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Nicolette O'Hara

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#1
[[OOC: 5th Harvestmere, evening, The Hanged Man.]] @Varric Tethras

The first time Nicolette had walked into the Hanged Man, she’d been subject to some scrutiny. Apparently it was the lair of mercenaries, pirates, and brigands just sharp enough to stay two steps ahead of the law, as well as the place where a large number of Fereldan refugees could drown their sorrows. Despite not having that many coins to rub together herself, Nicolette had stood out somewhat. Her dress was neatly hemmed and she took as much care of her appearance as she could afford to, and if it was not for the enormous presence of Thibault at her side she probably would have been subject being bothered more than she had.

But she liked taverns like this. The ale was worse but the laughter was louder and there was always the exciting unexpected element, a constant thrum of tension in the air that might at any moment burst into full-throated chaos. Less nervous than she used to be of bar brawls, Nicolette had quickly learned to divine the paths the antagonists might take and remove herself from it. Sometimes the reasons for the fight even provided her with some fresh material for her stories. Nobody cared if she spun them all together into one spectacular lie as long as she told it well.

However, she did have an ulterior motive for coming here. Not long after her arrival in Kirkwall she had heard that the legendary author Varric Tethras made this his haunting ground. While she was uncertain what she would say to him if she did see him, hopefully she might be able to hear a tale from the master himself.

However, the few times she had managed to make it to the Hanged Man so far she had either just missed him or he had been engaged with something else. Preferring to leave before the night got truly dark so she could make her way safely back to her own inn, she had yet to come across the man.

But tonight she did not need to perform for coin at her tavern and she had done well enough during the day to have a break. Maybe tonight she would actually get to see him.

He did not appear to be around when she arrived, and she quickly made her excuses to join in with a game of Wicked Grace instead of sitting alone nursing an ale. The other players were Antivan and saw her as an easy target.

Nicolette was not good at bluffing, but she knew how to distract people, and the Antivans were gregarious enough that they did not notice how talkative she was being for a game where concentration was required. She pushed a card with a sailor on it across the table.“I heard a story about a sailor, once,” she said casually, as she picked up her new card between her fingertips. “An old one, in need of some company. He went to the local brothel and engaged the services of one of the ladies there.”

That had already partly distracted them. Nicolette deliberately cultivated an air of being the kind of person who did not mention brothels, although she was sitting in the Hanged Man playing Wicked Grace, a moderately observant person would have worked out by now that she was not the innocent she pretended to be.

“He takes her up to the room, and does his best. Wanting his ego massaged, he asks partway through how he is doing, and the prostitute says ‘around three knots.’”

The men appeared confused. Nicolette took another card. “He says, ‘three knots? What Is that supposed to mean?’” One more card. She thought she might win, if nobody managed to undermine her at this point. “She replies, “You are knot hard, you are knot in, and you are knot getting your money back.’”

As the men laughed, she spread her cards on the table. “My round, I think.” Unless one of the others had the queen.
 

Varric Tethras

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#2
Donnen Brennocovik didn't believe in coincidences, and two Orlesian beauties crossing his path inside of a week was – well, he couldn't say too many, because when it came to beautiful Orlesian women, there was no such thing, but it was definitely enough to make him wonder if they were working together.

The redhead had been a master of what the Orlesians like to call 'The Grand Game', known less pretentiously in Kirkwall as 'how to get ahead by screwing everybody else', and while the guardsman had resisted her attempts at seduction, there had been a definite pang of regret as he watched her shapely form sway out the door.

Maybe whoever had sent her thought he might prefer a brunette? Brennocovik watched from the sidelines as the beauty boldly entered into a game of chance with a trio of Crows, captivating them with a witty tale, fleecing them as neatly as if they'd been bumpkins who'd fallen off the turnip truck a week earlier. Definitely a professional; she had them eating out of her hand, one of the fleec-ees saying admiringly -



“You cheated, you bitch! You took extra cards!”

Whoops. Looks like life wasn't quite imitating art. Leaving his usual spot, Varric ambled over to the table. “Gentlemen, I'm sure there's been a mistake,” he announced amiably, Bianca propped harmlessly – but prominently – on one shoulder. “I was watching her hands the entire time, and I didn't see anything untoward.” True enough; cheating was practically a rule in Wicked Grace. He glanced toward Corff, confirming that the bartender was watching the proceedings. “How about a round of drinks? My treat.” His demeanor stayed friendly, but the meaning behind it should be clear to anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together: Let it go.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#3
The men stopped laughing, quite quickly, and looked over the cards spread on the table. It was most definitely a winning hand. This was the game of cheats, so the only way to win was –

“You cheated, you bitch! You took extra cards!”

Nicolette knew how to reply to such an accusation. A complete confession, with a smile, and an admission that perhaps she was not so good at this game as she believed. Either they would think she had made a mistake or that she was trying to cheat because that was the spirit of the game. The sin was not in the action but the being caught in it. And then, of course, the offer to return all the money won to the table. Although she had won a goodly amount, this time, and it would be a shame to see it go.

Before she could open her mouth to offer this, her attention was caught by another person approaching their table. A dwarf, with no beard. That was unusual. “Gentlemen, I’m sure there’s been a mistake.” His manner was convivial, in a perfect contrast to the massive crossbow resting against his shoulder. “I was watching her hands the entire time, and I didn’t see anything untoward.” The dwarf gestured to the barman. “How about a round of drinks? My treat.”

The tension at the table eased almost immediately, although there were still a couple of dirty looks being pointed her way as her game partners sidled their way to the bar. Nicolette completely ignored them, her attention fully focused on the newcomer.

She had never actually seen a picture of Varric, but she had been told she could not miss him. Not only did he have the rarity of being a dwarf without a beard, but she had been told he also carried a crossbow almost as big as himself. What were the chances of two dwarfs of similar description being locals at the same tavern?

She realised she was staring, and pulled herself together. “Thank you, m’seuir. I was not especially desirous of a confrontation with my gamemates. My sleight of hand would need work, it appears.” She dipped her head in a slight bow. “My name is Nicolette O’Hara. May I ask – are you Varric Tethras?”
 

Varric Tethras

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#4
Who said dwarves couldn’t do magic? Three assholes vanished at the utterance of a mystical incantation and rematerialized at the bar, all hostility forgotten in the promise of free booze. Leaving Varric alone with the damsel in distress, who was looking at him like he’d worked real magic.

“It’s not hard,” he assured her. “Free drinks almost always works for this crowd.” A gesture encompassed the common room.

“Thank you, m’seuir,” she said, still looking awed. “I was not especially desirous of a confrontation with my gamemates. My sleight of hand would need work, it appears.”

“You want to work your way up to Antivans,” he recommended. “They emerge from the womb dishonest, so they know what to look for. Start with Anders; they’re disgustingly honest. Then Fereldans, then …” He cocked his head in thought. “Nevarrans, Orlesians and then Antivans. Once you can fool an Antivan, you can fool anyone.”

She inclined her head toward him gracefully. “My name is Nicolette O’Hara. May I ask – are you Varric Tethras?”

“I am,” he confirmed. “Bianca gave it away, didn’t she?” He patted the crossbow’s stock indulgently. “She’s good in a fight, but she’s a bit of a showoff.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#5
She had managed not to make an immediate nuisance of herself. Still, it was hard not to stare. Even without her suspicions as to his identity, Nicolette would have found the dwarf an arresting sight. Not only was his beard several inches south of the usual location, but he was dressed very finely and had an intriguingly broad nose. The crossbow was also demanding her attention. Instead of gawking, she thanked him and downplayed her own ability at cards. She could cheat far more effectively if she tried, but it never quite sat right with her.

“You want to work your way up to Antivans,” he recommended. “They emerge from the womb dishonest, so they know what to look for. Start with Anders; they’re disgustingly honest. Then Fereldans, then …” He gave it real thought for a moment. “Nevarrans, Orlesians and then Antivans. Once you can fool an Antivan, you can fool anyone.”

She could not help a chuckle. “Well, then at least I am not so easy to fool as some. Although being half-Fereldan, perhaps my face is too easily read.”

She then took her shot, and enquired if she had his name correctly. It turned out she had.

“I am,” he confirmed. “Bianca gave it away, didn’t she?” He indicated the crossbow. “She’s good in a fight, but she’s a bit of a showoff.”

“She is one of the most beautiful weapons I have ever seen.”Nicolette’s reverence was unfeigned; while some swords could be well-wrought, the blades were always a harsh reminder of their purpose. The crossbow’s wood gleamed and the brass workings along the stock caught the gleam of the candles. It was easy to forget that it was designed to murder people. “I have a bow, but it is nowhere near as cared for.”

She smiled at him. “My name is Nicolette O’Hara, m’seuir. Travelling musician and, I must confess, something of a fan of yours. I have heard a number of your tales second hand. Are many of them based in reality?”

Some of the writings would suggest this to be a bit far-fetched but Nicolette had seen enough by now to know that most things were possible.
 

Varric Tethras

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#6
His evaluation of gullibility by nationality got a pretty laugh from his audience. “Well, then at least I am not so easy to fool as some,” she told him. “Although being half-Fereldan, perhaps my face is too easily read.”

“Makes you more resilient, though,” he replied. “Pound for pound, I’d say that Fereldens are the most tenacious folk in Thedas, and I’ve met a lot of them.” The refugees that had poured into the city during the Blight had been a sorry lot, many with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but they had seized upon any opportunity given to them and worked at it with a vengeance, though few had managed so well as Hawke.

Mention of Bianca triggered an admiring expression that cemented his affinity for the newcomer. “She is one of the most beautiful weapons I have ever seen,” she exclaimed. “I have a bow, but it is nowhere near as cared for.”

“She’s earned it,” Varric replied, lowering the crossbow so that she could get a better look. “She’s gotten me out of more tight spots than I can count. The least I can do is make sure that she looks her best doing it.” Not to mention that the precision mechanisms that made Bianca so deadly worked best when he kept them properly tuned and adjusted.

“My name is Nicolette O’Hara, m’seuir,” she introduced herself with a charming smile. “Travelling musician and, I must confess, something of a fan of yours. I have heard a number of your tales second hand. Are many of them based in reality?”

“All of them are,” he replied readily, and honestly. An overheard remark, a glimpse of an interesting stranger on the street, were as likely to trigger his imagination as the escapades of his friends and acquaintences. “Mind you, some need more embellishment than others before they’re fit to print.” He eyed the sizeable hound that was laying peacefully beside her chair, putting two and two together. “In fact, I’m working on an idea now about a clever dog and a couple of pretty Orlesians who help out some people in need.” The diversion that had kept most of Lowtown riveted while a group of erstwhile slaves were smuggled out of the City of Chains had been a clever one. The redhead had to have been Leliana, and he was willing to bet that he was in the company of the remaining players. “Any chance you could help me out with the details? Being a dog owner, I mean.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#7
It was rare for anybody outside Ferelden to offer compliments to the country. True, Nicolette had heard occasional grudging allowances for the tenacity of its citizens, both in regards to the Orlesian occupation and being the only nation in history to repel a Blight without other countries throwing full weight behind them. But mostly it was regarded as a mud-soaked pit infested with dog-lords who washed twice a year. If that. That Varric was kind enough to offer some genuine praise of Ferelden raised him in Nicolette’s estimation another few notches.

“Not many people would be so kind, messere. Thank you.”

She was then willingly distracted by Varric’s weapon. She had heard much of the repeating crossbow but while her imagination had captured some of it, she had not been able to conceive the full artistry of it until she saw it. Varric pulled the crossbow from his back and let her have a look at it. Unusually for her, the action did not make her flinch. “She’s gotten me out of more tight spots than I can count. The least I can do is make sure that she looks her best doing it.”

Nicolette admired it further for a moment, but did not touch. She did not know which one of the numerous brass elements might be the release mechanism and she did not care to find out by causing an errant bolt to go flying around the room. Instead she introduced herself, and shyly admitted her enjoyment of Varric’s work, asking how many of his stories were based in reality.

He claimed that all of them were. Nicolette was a little incredulous, but then again, she had tangled with mages and murderers, bandits and bards, and she had actually met the Hero of Ferelden, not to mention a few of his companions. She had long since learned that a lot more was possible than she could ever guess at.

“Mind you, some need more embellishment than others before they’re fit to print.” Nicolette understood this. She herself had done some tweaking to the stories she had shared with Leli, wishing not to highlight how scared she had been during the whole gaatlok experience, for example. As if he had sensed her thoughts, Varric turned the conversation towards her recent reunion with her friend.

“In fact, I’m working on an idea now about a clever dog and a couple of pretty Orlesians who help out some people in need.” Nicolette looked at him in surprise. That she and Leli had raised a fuss at the docks at the same time as the elves had been smuggled out was not a secret, but their purposeful involvement had been kept quiet to avoid retaliation from the slavers. “Any chance you could help me out with the details? Being a dog owner, I mean.”

Nicolette relaxed a little. Of course, anybody involved in the dwarven Merchant’s Guild would have to have eyes and ears everywhere, and Varric especially so. He would also be too canny to question her directly. She smiled, and pulled up a pair of seats, offering one to Varric. She could still barely believe that she was talking to him. Out of habit, she let her smile turn impish. “I believe I could help you with that, m’seuir. Of course, if the dog involved was anywhere near as clever as my Thibault, he must have lead those slavers on a merry chase.”

As Varric had said, some stories required embellishment. Nicolette was looking forward to furnishing this. “What is it you need to know?”
 

Varric Tethras

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#8
His opinion of Fereldans got him a warm smile from present company. “Not many people would be so kind, messere,” she told him. “Thank you.”

“Part of being a writer is observing people,” he replied with a shrug. “And there have been plenty of Fereldans in Kirkwall to observe the last few years. One of them turned into one of my best friends, in fact.”

Her appreciation of fine weaponry won her points with Bianca, but the massive mutt at her side made him wonder if he wasn't in the company of someone worthy of a tale of her own. The story of the slave rescue had reached his ears and roused the muses, but it wasn't often that he managed a firsthand account.

Not that it could be couched in those terms, mind you. Slavery might be illegal in the City of Chains, but it still existed, and some powerful entities took a dim view of any interference in their activities. So far, they didn't seem to have realized that the incident was anything but happenstance, and Varric intended to keep it that way. He phrased his query in strictly hypothetical language, and Nicolette caught on at once, a mischievous smile touching her lips as she pulled out a pair of chairs and invited him to take one.

“I believe I could help you with that, m’seuir,” she told him easily. “Of course, if the dog involved was anywhere near as clever as my Thibault, he must have lead those slavers on a merry chase.”

“Of course.” Varric eyed the shaggy dog with interest. “I hope he was well compensated for his performance.” Catching Norah's eye, he nodded toward the hound, and shortly after, she approached the table with a bowl of meaty scraps that were likely of better quality than what went into the stew. Varric gave Nicolette a questioning look, waiting for her permission. “Ale for me, and whatever the lady is having, please.” Since observing the effect Zevran's behavior had on the barmaid, Varric hadn't been complimentary, exactly – she'd have seen right through that – but he'd been making an effort to be more polite.

“What is it you need to know?” his companion asked him as they settled in.

“I guess the first thing is why would they do it?” he mused. “Crossing slavers can be dangerous, and from what I've heard, they didn't know any of the people in question. Why take the risk?”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#9
Nicolette ruffled Thibault’s ears as she complimented him, and she was touched to realise that Varric had gestured for the barmaid to bring over a bowl of scraps that were likely better than most things she could afford to feed him. He was a big dog and her budget was frequently stretched when she stayed in towns trying to make sure he had enough. She had occasionally gone hungry so Thibault could eat; he made the most pathetic noises if he had not had enough, and she would rather go without herself than live with the knowledge that she could not provide for her best companion.

“Ale for me, and whatever the lady is having, please.”

“A wine, please.” She would avoid her usual spirits or cider tonight; they usually muddled her head after only a few and she knew she wanted to keep it clear as long as Varric was around. She settled into her seat and Varric relaxed into his in magnificent repose; he looked like the king of this small corner of Lowtown, and he likely was in a way. She asked him want he needed to know.

“I guess the first thing is why would they do it? Crossing slavers can be dangerous, and from what I've heard, they didn't know any of the people in question. Why take the risk?”

She pretended to think about it. “Well, although the people of Orlais are known to turn a blind eye to slavery, there are those who find it abhorrent. People should always have the freedom to leave their employer and enjoy a small wage without fear of recrimination or being hunted, or beaten at the pleasure of their owners. Perhaps whoever assisted was of a similar mind.”

She stroked her lip as though considering what to say next for a moment. “And while there are risks to such a venture, rumour has it that the distraction was quite cleverly orchestrated to avoid being definitively connected with the escaped slaves. Perhaps the partners trusted each other well enough to carry out the plan that they felt relatively safe from any vengeance.”

She certainly had trusted Leli. The bard had asked her fairly clearly if she had been willing to take a risk, but she would not have done so if the risk had been high enough to be serious. No, Leli had known all along that their distraction, while irritating to the slavers, would likely not be connected with a deliberate plot. Nicolette smiled a little. She was very fond of her friend.
 

Varric Tethras

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The lady requested wine, and showed no objection to the bowl of meat, so Norah set it in front of the dog and backed away, but he displayed admirable manners, picking up a chunk in his teeth almost daintily and finishing it off before going back for another.

It wasn't the first time that Varric had discussed matters that were best left vague, so he was more than willing to come at it obliquely, without naming names. Nicolette caught on quickly.

“Well, although the people of Orlais are known to turn a blind eye to slavery, there are those who find it abhorrent,” she mused when he asked about potential motivations. “People should always have the freedom to leave their employer and enjoy a small wage without fear of recrimination or being hunted, or beaten at the pleasure of their owners. Perhaps whoever assisted was of a similar mind.”

Varric nodded. “Makes sense,” he agreed. “Still taking quite a chance, though.”

She mused briefly over this. “And while there are risks to such a venture, rumour has it that the distraction was quite cleverly orchestrated to avoid being definitively connected with the escaped slaves.” She didn't have the air of one preening over her own resourcefulness; rather, there was a decided touch of admiration in her tone. “Perhaps the partners trusted each other well enough to carry out the plan that they felt relatively safe from any vengeance.”

“Good partners, then,” Varric remarked. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Brennokovic was crowing that he'd known it all along. “Couldn't have been the first time they've worked together, if that was the case.” Norah brought their drinks and he gave her a murmured thanks along with the coin. “To partners,” he offered, lifting his glass in salute and taking a drink. “I'd imagine they have some pretty good stories to be told.” Few people understood that being a good storyteller was as much listening as talking.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#11
Varric commented that it had still been quite the risk to take. Nicolette agreed. But she had been faithful to Leli’s plan and it had paid off; nobody had come looking to punish her for interfering, and she had the satisfaction of knowing that, for once in her life, she had been able to do something to help other people in a lasting manner. The idea of ever finding herself a slave was so upsetting that it occasionally gave her nightmares, and she did not know how anybody could find the will to survive in total servitude to another.

Keeping to their thin veneer of two people lightly discussing something unrelated to either of them, she praised Leli for her clever thinking and indicated that they had both had faith in each other. It had not occurred to her until just now, but Leli must have trusted her too. She knew Nicolette too well by now for the thought that she might panic not to have occurred. Realising that made her feel a warm, happy flicker in her chest.

“Good partners, then. Couldn’t have been the first time they worked together, if that was the case.” Norah had returned with the drinks and Nicolette breathed hers in first before drinking it. It was not bad, for the Hanged Man, but even if it had been she would not be so rude as to turn away a free drink from Varric. She just would have been prepared for it. She smiled and raised her mug as Varric did so. “To partners. I’d imagine they have some pretty good stories to be told.”

“To partners.” She drank. “My thanks, Varric. And yes, I would think so. One Orlesian tends to attract trouble; two together must have a good stock of tales. I remember hearing of one when I was down in Ferelden, also featuring a pair of young women.” She took another sip and settled back into her seat. She had expected to be more nervous confronted with Varric Tethras, of all people, but he was making her feel remarkably at ease. Presumably that was how he managed to persuade people to tell their stories in the first place.

“When they first met, one was a bold bard, and the other a simple musician. The bard befriended the minstrel, with the consequence that the minstrel found herself embroiled in a plot that involved no less than three noblemen, a mislaid monogrammed handkerchief and a flight through an estate’s gardens at night after a misunderstanding.” She was dramatizing what had actually happened but then, what storyteller did not?

“Through this misunderstanding, the minstrel learned that the bard’s cover had been blown and ran to tell her friend. Between the two of them they concocted a plan to get what the bard needed before she had to disappear.” Her fingers ran through Thibault’s fur. “By coincidence, the musician in this tale also had a dog. She went running through the party, shrieking that she was being chased by a slavering hound, with her dog in hot pursuit. The other guests scattered before her and in the confusion, the bard was able to retrieve the information she needed and escape without trouble. As I understand the situation only cemented the friendship between them.” She smiled. “Who knows? Perhaps the two at the docks were the same, carrying out their games in other ways.”

In truth, she had forgotten how much she missed Leli until she had seen her at the Teeth. While her friend was capable of some truly terrifying things, nobody else had really got Nicolette’s need to drift and flirt and adventure her way through Thedas. Everybody seemed to expect her to settle eventually.
 

Varric Tethras

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#12
Nicollete easily adapted to the ruse of pretending that they were discussing unrelated third parties, but her affection for her partner in hijinks shone through in her face along with her lively narrative. Varric just sat back and listened, content to let it flow; no one who might figure it out and give a damn was near enough to overhear, and emotion was what turned a so-so story into a good one, and a good story into a great one

“To partners,” she echoed his toast readily, then drank. Thus relaxed, she took his not-so-subtle hint about further adventures and launched into another tale of two adventurous women and a dog, this time in Ferelden. Nobles, betrayals, misplaced handkerchiefs and clever diversions … all very nicely spun. “Who knows?” she concluded with a whimsical smile, scratching the ears of her faithful hound, “Perhaps the two at the docks were the same, carrying out their games in other ways.”

“Maybe so,” he agreed, taking a drink of ale. “I remember hearing a story about some partners got asked to check out why production at a local mine had dropped. They went there figuring maybe disease, maybe raiders. What they weren't figuring on was a sodding nest of dragons that had eaten most of the workers and driven out the rest.”

That had been Varric's first up-close-and-personal encounter with dragonkind, and while a part of him had understood the value of firsthand experience in storytelling, given the option, that particular experience could have remained within the purview of imagination with absolutely no complaints on his part. Having the experience so vividly seared into his mind now, however, he made full use of it, telling of the uncanny speed of the immature dragons, the sheer size of the larger ones. Flames hitting Aveline's shield, Fenris swinging that bigass sword that he spent so much time polishing, Daisy casting spells that no one watching her finding her way around Kirkwall with a ball of twine would believe, Josc weaving in and out with her daggers flashing, nailing the beasties in their tender spots. And a certain dashing dwarf trying not to shit his pants and inventing profanities on the spot as he tried to keep his friends alive. All of it carefully related in third-person perspective, since that was the game they were playing.

“Took them some doing, but the big one finally went down, shaking the ground like an earthquake when it hit,” he concluded. “The workers were able to return, and so far as I know, the mine is still running today, minus the dragons.” Hawke had a half share in it, in fact, and with the headaches that Hubert gave her, that was gross underpayment.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#13
Varric Tethras was enjoying her stories! Or at least giving a good impression of doing so. Of course, he was at least aware of Leliana, or so Nicolette had assumed from his hints, so he would have an interest in what she was getting up to. However, Nicolette could simply have relayed the facts in a dry manner but she had chosen to follow his lead of telling the stories in the third person and subsequently embellished in her usual manner. She certainly did not mention the fact that she had been nearly frozen with panic before she went bolting across the noble’s gathering in case she was caught and discovered to be in league with Leli. She finished her tale by suggesting that the two at that party and the pair who had disrupted a slaver ring might still be carrying out their tricks years later.

Varric rewarded her with a tale of her own. Nicolette knew she had the bad habit of occasionally commenting during other peoples’ stories, to ask questions or add in lines – not out of rudeness but such simple enjoyment that she got carried away and forgot it was not intended to be a collaborative effort. However, she remained mostly quiet throughout Varric’s tale, her eyes growing ever wider as he described the exploits of ‘some partners’ in freeing a local mine from a nest of honest to goodness dragons. His story of the battle, the quick way he weaved a brief impression for the characters that allowed her to complete the picture herself, and the dramatic end left Nicolette’s short story about her dalliance with bardic adventures in the dust. Not that she minded, she was so enraptured.

“Took them some doing, but the big one finally went down, shaking the ground like an earthquake when it hit. The workers were able to return, and so far as I know, the mine is still running today, minus the dragons.”

“Ouah…” Nicolette’s soft utterance came with a shift back to reality and Nora clattering past with a fresh round of drinks. “I did not believe dragons still existed, apart from the one that attacked Denerim during the Blight.” She remembered herself; this was Varric telling a tale for the purpose of telling it and not to claim glory for his role in it. They were not speaking of themselves, after all. “This group of adventurers sounds like they are quite experienced in dealing with any trouble they encounter. After all, it must take an extremely cohesive unit to take down a high dragon. Are there any other tales about these partners? I am afraid I do not have anything about my pair of wilful ladies to match yours. Although-” she added, “I know at least one of them has solo adventures of her own, and the other occasionally accidentally runs into trouble and then straight back out again the other side.” Her lips quirked. “She was chased up a tree by a bear, for example, and then fell for the woman who had raised it from a cub. And she was once caught up in a gaatlock-smuggling ring.”

In hindsight, she had really not been that good at evading trouble as she would like to be, but she was still here, with all her limbs attached. So she could not be all that bad at it either.
 

Varric Tethras

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#14
The best storytellers had another thing in common, Varric had found: they were also the best audiences, and not just because they were adding to their own repertoire. Stories had power: the closest thing to magic that most people would encounter, and the folk wise enough to let themselves fall under the sway of that power led, on the whole, happier lives than those poor sods who kept themselves resolutely grounded in reality.

Nicolette had spun a damn good story of her own, and now she listened to Varric's tale of dragon-slaying (which, while technically true, had a lot more moments of derring-do and a lot fewer – all right, none – of the make-it-up-as-you-go-while-trying-not-to-shit-your-pants moments) with unfeigned wonder, eyes growing wider by the minute. He almost wished he had made the whole thing up, so he could take credit for being that damn creative.

“Ouah…” she breathed when he was done as Norah set out a fresh round without being asked. Varric gave her a nod and a smile of thanks, reminding himself to bump up her tip; a bit of kindness really did work wonders … and it had taken an assassin to remind him that it applied to the one who brought your drinks as much as anyone else. “I did not believe dragons still existed, apart from the one that attacked Denerim during the Blight.”

“I've heard of others,” Varric mused. “Stories of the Hero of Ferelden make it sound like he fought them almost as often as the darkspawn, but those probably exaggerate a bit. I would.” The admission was made without a trace of embarrassment. That was part of the job, after all. Reality, for most folk not associated with someone named Hawke, was dull. Stories were supposed to improve on that.

“This group of adventurers sounds like they are quite experienced in dealing with any trouble they encounter,” Nicolette remarked. “After all, it must take an extremely cohesive unit to take down a high dragon. Are there any other tales about these partners?”

“I've thought about writing a book,” he admitted. “They've done a good job of capturing my imagination.” And his pocketbook, but since that had grown exponentially since the Deep Roads expedition, it was even less of a concern that it had been. Money was for spending.

“I am afraid I do not have anything about my pair of wilful ladies to match yours,” Nicolette told him. “Although I know at least one of them has solo adventures of her own, and the other occasionally accidentally runs into trouble and then straight back out again the other side.” A faintly self deprecating smile curved the pretty mouth. “She was chased up a tree by a bear, for example, and then fell for the woman who had raised it from a cub. And she was once caught up in a gaatlock-smuggling ring.”

Romances had a universal appeal, but given current events, it was the second incident that caught his attention. “How did they get their hands on gaatlock?” he asked curiously, adding, “I'm guessing you've seen Kirkwall's newest residents and the charming little setup they've got down at the docks? It's wreaking havoc on real estate prices in the area ... and considering that the stench of dead fish and sewage were the main selling points, that's saying something.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#15
Varric inferred that he might write another book, and Nicolette mentally squared away a portion of her income for the purpose. She did not often buy books outright; they were usually heavy, difficult to protect from the rain while on the road, and could frequently be forgotten while she was packing to move to the next place. She was more likely to borrow than buy, but to enjoy Varric’s tales at leisure it would be worth it. Although he seemed fairly happy to share a few good ones with her right now. He gave no indication that she was bothering him with her attention and actually encouraged her to continue when she mentioned her brief entanglement with the gaatlock-smuggling ring.

“How did they get their hands on gaatlock?”

“Definitely illegally. Our protagonist, at the beginning, was being boasted to by the leader how he had liberated barrels of the explosive from a qunari storehouse, but he may well have been exaggerating to impress her.” It was what all people who told a story did, no? Nicolette had never met anybody with an interesting tale to tell who had not elaborated on some of the details to make it better.

“I’m guessing you've seen Kirkwall's newest residents and the charming little setup they've got down at the docks? It's wreaking havoc on real estate prices in the area ... and considering that the stench of dead fish and sewage were the main selling points, that's saying something.”

Nicolette nodded. “I find myself sometimes wanting to walk in and take a look around, but even my survival sense is not that poorly developed. They all seem so…forbidding. Is it a violation of the Qun to smile?” She personally could see both the appeal and the distaste for the Qun. A lot of people spent their lives looking for purpose and being given one so blunting would work for some. For others, such as herself, the restriction placed on what they could do within the confines of their existence would quickly chafe. “I think some of them like music, though. When I am performing down at the docks, some of them do occasionally watch me for a while.”

Either that or they were trying to work out how to pull her head off to make her stop, but could not do so in quite so open a space.

There was actually a qunari in the bar at the moment. There usually was. He was adorned with red paint and watched the action around him with stony-eyed passivity, showing no inclination either to join or to judge. His dark eyes caught her gaze for a moment and she looked away, fighting the urge to shiver. What one of those would be doing in here, she had no idea. Nicolette leaned towards Varric. “Do you have any idea what brought them here? I heard they were shipwrecked but to my understanding, they have been here a while, yes?”

They must have some purpose. The qunari always had a set reason for everything they did, but Nicolette’s occasional curious pokings about it had produced no answers.
 

Varric Tethras

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#16
Varric hadn’t heard – or told – many stories about Qunari over the course of his life. There’d been the one that reportedly accompanied the Grey Wardens during the Blight, but apart from that, they had been out of sight and out of mind. Recent events had changed that, and his interest had shifted accordingly. Mention of gaatlock caught his attention; one thing he did know about the horned giants was that they guarded their secrets fiercely, and it didn’t seem likely they were giving out samples of their most formidable and frightening weapon.

“Definitely illegally,” Nicolette agreed when he inquired how the stuff might have been obtained … in the interest of ensuring a plausible plot, since they were engaging in fiction and hypotheticals. “Our protagonist, at the beginning, was being boasted to by the leader how he had liberated barrels of the explosive from a qunari storehouse, but he may well have been exaggerating to impress her.”

Varric nodded his agreement. “That seems well within the realms of possibility. Never tell the truth when a lie sounds better.” First rule of storytelling. Or maybe the second. Definitely in the top two though.

At this point, one would have to be deaf, blind and chained up in a Darktown oubliette to not know about the nest of Qunari parked on the docks, and the minstrel was quite plainly none of these.

“I find myself sometimes wanting to walk in and take a look around,” she admitted, “but even my survival sense is not that poorly developed. They all seem so…forbidding. Is it a violation of the Qun to smile?”

“I haven’t asked.” Varric shrugged. “They’ve managed to pull in a few converts, so I guess there is some kind of appeal to it.” He shrugged. “Looks pretty grim to me.”

“I think some of them like music, though,” the minstrel mused. “When I am performing down at the docks, some of them do occasionally watch me for a while.”

“Could be,” Varric conceded. “Maybe they like kittens and cookies, too, but if they invite you in for a private performance, I’d decline. Politely, mind you.”

Her eyes strayed to the lone Qunari standing near the stairs. He’d started showing up a few days after they’d arrived; didn’t drink, didn’t talk, had shoveled down the stew without so much as a grimace or gag, but mostly he just watched everything and everybody. Creepy, but since he didn’t start trouble, paid for his food, and nobody wanted to find out what he’d do if asked to leave, he’d been left alone. “Do you have any idea what brought them here?” Nicolette asked him in a hushed voice, leaning closer as if worried that the taciturn giant might overhear. “I heard they were shipwrecked but to my understanding, they have been here a while, yes?”

“Long enough for a ship to get here to pick them up,” he confirmed gravely. “Why they’re sticking around, I don’t know, but they don’t seem to want to make new friends.” One of the downsides of having a vivid imagination was that he could think of any number of reasons, none of which boded well for Kirkwall.

“So, was it really gaatlock?”
he asked her, turning the subject back to the tale as an alternative to discussing whether the Qunari were here as a prelude to invading the south, or if they were experiencing a famine in Par Vollen and looking into alternate sources of protein.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#17
Varric had replies to some of her musings about the qunari. Despite their dour appearances, their philosophy had drawn in a number of converts since their arrival. Between the Chantry and the Qun, Nicolette was quite happy to stick to her own vague notions inspired by the Natural Order and stay away from both sets of rigid dogma. He also advised her not to take up a qunari on an invitation to look around the compound, which would be the sensible thing to do – which might mean it was not actually the course of action she would take. Although she would make sure she was had not annoyed once of them first before she took them up on it.

There was also the question of why they were still here. Nicolette’s faintly fuzzy impression of the Qun was that everybody in it had a purpose, and an order to their lives. How their purpose tied in with sitting around at the docks, she could not work out. Surely they could be doing more important things elsewhere?

Varric added to this chain of thought, and then moved away from it, back to the subject that had taken them there in the first place. “So, was it really gaatlock?”

Nicolette smiled, happy to be distracted from her slightly agitated thoughts and return to the story. Although she had lived it, and it had been terrifying at the time, it was miles away and years ago from this moment, safe in a warm tavern and sharing it with a person she highly admired. “At least some, yes. Not all, although we will leave how she deduced this to the end.”

“You see, the man tripped in his tale. He told her that he had taken it from a warehouse, and later on, from a ship. She corrected him, and he began to get quite surly, asking why she was paying such close attention. Over a series of misunderstandings on her part, he came to the conclusion that she was a spy in the employ of the qunari. While she was distracted, he drugged her drink and then took her to the warehouse at the docks where he had stashed the loot, for further questioning.”

“Little did either of them know that a true spy for the qunari was on their tail, and had spotted the woman’s plight. However, his associates caught her too, and the pair of women woke up in the dark of the storage room, surrounded by barrels.” Maeva hopefully would forgive the slight change in her role for the smoothness of the narrative. “They knew they had to get out, and the spy was quick to find a way; a sharp nail, sticking out from the top of one of the barrels. She freed herself and then the first woman, and the pair of them started hollering until one of the men came to shut them up. The first woman brought a chair down on his head, but then! More started to pour in. They were truly trapped, until the spy pulled a flint and tinder out of her satchel and swore she would send the entire warehouse sky high if they were not allowed to leave. The men argued, the spy struck up a spark and they backed off – but a little too late, for the spark had landed on the floor and caught onto an oily substance slicked there, starting to race towards the barrels.”

“Had all of the barrels been stocked with gaatlock, there would not be that much left of that quarter of Denerim,” she explained. “I believe the thief must have been swindled himself. The two women made it out just in time for the warehouse to go up in a column of flame behind them, sending both of them crashing over the side of the quay and into the water. They survived, however, mostly thanks to their landing. They swam to shore and immediately staggered into the nearest alehouse, quite understandably.”

The tale did not convey the fear she had experienced, the wall of heat at her back, the utter certainty that she was seconds from death the entire time. But she had made it out, again, and in one piece at that. Which was more than could be said for most of the men who had orchestrated the plot.

“They were lucky to be alive! The two women celebrated it ardently, and parted their ways the next day full of gratitude for their narrow escape.”
 

Varric Tethras

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#18
While Varric didn’t know much about the Qunari or gaatlock, he knew that the dwarves guarded the formulations for their lyrium-based explosives jealously, making them difficult to bootleg. Most such sales were counterfeit: barrels of glass powder, with just enough of the real stuff in a surreptitiously marked barrel to provide a demonstration.

Not that Varric had ever engaged in such a reprehensible confidence game, of course.

Evidently, though, the gaatlock in this take had been the real thing. “At least some, yes,” Nicolette confirmed. “Not all, although we will leave how she deduced this to the end.”

“Of course,” Varric approved. Always save the big reveal for last.

“You see, the man tripped in his tale,” the pretty minstrel went on. “He told her that he had taken it from a warehouse, and later on, from a ship. She corrected him, and he began to get quite surly, asking why she was paying such close attention. Over a series of misunderstandings on her part, he came to the conclusion that she was a spy in the employ of the qunari. While she was distracted, he drugged her drink and then took her to the warehouse at the docks where he had stashed the loot, for further questioning.”

“Classic villain mistake,” Varric observed with a sage nod. “Bringing the hero – pardon me, heroine – back to the scene of the crime to gloat.” And engage in exposition on motive and confess their nefarious plans in full to the one they intended to kill.

Then she threw in a twist. “Little did either of them know that a true spy for the qunari was on their tail, and had spotted the woman’s plight. However, his associates caught her too, and the pair of women woke up in the dark of the storage room, surrounded by barrels.” No need to ask what the barrels contained. “They knew they had to get out, and the spy was quick to find a way; a sharp nail, sticking out from the top of one of the barrels. She freed herself and then the first woman, and the pair of them started hollering until one of the men came to shut them up. The first woman brought a chair down on his head, but then! More started to pour in. They were truly trapped, until the spy pulled a flint and tinder out of her satchel and swore she would send the entire warehouse sky high if they were not allowed to leave. The men argued, the spy struck up a spark and they backed off – but a little too late, for the spark had landed on the floor and caught onto an oily substance slicked there, starting to race towards the barrels.”

This was getting good. Varric tipped his mug up, discovered it was empty, and signaled for a refill without taking his gaze from the storyteller.

“Had all of the barrels been stocked with gaatlock, there would not be that much left of that quarter of Denerim.” A nice bit of logic that also provided a setting. “I believe the thief must have been swindled himself. The two women made it out just in time for the warehouse to go up in a column of flame behind them, sending both of them crashing over the side of the quay and into the water. They survived, however, mostly thanks to their landing. They swam to shore and immediately staggered into the nearest alehouse, quite understandably.”

“That’s always been my response to almost getting killed,” he agreed, taking up the mug that Norah set before him and lifting it in a respectful toast to a tale well told.

“They were lucky to be alive!” Nicolette exclaimed in conclusion. “The two women celebrated it ardently, and parted their ways the next day full of gratitude for their narrow escape.”

The ardent celebration sounded intriguing, but Varric suspected that he wouldn’t be hearing any elaboration on the subject. “I take it storytelling isn’t your only talent?” he asked instead, nodding toward the instrument case that she kept close.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#19
Varric listened intently, offering comment only once – to point out that it was a common mistake, for villains in stories, to bring their victims to their lair or the scene of the crime for the purposes of gloating. Of course, Ahman had not done so to gloat, but more likely to question her as to what she knew. Fortunately she had not been there long enough to find out how far he would have gone until she gave him answers that satisfied. It was one of those thoughts that Nicolette usually kept securely locked away, and she glossed over it as she continued to the part where she and Maeva managed to free themselves and then accidentally blow up the warehouse on their way out.

The memories might have affected Nicolette more had she been telling it as it had happened, but with a little embellishment and the third person narrative, it could have been one of her stock of stories from somebody else’s life, and Varric appreciated it, lifting a fresh drink as a toast when her tale was done. Amazingly he did not seem to have tired of her company yet, and indicated her vielle case. “I take it storytelling isn’t your only talent?”

Nicolette smiled broadly, happy to continue showing off, and opened the case to show him the instrument. She kept it in the best condition she could and despite a few small dents here and there, the wood gleamed in the light of the torches. “Non. In fact, most of the time it is a hobby for me, not how I make my living. My skills lie more with music and dance. Would you like to see?”

The decision was largely taken out of Varric’s hands as a man – one of the ones who had started to turn on her when she was caught manipulating the game, in fact – called out to her, his attention apparently attracted by the vielle. “Give us a tune! Something worth the time,” he added, when she looked in his direction.

Well, she wanted to show Varric what else she could do, and she did owe a few people for not playing an entirely honest game. And even without those encouragements she would have got up to play eventually anyway. She lifted the vielle, smiling brightly, and found the minstrel’s corner of the tavern.

The song she chose was a farmer’s song, about a man who each year saved his money and went to a notable horse race in the Anderfels, betting the total sum and losing each year. Then one year, he received a prophetic dream the day before he set out, telling him that a black horse with a white star crest would win. The song rose with the farmer’s hopes, slowed as it seemed that the horse would lose, and then Nicolette stopped singing as her vielle became the racing music that followed the horse as it picked up speed, faster and faster as she spun about the tavern to a rising roar and the stamp of feet that accompanied her wild dancing and the grins of the people who knew the song. Finally, she reached the end of the frantic solo, and resumed the story in the song.

“Catching horses one by one!
Bridle flashing in the sun!
Eight to go a mile to run, five more left before her
On the straight and down she sped
Left one at the last for dead
Caught the rest and by a head, she came home…
The winner!”


A roar accompanied her as the fast section of the music eased, and Nicolette grinned, basking for a moment as she caught her breath to finish the last verse.

“I came back to my Marcher town a wiser, and a richer man
Never again to chance my arm, across the land to Hossberg…
But lady luck was mine that day, I held her close, went my way
Raise a glass to Kirkwall Bay and the dreams of the Marcher farmer!”


She finished with a flourish on the vielle, and then took her bow. The song was one of the most challenging ones she knew how to play, and with song and dance, it was physically exhausting. Limned a little with sweat, she accepted the coins that were thrown her way and then took her seat again, taking a long draught of her drink as she did so before smiling at Varric, eyes gleaming from the flush of exercise. “That is one of my favourite songs to play, but it is exhausting! Did you enjoy it?”

[[OOC: Nicolette is playing a version of The Galway Farmer as performed by Show of Hands. www.youtube.com/watch?v=mua_PDkqcrs]]
 

Varric Tethras

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#20
Varric had a theory that everybody was born to do something. Maybe it was as simple as baking bread or as grand as building cathedrals, but something. But not everybody was lucky enough to find that something. Varric figured he had found his something: he was born to bullshit, and that was good enough for him. He'd only found a few other people who had found their somethings, and some of them had been unlikely, like the girl that could create astonishingly intricate pictures in a tray of dry sand, manipulating the grains with her hands and a few tools into landscapes, portraits, abstract images of hypnotizing depth, only to wipe her creation away with a brush and begin another. He'd spent most of an afternoon watching her and gone home and spent most of the night scribbling a tale about an enchantress who shaped spells in sand. It was sitting in one of the drawers in his desk, waiting for some time to pass before he reviewed it for another draft.

The veille had suggested that storytelling wasn't Nicolette's only talent – and she was pretty damn good at that – but it turned out that Varric's guess had been a vast underestimation. The instrument that she removed from the case was old, and a bit battered, but obviously given most tender care: the wood polished to a rich gleam, not a hint of dust in the scrollwork.

One of the Antivans, apparently having recovered from his embarrassment at falling for the oldest cheat in the book, called for a tune, and she skipped lightly to the small minstrel's dais … but she didn't stay there long.

She had the audience ensnared by the end of the first verse, her voice a sweet and clear soprano counterpoint to the veille's lively tune. Playing and singing was tricky enough, but then she began to dance; Varric could hum while he was fighting with Bianca, but that was the extent of his multitasking, and he felt a delighted grin spread over his face as her graceful steps kept time with the music and lyrics: faster, then slower, never missing a note, a word, a step. Oh, she was definitely born for this.

The crowd began to clap in time, then stomp, then roared with approval as the lyrics ceased and she spun and whirled while the bow flashed over the strings of the veille, her face alight with a joy that no amount of acting skill could feign as she brought the race to its conclusion, taking advantage of the whooping for a breather before bringing the song to a close.

Applause and coin – both relatively rare for the jaded crowd that frequented the Hanged Man – were awarded and accepted, and then she returned to the table, still smiling and with a light sheen of sweat touching her pretty features, drinking deeply from her glass before speaking.

“That is one of my favourite songs to play, but it is exhausting!” she exclaimed, still beaming, energized by the performance the way Varric was when he was in the grip of a story that demanded to be told. “Did you enjoy it?”

“That's putting it mildly,” he assured her with a smile, lifting his own glass in toast as Norah hustled over, bearing what was likely the first of several drinks on a tray, setting it before the minstrel with one of her rare smiles of approval. “You've got a rare gift, Dancer. Where did you learn to play like that?” You could be born with all the talent in the world and never know it unless someone tapped it at the right time. A few figured it out on their own, but not many.
 
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