself in.

Vito's smile was entirely too sly for the benign nature of the question. He lifted an eyebrow. "Curiosity is generally an admirable trait, but it does have its drawbacks. This is a tonic for the treatment of a particular type of, ah... intimate rash. I batch-cook it for a few of the local brothels, along with a variety of related items. It's curable, but while the employees are at pains to keep themselves clean, the same can seldom be said for the clients, you understand. A certain amount of pathogenic recidivism is an occupational hazard, so to speak."

Evie frowned and slowly retrieved herself away from the cauldron. "I see," she said flatly. She had rather wished she hadn't asked now.

Vito barked a short laugh. "Do you find that distasteful, Amatrice? That such things are necessary?" His tone gave no hint as to his feelings; he might as well have been asking her about her favorite colors or something equally banal.

"No, no, it's not that, it's just..." she said, before she found herself chewing on her bottom lip again, "I wasn't expecting that answer, is all." She drew her legs up onto the counter as well then, sitting atop of it cross legged, and with a frown forming at her lips. "I forget I'm not still in the Gardens, it slips my mind sometimes." She had undoubtedly seen a couple of the brothels in question while she was out and about, but she never really tried to get a good look.

"A sharp difference, to be sure." Vito did not ask about it, something which could only have been a conscious decision on his part. "Have you found anything to like more now that you're here, or is it all doom and gloom?" Picking up a ladle from its spot on a hook in the wall, Vito started to shift the cooling liquid into glass vials. The color of them, tinted brown, suggested they were made quite cheaply, but considering where the shop was located, that wasn't surprising.

She let her elbows rest on her knees as she began to rub a spot on her thumb. "I'd like to think I'm too optimistic to call it all doom and gloom, but," she said, pursing her lips, "It's not been easy." She felt... stuck, she supposed. No way to go back, no idea how to move forward. She offered her help to Lia and Corvin to try and make things right, of course, but also in an effort to do something that'll finally make a difference. And even then in the end it felt like her help didn't amount to much.

"How about yourself? You seem to wear a lot of jewelry for Riverbend, if you still don't mind my prying," she asked. She couldn't help but wonder how many times someone's attempted to mug him for it, though she kept that thought to herself.

Vito snorted. "Most of it is much cheaper than it looks, Amatrice. The work of skilled counterfeiters. Some of it my own work, though those are slightly less convincing to the discerning eye." He smiled, pinching his sleeve in his hand and spreading it out. He tilted it to catch the light, and she could see something it was hard to notice before: how thin it was, obviously repaired and maintained carefully. With a shrug, he dropped it again.

"But I do not think this is so bad. Comfort is nice to have, but freedom... you can't put a price on that."

"True enough," Evie agreed, "But you have a purpose too," she said, her smile wistful. He had both a shop and a daughter to care after, noble goals both in her eyes. Meanwhile she was still searching out past what little jobs she could scrounge together to keep her head above water. She stared at her hands for a moment or two before she finally tilted her head back toward Vito.

"What do you think of the Lions?" she asked.

Vito went back to filling vials, stoppering each with a cork and shrugging. "I do not think I am the person to ask about them." Laying the full vials aside he summoned water into the cauldron and shifted it around on the counter, stirring it into a miniature vortex. "I know probably less than you do. They are mercenaries, very capable ones. They seem to do good work. For any more than that, I would think Mattone or Spina better to ask."

Well he was probably right with that one. Evie chuckled to herself quietly and nodded in agreement, "I should probably do that," she admitted, finally peeling herself off of his counter top. "Thanks Vito, for hosting me. And for making sure I survived the other day," she truly appreciated both of those things.

She reached down, plucked her sword up, and slung it back over her shoulder. "I'll come back for the basket," she noted, glancing at the muffins, "And if you ever need anything that I can help with, just let me know and I'll be happy to lend a hand," she offered with a bright smile.

"Grazie, Amatrice." He flicked his fingers in a lazy salute. "And for the muffins. I will be sure to share them with Marisol."

"Oh, and tell her I said hi too," Evie tossed back with a smile, and pressed through the exit.

Setting

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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

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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.

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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."

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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.

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Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone
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Lia sometimes wondered how visible the effects of her stress were. What she'd thought was going to be a simple job, a way to keep herself busy while she waited on a lead had turned into only another source of that stress. Though it was hard not to feel like she'd stumbled on something that she was really supposed to be here for.

Organized and armed elves attacking Chantry caravans... it was a nightmare. She would defend the rights of her people to the last, but they could be so stupid sometimes. As if the shemlen didn't already have enough ammunition against them, made-up or otherwise. Now they had legitimate reasons to hate, and of course it would extend to all the elves, not just the fools responsible for the lyrium theft.

And they had indeed come from the Alienage in Val Royeaux, that much was confirmed when the grisly work of bringing back the bodies was concluded. Many of the dead could be identified, but all the questioning work Lia and Cor could do accomplished nothing. No one seemed to know a damn thing. She'd pressed Arrin for more when last she saw him, but his lips were sealed, too. It reinforced her belief that Kestrel hadn't lost her mind and done something completely out of character, but that didn't bring her any closer to the people actually responsible.

But Lia was taking the day to focus on other things, and first on her list was a visit to Vito's shop in Riverbend. She knew Cor had paid him a visit earlier, and while Lia always took longer to be comfortable walking into a stranger's place on her own, she finally felt that she and the alchemist weren't quite strangers anymore. A few life or death scuffles had a way of doing that, and more than once Vito had proven himself useful, and seemingly on the right side of the issues Lia cared about.

It was still morning when she made it to the shop, bereft of her bow but as always armed with her dagger. The man's daughter Marisol was in the act of seeing someone out. Another girl around her age, more likely a friend rather than a customer. She caught sight of Lia's approach, though, and offered a wave.

"It's Lia, right? Looking for my father?"

"I am," she answered, nodding and trying not to be awkward or intimidating. She didn't have the easiest manner around most people. Thankfully, Marisol didn't seem like a girl easily cowed or put off, and with a gesture she invited Lia in, calling upstairs.

"Papà? You have a visitor."

"Aye, Mari. Just a moment." Some floorboards creaked overhead, apparently caused by Vito's motion.

The shop was in better shape than it had been on the night of the fire, to be sure. The front window has a new panel, slightly amber-tinged in the way of cheap glass, a little wavy at the bottom where some of it had flowed downwards. Perhaps a used fitting, then, but criss-crossed with delicate ironwork in a lattice pattern to keep it stronger, perhaps. The interior was draped in fabric more colorful than luxurious; the whole thing smelled faintly of tangy elfroot, and a few more exotic flowers, with something heavier underneath—charcoal or cinnabar, maybe. The shelves were stocked now, with neat rows of bottles in varying sizes and shapes, each label and tag affixed with raw twine and written in tiny, calligraphic handwriting—it was hard to tell if the penmanship was Vito's or Marisol's.

A light tread carried Vito down the stairs, long with the faint jangling of the bracelets on his left wrist. He was still armed, too, she noted—the same forward-curved knife he wore on their previous outings. His brows arched a little when he caught sight of her, as though he hadn't expected her to be the visitor, but the surprise was quickly mitigated with a brief smile. "Ah, Spina, welcome. Come to collect on those potions I promised?"

"I don't normally take free potions." Often when dealing with ingestibles capable of saving or not saving her life, it was better not to look for the best deal, and instead just focus on the quality. "But I happen to know yours are pretty good, so sure." She clasped her hands together a moment near the doorway, not quite sure where to put herself.

Marisol immediately noticed. "Oh! Make yourself at home, it's fine. You want something to drink? I can start some tea."

"That's all right, I'm not going to stay long." She did take her up on the other offer, though, lowering herself into the nearest seat and crossing her legs. Marisol slipped past her father and plopped down behind the store counter.

"Seems like you've put the coin to good use," she commented, taking in the place. She liked the way it smelled, separating it from the rest of the city. Heavy doses of herbs tended to remind Lia of faraway places.

Vito's smile broadened a little at the compliment, a hint of warmth to it that hadn't been there before. "Thank you. I suppose in a way it's become an opportunity. We're still a bit behind, but some of the repairs are upgrades, at least. It's nice not to worry about termites." He hummed, then paused in his perusal of the shelves to regard her with a bit more seriousness. "I've not been, for obvious reasons, but... how is the Alienage? I can't imagine they've been able to salvage some of those buildings."

"It's..." She hesitated, unsure how best to describe it. "You're right. It's going to take them months get some of the damaged areas cleared and rebuilt. Maybe more. Space is always a luxury in an Alienage, and now..." There were thousands displaced, many of them people that had already been living in communal homes, now either forced onto the street or into any home with room, willing to take in strangers. It was often quite cold at night in the city during winter, and no one wanted to be left outside, freezing and starving. It was never a good situation in Val Royeaux's Alienage, but it had indeed become particularly bad, made all the worse by the fact that the elves would accept little help from the outside even when offered.

Lia let her expression finish the sentence that had trailed off, and tried to pick up a different thread. "That's actually somewhat related to why I wanted to stop by. The night of the riot, I was..." Panicked, angry, volatile, and incredibly impatient. "I wasn't thinking, and when we needed to get in the Alienage, telling the guard captain that you're a mage seemed like the best way to make that happen. And whether or not that's true, it wasn't really my place to out you like that." While it was techinically allowed now for Vito to be a mage outside of the watchful templar gaze, Lia didn't doubt the city guard had made a note of him. And if they had, the templars did too. "I'm sorry."

"Ah, that." Vito sighed through his nose, reaching up to rub at his eyebrow as though he had an itch. "I'll admit I wasn't entirely thrilled when it happened, but I understand your reasons." He shrugged, then tilted his head a little, almost appraising her somehow. There was nothing untoward about it, not like some of the looks she'd been on the receiving end of before. "I think you might understand what I mean when I say that it's something I like to keep an... open secret, yes? Known well enough, but never directly acknowledged. I find such arrangements to have enough room in them to keep me comfortable. But no harm seems to have come of it. With a little luck, none ever will."

And that, it seemed, was enough for him to consider it water under the bridge. "Though... perhaps you would do me a small favor, as recompense of a sort?"

She certainly knew about keeping secrets, and she'd known more than enough mages in her life to understand why Vito would prefer to keep his magic out of the open. "What do you need?" she asked. She wasn't against helping him if she could, but they weren't quite at the point where she would accept without knowing what she was getting into.

By way of reply, he reached under the counter, lifting what seemed to be a small crate from beneath it and setting it on top. "I made a few too many of a few of my more common items. Health draughts, cold remedies, contraceptives, that sort of thing. I was thinking perhaps you'd be willing to... dispose of them for me. I've so little time and inclination to walk them to a legal alchemical refuse site, you see. And the nearest is in a place I'm not especially welcome. But I really haven't the room to keep them all."

Crossing to the shelves, he took down a few additional blue and brown glass bottles, setting them next to the crate. "Those, however, are for you."

She couldn't help but smile a little, though it was nowhere near as flashy as anything Cor would pull. "You should be careful with what you call a 'refuse site.' Someone might get confused." Not like he was too far off, though. No one was spilling chemicals in the Alienage... but there was definitely other kinds of shit around. "I'd be happy to take these off your hands, though." It was a refreshing change, when she didn't have to steal to get someone what they needed. And while a small crate of potions wasn't going to solve much in the long term, it would help some elves make it through the rest of the winter.

The ones for her specifically looked to be regeneration and cold resistance, useful for surviving much more than a harsh winter. It was almost enough for her to start feeling suspicious of him. He had gotten paid for his work with them, after all, and that work had involved no small risk of his safety.

Her glance to the counter prompted a response from Marisol. "This wasn't my idea, if you're wondering," she said. "I'm starting to think Papà can't stand the idea of making a profit."

Lia laughed softly at that. "I think you'll be making one here soon, though. It's looking very nice." They stood out, the pair of them, as well, even with Riverbend and the Harbor District having no shortage of colorful characters from different backgrounds. "Do you mind if I ask where you learned? I've seen a lot of mages, but none of them use magic quite like you do." The water in general was an underused technique as far as she knew, and the way he conjured was... she didn't know how to put it. Literal, perhaps. "It's all right if you'd rather not say."

Vito hummed, leaning back until he was planted on a stool behind the counter and bracing his forearms on the wood slab. "I expect not." His tone was amused, but there was something else to it that wasn't quite so straightforward. "I'm self-taught. I've only met one or two Circle mages, honestly. And while I'm sure I've passed dozens of apostates in the streets both here and in Antiva, it's the kind of thing you keep to yourself. Less now than then, but... old habits."

He shrugged. "So I learned to use what was around, and what was around me was the wind and the sea. The potions are something I'm still working on, but those I learned for my mother." He slanted his eyes sideways at Marisol. "And she always taught me that a reputation is priceless. I happen to think it won't hurt profits for people to know we make a good tonic. I'm not a saint, after all." He had little trouble admitting it, half-smiling at Lia and shrugging one shoulder. "Sorry if it feels less clean now that you know it isn't only altruism at work here."

Lia wasn't so sure it would work that way. The freebies would probably be better spent on people who had the money to pay for them after, and spread the word among other people who could do the same. The elves of the Alienage most certainly did not have money for potions, and were without a doubt the most insular community in the city. It seemed more likely Vito would need to deal with elves looking for handouts on his doorstep than anything, but Lia kept that to herself.

She shrugged, feeling it was only fair for her to offer something in return. "I've learned a lot on my own, but I'm definitely not self-taught on most. My father taught me most of it, and his lethallan taught me what he couldn't." There was also the part where the Emperor of Orlais taught her a few things, or the Commander of the Inquisition's armed forces, but she wasn't really in a mood to brag about the people she knew.

"I think both of them would like you, but they're the kind of people where it would take you months to figure that out."

He blinked at the elvish word, perhaps not sure exactly what it meant, but context must have made it clear enough. "Stern, silent types? I've known a few of those. They clearly taught you well; I confess I'm not used to such effectiveness in such a small group. But you and Mattone in particular—the two of you are most definitely something special, if I may say. I get the impression I'll never want for excitement, assisting the likes of you."

"Well, so long as you know what you're getting yourself into, you're welcome to keep assisting. I've got a feeling the excitement is only just getting started."

"So much the better."

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

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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.

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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."

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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."

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Vito hummed rather tunelessly under his breath, reaching up to rub idly at his goatee with his free hand. The other was currently occupied holding open a book. This one was a recent acquisition—his contact had it on good authority that it was stolen from the Circle in Montsimmard sometime during the mage rebellion. But the river of illicit goods flows parallel to the legitimate, and like all things in Orlais, it was drawn eventually to Val Royeaux. The price was a bit dear, and two months ago he'd never have considered the purchase, but with recent work he found it to be worth the investment.

Unfortunately, it was proving somewhat difficult to crack, as the recipes were buried within dense theoretical notation that he simply had no reference for. A shame, since the formulas would provide him with several new and useful products if he could just figure them out.

"Mari, do we still have the red book, or did we lose it to the fire?" His few textbooks on potion lore all had interchangeable and pretentious names, so he tended to refer to them by the colors instead.

"Well..." Marisol paused from her work of sorting new arrivals to their shelves to crouch down behind the counter a moment. She rummaged through books stacked away for a moment before she popped back up. "We still have some of it."

The cover was less red than it was a charred black now, and clearly at least the outer half of almost all the pages had been eaten away by the blaze as well. It was far from the only thing they'd lost in the fire, and sorting through all of it to see what was salvageable was a laborious, time-consuming process that had a way of wearing on a teenage girl. More often than not Marisol had been in charge of the shop, at least since the fire and all the outside work that came after it.

She rounded her way over to him and set the tome down on the table beside his chair. "I'll let you decide if there's anything worth keeping in there."

He grimaced, pinching a dried-out page between his thumb and forefinger with as much delicacy as he could muster before turning it. There might be something of use still in here, but the constant reminders of their own rather striking poverty were more frequent since the fire. He'd never been a rich man, not even in Antiva, but he hadn't struggled this much to make ends meet since he was a boy.

Marisol had straightforwardly never had this problem. Not before she lived with him, anyway. Vito sighed softly, closing over the new book and the old alike before setting them aside.

"Would you like to go for a walk, Caro? It's warm enough, I think."

She took a glance at the work remaining to her, but it obviously didn't have much pull, as she soon threw her hands out to the sides, letting them fall back until they slapped against her legs. A shrug of sorts. "Sure. I could use some air."

Vito nodded slightly, standing from his spot and flipping the shop sign so that it read CLOSED. They'd not had a customer in hours, and frankly probably wouldn't for the rest of the day, anyhow. That was the pace of business around here, most of the time. Most of what they made came from the reliable, intermittent large orders, like the one they made up for the bordello a few blocks over.

The midafternoon light was bright overhead, weak in the manner of winter sun in the south, but though the air was crisp, it wasn't too chilly for the slightly-thicker linen he was wearing today. Vito held the door for Marisol and locked up behind them, slipping the key into his pocket and striking off in the direction of the docks. He tended to seek the sea by instinct, but if Marisol wanted to go some other way, he certainly wouldn't protest.

He just... didn't want to be inside the shop for this conversation. It was too small, the space too personal. It was where they lived and where they worked, and he didn't want this tangled up in there as well, especially if it didn't go well.

He waited a few minutes, for them to settle into a steady pace and get clear of their immediate neighborhood. All the while, Vito considered how to put his question, and found himself frustratingly unable to think of anything but the obvious. He'd never had trouble talking to people until Marisol, something he thought was probably due to her importance.

He'd never really loved anyone until Marisol either, after all. Well, no one barring his mother, but that was quite a different situation.

"Are you happy?" The question, when it finally escaped him, did so almost too quickly, the words run together in a way that conveyed his discomfort with them rather more effectively than Vito would have liked. He felt like he knew what the answer was, but also wasn't prepared to hear it. "Here, I mean. With me, and... this."

"Me?" she looked up from the street in front of her. She walked with her hands in her pockets, her posture a little lacking. Her normal gait wasn't a saunter, exactly, but Marisol had never lacked for confidence. "I'm fine. This was my idea, remember? And I knew what I was getting into." She'd been fourteen when they came here, and already she knew all about the world, and all about its ugly parts. For better or worse, she knew how to handle just about anything she ran into.

Her mother's doing, that.

But clearly she knew that didn't really answer his question. She listed sideways until their arms bumped. "I'm more worried about you. We're not living in luxury, but we had a pretty good thing going, even with all the troubles we've had getting started. I thought this was the sort of thing you wanted to be doing, but now..." She glanced back over her shoulder, perhaps checking if anyone was in earshot. "Now you're running off to fight insurgents and getting into ambushes. So unless I'm wrong, you're the one that isn't happy. Or at least not satisfied."

As usual, her insight was exceptional. Vito pursed his lips, easing an itch on the side of his nose with the roughened pad of a finger. "I thought I would be." It had certainly been Marisol's idea to leave Rialto behind, but he hadn't said no. Hadn't even considered it, once she'd shown him that the logistics of it were possible. He'd wanted something else for his life, a new start that took him far away from the person he'd been—and perhaps worse, the specter of the person he was becoming. The journey to wickedness had been an incremental one, for Vito; whether or not he'd ever reached the destination, he knew he was well on the way at one point.

This was supposed to be his chance to backtrack a little, maybe find some grey area that was comfortable enough. Do no harm, even if there was no real compensating for the things he'd done.

But perhaps he was more like Corvin than he'd initially suspected.

"The ambushes, though, and the fighting—it feels like doing the things I'm good at again, but for the right reasons this time." And there was something very alluring about that combination.

"You're good at a lot of things," she countered, "most of which have nothing to do with killing and sneaking and criminals and all of that. And if you tried more things, I'm sure you'd find that you're good at them too." They made it within sight of the docks before long; it got a little more crowded than the sparse streets of Riverbend, but they still weren't in danger of being overheard so long as they didn't shout.

"You're a healer in the biggest city in Orlais." She lowered her voice somewhat. "I know you don't like people knowing you're a mage, but it's not a crime anymore to practice outside of Circles. You could be doing so much good without needing to dodge arrows every other week. Might not be as exciting, but..."

She shrugged, relenting a little both in her expression and her tone. "I don't want to tell you what to do. And I like your new friends well enough, they're obviously good people, it's just... I worry, that's all. Just because I could get by fine on my own doesn't mean I want to." She forced a smile, the humor an attempt to cover up the grim nature of the scenario she was suggesting.

Vito sighed softly through his nose. In one way, she was right, he supposed. But he was not the kind of healer that would be put on retainer by nobility, or invited to scholarly events and inducted into the more prestigious—and profitable—circles in the profession. He was a poorly-educated foreigner who got by on scavenged textbooks decades out of date and the best his intuition could do. He didn't think that made him any lesser, but he knew he'd always be perceived that way. The most he could hope for on that front was what he had now: a very modest business that earned enough to scrape by, and helped a few of the people in his proximity.

He would cure no diseases, and save few lives. It wasn't nothing, but it wasn't the kind of good he most wanted to do, either. Perhaps it was wrongheaded of him to think about the good he wanted to do, but there it was. Being a better person was still a work in progress, so perhaps he could be excused for his desire for something that was good and lucrative and interesting.

He reached out sideways and laid a hand on Marisol's head, ruffling her hair only gently, and only for about as long as he figured she'd tolerate. Admittedly it was usually a gesture reserved for younger recipients, but maybe part of him would always think of her as the girl she was when they first met: brave, smart as a whip, mature, and so very, very young.

"Perhaps you're right to." He'd certainly been closer to death in the last few weeks than he'd been for several years. He couldn't see that as an advantage, even if there was a certain excitement to it. "And I promise I'll never forget that you do. I don't know if there will be more of this in my future, but if there is, I'll be as careful as I can." He smiled himself, only slightly more naturally than she had.

He couldn't promise more than that, not at this juncture, and he certainly wasn't going to lie to her.

"Thank you," Marisol answered earnestly. She didn't seem overly disappointed with his response; perhaps she'd expected it, or simply needed to air her discomforts, make sure he acknowledged them, was aware of them. "I'm glad you're... finding purpose in it, I guess." It sounded like she was about to say enjoying it, but thought better of the word choice. "And I'm glad your friends have you watching out for them. Maker knows they need the help."

She walked in silence a few more steps, and then suddenly stopped, hesitating before she spoke again. "You don't think... the way you do things, it's sort of unique, you know? How you're self-taught and all. We've been laying low for a while now... but they're never going to stop looking for us." It looked like she wanted to say more, but then shook her head with a frustrated sigh. "Ugh, I'm sorry. I'm worrying too much, and you already said you'd be careful."

It was definitely one of the reasons he wasn't too keen to practice magic in the open, but he had at least one thing going for him in this respect. "I wasn't too open with my magic, even then. Not too many of them would know what to look for, or know one mage from another." They weren't exactly commonplace in the family, either, but her caution was understandable. "As long as I don't go announcing things to everyone I fight, it should be a minimal risk. We've done well so far, and they know I'm a self-taught alchemist, too."

"Okay." It seemed to conclude her worries, or at least push them down temporarily. There was always something or other to worry about for the two of them, and ever more since that fire. "Should we get something to eat while we're out here?" she resumed walking. "You'll need to keep up your strength if you're going to be a big hero around here."

He laughed. "If I'm ever a 'big hero' anywhere, please smack me. But I could eat, regardless. Shall we see how well the Orlesians can do Antivan food?"

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Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur
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Before the crack of dawn, even before most of Riverbend had roused itself awake, Evie was up. The first few days of forcing herself awake at this hour, her body and mind revolted, but eventually it relented. She had lost the discipline necessary to wake before the sun once, instead slipping out of sleep whenever she could sleep no more. Instead, she would lay in bed and let the day pass her back wasting her days in self pity. Regardless, she found it far more difficult to wake up without a drill instructor yelling in her face. She had to shove a number of tacks into her candle for them to jangle loud enough on the copper candle holder to wake her up.

It'd gotten easier. It was never easy but it had gotten easier. She didn't need as many tacks these days, and after the first fell, she dutifully rose and began to dress. As became part of her morning routine, after she dressed and slipped her pant legs into her boots, she slipped her estoc's sheath over her shoulder and stepped outside. She didn't plan to go far, and turned to stand in front of the broken table that leaned against her makeshift home. The bottom legs had broken off, and it was kind of charred from the riots, but it served her purposes. Evie drew her estoc and stood in front of the table, imagining an enemy. She proceeded to step through her stances, complete with parries and imaginary strikes, working through her whole repertoire more than once, until the sun began to rise over the horizon.

She had already developed a sweat when her practice was interrupted. "Miss Lafleur?" Evie turned toward the voice that addressed her, estoc resting on her shoulder. The man speaking was a city guard-- strange enough to see in Riverbend-- though he was a younger one. A rookie, if Evie had to guess. "I have a message from the Guard for you." Definitely a rookie. The guard pulled a letter out of his armor and offered to it, the seal of the city guard keeping it folded. After she accepted it and nodded her thanks, the guard took his leave.

Evie took a seat on her steps, her estoc leaning against her knees as she opened the letter and read. It was from the guard captain herself, and said that there had been a development concerning her uncle's case. That if she was curious or interested in following the lead, she should report to the guardhouse. It wasn't a difficult choice to make, and after about twenty minutes, she had donned her breastplate and a tunic over it, and was beginning to make her way in that direction.

Her path eventually led her to the said place, the Guardhouse. It was a stark and orderly contrast to the roughness of her own adopted neighborhood. After speaking to another guard and explaining everything, she was taken in and led toward the captain's office. As the door was opened for her, it seemed that she hadn't been the only one to receive a letter. Corvin, Vito, and Lia were waiting for her, but not for long if their posture was anything to go by. She gave them a small wave before turning toward the Captain. "I guess this means this is bigger than just my uncle then?"

The office was sparsely-appointed and immaculate, though there were enough chairs in it for all four of them to sit if they so desired. Vito and Corvin had availed themselves of the opportunity, and the former offered Evie a small smile before returning his attention to the woman on the other side of the plain desk.

If the signature on the letter was anything to go by, her name was Captain Ines Bernard. Dressed not so differently from Evie, she wore serviceable light ringmail with little to distinguish her rank save the subtle embroidered stripes on the high dark blue collar that showed beneath the layer of armor. Her hair was chopped to the exact level of her shoulders, an unremarkable chestnut color with the first few hints of grey barely visible in the mix. Her eyes were dark, assessing, and she gestured shortly at an empty chair before folding both hands beneath her chin.

"It was always bigger than Jean-Louis Lafleur. You discovered that yourselves, if I'm not mistaken." The Captain paused, taking a long draw from an opaque cup. It smelled of coffee, which correlated with the dark circles beneath her eyes.

"I won't bore you with details unless you want them, but the reason I asked you here is because we finally managed to track the "M" from his letters. Trouble is, he's holed up in a place the Guard can't reach."

Evie's back straightened as the captain spoke. She glanced at the other three collected in the room and then back to Ines before she spoke again, "I am curious, but the details can come later," Evie agreed, "Though, I guess the most important ones are where are they, and who they are?" Evie asked, brows raised.

"Who is still not entirely clear." The Guard-Captain set her coffee cup down with a long sigh. "M is apparently male, dark-haired, human, and entirely unremarkable, which I suppose is what you want to be when you're handing out orders to the lowest level of some sort of criminal organization." Ines, of course, didn't know nearly as much as the four of them knew about exactly what kind of criminal organization it really was, or who ran it.

"What I know a little better is where. He's rumored to be in a section of the Riverbend sewers. Problem is, the section is in the kind of neighborhood where the Guard isn't much welcome. Not the Alienage, but in the—" she paused, clearly searching for the right word. When she found it, her tone hardened. "—jurisdiction of a particularly difficult gang. They call themselves the Untouchables, which should give you some idea how they feel about city guards operating in their territory."

"And you're concerned that this gang is hiding M or something?" Corvin wore a puzzled expression, as though it didn't quite add together the right way in his head, but gave the Captain respectful silence in which to answer the question.

The captain shook her head, the ends of her hair brushing armored shoulders. "It's just the opposite problem: they're hunting him, too, and what they have in mind is not an arrest and a trial." She grimaced, then elaborated. "Kotter—not his real name, I'm sure—was moving that Ember you found out about. But not while knowing exactly what it would do. Petty crime lord he may be, but it's not in his interest for his customers to die or be that debilitated, and no doubt he was... unhappy to discover what the stuff did."

Vito blinked. "Please don't take this the wrong way, Captain, but why not just let them have him? Do you think he has some information that makes all the trouble worth it?" His tone was delicate, but it wasn't too hard to make out a bit of disbelief in it too, for some reason.

She sighed. "Honestly I have no idea. But he's the best lead we have, and so yes. I'm hoping we can get him first. I'd like to say something here about justice and fair chances, too, but I can't really claim the courts would do any better. Not always known for fairness, as you're probably aware."

"So I've heard," Corvin replied dryly. "So if I'm putting this all together right, you want us to see if we can figure out exactly where in the sewer he's holed up before they find him, and get him out alive for questioning?"

He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. The posture didn't seem defensive, only thoughtful. "Is there anything more you can tell us about this gang?"

Captain Bernard hummed low in her throat, a contemplative sound. "The Untouchables are run by a dwarf named Kotter. As I said, probably not the name he was born with, but that hardly matters. We don't know much about his lieutenants save one. Human fellow—the others call him Bleeder. Rumor has it he's a blood mage, though no one's been able to confirm that." She wrinkled her nose, distaste for the possibility clear. "They're well-organized, and they operate in a cell structure: everyone knows what they need to know to get their work done, and no more. It means even if we can arrest one of them, we likely don't get anything but one or two more names or aliases. None of the low-level people know anything about the leaders or what they do exactly. I only know this much because I managed to plant a couple guards in the ranks, but the trouble is keeping them there."

"And is illicit alchemy their main business?" Vito rubbed at the edge of his beard, partway up his cheek.

"As far as we know. Of course, you have to commit a lot of other crimes to be successful at that. Smuggling, probably some extortion... we suspect them of a few murders, rivals that met a bad end, but I can't say it was certainly them without more evidence, so I won't."

"And what's the driving force behind the people going against the guard here?" Lia had been silent thus far, sitting straight-backed and somewhat ill at ease in her chair. She seemed more... rigid, perhaps, in this building than elsewhere that Evie had seen her. If she was making any effort to hide that, it wasn't working. "Are they afraid of retribution from the Untouchables if they help you?"

The guardswoman shook her head. "I don't think so. No doubt there's at least some of that, but for the most part..." She grimaced, pushing a breath out through her nose. "There's a lot of history bound up in this, and I doubt I need to tell you that the Guard itself hasn't always... cared. About certain areas of the city. Leave a place like that isolated for enough time, and someone else becomes the stabilizing force. Local law, if you like. The Untouchables are like that. Much as it pains me to say so, by and large their community looks to them for leadership. There's a loyalty there, and that's the real issue for us in terms of getting the information we need."

"So we can't expect much outside help if we find ourselves against the Untouchables," Evie noted, crossing her arms while shaking her head. Sounds like their best bet would to try and get in and get out as quickly as possible, though such plans rarely go so smoothly. "Regardless, it sounds like this is a time sensitive matter if they're looking for this M as well. Unless there's anything else we should know, we should probably get started then?" she asked the others for a confirmation.

"Let's." Vito lowered his hands to the arms of his chair and pushed himself out of it with perhaps a bit more vigor than was necessary. Touching his open hand to his chest, he inclined his head to the woman at the desk. "Thank you, Captain, for the information. I'm sure it's not... regular, for a relative to work on anything in connection with a case, nor..." He paused, glancing between Corvin, Lia, and himself. "Well, any of us, really."

Captain Bernard huffed softly through her nose. "If you get the job done, serah, I couldn't possibly care less. Good luck out there."

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Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur
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The 'Switchback,' as this particular Riverbend neighborhood was called, was more or less exactly what Vito expected it to be. The whole area was in a similar state of shoddy repair to the rest of the district—roofs missing shingles and patched with straw, crumbling foundations, and buckled cobblestone alleyways narrow and reeking. But there was nevertheless a certain order to it: the streets were clear, mostly free of refuse and debris, the uneven windows in poorly-made frames were clean. A few flower boxes supported wilting blooms or herbs.

There was nothing well-to-do about the place, but the sense of pride and community was there. Subtle, hard to detect, but present. If the Captain was to be believed, it was a criminal organization that provided at least some of this unity, and Vito had no difficulty believing that at all.

He had seen it before.

There were a few people out and about; late morning as it was, though, most had already settled into whatever their work would be for the day. The echo of a forgehammmer rang down the street; a few merchants reclined under their awnings, already done with most of their business after the morning grocery runs. Rough-looking men and women loitered on a few of the corners, apparently preoccupied with dice or cards, but Vito knew them for eyes and ears, probably with a direct line to someone who could pass the information up to the area's boss.

"It is almost like being home." He grinned. "I think we'll want to be careful with our words, yes?"

Lia's hand didn't linger on the hilt of her dagger, but the keen-eyed could notice that it never wandered far from it, either. This was not the Alienage nor the Harbor District; being an elf or an Argent Lion would afford her and Corvin few advantages here. Still, it was a step up from being a city guard.

"We shouldn't split up, either," she advised. "No need to make ourselves any more vulnerable than we have to. And there's a foul mood here today besides."

"Glad I wasn't just imagining it," Evie noted. Her eyes had been drifting to their flanks ever since they entered the neighborhood. Fortunately, she too kept her hands away from her weapons, and even decided to forgo her helmet this time.

Still, her body language was rigid, and her shoulders were stiff. "I second not splitting up too," she said, glancing back at them for the moment, before returning to their vigil.

In contrast to the overt wariness of Vito's other two companions, Corvin looked as at-ease as ever, apparently unconcerned with the tense mood, though from his lack of surprise at their words, clearly not oblivious to it.

"We need to know where in the sewers this fellow is, right? Bad mood or not, I think that's going to take some asking." He did frown slightly then. "Probably better not to pick someone at random though. What d'you think, Vito?"

"I think we need to find the kind of person who doesn't mind talking to an outsider." Or who might not yet know how to pick one out of a crowd. There was a sort he had in mind, but it might be as much a matter of luck as anything. Still, the first thing to do was find a sewer entrance, or an area nearby one. Chances were, the average person here didn't know much about what was going on—they could be as charming as they liked, but it would be a waste if their target didn't have the information they wanted.

Val Royeaux had a decent infrastructure for these things, but in places as old and worn down as this, it was obviously not in peak condition. What had once been efficient channels cut into the sides of the streets, funneling runoff into grated openings, was now interrupted by uneven ground, bucked by years of alternating heat and cold, broken cobblestones, weeds sprouting from the cracks, and general neglect. Some of the water had come to rest in still, stagnant pools, the smell nearly enough to wrinkle his nose.

But Vito had grown up in worse slums than these. He followed the street, pausing only to glance over each grate for hints of tampering. A few were rusted or missing a few bars, but not enough to admit a person. All were still relatively secure in their housing.

It wasn't until he rounded a corner that they struck pay dirt, so to speak. Just what he'd been looking for. A cluster of three young children, somewhere between seven and twelve, were crouched in front of another grate, peering down or cocking their ears as though listening for something very particular.

"I'd be surprised if they don't know anything."

Lia approached first, squatting next to them, propping her elbows on her knees. "What're you kids doing?" she asked.

The one nearest her, a small boy who had to be the youngest of the group, shifted away from her by about a foot, little eyes quickly sweeping her up and down. "Papa says I'm not supposed to talk to you."

"No?" Her eyebrows lifted. "And why's that?"

"You're an elf," the child replied. "Papa says your kind are dirty."

Lia didn't react much, only looking as though she'd just smelled something foul. They were next to a sewer grate, after all. "Ah. Well, I'd bet a silver your papa's gone longer than I have without a bath. You too, for that matter." The child had no reply to that, instead turning his gaze on the others in the group of strangers, and examining them as well.

Vito, well aware of his obvious foreign-ness, glanced for a moment at Evie, but had second thoughts almost immediately. Antivan he may be, but he was willing to bet he still knew better how to speak to a child of this sort than someone raised to nobility.

So he too crouched, on the other side of Lia, for once not too worried about dragging his sleeves through muck. He'd worn more fitted ones for this, though the tunic to which they belonged was only slightly less vivid in its colors than usual. He leaned a little further forward, the better to make eye contact with the kid around his companion, and arched a thick brow.

"Rat hunting, eh?" He smirked in a knowing sort of way, and jerked his chin at the grate. "Probably didn't let you come with, right?" It was just a guess, but it was an educated one.

The boy's eyes widened fractionally, but he nodded. "Papa says I can't go till I'm big. But I know that place just as good as Thom does!"

Vito hummed, bobbing his head in an agreeable way. "I think your papa is forgetting that brains are just as important as being big." Propping an elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand, he continued very seriously. "Are they doing it right down there, you think?"

The child's little face scrunched in thought, but after a while he shook his head. "The rat's got the place all rigged up, I bet. They went down from the big entrance by Kerwen's."

Extrapolating the likely implications, Vito stroked his goatee. "I bet lots of people know that one, including the rat." He paused a moment, as if in consideration. "Which entrance would you have used?"

The boy hesitated, his eyes flicking between the four of them. Vito didn't push any harder, keeping his expression open and friendly. He wouldn't get an answer if he applied too much pressure.

"Why're you askin'?"

Vito shrugged, a loose motion with no particular urgency. "We've got a rat to hunt, too." From one of his sleeves, he produced a silver coin, palming it, then holding it halfway out towards the boy between his thumb and forefinger.

This seemed to be an acceptable motivation at least. No doubt the bribe helped. After a moment more thought, the boy snatched the coin as though it might disappear at any moment. "I'd use the one behind the cathouse. Rat used to be sweet on one of the girls there."

It certainly stood to reason that this mysterious fellow wouldn't trap a passage he intended to use. Perhaps he still did.

Corvin's eyebrows were somewhere up near his hairline; he'd grinned through much of the exchange between Vito and the boy. "Looks like we've got an in," he remarked with a vaguely-perplexed smile. "What say we take it before our window of opportunity gets shut in our faces, eh?"

"A most apt suggestion, Mattone." Vito pushed himself back into a stand with his hands on his knees, then dusted himself off a bit by reflex. As promised, the day was apparently going to include an expedition into the sewers. How lovely.

Finding the 'cathouse' in a neighborhood of this size was at least partially a matter of asking around, and he was sure they made an unfortunately-memorable group of inquirers, at that. It was difficult to imagine that none of the Switchback's more criminally-inclined had not observed at least part of their progress; he honestly wouldn't be surprised if the boy they'd spoken to had immediately told just such a person about the conversation. It was just good business sense, after all—he might find himself with another few coppers for the trouble.

Having once been such a child, Vito knew the stupid ones rarely survived all that long.

Still, even in a neighborhood like this, there were plenty of people apathetic enough to point them in the right general direction without batting an eyelash at the picture they made, and the four of them had just entered what he suspected was the right block when a pair of shadows detached themselves from the close alley walls and blocked their way forward.

Ah. This would be the other shoe falling, then. Kotter ran an efficient operation, it seemed.

The first was a dwarf, young, female, with more than enough brawn to make up for her lack of height, while the other was an older human man, at least fifty, with greasy long hair and a full beard, the type that looked like he'd been in this sort of life forever. It came as no surprise that Kotter's outfit attracted more of his own kind, as they were very likely to share some of his experiences and relate to him in a way they never could with a Val Royeaux local.

But neither of them spoke at first, perhaps hoping their message would come across nonverbally, and while it did, the effect was negligible. Lia crossed her arms. "We're going this way. Move."

"I'd advise you go the other way," the dwarf responded, "straight back home. The Untouchables know why you're here. Kotter only wants to gut one person today, but if you force the issue he has no problem making it five."

"Gruesome," Corvin observed, though he didn't sound particularly threatened. "Thanks for the advice; I do like my guts best inside my body." He shrugged a little. "But... we're still going this way, if you'll excuse us." He took a step forward as if to emphasize the point, looking for all the world as though he fully intended to keep walking right into the pair of them.

Whether it was merely the utter boldness of this move, the strangeness, the elf's considerable build, or something else, they both shifted out of his way. "Fuckin' knife-ear," the man muttered, but it sounded more like confusion than vitriol.

For his part, Corvin gave a careless little salute in response, a clear indication he'd heard the words and was ignoring them as surely as the warning.

Vito just barely resisted the urge to laugh at the looks on their faces, managing only to constrain his mirth into a light chuckle. There was something to be said for a sense of self-possession so robust as that. He and the others followed the path their warrior friend blazed for them, and they were harassed no further on their way to the brothel.

As their erstwhile informant had promised, there was a grate set into the alley behind the building. It smelled exactly as he expected it to, considering that a large residential building disposed of waste here. Rank.

"I suppose I should be grateful a city of this size has a consistently-functional sewer system at all." The observation did not stop him from wrinkling his nose. Thank the Maker he'd worn boots and trousers today. The idea of anything down there soaking into the hem of a robe was nauseating.

Glancing around briefly, Vito observed no watchers. So he reached for a gentle application of a telekinetic spell and used it to shift the grate aside, so as to not need to touch it. It scraped with a dull rumble over the broken cobblestones next to it, before coming to a stop a few feet back. "All right then. Who would like the honors?"

"Can't be any worse than Darktown," Corvin observed, moving up to the exposed gap in the street and peering down to confirm the distance. "Bit of a jump, but the end looks pretty clear, actually." It certainly stank regardless, but it was a degree better than the alternative.

Lowering himself down, Corvin disappeared a moment later. It took a couple seconds, but he called back up. "Bit slick on the landing; rain I guess. I'll stand close so no one falls."

"Rain... right." Lia finished tugging on a pair of leather gloves, full-fingered rather than the open style she seemed to prefer. She was also prepared enough to have a cloth mask she could pull up and fasten over her mouth and nostrils. She lowered herself through the opening after Corvin.

"That's what I'm telling myself, anyway," Evie replied, as if saying it would make it true. She too had already pulled up her scarf around her nose and mouth, and had ever since Vito began to move the grate. She stared at the gap for a moment, internally struggling and before sighing and resigning herself to her fate. "Never saw myself in this position a year ago," she muttered before following behind Lia.

"Well I certainly hope not." Vito, without a scarf or any other such protection against the stench, was simply going to have to make do.

He lowered himself as far as he could before dropping the rest of the way, landing and immediately steadying himself as his left foot threatened to slip out from beneath the rest of him. Fortunately, Corvin was present as promised, and a hand on the sturdy elf's shoulder was more than enough to keep him upright.

The sewer was as ripe and dank as expected; it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, punctuated only occasionally by shafts of weak light from grates in the street. And better to keep away from those, lest something be deposited through the slats at an inopportune time.

"Best be on the lookout for these traps, then." Soft purple light bloomed over his hand, and he sent it to move ahead of the group, hopefully a little bit of warning before they stumbled across something deadly.

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Character Portrait: [NPC] Bartender Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur
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Lately pretty much nothing had been able to turn Corvin's stomach, and he wasn't terribly surprised to learn that this was no exception to the new rule. He supposed he'd always had a pretty good one—the first time they'd both seen a charred dead body, Donny had puked his guts out on the Coast, but Corvin had been fine to run all the way back to Kirkwall for help. Not for the dead bodies, of course—for the one among them that wasn't quite so dead.

Maybe it came of being raised in a place that didn't smell too much better than this.

He led the way through the sewer tunnel, occasionally sidestepping something that looked particularly rank, but runoff rainwater mostly did its job in washing the worst of things into the deeper trough at the center of the passage, where it was eventually carried to places he'd really rather not think about ever. There was still enough light coming in from the grates overhead to occasionally illuminate their way, but Vito's magelight was a much more consistent, welcome aid to vision.

If the hints they'd heard so far were correct, there was every reason to suspect that parts of this passage were trapped, so Corvin kept his eyes moving, looking for tripwires in particular, as they were the easiest kind of mechanism to set up on short notice and in a place like this. He couldn't imagine anyone wanting to stay here long enough to install a pressure plate, but magic was always an option too, so he wasn't going to be stupid and careless.

"Which way do we want from here, exactly?" he asked, pausing at an intersection. It seemed pretty systematic down here: north-south tunnels met east-west ones, and they were pretty much all arrow-straight. He had a pretty good sense of direction most of the time, but it was a lot harder without being able to see the sky.

Evie spun on her heel, taking a look down all four tunnels, even the one that they had come down moments ago. Her facial expressions were hidden by the scarf pulled up over her nose and mouth, but it was still obvious she was just as flummoxed as Corvin was. "Dunno..." she said, eyes lingering on the left-hand tunnel, "They all look the same to me. Any of them particularly look like they've seen more foot traffic then the others?" she asked over her shoulder and directed the query to Lia.

"I remember when my assignments took me to faraway forests," she said instead. "Snow-capped peaks, vast deserts... now I get why Dad needed to get out of Kirkwall so often." Lia wasn't unfamiliar with Darktown or Kirkwall's sewers, Corvin knew, but she'd barely been old enough to serve with the Argent Lions back in the city, and when she did start the scouts were more often employed on the coast, where they had more room to operate.

"We should go this way, by the way," she added, turning them east, her eyes rarely leaving the ground in front of her feet. "This has to be dwarven." She pointed to a print in a disgusting bit of something, the shape of the foot too wide to be human or elven. "Suppose that means we need to pick up the pace. Just watch your feet, we know Kotter doesn't want to be followed."

"This should be interesting." Vito's murmur from the back was just loud enough to pick up on, and then a field of very slightly purple-tinted translucency appeared in front of Corvin. "I'm no barrier expert, by the by. That's more likely to slow something than stop something."

Corvin took the warning for what it was and hefted his own metal kite shield on his arm, leaving his sword at his hip for now. It'd just take up space if he held it, and he really didn't want to assume that this was going to turn into a bloodbath or anything. He wasn't sure exactly how it was going to go instead, but that was for figuring out later.

Bearing Lia's advice in mind, he quickened his steps, hustling them down the passage at a shuffling jog, not wanting anyone to lose their footing on the slick stones down here.

"Whoa, whoa, hold up," he said abruptly, holding up his free hand to repeat the signal and drawing to a stop himself. "Tripwire. Careful over it."

Vito's magelight had hit it just the right way—he could've easily missed the thin length of metal twine otherwise. The trap was quite crude besides that, though, and clearly rigged up in a hurry. That too seemed to suggest they were headed in the right direction.

Carefully, Corvin stepped over the wire, taking a couple of steps forward to give the others more room to do the same.

He snapped his shield up by reflex when his foot caught on the second, more cleverly-concealed wire, and it was probably only that which saved him injury: the twin arrows launched by the trap hit Vito's barrier at nearly the same time. It deflected the first, but the second punched straight through, smacking into the metal face of the shield with a clang.

"Oh for—" Another look proved that there was a third wire in the sequence. Fortunately he hadn't triggered that one. He wasn't sure if it was the sewer rat or the crime gang that had fashioned all of these—probably a bit of both, Kotter's agents building on what was already there to make it harder to follow them than it already was just to navigate.

Lia rose slightly from the crouch she'd dropped into when Corvin set off the trap, making herself a smaller target in case any of the arrows came her way, but nothing did. She scooped up one of the fallen arrows, perhaps examining its quality, but apparently found it less than remarkable, for she tossed it aside where it was no threat to anyone.

"Probably better to just ease through rather than try to disarm these," she decided. She would know how to get that done, but it would take time they didn't have to do it safely, and if the Untouchables planned to come back through this way, they'd either have to do it themselves or suffer the consequences.

Lia led the way herself past the third tripwire, but hadn't made it more than a few steps before finding yet another trap, this time in the form of a pressure plate well concealed beneath her feet. The result of stepping on it was a sudden cascading stream of fire flung down from above her, spanning the entire width of the hall. She was caught by it a little, enough that her right sleeve caught alight, and she was forced to roll forward to smother it in the muck.

It was hard to see through the constant flames to where Lia was now cut off from them, but she seemed to be all right, though more than a little disgusted. Anything she thought to immediately say, however, was cut off by the deadly whistling of a crossbow bolt that narrowly missed her, flew through the flames, and nearly hit the rest of them.

"Ambush!" she called back to them. "I've got no cover."

A jet of water flew over Corvin's shoulder, aimed for the source of the flames. It wasn't enough to extinguish them immediately by a long shot, and the contact hissed and steamed, adding spoke and droplets of scalding water to the mix. With some time, it would probably douse the cloak of flame between Lia and the rest, but considering her predicament, that may well be time they lacked.

Corvin didn't wait for the smoke to clear or the flames to gutter out—he just went. Pulling in a quick breath, he held it and plunged through the dying sheet of fire and hissing water, unflinching even as some of the latter fell into his face and scalded his cheeks and brow.

The trigger of another crossbow sounded just as he reached Lia, reaching forward with his empty hand and gripping her firmly by the shoulder to pull her back and pivot himself forward into the space she occupied, leading with the shield. Desperation and close timing made his deflection less than ideal; the bolt and its immediate successor clanged into the metal face of the shield hard enough to jar his arm, and he hissed on the exhale, releasing his friend and drawing his sword.

The walkway was narrow, but the angles were a disadvantage—they were coming up on an intersection in the passage, and there seemed to be enemies positioned both to the right and left ahead, giving their bolts and arrows a lot of places to come from relative to what his shield could protect from.

"We've got to get up there—now. Evie, take the right with Vito. We'll go left. Don't let anything get our backs." At range, two of them were near useless with the kit they had, so the only way to do this was to take the fight to the ambushers.

Corvin advanced at a jog that verged on a run, narrowly knocking another bolt out of the air with his sword.

"You got me?" He heard Evie ask Vito. Unlike himself, her kit didn't include a shield and she was unlikely to dodge all the bolts shot at her without a little intervention. It didn't sound like she waited for his answer however as metal scratched on metal, the unmistakable sound of her estoc leaving its sheath.

Her footsteps, still behind him, added to his. Her pace was quicker by the sound of it, perhaps in order to try and use her smaller frame and agility to avoid some of the the bolts. Still, they were on a narrow walkway, and there weren't many places for her to go, and eventually a bolt leveled itself in her direction.

A gust of wind buffeted Corvin's back near the split, knocking the bolt enough askew that it glanced off Evie's shoulder sideways instead of point-first. "Not the best with shields, Amatrice," Vito reminded her, but their progress forward seemed to allow him to cast more offensively, too, and a swell of filthy water rose up from the channel cut into the passage and doused the first visible ambushers, sending several of them reeling back in some combination of surprise and disgust.

Vito chuckled softly, saying something under his breath that was difficult to hear over the din but sounded suspiciously like how's that for fighting dirty?

Lia kept close behind Corvin as he made a swift advance, close enough that her arm was actually in contact with his back most of the way. Bolts and arrows kept coming in, but at one point Lia found an opening to shoot back, sending an arrow right over Corvin's shoulder no more than a foot from his left ear. It sailed forward and thudded into the upper body of the nearest of the ambushers, sending him staggering backwards with a loud, pained cry. Lia ducked back down behind Corvin's cover.

"Leave him for me," she said roughly, her tone some mix of a foul mood and the need to be heard clearly. There were several more at least positioned farther back, but Lia was already replacing her bow with her dagger, intending to deal with this first one herself.

Corvin wasn't about to question it. Lia knew exactly what she was doing, and he trusted her besides. Lengthening his stride, he accelerated, shield forward, and ducked around the arrow-stricken ambusher. That put him on a pretty clear path to the others, and he took it with a fleet, almost reckless stride, heedless of the slippage of his boots on the wet stone beneath him.

They got the idea pretty quickly, abandoning their crossbows and drawing melee weapons. The first didn't get her own shield up in enough time, and Corvin slammed into her, leading with his own. She lost her footing, falling into the filthy water behind her, and he swung the shield in enough time to intercept the next blow, aimed high.

The one that cut low, from the dwarf in the trio, was more of a problem; he had to parry at an awkward angle, softening the hit instead of turning it back entirely. Kicking out, he staved off the follow-up just long enough to slam the rim of the shield into the human man's chin, sending him reeling a few steps back.

A fluid, powerful stroke disarmed him, and the second blow from the shield knocked him cold, toppling him like a sack of stones. By then the dwarf had recovered, and the woman was pulling herself from the muck, swearing in a florid blend of the trade tongue and native Orlesian, only some of which Corvin understood.

He got the gist, though, and grinned.

"Well I think that's at least third-date kind of stuff, and I don't even know your name yet." She lunged for him, and the clang of the parry was accompanied by the ring of his laughter.

The distant clash of other weapons was a different sort of ring, no doubt caused by Evie contending with some of the foes on the other side of the passage. The hum and rush of magic was there underneath it, too, blasting water and air the obvious cue as to Vito's contribution. From the fact that the grunts of pain were in unfamiliar voices, it seemed likely that they were holding their own.

He figured he should finish things as soon as he could, then. Staving off another blow from the woman, he turned into the dwarf's axe, letting his armor absorb the brunt of the damage. It hit hard enough that there was sure to be an impressive splotch on his ribcage tomorrow, but that was hardly unbearable. With a flourish of his sword, he slid the blade between the axe's haft and head, twisting suddenly enough to disarm and delivering another solid hit with the shield, taking its wielder out of the fight.

Angry as she was, the remaining fighter was almost trivially-easy to deal with: he tripped her as she charged, bringing himself down with her as she fell, knee planted on her back. The shield bludgeoned her until she was out, too, but none of them was dead.

As he preferred it.

Of course, not one of them was in a position to do much talking, either, but Corvin figured Lia had that under control.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lia Tael Character Portrait: Corvin Pavell Character Portrait: Vitorio Sansone Character Portrait: Evelyne Lafleur
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Lia descended on her target as soon as she was in the clear, landing a strong right hook across his jaw that spun him around to face away from her. "I want this back," she growled, reaching over his shoulder, grabbing the shaft of the arrow she'd put into him, and ripping it free. Blood spattered the wall in front of the thug, and his scream of agony echoed as she replaced the arrow into her quiver. He dropped his crossbow, and didn't seem to have the presence of mind to reach for the knife openly sheathed at his hip. Lia eyed it a moment, then pulled it out herself, tucking the blade under her belt. Not a bad piece of work.

She was in a very bad mood, admittedly. This place was disgusting, she was filthy, the people here hated her, and she was working a difficult mission with little information to go on. She had burns on her right arm, and this shem attempted to put several bolts into her without a second thought.

With an angry little snarl she planted her free hand against the back of the thug's head and smashed his face into the sewer wall. There was an awful crunch of the nose breaking, and Lia seized him by the shoulder, hauling him back until he lost his balance and fell backwards to the ground. In an instant she descended on him Parshaara practically hissing in her hand like a dragon.

She straddled him, planted her elbow across his chest near the neck, and flipped the dagger backwards in her hand, letting the point hover near one of his eyes. Good to prevent sudden movements. "You might be the most worthless life this dagger has ever taken, you know." Her tone was dark, angry, but quiet and serious. "And there's a fair bit of competition for that. But if you spill something useful, I might let you go in time to get help before you bleed out."

The man's expression had shifted as she spoke, from something like indignation through a familiar spectrum that passed surprise, incredulity, and landed on a still-disbelieving sort of fear. It likely had something to do with the dissonance between the threat Lia seemed to present and the threat she actually was, like it was slow to get through his head that she was in fact pointing an enchanted dagger right at his eye.

He went completely still under it though, probably helped by the fact that he'd surely be able to feel the heat of the dragonbone blade at the distance—enough to be more than a little uncomfortable. "W-what the fuck d'you want?" he managed, not quite stammering, but near enough that the failing of his courage was audible as well as visible. Whether it would actually yield anything remained to be seen.

Her elbow was near enough to where she'd pulled the arrow out of him. Without letting her gaze waver she shifted it ever so slightly, and pressed. Subtle enough that it might look like she didn't even notice she was hurting him. "How many of your people are with Kotter?" she demanded to know. "How much further is he? Are there more traps ahead? I don't have time for games, and neither do you. And if you lie to me and I live through today, you'd better expect an arrow in the back of your skull sometime soon." She'd do it, too. Lia didn't need anyone's permission to hunt down a worthless thug that no one would miss.

A pained hiss left him; he squirmed under her hold, struggling to hold his head still under the knife. His eyes started to water. "Don't—don't know how far he's gotten." His throat worked as he tried to swallow, not entirely successfull from the way he choked as he continued to speak. "Rat's supposed to be holed up 'nother mile in or—nngh."

"And how many of you are there after him?" Vito remained at a fair distance, his expression quite neutral. It was a rather sharp contrast to the usual pleasant smile he wore.

"Uhh.." He clearly had to think a moment about this. "D-dozen? No traps of ours what I know about. Rat might have some?" His eyes shifted from where they'd moved to Vito back to Lia. He swallowed again, thickly but well enough that his next words came out slightly clearer. "You with M or somethin'?"

"Not in the slightest," Lia answered dismissively. She was inclined to hurt him more for having the gall to ask her a question, but if she was going to let him live, she didn't want even the false rumor going around that they were aligned with someone on Leta's side. Cast off or not.

Holding silent a moment longer, Lia decided that she'd heard enough. She pushed off of him and got clear a step, allowing him to get up if he was still capable of it. "Get out of here, then. Try not to kill yourself on a trap on the way out." His friends could sleep in the shit a while longer, for all Lia cared. From the sound it they didn't have time to deal with them any further.

The man looked rather surprised to actually be allowed to go, struggling to his feet immediately. The wound in his shoulder looked to be giving him some trouble, but between his other arm and his legs, he managed. "Uh... yeah." His brow furrowed for a moment when he considered the still bodies around him, but he must have reached the same conclusion she had about letting them come around on their own time.

He wasted no more of his own, beating a hasty shuffle back from the way they'd come.

Cor clicked his tongue against this teeth, arms crossed over his chest. "If it's only a mile they're probably there already," he noted, eyebrows furrowing. "I guess we're going to have to try anyway. Maybe they won't mind negotiating." He didn't sound especially hopeful about the prospect, but that he'd mentioned it at all was a fair expression of the optimism he at least tried to maintain most of the time.

Lia would've been more optimistic, if their position had been more advantageous. Criminal leaders were rarely zealots in the way the cults she'd fought were. They lacked ideologies that would lead them to throw their lives away even when it was unnecessary, instead seeking survival at all costs, and profit after that. But if this was going to play out how Lia expected, it wasn't Kotter's group that would need to negotiate for survival. They were four, in their enemy's territory, and they were very likely too slow to get what they wanted.

They pressed on another half-mile, a little more recklessly than before, but the thug Lia interrogated proved to be good to his word, and there were no more deadly traps they needed to navigate around. Instead she could focus on the trail, and before long it became quite fresh. They were getting close.

"No one draw first blood," she suggested, sheathing Parshaara. "We're not here to bring down the gang, just for the Venatori."

"Mhm," Evie agreed quietly. The estoc remained perched on her back, and her shortsword hadn't budged from her side. The same thought that crossed Lia's mind must've crossed Evie's as well, and though the mask still obscured much of her face, her body language wasn't that of a relaxed individual. "Think this'll work?" she asked aloud for the others. Her own tone was rather uncertain however.

"No." Vito's reply was rather solid; he offered a small shrug and an apologetic smile. "Doesn't mean it isn't worth trying, however. Gangs like this are often committed to their own senses of justice and fair reprisal for misdeeds, but they're fundamentally pragmatic, at least. Shouldn't try knifing us in the guts unless we're too disrespectful to tolerate. Or try to press the point too hard."

They were definitely getting close now—there were raised voices ahead, just loud enough to hear as they approached.

"Just kill me then, if that's why we're all here!"

The plea came from a young man, his accent plainly Tevinter. They rounded the corner into a convergence of the sewerlines, a large rounded chamber lit mostly by torches, though some natural light filtered down from a grate above, where a steady drip came through and plinked against the stones underfoot. The torchlight belonged to the Untouchables, who were gathered here in force and armed to the teeth, all surrounding their dwarven leader and his bound and bloodied captive.

There were no less than twenty of them, and Lia was sure more would be in the shadows or on watch down the other paths. Kotter, the leader, would be a difficult fight on his own. He'd fled from a previous encounter, but here he had the advantage, and he had a fearsome maul and the strength to wield it. With twenty of his best, including his blood mage, a fight wasn't an option here. They were good, but Lia guessed they could only take half of them in these tight quarters before they were overwhelmed and killed.

No few of them reacted in surprise to their arrival, and the rather unstealthy manner in which they made their entrance. There were shouts to get Kotter's attention, and he stepped back from his prisoner to face them. The prisoner had to be this 'M' they wanted; he looked as much a Vint as he sounded, even without the telltale white robes of his cult.

"I remember you," the tattooed dwarf remarked, gesturing with the head of his maul towards Cor. "One of the mercs that crashed the meeting with that Castle-town tin can." He tilted his head a little, as if trying to see past him into the blackness beyond. "You lot kill any of my people getting here?"

Cor, who'd stowed his blade like the rest of them but kept his shield on his arm, shook his head. "Not unless someone got really unlucky." It could be hard to gauge exactly the amount of force required to knock someone out, and Lia knew he'd had a few odd mishaps recently hitting much harder than he'd intended to, but unless there'd been an accident, it was pretty obvious that no one should be dead.

His eyes flickered to the young Vint, brow furrowing faintly. He didn't look like he'd been having a great time of things, from the blooming black eye and the smears of blood visible on his clothes and skin. It didn't seem to be that in particular that perturbed Cor, though. Maybe it had more to do with what it meant for their chances of getting M out of here alive. "I'd uh... really prefer it if no one was dead at the end of all this, actually." He tried for his customary good-natured smile, which looked rather natural on his face despite the circumstances. It might've even been strange if she'd not known him beforehand.

He looked for all the world like an elf expecting a positive answer, though he surely wasn't.

"You might be surprised to hear that I'd prefer the same," said the dwarf. His accent, like most surface dwarves, was still thickly that of Orzammar, and he made no efforts to hide his origins there, his brands and tattoos identifying him as both former Casteless and former Carta. "I try not to kill too often. Takes the enjoyment out of it. So I really only kill when I have to, and today is one of those days. I've waited quite a while to get my hands on this Vint piece of nugshit."

"We're not here to save him," Lia assured him. "He's as much our enemy as yours, but we need him alive. He's no head of his organization, but he could help us get to them. We'd be more than willing to take the fight to your enemy for you, in that case."

"I've got nothing for you, or any Argent Lion," spat M, with disdain. "Little more than lapdogs of the Inquisition."

"He called me worse," Kotter said, apparently amused. "But you see? Fucker wants to die. He's been cut loose and he knows it. I've already pried at him, gently by my standards. Nothing. Even trudging around in the sewers you lot look too clean and shiny to do worse. He's useless to you."

"You don't know me very well," Lia said, her tone almost a warning. She didn't look like a torturer, and maybe she wasn't, but her years and her experiences had given her a will and resolve to do what she had to. Especially where the Venatori were concerned.

"You're right, I don't," Kotter conceded. "I also don't know who sent you. You are fancy sellswords, right? Is it true what the Vint says? Inquisition pulls your strings? Or is this personal?"

Cor raised a hand, tipping it back and forth in a 'so-so' motion. "Fancy sellswords, yes. Bit of both on the other part," he admitted freely. Nodding at M, he explained a bit more. "This blighter's with the Venatori, and the Inquisition has quite a lot of reason to want to root that sort out, you understand. But uh... we're none too pleased with his most recent side project, either. Riot in the Alienage; I'm sure you heard about it?" Given their reason for the first confrontation with dwarf, it was all but a certainty that this would connect several dots for him.

It wasn't uncommon for Cor to walk this particular line. Everything he said was true, but he also left enough out that the elements most likely to irritate Kotter—in this case, the Guard connection—were absent from the explanation entirely. Lia knew he wasn't fond of doing it, but he was also very good at it, and tended at least to let people do most of the work of filling in the gaps themselves, letting them reach an incomplete or slightly-off understanding that he seldom corrected.

Nevertheless the dwarf did seem a little irritated, or perhaps just tired of speaking with the unwanted guests. "Too smooth by half, you are. I'll tell you straight who sent me and mine here: the people. The people of the Bends." He nonchalantly allowed his maul's head to fall to the ground, and it just so happened to smash the Venatori's toes, eliciting a pained groan. "The people found this fucker out for me, and the people have demanded a corpse. I intend to deliver, because I prefer having the people on my side. I made a mistake before, one that gets rectified right here."

Lia grimaced. This wasn't going particularly well, and they were probably lucky Kotter didn't feel like attacking on sight. Safe bet he didn't want to lose the people it would take to bring down the likes of them, though he had the numbers to do it.

"Here's the compromise," Kotter continued. "If one of you wants to kill the Vint and make it quick, go right ahead. Otherwise piss off and leave me to it. The people want one corpse today, not five."

They were going to move him from this, it seemed. Tactically it was a nightmare. The Untouchables stood ready with arrows nocked and crossbows loaded, knives and axes held in steady hands. Lia had an arrow already free of the quiver herself, but didn't dare nock it yet. "Not sure there's a choice," she said to her allies. "I can do it, I'll make it clean. None of this is worth dying for." There were times not to give ground, but this wasn't one of them. She waited only to see if there were any objections.

"About as good as it's going to get, I suppose." Vito didn't seem especially perturbed by this, and actually went as far as to offer Kotter the slightest nod, as if in acknowledgment of something. The bargain, perhaps.

Cor looked markedly less satisfied, but it was obvious enough that there was no getting anything better out of the deal than that, and a merciful death was probably better than whatever M was going to get at Kotter's hands. He met Lia's eyes, and gave her a tiny nod.

That was all she needed, but Lia still lifted a hand before she thought of lifting her bow. "Might want to take a step back, Kotter. Don't want anyone to think I'm about to shoot you."

The dwarf obliged, though he gestured to her hip with his maul. "I like the look of your dagger. Sure you wouldn't rather use that?There's something so impersonal about the distance an arrow provides." He wasn't wrong about that, but Lia figured it was for the best. Killing a defenseless prisoner wasn't something she'd done before. Even if he was Venatori, her enemy. Even if it was mercy.

M never broke eye contact with her, even as she pulled the arrow back until her breath touched the fletching. Only when it whistled into his heart did he flinch, and then his head did lower, and his eyes closed. There had been no look of thanks there, just the steady burning gaze of an enemy to the last. Lia lowered her bow.

Kotter approached the body to confirm the kill. "Seems that concludes our business here. I'd prefer if we didn't have business again but... somehow I doubt that. Until next time, then."

He didn't have to tell her twice. The dwarf probably considered this a good day, with the Venatori dead, a prize to deliver to the poor and outraged of the city. He was a bad man, there was no doubt about that, but Lia wondered if it wasn't for the best. He was no friend to their enemies, and while he had power their enemies would find it difficult to regain a foothold in Riverbend. Not what the guard captain wanted, exactly, but she and Kotter could battle it out another day.

Somehow Lia suspected the Argent Lions would end up in the middle on that day, too.