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Red Jenny And The Not So Empty House [Complete]

Celeste Monroe

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242
#1
((18 Harvestmere, 35 Dragon; After sunset; @Adelaide Orland ))

Another night, another noble prig to prank. This time, the target of honor was Barrett Orland: family man, slum lord and all around greedy bastard. He'd evidently squeezed enough coppers to annoy the folk who kept him in his elevated station: the tenants in his leaky Lowtown properties and the servants who catered to the whims of himself and his family. At least one of the latter knew enough about the Friends of Red Jenny to arrange and facilitate a comeuppance … and potentially a more than metaphoric payback.

The Orland clan was bound for a Hightown soiree this evening, and the inside man (or woman) was supposed to have all the servants either off for the evening or attending a card game in the servants' quarters, well away from the epicenter of incipient mayhem. She'd watched the coach depart, then a bit longer to let the card game (and the associated drinking) get under way before making her move.

As with most nobles, it seemed to be expected that the guards would stay outside, lest they dirty the carpets, and it was no trick to slip around them to a back door that was even less of a trick to unlock.

She'd brought her full complement of dirty tricks, tucked here and there in the pockets of her vest, bandannas stowed away, except for the green one used to tie her hair back in a tail that could be quickly loosed in case a quick change of appearance was needed. Three minutes out of sight, and nine of ten people who had seen her run from a scene (not that anything like that had happened lately) wouldn't recognize her if she walked up and asked them for directions.

Barrett Orland was a snob about nearly everything: the finest foods, the best wines, the most expensive clothes. So many targets to choose from. Celeste had already relayed a warning not to eat anything that came from the kitchens in the next few days, so she would start there, then move on to the study, where Important Men conducted Important Business. And then maybe a quick hop upstairs to the bedroom, where there was oh so much potential for entertainment. Too bad she'd left Hubert's undies in Elthina's room; they would have been fun to plant here, but she'd just have to improvise. And if she came across any coin to liberate and redistribute to the folk that Ser Barrett had been screwing out of it, so much the better.

But first, the kitchen. The Orlands were wealthy enough to have white sugar … which, of course, looked amazingly like salt. Simple, yes, but just one of a series of steps that would aggregate until no one would dare consume the food that came out of this room.

Next, the milk, which had been thoughtfully set aside in a cool spot to separate. A few drops of vinegar should do the trick, and since most kitchens kept that on hand, Celeste hadn't bothered to bring any. Just had to find it ...

Humming softly to herself, Celeste crouched to examine the contents of one of the cabinets.
 
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Adelaide Orland

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#2
Addie had learned quite young that pretending to be sick in any overt fashion simply didn’t work. When she had tried to wriggle out of functions she didn’t want to attend by claiming a headache, a fever, or a poor stomach, she had simply been told to pull herself together and where necessary to cover up any pale skin with makeup. She had gone to a number of parties over the years when she had been genuinely ill for the sake of appearances.

Experimentation had finally born a little fruit in her early teens. If she didn’t say she was sick, but looked pallid, her family would withhold comment because at least she was attempting to conform even if her body railed against her. The next step was finding a way of being so abominably, obviously sick that they decided it was better for everybody if she stayed at home. Making herself throw up was a shade too far, and she’d been stumped for a while, but then she’d discovered pepper. A few specks up each nostril about twenty seconds before she reached the entrance hall, and by the time she got there she was red-eyed and her nose was streaming as she hacked everywhere. It worked like a charm, but she had to use it sparingly.

Today had qualified. She had heard rumours that Father intended for her to be seen at this event. Now she was of age, interest was intensifying and it would suit him perfectly if he could engineer a bidding war. But nobody would look twice at a violently sneezing young woman who was all but dribbling on her dress, and he had given her a disgusted glance before ordering her to return to her rooms. He would arrange another event in future as a pretext for the same exercise, but for tonight, she was safe.

And the estate was quiet. The servants were having a party somewhere now that the owners were out, and she wasn’t inclined to disturb their fun. She was quite happy to relax on her own, free in the knowledge that she had the place to herself for at least a couple of hours. Relaxing by a fire with a book and a little carafe of light summer wine was the perfect antidote to her violent sneezing attack.

Except she had forgotten to get anything to eat, and now her stomach was growling. Nobody was hanging around to make pointed comments about bodices and tailors, so why not indulge? She almost skipped down to the kitchen, gleeful in her temporary freedom.

Right up until she got to the door and saw somebody crouched by the cabinets.

Her first thought was that it was one of the servants, grabbing more supplies for their party, but she knew all the servants and none of them had blonde hair in that wild of a mop. Several earrings glinted in the ear that Addie could see.

A thief? No, no thief would go through the kitchen, they’d go for the bedrooms, for gold and jewels. Only a hungry beggar might straight to the supply stores. And the woman, while attired in a style that Addie associated with sailors rather than nobles, was too well-kept to be a starving tramp. But if she was messing around in the kitchen then...

Could she be an assassin?

Addie was tempted to leave. But even if she told everybody later, what if something was taken up to the table the next day by mistake? Or worse, of somebody took some food for the party and everyone got poisoned? She had to stop this, even though every story she had read about assassins chose that moment to chase each other around her brain and she had to stop herself from shaking. Slowly, she reached out for the nearest heavy implement, trying not to make a noise, and her fingers landed on a heavy iron skillet. Wrapping her hands around the handle, she lifted it and fell into a yard she’d learned in the training yard. Hopefully it looked more intimidating than it felt.

“I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I think you should stop.”

Her voice came out wobbling on every note, and she froze with terror as the woman reacted.
 
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Celeste Monroe

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#3
Well, fuck.

One of the disadvantages of mansions was the fucking carpets that muffled approaching footsteps. Not that there should be any footsteps, because the fucking mansion was supposed to be empty, but here was the fucking door to the kitchen swinging open, and this was what you got when you worked with fucking amateurs.

Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck.

Celeste stayed in her crouch, hoping for a last minute change of mind on the part of the newcomer as she turned over options in her own mind. Run or bluff was about it … and she hated running.

“I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I think you should stop.”

The tremulous voice sounded young and female, and when Celeste rose from her crouch, she added 'pretty' to the list and 'very' to the 'young'. Petite, ash blonde and doe-eyed, the girl was dressed in a modest dressing gown and brandishing an iron skillet with an utter lack of conviction.

Think fast.

If she jumped and shouted 'Boo!', the young thing would likely faint dead away, leaving Celeste free to make her escape, but was there a way to salvage the caper?

Maybe.

“'Oo are you?” she demanded in outrage, adopting an exaggerated Orlesian accent on a whim. “I was told thees 'ouse would be empty!” She waved her arms in disgust and cast her eyes toward the ceiling. “'Ow can I do my work properly weeth these eenteruptions?”

What that work would be … well, she was working on that part.
 

Adelaide Orland

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#4
The woman’s head snapped around. Addie saw sharp eyes, and scars, and more gold earrings and Oh Maker she had to be an assassin! Or some sort of criminal, anyway, and Addie gripped the skillet tighter, feeling her heart slamming against her ribs.

She was still a little put out when, instead of acting as though she had been threatened, the woman simply responded with annoyance at her appearance. “'Oo are you?” What the… “I was told thees 'ouse would be empty! Ow can I do my work properly weeth these eenteruptions?”

The accent was so thick Addie could have used it to butter toast. In fact, it didn’t even sound real. Addie had a decent grasp of the Orlesian tongue after all these years, and she had never heard either a native or fluent speaker sound like that. Why adopt a false accent? Unless she was being thrown off by her own terror at finding a complete stranger rootling through the cupboards. Perhaps she might be able to persuade the woman to back off if she responded in kind, or at least distract her long enough that one of the guards might leave the party long enough to overhear the conversation.

“Qui es-TU?” Who are YOU? “C’est ma maison! Vous-êtes un voleur? Un assassin? Pourquoi vous-êtes dans le placard?” This is my home! Are you a thief? An assassin? Why are you in the cupboard?

The skillet, she was realising belatedly, was really heavy. Her wrists were starting to hurt and she wanted to put it down but if she did, the woman might escape – or even lunge for her. What if she tried to silence her to prevent her from giving her description to the guards? Should she just drop her weapon and run?

Trying to steady her voice, she held the skillet out in front of her. “Tu devrais partir. Je…je vais crier à l’aide.” You should leave. I…I will scream for help.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#5
“Qui es-TU?” She spoke Orlesian. Because of course, she did. Because what else did noble Marcher girls have to do with their free time? That and run around in their nightgowns. “C’est ma maison! Vous-êtes un voleur? Un assassin? Pourquoi vous-êtes dans le placard?”

Okay, 'assassin' was definitely in there, and … dance? Didn't seem likely from the way she continued to brandish the skillet, though she seemed a bit confused as to whether it was a bludgeon or a stabbing weapon, jabbing it at Celeste as she spoke again in Orlesian ... the little show-off.

“Tu devrais partir. Je…je vais crier à l’aide.”

'Tu' meant you. You want to party? No, probably not. Definitely should have gone with an accent from a language that she actually knew. Tossing a couple more 'fucks' on the mental woodpile, Celeste doubled down, running through what she knew of this family in her head.

“Oo taught you my langweege?” she demanded in a shrill tone of indignation. “Your accent ees abominable … and you speek eet troo your nose!” She watched the girl as she spoke and let it go after that; she wasn't buying it, and Celeste couldn't help the grin that spread over her face. It was pretty fucking ridiculous, even if the joke was on her.

“You're Adelaide, aren't you?” she asked, dropping the accent as the name of Orland's daughter fell into place, along with a few other tidbits that offered a glimmer of hope for salvaging this caper. And if it didn't work, she could still run. “You were supposed to be gone with your father and brother tonight.” The mother was traveling abroad, the eldest brother dead after being sent away in disgrace for daring to help some of the people that his father was screwing. That was the tale told to the Jennies, at any rate, but servants could be just as big of assholes as their masters, and people with axes to grind had been known to pad their accounts of wrongs suffered to make their plight more pitiable and their targets more heinous.

She crossed her arms and leaned on the countertop. “Why didn't you go with them?” she asked affably. “Didn't want any of the matches they were trying to set up?” She didn't need servants' gossip for that. The girl was of age, pretty, and the daughter of an arrogant ass. He was likely already in negotiations to sell her to the highest bidder. It wasn't hard to summon a sympathetic expression; she'd come close to that fate in her teens.
 

Adelaide Orland

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#6
The woman’s accent was like Orlesian cheese being strained through a sieve. Addie could barely follow what she was saying and every syllable dripped exaggeration. Surely she couldn’t actually sound like that, but then why was she doing it in the first place? How did it help? She simply stared at the other woman in outright bafflement as she was accused of having atrocious pronunciation (and it wasn’t like the intruder was one to talk). Seconds later, her confusion amplified as the woman started laughing, and then spoke with not a trace of Orlais in her voice.

“You’re Adelaide, aren’t you?”

How was that more scary? Why did this woman know her name? The maybe-assassin seemed completely unperturbed by her, which she’d have been insulted about if she hadn’t been trying to keep the skillet aloft. “You were supposed to be gone with your father and brother tonight.”

“Well, I’m not. And you are in my home, so I don’t see why you’re-”

Addie was distracted mid-sentence by the fact that the woman had leaned against the counter, completely casually and obviously utterly unafraid of her raising the alarm. She looked entirely at home where she was, which took a marginal amount of Addie’s fear and shifted it to annoyance. She should at least look a little more worried about being caught.

Yes. Caught. Addie was in charge of holding her here until a guard showed up. Somehow she wasn’t sure if this was going to work out well for her. Thankfully, the assassin-slash-burglar-slash-unwanted house guest didn’t seem to be in a hurry. “Why didn’t you go with them? Didn’t want any of the matches they were trying to set up?”

“How did you know that?” The woman couldn’t just be a random burglar, she knew way too much about what was going on in this house. And then Addie’s grip failed her and she dropped the skillet on the floor with a heavy thud, that attracted no immediate attention from anybody else at all. Wringing her wrists, she stared up with the full expectation that she would see the other woman making a lunge for her. Nothing happened.

She had to keep her here a little longer. And screaming for help might be a good way of getting her throat cut. So she would…talk. Addie massaged her hands, and avoiding the other woman’s eyes. “No. I…suppose I didn’t. I pretended to be ill to get out of it. Why are you here?” Her gaze skated over other open cupboards. “I suppose you’re not here to borrow a cup of sugar?”

Her voice was still shaking but at least she wasn’t trembling quite so much, now.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#7
The girl was indeed Adelaide, and the use of her name had the intended effect, catching her off guard enough that the skillet wavered in the air, though it steadied a bit with Celeste's observation that she was supposed to be out with her father and brother.

“Well, I’m not,” she countered defiantly, “And you are in my home, so I don’t see why you’re-” Seeing Celeste making herself comfortable knocked her for another loop, and the comment about the pairings that her father was presumably trying to arrange in hopes of a marriage that would benefit him made her already wide eyes open even wider.

“How did you know that?” she demanded, the effect somewhat spoiled by the skillet slipping from her grasp and clunking to the floor. She looked from it to Celeste with the expression of a hare regarding a fox, as though the utensil had been the only barrier between her and certain death.

Celeste chuckled and stayed put. “You're young, unmarried, and you have a pulse,” she listed, ticking off the points on her fingers. “That you're also pretty is just a bonus … means he can ask more.” And she was quite pretty, indeed, though from all appearances far more the innocent than Celeste had been at her age. There was some spine there, though; she hadn't run, fainted, screamed or pleaded for mercy – not that Celeste had really done anything to merit any of those – and the sailor could see the thoughts churning behind the blue eyes. She was hoping that if she kept Celeste here and talking long enough, somebody else would come along to handle the apprehension part.

“No. I…suppose I didn’t,” she agreed after a moment, rubbing at her wrists and looking everywhere but right at Celeste. ”I pretended to be ill to get out of it. Why are you here?” Her skittish eyes flitted from cupboard to cupboard. “I suppose you’re not here to borrow a cup of sugar?”

“No,” Celeste admitted readily, “and if you're looking for sugar yourself, I'd try that -” she nodded at the salt cellar, then gave an easy shrug. “They look so much alike, switching them out is almost too easy. I nearly started a war that way once.” A little bait tossed out oh-so casually to what looked to be an inquisitive nature before going back to the subject at hand. “Why get out of it? Got a sweetheart daddy doesn't approve of? Or is he trying to get you to marry some goat older than he is?”
 

Adelaide Orland

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#8
The woman who seemed to have an alarming amount of insight into Addie’s life chuckled as Addie questioned her how she could possibly know her motivations for skipping out of the party she had been expected to attend. “You’re young, unmarried, and you have a pulse. That you’re also pretty is just a bonus…means he can ask more.”

Addie was aware of heat creeping up her face at being called pretty, and was thoroughly annoyed with herself for reacting that way. This woman was a criminal! She had broken into her home to do only Maker knew what, and now she was just leaning against the counter like she owned the place and was talking as though she knew Addie. With no other weapons in her arsenal, and being just a little too afraid to attempt leaving in case the other woman tackled her, Addie had to keep her talking, and admitted that this intruder had the right of it, observing as she did that she doubted that she was here for innocuous reasons.

“No. And if you’re looking for sugar yourself, I’d try that.” The woman was nodding towards the – salt cellar? Why would sugar be in there? “They look so much alike, switching them out is almost too easy. I nearly started a war that way once.”

The questions piled up on Addie’s tongue, each fighting to find their way out first, and she managed an incoherent noise as she tried to sort them out. Of course she wanted to know how one woman could start a war by switching similar ingredients, and she sensed some sympathy in the ‘being sold off to the highest bidder’ situation, and naturally she wanted to know why the heck the woman was here in the first place, switching ingredients in the kitchen. Swapping salt and sugar didn’t seem likely to cause actual poisoning. Before she could voice any of the questions, the intruder had one of her own. “Why get out of it? Got a sweetheart daddy doesn’t approve of? Or is he trying to get you to marry some goat older than he is?”

She had to keep the other woman talking. And in so doing, she could likely enjoy some freeing conversation while she was at it. “He would, if that goat was the highest bidder. As for the sweetheart – no. I don’t think Father would approve of anybody that I might take to.” Because everybody she would take to would be female. But even if she liked men, it seemed unlikely that Father would take her thoughts into consideration when picking out an eligible groom. “I’d prefer not to spend the evening with men making small talk to my bodice while Father has his accountant quickly run up their respective values to see if they can get away with it for long.”

It was also supremely strange hearing her father referred to as ‘daddy’. Nobody called him that.

Addie chewed her lip. Time to take the bait that had been dangled in front of her. “How did you start a war by switching cellars? And why are you doing it here?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#9
Being called pretty sent a cute blush across the fair cheeks; Celeste's offhanded comment about starting a war made those big eyes grow wider, and an adorable squeak of confusion escaped the full lips. She was exquisite, and Celeste didn't doubt that her father was trading on that beauty to secure a marriage that was to his benefit, without the slightest thought as to what his daughter wanted.

Adelaide confirmed it. “He would, if that goat was the highest bidder. As for the sweetheart – no. I don’t think Father would approve of anybody that I might take to.”

“You like bad boys?” Celeste inquired, a smile curving her lips as she added, “Or is it bad girls?” She wouldn't be the first noblewoman to do so, but with few exceptions, such preferences had to be indulged in secret. Girl children were commodities in noble houses, sold on the basis of looks and broodmare potential and taught never to question it.

This one, at least, did not seem to have accepted her lot with complete acquiescence. “I’d prefer not to spend the evening with men making small talk to my bodice while Father has his accountant quickly run up their respective values to see if they can get away with it for long.”

The smile faded, and Celeste regarded the young beauty thoughtfully. “You don't belong to them, you know,” she offered quietly. “You don't even belong to your father. You belong to you.” The knowledge that Celeste had possessed seemingly from birth, much to Reginald Cantwell's discomfiture, was something that other girls were never even allowed to consider. And too damn many of them didn't even have the desire to do so, content to be pampered lapdogs without a thought in their heads.

This one was different, watching Celeste closely as teeth delicately worried the swell of her lower lip. There was a brain behind that beauty. “How did you start a war by switching cellars?” she blurted. “And why are you doing it here?”

Gotcha.

“It was in Orlais,” Celeste replied easily, electing to ignore the second question for the moment. “Two comtessas whose husbands' lands bordered each other were quite well known for being bitches to their servants: abusing them, paying them nearly nothing, piling demands on them that were impossible to meet, then punishing them when they failed … that sort of thing. Their husbands weren't any better: charging outrageous rent on ramshackle properties in the poorest areas of town, refusing to make any improvements, evicting people when they fell even a few days behind, no matter the reason.” This latter wasn't precisely true – it could be, but she'd never checked – but she wanted to see if the girl would recognize her father's assholery … and how she felt about it.

“The two were the best of friends in public, but behind curtains, they were always trying to outdo each other. So when one of them hosted a fancy tea to one-up the one the other had held a week earlier, I snuck in the morning of. Switched salt for sugar, dried elfroot for the tea leaves, added vinegar to the clotted cream for the berries and mixed ipecac into the cream for the tea.”

She chuckled, a look of fond nostalgia on her face. “That was a tea party Val Royeaux didn't soon forget. All the shrieking and squawking sounded like a fox had gotten into a henhouse. The one giving the tea party accused the other of doing it to ruin her reputation, and that one accused her of trying to poison her. They nearly dragged their husbands into it; the empress finally had to step in and tell them both to back down.”

She shrugged modestly. “You want to take a noble asshole down a peg or two, you hit them where it really hurts: right in their dignity and pride. They fear that more than they ever could any physical harm … and it's more fun to watch.”
 

Adelaide Orland

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#10
The woman gave her a look. It saw right into her as the other woman enquired if she liked bad boys…or bad girls. Addie had had nearly a decade to cool her responses to suggestion, and betray no hint of her true feelings. And this woman had come into her home, messed with the spices and then with apparently no effort yanked one of her biggest secrets out of her while barely batting an eyelash. Addie almost crossed the room to smother the intruder’s mouth, fearful that even a mention of the suggestion that she liked women would somehow drift its way to her father’s ear, and then – oh Maker. She’d be married off even sooner. She’d spent a lifetime schooling herself but at a few words from this stranger, she felt her barricades collapse and she stared at the other woman with outright horror.

“How did you-?” No. She couldn’t give the woman more ammunition. She instead quickly switched to focusing on her father using her as a bartering object for a favourable trade deal, and to her complete surprise, the ploy worked. She would have preferred if it was more a ploy than actual fact, but it served to distract the woman enough that she looked sympathetic.

“You don’t belong to them, you know. You don’t even belong to your father. You belong to you.”

“Those are easy words to say, if you are not utterly dependant on others for your livelihood.” She probably shouldn’t be so sharp with the woman breaking into her house, but the words had chafed her. She wanted to be her own person, so badly, but even with Josc’s help she still had to spend so much of each day pretending. She didn’t want to rely solely on the charity of others – when she got out, she wanted to do it with the intention of being able to support herself. And she still wasn’t sure how she might do that.

Anxious to not provoke the other woman’s anger, Addie succumbed to curiosity and asked about the war that had supposedly been caused by a simple swap of ingredients.

Somehow it did not surprise her that it had happened in Orlais.

“Two comtessas whose husbands' lands bordered each other were quite well known for being bitches to their servants: abusing them, paying them nearly nothing, piling demands on them that were impossible to meet, then punishing them when they failed … that sort of thing. Their husbands weren't any better: charging outrageous rent on ramshackle properties in the poorest areas of town, refusing to make any improvements, evicting people when they fell even a few days behind, no matter the reason.”

Addie chewed her lip. Their behaviour sounded somewhat like – no, almost exactly like – what her father did, the practices that Eddie had tried to hard to alleviate. “That…sounds a little like somebody I know. And do not much care for,” she added, hoping it would be clear that she did not in any way approve.

The story unfurled, of the two false friends, and how the woman had ruined their afternoon tea while making the day uncomfortable for a number of their party as well. “The one giving the tea party accused the other of doing it to ruin her reputation, and that one accused her of trying to poison her. They nearly dragged their husbands into it; the empress finally had to step in and tell them both to back down.”

Addie realised, to her horror, that she’d started smiling at the image of two stuck-up Orlesian nobles getting their comeuppance. It wasn’t like the women had poisoned them. But it was still not…ladylike behaviour. Then again, since when was that something she actually liked?

“You want to take a noble asshole down a peg or two, you hit them where it really hurts: right in their dignity and pride. They fear that more than they ever could any physical harm … and it's more fun to watch.”

Addie fidgeted, rolling her fingers around each other. “I mean. Yes, that would ruin their pride. But if they’re angry, might they not take it out on the people around them – especially their servants? My broth – I mean, somebody I used to know used to fiddle the accounts of his father’s books so regular donations were sent to the neediest tenants on the land.” She could barely recall Edwin’s face anymore, but as ever any memory of him came tinged with the pain of his loss.“Although I suppose that wasn’t great either. He…went away. And things got worse.”

Father hadn’t been able to work out how much and over how long had gone out of his coffers to his tenants, but he’d ensured that he’d pushed as hard as he could since then to squeeze every last copper bit from them.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#11
Oh, she'd hit the nail on the head with that guess. Little miss Adelaide went as pale as the sugar (which was really salt) at mention of bad girls.

“How did you -”

“Relax. Who would I tell?” Unsurprisingly, the girl didn't seem reassured and tried to change the subject, laying out her woes of being ogled at by dirty old men while daddy ogled their bank accounts.

She wasn't the first rich girl to experience it, and she wouldn't be the last, but when Celeste reminded her that she wasn't property, she got huffy.

“Those are easy words to say, if you are not utterly dependent on others for your livelihood.”

“I was once,” Celeste replied, then shrugged. “Now I'm not.” She'd been lucky in finding Daniel, but even after she'd run off with him, she'd not simply warmed his bed. She'd learned everything she could about sailing and fighting and smuggling and trading. “You're as dependent as you let yourself be. Daddy's taught you to read and write and keep household accounts along with your Orlesian lessons, right? All the skills that a good wife needs to help her husband outside the bedchamber? There's your start, but you can learn other things, things that mean that you don't have to depend on any man – or woman – to make your way.”

As Celeste had hoped, her tale of starting a war by switching sugar and salt piqued the girl's curiosity, and her description of the women and their husbands struck a chord.

“That…sounds a little like somebody I know. And do not much care for,” she murmured uncomfortably.

It fit more nobles than not, which was why Celeste never wanted for entertainment while she was in port. When she finished her tale, Adelaide looked torn between approval and apprehension.

“I mean. Yes, that would ruin their pride,” she agreed, “But if they’re angry, might they not take it out on the people around them – especially their servants? My broth – I mean, somebody I used to know used to fiddle the accounts of his father’s books so regular donations were sent to the neediest tenants on the land.” She had caught the slip of her tongue, but she couldn't quite hide the pain that the mention of her brother caused her. “Although I suppose that wasn’t great either. He…went away. And things got worse.”

“Worse for you, too, yes?” Celeste asked her gently. “They're going to do what they do, little one. They don't need an excuse; they take it out on whoever they want because they can. The people around them have no choice but to take it or lose their jobs, but seeing the bastards get some comeuppance can make it easier to take.” She pushed away from the counter and stepped closer to the girl, holding her gaze.

“I'm not here on a whim; somebody in this house asked me to be here, and they also asked that I spare you from any serious mayhem.” She shrugged. “But I'll leave it to you. Say the word and I'll leave now. You can put the salt and sugar back to rights, and it'll be as if I was never here.”

She cocked her head, a faint smile curving her lips as she added, “But if I stay, I could probably teach you a few things.” Reaching out, she plucked a palmed sovereign from behind the delicate curve of an ear, letting her fingertips brush lightly along Adelaide's neck before drawing back and presenting her the coin with a flourish.
 

Adelaide Orland

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#12
The woman told her to relax (easy enough to say) and then said she was her own person (even easier words). Addie refuted them, and the woman countered her easily. “You're as dependent as you let yourself be. Daddy's taught you to read and write and keep household accounts along with your Orlesian lessons, right? All the skills that a good wife needs to help her husband outside the bedchamber?” Addie acceded this with a nod, as annoying as it was to make any sort of concession in this argument. “There's your start, but you can learn other things, things that mean that you don't have to depend on any man – or woman – to make your way.”

Addie was not so quickly convinced. The woman’s words had sway, but it wasn’t like Addie could just wander up to a shop and offer to do their accounts and earn a job on that merit. Besides, if she went running, she was not so sure that Father wouldn’t send somebody after her to drag her back. She’d never tested his patience. Doing so now could cost her everything. Instead, she chose to let herself be drawn into the war of the seasonings.

It was a compelling story, but had flaws as a method. Addie knew of few ways to circumvent the worst practices, and mentioned that things had only got worse for the Orland’s tenants after Father had discovered what Edwin was up to.

“Worse for you too, yes?”

Addie didn’t nod. True, things had been worst because Edwin was gone. And since then, she’d had a sense of people…watching. Apart from Ria, there was not one single person in this house she could trust not to rely her movements back to Father, and so every action, every breath, since then within the walls of the house, had been heavily guarded. Only at the ball, and on her very occasional secret excursions beyond the walls, did she relax. “I don’t matter as much. I have food, and a roof over my head, and I don’t have to think about my meals, except making sure I don’t eat too much. I’m better off than most.”

“They're going to do what they do, little one. They don't need an excuse; they take it out on whoever they want because they can. The people around them have no choice but to take it or lose their jobs, but seeing the bastards get some comeuppance can make it easier to take.” The woman walked towards her, and Addie forced herself to remain exactly where she was. She would not concede one inch to this intruder.

“I’m not here on a whim; somebody in this house asked me to be here, and they also asked that I spare you from any serious mayhem. But I'll leave it to you. Say the word and I'll leave now. You can put the salt and sugar back to rights, and it'll be as if I was never here.” The woman smiled at her in a manner not dissimilar to Josc. “But if I stay, I could probably teach you a few things.”

Fingertips grazed her ear and Addie leaned into the touch, just for a moment, and before she could pull herself away the woman was pulling back, a glinting gold coin between her fingers that Addie could swear had not been there before. With a deft twist of the wrist, the woman presented her with the money. Addie stares at the money, her brain churning.

On the one hand, she should raise the alarm, somehow. The woman had broken in and freely admitted that her only reason for being here was mayhem, and contracted to it, no less. On the other…she nodded towards a separate pantry, towards the back. “That space is reserved for nobles and visiting guests. Nothing for servants or guards. It may be a better target – anything else could end up ruining a good meal for people who work down here, too.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#13
There was spirit in the girl, but it seemed in imminent danger of being crushed into the kind of self-effacing subservience that too many in the nobility considered 'being a lady'.

“I don’t matter as much,” she claimed when Celeste asked if the 'worse' included her own plight. “I have food, and a roof over my head, and I don’t have to think about my meals, except making sure I don’t eat too much. I’m better off than most.”

“Better than most hounds in the kennel, maybe,” Celeste retorted. “Or a bird in a cage. Maker's balls, you can't even eat what you want? Is that really all you want from life? To be sheltered and fed as much as someone else thinks you need to eat?” If it was, she'd leave the girl to it, but she didn't think so. She had just never been allowed to consider the possibility of anything else.

She held her ground as Celeste approached, listening to what the sailor had to say. The unexpected brush of fingers along her neck clearly surprised her, but instead of flinching away, she leaned ever so slightly into the contact. Not a sensual response; the wistful expression on the girl's face suggested that she did not often experience even casual touches.

Celeste didn't rob cradles, and she wasn't going to start here, but the temptation was strong to steal this woman-child away before her father succeeded in smothering the spark of life in her. It wouldn't work unless she wanted to go, however, and since Celeste did not have anywhere to take her besides a ship that couldn't sail, there wasn't much point just yet.

She could offer Adelaide a choice, however, so she did, watching as propriety warred with rebellion in the pretty face.

Rebellion won out.

“That space is reserved for nobles and visiting guests,” she said at last, nodding toward a door in the rear of the kitchen. “Nothing for servants or guards. It may be a better target – anything else could end up ruining a good meal for people who work down here, too.”

“Good idea.” Celeste gave her an approving smile. “But if the servants and guards get off completely, that casts suspicion on them. Small stuff in here: salt for sugar and vinegar in the clotted cream. Save the really fun things for the other pantry. Care to help?” she offered in a deliberately offhand manner. “I could show you how it's done.”
 

Adelaide Orland

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#14
The woman continued to berate Addie’s living situation, throwing in a colourful blasphemy that had Addie covering her mouth in shock. She had heard the guards occasionally curse and once in a while one of the servants would get hurt, and they would swear, but she had never heard anybody make reference to the Maker’s…anatomy. She realised that if it hadn’t been couched in a chastisement of sorts, she almost certainly would have giggled.

Then again, she didn’t think the Maker was likely to approve of anything in this situation. The woman sauntered close, brushed Addie’s ear, and produced a coin, before offering the option of actually having a little fun for once that did not involve a book. Interest piqued, Addie suggested the pantry that was reserved solely for the use of the upper echelons of the household.

“Good idea. But if the servants and guards get off completely, that casts suspicion on them.” Oh, that was smart. That was really smart. “Small stuff in here: salt for sugar and vinegar in the clotted cream. Save the really fun things for the other pantry. Care to help? I could show you how it's done.”

This time, Addie didn’t even hesitate – she’d already suggested ruining food that she would likely have to eat herself to throw off suspicion, and while the situation didn’t match that of dancing with Josc in the middle of a crowd they were using to camouflage themselves from Father and Sterling, there was a similar illicit thrill. She was being naughty. After so many years of being a perfect daughter (save from surreptitious manipulation in order to put off potential suitors), the thought of doing something so subversive was just fun. “Yes. Please? I’d like that.”

She waited for the other woman to start, fidgeting a little again as she did so, but less out of fear this time. The notion of waiting for guards to arrive had almost entirely gone by now. “I used the pepper earlier. Up my nose. So it looked like I had a streaming cold.” Why she had just shared that? Because she wanted to impress this woman, who looked completely at home in a house she’d broken into. Maybe it wouldn’t seem that clever, although it had worked.

What’s your name? You don’t have to tell me,” she added, quickly. “But I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#15
Reading people was one of the things that Celeste did well, but she missed the mark on occasion. This time, though, she'd been on the money; Adelaide didn't even take time to think over her offer to teach a few useful life skills before responding, “Yes. Please? I’d like that.”

Celeste grinned at her. “All right, then,” she said, starting toward the rear pantry, trusting her new apprentice would follow.

“I used the pepper earlier,” Adelaide told her. “Up my nose. So it looked like I had a streaming cold.”

“Nice trick,” Celeste replied approvingly. The simple ones were often the best. “If they insist, a few drops of ipecac in some water will have you hurling up what looks like everything you've eaten for the past week, but it will leave you feeling a bit wiped afterward. The pepper wears off fairly fast.”

“What’s your name?” Adelaide asked her curiously, hurriedly going on, “You don’t have to tell me. But I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Celeste.” In for a copper, in for a sovereign, and the girl had gotten a good enough look at her to give a description to the authorities if it came to that … which meant making sure it didn't. “So …” She glanced around at what she had to work with. “Salt for sugar; it's easy and effective.” She pulled a small muslin bag from one of her many pockets. “Replace the tea leaves with elfroot; tastes nasty, but won't do any real harm. If you're wanting to really make things lively, a bit of dried blood lotus in the mix instead works nicely; nothing like a bunch of snooty high-society ladies stoned off their asses." She chuckled. "Really releases the inhibitions; half the time they wind up in bed together, the other half, it ends in a catfight.”
 

Adelaide Orland

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#16
She’d won some approval from the lady (why was she even looking for her approval anyway?), by mentioning the trick that had freed her from obligation this evening. In exchange, the woman taught her another. “If they insist, a few drops of ipecac in some water will have you hurling up what looks like everything you’ve eaten for the past week, but it will leave you feeling a bit wiped afterward. The pepper wears off fairly fast.”

Addie nodded, the attentive student. “Hopefully I would not have to go that far, but to get out of marrying the sort of person my father would approve for me, I would take it and throw up on said man in front of half of Kirkwall.” That was not the sort of thought she ever expressed out loud and she was taken aback by her own daring. When she’d met Josc, it was as though the woman had unlocked a cage around her heart that she’d kept sealed all her life – and now all it took was a tiny bit of temptation for her to fling the doors open and express any thought that she felt like airing. It was terrifying. And not a little liberating.

She asked the other woman for her name.

“Celeste. So…salt for sugar; it’s easy and effective.” Celeste pulled a bag from her pocket. Addie eyed it with interest. “Replace the tea leaves with elfroot; tastes nasty, but won’t do any real harm. If you’re wanting to really make things lively, a bit of dried blood lotus in the mix works nicely; nothing like a bunch of snooty high-society lades stoned off their asses.”

Addie was already giggling, and then Celeste added further detail. “Really releases the inhibitions; half the time they wind up in bed together, the other half, it ends in a catfight.”

Addie had to clasp both hands over her mouth, staring at Celeste as her shoulders shook with laughter. When she had regained control of herself, she wiped her eyes. Oh. Oh, I might have found that – a little salacious, but then I thought of some of the old ladies I have to have tea with once a week while they fuss at me about marriage and I don’t think I am ever going to unsee that.”

Imagining Martha Adelbrant in a passionate grip with DeLise Du Lancet was an image that Addie hadn’t wanted at all, but it was still somehow very funny. Even better was imagining the two ladies, who alternated between being the very best of friends and unsubtle sniping, pulling each others’ hairnets off and throwing teacups at each other.

She was going to have to really struggle to make it through the next afternoon tea she attended. But at least she could amuse herself, for once – maybe she could even take the lesson to heart, as long as she arranged it so she didn’t end up being the target of either a hair-pulling or an amorous clinch. “Blood lotus. I might experiment with that.”

Salt and sugar, elfroot and tea, blood lotus. Addie took mental note as diligently as she did in her lessons, and she beamed openly at Celeste, the dimples in full effect. “What else?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#17
Adelaide looked intrigued, though less than enthused, at the suggestion of ipecac. “Hopefully I would not have to go that far,” she remarked, “but to get out of marrying the sort of person my father would approve for me, I would take it and throw up on said man in front of half of Kirkwall.”

“That just might do it,” Celeste agreed, leading the girl into the other pantry and beginning her primer on culinary mayhem. Her description of the effects of blood lotus finally overwhelmed the prim and proper facade, and she laughed until tears ran down her cheeks.

Oh. Oh, I might have found that – a little salacious, but then I thought of some of the old ladies I have to have tea with once a week while they fuss at me about marriage and I don’t think I am ever going to unsee that.”

Celeste chuckled. “The older ones always seem to be the ones to have the most extreme reactions. All those years of holding everything inside, I'd imagine.”

Pure mischief danced in pretty, blue-grey eyes, and it was lovely to behold. “Blood lotus. I might experiment with that.”

“Start with small amounts … no more than a pinch in a cup,” Celeste cautioned her. “Too much and they start to hallucinate. Things can get messy quickly.” She'd heard of people getting killed as a result of their delusions: trying to fly off of third floor balconies, diving headlong into blazing hearths … that sort of thing.

“What else?” Adelaide asked her with an enthusiastic smile.

Celeste cocked her head, considering. “If you just want to put someone to sleep, put a few drops of this in their drink.” She withdrew a blue glass bottle from another pocket. “Have you ever tried putting something in somebody's drink on the sly?” she asked, knowing the answer already. Taking a goblet from one of the cupboards, she filled it with water, then demonstrated how to palm the tiny bottle and pour from it with a deft pass of her hand. “You try,” she offered, holding out the bottle. This particular trick might help the girl slip away from an unwanted suitor if the pepper and ipecac did not provide sufficient deterrence.
 

Adelaide Orland

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#18
Celeste warned her against no more than a pinch of the blood lotus, and Addie took the note to heart. Especially when warned it could cause hallucinations. She wouldn’t mind seeing some of the stuffy older ladies losing a bit of the dignity they held so dear, but actually causing them to get hurt wasn’t really something she thought she’d enjoy. Nonetheless, the anticipation of even a little light mischief was enough to make her happier than she’d been in some time, and she asked the other woman for further details.

She really should be finding out who had asked Celeste to interfere with their food in a non-lethal manner, but all thought of investigation had been put aside in favour of learning a new skill or two. She could always try and find out later, but at this stage she honestly did not care.

“If you want to put someone to sleep, put a few drops of this in their drink.” Celeste produced a small blue glass bottle that looked exactly as Addie would expect a vial of sleeping solution to appear. “Have you ever tried putting something in somebody’s drink on the sly?”

Addie shook her head. “I mean, I’ve occasionally had to put elfroot in my ferret’s water if he’s sick, but he definitely noticed me doing it.” Ilya had coiled his way around her arm and refused to go near the water until she replaced it. In the end she’d had to just pour a solution down his throat, earning her a few days of disapproving wiggling and refusal of all treats.

Celeste took a goblet out, filled it with water, and then passed her hand over it. Because Addie was looking in exactly the right place, she saw the liquid fall from Celeste’s palm into the water, but if her gaze had been aimed anywhere else at all she would have missed it altogether. “You try.”

Addie took the bottle, chewing her lip in concentration, and tried to clutch her palm around it without folding her fingers, passing it over the goblet. She managed to pour some in but the movement was a little slow and she suspected she’d put in far too much. “Can I try again?” Then another thought occurred. “Wait, what was this going to go in?”

The query was put forward with eager curiosity. If it had ended up in Father’s dinner and he’d fallen asleep on his plate, she’d have treasured the memory for a long time.

A gentle whuffling, squeaking noise alerted her to the fact that they were no longer alone. Ilya shimmied his way into the kitchen and climbed the back of Addie’s dress, popping over her shoulder to sniff at this new person. “Ilya! Meet Celeste.” She smiled. “He doesn’t much like my brother, either.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#19
Adelaide listened attentively to Celeste's warning about blood lotus, the shine of anticipation in her eyes suggesting that she had already come up with a way to put her newfound knowledge to the test. She looked utterly fascinated when Celeste pulled out the little blue vial.

Of course, she'd never slipped someone a mickey finn. “I mean, I’ve occasionally had to put elfroot in my ferret’s water if he’s sick,” she explained, “but he definitely noticed me doing it.” She watched while Celeste demonstrated the way of it, made a predictably clumsy attempt of her own when Celeste invited her to try and dumped the rest of the potion into the water

“Can I try again?” she asked eagerly, then a mix of curiosity and consternation washed over her features as she asked, “Wait, what was this going to go in?”

“Nothing,” Celeste replied, stepping to a nearby window, cracking it open and tipping the water out onto the bushes below, since if anyone accidentally consumed the contents, they'd likely be out before they could set the glass on the table and stay out for three days. “I always carry some with me, though, just in case.” She patted the vest with affectionate pride, then refilled the glass and set it back on the counter. A bit more snooping turned up some food coloring that she added to the now empty vial. “Now try it,” she said again, passing it back to the girl and watching with satisfaction as her subsequent attempts grew a bit more deft each time. “Keep that one to practice with,” Celeste told her when it was empty again, sending the red water out the window to join the other stuff.

She tensed as the door opened ever so slightly, but nobody appeared, and a soft chittering and the scratch of tiny claws on stone preceded the appearance of the aforementioned ferret, who clambered up his mistress' dress and peered over her shoulder, button eyes bright and whiskers quivering with curiosity.

“Ilya! Meet Celeste,” Adelaide introduced them with a smile, adding, “He doesn’t much like my brother, either.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ilya,” Celeste greeted the creature, extending a hand for it to sniff. “Not many people like your brother, from what I gather,” she remarked. Sterling Orland was almost universally loathed, in fact, save for a small cadre of his fellow noble heirs-apparent, with whom he routinely vied for the Biggest Asshole title. “Should we pay a visit to his suite next?”
 

Adelaide Orland

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#20
Addie concentrated on the subtle handling of the vial as closely as she’d ever paid attention to her lessons, and her patience was rewarded; it became a little easier each time, and after a few attempts Celeste handed over it over for her to keep after it had been emptied out. Addie tucked it into the pocket of her robe, and then they were joined by Ilya.

It had taken her a little while to warm to her pet. He had been gifted to her by Mother after Eddie had passed away, with the overt implication that he was to be a replacement for the brother she had loved so dearly. The implication that anything could fill the void that Eddie’s death had let her with had frozen her towards the small animal at first, but it wasn’t in her nature to take out her frustrations on anything, and she had found him comforting after a while. She had especially warmed to him on realising that he was the culprit who had relieved himself in Sterling’s favourite boots.

Celeste took the introduction in stride and greeted Ilya in just as civil a fashion as she might have done a human, earning her yet more warmth from Addie. Addie couldn’t imagine how this might have gone had anybody else been sent to carry out Celeste’s job – they might have hurt her to keep her silent, regardless of instructions from above. She certainly wouldn’t have expected this.

“Not many people like your brother, from what I gather. Should we pay a visit to his suite next?”

The thought poured icy anxiety into the pit of Addie’s stomach. She disliked Father and feared him sending her off to marry somebody she hated, but that was as far as her feelings went. She was actively afraid of Sterling, and the loathing that had followed with realising that it was him who suggested they have Eddie’s funeral without her had never quite dimmed. She wanted to make him uncomfortable, she really did, but if he even slightly thought it might be here…

She realised she had forgotten her mask and her fear had shown naked on her face. She rearranged her features, and steeled herself. He was out. He wouldn’t blame her, but… “Could we do something in such a way that he would have to blame himself for it? He is very unkind to the servants, and there have been…happenings, in the past, with those who have greatly upset him.”
 
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