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Let It Snow! [Complete]

Bernie

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#1
((25 Firstfall, 35 Dragon; Mid-day; Open to anyone in Denerim))

Snowflakes had been falling in fitful flurries since the middle of the month, but true winter had been late coming to Ferelden. This morning, however, the skies had opened up, dropping a thick curtain of fat, white flakes that swirled in the air and were rapidly accumulating on the streets and rooftops.

It was time for a tradition that George had started more than thirty years ago. He’d had many, and while Bernie had instituted a few of her own in the ten years that she had owned the Dragon’s Flagon, she had kept a good many of the old ones, and none was more popular than Snow Day.

The first day that snow could be seen accumulating on the Flagon’s roof, food and drink were free to all the entire day. She’d thought George daft at first; he never offered free drinks on Satinalia or any of the other holidays that the other taverns did, but four or five days a year, sometimes on a whim, he did it on his own. Time had shown the canniness behind the choices. The Flagon never wanted for patrons, even when most of the other establishments were giving booze away. Some folk just didn’t like the drunken crowds that such generosity tended to encourage in taverns without good bouncers, and prices at the Flagon were reasonable on any night. A laborer could get a pint of decent beer for a copper, or a noble could get a glass of Vyrantium white, Blessed 93 for half a sovereign … and both of them would have to wait the same amount of time if the tables were full. It kept the snootier nobles away most of the time and was popular with the lower classes, many of whom showed up on the off chance that they might have the satisfaction of being seated before Bann So-and-so.

And the occasional days of free food and drink, while expensive, paid off well in the end. The high end beverages were not included in the list of complimentary offerings, and there were always those who, after a round or two of their usual fares for free, decided they had saved enough to splurge on the good stuff. New patrons found the place, irregular customers became regular ones, and the regulars became more loyal.

They’d been caught out once or twice when the snows arrived early and with no warning and had to scramble to make sure they had enough food, but the weather the last week had given them plenty of time to stock the pantry, and Trixie and her assistants had been busy in the kitchen since before dawn. Pies, cakes and pastries had cooled on every window sill in the kitchen, and morning fare of bacon, ham, eggs, porridge, toast and griddle cakes had given way to shepherd’s pie, lamb stew, fish and chips, roast beef and potatoes, herbed chicken. The savory smells filled the air, competing with the scents of mulled wine and cider kept simmering in kettles - by far the most popular beverages on Snow Day.

And coffee. The Antivan import had a small but fanatical group of devotees - herself among them - and Bernie kept a pot brewing night and day, paying a pretty penny to keep her stock topped off, particularly when winter descended and choked off shipments from the north. She sipped at a cup now, liberally laced with cream, sugar and Nevarran whiskey, as she tended bar, her watchful gaze shifting from table to table in a seemingly casual fashion. Most of them were full, their occupants eating, drinking and making merry at normal levels of revelry, but a trio of newcomers at a corner table had arrived about an hour earlier, started drinking without ordering any food, and were starting to get sloppy and loud. A glance toward Giovanni confirmed what she already knew: her bouncer had his eye on him from his station beside the bar.

It was easy to pick out the regular patrons from newcomers; even if she hadn’t known the faces of her regulars by heart, the way the new arrivals couldn’t stop staring at Gio, even if most of them were at least trying to be subtle about it, would have given them away. After a couple of visits, you got used to the sight of a dwarf nearly as broad as he was tall, clad in the most eye-searing Orlesian fashions imaginable, but the first glimpse tended to take folk aback. Today it was orange and blue checkered tights beneath a yellow satin doublet over a lime green tunic with blousy sleeves. It made him easy to spot, if nothing else.

She turned back to the door as the bell chimed to announce a new arrival. “Fred, Edgar, good to see you!” she greeted the two men as they shook the snow from their cloaks and lowered their hoods to reveal cheeks and noses reddened from the cold and smiles appearing as they breathed deep the aromas of the day’s offerings and called for spiced cider.

The bell rang again as Bernie bustled back to the kitchen to fill two mugs with the hot cider, and she glanced back to see a new face: an elf in shabby clothes and a threadbare cloak, looking around warily before scooting to one of the benches near the fire. One of the serving girls immediately started making her way in his direction. He’d have a hot drink and a hot meal in his belly soon, and assuming he didn’t slip out as soon as he’d eaten, she’d try to see to it that he left with a warmer cloak on his back, courtesy of the stash that was maintained by donations by her regulars.

Snow Day was always a good day, and this one was looking to be no exception.
 
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Sofia di Castelbuono

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Grey Warden
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71
#2
Oh, it was cold!

Snow was by no means unknown in Antiva, but even having travelled and slept under some poor conditions during her tenure as a Grey Warden, Sofia couldn’t remember ever being this sharply nipped by the wind before. Snow eddied along the street in sharp gusts and Sofia was fairly sure that one side of her face was being flayed by the cold, wet air. She tugged her hood more firmly around her head, grateful for the thick gloves that protected her hands from a similar fate. The cloak was a new purchase, bought after realising that her old one was nowhere near capable of protecting her from the weather, and the fur lining had been treated with some sort of oil that made it largely impervious to water. It did make it look slightly like she was hauling a bearskin around on her back, but Sofia was willing to forego style for the sake of not losing extremities.

Normally she would not venture out in such weather at all, except for a mission, but her curiosity had been caught earlier that day by one of the compound’s servants excitedly telling another that it was the first Snow Day at the Flagon. A quick enquiry had settled her on investigating further; apparently there was a tavern in Denerim that offered a day of free food and drink when the snows properly arrived. Even if she wasn’t spurred by the Grey Warden appetite, she would have gone for a look anyway; she had yet to visit a proper Fereldan tavern, and doubtless it would be lively with such an offer going on.

She had almost headed out immediately, before remembering she could not go on her own. Thankfully Tessa had some business to take care of in town, so she arranged to walk to the Flagon with her, and then they would go their separate ways until Tessa was done and could come and join her. Bending the rules a bit, perhaps, but she wasn’t going to take her staff (the Warden-styled dress remained, though), and it wasn’t as though she’d be courting trouble just enjoying a few drinks and a free meal. She just wouldn’t be out on the street on her own.

The moment she got to the Flagon, it was apparent that a good percentage of the population had heard about the free meals too. There were almost no seats to be seen, but that was fine; she was happy to lean against the wall near the fireplace for a bit, and watch the crowd. There was a lot to look at, not least a dwarf clad in colours an Orlesian harlequin might find a little much. Sofia let herself be struck by him for a moment, before a familiar scent cut through the air; one she had not been able to indulge in since leaving home.

Coffee!

And it smelled like a good variety, at that. Eyes gleaming, Sofia headed for the bar. A tall woman with curly hair was leaning against the wall, sipping a cup, and another girl approached her, asking for her order. “A coffee with whiskey, please. As strong as you can make it.”
 

Bernie

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#3
The bell chimed again as Bernie returned with the cider. A new face, and a Grey Warden, at that, judging from the robes beneath the heavy cloak. Bernie handed the mugs of cider off to Fred and Edgar, watching from the corner of her eye as Melinde approached the newcomer.

“A coffee with whiskey, please,” the Warden told her with a friendly smile. “As strong as you can make it.”

Bernie recognized the accent at once. “Use my pot, Mel,” she called, and Melinde obligingly made a beeline toward the pot kept on the back burner of the stove, returning with a cup of fragrant ebony elixir brewed strongly enough that Trixie swore she’d seen a spoon stand upright in it. “\Fereldans don’t know how to drink real coffee,\” she told the Warden in Antivan with a smile, pouring a healthy shot of whiskey into the mug and switching back to Common as she continued, “Welcome to the Dragon’s Flagon, Warden. Cream or sugar, or honey, perhaps?” Honey in coffee was a Rivaini custom, but a number of Antivans liked it, as well.
 

Kiran Xuresh

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#4
The doors clattered and two more snow-dusted travellers nudged their way into the tavern, the tall one's dark features contrasting with his white attire, the shorter one a cloak of frost-speckled green. Of the pair, one was clearly more excited to be here than the other. Between the perplexed man sporting Chantry suns who was mostly trying to keep his limbs and satchel in check from the swirling crowd around him, and the bright-eyed socialite who had already disappeared in thirty seconds flat, calling out to familiar faces (that all somehow seemed to be a case of mistaken identity), it wasn't terribly difficult to reason out which one had the great idea of checking out Snow Day.

In five minutes, the armour-less templar had made new friends anyway and happily regaled them with a tale of something that required putting his hands on his head antler-style. Kiran had only managed to wedge himself further towards the nearest corner, and worse: he took out something to read.

That was how the calamity came barreling towards the counter. A single concerned flick of the eye, a moment to excuse himself, and a mage all but shoved towards the less busy side of the bar had the gray-and-green dressed man loudly proclaiming, "Haaaaaaave you met Kiran?" He might have appreciated the irony of foisting a circle mage amongst the likes of a Grey Warden and an apostate, had he been a better templar. Thankfully, it was Snow Day.

"... Hi," the mage-out-of-tower managed to eek out with a shy wave and all, his voice clearly hitching on the awkwardness of it all.

This did not please Cedric. No, no, no! His features locking with exasperation, refusing to drop an otherwise friendly smile because of social incompetence once again, he levelled with everyone and made his expectations very clear: "Look Kiran, either you order something and talk to these lovely ladies for five whole minutes all on your own, or for the next twenty minutes, I will."

"No!" yelped the formerly mute man, sheer panic taking over as he steered them far away from that slice of horror. Plastering on a smile that did little to dampen his fright, he tried his best to recollect himself and meet the templar's request. "Uh, hello, I'm Kiran... from out of town... Do you by chance have any ice water?" The last directed towards the woman who clearly worked here, the current occasion seemingly slipping from mind.

But a roll of the eyes and a silent huff was a roll of the eyes and a silent huff. With a pat on the back, Cedric left the three to return to revelry, leaving them with one of many hints of the future they had narrowly avoided. "Well, have fun! I'm going to go chat me up a dwarf and see if he knows how to dance bronto-style..."

A wave and he was gone, and Kiran at once collapsed onto a recently emptied seat and covered his face with his hands to will away the embarrassment. "I'm sorry." It wasn't working. "He doesn't get out much... or gets out too much, or- Hm, do you have any soups?"

Then, with slightly more effort in instigating a conversation at all, "Soo... you're a Grey Warden?" The uniform sort of stuck out, crowded as the place may be. "How are you liking that...?" Nope, nope - that was terrible. Time for take two: "Ah, do either of you come here often...?"

Nevermind that one of them was literally behind the counter. This was still less painful than listening to the umpteenth explanation of how to play Arrow, Paper, Magic, Templar, Lust Demon.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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Grey Warden
DAO/DA2 Timeline
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#5
The woman who had been surveying the bar now glanced in her direction and issued a quick order to the server, who turned towards the source of the tantalisingly strong scent. Sofia was, for the moment, less interested in the smell than the hint of the accent she had caught, and she beamed as the other woman – who she took to be the owner – addressed her in Antivan. “/Fereldans don’t know how to drink real coffee.\”

Sofia didn’t even try to hide her delight. “/I didn’t know this establishment was run by an Antivan! It is a delight to meet you.”

The woman started stirring together the coffee with the whiskey. “Welcome to the Dragon’s Flagon, Warden. Cream or sugar, or honey, perhaps?”

Sofia did not typically add cream or sugar to a drink that already had whiskey in it, and she considered the possibilities for a moment, before settling on honey as the thing most likely to blend well with the other ingredients. “Honey, if you please. I think it would go well with the whiskey.”

When she took the cup, she waited for a few moments for it to cool, breathing in the taste rather than sticking her tongue right into the hot liquid. When it was ready to drink, she took a sip and immediately felt the warmth curling its way right down into her belly. The brew was rich and strong, softened by the honey and sharpened by the whiskey into something that provided her with the energy that the cold had been sapping for her as well as a deep sense of contentment.

“That is perfection. Thank you.” Sofia dipped into her purse and dug out a silver, which she imagined would be enough to cover the cost of the coffee; it might be free food and drink but until somebody had specifically confirmed it she was not just going to wander off with her drink. Besides, her stomach was growling. “I think I will need some food as well.” She cupped the drink with her hands and eyed the other woman curiously. “Is it true you give out free food and drink on the first big snowfall of the year? How did that tradition come to pass?”

Before an answer could come, a man was suddenly shoved into her side. Sofia quickly pressed her fingers over the mug, protecting the precious coffee. To her surprise, a man in Circle robes was at her side, and an excitable man wearing the clothing of an off-duty templar was introducing him to her. The mage looked as though he wanted the ground to swallow him up, and the templar decided this wasn’t good enough, threatening to spend twenty minutes talking at them.

Sofia’s internal reaction was not far different from the mage’s external one. “No! Uh, hello, I'm Kiran... from out of town...” he then asked the owner if she had ice water, and then, once his handler had disappeared back into the crowd, if there were any soups. Sofia was about to leave him to it when he turned in her direction. “Soo…you’re a Grey Warden? How are you liking that…? Ah, do either of you come here often…?”

Oh, poor man. He was panicking. Sofia put a hand on his shoulder. “Take a deep breath. Give yourself a moment.” After said moment passed – “There. In answer to your question, I am enjoying being a Warden, and this is my first time here.” She leaned in towards him conspirationally, although not so she was boxing the woman behind the bar out of the conversation. “I find it a lot less restricting than being in the Circle.”
 

Bernie

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#6
The Warden’s face lit up at being addressed in her native tongue, and she responded in kind. Ferelden was Bernie’s home now, but the Antivan was a welcome balm to the ear, the syllables flowing as smoothly as the honey that she added to the coffee before passing it to the dark haired woman.

A proper connoisseur of the beverage, the Warden spent a reverent few moments savoring the scent before taking that first sip. A beatific smile formed on her lips. “That is perfection. Thank you,” she said, pulling out a silver and offering it. “I think I will need some food as well.”

“No charge today,” Bernie told her, waving off the coin, “and the first drink is free for Grey Wardens any time.” Gratitude for ending the Blight and remaining vigilant against the darkspawn, yes, but there was a strategy, as well. Grey Warden appetites were well known; they came to drink and stayed to eat - and drink more. Another chime of the bell, another pair stumbling in, and while Bernie gave no overt sign, the Templar uniform immediately drew her attention. This one didn’t seem to be hunting for anything but a good time, however, calling out jovially to folk and leaving the decidedly less jovial mage he had accompanied to his own devices until the poor fellow pulled out a book.

That was quite fine with Bernie; readers tended to stir up less trouble than drinkers. The templar, however, seemed to think that his charge was in need of socialization, uprooting him and shoving him into the Grey Warden just as she was asking about the Snow Day tradition and its origins. Bernie frowned slightly at the boisterousness of the gesture, suspecting a pretense for harassment, but after browbeating the mage into agreeing to chat with them, the templar was off again.

"Uh, hello, I'm Kiran...,” the man offered falteringly. He was older than Bernie had first thought, a few strands of grey visible in the black hair, but the smooth lines of his face and the clear, blue-grey eyes shaved years from his appearance. “from out of town... Do you by chance have any ice water?"

That got a double take from Mel, but Bernie had taken orders for just about any drink under the sun, and a few that had never seen the light of day. Ice water during a snowstorm was nothing. “No ice, I’m afraid,” she told him, “but the well water is plenty cold by now. Mel?”

Melinde nodded and vanished into the kitchen to draw icy cold water from the well in back … and to warn Trixie that not even a whisper of magic should be released. Perhaps this templar really was as intent on dancing bronto-style as he seemed to be … and maybe he wasn’t. No chances would be taken. At the moment, he was trying to engage Giovanni in a spirited conversation; the dwarf was looking at him as though he was the one breaking every fashion rule in Thedas.

"I'm sorry." The poor mage sank onto a barstool and buried his flaming face in his hands. "He doesn't get out much... or gets out too much, or- Hm, do you have any soups?"

“We do,” Bernie confirmed. “Lamb stew, chicken with dumplings or tomato basil ... which I highly recommend. And don’t worry about your companion.” She wasn’t about to call him a friend until the mage did so. “We get all kinds in here; keeps things interesting.” The templar had started demonstrating what was evidently a bronto-style dance, getting a bit of a smile from Gio and earning a point or two in his favor with Bernie. Not many interacted so freely with her bouncer at first sight. “The shepherd’s pie is also highly recommended,” she added for the benefit of the Warden.

"Soo... you're a Grey Warden?" the mage - Kiran - observed awkwardly. "How are you liking that...?" Mild panic washed over his cherubic features, and he tried again. "Ah, do either of you come here often...?"

Oh, my. Someone definitely didn’t get out much. The Warden took pity on him, placing an elegantly manicured hand gently on the shoulder of his Chantry robes. “Take a deep breath. Give yourself a moment,” she encouraged him, adding after allowing him that moment, “There. In answer to your question, I am enjoying being a Warden, and this is my first time here.” She angled toward him a bit, lowering her voice as though sharing a secret as she added, “I find it a lot less restricting than being in the Circle.”

As well she might. “And I’m here most of the time,” Bernie put in with a warm smile. “Welcome to the Dragon’s Flagon, Kiran. You can call me Bernie.” Bernadette had been left in the past; no one called her by that name now, and she found that she preferred it that way. Mel brought a glass of water, condensation already beading on the sides. Bernie slid it across the bar to Kiran, waiting for the Grey Warden to introduce herself.
 

Kiran Xuresh

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#7
Between the two reactions, Kiran had all the feedback necessary of his introduction: not awe-inspiringly terrible, the composed redhead fielding his questions without any need to collect her jaw from the floor; and yet still bad enough to induce concern from the uniformed woman who dealt with darkspawn for a living. Both helped him calm his frazzled nerves.

"Lamb stew, chicken with dumplings or tomato basil ... which I highly recommend." Simple as the topic might be, her adherence to an everyday demeanour reaffirmed that the day was still passing and it hadn't, in fact, come screeching to a halt. He appreciated that. That, and he actually was feeling a bit peckish.

"Is the tomato basil fresh? It sounds positively divine! I'll have one of those, please." They had all the cured meats they could possibly store in the stockrooms back at the Tower. Produce proved a trickier problem.

And then there was the Warden. He had been caught off guard at first, momentarily concerned she was perhaps a few more cups into her drink than he first considered, but the stabilizing gesture wasn't for her benefit. Following her directions, deep breaths and personal moments and all, and he did feel a bit less urgency churning in his blood.

"Thank you, I needed that." And he'd need it again as soon as the conversation started.

"In answer to your question, I am enjoying being a Warden, and this is my first time here." ... No, not that part - the subtle secret she dropped, leaning in and everything to suggest her next words would be a bigger deal: "I find it a lot less restricting than being in the Circle."

Kiran's reaction was hasty and regrettable. "Oh!" he exclaimed, the small tug of a smile shining through as he added, "They let you join?" He knew it was the wrong choice of words even as he said it. While she certainly seemed pleased with the turn of events, he knew of no places in all of Thedas where Warden recruitments made for good bedtime stories.

"... Sorry, that's not what I meant... I'm very happy you've found a place you enjoy," he apologized a moment later, repeating her exercise in half time. But he wasn't about to bury himself in embarrassment again. Inspiration struck, and he dug about in his satchel for a way to turn this around instead, eventually producing a couple loose papers already marred with other scribblings, but enough unblemished to add more. The remaining accoutrements similarly fished out and laid upon the counter, not finding a single crumb or streak of run-off to worry him, and he was prepared to scribe away. "Tell me everything you like about it, and anything you miss from the Circle that might make it better!" And then, because he was almost certainly getting ahead of himself, "... If you don't mind my asking, please."

The cold-but-not-iced water delivered with a thanks and a simple pleasure indulged, and he included Bernie in the consideration. "How about you? Any comments you'd like to make on Circle life, siblings you wish to visit, templar tavern-goers you'd like to be slightly less... enthusiastic?" He supposed that was one word to describe the scene occurring across the Flagon. A small gathering had formed. More people were joining. Noises were being made.

"... I'd just like to say, I'll gladly make arrangements for anything he breaks, and I'm sorry in advance for everything he says." Still, it wasn't complete exasperation on his face as he regarded the facepalm-worthy Cedric.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#8
The best way she could think of to describe the young man’s reaction was delighted surprise, laced with just a hint of naivety. “Oh! They let you join!” Evidently he quickly reconsidered what he had said, as he stumbled on his words correcting himself. “…Sorry, that’s not what I meant…I’m very happy you’ve found a place you enjoy.”

Sofia chuckled. “It’s all right. ‘Let’ was not part of the equation, but I’ve done very well since.” Apart from whatever she had done to get her sent to the freezing south in mid-winter, but there were worse things. She could have ended up in a place that had never even heard of coffee, let alone had another Antivan brewing it properly.

She appeared to have encouraged him. He whipped out parchment and a stub of pencil. “Tell me everything you like about it, and anything you miss from the Circle that might make it better! …If you don’t mind my asking, please.” He then included Bernie, who had introduced herself earlier before the young man had started getting excited, asking if she had her own comments. Sofia eyed him curiously. Was he planning on issuing some sort of report? Or writing a book exposing the seamy underbelly of the Circles? There already existed a thousand romance novels that did just that, although their relationship with reality was strained, to say the least. She’d hooted her way with laughter through more than one of them.

The man glanced back at this templar companion. “…I’d just like to say, I’ll gladly make arrangements for anything he breaks, and I’m sorry in advance for everything he says.”

“I rarely saw a templar so willing to let his hair down when he had a ward to guard. Perhaps they would be viewed with less suspicion by the mages if all of them were so effusive.” Sofia was amused, although she did think it a bit rich of the templar to pull his charge in here and then barge off on the dance floor. He was hardly doing his duty. She divided her attention between Bernie and the young man. “Anyway. My name is Sofia Elena Ami Di Castelbuono…although I find many down here struggle to remember it in full, so Sofia is fine.” She chuckled. “As for what I miss from the Circle? Largely, the camaraderie of other mages. Our ranks are thin in the Wardens, although I have made one or two agreeable souls since getting here. Other than that, there is little I would have taken with me. I like having my freedom to come and go as I please, not constantly watched over by somebody who might stab me over a sneeze.”
 

Bernie

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#9
"Is the tomato basil fresh?” Kiran asked eagerly. “It sounds positively divine! I'll have one of those, please."

“The tomatoes are sun-dried,” she advised him, “but my cook is quite talented. And if you find you don’t care for it, there’s plenty more to choose from.”

Further attempts at conversation nearly put him into a tailspin, but the Warden very kindly soothed his jangled nerves, encouraging him to take deep, slow breaths, then confiding in him that she found life with the Wardens less confining than life in the Circle.

His face lit up with an artless smile that made him look even more boyish. “Oh! They let you join!” he exclaimed, then almost immediately looked chagrined. “…Sorry, that’s not what I meant…” he apologized awkwardly. “I’m very happy you’ve found a place you enjoy.”

The dark haired mage laughed gently, not at all put out by his gaffe. “It’s all right,” she told him. “‘Let’ was not part of the equation, but I’ve done very well since.” She carried herself in the manner of one well able to land on her feet regardless of the drop, and Bernie smiled at her approvingly. She was going to like this one.

In the next instant, the Circle mage had pulled out a piece of parchment and a pencil whittled down to a nub. “Tell me everything you like about it, and anything you miss from the Circle that might make it better! …If you don’t mind my asking, please.” Bernie blinked, but then the clear, blue-grey eyes were focusing on her. "How about you? Any comments you'd like to make on Circle life, siblings you wish to visit, templar tavern-goers you'd like to be slightly less... enthusiastic?" Across the room, his templar companion had locked elbows with Gio, and they were spinning each other in circles on the dance floor in time to the increasing tempo of the music, booted feet leaving the floor every second turn or so. The watching crowd kept a respectful distance, hooting their approval and keeping time with stomps and claps. The mage glanced in that direction and his expression grew pained. “…I’d just like to say, I’ll gladly make arrangements for anything he breaks, and I’m sorry in advance for everything he says.”

Bernie laughed easily, the twinge of caution that had risen when he’d mentioned the Circle to her fading. “Well not being a mage, I couldn’t say anything about Circle life, no siblings to be visited, and I enjoy a lively tavern where folk can forget their troubles and enjoy themselves.” Gio won the contest; the templar lost his footing and began careening off the dance floor, but the bouncer caught him before he could collide with a table, holding him steady until he got his balance back and giving Bernie a sheepish grin that she returned. It was good to see him having fun.

“I rarely saw a templar so willing to let his hair down when he had a ward to guard,” the Warden observed in amusement. “Perhaps they would be viewed with less suspicion by the mages if all of them were so effusive.”

“He’s certainly the most gregarious one I’ve seen,” Bernie agreed, “but I have to say, I prefer it to the broomsticks that most of them keep up their asses.” By and large, they seemed to be divided into two groups: sanctimonious prigs who came in and sipped a single beer all night while sneering at anyone who looked like they might be having a good time and the ones that glowered at every patron as though doing so might make them confess on the spot to apostasy. Fortunately, neither type tended to be frequent patrons.

“Anyway,” the Warden continued. “My name is Sofia Elena Ami Di Castelbuono…although I find many down here struggle to remember it in full, so Sofia is fine. As for what I miss from the Circle? Largely, the camaraderie of other mages. Our ranks are thin in the Wardens, although I have made one or two agreeable souls since getting here. Other than that, there is little I would have taken with me. I like having my freedom to come and go as I please, not constantly watched over by somebody who might stab me over a sneeze.”

“That seems reasonable.” The words came out easily enough. Antivan Crows and blood mages had one thing in common: those who could not control their emotions and reactions did not long survive. Bernie’s expression was one of pleasant interest, giving no hint that it felt as though all the air had been sucked from the room. Little Sofi. It had been close to thirty years since Bernie had seen her younger cousin, shortly before she had been taken to the Circle. Small wonder they had not recognized each other, though she could now discern the stamp of Zia Luci, her own mother’s sister, in the dark hair, blue eyes and olive tint to her skin. Cara and Gina had looked much the same, while Bernadette had inherited their father’s fair skin and red hair, but their mother’s blue eyes.

It was too much. “I’ll get you that soup,” she told Kiran, keeping the facade in place until she was in the kitchen.

“What is it?” Trixie asked with concern as she leaned against the wall by the door, willing the world to tilt back upright.

“I’ll tell you later,” Bernie promised. “I need a bowl of the tomato soup.” Letting Trixie dish up the soup gave her time to take a few deep, slow breaths of her own, and by the time the older woman returned with a steaming bowl of soup and a thick slice of crusty, buttered bread on a platter, she had gotten herself under control.

“Here you go,” she announced briskly, placing the food on the bar in front of the Circle mage. “And what can I get you, Warden Sofia?” she asked, hearing the diminutive echo in her memory.
 

Kiran Xuresh

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#10
Bernie advised him that the tomatoes were sun-dried, rather than fresh, and he had to admit that it was the more expectable outcome given the season. Still, a little bit of him deflated, having been fully prepared to ask for both the grocer and a tour of the larder to take back such secrets to the Circle. Evidently, the Dragon's Flagon was no closer to a miracle than any other roof they had eaten under.

"I'm certain it's delicious either way," he confirmed with the optimism that sun-dried tomato and basil soup was still a dish to be savoured.

Meanwhile, he embarrassed himself again. The easy-going Warden laughed at his faux pas and explained that "'Let’ was not part of the equation," Kiran nodding grimly all the while. He had suspected it had been something like that.

"No, people mostly just tell us what we 'must' do, don't they? Not a lot of people asking what we want to do." His slip had been entirely optimistic, albeit naïve and silly. Useful as it might be, conscription was one more loss of agency to a class of individuals who already had so little say in their lives. He liked to think that one day, they might actually get to choose how to use their talents.

But this was neither the time nor place to be discussing such ideas, the thoughts kept entirely to himself. A speckle of wisdom and a refreshing draught of chilled water and he was keen to focus on the positives again.

Not that Bernie - civilian; no association nor opinion was a terribly optimistic sentence to write, but give it time. Kiran paused a second at the words before furrowing his brow and asking a follow-up question, deciding that they could certainly do better than a neutral sentiment: "But isn't there something the Circle can do for you? I've heard of runed cooking ware to aid meal preparation, for example, perhaps the odd trade of techniques and herbs...? Why, I believe it was Luciollo who theorized steaks could be cooked to optimum browning with the right amount of magic..." ... Or maybe he was rambling, and he should respect the boundaries of the tavern-owner who really might be okay with not involving the Circle in her business. "Mm, or maybe that would be too much of a hassle and not worth the investment," he offered with a sheepish grin and went right back to discussing... Cedric, evidently.

"I rarely saw a templar so willing to let his hair down when he had a ward to guard. Perhaps they would be viewed with less suspicion by the mages if all of them were so effusive," remarked the casual Warden, Bernie confirming his peculiarity not long after. "He's certainly the most gregarious one I've seen, but I have to say, I prefer it to the broomsticks that most of them keep up their asses."

To that Kiran arched a brow quizzically, clearly trying for a smile, but not quite succeeding. "Are the templars truly so different? I imagined there were always those who were gruff and stern even at home, but you've truly never met any who preferred to dance and... whatever that is, in their off hours...?" He had turned to try and put words to the half-arm-flapping Cedric now partook in. There weren't any that could do it justice, a scraping gesture with a boot and perturbingly staccato motions summoning prayers that this was a quaint, regional display and not any of the templar's nefarious plans at work.

The sigh of dreadful realization was kept to a minimum.

Thankfully, he had so much to write! Back to the counter, he returned to chronicling at once with the next row, marking, "So... fi- ... Hm." A glance up from his papers. "Beg pardon, but is that 'Sophia-with-a-P-H' or 'Sofia-with-an-F'?" Had he been more familiar with the accent edging her words, he could likely suss it out himself, but he wasn't, she surreptitiously headed off any future spelling clarifications before he could get stuck on them, and the scribbling moved on.

Outlining the rest of her points, it was only the last one he balked at. A moment to parse it again, uncertain if he had misheard or she was teasing him, and then he asked the obvious at risk of making a fool of himself. Well, more of one. "At what Circle are they stabbing mages for sneezing?" That was a joke, right? He hadn't decided if it being true or in jest was worse, what with the annulment and other bubbling issues with Circles abroad. "Wherever they are, we'll have to get them a better Circle..." he muttered under his breath, triple-circling a note in the corner and deciding that dark senses of humour or not, it was a problem to fix.

As before, he accepted the soup with another thank you and leaned to happier subjects, detecting that both had grown quiet but blaming his choice of subject rather than any other factor. "So, Bernie and Sofia," the papers shuffled back without ever requiring him to look away, "If there were anywhere in the city you would advise everyone visit at least once, where would it be? I've heard good things about the.... 'Wyvern District'...? Is that a thing?" Yes, his new topic was soliciting tourist information. It would be nice to see the city not as smoke and rubble. It was either that, or play the 'Have I Blown On This Spoon Enough To Not Burn Myself Eating Liquid Magma' game. Which Kiran was pretty good at, thank you very much. Cedric, on the other hand... It's a good thing he knew at least a basic healing spell.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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Kiran had much to say. He seemed concerned about what the Circle might be able to do for the Wardens, and it wasn’t easy for Sofia to get a word in edgeways, but she listened nonetheless. It might have been her way, had her first outing with an escort not gone so spectacularly awry. She certainly would have been making the most of talking to anybody she could who wasn’t one of the people she saw every day in the Tower. In the case of the templars, certainly, she could easily forget which was which, behind their face-concealing helmets and their universally stoic attitudes.

“Are the templars truly so different? I imagined there were always those who were gruff and stern even at home, but you’ve truly never met any who preferred to dance and…whatever that is-” he indicated his less-than-attentive escort, now flailing his limbs about, “in their off hours?”

Sofia chuckled at the dancing templar. “Oh, I imagine there are plenty who take off their grim demeanours with their armour, go and have a few drinks, and generally enjoy themselves off duty. As so many people do. But most of the ones I met never dropped their guise around mages. We are the ‘dangerous ones’, after all. Nonetheless, I will concede I knew a number who were reasonable. The Knight-Commander at my Circle punished templars for their infractions in the same measure he did mages, for example. And there were a few I enjoyed debating Chantry lore with. And it is Sofia with an ‘f’.”

But not all. As much leniency as she had been granted by good manners, hard word and the donations of her family, there were more than a few who had made her nervous. Every effort she had put in could come to nothing if one of them decided she required knocking down a peg. It seemed that Kiren had been even more sheltered than she had. “At what Circle are they stabbing mages for sneezing? Wherever they are, we’ll have to get them a better Circle…”

And he actually made a note of it. As though he could go home, snap his fingers and a new Circle, with templars who attended their duties fairly and mages who didn’t feel constantly oppressed by the stone walls around them, would just pop out of the ground.

Thankfully at that moment, Bernie reappeared with the soup, and Kiren was distracted. “So, Bernie and Sofia. If there were anywhere in the city you would advise everyone visit at least once, where would it be? I've heard good things about the.... 'Wyvern District'...? Is that a thing?"

“I am afraid I know as much as you,” Sofia admitted. “My ship only arrived three days ago; this my first foray in Denerim apart from a very brief tour. I was previously based at Selmy, in Antiva.”
 

Bernie

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Kiran’s amiable chatter as he accepted the soup went all but unheard by Bernie, and for the first time since setting foot in the Dragon’s Flagon ten years before, she cared not a whit about the presence of a templar in the establishment, particularly one who only seemed interested in having fun. All of her attention was focused on her cousin, no longer the impish gamine with a gap where a front tooth had been lost, but a grown and assured woman … and a Grey Warden, at that. The Circle had not broken her, but Bernie still felt herself bristle at talk of templars treating mages as the enemy, watching bemusedly as the earnest young Circle mage made a meticulous note, his expression mildly scandalized. Did he actually have such power, or was he simply an idealist who had not yet been disabused of the notion that the Chantry cared for anything but keeping mages locked away and subservient?

“So, Bernie and Sofia.” Kiran was onto a new conversational track as he blew on the soup in his spoon, then sipped cautiously. “If there were anywhere in the city you would advise everyone visit at least once, where would it be? I've heard good things about the.... 'Wyvern District'...? Is that a thing?"

“I am afraid I know as much as you,” Sofia admitted. “My ship only arrived three days ago; this my first foray in Denerim apart from a very brief tour. I was previously based at Selmy, in Antiva.”

She had stayed in Antiva, then. A decade of honing the habits of a hospitable host allowed Bernie to pull herself away from those thoughts long enough to answer Kiran’s query. “The ‘Wyvern district’ is a somewhat waggish name given to a section of the seedier brothels in town,” she informed him diplomatically, wondering if it was his templar companion who had made the recommendation. “So named because those who spend time there tend to get ‘bitten’ by one unpleasant disease or another. If that is the type of diversion you seek, I would recommend the Pearl, near the Palace District. It’s expensive, but Sanga keeps her workers healthy, and they have talents both in and out of the bedchamber.” The youth seemed as though he would appreciate a game of chess as much as a tumble, though looks could be deceiving.

“As to other attractions, the public gardens in the Palace District are quite lovely,” she went on. “They’ve gotten a bit bare through he fall, but if the snow keeps up, they should be rather pretty by morning. The marketplace is always interesting; there are goods there from all over, and there is a shop called The Wonders of Thedas that specializes in magical and esoteric items. If you are religious, the Chantry here is quite impressive.” Her voice was carefully neutral on this; she had yet to set foot in the cathedral and never would, if she had her way. “And the Birth Rock in the Place District is visited by pilgrims from around the world, as tradition holds that Denerim was the birthplace of Andraste.”

Having offered him some options to consider, she turned her attention back to Sofia. “Do you have family in Antiva?” she asked in a tone of polite interest. “What did they think of you becoming a Grey Warden?” She had made herself forget that she had any blood kin besides her murdered family; such ties were dangerous to a Crow, and might still be dangerous, should that knowledge fall into the wrong hands. But she found herself suddenly hungry for news of Zio Vincente, Zia Luci and her cousins.
 
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Kiran Xuresh

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#13
"The Knight-Commander at my Circle punished templars for their infractions in the same measure he did mages, for example," Sofia remarked, and while she made other statements, that was the one that stuck with him. Kiran's hand hovered by the page, half tempted to write that nugget of information down as well, but decided against it. It required more questions, and judging from the proliferating silences and shifting tones, the scribe decided to wrap up the entire subject with one last note.

They stared at him as he wrote it, a respectful side-eye and quietly held commentary that betrayed more than they thought. Kiran had encountered those looks before. He knew the secret they tried to keep: they didn't think it was possible, a fool's errand.

And because of it, they didn't think it worth trying.

A thin, unfettered smile kept all to himself, and the pages and talk of work gave way to city attractions. Both seemed to appreciate the new direction, Sofia admitting that she could also benefit from a brief municipal rundown, and Bernie revealed herself as a fellow mage. With the simple words "seedier brothels," she had managed to magic air into sun-dried tomato basil soup and Kiran found himself missing the explanation for the nickname as he tried to politely keep his sudden bout of choking to himself.

The rest of his water chugged, and a couple thumps of a fist that was assuredly not near as surreptitious as he had hoped to be, and the spell had passed at last. A deep inhale that lavished the capability and Kiran sat forwards in his seat, perfectly perched over his bowl of soup and trying to remember what his other hand had been doing before the internal struggle with a tomato. Maybe, if he was very lucky, the lighting and his complexion would hide the red in his cheeks entirely.

"That sounds-" he began speaking without thinking it through all the way, mostly wanting to fill the silence right after Bernie recommended the Pearl. "Uh... I'll pass it on," a thumb over his shoulder towards the templar now holding a conversation that required everyone to sit in a ring around a candle, leaning in ominously, and that was that. ... Hopefully. Kiran's not proud to admit this, but a small part of him had wished Cedric would be a bit more... animated, at this particular moment.

"The public gardens in the Palace District" caught his interest next. Both for the idea of greenery that could be enhanced by a framing of snow, and also for the chance to discuss emergent history.

"I've heard about them; is it true that the elves have been asked to contribute to it? Or... does 'contribute' just mean 'labour' and not what I thought it meant?" It was always one of those strange matters to him. At the Tower, people were apprentices, enchanters, researchers, templars - the human/elf thing wasn't much of a concern. Out here, it seemed to matter more. Except when it didn't. And sometimes when it still did, but not for any of the reasons he thought it did. Like the gardens.

... Kiran resigned himself to quiet contemplation on the matter, sipping ever cautious spoon-halves of his soup, and deferred to his peers' expertise.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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The ‘Wyvern District’ turned out to be aptly named, although not in a literal sense. Sofia chuckled while Kiran choked on his ale. Poor man, it was likely that somebody had taken one look at his face and decided that here was a leg worth pulling. Bernie was good enough of a landlord not to tease him for it, instead offering up alternative brothels should he be so inclined. Sofia eyed the blushing young man. It didn’t seem likely he would be the sort, and in theory his handler should prevent him from visiting anyone who plied the oldest trade – but who was she to guess at it? As she had learned first hand, stranger things happened at sea.

Sofia did make note of the mention of the gardens, and lit up at the notion of visiting the Wonders of Thedas. There were not many shops that specialised in magical items, mostly because everybody was so afraid of magic that it was almost impossible to turn a profit anywhere but the places with the highest population centres or near an active Circle. Kiran also seemed intrigued by the gardens, although he seemed to be searching for more wrongs to right rather than a view. "I've heard about them; is it true that the elves have been asked to contribute to it? Or... does 'contribute' just mean 'labour' and not what I thought it meant?"

Sofia would let Bernie answer that, although she suspected she knew the answer. She sipped her drink and looked up again as the landlord addressed her. There was something eerily familiar about her face. It was as though Sofia was used to seeing it on another person and Bernie had borrowed it. “Do you have family in Antiva? What did they think of you becoming a Grey Warden?”

Sofia nodded and smiled, always pleased to have an opportunity to talk about home. “Yes. My mother and father are wealthy wine merchants. After I was taken to the Circle they ensured that they would be able to see me once or twice a year, so I did not feel they were completely gone from my life. It was hard, of course; I adored them, as I did my siblings. I am the youngest of five, so leaving them wrenched me immensely. But I wanted to ensure they were proud of my progress, so I worked hard while I was there. It was my intention to become First Enchanter, eventually.”

And beyond; she’d been aware of whispers of Madame De Fer, and drawn inspiration. Of course there was only room for one magical advisor at the Orlesian court, but there were so many Antivan princes. One of them must had been interested in learning more about the occult…

All those dreams were dust now, of course, but new ambitions had risen from the ashes.

“They were deeply upset about my becoming a Grey Warden. I will admit it was not actually my choice – I was assigned to assist a few on a mission, as a test of my ability to work safely outside the Circle with a templar handler. He bolted at the first sign of darkspawn, and I stayed to fight. Immediately after, I was conscripted.” It wasn’t a lie, it was just missing elements such as contracting Blight sickness and having to drink archdemon blood in order to forestall death about thirty years. “I’ve been trying to show the same dedication to being a Warden as I did to my studies in the Circle.”

She tilted her head, curious about this familiar-yet-not woman who had also been blown from the sunny shores of Antiva down to this cold grey country. “What drew you so far from Antiva, Bernie?” She offered a teasing smile. “Did the sunshine bore you?”
 

Bernie

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Bernie’s first impression of Kiran had been correct: at the word ‘brothel’, he blushed redder than his soup and promptly inhaled the contents of the spoon that he had raised to his lips, which only deepened the flush.

"That sounds-" he wheezed in between coughs, gulps of water and thumping a fist into his chest. "Uh... I'll pass it on," he managed at last, jabbing a thumb toward his templar companion in confirmation of Bernie’s suspicion as to the source of the misinformation.

She smiled at him understandingly, deftly passing the empty water glass off to Melinde for a refill. “Well, if he decides to … indulge, you are welcome to wait here,” she assured the mage.

“ - and then I realized that both of her hands were in plain sight!” the templar announced loudly to his wide-eyed audience. “So I had no idea who the this hand belonged to!”

“He seems a bit more … relaxed than most of his comrades,” she observed tactfully. “You can assure him that you would be both welcome and safe within these walls,” she went on. And she wouldn’t attempt to recruit him into the Collective. Not right away, at any rate. Some mages did well in the Circle, and he appeared to be one of them. That didn’t mean that they might not be sympathetic to their apostate brethren, however; she had sporadic - and very careful - contact with a couple of mages at Kinloch who informed her of escapes and templars sent on apostate hunts as they were able. Which wasn’t often, but warnings they had provided had let a few mages on the run stay ahead of their hunters.

Talk of the more traditional attractions of Denerim effectively distracted him from his embarrassment. "I've heard about them,” he spoke up when she mentioned the public gardens, “is it true that the elves have been asked to contribute to it? Or... does 'contribute' just mean 'labour' and not what I thought it meant?"

So, he was interested in injustice beyond the Circle. “King Alistair has been attempting to improve the treatment of elves in Ferelden,” she told him. “And while it is not something that will be accomplished in a day … or decade, for that matter, he has made some progress. Elven artisans that exist have been recruited to help repair and replace the monuments and architecture that were damaged in the Blight.” Repairs had finally begun edging into a point that purely decorative projects could be considered. “And the crown has offered a subsidy to human and dwarven craftmasters who accept elven apprentices, with fair treatment a condition of receiving payment.” There had been a handful who had thought to take the coin and use the elves for scut work instead of training them; after some refunds had been exacted and a couple of royal charters revoked, that nonsense had largely ceased. “Arl Alfstanna is of the same mind, but she is still settling into her duties.” The Bann of Waking Sea had been made Denerim’s newest Arl (and hopefully the last for a good many years) shortly after the royal wedding.

Sofia had watched Kiran’s discomfort with sympathetic amusement, and listened to Bernie’s talk of the sights of Denerim with polite interest, all unaware that her cousin sat across the bar from her, near bursting with a curiosity that had been kept locked away for twenty five years. She had to ask, had to know something.

“My mother and father are wealthy wine merchants,” the Warden responded easily to the query about her family. “After I was taken to the Circle they ensured that they would be able to see me once or twice a year, so I did not feel they were completely gone from my life. It was hard, of course; I adored them, as I did my siblings. I am the youngest of five, so leaving them wrenched me immensely. But I wanted to ensure they were proud of my progress, so I worked hard while I was there. It was my intention to become First Enchanter, eventually.”

And she would have, too, Bernie thought with a fierce glow of pride. Even as a child, she had been precocious and determined. Even having her ambitions thwarted by the Grey Wardens had not dimmed her spirit.

“They were deeply upset about my becoming a Grey Warden,” she went on matter-of-factly. “I will admit it was not actually my choice – I was assigned to assist a few on a mission, as a test of my ability to work safely outside the Circle with a templar handler. He bolted at the first sign of darkspawn, and I stayed to fight. Immediately after, I was conscripted.” Bernie’s eyes narrowed at the description of the templar’s cowardice … and the lack of description attached to becoming a Warden … though none she had met went into any detail. They had their secrets, and as a woman with more than a few of her own, she could respect that. “I’ve been trying to show the same dedication to being a Warden as I did to my studies in the Circle.”

“A wise choice,” Bernie agreed approvingly. “Being a Warden has its dangers, but they do tend to appreciate talent.” And they didn’t force troublesome mages to submit to the rite of tranquility.

“What drew you so far from Antiva, Bernie?” Sofia inquired in turn with a smile. “Did the sunshine bore you?”

She was teasing, yes, but she was curious, and there was something else: a look that Bernie had seen on the faces of those who might once have known a girl named Bernadette Diamante when they first met Bernie Il Rossa. Another time, that look might have been met with a bit of mental legerdemain, a couple of drops of blood drawn from a fingertip behind the bar and a gentle suggestion that no, she didn’t really look so familiar after all, and didn’t they have an important errand to attend to?

But not here, with a templar - however buffoonish and congenial he might seem - less than a stone’s throw away. Nor was she sure that she would do it if she could.

Her laugh was easy and unfeigned. This particular version of her origins had been adopted on the ship that brought her to Ferelden, practiced so often that she could almost believe it true. “My husband in Antiva squandered his family’s fortunes on his mistress,” she said, rolling her eyes. “When I refused to let him do the same with my own money, he turned to somewhat unforgiving lenders.” She shrugged carelessly. “I left him to their tender mercies and put some distance between us before they got it into their heads to try to get me to pay off his debts. I believe he wound up at the bottom of Rialto Bay with his feet chained to a rather large stone, but by the time word reached me, I had already settled in here. I do miss the sun, sometimes,” she admitted, “but I do enjoy the snow. I only saw it a couple of times as a child, but I remember the fun that I had.” Did Sofi? She had only been four the last time Antiva City had experienced one of its rare snowfalls, but she had raced about in it with them on her chubby toddler’s legs, squealing with delight and scooping up handfuls of snow to hurl as her siblings and cousins had a snowball fight.
 

Kiran Xuresh

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Bernie offered him a place of refuge, and Kiran felt his face burning at the euphemism all over again. Thankfully, her next set of words perplexed him enough to provide distraction: "He seems a bit more … relaxed than most of his comrades. You can assure him that you would be both welcome and safe within these walls." The first part was dandy. Cedric wasn't much for ominous looming, it was true. Rather, his attention snagged on 'safe,' and Kiran's imagination attempted to catch up to Bernie's for a moment and what sort of trouble she thought might come barreling their way.

He had always been of the opinion his templar's wandering attention would be the brunt of it. Perhaps there was more to their skepticism, although he was hardly going to turn aside a perfectly well-meaning offer either way, smiling despite himself and accepting diplomatically. "I'll keep the offer in mind, should we ever need it." And then, far more jovially: "Besides, I think you've started a new tradition. How could I possibly stay away from a dancing competition between a dwarf and a templar?" Turning away from the near-emptied bowl and towards Sofia, there was one last comment to round out the lighter mood. "And who knows, maybe next time you can convince a Warden contender to come along and join them."

Although try as he might, he couldn't picture a Warden actually dancing. Just the same dutiful harrumphing he assumed people thought of templars. He hoped she was the persuasive sort.

An explanation of the gardens followed after, Kiran listening all the while to Bernie's breakdown of the crown's new regulations for artisans and the general improvement for another group of people. "Arl Alfstanna is of the same mind, but she is still settling into her duties," she concluded, and it took him a half moment of waiting to realize she had finished.

Another shifting of posture, resting his chin on palm as he tried to guard his expression from seeming too ungracious. "I'm sorry - it's lovely that they're doing well, but... I really did mean the flowers," he explained self-consciously. "It's just that I've read nearly every book on botany and flora in all of Kinloch, and... Well, the elves have never really cared for cataloguing. It's always nice to see what else is out there in the world, short of a trip to the Brecilian myself." That might be a bit of a harder sell, what with the lack of any reason to go that way, and the whole "outdoors" thing he certainly wasn't good with, and the rumours of all those insular groups who generally didn't like wanderers poking around their homes.

He pointedly did not ask the Warden about any excursions like that, assuming any of them would take too many redactions to make for good conversation. Bernie and Sofia had plenty to discuss besides, the Circle mage carefully accounting for all of his belongings whilst trying to avoid any eavesdropping. A bit got through regardless, momentarily struck by how she was also from a large family, and yet evidently nothing like his. He'd imagine he'd feel differently about the Circle, too, had it taken a home from him rather than providing one.

And then she got to "They were deeply upset about my becoming a Grey Warden," finishing with "I’ve been trying to show the same dedication to being a Warden as I did to my studies in the Circle," and both he and Bernie had comments. The genial tavern owner remained positive and approving, and Kiran simply asked, "Were you aware of the possibility - that you might be a Warden after?" He had already resigned to keep all follow-up to himself. Just more thoughts to ponder in the strange city where three groups of people seemed so similar, and yet everyone had such strong, differing opinions about them.

The kind of thoughts he would rather untangle alone rather than wearing out his welcome, remaining quiet for the rest of their exchange before stepping away from the bar and checking what dampness still lingered on his hood, the frost only partially evaporated. "In any case, thank you for the conversation, both of you. If we ever meet again, I'd like to get your thoughts on plenty of other issues." Eyes of every perspective were better than eyes of one, and all of that.

But for now, a polite smile to each and a casual brush of the white robe, by the end of the gesture ice recrystallizing and swept away. Cedric's eyes snapped to attention through a shuffling patron, all at once communicating a wordless groan, a quiet complaint, and unspoken understanding as he downed a tankard that wasn't actually his and scrambled upright to meet the mage now back out on the street.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#17
“Were you aware of the possibility – that you might be a Warden after?”

Sofia shook her head. “Not in the slightest. I was excited to be outside the Circle, and ready to prove myself worthy of responsibility, but I had no notion of actually joining the Wardens. The Maker will have His little jokes – now I have greater responsibility, and freedom, than I ever dreamed.” And a slow descent into madness that would only cease with her death in a few short decades, but she opted to leave that detail out. Kiran thanked her for the time, and turned to go, apparently unconcerned by his handler’s discontent over leaving.

A little baffled by his sudden departure, Sofia turned her attention to the landlady, and wanted to know more about her.

Sofia had heard a lot of stories in her lifetime, and she had read her way through the Circle’s library eagerly. Including the sections that were meant to be out of reach to smaller hands, but were perfectly easy to grab if you had a stool and a good memory for when the teachers were likely to appear. A rare rebellion, for her. Within the Circle’s walls, she had travelled the world through those books, and had learned that there were many exciting adventures available – but also that some of those adventures could go very wrong.

Such a thing had happened to Bernie, thanks to her husband’s reckless spending on his mistress. Unlikely many unlucky characters she had hung onto her coin but had to leave anyway to avoid her husband’s debtors. “I believe he ended up at the bottom of Rialto Bay with his feet chained to a rather large stone, but by the time the word reached me, I had already settled in here.”

“I am…sorry for your loss?” Well, what had happened to her husband sounded frankly horrible, but it did not appear to have dented Bernie’s spirits.

“I do miss the sun, sometimes, but I do enjoy the snow. I only saw it a couple of times as a child, but I remember the fun that I had.”

“Mm.” Sofia cupped her hands and glanced back at the door as another patron entered, bringing in a swirl of snow with him. “I love it. It has made the grey, dark skies quite worth it; everything seems so fresh and new. I was a small child the last time I saw any, let alone got to play in it. It was a family event.” Her voice turned a touch dreamy. “One of my aunt’s birthdays, I believe. We all went outside and raced around in the snow, throwing great handfuls at each other. It is one of my earliest memories.”

Oh, it had been lovely. And it was one of very few things she recalled from before she had been taken to the Circle. Some of those cousins had perished not many years later, all murdered by some business rival of Tio Niccolo’s. She had not been granted leave to attend their memorial, and while her obedient nature had prevented her from pushing the issue with the senior enchanters, it had taken her a long time to heal that wound.

She pulled herself out of the memories. “Even then I do not remember it lying so thickly as it does here. Is this common, for Ferelden?”
 

Bernie

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#18
Kiran accepted Bernie’s offer of future hospitality with the whimsical suggestion of dance-offs between templars, dwarves and Grey Wardens … which would be a novelty even for the Flagon. His interest in the gardens and the contributions of the elves turned out to be scientific in nature, rather than aesthetic.

“I’d check back come spring,” she recommended to him. “I think that the focus so far has been on visual appeal, but I suspect that the idea of a display of the flora across Ferelden - and perhaps from elsewhere in Thedas - would be greeted with interest.”

The mage bantered a bit more with Sofia then, seeming to remember a pressing engagement elsewhere, stepped away from the bar. "In any case, thank you for the conversation, both of you. If we ever meet again, I'd like to get your thoughts on plenty of other issues." Drawing the templar’s attention through the simple (if unconventional) expedient of a minor display of magic, he was out the door with his companion trailing behind in disgruntlement.

“Come back any time,” Bernie called after them, unruffled by the abrupt departure. You saw all kinds in this business; it’s what made it interesting. Sofia looked a bit perplexed, but remained, expressing curiosity as to how a fellow Antivan had wound up running a tavern in Ferelden. The story that Bernie told her was one that she had settled on before ever setting foot on the ship in Antiva City, and she had told it so many times now that it occasionally felt more real than the truth.

Sofia seemed unsure just how to react. “I am…sorry for your loss?” she offered awkwardly.

“I wasn’t,” Bernie shrugged it off. “It was an arranged marriage; if my father had still been alive, he likely would have widowed me himself … but then, if my father had been alive, the dog would never have dared to behave as he did.” Nuggets of truth to form a lattice for the lies. Niccolo Diamante would never have married his eldest to such a man, and would have not hesitated to act if one had revealed himself as such after the fact. Antiva was a land of intrigues and passions, bereft of the silly Game that the Orlesians took such childish delight in. Bernie missed being in the thick of it sometimes, but she had grown fond of her adopted homeland, and the challenges of working in the Mages’ Collective satisfied her in a way that assassinations seldom had. And she did enjoy the snow: something rarely experienced in Antiva.

“Mm.” Sofia glanced to the door, where the swirling, blowing, still-falling snow was visible beyond the door as another patron entered. “I love it. It has made the grey, dark skies quite worth it; everything seems so fresh and new. I was a small child the last time I saw any, let alone got to play in it. It was a family event.” Her expression grew nostalgic. “One of my aunt’s birthdays, I believe. We all went outside and raced around in the snow, throwing great handfuls at each other. It is one of my earliest memories.”

“I think I remember that one, as well,” Bernie agreed, aware of an all but forgotten ache swelling in her breast. It had been her mother’s birthday. “Dragon six or seven, I think it was? It had melted away by the next day, but my siblings and I had such fun while it lasted, we did not want to come in.” Foolish, perhaps, to skim so close to a memory shared, but snow in Antiva was a noteworthy enough occasion that it would be expected to leave an impression.

“Even then I do not remember it lying so thickly as it does here,” Sofia remarked. “Is this common, for Ferelden?”

“Here?" Bernie had to chuckle. “This is just the beginning. You’ll likely not see the ground again in most of the kingdom until Guardian, and you’ll need a sled to reach Gwaren until Drakonis; they spend four months of the year snowed in. It’s a good time of the year to own a tavern,” she observed, nodding toward the steadily filling common room. She would earn back many times what she had given away today in food and drink by the end of this week alone. “Not much to be done outside, and after being shut up in their houses, folk are glad of a place to gather with their neighbors and have something to warm the blood.”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

Prominent member
Grey Warden
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71
#19
Snow was rare enough in Antiva that the big fall when Sofia was a child had not only left an impression on her. Bernie had experienced it too; as short-lived as it was, it had been one of the happiest memories of Sofia’s life for a long time. She hadn’t cared about the cold at all, too absorbed in the magic of the glinting blanket that made everything look so clean before it was trodden in, and how she could sculpt it. Or throw snowballs. She hadn’t been a good aim then, but training her magic had done a lot to refine her judgement, and she wondered if she could be a decent opponent now.

Bernie, too had not wanted to go in from the cold. Something curled up from the back of Sofia’s mind, fleeting as a scent, and gone as quickly. She shook her head slightly, puzzled, but quickly resumed her conversation, remarking that even that snowfall paled in comparison to this one, and if it was common for Ferelden.

“Here?” Bernie chuckled. “This is just the beginning. You’ll likely not see the ground again in most of the kingdom until Guardian, and you’ll need a sled to reach Gwaren until Drakonis; they spend four months of the year snowed in.” Sofia’s eyes widened. Of course she was experienced with being limited in her movements; that was not what shocked her. The concept of actually travelling by sled was something she had never considered, and for a moment she found herself hoping that she might be sent to Gwaren on assignment just so she could see what it was like.

“It’s a good time of year to own a tavern. Not much to be done outside, and after being shut up in their houses, folk are glad of a place to gather with their neighbours and have something to warm the blood.”

“As I am. I could enjoy the snow forever but I imagine the novelty of being cold would wear off quite fast.” Sofia drained her mug. “I think I will have another, if that is not pushing your hospitality too far? It did occasionally get a little chilly in the Circle during the winter, but only during certain spots if you were well away from the fires. The templars and senior enchanters knew that people were less likely to express discomfort if they felt warm and safe. Of course,” she added, “A fireplace cannot complete that on its own. Even though I was quite prepared to spend my life in the Circle, and I believe in them, much improvement could be made.”
 

Bernie

Apostate
Apostate
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Maleficar
Posts
22
#20
Sofia - like most folk - appreciated the draw of a warm room with drink and good company. It was a combination that had made the Flagon the most successful tavern in Denerim. “I could enjoy the snow forever,” she declared, “but I imagine the novelty of being cold would wear off quite fast.”

“That is the drawback,” Bernie agreed with a chuckle. “It’s more enjoyable when you know that you have a fire and hot food and drink waiting for you.” She sobered a bit. “It’s a rare year that we don’t lose one or two who stray too far from shelter and get caught in a whiteout. You can freeze to death ten steps from your door and never see it.” An exaggeration, but not by much. The ones who were lost were almost always those new to Ferelden and unfamiliar with the risks; she didn’t want her cousin added to that number.

“I think I will have another, if that is not pushing your hospitality too far?” Sofia emptied her mug and held it out.

“Not at all.” Bernie took the mug and refilled it, along with her own, adding whiskey and honey to Sofia’s before setting it back on the bar before the Warden. “I always make sure to stock up on beans in the fall, because you can’t pay most Antivan captains enough to sail this far south in the winter.” Not without reason, and the cold was only the smallest part. Winter storms were unpredictable and treacherous, and this year had been one of the worst in memory.

“It did occasionally get a little chilly in the Circle during the winter,” Sofia remarked, “but only during certain spots if you were well away from the fires. The templars and senior enchanters knew that people were less likely to express discomfort if they felt warm and safe. Of course, a fireplace cannot complete that on its own. Even though I was quite prepared to spend my life in the Circle, and I believe in them, much improvement could be made.”

“What was it like?” Bernie composed her features into an expression of interest. The average denizen of Denerim would have no familiarity at all with magic or life in the Circle. She had heard more than enough tales from those who had escaped the Chantry’s cages to form her own opinions, but even those who had sustained the most appalling abuses had conceded that a good many mages were spared any harm. Some had been honestly ignorant of the suffering of their fellows; others had simply turned a blind eye, hoping that by doing so, they could avoid the same fate. She didn’t want to believe that Sofi could have done such a thing, but the woman who sat at her bar was over two decades removed from the laughing, blue eyed child of her memory. “Kiran seems to have had a good experience.” That one struck her as one of those who was unaware that not every mage shared his good fortune. She hoped that his luck held out.
 
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