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((The successor thread to this guy.))


Annunu straightened from the third report she was working on as the candles were burnt down nearly to the end; a gnawing headache plagued her behind her eyes, and she could barely see the chronometer across the room that indicated it was two or three bells past midnight. She needed a safehouse, she thought dimly. The Duskbreak wasn't the place for this kind of work. The air in her rooms was damp and chilled from bells of inattention to the fire.


She fanned out the three reports. Two were sourced to Agent R, a Midlander man and easily her most prolific source, an information broker in his own right, which meant he was both well-connected and infuriating to coax information from. Such people rarely wanted to divulge their own information acquisition chains, which really was more of a problem than having to pay for it, but R had eventually - begrudgingly - opened up about it, and was a mine of information as a result. Then Agent L, a Duskwight Wood Wailer, was the source of the third. L had five children by three women, and felt the Wailers didn't make nearly enough money; Khamja helped him make ends meet, though of course he didn't really know (or care) who was signing the checks.


She had enough information in for a partially-sourced report from Agent G as well, an Ul'dahn expatriot who lived in Gridania now at the surprise allowance from the elementals. G was one of An's favorites - smart enough to realize why she wanted to know the numbers and composition of Garlean supply convoys, but not bold enough to do anything more with that than passively collect and report. But then, that was all she really was doing herself with her slowly-growing network - collect, write reports, then wait. Perhaps Master Gogonji was selling it, or formulating some greater plan.


She pushed back from her desk and toddled slowly over to the armchair by her bookshelves, pouring herself a glass of wine from a dusty bottle. How long had it been since she'd had wine with Chuta? She hadn't been offered her own sake at the Starlight dinner with the Gegenjis, and so had not been able to partake, but the men had seemed to enjoy it. Her stomach twisted at the memory of that uncomfortable meal.


Much was slowly coming into focus afterwards. Zozonji Gegenji, the family patriarch, had asked her if Master Gogonji was happy. It had shaken her to say she didn't know. Who could know if such a man were happy? Dissatisfaction - ever striving forward - were his hallmarks, a restless drive to know and see and do more his ambition. She had for so long been his right hand, his knife in the dark, his eyes and ears. His happiness had been her primary mission, and yet when the question was asked, she'd had no answer.


So she had approached him with it the evening prior, and he had allowed that he was as happy as could be expected. Well, then, good. Right?


But that answer had left her feeling gnawingly dissatisfied. As had the encroaching thought: what of her own happiness?


She tilted back the wine glass. It had been coming on slowly for moons, really. When she touched his arm or his hand, or leaned closer, or shared her feelings verbally, his responses were irregular, indifferent, or nonexistant. Well, she knew he was not the demonstrative type, that he showed his regard for her in other ways. But evidence was mounting, disturbingly enough, that instead of their relationship advancing as it should given he requested they be married in truth - that things were regressing. The Starlight dinner... she had gone in with her heart steeled to present herself in the most favorable light to Master Gogonji's family.


But instead, the entire meal had been about Chachanji and his girlfriend, Zhara. Zhara had stalked out at one point and had to be chased down - An could only imagine what would've happened had she pulled a similar stunt, but surely it would've lost her respect in Master Gogonji's eyes - and Master Gogonji had argued more that Chachanji's choice of mate be respected than he had that his own was a worthy choice. An passed muster because she was a Lalafell, not for any merits of her own, and had faded into the background for most of the night. Where she'd been hoping to meet her new family, the family that would be hers someday - instead, she had been a pawn in a larger game. Of course, she had shifted her own behavior to support Master Gogonji's goals once she realized what they were - but she felt hollow inside, realizing that she had not been the priority.


That was understandable in the end - save that when she brought it up to him the night prior, specifically mentioning that it had hurt her (words hard for her to say), he'd shrugged it off.


Was she allowed to be unhappy? she wondered. Before, when she felt despair or emptiness at how things were going, she'd just plowed more efforts into the mission. Work harder for Master Gogonji - do whatever he tells you to do - and your reward will be his happiness. That had been her feelings. Now, he had happiness, as much as he could have, but... had she begun to fade into the distance? Was her own happiness a priority?


She shivered, wrapping a blanket around herself. Her bed wasn't so far, but she had no desire to cross the room to lie in a cold, rigidly-made bed. Best to lie in the armchair and sleep here, if she could quiet her mind enough to find rest.


* * *


"She's starting to become a problem," the witch observed, exhaling smoke into the air and then tracing her slim pipe through it.


Garran raised a brow. "She's one of yours, isn't she? Control her."


"I am not the girl's puppetmaster. THAT one is a far harder mark, even if he, too, owes me a debt."


"What exactly do you want me to do about it?"


"I don't particularly care what you do about it. Approach her, or him if you prefer, and remind them - what they owe. Which means they are obligated to turn a blind eye."


Garran's gaze shifted from the witch's face to the impassive, stone-like countenance of her mate. He shuddered inwardly. The Roegadyn was massive, impervious, and yet so deferential to Lt'helo as to make them both all the more intimidating. They were always a united front, which was more than Garran could ever say when he sat here with Ornh or Moro. Of course, Ornh was gone now, and Moro was in the witch's pocket, so that pretty much meant he was on his own. Not surprising.


"I'm surprised you haven't tried to recruit her. She could be useful."


"There's an issue of control, as I said. Break that control and take her if you think she'd be helpful, or threaten her away. Kill her if you absolutely must - but I hate to reave what I once saved. But however you do it, her interference needs to stop."


Garran suppressed a sigh. It was all about those damned crystals, he was willing to bet. "The Scions are going to get involved if you keep this up."


"Let me worry about that," Impact interjected curtly. "You jes' do as yer told."


If only it were that easy. But, Garran thought sourly, it wasn't as if he had anything better to do. He glanced up at the Duskbreak ceiling. And it wasn't as if he didn't know where she lived, either.

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"They called it 'Operation Heavensfury,'" R told her.  "The Embers of Rhalgr were big on fanciful names like that.  It was going to be the one that put them on the map in the Resistance - validated their approach.  Their leader, Shaykh Davram Sandfox, was a priest of Rhalgr and something of a nutjob.  Religious extremist.  Got so paranoid and crazy by the end, he was immolating his own followers because he thought they were spying for the Garleans, or worse.  He used pretty extreme tactics.  Explosive vests fitted onto people he called 'heroes', then they turned themselves into living bombs.  One of his followers, a Miqo'te named Y'asah, had skills making these vests, and that's what really put them on the map.  Suicide tactics turned deadly.  Effective against Garleans, if guerilla warfare is what you want instead of actually taking territory."


An kept her features still behind the gauzy silk veil she wore, her hands poised on her thighs.  She was in deep blue Thavnairian silks, dressed as a courtesan; it was reason enough to meet R in a room at the Carmine Canopy, and the headwrap and veil she wore disguised her features enough that no one would recognize her while R could still tell it was her.  Nothing he was telling her was particularly new - but it never failed to privately amaze her that R could piece together the whole story.  Of course, how he knew was another question.


"They were betrayed in the end," R concluded.  "They had to have been.  The Garleans were ready when they blew a hole in the walls at Ala Mhigo and tried to infiltrate some suicide bombers.  The Sandfox was killed, and they lost a couple of their top lieutenants - Y'asah, Ornh Wolfheart, and Mamluk Kabir.  Though I've heard he's calling himself Garran Heavensfury now."  He rubbed the side of his nose, grinning.  "The Embers used to give their martyrs the last name of the operation they were in as a reward.  But this Garran lived through it.  Doesn't make much sense to me.  Either he was the one that sold them out to the Garleans, or Ornh Wolfheart was, if you ask me."


"What makes you think that?"


"Who else could it be?  Most of the others died."


Not all, of course.  But R's conclusions had been those of many of the former Embers that Master Gogonji had assimilated into Khamja.  They blamed Ornh Wolfheart for the treachery, and for their leader's death.  An was fairly sure he wasn't the traitor, however.  Likely it wasn't Mamluk Kabir, either.  She remembered well the bleeding redheaded Highlander staggering into the heart of the Garlean force, bearing two suicide belts, and the roar of the explosives that had resulted when he had detonated them - as well as the look on Ornh's face when he realized what had happened.  An hadn't thought they would manage to exfiltrate either Ornh or Hannah Blackroad Castille after that had happened.


"And what of your other tasking?"


"Another crystal theft in the Shroud last week," R noted.  "From an Ishgardian shipment headed south for the Gridanians, from what I heard.  Suspicion is on the Ixal at Xelphatol, but they've been quiet since the Scions gave them that beating a few moons ago."  R's ever-present smile turned vicious.  "Of course, I heard it was a redheaded Highlander man and a Xaela female.  But I've been hearing that a lot lately in connection with crystal thefts."


An nodded, reaching to pass a Starlight bag to him.  "A present for you.  Happy Starlight, R."


He peeked inside.  Two bottles of good red wine, and a satchel of coin hidden in the bottom.  "I wasn't owed yet."


"It's a bonus for good information."


"You're so cold, Tupipi," he chided her.  "But I won't say no.  A man's gotta eat."  He gave her a mocking, seated bow, tucking away the bag behind his legs.  "So, you asked me to find another crystal cache - there's one in the deep Shroud that one of my contacts in the Ehcahtl Nine tipped me off to, but if we're not going to do anything about it soon, the Scions will probably handle it."


"Where is it?" An asked, but she already knew.  This information had been previously verified.


R leaned in to show her on the map.  "Here.  I can monitor it for you if you want, or tip the Scions off - or we can try to use it as bait to draw out the crystal thieves."


Such an operation would usually require Master Gogonji's approval.  So it was with an inward flicker of surprise that An heard herself saying, "Let's try that."


R certainly looked surprised too, his thin eyebrows lifting before his face nearly split in two with a grin.  "All right!  Here I thought you were too cautious to actually do anything about it.  I've felt like my reports just go into a black hole sometimes."  He chuckled, rubbing his hands together eagerly.  "About time we finally hit those bastards back where they can feel it."


An permitted herself a small smile at his enthusiasm.  "Just don't overdo it.  I will be in touch soon with specifics."  No need to bother Master Gogonji with the operational details.  She rose from the bed, and R got to his feet as well, bending in close to tuck his fingers under her chin and tilt her face up.


"You should smile more.  You're cute anyway, but it turns you into a real beauty."


He left the room first, and An counted out a quarter bell of the clock before following.  A lone one-armed Highlander sat at a table, painfully out of place and nursing an ale, though if An had her bets it was his third or fourth.  He followed her out, enough to get the side-eye from Miounne, but they were into the safety of the trees in the Shroud before he finally caught up to her.


"Don't be so damn aggressive, Lily," he grumbled at her.  "These games you're playin' are gonna get you in hot water, and I ain't gonna want to be there when Oan blows his top over it."


"Let me worry about Master Oan," An reassured him detachedly.


"And I'd best get an invite to that wedding."

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  • 4 weeks later...

((New year, trying to be less lazy.))


An climbed the precarious stepladder to hover above Wisdom's enormous fishtank, carefully prying open the top.  One by one, she dropped wriggling minnows into the water; Wisdom's enormous coelacanth jaws yawned wide to accept each one in turn, the creature's bulbous, alien eyes staring up fixedly at An - or perhaps the food she held - through the rippling, circulated water of the tank.  An liked to think the creature was warming to her, as much as a fish could, as feeding him was one of the chores she had adopted since settling into Master Gogonji's apartment.


Despite having been "betrothed" for well over a cycle now, and mated for even longer, An had never thought to ask to join him in his domicile, nor to invite him into hers.  Of course, she was not about to give up her space in the Duskbreak, not least because it had been her home now for quite some time and she could guarantee its security, but she spent more than half of the week with Master Gogonji.  The Duskbreak still held her most sensitive files, her tools and poisons, her outfits and disguises that didn't fit in with the "Cherry Blossom socialite" persona.  After all, to a degree, it made sense that "Tmesis Oan" and his fiancee were moving in together so close to their nuptials; the gesture strengthened their cover, even as it strengthened their relationship.  And of course, An hoped for the occasional moment with Chuta, though it had been some time since she had seen him, as well.


But she couldn't lie even to herself that moving into Master Gogonji's apartment had been a source of comfort and relief for her.  They both were given to periods of intense focus on work, work that ran parallel but did not necessarily intersect.  An's job was to present Master Gogonji with intelligence; his was to analyze it and do with it as he pleased, whether to sell, trade, hold onto, or order her to take action upon.  But that didn't necessarily mean they collaborated much on their separate lanes.  An had made the conscious choice to isolate much of the operational work - and therefore, the risks - onto herself.  And that had translated into sometimes long weeks, even moons sometimes, without seeing Master Gogonji beyond the occasional Runestone, when their masks of "Oan" and "Annunu" were firmly on.


"What will it be like to be married, Wisdom?" she murmured, dropping in another minnow for the fish to devour.  "Are you no longer lonely then?"


Her attention snapped back as one of her linkshells rang with a distinctive tapping pattern.  The pattern alone identified both linkshell and sender; it was the red one she held alone for Agent R.  The pattern was his sign of life signal, as well as indicating he was ready to report in.  She carefully detached her other shells from the chain around her ear and tucked them away in a pack.  "Report."


"Got the cache all marked out and ready for the op, princess."


"Thank you.  When do you anticipate will be the most likely time for attempted acquisition?"


"Not sure, but I wouldn't leave eyes off."


"Thank you, R.  I will take it from here."


"What?!  Alone?!"


"You doubt my ability?"


"O-of course not..."


"I will be in touch.  That is all."  She tucked the linkpearl away, ignoring R's protests, and dropped in the last few minnows for Wisdom all at once.  The Runestone this weekend would be a good time to showcase her success to Master Gogonji.  Yes, that would please him.  A smile curved her lips in anticipation as she turned away and slipped out of the apartment, locking up neatly behind her, stepping from one life into the next as Annunu faded once more into An.


* * *


"The witch says there's a large, relatively unguarded cache here."  Garran tapped the map.


Ornh flicked his eyes up to Garran's stoic face, then back down.  "Smells fishy.  Unguarded crystals in this day and Age?"


"You think everything's a trap, Ornh.  Moro and I have fetched dozens of these since you left."


"Well, now I'm back, and I don't like it."


Garran stifled a sigh.  He'd handed back leadership of their little band to Ornh as per the witch's wishes - but he certainly wished Ornh weren't so argumentative about everything.  When he was relaxed and happy, Ornh was as easy a person to get along with as anyone, but when he was tense about something, he had a habit of stubbornly digging in his heels just to show he could and picking the hell out of something like a vulture with a dead carcass.


"There's rumors of fighting at the Wall, Garran."  Ornh balled up the map and tossed it aside, then seemed to think better of it and retrieved it, stuffing the crumpled thing into his pack.  "And here we are doing endless fetch quests for a witch and her muscleman."


"There's rumors of a massacre at the Wall too," Garran pointed out wearily.  "It's not so different from what happened in Ala Mhigo with the Embers.  The Resistance grabbing at the Empire's throat - and having their hand slapped down."  An explosion so brilliant it seemed to blind his eyes just to see.  Bodies littering the ground for malms, blasted magitek armor, scattered weapons.  He choked back a wave of nausea at the half-recalled memories.  Almost six moons ago now, and yet still fresh in his mind.  His hand groped for Ornh's before he could stop it, and Ornh shot him a startled look.


Garran cleared his throat roughly and dropped his hand.  "We saw what happens when you go running into Ala Mhigan territory half-cocked and convinced Rhalgr will save your ass.  This sort of thing - " He indicated the map.  " - is much safer.  It's a known quantity.  It's fetching crystals from beastmen, for the Destroyer's sake, how hard can it be?"


Moro, leaning back against the rear table, smirked slowly, turning her delicate chin in and raising a gloved finger to stroke the ever-present magpie on her shoulder.  Ornh's gaze, narrow and calculating, took in all three of them.  "Alright," he allowed finally.  "But let's see if our fourth wants to come, too."


Garran's mouth tightened at the thought, but he gave a taut nod.  He supposed she'd have to get involved sooner or later.

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