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Flopping In the Flophouse

Nicolette O'Hara

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221
#1
[[OOC: 1st Haring, late afternoon, a ramshackle house in Lowtown]]
@Hanamene Thornecroft

It had taken a while, but Nicolette had finally remembered to pay a visit to the temporary lodging house that Hana had told her about. Most places she went did not have a dedicated place for travelling performers to stay; most either rented a room in a tavern or camped on the outskirts of town, depending on the cost or the attitude of the people towards newcomers. This was apparently a house that had been abandoned and promptly taken over by an ever-changing cast of itinerant musicians, travelling actors, and magicians with a decidedly non-magical slant to their tricks. And in such places, the door was usually open for anybody to wander in.

So Nicolette did, with her vielle to hand and Thibault at her heel. She'd stopped by Hana's shop on the way, to invite her along, but she was out on some errand and Nicolette left a message with the surly owner before heading next door. Thibault had found himself at home almost immediately; on entering, a bay-coloured hound had come bounding up to him and began sniffing around in a friendly way. There were quite a few animals in evidence, and more people than Nicolette had counted. The windows were shut against the daylight and people were eating, sleeping, playing, smoking, dancing, and some were happily enjoying each others’ bodies in various rooms around the place. Nicolette was pulled into a circle of people currently playing drums and a lute, and she added her vielle to the mix, instantly happy.

At the end, somebody pushed a drink into her hand, and she gulped it down quickly before they launched into another song. More songs and more drinks followed, and the inside of the house was very hot with the windows closed. At the suggestion of one of the other performers, Nicolette had traded her dress for a loose silk robe and was currently sprawled on a cushion, pleasantly drunk, and battered her foot against the floor in time as she taught Iain’s goat-loving farmer song to a very appreciative (and also considerably drunk) audience.

She loved these sorts of places.
 

Hanamene Thornecroft

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#2
Winter had come to Kirkwall, and with it flurries and whistling wind. The attic loft that Hana rented from Hal at Saeridin & Son was much colder than it had been in months prior. The upside was that the cooler months meant that the chokedamp wafting up to Lowtown from Darktown was usually carried away by the chilly breeze. Hal kept the hearth on the ground floor roaring, however, the heat from which permeated upward and warmed the floor of Hana’s humble flat.

She sat on the edge of her bed, running a whetstone down the length of her templar-issued sword to the rhythm of the tune drifting into Saeridin & Son from next door. The noise never bothered her much, but then it was less apparent in the attic loft than it was on the ground floor of the building. Not long after she’d gone about tending to the maintenance of her weapon had the music begun and Hal, she could hear, started pounding on the shared wall of the two structures—cursing their neighbours to keep it down. Hana chuckled at first, but then sighed at hearing heavy footsteps, stomping their way up the stairs outside of her living space.

The door to the attic flat swung open. Hana met the gaze of the livid dwarf, standing in the doorway. “Can you believe that? I told ‘em to keep it down and it only got fecking louder!” he complained.

“I didn’t hear you say please,” Hana said, still running the whetstone along her blade.

Hal eyed the sword and said, “Go over there and tell ‘em we’re trying to run a respectable business over here. Take that sword with you when you go.”

“You want me to shake down a bunch a minstrels?” Hana asked, quirking a brow.

“Not shake down, just… intimidate, maybe,” Hal said, lightening his tone as if that could make the request sound somehow more innocent.

Hanamene sighed again, though this time she set the whetstone aside and rose to her feet. She sheathed the sword, in the scabbard at her side and crossed her arms. “You’ll catch more flies with honey, Hal,” she told him, though it was apparent that she would comply with his request as she made for the door.

“Hogwash. That’s a stupid phrase anyway,” Hal said, as they descended the stairs together, “Why would anyone want flies to begin with.”

Fair point, Hanamene thought with a shrug. Once they reached the bottom of the stairs, and stood in the foyer of the builder’s business, Hanamene grabbed a heavy cloak from off of a hook on the wall near Saeridin & Son’s front door. She donned it, informing him, “I’ll go speak with them, Hal, but I’m not threatening anyone for just trying to have a good time. I’ve some personal errands to run thereafter so if the noise continues later on, you’ll have to deal with it yourself.”

“One came by earlier, actually,” Hal told her.

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” he said, “Nicole, or something.”

Hana tilted her head to the side, inquiring, “Nicolette?”

“I guess, whatever. Since you know one of ‘em, maybe they’ll listen to ya.” Hal grumbled, “If it persists after sundown, I’ve half a mind to file a complaint with the city guard—but all right, hopefully it won’t come to that. ‘ppreciate you going over there, I never know what to say to those sorts.”

“Minstrels?” Hanamene asked, amused.

“Yeah. They’re usually so—” the dwarf proceeded to make hand gestures that Hanamene could not honestly decipher so she just rolled her eyes at him and made to open the front door. The wind prompted the door to swing open harder than Hal had opened the door to her loft a moment earlier.

Hal scrambled to catch the door’s handle, to intervene in the wind’s efforts to make the door itself bang continuously against the wall. Hana and her employer both cursed under their breaths when the cold gusts found them. “Be back later,” Hana called over her shoulder, above the whistle of the wind but Hal had already slammed the door closed behind her. She rolled her eyes and made for the door adjacent to Saeridin & Son instead.

Hana didn’t waste time knocking on the door of the flophouse next to Hal’s business. She let herself in without ceremony, holding the doorknob firmly, careful not to let the winter wind catch the door again this time. A flood of scents and sounds rushed at her senses immediately, both of which were even stronger once she actually stood within the flophouse and closed the door. Her eyes had to adjust to the inconsistent lighting, as some lanterns burned brighter here while lit candles flicked dimmer there. The cloak she had donned for barely a moment already felt cumbersome, for the interior of the flophouse ran hotter than a kitchen. Though she hadn’t intended to unveil the arms she bore, Hanamene needed to remove the heavy cloak forthwith and did so in a hurried, though fluid gesture—letting the garment hang from her arm after. She scanned the space and began to explore the interior uncomfortably.

“Nicolette?!” she called out, over the music, “You in here somewhere?” Someone tried to offer Hana a beverage, by attempting to shove it into her hand. She stared the individual down immediately, and they retreated albeit nonchalantly on their part. Hana’s first misadventure on account of drink was still fresh in her mind and she had little interest in repeating that nor was she about to accept libations from strangers.

Hanamene turned and spotted the minstrel she did know, however, sprawled out on cushion. Nicolette perfectly fit in amongst the crowd as much as Hana certainly did not. Nonetheless, Hana was still surprised by the suggestive silk robe her acquaintance wore. “Oh,” she said upon seeing the only person she sort of knew, “Nicolette. Hello. It is—” Good to see you seemed inappropriate to say now, given the robe, so Hanamene stammered, “I mean, there you are.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#3
The last verse, in which the farmer had to take shelter in the barn with his beloved goats after his wife had kicked him out, was received with a roar of laughter and a fresh drink was pushed into Nicolette’s hand. She was not quite drunk, but she was definitely into tipsy, and she was very comfortable on this pile of cushions, with the ambient temperature exactly right for the amount of clothing currently worn, and Thibault close by to discourage anybody who saw the robe as an open invitation. Not that she would say no to many people here. Most of them were good looking and almost all were charismatic in some way or another.

However she was too relaxed to think about anything that smacked of physical exertion right now. She settled back on the pile, sipping her drink and quite ready to listen to somebody else perform for a while. That plan was disrupted when she heard her name being called, and she turned her head. She had been half-hoping that Celeste had found her way here, but she was still delighted when Hana walked through the doorway, even if the other woman seemed ill at ease.

“Oh. Nicolette. Hello, it is – I mean, there you are.”

“There you are!” Nicolette got to her feet, checking the sash on the robe was secure before she straightened up, and went over to kiss Hana on both cheeks. “Ah, I take it your taciturn employer passed on my message.” She gestured around. “I see you were not exaggerating! This definitely the place for travellers to go if they need some fun.”

Her sentence was punctuated by the sound of floorboards creaking overhead, followed by a rhythmic thumping and groaning. Nicolette giggled. She felt good, light and shimmery. “The definitions of the fun vary from person to person. Nobody will make you do anything you do not want to,” she quickly reassured her. “Now, do you want to shrug off that heavy clothing and relax with me? Walter here was about to play us a song from Gwaren.”

A man who had more hair than visible face beamed at them, waving a handdrum that was lined with small bells.
 

Hanamene Thornecroft

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#4
Hanamene mustered courtesies despite being rigid in her posture as Nicolette warmly greeted her. “I am glad this establishment is to your liking,” she told the minstrel, her words faltering somewhat by the end as the floorboards above their heads creaked.

“The definitions of the fun vary from person to person,” Nicolette said. No kidding, Hanamene thought in turn feeling at least her ears begin to redden. Nicolette made sure to add, “Nobody will make you do anything you do not want to.” For which, Hanamene responded with a grateful expression. “Now, do you want to shrug off that heavy clothing and relax with me? Walter here was about to play us a song from Gwaren.”

Hana inclined her head to Walter, in such a way as to express that despite her feeling out of place in the flophouse she was willing to be a good sport. She had already removed her heavy winter cloak upon her arrival, and was more than willing to set the garment aside. She did set it down, though out of the way of being trampled upon.

The rest of her attire remained, for the most part. Specifically, Hana would not be parted from her father’s sword in so unfamiliar a setting. Nicolette was a pleasant sort to be around but Hana did not know the rest of the people around her in the slightest. The sword was of solid templar-make and would have potentially fetched too pretty of a price for Hana to simply cast it aside unattended. It stayed sheathed to her side, but Hana did make an extra effort not to idly rest her palm upon the hilt for the remainder of the evening. It was certainly hot in the flophouse, however, thus she loosened her leather armour at the neck in particular but stopped short of removing it altogether as well. The grandest effort she made to relax was the removal of her boots, but even then she placed them upright, side by side, next to her cloak. The habit of a one-time recruit of the Templar Order in respecting one’s soldierly kit was a hard one to break.

Finally barefoot, Hanamene murmured to Nicolette, so as to not offend the more regular residents of flophouse, “Is it just me, or is the floor… sticky? Why is it sticky?” It only occurred to Hana as an afterthought, that if the floor truly was sticky she probably didn’t want to know why.

She could not ignore, however, the talent of those occupying the space overall. Walter was surprisingly exceptional in his own right, and Hana had to smile at that. Her curiosity about the origin of his music prompted her to forget the sticky floor and the upstairs ruckus altogether, at least for the moment, with Hana turning to Nicolette again to ask, “Have you ever been to Gwaren?! I must admit that while I cannot play an instrument to save my soul, the travelling aspect of a minstrel’s life has always been compelling to me. Gwaren in particular is so interesting. It seems so separate and remote from the rest of Ferelden and yet it’s a teyrnir. I suppose that’s a testament to the Fereldan spirit, in things having the ability to flourish in even the unlikeliest of circumstances.”

Hana’s head tilted to the side, when listening to Walter’s performance. “It’s inspiring, really,” she said.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#5
Hana was reddening. It was quite sweet, but Nicolette had not invited her here with the intention of making her uncomfortable, and reassured her that anything she wished to turn away could be avoided with a simple no. She was quite eager to hear Walter’s song – she roamed quite a large portion of Ferelden during her visits there, but she had never made it to the logging town to the south-east, and did not know what to expect from the piece. She hoped it would be lively. Hana relaxed enough to remove her cloak, setting it neatly aside, and Nicolette indicated that they should settle on the cushions that she had recently been occupying. Hana made to remove her boots, although that seemed to cause another concern.

“Is it just me, or is the floor…sticky? Why is it sticky?”

“Spilled alcohol. And some candle wax.” Even in her loose state of mind, Nicolette managed to decide against teasing Hana by insinuating there were other causes. That was less funny than upsetting, not to mention unhygienic. And while not everybody here could afford to take a bath at every opportunity, all of them had an element of fastidiousness that applied as well to themselves as to their instruments. Celeste’s tub on the Wicked Grace was one of the best inventions Nicolette had ever come across, in her opinion.

Walter had started, drumming deftly, producing a counter beat by stamping his foot and was singing a piece about a logger from Gwaren. Nicolette listened with interest as a few others joined in – it appeared to be a tale, with a logger who had gone to chop down a tree only for it to plead with him in a woman’s voice. Entranced by the charm, the logger had started to fulfil some tasks in order to break the curse trapping the spirit in the tree.

They could have finished the song right there and Nicolette would have known it would not end well for the logger, despite the spirited tone – nonetheless, she was enjoying it. Hana appeared to be as well, although her mind tugged her away from it.

“Have you ever been to Gwaren?! I must admit that while I cannot play an instrument to save my soul, the travelling aspect of a minstrel’s life has always been compelling to me. Gwaren in particular is so interesting. It seems so separate and remote from the rest of Ferelden and yet it’s a teyrnir. I suppose that’s a testament to the Fereldan spirit, in things having the ability to flourish in even the unlikeliest of circumstances. It’s inspiring, really.”

“Then I am sorry to disappoint, for I did not make it to Gwaren. I spent most of my time in the northern cities of Ferelden, although I did make it to Edgewater and as far south as the Western Hills at one point.” She smiled. “But yes, I found the tenacity of most Fereldans I met something to admire. The Blight could have wrecked everybody’s spirit, but it did not. It even seemed to inspire a greater zest for life in some people. I did not grow up there but it…connected me, to my father, who was born there, and my mother, who fell in love with a so-called ‘dog lord’.”

Her words were sliding over each other slightly, but were no less sincere for it.
 

Hanamene Thornecroft

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#6
“Spilled alcohol. And some candle wax,” the minstrel’s unelaborated response was a kindness. Hanamene likely didn’t want to consider the answer to her own question for too long. Present occupants of the flophouse aside, buildings in Lowtown had a tendency to house a rotating mix of residents. Even the floors of Saeridin & Son and the Hanged Man had stories hidden in their boards, and not all of them would be ones Hana would be eager to hear. The former had operated out of Hightown, prior to Hal relocating the family business to Lowtown in order to be as accessible to his workers as to his clientele. Hana sometimes had to stop her imagination from wandering at night, while she lay in her bed in Saeridin & Son’s attic loft—wondering what tales the scuffed walls or creaky floors might have been able to tell.

The pair sat in appreciation of Walter’s music. Despite the stickiness of the floor, Hanamene began to tap her foot. The minstrel’s words in response to her queries were almost an echo to her mind as Hana found herself strangely starting to relax. “But yes, I found the tenacity of most Fereldans I met something to admire. The Blight could have wrecked everybody’s spirit, but it did not. It even seemed to inspire a greater zest for life in some people. I did not grow up there but it…connected me, to my father, who was born there, and my mother, who fell in love with a so-called ‘dog lord’,” Nicolette told her.

Hana had to laugh. “Your mother’s sentiments sound quite like my grandmother’s, she was from Tevinter,” Hanamene smiled at the memory, “Who, in her own words, fell for a miserly old hound.” And as with the happy memories of her family, the opposite were not far behind. Their absence, and the nature of their loss, sprung up in Hanamene’s mind. Her smile vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. Nicolette likely hadn’t intended to prompt this reaction, for few meant to bring up the Blight—it was simply still something many felt was quite recent. For it was, in many ways. Not so many years had passed. Even Kirkwall still struggled with displaced Fereldan refugees. Returning to Ferelden was not an option for everyone, many could not afford the journey to do so or incurred debts that so poignantly shackled them to the City of Chains. Others were simply too taxed from escaping the Fifth Blight in itself and might not be able to survive the return even if they could afford it.

The sorrow that had washed over Hana was quickly replaced, as well. Disinclined to allow these feelings to linger long enough for her to actually feel them, Hanamene motioned to a group of individuals puffing away on some elaborate looking shared pipe. She was still hesitant to imbibe alcohol, given her behaviour the night she had met Varric. Her ignorance and inexperience allowed her to reason that perhaps the effects of leaf would be better to her liking. As far as vices went, anyway. The group shuffled over, joining the pair and bringing their pipe with them. Hanamene accepted the pipe in her hands and looked at Nicolette, pursing her lips for a moment before stating, “To tenacity. And to... a greater zest for life.”

She half expected to cough violently, after raising the pipe to her lips and drawing in deeply of the smoke—Hana even paused briefly, as if waiting for such a fit to take her over. Instead, she found the experience much easier on her than her first swing of Darktown ale had been. Hanamene exhaled the smoke, a little smugly, pleased with herself in that she wasn’t a complete damper. “Let’s speak more of zest, specifically,” Hana would say to the minstrel, thereafter, quirking her brow. “What do you want out of life, Nicolette?”

Hanamene passed the pipe to one of the newcomers sitting amongst them. They had an audience of their own now. A swaying, bleary-eyed audience... but an audience nonetheless.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#7
Fereldans had their charms. Clarice Aumont had fallen for Richard O’Hara despite not only a difference in country of origin, but also in class; even if they had not been the nobility that Nicolette’s mother had described, they were certainly wealthy, and therefore Clarice should not have had anything more than polite words than Richard, a blacksmith. And she had fallen in love hard enough to run away with him. It appeared she had not been alone in doing so with a Fereldan; Hana’s grandmother had done similarly.

Hana’s face started to twist in reflection; Nicolette was about to describe her family to distract her, but Hana had her own ideas. Beckoning for a pipe, she toasted Nicolette before imbibing. “To tenacity. And to…a greater zest for life.”

She took a long drag on the pipe, and Nicolette raised the half-full glass that remained in her hand. “To a greater zest for life.”

Even muddled as she was by the second-hand smoke and the alcohol, she had not missed – or forgotten from their first meeting – the residual sadness that seemed to cling to Hana. There was something the other woman had trouble shaking off, and Nicolette was prepared to listen to her woes, if she needed to unburden herself for a time. Once again, the other woman surprised her.

“Let’s speak more of zest, specifically. What do you want out of life, Nicolette?”

A small circle of people had formed. Only three or four at the moment, but Hana passed them the pipe. Nicolette lounged back on her cushion, considering the question.

“I honestly tend not to think too far ahead,” she answered. “I try not to go overboard with spending my coin, as I never know when I might hit a lean run of days-” hopefully the next was quite some time away, with Celeste’s generous offer to take her to Antiva and then Rivain on the horizon – “but otherwise, I tend to live largely by my whims. And for the most part, I already have the life I want. I can wander whenever and almost wherever I please, and earn my coin doing something I adore. I am truly lucky.”

She leaned forward with a conspirational air, made more honest by her muddied thoughts. “But truly? I would, someday, like to be loved. Unequivocally, by somebody who does not demand my life stops in that spot for them. Lovers have left me, in time, and I have wished them well. Others have demanded I change for them, and I also wished them well in seeking somebody better suited to them. But I am a romantic at heart. I hope to find someone who complements me without forcing me to change my shape.”

She reached for the pipe, and took a long, slow drag. Feeling had started to creep into the last few words, but it was easily suffocated by the soothing smoke. What she had right now was perfect. Demanding more would likely only make it disappear.

She turned the question around. “What of you, Hana? What do you want?”
 

Hanamene Thornecroft

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#8
The minstrel went on to share what a zest for life truly meant to her and Hanamene listened as intently as those that had collected around them to do the same. Nicolette had as much talent in storytelling as she had in music, it appeared. Two talents that oftentimes worked well together, in turn.

"-I am truly lucky," she'd said, with Hanamene nodding in agreement ere the minstrel turned the topic to a matter about which the young warrior knew but very little. "But truly? I would, someday, like to be loved." While those around them, listening to Nicolette as well, knowingly nodded or offered the slightest, soft laugh in commiseration, Hana shifted uncomfortably were she sat. "Unequivocally, by somebody who does not demand my life stops in that spot for them. Lovers have left me, in time, and I have wished them well. Others have demanded I change for them, and I also wished them well in seeking somebody better suited to them. But I am a romantic at heart. I hope to find someone who complements me without forcing me to change my shape."

When the minstrel reached for the pipe, Hanamene handed it to her without protest. She'd had enough of the leaf by then herself, as Nicolette added, "What of you, Hana? What do you want?"

Hanamene shifted uncomfortably again, as a number of sets of eyes fell to her. She little adored being the centre of attention, even if for a fleeting moment. "I'm afraid I know little and less about that particular topic," she admitted, adding, "And... if I'm honest-" For what's a confession between new friends and a number of perfect strangers? "I've yet to discover what shapes suits me best. Certainly wasn't the itchy robes of the Chantry. Or the wildly impractical skirts of the Templar Order, for that matter."

To her own surprise, her comments elicited laughter from a few. Hanamene hadn't intended to be humourous at all. A point made when she followed up her admission with, "I want to find my father's killer. The blood mage that made a ruin of him and left his body to rot along the Wounded Coast. I want to make 'em pay for my father's murder, and for the indignity granted of his corpse thereafter."

The crowd that had surrounded them during Nicolette's tale immediately dispersed, all save but one who stood by uncomfortably - not wanting to be rude. Hanamene realized what she had done to dampen the atmosphere, and granted him pardon with a slow, chagrined nod. She tried to swallow before speaking again, but given that her mouth had run dry all she could manage was a wince. "I... should probably collect my things and take my leave," Hana said, slowly rising. "Despite a concerted effort, Nicolette," she said, re-discovering and lifting her boots aloft from where she had placed them aside, "I'm afraid I'm not much fun. Perhaps that will change someday, and we can try this again."

Whatever this was. Hanamene wasn't entirely sure. Hana was sure, though, that she had been enjoying the minstrel's company up until she managed to kill the mood. "Nicolette," she told the other woman rather earnestly as she stood before her, "Before I go... I would very much like it if you'd allow that we say our farewells as friends." The sincerity of Hana's words was another confession of sorts, in that she hadn't had many friends at all.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#9
Hana gave the question serious thought, and her answer was one many people could have sympathised with. "I've yet to discover what shapes suits me best. Certainly wasn't the itchy robes of the Chantry. Or the wildly impractical skirts of the Templar Order, for that matter."

Nicolette chuckled softly along with some of the others at the comment on the templar skirts - even from her own inexperienced viewpoint, the kit the templars wore had always seemed ill-suited for the business of fighting mages - but she nodded in response. “It can take people some time to find their shape. And others find that it changes over time.” She was about to go on - how her mother had once been a noblewoman, then a tavern singer, then an itinerant minstrel, all of which had suited her, before settling down to manage Saul’s estate, which according to all accounts she handled diligently - but Hana’s next words made any comment Nicolette had irrelevant.

"I want to find my father's killer. The blood mage that made a ruin of him and left his body to rot along the Wounded Coast. I want to make 'em pay for my father's murder, and for the indignity granted of his corpse thereafter."

The crowd that had been listening in immediately pulled away. This was not a house where people spoke of vengeance and murder, and within moments they were left alone. Nicolette, meanwhile, could only reach out and gently press Hana’s hand. She had learned some time back that there were occasions in which no words would suffice. Hana pulled away.

"Despite a concerted effort, Nicolette, I'm afraid I'm not much fun. Perhaps that will change someday, and we can try this again." Hana rose, and Nicolette stood up with her. What had happened to Hana’s father was horrible, and the open wound Hana had shared with her was one Nicolette wished she could heal. Before she could speak, Hana had more to say. "Nicolette, before I go... I would very much like it if you'd allow that we say our farewells as friends."

Nicolette took Hana’s hands again and smiled gently at her. “Of course. As friends.” She leaned forward and kissed Hana once on each cheek, then stepped back. “I hope to see you again, Hana. And I do hope you find some peace, concerning your father - one way or another.”
 
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