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Let It Snow! [Open]

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.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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Grey Warden
DAO/DA2 Timeline
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17
#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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Circle Mage
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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
Posts
17
#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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Circle Mage
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7
#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.
 
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