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Nicolette O'Hara

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#1
[[OOC: 17th Firstfall, late morning, a nice house at the upper end of Lowtown.]]
Celeste Monroe

Nicolette was walking more slowly than usual this morning. She did not have Thibault with her, and was not carrying her vielle; neither was she wearing one of her customary performing dresses, but had opted for a practical tunic and breeches instead. Her hair was pulled back in a plait and she wore no jewellery, apart from the small chunk of amber around her neck and which for the moment was tucked inside her shirt. It made her feel a little more courageous, which was desperately needed at the moment.

Somehow, even though Nicolette’s attempts to help Anders with his personal problem had not gone well, the fact that she had been trying to help the mage underground had made its way to somebody else and shortly after she had taken up residence on the Wicked Grace she had started to receive occasional notes asking her to move small items around or carry letters from one person to another. Helpful, yet harmless, and well within her abilities to explain away if she was caught.

This was a different thing altogether. A local landlord had apparently been gathering secrets on his tenants and forcing higher rents and favours from people in exchange for keeping certain things quiet. That already would have been bad enough, but he had found out of his tenants had a daughter who was a mage. He had promised to keep their secret, but in exchange for a deal that Nicolette found abhorrent.

The tables needed to be turned – he needed to be subject to blackmail himself in order to keep him both quiet and away from the family. Ideally, all the families in his properties. Somebody needed to find their way into his house and search his belongings for anything that could be used against him.

Every part of it was something Nicolette did not like. It was vague, there was no guarantee she would even find anything, and she was fairly certain she had been asked to do it because they thought she could use her looks to find her way into his rooms. It was a little too bardic for her tastes, but neither would her conscience let her turn the job down, which was why she was now trying to creep around the edge of his property, marking down the guard rotations (thankfully he had few men around), and work out how she could get in.

He had a garden at the back and Nicolette considered going over the wall and coming in that way. The man was out at the moment, and she was sure that the guards were all slacking off at the front of the house. Conveniently there was also a pile of assorted rubbish and broken crates towards the back that might help her get over. After creeping around the property a few times (earning a couple of strange looks in the process), she decided it was clear and opted to scramble up. She would not go over, just yet – she needed to see into the garden and work out if it was clear.

Fate had other plans, and the moment she had jumped from the top of the crates and grabbed the wall, the pile collapsed beneath her with a crash, leaving her clinging on. She could not drop in case she hurt herself in the pile of broken things below, but she was dangling at arm’s length, which made it more tricky. Slowly, she swung a leg up, scrabbling around for a toehold so she could boost herself up.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#2
Nicolette's choice of clothing had been the first clue that something was amiss. The minstrel normally favored flowing dresses in a range of vibrant colors; the tunic and trews were uncharacteristically drab and absent the usual accenting jewelry that she had worn every time Celeste had seen her. Even the amber necklace was nowhere in evidence.

And she left without her dog or her vielle, sauntering off with a studied casualness. It was none of Celeste's business what Nicolette did when they were apart, but curiosity was almost as ingrained in her as the propensity for mischief. So as soon as the minstrel was out of sight, Celeste followed, staying well back and blending with the crowd, but Nico never once looked back to see if she was being tailed. She'd stay close for a bit, the sailor told herself. Just long enough to make sure she wasn't in trouble.

The border between Lowtown and Hightown was characterized by houses that didn't quite fit either district; Nicolette's path took her to one of these. Celeste slipped into an alley and watched with a growing mix of amusement and dismay as her lover attempted to case the joint.

She hadn't been this clumsy on their adventures, but sneaking through shadows and in darkness, with potential observers distracted, was a far cry from attempting to remain unseen in broad daylight, no matter how halfassed the guards were.

She had good instincts, scouting the guards congregated out front before heading to the rear of the property, but her technique … Maker's balls, she might as well have been wearing a sign proclaiming “I'm being sneaky!” hung around her neck! She was going to get caught at this rate, and the look of the brute squad out front made it a long shot that they would summon the city guard for an intruder. That would definitely qualify as trouble.

Celeste left her hiding place, alternating between hiding in the shadows and blending with the crowd as she worked her way around to the rear, arriving just in time to see Nicolette try to use a pile of junk to scale the garden wall and get left hanging when it collapsed.

Fighting back laughter, Celeste topped the wall by climbing an overhanging tree, moving swiftly to where Nicolette was struggling and helping her up. “Come on.” Down into the yard, a quick sweep finding a garden shed in one corner. “This way.”

Once they were inside and the door shut behind them, Celeste waited long enough to ensure that the had – miraculously – drawn no attention before turning to her companion, making no attempt to hide the mirth dancing in her eyes. “All right, what are we doing?”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#3
Nicolette was in fairly good shape, but did not possess the upper body strength that would allow her to essentially jump up the wall. Swinging her legs to the side until she was able to hook a leg on the wall was her only other option, and she was so busy trying to achieve that end that when Celeste suddenly popped up at the top of the wall she almost let go and fell into the mess below anyway. Thankfully, Celeste caught her and hauled her up to safety, not pausing to find out what was going on before directing them to a small shack at the back of the property. Nicolette was quite happy to follow her lead for the moment, and once the door swung shut behind them, stretched out the screaming muscles in her arms until they stopped yelling.

Then came the moment of explaining what was going on. Celeste seemed more amused than concerned. “All right, what are we doing?”

It helped. If Celeste had been openly worried – or worse yet, chastised Nicolette for doing something foolish – it would have stung. As it was, Nicolette could pretend that this was something they got up to on a regular basis. It was probably true for Celeste. She was a Red Jenny, was she not?

“We are breaking into this house to see if we can find some blackmail material on the owner.”More information seemed necessary. “He is a landlord, and digs up dirty information on purpose so he can manipulate the people who owe him money or can be frightened into compliance with the secrets he has. The favour needs to be returned so he will back away. Only…I do not know the layout. And there is no certainty that any concrete information is being held anywhere.”

Nicolette trusted Celeste. Perhaps more than she had anybody in some time. Telling her everything would make Nicolette the most unreliable agent in the world, and yet she could not bring herself to try and obscure the main reason she was here, and she hugged one elbow with her other arm, avoiding Celeste’s gaze. If this was received poorly, she might lose her position on Celeste’s ship.

She might lose Celeste. As a friend, that was.

“How much do you know of the mage underground?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#4
“We are breaking into this house to see if we can find some blackmail material on the owner,” Nicolette explained with surprising equanimity, and Celeste's eyebrows lifted slightly, but she stayed silent, listening as the minstrel continued. “He is a landlord, and digs up dirty information on purpose so he can manipulate the people who owe him money or can be frightened into compliance with the secrets he has. The favour needs to be returned so he will back away. Only…I do not know the layout. And there is no certainty that any concrete information is being held anywhere.”

Celeste nodded, a faint smile playing about her lips. “Sounds like fun. Mind if I join in?” If she really wanted to do this alone, Celeste would let her … though she would be creating enough of a diversion out front to make sure the guards were fully distracted.

“Did one of the Jennies look you up?” she asked curiously … and a little concerned. Sterling Orland's fate had stirred up considerable glee among the Friends of Red Jenny and their contacts. The few that knew Celeste had known of her involvement, but as yet, she had not told anyone the identity of her accomplice. It would be Nicolette's choice as to whether or not she wanted to participate in future capers. It looked as though she had chosen, but why keep it a secret from Celeste?

Worry touched the pretty face, adding to the mystery, until Nicolette spoke again, her eyes averted ever so slightly.

“How much do you know of the mage underground?”

Ah. “I know they exist,” she replied with a shrug. “I know a few apostates; there are some in the Jennies, and I'd imagine there's some overlap in the groups.” The pieces fell into place, and she reached out, placing her hand beneath the minstrel's chin and gently guiding those beautiful eyes back to hers. “Found himself a mage in hiding, has he?” And from what she'd been told so far, it was a safe bet that his response hadn't been to cut them a break on their rent.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#5
Celeste seemed a little taken aback over Nicolette’s mission, but let her speak, and concern appeared to have eased over to amusement by the time she was finished. “Sounds like fun. Mind if I join in?”

Nicolette was nodding barely before Celeste could finish the sentence. She had not wanted to drag the other woman into this but she had been terrified of the myriad ways the attempt could go wrong, and besides having somebody more experienced to guide her, she was relieved just because it was Celeste. With that it was hardly surprising she could not make an attempt to pretend as though she wanted to do this alone.

“Did one of the Jennies look you up?”

It would have been an easy lie to fall back on, but likely just as easily unravelled, and Nicolette wanted Celeste to go in with her eyes open. Assuming she did not immediately break with her the moment the actual reason was revealed. She hesitatingly ventured a query as to how well Celeste knew the mage underground.

“I know they exist. I know a few apostates; there are some in the Jennies, and I’d imagine there’s some overlap in the groups.”

Oh, Skies, thank you. Before Nicolette could express her relief, Celeste cupped her chin and drew her gaze to meet Celeste’s own reassuring green one. In the dim light of the shed, they seemed less moss-green and more the deep hue of the sea in the late evening. “Found himself a mage in hiding, has he?”

“Oui. Her mother is apparently very beautiful, and he has offered a trade on a continuous basis in exchange for his silence.” Celeste was smart enough to know what sort of trade a man like that would require. Nicolette wrinkled her nose. “I gather this is not uncommon practice for him when tenants are short on rent, either. It is vile, and I know I am not good at this, but I just could not – my conscience would not let me turn it down. I had to try.”

Her voice was shaking a little. With some effort, she brought herself under control, slightly embarrassed at having been so vulnerable in front of Celeste. She rested her hand over Celeste’s, meeting her gaze with an open appeal. She had already said she would join in on the ‘fun’, but her experience in these things was leagues beyond Nicolette’s own. “Please. Help me?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#6
Nicolette's head was nodding in assent before Celeste had even finished voicing her offer, profound relief washing across her features. Celeste was a little worried that the Jennies had figured out that she'd helped on a caper or two and figured she was fair game, but that didn't really explain why they hadn't approached Celeste, as well.

It wasn't the Friends of Red Jenny, however, but the mage underground, a group that Celeste had heard of, but had no direct dealings with … until now. And if the mage underground was involved, then a mage was a part of this somehow.

“Oui,” the minstrel confirmed softly. “Her mother is apparently very beautiful, and he has offered a trade on a continuous basis in exchange for his silence.” Her expression made it very clear just what sort of trade was being required, and Celeste felt a thread of anger unspooling in her gut. This had just become a joint venture between the Jennies and the mage underground. “I gather this is not uncommon practice for him when tenants are short on rent, either,” Nicolette went on. “It is vile, and I know I am not good at this, but I just could not – my conscience would not let me turn it down. I had to try.”

A tremor touched the final words, the warmth of her hand covering Celeste's. “Please. Help me?”

“Any time.” The entreaty in the softly uttered words and those lovely eyes would have had Celeste agreeing to a task far more onerous than delivering payback to a bastard. Afraid and unprepared, and she'd done it anyway. This woman just kept surprising her. “Brave girl,” she murmured admiringly, feeling the tug of something unfamiliar but irresistible in her chest. Stepping closer, she pressed a gentle kiss to the minstrel's forehead, the tip of her nose, the softness of her lips; seeking to convey reassurance, rather than kindle passion.

She drew back, letting the promise of mischief dance in her eyes. “He'll never know what hit him.” Cracking open the door of the shed, she peered out, confirming that the yard remained empty before leading the way to the back door, fishing her lock picks from a pocket as she ascended the steps.

“Exactly how were you planning on getting in?” she inquired with good natured humor as she made short work of the lock. So far as she knew, the minstrel didn't own lock picks, and wouldn't have known how to use them if she had. She opened the door and slipped inside, sidestepping to allow Nico to follow. The house was quiet, with the stillness that only came when there was no one else moving the air about.

"Did they give you anything to go on?" They were in a kitchen with doors opening right and left. There was a second floor, but most folk kept their offices at ground level.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#7
“Any time.” Celeste held her gaze with an admiration of a variety that Nicolette did not often experience. “Brave girl.”

Brave girl. It joined you are a marvel inside Nicolette’s mind, where she could think about it later at leisure, almost a little afraid of the words, and yet so compelling she could not help but return to them. Few people had ever regarded her the way Celeste appeared to do, and the thought that she was brave to this beautiful firebrand of a woman made her feel a little dizzy. Or maybe that was just the unease that came with their current situation.

Celeste kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose and then her lips. The contact eased her jangling nerves, and she cupped Celeste’s face for a moment, gratitude written in every line of her own. “Thank you.”

Her lover drew away, and the intensity of the moment passed as a wicked smile slipped across Celeste’s face. “He’ll never know what hit him.”

That helped. It made this feel more like a caper than a mission, and Nicolette once again wondered why she had not approached Celeste to help with this in the first place. Or rather, she knew, but she preferred not to acknowledge how deeply she would have been hurt if Celeste had turned her away after learning of her associations. Celeste was already stealing across the garden, slipping lock picks from her pocket.

“Exactly how were you planning on getting in?”

Celeste was amused, and Nicolette, less overwhelmed now, was willing to play up to her lack of affinity for this sort of thing. “I was going to try and quietly break the window. When there was a loud sound, or similar,” she admitted, a little sheepishly. Large cities could be relied upon to have some distracting background noise at one point or another, but counting on it to cover the sound of the crash was not the most reliable method. “And then lift the latch through the frame and climb in.”

With much less mess than Nicolette’s hasty plan, Celeste slipped the door open silently and stepped in. It was quiet, and they were in a kitchen hung with rows of glittering copper pans that appeared to have never been used. There was not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere and the table gleamed like new. It seemed almost artificial.

“Did they give you anything to go on?”

Nicolette shook her head. “Not a great deal. Only that a man such as that almost certainly would have something he would want to keep concealed from the city guards. Going on-” she pinked a little. “Going on stories I know of the sorts of places where valuable things are kept, I was going to start with a study if he has one here, or his bedroom.”

Relying on her stock of tales a guideline for this was not the best idea, but it was the only resource she had had to fall back on when she had been trying to work this out for herself.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#8
The air in the tiny shed was charged, but only part of the energy that sparked between them was erotic; the rest was that same indefinable pull that was both unsettling and alluring. Part of Celeste wanted to kiss the minstrel again, press her back against the rickety potting bench and ravish her thoroughly; the other part just wanted to … hold her. Stroke her hair, kiss her cheeks and whisper reassurances until the last of the tension seeped out of her.

She did neither, taking refuge in cocky irreverence to cover her retreat from the possibilities. There was a lock to be picked, after all, and she was pretty sure that Nicolette was not equipped to do it.

“I was going to try and quietly break the window. When there was a loud sound, or similar,” Nico told her when she asked, looking adorably abashed. “And then lift the latch through the frame and climb in.”

“That works in a pinch,” Celeste conceded as she went to work on the lock, adding casually. “I could teach you this, though.” A sly smile curved her lips. “Your fingers are nimble enough.”

The interior presented them a kitchen that had never been cooked in and choices, but little guidance as to which of the two doors they should try. The Jennies generally tried to get baseline information on their marks for those handling the capers, but it seemed that the mage underground did things differently.

“Not a great deal,” Nicolette admitted regretfully. “Only that a man such as that almost certainly would have something he would want to keep concealed from the city guards. Going on-” She faltered, a blush tinting her cheeks as she continued. “Going on stories I know of the sorts of places where valuable things are kept, I was going to start with a study if he has one here, or his bedroom.”

“Those both tend to be popular hiding places,” Celeste agreed amiably, eyeing the pristine kitchen with mild curiosity before choosing the door on the left and down a narrow corridor. “Jewelry and such generally gets stashed in the bedroom.” She tilted her head toward the staircase as they passed it but made no attempt to ascend. Her eyes were focused ahead. A pretentiously decorated parlor on the right, and a closed door on the left. “Money and secrets are kept in -” She tried the handle, which turned easily, and opened the door, “- the study.”

Not so large or so luxurious as some she'd been in. No wine rack or leatherbound books, and the desk was simple oak, its surface all but hidden beneath a jumble of papers. A bottle of whiskey and a mug sat on one corner of the desk, a cheap oil painting of what had to be the man of the house hung on a wall, and a worn rug covered the floor. It was the most lived-in looking room she'd seen so far.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#9
To Nicolette’s surprise, Celeste said that her plan might have worked. Although there were better ways of doing it, as Celeste was demonstrating with her lockpicks, and she offered to teach her. “Your fingers are nimble enough.”

Nicolette had never had need of the skill before. She did not steal (either material items or secrets) for herself, although she did not hold others to that standard. But if she was to try and make something of this, and actually be of use to the underground, it would do her well to learn. Besides, she knew already that Celeste would be a good teacher. She had a patient kindness to her that did not always reveal itself, but was particularly evident in how she treated her crew. Piotr was a case in point. She crooked a smile at Celeste. “I would like that.”

They made their way in through the surprisingly neat kitchen, and once against Celeste confirmed that while Nicolette was inexperienced with this sort of task, her instincts had been correct. Both the bedroom and the study were good places to keep valuables. “Jewelry and such generally gets stashed in the bedroom.” Celeste surveyed the hall with a practiced eye. “Money and secrets are kept in – the study.”

She pushed a door open and with a suitable flourish, revealed the study beyond. It was immediately evident that this was where the landlord must spend most of his time; papers littered the desk and a bottle of whiskey was close at hand. Nicolette glanced up at the painting of the man with the streaks of grey in his hair and realised that she had not even though to ask what he looked like.

If the portrait did him justice, she hoped they would not encounter him directly. The man was built like a bull and even rendered in oils, his eyes looked cruel. Nicolette turned away from the picture quickly, trying to ignore the eerie sensation that the eyes were following them around the room, and started picking through papers.

Most of them were lists of figures and names, addresses, a few spotted with grease from where the man had obviously eaten at his desk. One list compromised solely female names and descriptions, nothing particularly detailed but enough to make her uncomfortable. It was not proof of anything that could keep his behaviour under control, though.

Nicolette reached for one of the drawers under the desk, and a violent throb of pain pulsed through her body before she was thrown back against the wall with sparks crackling along the length of her hand. She just managed to keep her feet by clinging to the windowsill, and hoped that the ringing she was hearing was only in her ears and not audible by the guards.

“I think – there may be – something important in there.” She just managed to deliver this with a little humour, just relieved she was still upright.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#10
Not a lot of obvious hiding places in the study apart from the desk: no shelves of books, not a lot of art. Just the picture and the rug, but Celeste worked the perimeter first, her mind working over the difference between the spotless and meticulous facade of the other rooms of the house they'd seen and this one. She peered behind the picture, aware of Nico regarding the man in it with uneasy eyes. He looked like a world-class asshole, but there was nothing hidden behind the frame.

Nicolette turned away to sort through the papers on top of the desk while Celeste continued to prowl, peering carefully behind the tightly drawn curtains. Nothing but windows. She felt the difference in the floor as soon as her feet hit the center of the rug, but before she could bend to flip it back, a grunt of pain and a crackling sound was accompanied by a flicker of sparks in the corner of her eye. She turned in time to see Nicolette flung back against the wall by a window.

That was unexpected. Even more unexpected was the ice cold twist of fear in her gut and the white hot lance of fury that knifed through it an instant later. Fury at herself, for letting a novice search on her own. Fury at this fucker for trapping his desk. Fear for Nicolette. Too often, traps meant poison.

Shit, shit, shit!

Two steps brought her to the minstrel, who was leaning on the windowsill for support. Celeste drew her away gently, pulling back the chair and guiding her into it. That window didn't face the street, but a disturbance in the drapes could still be noticed by someone walking down the alley.

“I think – there may be – something important in there.” Nicolette's smile was shaky, her eyes not quite focused.

“You don't say.” Celeste didn't bother looking at the desk. “You all right?” Without waiting for a response, she lifted Nico's hand and inspected it minutely, turning it over and running her fingers over the skin, alert for tiny punctures or any hint of a residue. Some poisons could be absorbed through the skin.

She didn't find anything apart from a slight reddening of the skin; her fingers found the pulse on the minstrel's wrist, peering up into her eyes. They were clearing now, and while her pulse was rapid, it was even, and beginning to slow.

“Nothing permanent.” With those words, Celeste felt her own heart returning to its normal rate.“But before we do this again, you are definitely -” She lifted Nicolette's hand to her lips, brushing a kiss over the knuckles before releasing it, “- getting more training.”

She turned to the desk now, not touching it just yet. “Magical wards are rare … and expensive,” she murmured. “Unless you have a mage on your extortion list. This one?” she indicated the top drawer. “Haven't run across them too often, but they generally only have one bang.” She touched the handle with a single finger. Nothing. Now it was just a matter of checking for more mundane traps backing up the magic. She studied the cracks and the lock, found nothing. Evidently a skilled locksmith wasn't on his extortion list; it took her longer to get her lockpicks out than it did to use them.

She edged the drawer open a bit at a time, fingers attuned to any hitch or vibration in the wood, eyes looking for any flicker of movement. All the way out without anything being triggered, and she turned back to Nicolette.

“Care to do the honors?” she offered by way of apology for letting her be the one to find the trap.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#11
Nicolette was not unused to winding up in dangerous situations. She had on various occasions managed to talk or sing her way out of them, which was preferred. She was not above fleeing from them. On only one or two instances had she had to fight her way free, and she preferred not to think about those times much. The fear that had flooded her then did not feel much different from the pulse that coursed through her now, leaving her heart hammering and her skin stinging at the slightest sensation.

She was also not unused to being informed that she was foolish immediately after extricating herself from such situations. Nicolette fully expected two hands to land hard on her shoulders, and for Celeste to ask her what in Thedas she had been thinking. Eward had made her uncomfortable more than once by shaking her even while his own body trembled in fear for her, and while she had never been afraid of him, she had ended up not being forthcoming with him about some of her escapades because she disliked the way he told her off. Although in this instance a rebuke would be warranted, and she braced herself.

“You all right?” Celeste took Nicolette’s hand, turning it over, inspecting it closely. Her fingers were trembling and a little numb, but feeling was returning quickly.

“I am all right.”

Celeste’s fingers brushed the inside of her wrist, tender, gentle, as she gazed up at Nicolette’s face. “Nothing permanent. But before we do this again, you are definitely-” Celeste kissed her knuckles. “getting more training.”

There was no censure, or insult. Just a simple statement, and then back to examining the desk. As Celeste turned away, Nicolette watched her, rubbing her hand as she did so.

That strange softness in her chest was back again.

She gratefully took distraction in paying attention to Celeste’s words. “Magical wards are rare…and expensive. Unless you have a mage on your extortion list.” Which the man did, but whether she was capable of making such things, Nicolette did not know. “Haven’t run across them too often, but they generally only have one bang.”

She touched the drawer, and Nicolette reflexively reached out to catch her, but no following spark erupted. Celeste went over the drawer carefully for a few seconds before she even tried to get it open. When she did, it was with slow movements, and enough time for Nicolette’s imagination to run riot with the numerous ways a drawer could be trapped.

Why had she thought it was a good idea to open it right away?

Fortunately, it appeared that the spark had been the only deterrent. Celeste turned back to her. “Care to do the honours?”

Nicolette trusted Celeste, or there would have been absolutely no chance of her reaching inside that drawer. She quickly found a small bag of coin, and a book that she immediately flipped open. This appeared to be a diary. The handwriting was neat and precise, the writing factual. That did not make the contents any less grim.

It was all spelled out in detail; what he had on people, the extent to which he was pushing them, and guesses at how much further he might be able to push them. Nicolette hastily skipped over most of it, and paused at one of the most recent entries, covering his realisation that there was a mage living in one of the houses he owned – and his glee at realising what he could demand for his silence.

Faintly sickened, Nicolette closed it again. “I think this would likely do to stop him. Even if he denied writing it, there seems to be a lot only he would know.”

All things considered, this had gone very smoothly, which was why, even though she jumped at the noise, she was not all that surprised at hearing the sound of the front door slamming.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#12
“I am all right.” Nicolette's voice was a little unsteady, but the words matched what Celeste's eyes and fingers were telling her, and she let herself relax. Turning her attention back to the desk, she made herself focus on the drawer as she searched for any more traps, though the feel of the minstrel's gaze resting on her danced across her skin in a far from unpleasant awareness.

She wouldn't have been surprised if Nicolette had wanted nothing further to do with the drawer and its contents, but despite her obvious apprehension, the minstrel didn't hesitate when Celeste offered the chance, and the sailor felt an odd clench of pride in her chest as she leaned forward to sort through the drawer. The pouch of coin was pocketed; the Jennies would know who to get it to.

Next, the minstrel withdrew a small clothbound journal and opened it. Celeste leaned closer to read over her shoulder, only briefly distracted by the sweet, clean scent of her companion before the contents of the diary claimed her attention.

She'd never understood the compulsion that some freaks had to document their crimes for anyone to read, but it certainly made this job easier. It was all right there: names, dates, deeds. All of it in lurid detail … a lot of lurid detail. And Celeste was pretty sure she knew how he had come by that much detail.

Nicolette snapped the book closed abruptly, her expression suggesting a touch of nausea. “I think this would likely do to stop him. Even if he denied writing it, there seems to be a lot only he would know.”

“It'll do the trick,” Celeste promised her, taking the book. The only question was how. It could be used to blackmail him into good – or at least better – behavior without doubt, but there was also more than enough in here to land him in a cell for a good long while. Trouble was, one slum lord was very much like another, and whoever stepped into his place might turn out to be even worse.

Unless …

Beside her, Nicolette started when the front door slammed. Celeste felt the sudden spike of adrenaline, but she reacted with the smoothness of one long accustomed to things going pear-shaped without warning.

“Down there.” She ordered Nico into the leg space beneath the desk, then dropped into the chair and flipped the journal back open, settling into a casual pose just as bootheels sounded down the hall and the study door swung open.

“Before you summon your goon squad,” she greeted their mark calmly, “you should know that I have an associate outside watching the place. If they notice anything amiss, they'll summon the guard.” It was a bluff, but one she was pretty sure he wouldn't dare call. “There are a number of things here that I'm sure the guard would find interesting,” she remarked, fingers running idly down one page. Three felonies there alone. This book could put him away for life, but Celeste had the glimmerings of another idea.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#13
Celeste agreed that the diary would work, and Nicolette relaxed enough to jump significantly when the front door slammed. Unless by sheer chance the person who had entered would go the other way, they would likely head in this direction, which meant even if they fled now they would be spotted. Nicolette reached for the window, hoping to find a latch or similar to slide free –

Celeste had other ideas. She gestured to the space beneath the desk. “Down there.”

“But what about you-” The footsteps were getting closer to the doorway and Nicolette once again placed all her trust in Celeste, and slid beneath the desk in enough time for Celeste to settle and make herself comfortable before the door opened, followed quickly by a snort of surprise.

There was not much room beneath the desk. Nicolette’s head was almost on Celeste’s thigh, although the captain had placed herself so she was not crushed against the back. At least the desk had a back. Nicolette was sure she was completely obscured, although that did little to alleviate her nerves over Celeste’s safety.

Celeste played the part of the unconcerned burglar. “Before you summon your goon squad, you should know that I have an associate outside watching the place. If they notice anything amiss, they’ll summon the guard. There are a number of things here that I’m sure the guard would find interesting.”

There was a loaded silence. Nicolette tried not to move, so as not to distract Celeste, but she found herself leaning slightly against the other woman’s leg for comfort anyway. When the man spoke, his voice was low, almost pleasant. She might have enjoyed his voice had she not known the kind of person he was.

“It seems you have me at a disadvantage, miss. But I’m sure we can come to an arrangement. As you’ve probably gathered from my memoires, I’m a great believer in fair trade. So how about-” heavy footsteps crossed the carpet, pausing in front of the desk – “you hand back that book, and we can talk an equitable exchange.” Another pause followed. “I suppose I should also thank you for testing my security. Most thieves would have been scared off instantly by the trap under the handle. Perhaps a significant payment, to keep your mouth shut? That way we don't have to go through the embarrassing procedure of me having to send some gentleman to beat the tar out of you and everyone you care about.”

Nicolette knew she would not have to will Celeste to refuse the deal. But what would the captain do?
There was a small gap at the bottom of the desk back panel. Just wide enough for Nicolette to slip her hands beneath. If everything went wrong, maybe she could grab his ankles, and pull. That would serve as a good distraction. Assuming he did not break her hands.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#14
The man who entered the study was indeed the same bloke in the painting: thick neck, barrel chest, close set eyes and all. He pulled to a stop at the sight of Celeste, snorting like a bull, but her warning got his attention.

Celeste could see the mind working behind those eyes. She felt Nicolette's head leaning against her knee and let one hand drop below the level of the desk to touch the minstrel's hair, offering what assurance she could.

“It seems you have me at a disadvantage, miss. But I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.” His voice was a pleasant baritone, but the dark eyes were as flat and cold as a shark's. “As you’ve probably gathered from my memoires, I’m a great believer in fair trade. So how about-” She took stock of him as he crossed to the desk: heavy on his feet, no weapons visible, “you hand back that book, and we can talk an equitable exchange.”

“Equitable.” Celeste let her hand drift away from Nicolette to within easy reach of the dagger at her hip. He was a man used to being in control. Addicted to it, from what she'd read. He relished forcing others to his will in any number of ways. And he was used to succeeding; that much was clear in his bearing.

“I suppose I should also thank you for testing my security,” he remarked casually. “Most thieves would have been scared off instantly by the trap under the handle. Perhaps a significant payment, to keep your mouth shut? That way we don't have to go through the embarrassing procedure of me having to send some gentleman to beat the tar out of you and everyone you care about.”

Flames of anger flickered in Celeste's gut, but her lips curled into a derisive smile. “You're a real piece of work,” she observed, matching his insouciance. “Or maybe just a real piece of shit.” And one used to letting others serve as his muscle. “If I were a thief, I might actually be tempted by the offer and intimidated by the threat. But I'm not. And I don't make deals with rapists.”

The piece of shit actually looked offended. “I am not -”

“The fuck you're not.” Celeste kept her voice low, but the sudden edge in her voice was punctuated by her dagger driving through the papers into the desktop with a thunk. She'd never been raped, but she knew any number of women who had been, had seen what it did to them, and the anger was kindling toward a flare-up. Had he caught Nicolette alone in here, he would not have hesitated to offer her a 'fair trade' and thought it nothing more than his due. “It's all in here.” She snapped the journal closed, holding it up and well away from his reach while her other hand stayed on the hilt of the dagger. “And the only reason you are alive right now is that killing you will cause more problems than leaving you alive.” She held his gaze, letting him see the truth of her words in her eyes. She didn't kill often, or lightly, but she would lose absolutely no sleep over ending his life, if it came to that.

She wrenched the dagger free from the desk, but did not put it away. “So I suggest that you reconsider what constitutes an 'equitable exchange', because there will be snow in Seheron before this book comes back to you.” She cocked her head, studying him. “How long do you think you'll last in prison? Particularly once your tenants find out that the trapdoor under that rug leads to a tunnel that runs underneath your tenements and lets you spy on them?” It was a shot in the dark, but there wasn't much other way that he could have learned some of the things he'd written about. “You'll have to fight your own fights inside, and from the looks of you, that's not something you're used to.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#15
Celeste rested her hand on Nicolette’s hair for a moment and Nicolette reflexively leant into the touch the same way Thibault did when she patted him. While her heart was beating faster with nerves for the other woman, the contact settled her slightly, and when Celeste withdrew her hand to brush the dagger at her hip, Nicolette all but coiled around her leg to maintain the reassuring heat of her touch.

Not so closely that it would impede her from leaving the chair if she needed to, though. Although Nicolette hoped fervently that it would not come to violence.

The man spoke quickly, easily. He did not even seem that upset by the intrusion. A man who trusted his instincts, without a doubt, likely because they were usually good, but he had misread Celeste. On being threatened with violence, Celeste’s muscles tensed. “You’re a real piece of work. Or maybe just a real piece of shit. If I were a thief, I might actually be tempted by the offer and intimidated by the threat. But I’m not. And I don’t make deals with rapists.”

The man protested, and Celeste’s voice took on an edge that Nicolette had not heard yet, followed by a sharp noise against the wood that had Nicolette pressing her hands sharply against her own mouth to muffle a squeak. The dagger was gone from Celeste’s hip. She had drawn it so quickly Nicolette had been barely able to follow it.

Despite herself, she was shaking. If Celeste had not spotted her, and she had managed to make her way over the wall, it was almost certain that the landlord would have caught her alone in the office. She could lie, and she had her daggers, but even she would not have put bets on herself to escape unharmed in that situation.

“So I suggest you reconsider what constitutes and ‘equitable exchange’, because there will be snow in Seheron before this book comes back to you. How long do you think you’ll last in prison? Particularly once your tenants find out that the trapdoor under that rug leads to a tunnel that runs underneath your tenements and lets you spy on them?”

Nicolette had not picked up on that. This man was already about as disgusting as they could get, but this added another, calculating dimension to that cruelty. “You’ll have to fight your own fights inside, and from the looks of you, that’s not something you’re used to.”

There was a low huff of laughter, and the sound of a creaking floorboard. “On the contrary, thief, most people would think twice about fighting me. You’re either well connected to have the confidence to face me, or very…very…stupid. But, I’ll admit. You have my secrets. I can’t harm you so long as you have that book. So let’s talk terms. What is it you want?”

Nicolette had expected him to be raging. He was far too collected for somebody who knew he could lose everything over the contents of that book. Was he up to something else?
 

Celeste Monroe

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#16
This one was a cool customer; Celeste's words drew only a derisive snort before he shifted slightly, leaning closer. Celeste stayed relaxed, but she kept her grip on the dagger. She could feel Nicolette pressing against her leg, feel the tremors rolling through the minstrel. She had merrily dragged her in over her head again, and this time, the stakes were higher than an unwelcome groping. If this bottom feeder saw Nico's face, she'd never be safe alone in Kirkwall again.

Which meant that if he saw her face, he'd be dead; Celeste laid out that particular contingency plan behind her eyes while she listened to his exposition.

“On the contrary, thief, most people would think twice about fighting me,” he informed her almost amiably, leaning on the front edge of the desk. “You’re either well connected to have the confidence to face me, or very…very…stupid. But, I’ll admit. You have my secrets. I can’t harm you so long as you have that book. So let’s talk terms. What is it you want?”

Cocky. Too damn cocky. He didn't move like a fighter, so if people didn't want to fight him -

It was because he cheated.

No sooner had that logic clicked into place than he proved it: his hand lashing out from a hip pocket, hurling a cloud of dust across the desk into Celeste's face. Pain flared in her eyes; she dropped the journal to the floor, but kept hold of the dagger even as he dragged her over the desk in a flurry of parchment and slammed her into the floor. Planting a knee in the center of her chest, he pinned her with his weight, one hand squeezing her throat while the other caught the hand holding the dagger and began to hammer it hard against the floor.

“Drop it,” he grated. “Drop it, you little bitch.”

“Fuck … you,” she choked out. He wasn't squeezing hard enough to strangle – not yet, but that would come once he disarmed her, so she dug her free hand into a pocket, looking for a smoke grenade, sneezing powder … anything that might give her back the edge that she'd stupidly let him have.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#17
Tension prickled down Nicolette’s spine. She wished she could see what was going on, to gauge the man’s expressions and his intent by the shifts on his face, but more than that she wished she and Celeste had a clear run at the exit. Both were impeded by the desk and if the man tried something, it would be difficult to extricate themselves cleanly. Nicolette closed her eyes as the creaking floorboards indicated the man was moving closer, trying to rely on her ears to tell her what he was up to instead.

The next few moments happened quickly. Fabric brushed against the desk, Celeste made a pained sound, dropped the journal and gripped her dagger and then went up over the desk as though she was being dragged. Nicolette made a grab for her leg to try and hold her but it happened too fast, and she heard a thud and sharp, fast breathing on the other side of the panelling.

“Drop it. Drop it, you little bitch.”

Nicolette scrambled up from behind the desk and whipped around to see the man pinning Celeste to the floor, one hand at her throat as the other bashed her wrist against the floor. His back was to Nicolette and he was so intent on forcing Celeste to drop the dagger he had not noticed her emerge.

Nicolette had brought her own daggers. They had been intended as a deterrent, not for use, and she had not used them in a proper bout in years. Now, seeing Celeste gasping on the floor, she drew one and launched herself over the desk, turning it about so the pommel faced downwards.

Even operating on pure instinct, against somebody so wicked, she could not bring herself to kill him.

Instead she lifted the dagger and brought it down in what she hoped was the correct spot, shrieking.

“ARRETEZ!”

There was a crunch, and the man went limp. Nicolette dropped the dagger.

Panic threatened to overwhelm, and so the next few moments went by without much input from her mind. She rolled him off Celeste (still breathing, both of them, thank Skies), and ripped the tie from the end of her hair. Ribbon could be surprisingly strong and she did not know how long he might be stunned by the strike. She pulled his coat off, lashed his wrists together and then threw the garment over his head, before kneeling by Celeste, sliding her hands beneath her neck and waist to lift her to sitting.

“Cele-”No, not a good idea to say her name, when he had already seen her face. Even now he might be able to hear something. Nicolette bit that back, looking over Celeste’s face with worry. “Are you all right?”

She should not have done this, any of it, and she pulled Celeste forward into a hug, feeling both their hammering heartbeats against each other.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#18
Whatever Orlesian invective Nicolette screamed was accompanied by a crunching sound and the feel of the asshole's grip on throat and wrist loosening as he sagged forward. Almost immediately, there was the feel of his weight being pushed to the side; his chokehold hadn't been too restrictive, but having eighteen stone's worth of asshole pressing on her chest had definitely hampered her breathing, and it took a few seconds for her to suck in a few precious lungfuls.

She started to push herself up, found Nicolette beside her to assist, remembering – barely – not to use her name.

“Are you all right?” the minstrel asked as she helped Celeste into a sitting position.

“Yeah.” Celeste screwed her eyes shut once, twice, then opened them to find that her vision had cleared enough to give her a decidedly watery view of Nico's lovely face and their mark: hands tied and face obscured with his own coat. “I owe you one,” she said with an admiring grin, placing a finger to the minstrel's mouth to silence any more words that he might hear, then sealing her lips with a kiss, because damned if she hadn't earned that and more, and the adrenaline currently still zinging through her body was looking for an outlet.

Not here, though. No sound of guards responding; women screaming must be a routine sound from this house, but that didn't mean she wanted to linger.

“Almost done,” she promised as she drew back. Rolling to her feet, she switched the dagger to her left hand – her right was already swelling and coloring up, and wouldn't be good for much of anything for a few days – and quite deliberately dropped onto one knee atop the barrel chest. He made a series of snorts like a buffalo being roused from slumber and started to struggle, but stilled when the point of the dagger slipped beneath the coat and into the flesh under his chin.

“Not a word, not a sound,” she told him flatly. “I should probably kill you now. Or maybe just geld you.” A strangled sound of protest came from under the coat, and she increased the pressure on the dagger. “I said quiet. You wanted to hear my terms? Here they are, and they are not negotiable.

“My associate and I will be leaving with your journal. In return for me not gutting you like the pig that you are, you're going to turn over a new leaf. No more blackmailing your tenants, no more gouging them on their rent, no more making the pretty girls take it out in trade, no more anything. You are going to become an upstanding citizen.”

She could hear the rasp of his breath under the coat, knew the wheels in the cesspool that passed for his mind were turning. “Because if you are anything less than an upstanding citizen,” she went on, “If I find out you are back to cheating and blackmailing your tenants, that journal will be delivered to the guard. And I will find out.”

She leaned lower. “And if I hear of you forcing another woman into your bed, you'll die. You didn't see my associate coming this time, and you won't see her coming next time.” She turned her head and gave Nico a wink and a smile. One Orlesian minstrel, upgraded to master assassin. “Only next time you wake up, you'll be on your way to the bottom of the harbor with your feet chained to an anvil.”

“Now.” She eased off of his chest and stood, motioning Nicolette toward the door. “We'll be leaving. Count to one-hundred very slowly. Then you can take your coat off your head and see about getting loose.” She moved around the desk to retrieve the journal. “If I have to come back and silence you, I'll make it permanent.”

She started for the door, paused and looked back. He hadn't moved. “And since I rather doubt your ability to not be a bastard for any length of time, it might be time for you to get out of the landlord business. If you get a decent offer on this setup, I'd take it, and maybe move to Orlais.”

No answer, but she could feel the hate radiating from him. The feeling was very much mutual. “I'll kill you with no more regrets than I'd have squashing a roach,” she warned him. “Never forget that.”

Sheathing the dagger, she joined Nico in the corridor, moving swiftly back the way they had come to the kitchen, out the back door into the garden. She eased the side gate open, counting down in her head: fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven …

No goons in view, so she slipped out and led the way toward the rear, down a few houses, then back up front, lingering in an alley as her silent count reached one hundred.

Nothing. The guards remained poised indolently at the front of the house, chatting with each other and sending the occasional catcall after a pretty girl.

“Guess he's not interested in letting them know he got his ass handed to him by a lady,” she remarked with a smirk as she turned back to Nicolette. “Nice work in there.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#19
Celeste sounded a little hoarse, and her eyes were watering, but she was all right. She silenced the words that hovered on the edge of Nicolette’s tongue with a kiss, and Nicolette did not want her to break away. But they had to finish this and get away. They had been lucky that the man had not arrived trailing a guard, or it could have been a lot more messy. Celeste moved to slide her dagger beneath the coat obscuring the landlord’s face, and Nicolette went to retrieve her own weapon. Before she could reach for the journal, however, she had to lean against the desk and, as quietly as possible, calm herself down.

Skies, she had almost got Celeste killed. She herself might have ended up dead or worse if she had been caught here alone. She prepared for the expected wave of remorse and panic and was startled when anger flowed in to take its place.
What had the underground been thinking, to send her into this so ill-prepared, without even knowing for sure there would be something to keep the man in line? She had been prepared to take a risk for the mages but this was an unnecessary amount, and she leaned against the desk, fingers curled around the edge, fighting the trembling along her arms.

Celeste had bent right forward now, adding to the list of threats. “And if I hear of you forcing another woman into your bed, you’ll die. You didn’t see my associate coming this time, and you won’t see her coming next time.”

The captain winked at her. Nicolette managed a shaky smile that she doubted came close to convincing, and thank goodness, it was time to leave. She crossed the room in four steps to get to the doorway on Celeste’s signal, pausing only when she realised the other woman was not right behind her. Celeste had scooped up the journal, and turned back to make one last ‘suggestion.’ “And since I rather doubt your ability to not be a bastard for any length of time, it might be time for you to get out of the landlord business. If you get a decent offer on this setup, I'd take it, and maybe move to Orlais.”

One last threat, and they were out, moving fast back through the garden. This time they could unbolt the gate rather than trying to scale the wall, and within moments they were circling through the alleyways until they came back around to the front of the house. A minute passed, and the landlord did not burst out, demanding that his men chase down the intruders. They were safe.

“Guess he's not interested in letting them know he got his ass handed to him by a lady.” Celeste seemed unconcerned over how close she had come to danger. Nicolette looked at her with not a little wonder. With the exception of Daniel, the captain never seemed to let anything in the past lay a weight on her, no matter how recent. It was something Nicolette felt like she could stand to learn. “Nice work in there.”

Nicolette ran a hand through her hair. “Really? I was not sure I could have done much else wrong. I do not know why the underground selected me for this.” But they had succeeded. She glanced at the journal, insurance against anybody else being under that man’s thumb. “We did it, though.”

Relief hit her like a tidal wave, leaving her incapable of doing anything other than a shocked giggling. “We did it!”

She kissed Celeste, quick and hard, cupping her face, finding an outlet for the nervous energy she had been containing since before she even attempted to scale the wall, blocking out the thoughts that nudged at her, accusing her of leading the other woman into danger. They were both out safe, that was all that mattered.

When she pulled away again, she was breathless. Her fingers brushed Celeste’s neck as she gazed into the other woman's eyes, her own still burning with need. “You are sure you are all right? Do we need to find you a salve?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#20
Nicolette stayed with Celeste out of the house, through and out the garden and around to the alley, where they peered out to confirm that their mark didn't seem interested in letting his guards know that he'd been bested. For one who had little experience in such ventures, the minstrel had done well when it counted, and Celeste told her as much.

“Really?” Nico looked doubtful, dragging her fingers through hair that was already in a fair bit of disarray. “I was not sure I could have done much else wrong. I do not know why the underground selected me for this.”

“I doubt they've got as many willing volunteers as the Jennies,”
Celeste remarked. The little people were everywhere under the upturned noses and heavy boots of the high and mighty. Mages hiding from the Chantry would be fewer and farther between.

“We did it, though.” Eyes like amber in moonlight dropped to the journal tucked under Celeste's arm, confirming the truth of the words, then widened as they sank in. The giggles bubbled up like champagne, borne on a swell of relief and exultation. “We did it!”

She lunged forward, her lips meeting Celeste's in a fierce kiss that the sailor matched, looping her arms around the slim waist and drawing the other woman close, letting everything else slide away for a few fiery moments.

So very tempting to do more than just kiss her lover, but the need to get her away from here before she was spotted by anyone who might track her down later tipped the balance. She didn't follow when Nico drew back, both of them breathing hard, hearts racing for a very different reason than they had been minutes earlier.

“You are sure you are all right?” Nicolette regarded her worriedly, fingertips trailing lightly down her neck. “Do we need to find you a salve?”

“Brannigan will have one.” Celeste lifted her right hand, curling the fingers into a fist and releasing a few times, grimacing slightly. Nothing broken, but it was already nicely swollen and coloring up. “Along with plenty of commentary.” She didn't mind, and neither did he, really. He'd been doing post-shenanigan patch-ups since the days of Quinton and Old Torgun. “You?” she reached up to brush a few stray wisps of hair away from the minstrel's cheek, peering into those beautiful eyes. “Things went sideways pretty fast in there.” All in a day's mayhem for Celeste, but her lover hadn't had quite as much experience at it yet.

Yet. That single, small word held a promise that tugged at something in her chest. “This way.” Lacing the fingers of her left hand with Nico's right, she drew her down the alley away from the street in front of the house they'd just left. If the asshole was glaring out a window – and she knew damn well that he was – she didn't want him seeing Nicolette in her company.

“Are you supposed to report back to someone, or are they coming to find you?” she asked as they emerged on the next street over.
 
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