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By The Sea, By The Sea [Complete]

Nicolette O'Hara

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#1
[[OOC: 16th Harvestmere, afternoon]]
Celeste Monroe
Nicolette was fairly certain that this was how people ended up dying, or sucked into plots that eventually ended with them being betrayed. She had just been packing up her things after a set in Hightown when a man had approached her, most of his face swathed by a burnoose, and pushed some coin and a letter in her hand with the promise of more money upon delivery. Normally Nicolette would have pushed it back at him, but it was a surprisingly generous amount of money and she was not in a position to refuse. Since her patronage with Valerio had fallen through, she had been all right but all it took was a few bad days for her to go from ‘paying all that she owed’ to ‘outright impoverished.’

At least this time she was not being pressured into scoping out a shady healer down in Darktown. This time, the letter was requested for a woman at the docks, and Nicolette was fine with that. The qunari made her slightly nervous but she enjoyed the smell of the salt spray, and listening to the splash of the waves mingled with the clamour of the sailors and the creak of the ships. Someday she would take one of those ships away from here – or maybe she would walk out of the gates facing west, heading in the direction of her old homeland. But for now Kirkwall had not dried its supply of diversions, and at least this one did not promise any danger.

She simply had to find a blonde sailor by the name of Celeste, and deliver a note to her. Afterwards she would pick a spot on the docks and perform a few shanties for the sailors until she had earned enough to satisfy her needs for the next few days. Sailors and the men who made their living along the quays tended to be more generous with their coin than the refugees in Lowtown.

It took some asking around, but eventually a world-weary man who had clearly more to deal with than people asking him bothersome questions directed her attention to a ship not far down the docks, and by the gangway was a woman who matched the description of her recipient exactly.
A rather handsome woman, at that.

“Celeste Monroe?” She gave her best smile. “Bonsoir. I was asked to deliver this to you.”

Thibault was curling around her feet, as usual, but he did not stiffen or bark, so she assumed the woman was safe.
 
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Celeste Monroe

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#2
“Careful, dammit!” Celeste bellowed up the gangplank. Inspection had revealed cracks at the base of the foremast to go along with the shattered mainmast, so it was being uprooted, leaving her poor ship looking like a sodding rowboat with both masts gone and putting an even bigger dent in her funds. And quite possibly leaving her stuck even longer in this shithole of a city with Qunari and templars and blood mages -

“Celeste Monroe?” The day might be looking up, and Celeste returned the smile that the exotic looking beauty offered her.

“That’s me,” she confirmed, adding with a grimace, “Captain of the only no-masted schooner on Thedas.”

“Bonsoir.” That sounded Orlesian, and the light accent as she went on confirmed it. “I was asked to deliver this to you.” The dog that snugged up against her legs was a big one, but seemed friendly enough, and with the Thing still sleeping off the previous night’s debauchery of whiskey, mice and loose cats, was in no danger of getting shredded.

Celeste knew even before she took the tightly folded note who it was from; the cramped but obsessively neat script used to write her name across the front was one that she had seen many times, and it promised a welcome distraction from her current irritations.

Accepting the delivery, she unfolded it over and over until the parchment lay open in her hands, the writing embellished by capital letters and underscoring to emphasize key words.

TOP SECRET!!!

IF YOU ARE NOT CELESTE MONROE STOP READING AT ONCE!!!

Celeste!

It is important vital imperative that I meet with you IMMEDIATELY! VERY URGENT!

The SAFETY very EXISTENCE of Kirkwall is at stake!!

Come to my shop, BUT be sure you are NOT followed!

G.


P.S. – Bring help!

P.P.S. – EAT THIS to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands!!


That was Gaddrick for you. His projects ranged from mildly eccentric to batshit crazy, but they all had two things in common: they paid well, and they were never less than interesting. Unfortunately, one of the unofficial rules that Celeste had set for herself in her dealings with the dwarf was to always follow his instructions, no matter how odd. Kept things interesting. So … down the hatch.

She wadded up the parchment, popped it into her mouth and chewed … and chewed … and chewed … and finally swallowed. Needed salt and about a gallon of ale to wash it down. Hopefully he'd go back to burning them soon

She glanced to the pretty messenger. “I’m guessing that you were promised payment on delivery?” she asked amiably. “Come on, then, you can get it from the source.” Turning back to the ship, she shouted up, “Torgun, keep an eye on things; I’ll be back later!” That done, she gestured for the brunette to accompany her with a grin. “You can introduce yourself on the way.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#3
The woman had been wearing a countenance of extreme irritation when Nicolette approached her, but it quickly became a smile as she turned to face her. Nicolette looked in fascination at the gold lining Celeste’s ears. She had not seen augmentations that elaboration outside of Rivain. Perhaps she had travelled there herself? But Nicolette had a task to do before she could start asking questions, and she held out the letter to the captain. Celeste took it, cast her eyes over it…

…and then ate the parchment. Nicolette was fairly certain that her brows were near her hairline with surprise, and she just watched as the woman worked the letter in her mouth before finally swallowing it. She had heard of such things, of course; it came with a few of the wilder spy and bard stories she possessed. However, she had never actually seen anybody do it. Celeste did not seem even that perturbed by it, and when she was done she started talking as though she had not just consumed a sizeable wad of paper.

“I’m guessing that you were promised payment on delivery?” Nicolette nodded. “Come on, then, you can get it from the source.” Celeste turned to one of the other sailors and bellowed instructions to him as Nicolette weighed the safety of the situation. It was broad daylight, Thibault was with her and she was wearing her daggers. She could also use her vielle case as a fairly weighty club. It seemed unlikely that she would be set on the moment she was out of sight of the quay, and she responded with a smile as Celeste gestured for her to follow. “You can introduce yourself on the way.”

“Thank you, Captain Celeste.” Nicolette followed up the gangplank, Thibault trotting close behind her. “I am Nicolette O’Hara, travelling minstrel – and fairly recently deliverer of mysterious letters. Your correspondent was a little…strange.” They reached the level of the deck. “Do you often eat your letters from him?” Her tone was interested, not critical. She looked around the deck of the schooner.

Nicolette liked ships. They were freedom, they were board, and they guaranteed an audience for every night she was there. Sailors tended to like her music and she rarely spent nights alone when she was travelling. But they were also more expensive than travelling by foot most of the time, and it was a rare treat to be on one. This ship was beautifully kept and she glanced over everything with an admiring eye.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#4
The messenger's expression as Celeste devoured the message was priceless, but – points to her – she didn't bolt, and even followed when Celeste invited her along.

“Thank you, Captain Celeste,” she said as they made their way up the gangplank. “I am Nicolette O’Hara, travelling minstrel – and fairly recently deliverer of mysterious letters. Your correspondent was a little…strange. Do you often eat your letters from him?”

“Only when he tells me to,” Celeste replied, rolling her eyes good naturedly. “Sometimes he wants me to burn them, or tear them into tiny pieces and throw them into the water or feed them to the cat." That one had been an adventure, and she'd charged him extra for the healing she'd needed after force feeding the scrap of paper to the Thing.

The woman was looking around the deck with an admiring expression that won her extra points.“Traveling minstrel, eh?” Celeste asked, heading for the aftercastle and her cabin. “If you're around and wanting to travel once we've got her repaired, we'll be heading for Antiva. I've been known to give passage and meals to decent minstrels in exchange for songs and stories. You know any shanties?”

The captain's cabin was the most generously apportioned on any ship, and Quinton Monroe had taken advantage of Old Torgun's talents with wood to take it a step further,with shelves, wardrobes and of course, the wine racks, built into the cabin's walls. The bed and desk were likewise constructed with one end secured to the wall. It limited the options for rearranging the furnishings, but the only things that had to be secured in rough seas were the two leather upholstered chairs, and Old Torgun had provided brackets for just that purpose in the aft portion of the cabin, in front of the tub and loo set into the bench that ran across the cabin wall beneath the heavy, leaded glass windows (since no one was likely to be either bathing or taking a dump during a storm).

Grabbing her boots, she dropped onto the bed to exchange them for her sandals. She'd made the mistake of not doing so once and nearly broken a toe when she kicked some bearded giant in the balls while retrieving a set of plans that a rival had stolen from Gaddrick. “She's definitely not at her best right now,” she said, unstrapping the sandals and pulling on the boots. “But with her masts in and sails flying, she's one of the best ships of any size on the seas of Thedas.” Standing, she retrieved her vest from its hook and slipped it on. “Shall we?”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#5
It was apparently not common for Celeste to be told to eat letters from her contact, although today had not been the first time either. It seemed he had a penchant for creatively destroying all communications with the captain, and even though the man had not seemed the type to have much of a sense of humour, Nicolette had to wonder if somewhere deep inside he secretly enjoyed coming up with these methods. Feeding paper to a cat was tantamount to dealing the recipient a thorough scratching. She giggled softly as Celeste described what she had been through catering to her contact’s demands.

“I did once eat parchment,” Nicolette offered, “But that was by mistake. One of my friends had hidden a love note in a fruit tart and did not count on my eating it whole.” Eward had been very put out that his gesture had gone so wrong, but she had found it funny.

Celeste was interested in her profession, which earned her points. Nicolette could talk about being a minstrel for hours (and frequently had to restrain herself from doing so – nobody wanted to hear her expound on the beauty of Rivaini ragas for an hour). “If you’re around and wanting to travel once we’ve got her repaired, we’ll be heading for Antiva. I’ve been known to give passage and meals to decent minstrels in exchange for songs and stories. You know any shanties?”

Nicolette nodded with a bright smile. “I have quite a number. Ranging from the sweet ones that speak wistfully of times on the waves to the ones that I cannot play on the street for fear of being arrested by the guard for indecency. And I may well take you up on that; I do not tend to stay in one place for particularly long.”

Celeste lead her into the cabin and started changing her shoes, swapping sandals for boots as tough as the wooden decking. “She’s definitely not at her best right now. But with her mast in and sails flying, she’s one of the best ships of any size on the seas of Thedas.” The captain stood and pulled on a vest. “Shall we?”

Nicolette had assumed they were going into the cabin to fetch the coin, and was surprised to realise that they might have to go back to Celeste’s mystery correspondent to get it. But it would mean more time chatting with this new and interesting person, and she never turned down that sort of opportunity.

As well as that, she did actually want the money.

So she smiled and nodded. “Lead the way.” She followed behind the captain, taking a moment to admire the cut of the vest on her. “Forgive my curiosity; may I ask what was in the missive, or is it rude of me to do so? Apologies, I have a storyteller’s hunger for details.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#6
“I have quite a number,” Nicolette confirmed with an appealing smile when asked about her shanty repertoire. “Ranging from the sweet ones that speak wistfully of times on the waves to the ones that I cannot play on the street for fear of being arrested by the guard for indecency. And I may well take you up on that; I do not tend to stay in one place for particularly long.”

“A woman after my own heart,” Celeste grinned at her, then sighed. “Gonna be a bit, though,” she admitted, nodding to her currently mastless deck. “Storm fucked us over but good, took two of my crew, to boot.” The Wicked Grace could be repaired, but Piper and Julien were gone for good.

If the minstrel/messenger had expected to be paid in the cabin, she hid her surprise well. “Lead the way,” she responded gamely, trailing behind as Celeste strolled back on deck and down the gangplank. “Forgive my curiosity; may I ask what was in the missive, or is it rude of me to do so? Apologies, I have a storyteller’s hunger for details.”

Normally, that would have been Celeste's cue to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of bullshit, but where this particular subject was concerned, exaggeration was rarely necessary. “It was sent by a bloke named Gaddrick Gavorn. He's a dwarf, and rumor has it that he was exiled from Orzammar about twenty years ago after he blew up part of their Diamond District in one of his experiments.” There were other rumors, but that was the one that she'd heard most often. “He's been here in Kirkwall for as long as I can remember, but he's never adjusted to living on the surface; still convinced he'll fall into the sky. He's … an inventor, I guess. Has a shop on the edge of Hightown with all sorts of trinkets that the blue-bloods pay through the nose for, but he's always got ideas cooking in that noggin of his, and since he's afraid to go outside, he pays for folk to do his running around for him. Pays damn well, too.”

As they made their way off the docks, she glanced at her pretty companion. “He's also crazier than a shithouse rat, so his errands tend on the odd side, but they're always interesting and usually not too dangerous.” Quite aware that her own definition of 'dangerous' differed from that of the general population, Celeste decided to have mercy. “He did ask me to bring help for this one, and he said something about the safety of Kirkwall being at stake, but that's pretty typical of him, and it's almost never true. You can listen to what he wants done and decide. You want to help, we can split the pay, and I can guarantee that you'll have a tale to tell; you don't, I'll give you a glowing recommendation, he'll tack a nice tip on top of your pay for delivering the message and I can give you an account of my adventure that may or may not be exaggerated.” She quirked a grin. “Either way, care for drinks afterward?”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#7
Nicolette let curiosity overwhelm manners and asked (still politely, mind) if she could be privy to the details of the strange missive and its even stranger originator. She expected the captain to wave her off and tell her it was no concern of hers – which would have been expected, and Nicolette could still have happily passed the time making up new versions of events for her own amusement – but to her surprise, Celeste seemed quite content to furnish her with some background details. It appeared that her correspondent was a dwarf, called Gaddrick, and Celeste had some colourful descriptors regarding the man. She appeared to like him well enough, but clearly considered him almost entirely insane, which begged the question of why she would be so willing to work for him and comply with such demands as eating parchment.

Then Celeste revealed that Gaddrick paid very well and that particular mystery was resolved. Nicolette herself had performed for some strange individuals in the past in exchange for handsome reward. In fact it was that possibility that had led her to accept this particular task in the first place. And so far, she was glad she had. Celeste was interesting, not to mention enjoyable to watch, and had indicated that the sort of task she had coming up was ‘not too dangerous’. Although her definition and Nicolette’s definition of that phrase might differ slightly.

As if aware that Nicolette’s ears had pricked up slightly, Celeste continued. “He did ask me to bring help for this one, and he said something about the safety of Kirkwall being at stake-” Nicolette quirked an eyebrow – “but that's pretty typical of him, and it's almost never true. You can listen to what he wants done and decide. You want to help, we can split the pay, and I can guarantee that you'll have a tale to tell; you don't, I'll give you a glowing recommendation, he'll tack a nice tip on top of your pay for delivering the message and I can give you an account of my adventure that may or may not be exaggerated.” Celeste grinned. “Either way, care for drinks afterward?”

Oh, yes. Nicolette returned the other woman’s smile. Well, why not see what Gaddrick wanted? As Celeste said, she did not have to go along with it, and she had been meaning to get some good stories from Kirkwall. If they were first-hand, so much the better. “A definite yes, to the drinks,”she confirmed. “I always enjoy talking with fellow travellers.” She allowed her gaze to warm a little before continuing. “And I believe I will listen to what Gaddrick wants. After all, if it is to save Kirkwall, how could I refuse?” She quirked a smile at Celeste. Hopefully the other woman was right about the dwarf’s propensity for exaggeration.

They started in the direction that was presumably towards the dwarf’s residence or current hide-out. “I have not engaged in much subterfuge before, I must warn you. I am very much not a bard, despite the accent, but I can run extremely fast when the situation calls for it.” She chuckled to keep the mood light while simultaneously throwing Celeste a chance to decide she might not want an inexperienced minstrel as her second. Nicolette wanted to see what would happen but not at the expense of the other woman’s well-being.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#8
“A definite yes, to the drinks,” Nicolette told Celeste with a warm smile. “I always enjoy talking with fellow travellers.” Their eyes met with a pleasant spark of frisson that suggested the possibility of other kinds of adventures later. Business first, though. “And I believe I will listen to what Gaddrick wants,” she went on gamely. “After all, if it is to save Kirkwall, how could I refuse?”

“You won't be bored,” Celeste promised her.

“I have not engaged in much subterfuge before, I must warn you,” the brunette told her as they went on, adding with a little laugh. “I am very much not a bard, despite the accent, but I can run extremely fast when the situation calls for it.”

“How are you at sneaking?” Celeste wanted to know. Ninety percent of Gaddrick's jobs could be handled by stealth and running like hell. The other ten percent, well …

Gaddrick's shop, Mechanical Wonders, sat at the edge of the rise toward Hightown: a single-story structure made of granite blocks with a slate roof; not a splinter of wood had been used in its construction. Inside, the shelves and counters were crowded with the aforementioned mechanical wonders that the wealthy far beyond Kirkwall paid dearly for. An eight inch high dragon, its green scales perfectly cut emeralds, flapped tiny wings and blew a miniature flame. A perfectly enameled pair of dancers swirled and twirled on a metal stand to the accompaniment of delicate music emanating from within the stand. One entire wall was dedicated to water clocks and other mechanical timepieces; another to music boxes with and without animated figures.

Gaddrick hired other dwarves to handle the artistic touches: jewelcraft, painting and such, but the mechanical designs that lay at the heart of each piece were crafted by him and a handful of trusted apprentices. Three well-dressed dwarves moved among the merchandise, politely interacting with customers; their eyes cut to Celeste briefly, then to her companion, before passage was granted with a single nod. Carta youngbloods, putting in their time guarding one of the organization's most valuable assets.

Through the shop and into the workshop behind, where a score of projects in varying stages of completion sat on benches with half a dozen craftsmen at work. Again they were scrutinized and again allowed to pass; Celeste was a semi-regular visitor, and anyone with her was given the benefit of the doubt. She'd heard of half a dozen assassination attempts over the twenty years that the dwarf had been in Kirkwall, but she'd never heard of an assassin who had survived the attempt. She'd had a couple of people try to hire her to steal pricey commissions in lieu of paying the arm and leg that each cost, and had wasted no time telling them to go fuck themselves. Crazy, not stupid.

Down stairs cut into the stone now; the shop and its wares on the surface were just window dressing as far as Gaddrick and the Carta were concerned, albeit obscenely profitable window dressing. The real work took place in the warren of rooms carved into the stone below the city, and the only time Gaddrick ever emerged from them was on overcast nights. The rooms were almost stiflingly hot, kept that way by the assorted forges, stoves and torches; Celeste didn't know where the smoke went, but she'd heard it rumored that Gaddrick had vented it in such a way as to power a set of bellows for the biggest forge, somewhere in the back. The work tables were carved from solid blocks of granite, and the score of dwarves laboring over them never looked up when Celeste and Nicolette walked in. Security down here was handled by half a dozen Carta thugs who didn't bother looking respectable as they leaned against the walls and watched the proceedings impassively, like golems that would only come to life when there was a threat to counter.

“Celeste! You're late!” Gaddrick bellowed when he caught sight of her and barreled between the worktables. As usual, his grey hair stuck out in every direction, his clothes could probably have walked by themselves, and the bits of food caught in the wild bristle of his mustache and beard could have been there for two hours or two weeks. He had a small army of keepers that made sure that he ate and slept, and rumor had it that before any meetings with important clients they drugged his ale and bathed him. “Did I not tell you that -”

“The very existence of Kirkwall is at stake,” she finished for him patiently. “I got your note, came as soon as I did. Nicolette here,” she gestured to the minstrel, “delivered it very promptly. Gaddrick Gavorn, Nicolette O'Hara."

Social niceties were not the dwarf's strong suit. “Huh,” Gaddrick grunted, and stepped closer to the messenger. Dark eyes peered up at the minstrel from beneath bushy grey eyebrows for a long moment. “Huh,” he grunted again, stumping over to a chest that he flipped open, silver and copper gleaming in the torchlight as he plunged a grubby hand in and drew out a handful of coins, stumped back and thrust the coins out to her with yet another grunt. Gaddrick cared as little about money as he did about hygiene, and the Carta didn't let him keep gold in that chest, but there should be more than enough to compensate Nicolette for delivering the message.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#9
The captain did not need to promise Nicolette that she would not be bored; the minstrel had never doubted it for a moment. Excitement could turn into fear in a breath if a situation went wrong, however, and Nicolette was quick to warn Celeste that she was unused to covert behaviour. Oh, she could spin a lie with the best of them and keep track of it, but actually conning people was not something she engaged in. Celeste seemed less interested in that than whether she could sneak, and Nicolette nodded, despite the fact that she knew this was going to lead into a situation where she might well end up in danger.

She hated to admit it, but while the situations were no fun while she lived them, getting out of them in one piece gave her a mild thrill these days.

“I am fairly good at sneaking. I have had to avoid trouble on a few occasions, and dancing keeps me light on my feet.”

That seemed to be good enough, as Celeste continued to lead her towards this Gaddrick’s shop. It was a curious place, with not a single wooden beam or support visible from the outside. It was square and grey and unassuming, and Nicolette immediately forgot about the strangeness of it when she stepped inside.

On every wall was a marvel. Brass, silver, gold and chrome shone from all around, and jewels winked in the muted light provided by the strange dwarven lanterns that had no flame. Few of the objects had a direct purpose, it seemed, except to be whimsical and beautiful, and clearly worth more money than she had ever owned at once. Her gaze settled on a dragon plated entirely with emeralds and breathing real fire, then her gaze was caught by a series of music boxes. A statue of brass unfolded from a simple teardrop shape outwards into a flower with an exquisitely wrought woman within who spun on one leg and had sapphires for eyes.

It was astonishing, and Nicolette could have spent an age in there, examining the trinkets and never able to work out how the worked, marvelling at the play of metal and stone. She wanted to touch almost everything and in the same moment knew that she would definitely not be allowed to. She was still staring around in wonder when she realised she had almost lost her escort, and hurried to keep up with Celeste as the captain disappeared through a passageway leading into a back section of the shop.

The same curiosities lining the walls outside were being constructed in here. Again, Celeste didn’t tarry, and the dwarves working there barely glanced up. It was becoming warmer as they passed through a guarded entrance and Nicolette affected to appear unbothered by it, as she also attempted to do as they left the shop properly and headed down some thick stone steps into a room lined with people who bristled with weapons. Thibault stayed close to her heel. Nicolette pulled a face that she hoped insinuated that she was used to this sort of thing.

“Celeste! You’re late!” An older dwarf was running towards them. He admonished Celeste for not coming sooner, and the captain introduced Nicolette as the messenger who had ensured that his note got through. Gaddrick looked up at her without censure for a moment, and Nicolette returned the look, resisting the urge to let her pleasant smile turn nervous. He was a strange man, encrusted with food and soot, the sort who was wedded to his work. He did not spare more than a grunt for her, but simply turned to open a chest full of coin and plunged in his hand to withdraw her payment.

Gaddrick’s hands, like those of most dwarves, were considerably wider than Nicolette’s own. What he poured into her cupped palms was more than she typically earned in a week, and she was not able to prevent her eyes from widening. She had to fumble to ease it into her coinpurse, which seemed to stretch at the seams. She would have to hide it somewhere other than her belt on the walk home or she was likely to be robbed instantly. “Thank you!”

Gaddrick shot her another look, grunted again, and then turned his attention to Celeste while Nicolette made sure she did not lose any of her unexpected windfall on the floor. “You’re later than I’d like,” he clarified. “But…having a companion might be useful.”

Nicolette looked up from closing the purse. She had talked herself up to Celeste, she sincerely hoped she was not about to regret it.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#10
Celeste had long since become accustomed to the marvels of Gaddrick's shop, though a particularly clever – or shiny – piece could still capture her attention. She could well remember the first few times that Daniel had brought her here, though, so she shortened her stride a bit to give Nicolette a bit of gawking time. There were some side-eyes directed at the dog, but as he stayed at his mistress' heel, no one intervened.

Below, the minstrel maintained her composure admirably when the disheveled dwarf barreled down on them, though her eyes nearly bulged from her head when he filled her hands with coin as payment for delivering the message. “Thank you!” she exclaimed, managing to tuck the bounty away in her purse, and Celeste made a mental note to make sure she had tucked it out of sight before they ventured into the streets again. The bulging fabric all but begged for a mugging.

Gaddrick stepped back, looked her up and down, then turned back to Celeste. “You’re later than I’d like,” he grumbled. “But … having a companion might be useful.”

“You mentioned that in your note,” she reminded him with no trace of impatience. Gaddrick was Gaddrick, and getting frustrated with him was as productive as getting mad at the wind for blowing. “What's this about?”

“What's it about?” The bushy brows knit together in astonishment. “What's it about? You're at the sodding docks, girl! Don't tell me you haven't seen them!”

“The Qunari?” she guessed.

“Of course, it's the sodding Qunari!” he bellowed, waving his hands in the air. “The horned devils are here for mischief, mark my words, and Kirkwall will be helpless against them!” Despite the fact that he rarely ventured to the surface, the dwarf had an odd sort of pride in the city. “But I've got a way to even the odds. What makes them so dangerous?”

“Being as big as trees and armed to the teeth?”

He snorted. “A well aimed crossbow bolt'll put one down fast enough. No, girl, it's their gaatlock that is the danger. A few barrels of that, and this city will be a heap of rubble!”

“Dwarves have explosives,” Celeste countered, and he shook his head impatiently.

“Lyrium based, sodding expensive to make and damned touchy to use, but I've got an idea for an explosive formulation that is cheap, powerful and relies on easily obtained materials!”

Celeste leaned back against a workbench, considering this. On the one hand, 'Gaddrick' and 'explosives' were not two terms that lined up comfortably in the mind. On the other, if the Carta thought that he had a nug's chance in Dust Town of succeeding in creating a cheap, powerful explosive, Gaddrick wouldn't need to bring in outside help. His schemes generally had about a fifty percent success rate, and this one was likely much lower than that, so … “And what materials would they be?”

He beamed at her. “Charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter,” he pronounced grandly. “The first two, I already have plenty of, and I can get the saltpeter from bat guano -”

She was already shaking her head. “No, no, nope. Bats are in caves, Gaddrick,” she told him. “You know what else is found in caves? Darkspawn.” Crawling through the Darktown tunnels was claustrophobic enough without adding in the potential for getting tainted. “You've got plenty of dwarves who can -”

His waving hands stopped her. “There's no need to enter any caves,” he assured her. “There's an enormous colony of bats right here in Kirkwall!”

She blinked. “The Chantry?” The cloud of bats that swirled out of the highest spires each sunset were hardly a secret, and she regarded him steadily. “You want me to steal bat shit from the Chantry.” The notion was pure Gaddrick, and just crazy enough to be appealing. After all, it wasn't as though it were anything valuable.

The broad shoulders shrugged. “How you get it is up to you,” Gaddrick declared, “but I don't recommend mentioning my name.” Oh, she wasn't planning on it. The dwarf shook his head in disgust. “How they could still be holding a grudge -”

“You backed the sewer pipes up into the Chantry square fountains,” she reminded him.

He gave her an injured look. “I didn't want to contaminate the wells to test the method,” he replied, as if that explained everything. Which, for Gaddrick, it probably did. “But it worked, and now if those horned devils attack, that can be used, as well; I can poison the wells that they drink from and leave those in the rest of the city untouched!”

Somehow, Celeste didn't think that the Chantry would be naming him Champion, if that ever came to pass. She glanced to Nicolette, a smile playing at her lips. “You in?” she inquired.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#11
The source of Gaddrick’s anxiety turned out to be the qunari presence at the docks. Nicolette could symapthise somewhat with his concern. She was normally pretty good at reading most people, but the few qunari she had met had been as easy to decipher as a brick wall, and the fact that they frequently went armed and wearing scowls did not make them any more comfortable to be around. It was not a universal experience – one had even thrown a coin into her bowl when she had performed a few days ago, so they had some enjoyment of music at least – but the citizens of Kirkwall were edgy with them around.

And then Gaddrick mentioned gaatlock, and Nicolette remembered in vivid detail the smell of the stuff when she had been tied up in the warehouse in Denerim, trying her level best to get out of there before a stray spark sent the entire building skywards. Then it had happened anyway, but at least she had not been in the middle of the fireball. Thankfully, Gaddrick was not sending them to steal supplies from the qunari. If he had done so Nicolette would have drawn a line under this whole experience, taken her money and left. Instead, he needed materials, and Celeste asked what they might be.

“Charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre. The first two, I already have plenty of, and I can get the saltpetre from bat guano-”

This was not going to be an especially glamourous mission, then. But dealing with bats sounded like a better idea than dealing with qunari. Although Celeste, thankfully, was smart enough to immediately veto the idea of them crawling through caves looking for the material. “You know what else is found in caves? Darkspawn.”

Nicolette’s curiosity was wide and encompassed a vast number of subjects, but never, not once, had she been tempted by the idea of seeing a darkspawn for real, even from a distance. She was sometimes a little reckless but she was not insane. It turned out that there would be no need; there were bats to be found in the grand Chantry in Hightown.

“How you get it is up to you. But I don’t recommend mentioning my name.” Gaddrick pulled a face. “How they could still be holding a grudge-”

“You backed the sewer pipes up into the Chantry square fountains.”

D’accord, she was not letting Thibault frolic in there again. Although she suspected she had not been supposed to in the first place. Gaddrick explained that there was an upside to this, in that he could poison the qunari’s water sources should they ever turn on the people of Kirkwall. Well, Nicolette supposed that was a handy measure to have, although she was not sure this man was entirely the right person to make that call. He seemed a little…intense.

Celeste was looking at her again, with a slight smile. “You in?”

Despite herself, Nicolette was sort of amused. She had gone in preparing herself for all sorts of danger and calamity, possibly having to run for her life. And they were being sent to collect bat droppings. “I believe I can handle it. I am not so delicate in my sensibilities that I will run screaming from a slightly smelly chore.” After all, life on the road had its own less than glamorous realities. People who met her tended to forget that she was not worlds away from dealing with mud and…other things.

Besides, Celeste maintained her interest.

Gaddrick grunted. “Good. Bring me as much as you can gather. Here’s a sack. Remember, this is for Kirkwall.” He tossed a piece of canvas sacking at Celeste, and then turned his back to them, the conversation clearly done. Nicolette started to head outside.

Once they were in the slightly cooler air of the outer shop once more, she turned to Celeste again. “I take it that the Chantry might not be enamoured of us doing this?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#12
If Nicolette found the discussion odd in the least, she gave no sign of it. “I believe I can handle it,”she responded to Celeste's query, amusement lilting in her voice. “I am not so delicate in my sensibilities that I will run screaming from a slightly smelly chore.”

Celeste grinned at her. Pretty, intelligent and up for a challenge. Even if the job tanked, the day would not be a total waste. “Looks like you've got yourself a pair of batshit collectors,” she announced to Gaddrick cheerfully.

“Good,” the dwarf grunted, tossing a dusty sack in her general direction. “Bring me as much as you can gather. Here’s a sack. Remember, this is for Kirkwall.”

“For Kirkwall,” she agreed amiably, tipping a wink at Nicolette and nodding toward the stairs. She'd get some coin, some amusement and some good company, and the dwarf would get a sack of bat droppings that would likely sit moldering in a corner once his attention turned to another project. Good trade.

“This might help.” Gaddrick's voice turned her away from the stairs to see the dwarf unrolling a sizable scroll onto a work table. She approached and decided she probably didn't want to know how he had managed to come by a detailed blueprint of Kirkwall's chantry. Even if he remembered, he likely wouldn't tell her.

“The biggest part of the colony is here.” A thick finger jabbed at the tallest of the spires. “Above the residential sections. And go after sunset, when they've left for the night, unless you want them flapping around your heads and shitting in your hair.”

“Sounds messy,” she agreed, scanning the layout. Architecture wasn't one of her strong suits, but the highest spire was a fairly easy mark to find. “After sunset it is.”

Upstairs in the workshop, Nicolette turned to her. “I take it that the Chantry might not be enamoured of us doing this?” she inquired, not seeming unduly troubled by the prospect.

“Good guess,” Celeste congratulated her with a smirk. “They're not much for dwarves anyway, unless they give up their 'heathen ancestor worship' and accept the Maker's light into their hearts.” The comment was accompanied by a sardonic roll of her eyes and punctuated by scoffing sounds from a couple of the nearby craftsmen, who knew a fellow heathen when they saw her.

“I need to get a few things from the ship,” she added. “And there's enough time until sunset for that drink, if you're still interested. I've got some good wines in my private stock.” Drink or no, she needed a few toys for this mission, so she headed for the door. “Two options to get in: a straight sneak or bluff our way through the door. You have a preference?” She glanced down at the hound, who still loped amiably at his mistress' side. “Not sure he'll work well for either. He's welcome to nap in my cabin, unless you've got another place he can stay.” The Thing wasn't permitted past the cabin door after what he'd done the last time he'd gained access, and after sunset, he'd be off fighting and getting laid anyway, so the dog should be safe enough.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#13
Nicolette won the captain’s approval by signing up for the task. She smiled back at Celeste. True, this would not have been her first choice of activity with the other woman, but at least it promised to be interesting and something to add to her stock of stories. While she did not relish being in danger, the most trouble this seemed likely to attract was a scolding from a Chantry sister. There were no laws against collecting bat droppings, were there? She would have thought that the priests there would be grateful for somebody going in to clean up a little.

They started towards the stairs, then turned back as Gaddrick unrolled some plans on a nearby table. Nicolette idly wondered how the dwarf had acquired schematics of the Chantry. She imagined it had not been by legal channels. The dwarf offered some advice on where to go, and how to avoid making the expedition truly unpleasant for themselves. She nodded her agreement as Celeste decided to follow Gaddrick’s advice, and then lightly enquired about the Chantry’s willingness to give them entry if they knew their true reason for being there.

She guessed that it would not be well accepted, and Celeste confirmed it. “They’re not much for dwarves anyway, unless they give if their ‘heathen ancestor worship’ and accept the Maker’s light into their hearts.”

Celeste scoffed, and Nicolette snorted a little. “Most Chantry folk I have met have been civil to me, although when they learn I am not Andrastian they tend to be unwelcoming. I can sympathise.”

And now they had a few hours before sundown, and Celeste apparently had some tools she needed to fetch from the ship before they embarked on their errand anyway. Nicolette decided she liked the captain even more when Celeste suggested that they use the time wisely by having that drink now. “I’ve got some good wines in my private stock.”

Nicolette smiled broadly. “That sounds agreeable.” Nicolette did not often get to indulge in ‘good’ alcohol. Her usual fare consisted of whatever was cheap and effective. This would be a treat, although she was looking forward to the company more than the wine.

Celeste turned the conversation towards their task. “Two options to get in: a straight sneak or a bluff through the door. You have a preference?”

“I am better at bluffing than I am at sneaking.” It was better to be honest. While the idea of sneaking through the shadows of the Chantry with an attractive sailor was appealing, Nicolette knew where her own strengths lay, and while sometimes her words had failed her, she could lie with the best of them when it counted. That said…”But I am quite good at sneaking. It does sound more fun.”

Celeste indicated Thibault. “Not sure he’ll work well for either. He’s welcome to nap in my cabin, unless you’ve another place he can stay.”

“Your cabin is fine. And he is very well behaved when given a direct order; I promise he will not scratch up your furniture, as long as I am back within a few hours.” She had once left Thibault with Eward when going off to perform for an overnight party at a local lord’s estate, and even though Thibault had known Eward all his short life, he had apparently been insufferable in the last few hours before she returned.

She gave Celeste a faintly cheeky smile. “Shall we?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#14
Celeste hadn't taken the minstrel for a devout woman, though one never really knew, but her gibe about the Chantry, was met with an amused snort. “Most Chantry folk I have met have been civil to me,” she observed, “although when they learn I am not Andrastian they tend to be unwelcoming. I can sympathise.”

Celeste snickered. “They're usually less than civil to me, though admittedly I probably give them reason.” Hypocritical Chantry prigs never failed to bring out the perversity in her, and the fact that they were also frequent targets of Jenny-style justice likely didn't help. “I once turned a bunch of greased nugs loose in the Chantry in Val Chevin in the middle of the evening sermon.” The revered mother there had been a shriveled and humorless biddy who had run a particularly brutal 'school' that boasted of reforming street children without mentioning that said reform included beating them into submission and selling them as 'indentured servants' to the highest bidders among the faithful. The nugs had been the final touch in a steadily escalating campaign by the Jennies that had pushed the old bat into a nervous breakdown. The resulting scandal when her successor had discovered her dealings had been predictably hushed up, but at least the school had been shut down.

Her suggestion of a shipboard drink while they waited for sunset was readily accepted, and her newest partner-in-shenanigans didn't seem the least bit unnerved by the prospect of gaining access to Kirkwall's Chantry.

“I am better at bluffing than I am at sneaking,” Nicolette admitted when offered a choice of approaches, before adding, ”But I am quite good at sneaking. It does sound more fun.”

“It is.” The satisfaction of gaining access to a place where someone thought you couldn't – or shouldn't – be never got old. But there was more than one way to achieve it. “We'll see how the wind blows and set our course.” Making it up as she went was one of her specialties.

Nicolette assured her that her dog would be quite content to stay behind in the captain's cabin, then offered a saucy grin. “Shall we?”

“We shall,” Celeste agreed readily, leading the way back to the ship. The workmen had departed, along with the foremast, but present company and the prospect of future hijinks cushioned what would have otherwise been a mood-souring sight: the Wicked Grace sitting helpless, both masts gone. She didn't linger on deck to brood on the depressing sight, heading straight for her cabin and lifting a bottle of Rialto 21 Dragon white from its nook. She hadn't drunk wine since helping break up the slave auction that used an elaborate code referring to the slaves as different 'vintages', but the bad taste left by the association had begun to fade.

She pulled the cork with the ease of plenty of practice, retrieved two wineglasses from the padded cabinet and poured for them both. Handing one to her guest, she dropped into one of the padded chairs, gesturing that Nicolette should take the other.

“So.” She lounged carelessly across the chair, one leg propped over the arm, the other stretched out. “Where have you traveled? Your accent is unusual.” The Orlesian lilt was there, but touched by other influences.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#15
Celeste decided that they would improvise, in a fairly nautical fashion. Nicolette could improvise. It was how she lived most of her life, after all. How did people get by without making things up as they went? It was so much more interesting to not know exactly how her day was going to happen, even if she had some general ideas of what she wanted to do or where she wanted to go. Anything could turn her about – a pretty colour on a market stall, another friendly dog, a wink from somebody who looked interesting, music – and utterly derail her from her original plans.

They returned to the ship. It appeared a little naked minus the masts, but Nicolette chose not to comment on that. She knew from personal experience how attached some sailors could be to their ships, and from captains themselves she had heard it was closer to a relationship than attachment to a possession. It was still an impressive vessel, although Nicolette’s thoughts were more on her companion than her surroundings at the moment. Celeste took her straight to her cabin, and opened a bottle of what appeared to be a red that was far better quality than anything available at the Hanged Man. Nicolette accepted the glass with a grin and relaxed easily into the indicated chair. Next to an inn or a crowded marketplace, the inside of a sailor’s cabin was one of her favourite places to be; it spoke of travel and freedom, in the creak of the timber and smell of the salt.

“So.” Celeste sprawled across her own chair, in a way that was quite inviting. Nicolette sat a little more gracefully, but no more closed off than the woman opposite her. “Where have you travelled? Your accent is unusual.”

Nicolette smiled. “I think it is fair to say there are few countries in Thedas I have not passed through at some point or another.” It was not a boast, it was honest fact. “My mother and I started living as itinerant minstrels when I was twelve, and I never stopped. I think I have picked up flavours from almost everywhere I have been, although my accent was already a little strange; my father was Fereldan, you see, and he managed to colour my voice a little even though everyone else in my life at the time was Orlesian.”

She leaned back in the chair. “I enjoy sailing. Not least because it saves my feet many miles, so I can spend more energy on dancing.” She grinned. “But it is so freeing, and it makes exploring so much easier. But you do not need me to tell you that.” She crinkled her nose at Celeste.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#16
Nicolette accepted the offered glass of wine and settled in the second chair, seeming completely at ease.

“I think it is fair to say there are few countries in Thedas I have not passed through at some point or another,” she replied with a smile when Celeste inquired about her intriguing accent. “My mother and I started living as itinerant minstrels when I was twelve, and I never stopped. I think I have picked up flavours from almost everywhere I have been, although my accent was already a little strange; my father was Fereldan, you see, and he managed to colour my voice a little even though everyone else in my life at the time was Orlesian.”

“Fereldan father, Orlesian mother?” Celeste cocked her head, estimating the age of her companion. “Love blooming in the midst of rebellion?” she guessed.

“I enjoy sailing,” the minstrel told her, leaning back in the chair. “Not least because it saves my feet many miles, so I can spend more energy on dancing.” The smile that mention of dancing brought to her face was genuine and quite beguiling. “But it is so freeing, and it makes exploring so much easier. But you do not need me to tell you that.”

“Nope.” Celeste returned the smile, sipping her own wine. “My father took me to sea for the first time when I was two weeks old. Not too many places in Thedas that I haven't been since … at least, the places with coastlines. This -” a gesture indicated the docks and beyond, “is the longest I've been in a port since I was sixteen … and quite possibly the longest stretch of good behavior I've managed since then, as well,” she added, a rakish quirk to her grin.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#17
Celeste correctly divined Nicolette’s origins. “Love blooming in the midst of rebellion?”

Nicolette smiled. “So they told me. Mother has it that they fell in love at first sight and eloped that same night. I am fairly sure they had a slightly longer courtship than that, but not by much. She was minor nobility, apparently, and they realised they had to run away together if they stood any chance of the relationship surviving.” Nicolette was uncertain whether Maman had actually had a title or if it was one of her embellishments, but it was a detail that returned in every telling.“Who knows? I might be heir to a title I have no idea about.” She chuckled. “Not that I would claim it.”

Their conversation moved from lineage to life, and the sea. Nicolette did not exaggerate her enjoyment of being on the waves, and the freedom it granted her; she imagined that Celeste would not need much prompting on that part.

“Nope. My father took me to sea for the first time when I was two weeks old. Not too many places in Thedas I haven’t been since…at least, the places with coastlines. This is the longest I’ve been in a part since I was sixteen, and quite possibly the longest stretch of good behaviour I’ve managed since then, as well.”

Celeste accompanied this last comment with a rakish smile that was very appealing. “Good behaviour seems a little relative, seeing as we plan on breaking into a Chantry and lying our way through any obstacles to scoop up a pile of bat guano,” Nicolette pointed out, amused. “But then again, we are doing it to save Kirkwall. Perhaps that mitigates it. As well as any other bad behaviour we might get up to this evening.”

She shot the other woman a smile over her glance that was entirely full of intent, then changed the subject; Celeste had an out if she was not particularly interested, and if she was, she would find a way of returning the conversation to it. “But it is the same for me – the length of time spent, not the behaviour. It has been a while since I stayed in a city as long as Kirkwall. Normally I itch to move on after a month or so, but there have been so many interesting stories and sights to see that I feel I have barely scratched the surface.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#18
"So they told me,” Nicolette confirmed Celeste's guess with a smile, telling the tale of the daughter of Orlesian nobility and a Fereldan soldier. “Who knows? I might be heir to a title I have no idea about. Not that I would claim it,” she added with a laugh.

“Who needs that mess,” Celeste agreed. “Unless a fortune goes with it, but you could always just take the coin and leave the title.”

Pretty amber eyes danced with amusement at Celeste's assertion that she was engaging in good behavior.

“Good behaviour seems a little relative, seeing as we plan on breaking into a Chantry and lying our way through any obstacles to scoop up a pile of bat guano,” she remarked. Celeste conceded the point with an unrepentant grin and an easy shrug. “But then again, we are doing it to save Kirkwall. Perhaps that mitigates it. As well as any other bad behaviour we might get up to this evening.”

No mistaking the promise in that smile, and Celeste let her own smile grow. “Bad behavior can be good, too,” she offered, a promise of her own. "And it's almost always more fun."

“But it is the same for me,” the minstrel went on, “– the length of time spent, not the behaviour. It has been a while since I stayed in a city as long as Kirkwall. Normally I itch to move on after a month or so, but there have been so many interesting stories and sights to see that I feel I have barely scratched the surface.”

Celeste's smile faded a bit. “Don't scratch too deep,” she warned, more serious than she had been. “This city is wrong underneath … bone deep wrong. Qunari aren't the half of it by a long shot. Go too deep,and you could end up dead or on a slave ship.” Those eyes and that hair would command a good price, even after the pretty smile had been extinguished. “And that would be a shame,” she concluded with a wink, drinking the last of her wine and pushing out of her chair. “Ready?” she asked. Sooner begun, sooner done and on to more entertaining activities.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#19
Nicolette had drifted into the topic of why Kirkwall had engaged her well enough that she had stayed long after the time by which she would normally leave, citing her interest in the people and the stories. To her surprise, this appeared to worry Celeste.

“Don’t scratch too deep. This city is wrong underneath…bone deep wrong.” Curiosity piqued, Nicolette canted her head and waited for the other woman to elaborate. “Qunari aren’t the half of it by a long shot. Go too deep, and you could end up dead or on a slave ship.”

Well that was…unexpectedly grim. Nicolette did not intend to interfere with the doings of smugglers or anybody else who might have a hand in Kirkwall’s underworld, but she knew Celeste was right to offer a warning. Intention did not count for much if somebody got it into their heads that she was a threat. She was about to say that she would be careful, but Celeste was only mentioning, not lecturing, and followed the warning with a wink, before draining her wine and almost leaping up. “Ready?”

Oh, yes. Nicolette had no idea how this might go, but at the worst, walking around in the Chantry was not a crime as such. Neither, so far as she knew, was collecting bat droppings. At the very worst she and Celeste might come off as complete eccentrics and be hassled out of the building, but they were not likely to be arrested. Surely? She got up with a smile. “As about as much as I can be for secretly gathering bat merde in the ceiling of the Chantry.”

They left the ship and headed towards Hightown. The sun was already slipping below the horizon but for once, Nicolette was less nervous about being out after dark. Having a companion who could wield weapons was reassuring; Thibault had his jaws, but he could not wield them effectively against more than one foe. And tonight, nobody bothered either of them; a few groups of meandering drunks hollered but none tried to start a conversation and they made it to the Chantry with no delays. It was a promising start.

Walking in would be easy. The Chantry doors were open to all worshippers at all hours. The difficult bit would be accessing the stairs to the more private quarters. There might be guards, or suspicious laysisters lurking around. As they walked through the door, Nicolette took in the gigantic statue of Andraste at the far end, and then on either side of them a spiralling staircase. In front of one was a sister in conversation with a supplicant; on the other side, a templar. She murmured to Celeste. “Are there more stairs within?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#20
Pleasantries seen to and with something to look forward to when the task was done, it was time to get down to the batshit-stealing. A few strategic additions to the pockets in her vest, and they were on their way. No point in sneaking into the Chantry; they just strolled through the front doors, indistinguishable from the worshipers that milled about like so many sheep.

Going further would be a little trickier, but not much. “Are there more stairs within?” Nicolette murmured, eyeing the grandly curving marble staircases that bracketed the massive statue of Andraste.

“Unless they bring the chamber pots down those to dump them, I'd say yes,” Celeste replied. The blueprints Gaddrick had showed another staircase – she studied the layout of the room. “There,” she said, nodding toward a nondescript door in the recessed corridor on the far side as a woman in Chantry robes emerged carrying a stack of books. There was a templar stationed there, but with fewer eyes on him, he was plainly less attentive, possibly dreaming of guarding the marble staircase instead.

“Time to get sneaky,” she said in a low voice to her companion, fading back from the gathered worshipers and finding the concealment of the shadows – the architecture and braziers provided plenty. Nicolette seemed somewhat less adept at stealth, though she moved with a grace that was quite pleasing to behold. Celeste took it slow and easy, working around to the recessed corridor, waiting patiently for the door to open again, this time for a pair of younger sisters whispering back and forth and giggling, then slipping through while the guard's eyes followed the swaying hips beneath the robes as the girls moved away. Even Nicolette made it through with no trouble.

The stairs were just inside: humble granite here, away from admiring eyes, and from there, it was up, up, up … and more up. The place was a thief's wet dream: lots of landings with shadowy alcoves to take refuge in when footsteps on the stone warned of someone descending from above. They made the top floor without being detected; a bit more searching was required to find the door that hid the ladder that covered the final bit of the journey, a rickety wooden affair, but in no time at all, they were pushing up a wooden trap door and emerging into a shadowy attic with ceilings lost in gloom and the air redolent with batshit.

“As first dates go, this is definitely one of my most memorable,” she quipped, looking around as Nicolette climbed through the opening. The bats were gone for the evening, it seemed, leaving behind stillness … and big piles of guano. Nobody would ever miss a bagful … which took some of the fun out of taking all this trouble to steal it. And fun was the whole damn point.

“Up for a bit more sightseeing?” she invited once the bag had been filled and tied shut … tightly shut, with the cheap leather gloves they had used for the gathering tucked into the top. Gaddrick was welcome to those. “I've always wondered what a Grand Cleric's bedroom looks like.” And she was pretty sure that she remembered enough of the layout of the halls below to get them there.
 
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