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Let It Snow! [Complete]

Sofia di Castelbuono

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Grey Warden
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104
#21
Bernie agreed that the price to pay for regular blankets of snow was quite steep. “It’s more enjoyable when you know that you have a fire and hot food and drink waiting for you.” Her tone darkened a little. “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.”

Sofia grimaced. Tangling with darkspawn had ensured that her list of top five ways to avoid dying all involved those monsters, but freezing to death in the cold was somewhere quite high on the list as well. To push back both that thought and the imagined cold, she asked for more coffee. She was already getting a little fidgety from it but pleasantly so; it wasn’t like when she’d been in the Circle and almost bounced off the walls with restlessness. If it became too much, she’d just switch to straight whiskey.

As Bernie made the coffee, she mentioned how the Circle had sometimes been cold, but it was easy enough to avoid those spots. It piqued the other woman’s interest.

“What was it like? Kiran seems to have had a good experience.”

“As did I.” Sofia saw no point in hiding any of the facts; she chose to be utterly truthful. “From what I have learned since leaving, I was granted a great deal of leniency due to the influence of my family. They could not pressure the Chantry, of course, but the occasional generous donation to the Circle’s coffers no doubt eased my time there. It helped that I was a studious child and I genuinely love being able to perform magic, even if my talents did not lie towards healing like I had hoped. The enchanters allowed me to study as a chirgeon, alongside my magical studies, and I never wanted for food or rest. Even before I went in, I was not given much free rein, so I did not long for freedom as some might have done.”

She took a sip of the coffee, savouring the ambrosia on her tongue before it slipped down her throat. “But many mages have issues with how the Circle is run, and even protected as I was, I saw hints of it sometimes. Since I left, I’ve come to realise the scope of the problem is far greater than I could have guessed. It is a shame – joining the Circle should be seen as a privilege, something to aspire to, even. They could be great centers of learning, and indeed some are, and to a poor child they should be a blessing. A chance for education, and regular meals, and a soft bed – and a place to be safe, taught how to deal with the temptation of demons. Instead, most are little more than prisons.”

She sighed. “I do not believe it was what the Maker desired when He dictated that magic must serve man. But unless the Chantry chooses of its own volition to start over, I do not see how it could change.” Except with extreme violence.

She lifted her head from the cup, and her face gentled into a smile. “That was probably more than you were looking for. For myself, I was happy there; as I am with the Wardens. I like having people around. As I imagine you do?” She indicated the rest of the tavern. “This must be a little difficult to deal with otherwise.”
 

Bernie

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#22
Sofia had been treated well in the circle, at least in part due to her family’s money, but likely also because she was the type of eager student that teachers favored. Even as a toddler, she had possessed a lively intelligence and a merry spirit that had made her a favorite in the family. “Even before I went in, I was not given much free rein,” she remarked, “so I did not long for freedom as some might have done.”

“Such is the life of Antivan women,” Bernie agreed. Fathers and husbands doted on them, true enough, but often in the manner of hothouse flowers that had to be shielded from the least bit of adversity. Gitana had enjoyed her status, interested in little beyond her home and family, and perhaps Bernadette might have been the same way, living obediently in her father’s house, as her magic would have made any marriage a risky prospect.

But Bernadette Diamante had died alongside her family a quarter century ago. Bernie Il Rossa was the type of woman that well-bred Antivan ladies regarded with polite horror and well-bred Antivan men scowled in disapproval at. Since leaving the Crows, she asked leave of no one and did as she pleased, and in Ferelden, such things did not raise as many eyebrows.

Sofia sipped at her coffee, her expression growing more pensive. “But many mages have issues with how the Circle is run, and even protected as I was, I saw hints of it sometimes,” she admitted. “Since I left, I’ve come to realise the scope of the problem is far greater than I could have guessed. It is a shame – joining the Circle should be seen as a privilege, something to aspire to, even. They could be great centers of learning, and indeed some are, and to a poor child they should be a blessing. A chance for education, and regular meals, and a soft bed – and a place to be safe, taught how to deal with the temptation of demons. Instead, most are little more than prisons.”

Bernie nodded, her own expression giving nothing away as she lifted her own mug to her lips. The tales she had heard - from Cosima, from mages who had escaped one circle or another - would turn a strong stomach, and had long since made her stop wondering what might have been if her own father had allowed her to go to the circle when her magic manifested. But the idea of a place where mages could learn from each other without fear, where children could be taught without being torn completely away from their families … that was a notion that had been very much on her mind in the last few years.

“I do not believe it was what the Maker desired when He dictated that magic must serve man,” her cousin mused. “But unless the Chantry chooses of its own volition to start over, I do not see how it could change.”

Bernie snorted. “They wouldn’t give up their power,” she observed scornfully. Uldred’s rebellion had given vivid evidence of what could happen when mages were pushed to the wall, but from all reports, any real changes had been few. “I don’t much care for the Chantry,” she admitted with a thin smile. “Meddlesome biddies, the lot of them, using guilt to herd folk like sheep.”

“That was probably more than you were looking for,” Sofia told her with a sheepish smile.

“Not at all.” Bernie shook her head, her own smile warm. “I enjoy hearing the tales that my customers have to tell.” And knowing that her cousin had been well treated in the circle had been a welcome bit of news.

“For myself, I was happy there; as I am with the Wardens,” her cousin went on. “I like having people around. As I imagine you do?” She glanced around at the common room, where nearly every table was filled by now. “This must be a little difficult to deal with otherwise.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bernie replied, her fond gaze surveying the room. “I lost my parents and sisters shortly after I was married. Bandits.” Another long-practiced lie, this one with enough truth that she didn’t need to feign the sorrow that touched her eyes. “This … it can’t replace them, but it helps.” She wasn’t Bernadette Diamante, likely never would be again, but neither was she the ice cold assassin that she had been for so many years, harboring nothing in her heart but the hunger for vengeance. Watching people’s faces relax as they sipped at a drink or enjoyed a hot meal and a tune, seeing hope in the eyes of a runaway mage when she helped them get onto a ship that would put them beyond the reach of the templars, gave her more satisfaction than killing ever had. “They are my family now.” And the Wardens were Sofi’s, and that was how it must be. Assassins had enemies, and family ties were a weakness to be exploited.

She couldn’t put her little cousin at that kind of risk.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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104
#23
That Bernie had little love for the Chantry was easy to see. It was surprising, in an Antivan; while Orlais upheld themselves as the most staunch adherents to the Maker, Antivans could be just as devout, and with considerably more style at that. Many were Andrastian as much by culture as actual belief. Sofia believed, and tried to live by the writings of the Canticles, although she had found life had more grey areas than the scripts had prepared her for; she did not blame others for occasionally trying to soothe their consciences with a creative interpretation or two. For Bernie to be so outspoken was a little startling, but Sofia didn’t take the other woman to task for her language. She had a right to her opinion.

And she seemed happy enough, Maker or no. Her eyes gleamed with soft warmth as Sofia indicated the crowds in the tavern, although she tend explained that there was a painful reason behind her need to fill her life with people. “I lost my parents and sisters shortly after I was married. Bandits.” Sofia covered her mouth, eyes widening in horror and sympathy. “This…it can’t replace them, but it helps. They are my family now.”

Sofia reached across the bar to touch the other woman’s hand. “I am so sorry for your loss.” To lose them, and to have lost her husband further on – Bernie had endured much. “And glad that you have something to ease your sorrow. You have every right to be proud of what you have made of this place.”

Fereldans didn’t have the best reputation for being welcoming to foreigners. It was markedly worse for Orlesians, of course, but most from beyond the seas were sure to encounter some disdainful comment or joke at some point. Or so Sofia had heard, and in the case of the Orlesians she couldn’t fault them over it. But Bernie had done well for herself regardless.

She sipped her coffee, eyes lidding as the warmth curled in her belly. “You did not seem too taken aback to have two mages at your bar within the space of a few minutes. Do you often host the other Warden mages?”
 

Bernie

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#24
Her sentiments regarding the Chantry seemed to take Sofia aback, which was no real surprise. In her childhood, Bernadette had faithfully attended the Chantry with her family, enjoyed the singing, fidgeted through the sermons and generally accepted all that she was told without question. Then the Maker had allowed her family to be slaughtered, and in the ensuing years, Bernie had learned much about what lay behind the statues and towering cathedrals, the pristine robes and pious faces. The Crows seldom targeted religious leaders, but they were blackmailing more than a few with information on unsavory habits that were certainly not sanctioned in the Chant of Light. And what was done to the mages that they took … thankfully, Sofi had been lucky in that respect. Lucky enough that she still believed, though she did not chastise Bernie for the opinions that she voiced.

She did not restrain her reaction when Bernie told of her family’s murder, however; one hand covered her mouth in dismay while the other reached out to the tavern keeper, blue eyes brimming with sympathy. “I am so sorry for your loss,” she murmured. Bernie accepted it with a nod and a wan smile of thanks; it was the closest that she could come to telling Sofi the truth, and it would have to be enough. “And glad that you have something to ease your sorrow. You have every right to be proud of what you have made of this place.”

“I can’t take too much of the credit,” Bernie replied, ready to let the conversation move back to less emotionally charged topics. “The Flagon was built by a retired soldier named George Burnham. He wanted a tavern that would be a home away from home, where folk could go to forget their troubles for a time. I arrived in Denerim just about the time he was looking to retire, and this place appealed to me very much, so I bought it. I’ve actually changed very little.” The hidden rooms in the cellar had been the only real alterations, but those would not be mentioned. "Gertrude has been here for close to twenty-five years," she added, nodding to the dragon head over the fireplace.

“You did not seem too taken aback to have two mages at your bar within the space of a few minutes,” Sofia observed as she savored her coffee. “Do you often host the other Warden mages?”

“Grey Wardens are always welcome in the Flagon,” Bernie replied, “as is anyone who is willing to obey the house rules. The Hero of Ferelden and our not-yet King drank here with their companions during the Blight,” she confided with a smile, not adding that the King occasionally still sneaked in for an anonymous ale or two. “They had two mages with them then: a Circle mage named Wynne and an apostate that had a Chasind look about her, named Morrigan. I even hid them all once, when Loghain and Howe were looking for them.” She shook her head slowly. “Loghain Mac Tir used to come in occasionally with his soldiers, before he lost his mind and nearly lost the kingdom to darkspawn. I never would have guessed then what he’d prove capable of.” Common wisdom put much of the blame at Rendon Howe’s feet, but an old war horse like Loghain couldn’t have been led anywhere he didn’t already want to go. “It was a damn shame,” she concluded simply. “Too many lives wasted by one man’s hate and ambition.” Howe would never have amounted to more than a malcontent without Loghain’s rank to bolster him.

"The Grey Wardens saved Ferelden," she told Sofia firmly. "The first drink in the Flagon is always free to any in your order, mage or otherwise. You are the first I've seen in here alone in some time, though," she admitted. "Usually, Warden mages are escorted by another Warden who isn't a mage. Evidently, the templars don't like them wandering about alone." The frost in her eyes made her opinion on that quite clear.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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104
#25
Sofia was intrigued by ‘Gertrude’, whose massive head predominated over one wall, but while she was curious about dragons she found the idea of a non-magic-using civilian being so relaxed about numbering mages in her patrons that she found it more arresting. Although maybe she was a secret apostate? It would explain a lot, but from what Sofia had gathered – and experienced – most apostates were awkward in the outside world, stumbling in unfamiliar surroundings and lacking all but the most basic skills in self-care. To shed all of that successfully enough to run a popular tavern in the most busy part of a capital city would take a steely spine. It seemed unlikely.

“Grey Wardens are always welcome in the Flagon. As is anyone who is willing to obey the house rules. The Hero of Ferelden and our not-yet King drank here with their companions during the Blight.” Sofia beamed, sensing a story and leaning in as Bernie told of how she had hidden them, and their mage companions, from the wicked Teyrn Loghain. While reports to the Circle during the events had been sporadic, the closed borders and the influx of refugees had spoken to how poorly the former hero had been doing at running the country in his daughter’s place. In that opinion, she and Bernie were united. “It was a damn shame. Too many lives wasted by one man’s hate and ambition.”

Her voice had taken on a firm edge. “The Grey Wardens saved Ferelden. The first drink in the Flagon is always free to any in your order, mage or otherwise. You are the first I've seen in here alone in some time, though. Usually, Warden mages are escorted by another Warden who isn't a mage. Evidently, the templars don't like them wandering about alone."

“Si, I got a nice little introduction to that when I was making my way from the docks across to the compound,” Sofia confirmed. “Thankfully, I am reasonably adept in making myself genial to templars, and I think they were taken aback by my apparent compliance. Technically I was accompanied here, but my companion immediately had to go and perform other errands – and s it is safer if a mage remains in one place rather than traipsing around half the city, surely?”

She shot Bernie a cheeky smile over the rim of her mug. “The good thing about their rules is you can trap them in their own nets, sometimes. I have respect for the templars as a general rule, but it is very easy to lose my respect.”

Not too many templars would lose sleep over that, but Sofia knew how to play along with the bullying ones until they either decided she wasn’t fun enough for them or they were chastened. It was so important never, ever to let them see fear, though.
 

Bernie

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#26
Gertrude had been the tavern’s star attraction well before Bernie had ever arrived, and though she had surely encountered daunting foes as a Grey Warden, Sofia regarded the dragon’s head with interest. Her attention returned to Bernie when the tavern keeper told the tale of how the two Grey Wardens and their companions had been guests during the Blight, and how she had later concealed them when Loghain’s soldiers had been tearing Denerim apart in search of them. She had not explicitly stated the reason for the hidden rooms in the basement where they had taken refuge until they could leave the city under cover of darkness, nor did they know of her ties to the Mages’ Collective, but it had still been a calculated risk to take. She had worried more than a bit when Alistair had taken the throne, but he had never again mentioned the rooms, and no templars had ever appeared to search the establishment.

That circumspection, along with their courage in ending the Blight, had ensured that they and all other members of their order would be more than welcome at the Dragon’s Flagon. All were welcome, in theory, so long as they behaved. Even templars, though the tales that Bernie had heard from mages who had escaped the circles had left a bad taste in her mouth where that order was concerned, and the rumors that they had been harassing Grey Warden mages were, to her way of thinking, utterly unacceptable.

“Si, I got a nice little introduction to that when I was making my way from the docks across to the compound,” Sofia verified, seemingly unconcerned, though Bernie bristled inwardly. “Thankfully, I am reasonably adept in making myself genial to templars, and I think they were taken aback by my apparent compliance.”

“That would confuse them, all right,” Bernie agreed with a chuckle. Sofi had been the same way as a child; even when caught in mischief, the big blue eyes and sunny smile had been hard to resist.

“Technically I was accompanied here,” the mage added, “but my companion immediately had to go and perform other errands – and it is safer if a mage remains in one place rather than traipsing around half the city, surely?”

“Certainly safer here.” It was a rare day when the guard was needed at the Flagon, and anyone whose behavior was bad enough to require it was never allowed back through the door. “I don’t know if they would see it that way or not, mind you.” Any one of them that thought to flex their muscle in here would be in for a rude surprise, however. Gio was quite capable of hefting a man in plate armor and pitching them out the door.

“The good thing about their rules is you can trap them in their own nets, sometimes.” Blue eyes danced with mischief as Sofia sipped at her coffee, and Bernie laughed softly, well able to imagine her cousin making some haughty templar trip over themselves. “I have respect for the templars as a general rule, but it is very easy to lose my respect.”

“They serve a purpose, I suppose,” Bernie conceded, “and I suppose that I can thank them for never having seen an abomination since I’ve been in Denerim.” Not true, and a templar’s skills would have definitely been a boon in dealing with the handful of abominations she had faced, but in too many cases, it was fear of the templars themselves that had made a mage vulnerable to a demon’s influence. “But I have trouble feeling affinity for any group that smiles as seldom as they do.” Kiran’s companion had been a refreshing change of pace; she wondered how he got on with his fellows.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#27
Sofia was curious about Bernie’s antipathy towards the templars. Of course there were many reasons to resent them; she’d heard stories of how the men and women trained to fight demons had fled towns and left the civilians to the mercies of the darkspawn. She knew that templars went into alienages except to pick up mages, rarely to defend the most vulnerable of the Maker’s children. Her eyes had been opened, these past five years, and she could never fully close them again. Nonetheless, they did have a noble purpose even if many did not live up to it, and most civilians appeared to forgive them the other trespasses in exchange for keeping mages under control. Bernie evidently did not, although she allowed that she had never seen an abomination. “But I have trouble feeling affinity for any group that smiles as seldom as they do.”

“Templars can smile. And laugh, and joke around each other. I have seen it. But I think they don’t allow many outside their own to see them relax, in case a demon seeps through the cracks in their armour, or an apostate squirms past while they’re distracted. It was a little startling, after I first joined the Wardens, to see a few of those I had previously known from the Circle spending their off-duty time in local brothels and taverns.”

That had been somewhat awkward, at first. The templars who had previously ranged from neutral to solicitous in the Tower had scowled, even been aggressive. Overnight she had gone from ‘obedient mage’ to ‘the one that escaped’, and she had been unnerved by the sudden change. “Ones I considered friends – as close as could be to that, between a mage and a templar – in a heartbeat became cold towards me. As though I had fled the Circle at the first opportunity. Perhaps they thought I had been playing a long game.”

The door had been opening and closing with increasing regularity as more people stumbled in from the cold; one of them was Sofia’s companion, who only ventured to the threshold and jerked her head for Sofia to follow. Presumably there was something urgent that required their attention, so – not without regret – Sofia savoured the last mouthful of the coffee, and returned the cup to the bar. “Thank you for talking to me, Bernie. I will be back again, certainly – hopefully pulling a few of the Wardens with me on the way.”

Not that any Warden would turn down an excuse for food.
 
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