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No Good Deed【Complete】


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"This is contraband," the Brass Blade snarled.


"I have no idea what you're talking about," the smuggler replied.


The Gate of the Sultana wasn't particularly busy. It was a late morning as the sun had begin to reach its zenith. The chocobo hitched to the wagon was starting to get particularly agitated; perhaps it too could sense the irony of the situation. 


Nero was smuggling in every senses of the word, true. None of the goods in the wagon had been subject to taxes or tariffs. No authority had inspected his unmarked crates. Some of the goods, particularly the rarer potions, had been stolen or fenced to him. Even so, his cargo manifest was more or less completely honest--food, medicine, supplies that he had brought to distribute to the refugees and the poor in Pearl Lane--and so too was his merchant's seal from Limsa Lominsa. In short, everything was in perfect order, and Nero should have been on his way into the city.


Either his luck had gone rock bottom or the Twelve had a sense of humour, for it was with this shipment that the Brass Blades chose to engage in their daily brand of corruption. First was the "entrance fee" for using the Gate of the Sultana, supposedly for the maintenance of Hammerlea--the guards must have been quite proud of themselves for coming up with that excuse--and even when Nero had paid them, they decided to do a "random inspection" of his wagon, and had then decided upon its contraband status.


It's not as if the Brass Blades were necessarily wrong on the assessment, after all. 


The Hyur pinched his nose and sighed, his earrings jingling softly. Just his luck. He didn't have the pull or influence in the city to stop them, and he had come alone with no guards, not that he could order his guards to cut down Brass Blades anyway. If he had to guess, they were planning on selling these goods to the bandit gangs within the city, or to the refugee camps outside the walls at extortionate rates. It was good to know that the wonderful Jewel of the Desert still had such capable law enforcement.


With guards like these, who needs criminals?


"You would do well not to cross those I work for," Nero said, attempting to bluff his goods back to his possession as he crossed his arms. It was a long shot, but if it's stupid and it works...


The Brass Blade who had declared his cargo contraband, a Roegadyn, scoffed at him.


"You weren't on the list. We would have known." A list? So the guards knew who they were supposed to let in without harassment. Probably some design of the Monetarists. Nero filed away a mental note to get his name onto that list somehow; it might mean cozying up to the Monetarists, but having his mostly legal goods taken by the Brass Blades was far too expensive of a cost to deal with more than once.


"I'm a late arrival," he said, shrugging. The Roegadyn just growled at him, and while Nero was typically more than happy to antagonise people who insisted he stop running his mouth, he wasn't interested in beating down the Blades or having a rib broken, and so he acquiesced to the Blade's silent threat.


There was nothing Nero could do but let the guards take his goods. Beating on them would do more harm than good--the Blades were known to hold grudges--and Nero's generous offering of gil to let him pass unscathed had been denied, with the Blades having the audacity to make claims to their integrity, even as they started hauling the crates away. Clearly they thought they could profit off these goods more than just a bit of bribery. 


Thus was it that Nero was left at the Gates of the Sultana with no wagon, no goods, and an expression of annoyance on his face. All in all, a wonderful start to a day. At least the guards had the good grace to let him into the city.


The smuggler was dressed surprisingly modestly, given his usual flamboyance. He still had his jewelry; a golden choker, elaborate, if slightly tarnished earrings, obsidian bracelets streaked with silver, but he was adorned in a simple cotton doublet vest, black trousers, and leather jackboots. Internally he grumbled and fumed, his hands jammed in his pockets as he paced up and down the Emerald Avenue, considering what to do next.


He had no viable contacts in this city yet, and the smuggler dare not risk contacting Taeros about this. Simply letting the Brass Blades have his goods was out of the question. If he couldn't get his goods back, he at least needed to have some manner of leverage so that the Blades wouldn't harass him for his cargo ever again. In short, being empty-handed was not an option.


Perhaps that woman...Roen could help him. She was a former Sultansworn, and at the moment, the closest thing to a friend he had in Ul'dah right now. Nero did have a few clients in the city, but his relationship with them wasn't such that they'd be willing to cross the Brass Blades for him.


Roen, however, was easy to manipulate. Almost too easy. All Nero would have to do is tell her that the supplies were for the poor and downtrodden, spout some nonsense about good deeds, blah blah blah. Whether or not she'd actually be able to help was another question entirely, but given her penchant for justice and other such hollow idealism, she'd latch onto his cause faster than a drowning man latches onto rope. And having someone watching his back would be worth it, even with the price of being forced to deal with her annoying ethics.


There was a risk involved, as there usually was with everything, but Nero would deal with that when it came up. If it ever came up.


The problem, however, was that the two of them had never explicitly worked out a way to keep in contact without a link pearl, and Roen didn't seem to have the one Nero gave her. Were this Limsa Lominsa, Nero would have plenty of runners or couriers at his disposal, and he was well-known to the fishermen and the beggars who served as his eyes and ears. Were he to pay someone in Ul'dah, however, they were just as likely to simply wander off with the money as they were to actually accomplish the task he wanted them to, and what gil Nero had, he would need. She had mentioned spending some time with the refugees who'd been forced into squalor just outside the gates. If there was one place to start, it'd be there.


The first place he started looking was Stonesthrow, just outside the Gates of Nald. Nero did not ask the locals, but if Roen was here, she would notice him. It was hard for most people to forget the fiery orange streaks that ran through soot black hair. As subtly as he could, Nero peered at the faces of the poor wretches forced to live in the refugee camp, hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of the one he was looking for.

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"There. How does that feel?"


The Highlander child looked back up at her, his dark skin starkly offsetting sky-blue eyes which shone brightly under the Thanalan sun. He could have been no older than six cycles, and yet there was already a hint of keen wisdom in his eyes--a wisdom born from the hard life of a refugee. He inspected his arm where the cut had been, his small lips pursed in scrutiny. When he turned back to her, he bore her a bright smile. “All better!”


“See, Sayer? There was nothing to be scared of.” Roen grinned back at him, her hand lightly playing with the beads that were woven onto the ends of his blonde braided locks. Even in poverty, the Ala Mhigans took painstaking care to display their heritage proudly. Sayer was a malnutritioned, nearly emaciated boy, but none would ever mistake him for anything else than a child of Ala Mhigo. And perhaps it was because of that proud and stubborn heritage that Roen had been able to goad him into letting her use conjury on his infected cut, despite his distrusting nature of magic. It also helped that he knew her from her days of patrolling through the camps as a Brass Blade, when she came upon him being bullied by older bigger children. They ran as soon as they spotted her, and she had made a friend that day when she shared her lunch with the small child.


“I said I wasn’t scared,” Sayer reminded her quickly, his face scrunching up with protest. He hopped down from the box they were both seated upon and held up two fists, bouncing lightly on his feet. “I’ve been gettin’ better! And now those boys come at me, I’ll be ready fer ‘em!” He threw a couple of air punches in her direction and showed off his fiercest look.


Roen laughed and held up her hands. “I surrender!” When Sayer paused with a beaming smile, she reached into her satchel and withdrew a wrapped package. “Here is some dried meat and an orange, fresh from La Noscea!”


Sayer’s blue eyes went wide as saucers as he snatched the package from her hand. He peeked inside the cloth wrapping to make sure of the contents within -- suspicious boy he was -- before he blinked back at Roen. “For me? And ma?”


Roen nodded. “Aye, go share with your ma.” She watched with a contented sigh when the boy scampered off, eager to show his new prize to his mother. Roen’s smile slowly faded as the small figure disappeared into the dusty throng of Stonesthrow, as more gaunt figures blocked her view.


"Have you ever looked into the eyes of a child, begging her mother not to sell them to a noble? Have you never seen that same mother hoping dearly that the noble might grant her child a worthwhile life, all the same hoping her child is not beaten too severely in the noble's house?"


His words echoed in her memory as her attention drifted from one refugee to another. A crying babe in a woman’s arms. A man huddled on a thin rug laid on the ground. Another emaciated girl trying to stoke a fire under a pot of watery stew.


There was a kind of hopelessness that weighed upon the shoulders of every person she looked upon, like thick metal links of quiet despair that chained their strength and their spirit to the ground.


Roen thought she knew the adversity they faced. But it was not until Nero spoke those words, his expression darkened with bitterness, that she realized she had never fully bore witness to their plight. Now her visits to the refugee camps were colored in a new light, as if she was seeing things through a newly focused lens.


Sayer will never have to beg his mother. Not if I have any say in it.


Was that why she was here? To visit that child? To share the small meal that was her lunch? And offer her conjury to whomever needed it? And what good were her efforts, when they were still but drops in a barrel?


But that was why she had agreed to an alliance with a smuggler, was it not? Nero Lazarov had openly admitted he was a criminal, after all.


It was because she believed his words that he wanted to better Ul’dah. She had tailed him in an effort to gain evidence against him and Jameson Taeros, only to find out that he too was plotting against the Monetarist noble. They even collaborated to lure Taeros into a trap and catch his men with illegal contraband, but that became complicated when Nero’s crew was not able to get away, and his first mate was wounded and arrested, along with Taeros’ men.


Roen wondered if the contraband was enough to arrest Taeros. Both Natalie and Coatleque seemed to believe Taeros’ side of things when it came to the somnus affair--his claim that he was being framed and that he had nothing to do with her poisoning. But Roen could not forget that he was responsible for disgracing three Sultansworns, and for trying to lure Gharen out to be killed. And Delial had linked him with the Garlean woman Banurein. Roen was determined to find the truth behind Taeros, with or without anyone’s help.


But in investigating him on her own, the clues had led her to Nero. Roen could not discern his true motivations; she knew nothing about the man. But she could not help but be drawn by his desire to better Ul’dah, to fix what was broken, even if his ambitions to oust the Monetarists from their seat of power seemed impossible and foolish. And as she sat amongst the destitute and the sick, Roen could not deny that this was a greater need. Perhaps Taeros is only the first step.


Roen sighed and rubbed her eyes, unsure of what to do next. But it was then that she spotted a figure that she did not expect to see. His black hair streaked with that strange orange hue was unmistakable. The long forelocks hid his eyes, but she recognized Nero easily enough.


She rose from her seat and dusted herself off, wondering if he was here on his own business. Either way, she had promised to give him an update on his First Mate, Daegsatz, so she headed towards the man.

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Nero stiffened in apprehension as he felt someone approaching him, but the cautiousness turned to some measure of relief when he recognised Roen's neatly arranged auburn hair and slender face. By a guess, she must have been caring for the refugees here. It was gratifying to see that her compassion was genuine, but it was also worrying. Were Roen's soul a colour, one might have seen it as a shining white light of nobility, but he could see the fading lustre, the dimming gleam. Whether she knew it or not, her resolve had cracks in it.


It was strange. He scoffed at her for her belief in ideals, for her belief that the world was fair. His world had never demonstrated such even-handedness. In Ul'dah, the ones who knew didn't care, and the ones who cared didn't know, or at least didn't know enough to change anything. Breaking the law was necessary; results were what mattered. Balking at the means only delayed the achieving of one's goal. And even as he derided her naivete, he held an earnest hope for it as well.


Nero knew just how far he was willing to go; he knew his limits, as any man must should he wish to exceed them. He was not so confident that Roen possessed the same insight to her own determination. 


But if that became an issue, it would reveal itself in due time. There was no point in fussing over a broken window before the glass had been formed.


The smuggler gestured towards her with a slight wave of his hand and a flash of his trademark smirk, his earrings chiming softly as he tilted his head. "I should become a fortune teller if I managed to predict you being here," he said jovially, placing a hand on his hip. He wasn't willing to admit it, but Nero was glad he managed to find her without much incident.


"Do you think there's room for 'fortune tellers of the evident and obvious'?" He waved a hand in front of his face slowly as a gesture of mysticism, imitating the voice of an old hag in a stereotype of fortune tellers. "'In the morning, the sun shall rise, and in the eve, it shall set!' That's my pitch. Good, right?" His wide grin became somewhat toothy at his joke, but diminished as he tapped the side of his head above his left ear.


"I was trying to contact you, but someone forgot their linkpearl," the Hyur said, his tone a cross between amusement and annoyance. "I had something...important to talk to you about. It has nothing to do with the other day," Nero was add to quick the addendum, "but it is something I can't take care of alone."

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Roen furrowed her brows slightly, although a grin did threaten to rise. She could see that the resentment and the determination that had burned in Nero's eyes the last time they spoke had been replaced by a cheery disposition, and that roguish smirk was back in place.


"Fortune tellers of the evident and obvious." She canted her head as she echoed his words with a note of skepticism. "Next thing you are going to tell me is that it is going to be hot tomorrow?" Her own amused smile gave way to a rueful expression soon enough. "Ah. The linkpearl. Apologies." She dug through her satchel to withdraw the small box he had given her. She opened it and plucked out the pearl from within, inserting into her ear. Although when she glanced back at him, she made another face, realizing the futility of the effort now.


“Anyroad…” Roen said sheepishly as she looked around, rubbing the back of her neck. She was familiar enough with the refugee camps, enough to know the pockets within that she considered safe from prying eyes and ears. Roen and Nero had been careful enough not to be seen within the city together, at least to keep up the pretense that he was still a smuggler for Taeros. But now, she was not so sure where the Limsan pirate stood with the Monetarists. She gestured toward a pathway that would weave around a few tents, leading to an isolated alcove of trees. It would be just enough removed from the crowd for a private conversation.


“I saw Daegsatz this morn.” She said quietly as she passed by him, giving him a reassuring nod. “He seems none worse for wear. Although I think he prefers his own bed to that of the gaols.” She left it that that, for there were no other news. Natalie and Coatleque were still looking for Taeros to interrogate him, and until they did so, Nero’s first mate had to stay put in the dungeons. “But he sends his regards,” she added after a pause. It was not quite the Sea Wolf’s exact words, but the sentiment was there. From what little she could gather of the smuggler and the Roegadyn, she could see that the two cared for each other’s welfare.


Roen stepped onto the path, looking about cautiously, then waited for him to follow.

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The smuggler couldn't help let his grin expand at her embarrassment. "So you can be quite charming, even if by accident," he commented idly in the same way one would remark upon the weather. In response to the message she passed from Daegsatz, he provided a wordless nod of thanks. Satz was a Sea Wolf through and through; one would naturally be hesitant to define "landsickness" as a legitimate feeling, but if one person could suffer from it, it was Satz. Nero made a silent prayer for his friend, knowing how uncomfortable the Roegadyn must be in the gaol.


He trotted along the path Roen had gestured towards in silence before eventually coming upon a surprisingly secluded copse of small trees. Thanalan, the savannah that it was, was not terribly prone to sprouting patches of greenery like this innocent-looking thicket; typically the flora were the massive, thick-trunked trees that usually dotted the landscape or hardy shrubs. As both a secluded meeting place and a possibly romantic picnic, this location was fairly ideal.


From here, the ramshackle little huts and tents that the refugees had constructed were still visible. It was with no small measure of pity that Nero found his gaze drawn to the shanty town. "To have no option but to live such squalor," he remarked more to himself than to Roen, his voice barely above a whisper. Though his trips to Thanalan had become more frequent, the sight didn't become any easier to witness. 


In a sudden fit of uncharacteristic self-consciousness, Nero gave a brief yet rapid shake of his head, once again replacing his mask of joviality. He wasn't grinning, but his lips were still slightly creased rigidly in an expression of nonchalance. "But I said I had something important to talk to you about, and I do." The Hyur folded his arms. "I ran into some...trouble. With the Brass Blades. They confiscated some goods of mine."


The corner of his mouth scrunched in a manner that suggested he was suppressing a frown. "Ordinarily, I wouldn't come to you about this, for obvious reasons," Nero continued, "except that the supplies in question were for the refugees. Food and medicine, some spare clothing to keep out the night chill, some leathers for them to repair their tents. Essential things. And as luck would have it, the Blades at the gate labelled them as contraband and took them, most likely to sell on their own to the bandits within the city." At the memory that had happened just this morning, the smuggler let loose a sigh before glancing at Roen. His cargo did contain some more clandestine products, but Nero wasn't about to tell her that.


"I'd like to get them back. Failing that, I'd like to take care of these Blades so that I can make shipments without issue. And I've no contacts here willing to cross the Blades for these refugees besides you." It was with equal measures amusement and guilt that Nero noted how easy it was to rope the paladin into his schemes. Her eagerness at such things was almost frightening.

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The shade provided by the small alcove was a welcomed respite, and the trees provided just enough barrier to keep much of a dusty winds that roamed the barren landscape at bay. It was where she came to find some moments of solitude when she patrolled as a Brass Blade. It allowed her to see the beautiful sunsets that would brilliantly paint the sky every night, but also lent her the view of the towering walls of the Jewel--as well as all the people those walls kept out. It was a stark reminder of where her duties lay.


The fact that Nero’s gaze also came to linger on the poverty... it made her pause. His stated intentions to help those that the city had tossed aside and rejected were clear enough; he spoke of his desire on more than one occasion, and today he sought her aid for it. She would never reject such a request for help, of course, but of late she had learned not to simply take everyone’s word at face value.


So why then did she believe this man whom she barely knew anything about? It was because of those rare moments--those small points in time when that lighthearted veneer faded just for an instant, to allow a glimpse of the somber and almost sorrowful man underneath. That side of him never stayed on the surface for long, but it was just enough for her to trust her instincts. Even if she suspected that there was a part of him that sought some kind of personal gain in all this, whether it be--power, profit, or even revenge--she had made up her mind to help him when she shook his hand many suns ago.


“Brass Blades…” Roen nodded as she pondered over the details of his dilemma. The news of his goods being confiscated did not surprise her one bit. “I know one who may help us. I used to be assigned to his unit. After I was…” she paused. Some memories were still difficult. She started again. “After I left, I heard that he had himself transferred to work with Brass Blade of the Rose.” Roen gave Nero a sidelong glance. She hesitated in mentioning that Broken Nose, the Roegadyn Brass Blade that she was speaking of, was also part of the raid that got his First Mate arrested. She had called upon some Brass Blades that she considered allies to help with the arrest of Taeros’ men.


Roen could still remember the look of sympathy that Broken Nose bore her when she returned after her incident with Captain Anduron. The Roegadyn changed her assignment from inspecting caravans, to patrols amongst the refugee camps. He made sure that she reported to him rather than the unforgiving Captain, and they even exchanged quiet words a few times at the end of their shift. She learned that he was a lowly born citizen of Ul’dah, working to make a life for himself. Once he had been ambitious, but now he just wanted to survive day to day; he followed, as expected, the system of extortion and bribery that was the everyday expectation of any Brass Blade.


But Broken Nose finally admitted that she did not belong with the Blades, and that he did not always agree with the Captain’s way of doing things. Yet there was some measure of pride within the Roegadyn of being a Brass Blade, and after her departure, that pride led him to join with Lalafellin Blade, Fufulupa, and the Brass Blade of the Rose.


“I could ask my contact to see where we might be able to find your property.” Roen tapped her lips in thought. “If we can catch the goods in a storage area before they are sold to another party, we may be able to recover them.” She gave Nero another sidelong glance, her brows drawn low with warning. “But I am not willing to kill any Blade, Nero. Corrupted or not, those Blades would still raise their swords against any Amalj’aa.”


Roen turned to face him, searching the man’s sky blue eyes to try and see the man she was speaking to. Was it the ambitious and ruthless smuggler? Or was it the man who, she hoped, wished for some righteousness to prevail? She was almost expecting him to argue for violence. It was the quicker and perhaps the easier way. But the right way, was rarely ever easy.


“If we can find where they are stored, and stop the transaction, we can let Broken Nose and Fufulupa know of them," she finished quietly. "The Brass Blade of the Rose can handle it internally.”

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Nero met her eyes with his own, that characteristic twinkle of amusement serving as a veil to a steely and studious gaze. It was with some humour that the smuggler noted how incapable of being dishonest Roen was; her expression was always a forthright reaction, and the knight could be read quite like a book. She paused at one point in her assessment, which was not surprising, given her past. The Brass Blades must have counted her among their number at some point before the Sultansworn did, and the idea of having to associate with them again must have drawn forth some unpleasant memories.


The smuggler inhaled, considering his words carefully. There must be a way for him to be in position to retrieve his goods personally. Roen might take his word at face value, but her companions in the Brass Blades might not be so easygoing--they were, after all, being used ostensibly to retrieve contraband. If they were as righteous as the young woman in front of him, there remained the risk that they would not be so trustworthy.


Nero wasn't worried about being seen associating with the Brass Blades. In fact, if he were to make any progress in Ul'dah, that was to be expected, for the Blades as a whole were more or less another bandit gang funded by the Monetarists. Dealing with them was to be expected. However, were he to be seen associating with a Sultansworn, even a former one, it could potentially tank any options he may be considering to expand. It was also rather problematic that Roen continued to keep in contact with her other fellows in the Sworn. With a certain grimness, the memories of the botched raid at the Silver Bazaar flashed to the front of his mind.


One issue at a time. The smuggler will deal with those knights later.


"I've no intention of slaying any of them," Nero replied, shaking his head, the gaudy earrings chiming in response. "Doing so would draw too much attention, and the Blades are known to hold long grudges. If they don't find me, they may end up taking their aggression out on the populace." His contention with the idea of killing Brass Blades was made more out of a sheer sense of pragmatism than out of any genuine moral qualms, but so long as it reassured Roen as to his intentions, it didn't matter.


At Roen's suggestion, however, skepticism painted itself clearly across his face. Brass Blade of the Rose? That must have been some sort of internal splinter group within the Brass Blades themselves, but the smuggler wasn't keen on revealing his ignorance on the subject.


"Not that I don't believe in your choice of friends, Miss Deneith," the Hyur said; in lieu of a nickname he was comfortable with giving the knight, he reverted to formality. "but given what you know of me, you can hardly expect me to simply let them settle it by themselves." It was bad enough that Nero had to leave the Taeros situation in the hands of the Sworns for now. Standing on the sideline was not his typical method of operation.


"Simply retrieving my goods won't be enough," Nero added, leaning on one leg. "Complex prevention is always more effective than a simple cure. I need a way to transport goods in and out of the city without having such annoyances happen again.


Nero brushed back his hair, the smirk spilling its way on to his face. "I mean, not that I don't like having my goods confiscated in their entirety by corrupt city guards, despite the fact that they're all more or less legal," The smuggler's amused tone enveloped his voice like velvet. "It's rather quite thrilling to be caught every now and then. But if I'm to be caught, I'd rather it be by an enraptured host of Miqo'te dancers. Chainmail and swords aren't really my type." He punctuated his statement with a shrug.

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That smirk of his never wavered. It was the smuggler she was dealing with.


Of course, it is. Roen reminded herself, dismissing that slight tug of disappointment in the back of her mind. She nodded, at least relieved that he was not intent on ‘taking care of the Blades’ in any lethal fashion. Nero seemed to know them well enough to know that they did hold grudges. She was hunted down for desertion at one point after all.


“Well, if you do not want to go by the legal means of outing the corrupt Blades who confiscated your goods, and you wish to continue to transport goods in and out of the city…” Roen crossed her arms, her head bowing in thought as she searched her memory. “You need to get on a list. I never saw it myself, but Broken Nose and other higher ranked Blades had one. It was given to those who conducted caravan inspections.”


“I assume you are not on that list?” The paladin peered back up at the smuggler. “Or least… not after that raid.” She grimaced, the reminder of what did not go right with that arrest still a salt on an open wound. She shook her head quickly as if to not dwell on it. “What are you proposing then?”

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Nero gave a bemused shrug. "I never said we couldn't use legal means," he said in a conciliatory tone. "They have their uses. And if I didn't want to use them at all," he wagged an index finger, gesturing between himself and Roen, "we wouldn't be speaking. I'm merely suggesting that we play the game with more than one angle. That is why you decided to ally with me in the first place, isn't it?" Because you know the law won't work. The smug thought was very close to forming into speech, but Nero managed to repress it. Another debate on philosophy was not ideal in the current situation.


"So first off, the goods. I may have expressed my doubts before, but my doubts do not equal disapproval. Your friends...Broken Nose, was it? And another who I am assuming to be a Lalafell. I will take you on your word that they are capable enough. Mayhaps it will be a mutual gain if we became familiar with each other." Nero stepped back and leaned on one of the trees that made up the copse they were speaking in, his arms still folded. The Thanalan heat seemed to grow more oppressive, and he was grateful for the shade.


"I believe your initial plan of action was a sound one. Locate the goods, stop the transaction, and if we're lucky we'll be back in time to give these refugees a decent dinner and some new clothing. And having your Brass Blade friends investigate internally can't hurt our chances." The smuggler then unfolded his arms, letting them fall to his sides.


"And you are correct; when they confiscated my wagon, the guards had mentioned something of a list. No doubt their employers keep track of who will keep their vices supplied. Getting my name on that list would certainly help," Nero raised his left arm, the palm of his hand facing upward. "or we could make the list unnecessary." He then raised his right arm, his hand taking on the form of a fist.


His smirk had taken on an eerie glow. "If we reach whoever is in charge of maintaining the list, we can eliminate him. And no, I don't mean murder. To be honest, simply stabbing people is terribly unimaginitive and not very effective of a solution." Nero dipped a slight nod at Roen. "Taking a man's life is merely one of many ways to kill him."


Without even waiting for a response, the smuggler tilted his head upward to gaze at the branches of the trees and let his arms fall to his sides again, letting loose an exasperated sigh. 


"But let me guess. You want to do this the right way, by pursuing the bandits legally and putting them in jail, for if the corrupt Brass Blades have no clients, then they'll have no reason to confiscate goods to sell them in the first place, and by extension whether or not my name is on the Monetarist's list of delivery boys won't matter. Meanwhile, your fellows do some internal investigating, nothing bad happens, they punish the corrupt Blades with time in the gaols, the good triumph, the evil suffer, the innocent are spared, blah blah blah." Nero mockingly spun his left hand in circles as a gesture of his disdain, cocking an eye at the paladin. "It's not that I don't think it will work, it's just that I don't think it will work.

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“I… that is not what I…” Roen sputtered, feeling sudden heat rising to her cheeks. She stopped abruptly, and found herself staring incredulously at the man. Her lips parted as if to say something, then shut tightly as she calmed the indignation that burned her insides.


He is mocking me. She thought as she narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. She knew that Nero thought her naive and her ideals impractical. But strangely enough, more he tried to prove that things like justice and fairness were abstract and useless, more stubbornly she clung onto them. She would defend them out loud, even if a part of her knew that the world was not fair; far too many eluded justice, especially in Ul’dah.


“As you said, if I was not going to consider any other means, you and I would not be talking.” She threw his words back at him. She heard her own voice starting regain some semblance of control, and for that she was glad. She was certainly not going to let this smuggler shame her into denying her beliefs or thinking her hopes were foolish, even if his words made them sound like simple stories told to a child.


“And of this list maker. He must be in regular contact with his employers. For him to maintain the list, he must get his orders from someone else. More Monetarists? The Syndicate?” Roen shrugged at him with a pointed look, as if challenging him for answers. He thought her naive, she wanted to know what ideas he had to offer. A part of her recognized then that he had gotten under her skin more than she’d care to admit. She paused and took a breath in and let her arms fall back to her sides.


“Getting rid of that list altogether is not a bad idea.” She sighed and acquiesced before he could respond, no longer a tone of exasperation drawing tension to her jaw. “How do we get rid of it without his employers being any wiser?”

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The smuggler pursed his lips in thought, even as he tried to repress a grin from emerging at the paladin's indignation. For all of his ambition and ruthlessness, there were few things in this world that gave him more pleasure than the knowledge that he had successfully antagonised someone. Part of it was pragmatism, for if he was capable of hitting the nerves, so to speak, it put him in a position above them, a position that his ego quite enjoyed. The other part was just plain amusement.


It was the small things that mattered.


Nero folded his arms, tilting his head slightly as a slight wind seemed to cause a rustle in the copse of trees. "There are a few ways to do this, not all of them easy," the Hyur stared at the ground for several long seconds before glancing up at Roen. "If I had to say, the most surefire way would not be to explicitly destroy the list, per se...it would be a forgery." The smirk streaked itself across his face in the same way that lightning streaked itself across a night sky, though the smuggler's smug expression at having an idea was far more permanent than the appearance of lightning.


"We obtain a copy of the list, and find someone who can forge a modified copy of it. I may know a few people...though it'll require a lot of gil." Nero shrugged. He always knew that a venture like this could be expensive, but it didn't change anything. "Then we find this list maker. We can rely on your Brass Blade friends for that; they'll trace the route from inside the Blades to find out who's creates the list."


"Who employs that list maker doesn't matter, whether it be the Monetarists, the Syndicate, or the Sultana herself. Hells, even General Raubahn could be getting in on the action," the smuggler gave a nonchalant shrug. "What does matter is how we spread our forgery to the guards, in which case we could try reaching out to the list-maker." The smuggler tilted his head from the right to the left instead, like a pendulum.


"If he has family or something else we can use to blackmail or threaten him, we can obtain some manner of leverage. Or," cue the head tilt from left to right, "and this is my preferred method; we simply swap in our forged copy for the one the list-maker receives from his employers. He'll distribute our forgery for us, his employers remain none the wiser, and everybody wins."


Nero gave a small jump forward from the tree he was leaning on and spread his arms out grandly, as if he were presenting the opening act of an illusionist. "This way, nobody hurts anybody, we get what we want, the good triumph, the evil suffer, and the innocent are spared," Nero echoed his past mockery, giving a slight bow at the end.

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Now he is just trying to push my buttons.


Roen was not going to give him the satisfaction. She maintained her best placid expression, the edges of her lips pulled tightly to hide a frown. But she never was good at deception, she knew this. A part of her expected him to see right through her pretenses despite her efforts, and that only annoyed her further.


Trying not to look annoyed when every senses prickled with irritation was harder than she thought. Although, there was a small part of her that found the whole situation comically ironic. After being kidnapped, imprisoned and poisoned, it was a smug smirking pirate of all things who would test her patience. It actually felt refreshing--in that infuriating sort of a way--just to be irked, without some enormous weight of dread and despair pressing down upon her shoulders.


Roen quickly set that musing aside and turned her focus to the plan instead, pondering on what to do next. Working with the smuggler did not mean she had to like him or that they even had to get along. His ideas had merit and it would avoid needless violence. If things went smooth, they could potentially spread the wealth to allow other honest merchants some reprieve from the Blades taxation and entrance fees.


She secretly wanted to find a flaw in his plan, just for argument’s sake, but she could find none. She had to at least admit that Nero seemed to know what he was doing. She found that a little annoying too.


“I can introduce you to Broken Nose.” The paladin cleared her throat, breaking the silence that had fallen while she considered his plan. “He can likely get a copy of the list for us, and point out who they get it from.” She squinted up at the midday sun, although it was not the brightness of the sky nor the searing heat that made her frown. She recalled that the Roegadyn Blade in question had been there for the arrest of Nero’s crew.


“I doubt he would remember you from the raid,” Roen murmured under her breath. She was fairly certain that none who had accompanied her--Natalie, Kage, Coatleque, nor Broken Nose--actually saw Nero there long enough to be able to recognize him. His crew had been quick to make their retreat in the chaos that ensued, although Daegsatz suffered an injury that delayed his escape. So long as Broken Nose did not know that Nero was the missing captain they were looking for, their meeting would stay uneventful--and perhaps even be profitable for both sides.


“Then your people can forge a new list, and we just have to switch it out with the original without anyone else knowing.” It sounded simple enough when she said it.

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Nero clapped his hands together, letting out an overly dramatic exhalation at Roen's acquiescence. "Ah, the obstacles that can be overcome by working together. Brings a tear to my eye, it does." He sniffed and pantomimed rubbing his eyes, before plastering his trademark smirk all over his face and winking at the paladin.


"Are you...pouting?" The smuggler teased as he detected a frown attempting to clumsily crease its way on to Roen's face. Nero recalled that the paladin had never had to deal with this side of him before--the smuggler had cracked some small jokes in her presence before, but for the most part every occasion in which they've spoken to each other had been serious conversations that came uncomfortably close to revealing aspects of his true personality. Now that the melodrama had been mostly resolved--at least for now--Roen would have to contend with the flashy, arrogant mask that the pirate wore everywhere else he went.


Nero raised an eyebrow and a chuckle, making a few steps toward her, his gaudy earrings chiming with every other step. It was with endless amusement that he peered at the Midlander's slender face; the smuggler noted that this was the first time he had really taken time to pay attention to Roen's face. His smirk widened. "You can be rather cute when you're annoyed. You should keep that look. It'll be useful for when you're looking for a suitor," Nero remarked, his tone taking on a flirtatious edge. "'But before that..."


In two long strides that could almost be classified as leaps, the Hyur reached the trees behind Roen; the shrubbery that marked the border of the copse rumbled with panic as Nero's arm shot out like lightning and seemed to pull something from the brush, which he casually tossed into the middle of the thicket like a sack of potatoes.


It was a child, an Ala Mhigan boy. He was a thin thing; he didn't look as terribly malnourished as many other refugee children, but the child was far too spindly to be considered of decent health, his dark skin seemingly stretched just slightly too far across his frame. The burlap tunic and trousers he wore sagged around him like drapes. He couldn't have been older than eleven or twelve, though it was difficult to tell with the rags.


The child scrambled to stand up and make a run for it, but Nero pounced on him like a coeurl, pinning the boy's back to the ground by pressing a forearm firmly across his chest. The boy flailed his arms and legs, but the smuggler's grip was unrelenting. He had noticed the boy creeping on the outside of the copse for only a few minutes, but it was enough. 


Shrubbery can't rustle when there's no wind around, after all.


"Eavesdropping is--agh--eavesdropping is impolite, you know!" Nero said, grunting as a wayward kneecap made contact with his back. He couldn't help but let out a small laugh as the boy gradually ceased his struggling, a look of terror in his eyes. What was so humorous about the situation Nero couldn't say...or perhaps he simply didn't want to say. Vail would have been very amused to see this sight, to say the least.


"We're not going to hurt you, kid. Just stick around and let us talk for a bit and you can go home with a bit of gil, yeah?" Nero's smirk had subtly morphed from the smug expression he wore to Roen, to a genuine and warm grin. He turned his head to glance at the paladin. Let me do the talking, he mouthed silently to her, before refocusing his attention on the boy.


The boy's terrified gaze, like that of a rabbit caught in a snare, didn't cease. "I'm going to let you sit up, alright?" Nero said slowly, almost in a coo, as if he were calming a wild animal--a metaphor which was not entirely inaccurate. "Stick around and talk with me. My name's Nero." Gradually he began to loosen his forearm from the boy's chest, careful to sense whether or not the boy was getting ready to bolt. The boy seemed to stop resisting for the moment, so Nero pulled the boy into a sitting position with his other hand, kneeling in front of him.


The boy's face was rather gaunt; hazel eyes tried to hide themselves beneath a mop of sand-coloured hair. Nero's smile never left his face as he patted the boy's shoulder. "I'm Nero. Do you have a name?" the smuggler asked, his tone as warm as the sun that had just passed its zenith in the sky. Despite his friendliness, Nero's left arm was positioned in such a way that he could grab the boy if the latter tried to run. Even with children, complacency wasn't an option.


"L-Lancel," the boy managed to stutter out with some effort. The characteristic jingle of earrings tinkled softly as Nero nodded. "Lancel. A good name. What were you doing around here, Lancel? If there's something you need, maybe we can help." There was a long silence before the boy glanced towards Roen and pointed weakly at her.


"She...Sayer said she healed 'im. I-I wanted..wanted to get 'er to see my pa." Lancel's voice gradually begin to smooth the stutters out of his sentences. "He broke his leg...a Hammerbeak while he was out huntin'..." The Ala Mhigan boy gulped, as if expecting a refusal. Nero's smile grew softer, as he patted the boy's head.


"Of course Miss Deneith will help your father. I will too. Come on, up you go." The smuggler stood and pulled the boy up; Lancel was light, far too light for a child of his age. It was a subtle but grim reminder of the conditions he had been forced to live in.


Nero pointed at the shanty town and patted the boy's back. "Go to your father; we'll be right with you." Hesitantly, Lancel began to trot back to to the collection of huts and tents that made up the refugee camp as Nero shot a glance in Roen's direction. "You and I will go into the city...there are some things we'll need. After we take care of Lancel," the smuggler added, before staring at the retreating back of the thin boy. "And...um, maybe...well..," Nero seemed to struggle to say something, his usual confidence having evaporated at the worst time as he rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment.


"Nevermind, we'll talk later," he said quickly, cutting off his own inquiry. Nero shoved his hands in his pockets and stepped past the paladin to make his way towards the refugee camps.

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Roen followed Nero and the boy back to Stonesthrow in silence. She stared at the smuggler’s back every now and then as he traced the boy’s steps, the youngster having ducked around a few shacks and tents in his urgency to lead them to his father.


Odd. That was a good word that befit the man, she thought. No. Exasperating, that is a better word, she corrected herself.


For the short time that she has known the smuggler named Nero Lazarov, she had seen too many sides to the man. When she had tailed him in Pearl Lane, he was a cautious businessman. Then when they spoke alone in the caves near Black Brush Station, he had been a determined crusader, steadfast in his ambitions to drive out the Monetarists and better Ul’dah. It was this same driven man she saw again after the botched raid in The Silver Bazaar, except anger had fed his zeal and made him even more resolute.


But today he was a different man altogether. Antagonizing, sarcastic, and so deliberately jovial it made her teeth grind. And yet his pompous smile and self-centered attitude were quickly dismissed in the presence of that boy; Lancel had seemed terrified of him after being caught. Was he just capable of turning on that kind of genuine air about him whenever he needed to win someone over? Or was that a glimpse of the man underneath that he rarely let out?


Roen wanted to believe the latter, but prepared herself for the former. She still trusted her instincts in that she believed he did truly wanted to help Ul’dah, no matter how he acted. And that is what is really important, she reminded herself.


It was then that she spotted Lancel, beckoning both of them toward a small shack. Giving Nero a quick glance, Roen ducked inside first, her eyes blinking as it adjusted to the dimness of the unlit cabin. There against the wall lay a man in ragged hempen tunic and trousers, one side of his pants ripped open to reveal a swollen and strangely bent leg within. The paladin frowned, recognizing the nature of the break below the knee. The man’s bloated skin was a sickly purple, and Roen knew his bones had been crushed, blood bloating beneath the skin over ripped muscle and tissue. It was more than just a simple fracture.


“Pa!” Lancel crouched near his father, rousing the lethargic man awake. “I brought her, pa! The Sultansworn. She can heal you!”


Roen gave a gentle smile to man who looked at her, his eyes glazed with pain and confusion. Kneeling by him, she gently squeezed the man’s hand in reassurance. “Shh. I know conjury. I will heal your leg. But you must stay still,” she said quietly. She glanced over to the boy with another warm smile. “Lancel, can you find your father a long stick? Something he can use as a cane after I am done?”


Lancel blinked his wide hazel eyes and nodded, eager to help. He darted out of the shack. It was only after she watched the boy exit that Roen turned to Nero.


“I will need your help to hold him while I set his leg. It may hurt a bit, but it will make his leg heal better.”

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Nero nodded his acquiescence wordlessly, all the while carefully concealing a certain incredulousness. He'd obviously heard of the Sultansworn before--tales of paladins in shining armour, defenders of Ul'dah's sovereignty, righteous and mighty. The smuggler had never actually seen them practice conjury, however; he had assumed that the story of the paladins having skill in magic had been fictional, an exaggeration with which to enamour the populace.


Admittedly, Nero knew little about conjury. He'd only ever been to Gridania once, and that was such a brief visit that he might as well have never stepped into the city at all. What he did know from his training as a thaumaturge, though, was that learning to manipulate aether was never a case of talent or inborn skill--it required dedication and careful study. To devote oneself to such rigorous application of both sword and sorcery was something to which the word "admirable" felt woefully inadequate. Though Nero's ego wouldn't allow it to expand too far, he did begin to feel a certain amount of grudging respect for Roen, naivete and all.


The smuggler grimaced, flipping the ramshackle door to the shack closed, as he positioned himself to kneel perpendicular to the man against the wall. With a sense of practice, Nero held his left arm across the man's chest, just below his collarbone, and his right arm across his thighs. With a knee he pinned the man's right hand to the ground to prevent any flailing.


Nero lifted his hand briefly to tilt the man's head to face him. "Look at me," he said softly, gesturing to his face, his earrings, the gaudy streaks of orange in his hair, anything that might distract the man from the ordeal to come. "Guess you don't see many people like me around, huh? Focus on the contrast." With a finger, he tapped his head where the black locks met the fiery orange ones, before giving a small jerk of his head to provoke a jingle from his earrings. "Focus on the sound." The man didn't nod, but Nero noticed that his irises dilate in an attempt to focus on the smuggler's directions.


Nero returned his right arm to pin down the man's legs, clasping the unfortunate man's left hand, as Nero nodded at the paladin to begin.

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“Apologies,” was the only warning she gave. Roen grabbed the man’s leg and pulled.


She heard his sharp gasp of pain, but she knew not to let his discomfort distract her now. Her grip was firm on the lower leg as both hands curled around the ankle and pulled it straight, allowing the jumble of broken bones to settle into alignment. One hand holding the leg in place, she shifted slightly to reach for Nero’s hand--the one placed on the man’s thigh--to move it down further, towards the knee. The man’s leg was jerking somewhat involuntarily from the pain.


“Hold his leg here, and push.” Roen put her weight on top of his hand for a moment, as if to press her point. Then with the leg secure and still, she brought both her hands over the crushed shin and began to conjure.


Roen always felt a sense of tranquility whenever she called upon the aether, as though she was awakening another sense that had been asleep. Her skin tingled as the soothing green energies materialized from thin air, delicate tendrils of glowing aether dancing and coiling around her fingertips. She pressed her palms flat against the man’s black and blue skin, and felt the warmth of the healing magic suffuse his battered leg. She closed her eyes and inhaled slowly; she could feel the bones begin to fuse together, aided by the weave of aetheric energies. The swollen limb slowly began to flatten, regaining some of its original shape, although the purple color remained.


Whether it was the conjury or Nero’s firm hold on the man, the patient became silent and still, only his shallow breaths filling the silence of the cabin. The faint green glow faded as Roen exhaled, her hand sliding off the man’s leg. Her shoulders slumped slightly with fatigue, though she was used to it after healing any extensive wound. She lightly touched Nero’s hand on the leg and gave him a nod to indicate that he could let up on the man.


“Your leg is going to need a couple of suns before it can bear your full weight.” Roen said quietly as she leaned back, her eyes studying the patient. “I suggest you get some rest, and use the cane your son is soon to bring you.”

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Nero could only guess at the process happening beneath the man's skin, but from Roen's assessment, he supposed that the leg had more or less been recovered. The paladin looked tired, as if she had donated some of her own energy in the conjury. Her neat auburn hair had taken on some subtle signs of unkemptness, and her shoulders sagged a bit after the procedure.


At the paladin's indication, he lifted his arms off from the man, as the door to the shack creaked open, with Lancel standing in the doorway. The boy looked rather pleased with himself, if rather tired and covered in dust that matched his matted hair, bearing his grand prize. It was a solid-looking branch, about one ilm thick. As fate would have it, it did not end in a convenient Y-shaped nock or curved end, as such discoveries usually did, but it would serve its purpose as a walking stick well enough.


"That's a good find," Nero said, letting out an impressed whistle. He stood up and rubbed the boy's head. "Nice work, Lancel. You did a good job." The smuggler gestured an arm towards the man leaning against the wall, before turning a kind gaze to the wide-eyed boy. "Your father will be fine. Try to keep him from walking for some time."


Nero reached for his gil pouch, counting out several coins. Stripping one of his fingerless gloves from his hand, he deposited the fistful of coins into the glove as a sort of makeshift pouch, holding it from the bottom before pressing it against Lancel's chest.


"There's an apothecary who comes by this gate once every two days or so. His name is Reynold. Wears a fancy blue coat and hat." Nero's expression morphed to somewhat playful. "If you need something, potions or the like, talk to him and tell him that you're friends with Sebastian, and pay with that." He pointed a finger at the glove of coins. Reynold was one of Nero's newer clients who did regular business with the Alchemist's Guild. He was not overly wealthy, but he was mostly fair and didn't ask for anything too dangerous. 


Lancel glanced between the coins, his father, Roen, and Nero, as if the boy could scarcely believe his luck. It was with an amazed silence before the child's face broke out into a wide and innocent smile. "T-thank you!" He reached out to shake the Hyur's hand, which Nero obligingly provided, a soft expression on his face. The boy's tiny hand shook as vigorously as he could, with a child's innocent ignorance as to the purpose of a handshake.


Lancel skipped over to Roen and did the same with her hand, simply grabbing it from her side and waving his arm up and down enthusiastically. Nero couldn't help but smile at the boy's earnest gratitude before covering his mouth with his hand, turning away lest the paladin catch his expression.


As Lancel was about to skip outside, Nero caught the boy's shoulder as the smuggler knelt down again. "Lancel," he began, his tone firm yet kind, "be careful not to tell any of the other boys about this, okay? Not Sayer, not anyone. This'll be our secret."


"But--" came the protest, which Nero silenced with a shake of his head, his earrings chiming as he did. "You can't tell anyone what we did," Nero continued. "If anybody asks, Miss Deneith and I weren't here. Can you promise me that?"


With an expression mixed with both appreciation and confusion, Lancel glanced between Nero and Roen before nodding slowly. "That's good. You have my thanks," the smuggler said, tilting his head down in approval. He made a gesture to Roen towards the exit of the shack, stepping outside. Thanalan's heat began to make itself more and more of an unwelcome presence, though Nero couldn't tell if the heat was genuinely uncomfortable or if it was just because the pirate was so used to the mild climate of Vylbrand.


Nero glanced at his left hand, now gloveless, in quiet contemplation. He had belittled Roen before on her idealism, on her beliefs, her naivete...and yet, did he not now just engage in that same foolishness he had mocked? There was no guarantee that the father had been hunting in the first place; Nero didn't see a bow or spear or anything suggesting such in the shack. Lancel was a child, but that didn't mean he couldn't lie. The Ala Mhigans might have been informing on the happenings of the refugee camp for the Blades or the bandits. The refugees were often driven to be the pawns of such people just to survive.


And yet, without questioning it, he and Roen provided for Lancel and his father, without even considering any ulterior motives or possibly dangerous affiliates the two might have. Without even considering the logical options, without taking into account whether or not the boy was serving as someone's ears, the smuggler had exposed his plans, his name, and who he was working with. There was no telling how much Lancel had heard or who he would report to. In this instance, Nero's pragmatism had failed him.


He lifted his bare hand in front of his face, flexing and unflexing it. Was he a hypocrite? Perhaps his own feelings were simply repressed. Perhaps his cynicism was merely a defense mechanism, a mask that had become so ingrained with his identity that he had forgotten why he donned it in the first place. Nero recalled the words he had said to Roen at Crescent Cove.


"But should justice fail, I will see the Jewel drowned in blood, if that's what it takes to change it."


At the time, he believed passionately in those words. His resolve burned like a wildfire. But if he was still prone to such weakness, and yet continued down a path that had no place for compassion, would he still have the determination to see his vision through?


Nero shook his head quickly, trying to dispel his doubts in the same way a dog did with fleas. He folded his arms and turning his gaze to Ul'dah as he waited for Roen to emerge from the shack.

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Roen sat quietly in the shack, listening to the exchange between Nero and Lancel behind her. Her eyes lingered on the boy’s father that she had just healed, though her thoughts drifted to the smuggler who was just making his exit. With her back to them, she did not bother to hide the slow grin that rose.


He does care. The paladin glanced down at her hand--the one the boy had shook with enthusiasm, her skin still tingling with the memory of his joyous gratitude. She felt suddenly lighter then, as if the air in her chest had become more buoyant, her senses less encumbered by the stale heat that pervaded the small cabin.


"My thanks to you, Miss Deneith," came a murmur from the man who began to rustle in front of her. It seemed that his lucidity was returning to him after the healing that his leg had received. The older Highlander turned to her, his grizzled face crinkled with gratitude and relief.


Roen returned a nod, the warmth in her expression lingering. "What is your name, Mister...?"


"Lowell Radulf," the Highlander rasped, trying to sit up straighter as if to be polite. Roen shook her head and waved him back down.


"Just rest, Mister Radulf. I would not want you to undo all the work I just did." It was a jest on her part; his leg was healed and it just needed time to regain its strength... but he did not have to know that. The Highlander blinked and nodded solemnly, laying back down. The strict adherence to her words made her feel a little guilty.


"You leg just needs some rest, and practice." Roen reassured him. "Then you would be back to hunting in a few suns, I imagine."


The Highlander nodded. “I owe you Miss Deneith. And that man, Mister...”


“Sebastian,” Roen finished for him. Nero had given them that name, the same one he had given her first time she confronted him. She presumed he had his own reasons for doing so, and she was not going to betray it.


“You two are a Twelve-send,” Lowell continued, tired eyes looking up at the low shoddy ceiling. “I had to hunt further and further away from the camps and...” The man curled his arm over his eyes, as if to hide his despair. But it shook his voice. “Lancel’s mother was lost to the poison sickness. I am the only one left for the boy.”


Roen leaned over and lightly touched the man’s arm. “He still has you. And he is a smart and resourceful boy, your son. He came to find us on his own.” Her words were soft. She dismissed the frown that rose as she recalled the stories of the poison sickness that passed over a month ago, but it had claimed many lives, especially in the refugee camps. The repercussions were still felt to this day.


The Highlander lowered his arm, his sorrow giving way to some measure of hope as he looked back at her. “I hope to see you two again, to repay my debt. May Menphina bless you both in your future.” His smile broadened knowingly.


Roen blinked. He thinks we're-- Her lips parted to protest, then she thought twice and closed them shut, her lips tugged in a way that tried to emulate a smile but quite wasn’t. The man seemed so sincere in his thanks that she was certain it was just a polite parting words. She nodded again oddly, then rose and ducked out of the cabin.


When she emerged from the shack, Nero was waiting for her, his arms crossed. Despite the awkwardness that lingered in the back of her mind, the paladin offered him a genuine smile. They had done good, and she no longer had any doubts about trusting her instincts regarding the smuggler’s intentions. He could be as smug and sarcastic as he wanted; she was determined not to let it affect her. As long as his compassion remained for the poor and the discarded, she would do what she could to help him.


“So?” Roen stepped up to Nero, dusting off her tunic and breeches. The heat and the sand were starting to cling onto their skin and clothes as the Thanalan sun continued to beat on them. “What is next?”

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He felt her gaze on him, and turned his head to glance at her, an expression of facetious annoyance plastered on him. "Don't smile at me, I'm allergic to positive feelings. Makes me sneeze like the hells," the smuggler said, waving a hand in front of his face. With his right index finger and thumb, he pinched the top of Roen's head and turned her slightly away, giving a sigh of relief as he did. It was the kind of gesture which everyone else would find quite odd, but which he found rather amusing.


His doubts had not fully dispelled, but they had relented enough for Nero to put on his usual front of bad jokes and joviality. The smuggler inhaled, considering their next move. "I think the first thing we should do is make contact with your Brass Blade friends. We need to inform them of the situation. Let them find a copy of the list while you and I start sniffing around to find our cargo. And they sound like good people to be friends with."


The smuggler started sauntering in the direction of Ul'dah, his hands held againsts the back of his neck. "Lead the way, Miss Deneith?"

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Brass Blades Headquarters.


Roen thought she would never see this place again. Or at least not so soon.


There were faces that she recognized here, perhaps more than she thought she would. Her time with the Blades had been short; just over a month, but she remembered walking through those double doors on that first day, eager to be fitted in that vermillion chain armor. She had not held the same dread that Natalie and Kage harbored when they too were demoted. Roen had held some respect for the men and women and their work in keeping the citizens of Ul’dah safe, for they were the ones walking the streets, patrolling the lanes, and guarding the gates.


Did she still see the Brass Blades the same way she saw them that first day?


The paladin’s eyes had been opened in that first harsh month. She did not know that behind the proud Ul’dahn banner of Nald’thal’s golden scales lay an organization that was far from the staunch protectors of Ul’dah that she thought them to be. Instead, Roen saw the extortion and the corruption that was part of their daily routine, and she was expected to take part in it. She also experienced firsthand the ruthless unforgiving traditions that governed their ranks--and she learned the price to be paid when one did not fall in line. That memory still pitted her insides, and Roen had to remind herself she was no longer a Blade.


The paladin’s stride through the hall was quick, as she made her way towards the back of the building where she knew to find Broken Nose. Despite the hardships that she had to face while she was a Blade, she knew there were those serving the organization for the right reasons. Broken Nose used to be one of them. He too sought to protect and serve, at least at the start of his career. But much like the banner of the scales that hung on the wall, the Blades were expected to both do good and bad to maintain the balance inherent to Ul'dah. They protected the Jewel, risked their lives daily to fight the Amalj’aa and others that threatened the City-State’s safety, but they also took from the people they served.


Perhaps the Brass Blades represented the current state of Ul’dah in the truest way possible. The organization was ruthless; it was about money, and it was about power. But through that, it also protected the people within its demesne.


That had been a strange and bitter pill for Roen to swallow. But she had--as had many.


Coming upon the door to the office, Roen knocked lightly, glancing over her shoulder to Nero who had been keeping close pace with her. She had offered no explanation of who he was or why he was here, and with her authoritative stride and the fact that her face was already known, none had questioned her about the man that accompanied her. Perhaps it was the infamy of her recent time in the gaols, or the fact that she used to be wanted for desertion but was dismissed of those charges. It could have been the fact that her previous commanding officer was now no where to be found; none in the Headquarters had the gumption to approach the woman in her quick trek through the building. For all she knew, Nero was just an honest merchant that had been dragged in for the wrong reasons.


Roen had asked the pirate to keep quiet and to let her handle things, but she was silently relieved that they had passed through without incident. Less questions to answer the better.


When the door opened, a large Hellsguard Roegadyn quirked a dark chestnut brow at her. He clearly was not expecting her. When the paladin gave him a small but wary smile, he stepped aside to allow her entry. He stepped slightly in front of the entryway after she passed as if to block Nero from entering.


“Who might this be?” Broken Nose rumbled.


Roen turned and leaned against a nearby desk, her hands curling around its edges. “He is with me,” she reassured him with a nod. Her voice was kept low however, to keep it from leaving the room.


The Hellsguard gave Nero a once lookover as if to size him up, before moving to the side again to allow him entry. He glanced down the hallway before closing the door. The Roegadyn did not move from the entrance as he crossed his massive arms in front of his chest. He looked to the paladin expectantly.


The office had no windows, this the paladin was grateful for. None could see who was meeting within, and it was difficult for them to be spied or eavesdropped upon. The room was small but well lit with lanterns. A desk rested on the opposite of the room as the door, and there were chairs scattered about the room. A table near the corner of the room had some empty bottles of wine and stained cups. A few sheafs of parchment were spread about the desk that she leaned against, and a bookshelf and an armoire stood on either side of the room.


“There have been some developments,” Roen said quietly, her eyes going to the Roegadyn. She leaned in slightly forward, as if to emphasize that this was a private matter. “And I…” she glanced to Nero, “...we…need your help.”


Broken Nose narrowed his dark brown eyes, as if not liking that look from the paladin. His gaze slowly drifted from her to the Hyur man in the room. “And who might this be?”

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It was only with a great deal of effort that Nero managed to repress a scowl at being dragged through the headquarters of the Brass Blades. Nothing sunk his mood more than forced exposure to Ul'dah's thugs in slipshod armour. They were little more than paid enforcers for the Monetarists, conscripted to be cannon fodder against the Amal'jaa, all the while administering their employers' generous policies to anyone who didn't have enough gil to purchase some respite. Outside of the city, they may have different stories, but within these walls the only thing that separated the Blades from the bandits were the uniforms.


How many of his friends vanished into the gaols, never to be seen again? How often did he see them dealing with the bandit gangs they were supposed to be arresting, their eyes gleaming with greed at the prospect of gil and the warm touch of a few prostitutes? How many times did they witness a refugee being beaten, only to turn their heads away from the beleaguered cries for mercy? How many times had they blackened his eyes and kicked in his ribs, just because he tried to feed himself?


Within these walls, in the presence of the Monetarist's gangsters, Nero considered himself to be a righteous citizen in comparison to these criminals.


Upon meeting the Hellsguard, Nero gave a stiff bow of his head. While he would have ordinarily loved to engage in his usual quips and sarcasm, the Roegadyn was a fair ways larger than Nero had expected, and the smuggler wasn't interested in getting an arm broken today, and simply looking at the Brass Blades had soured the Hyur's mood enough to guarantee that no mordant remarks would emerge from him for now.


"My name is Sebastian Redgrave, ser. I am a trader just in from Limsa Lominsa." The casual observer might have called Nero's ability to change demeanors intimidating. Naught but a few hours ago, his grin had been plastered across his face like a child browsing an infinite selection of sweets, and he had been aggressively passing out bad jokes in the same way a philanthropist might have tossed out gil at a banquet.


But now, his eyes were dull and flat. His tone was metallic; it rang hollow, cold and steely. Nero's words were polite, but within his voice there was no warmth to be found. He knew he should let Roen explain the situation; leaving the talking to the paladin might have been the more pragmatic idea, even if she lacked the ability to lie. Even so, she knew these people and would be able to explain the situation in such a way that would allow them to obtain what they needed.


And yet, in what could only be described as an emotional impulse, Nero's mouth continued running, his tone becoming more and more caustic as he did.


"I will get straight to the point, for I am sure a man of your stature is not interested in suffering the presence of one such as I." It took every ounce of self-control the smuggler had to keep his words from being doused in venom right from the get-go; as it stood, they were only laced with it. 


"Your compatriots within the Blades have confiscated a wagon of my goods. These goods were legal; the manifests were accurate, as was my merchant's seal, in addition to an affidavit vowing to the authenticity of the items." That last part wasn't true, but let the Roegadyn think it was. It was something that could possibly appeal to whatever passed for a sense of justice in this city.


Nero folded his arms, further indulging in his acrimonious behaviour. His voice remained quiet, so as to not draw attention, but his words remained fiery.  "Now, I realise that Ul'dah doesn't have laws so much as it has gil-enforced suggestions," Despite his best efforts, Nero failed to repress his sardonicism. "but in the interest of at least maintaining the illusion of order and honesty within this godsforsaken city, I would like to ask that the Brass Blades investigate as to the whereabouts of my stolen goods--and stolen they were, by criminals in uniform--and secure them. Failing that, providing their location will be enough for me to retrieve my property on my own, seeing as how competence is in such short supply in Ul'dah."


What was he doing? He was better than this. He knew better. He had more than enough self-control, and there was nothing he detested more than losing that self-control to emotional impulse. Nero felt as if he were an outside observer to his own body, unable to stop himself from spewing his scarcely-contained vitriol, like a ship that could not help but be shaken by violent waves. All he needed was to explain his situation simply and politely, and let Roen handle the rest. Broken Nose would help them retrieve what they needed, and they could carry out their plan without a hitch.


And so, why did he apparently choose now of all times to lose himself to contempt, to anger? His memories of the Brass Blades were...unpleasant didn't even begin to describe it, but they were in the past. Nero had conquered Ul'dah's hold over him. The smuggler had come to this city to change its future, not to become mired in his own melodramatic past.


At last, after a few seconds of silence that felt like hours, Nero felt he had some measure of control over his body--and more importantly, his words. He didn't notice that his hands had tightened enough to cast a pale pallor over his knuckles, but he turned away from the Hellsguard to stare at the wall, his earrings chiming as he did. The pirate breathed in deeply before exhaling.


"I...do not expect you to accept my apologies, ser, but I offer them nonetheless." Nero's tone remained steely but at least somewhat more cordial than it had been previously. "It has been a trying time for me, and I have not adapted to the city as well as I had liked. Please...listen to what Miss Deneith has to say."

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What is he doing?!


Roen could only stare in disbelief as venomous words erupted from the usually self-composed smuggler. She could see the eyes of the Hellsguard narrowing dangerously as Nero continued to slander the Brass Blades--very organization the Roegadyn worked for. By the time the pirate turned his back to the Blade, Broken Nose was scowling openly, his dark eyes glaring daggers at the Hyur man. Only when the paladin cleared her throat did the Roegadyn seem to remember that she was in the room. When he stared at her pointedly, it was with an expression most furious.


That was your pitch?” Broken Nose directed his question at her, his voice a low growl.


Shooting Nero a sharp sidelong glance, Roen pushed herself off the desk, her hands held up in front of her in an attempt to sooth the irate Roegadyn. “Apologies…” She grimaced at the Blade. “Sebastian here,” she gestured toward the Hyur, “is a stranger to Ul’dah’s way of doing things. And perhaps the heat as well. He might even be addled.” She gave Nero a pointed look. “He has not had a good day.”


Broken Nose did not seem appeased at all. “And so comin' here, spewing insults at me while asking me for help, that’s only going to improve his day.” He uncurled his arms and cracked his knuckles.


Roen winced. The Hellsguard was, for the most part, an honest Blade...insomuch that he had grown tired of some of the ruthless and vicious ways of his former captain, Anden Anduron. But that did not mean he did not know how to enforce the ways of the Brass Blade, nor was he shy about dispensing some pain to prove his point. She could see in the Roegadyn’s dark eyes that he was giving it serious consideration; teaching foreigners lessons about the way things worked in Ul’dah was a storied Brass Blades tradition.


The paladin shot another look at Nero in case he was intending on a retort. She then turned and gave Broken Nose an apologetic smile. “He has already learned one lesson.” Roen stepped up to the Hellsguard, holding one hand up in front of her. “Let us not compound that with more violence. Please?”


It took a moment for the Rogadyn to break his gaze from the Hyur’s still-turned back to look to the paladin. It was a struggle between his rising temper and her words of supplication, that much was clear, but in the end, he sighed and lowered his hands to his side. His voice still held onto a rumble of dissent. “For you, Deneith. This once. But he starts throwin' out his insults again, no promises.”


Roen sighed with relief. She gave Broken Nose a small faint smile. She knew he did not truly enjoy violence for violence's sake so appealing to that had worked. “Gratitude.” She inhaled, continuing before Nero or anyone else broke the tenuous calm that had barely settled between them all. “Those supplies that were taken... they were legal and accounted for. And they were to provide needed relief for the refugees.” Her eyes peered up intently at the Roegadyn, knowing he knew how she felt about the poor. “We need to get them back.”


Broken Nose grunted as he stepped back to lean against the wall with his arms crossed. One corner of his lips tugged tightly as if he was trying to look stoic despite her plea. He had been a lowborn, grown up amidst the poverty, so Roen knew there was a thread of sympathy there even if the Hellsguard did his best to hide it. “They were probably taken to the buildings at the Nanawa Mines. That’s usually where confiscated goods are sold.”


Roen nodded. That was a good location for some illegal trading. Miners rarely cared, and it was close enough to the Northern Thanalan gates if the goods had to be smuggled elsewhere. “And getting the goods back...”


The Roegadyn snorted with contempt in Nero’s direction. “Since competence is in short supply, you can go appropriate your goods yourself. No point in sendin’ criminals in uniform to do the right thing.”


“Done.” Roen nodded, readily accepting what was offered. She knew it was the best she was going to get. She paused for another moment, deliberately waiting until Broken Nose turned his gaze back to her. “There will be more supplies to Ul’dah in the future, for the poor. We… need to get Sebastian on that list.


That brought the Roegayn’s brows arching up. He said nothing, but the look he gave the paladin was one of incredulity and apprehension.


“I need to know where you get that list. Who keeps it.” Roen narrowed her eyes with determination. “I know you can get a copy.”


Broken Nose slowly nodded. “I can. But gettin’ a copy of the list, and gettin’ on the list, are two very different things.”


Roen pressed her lips together, curling an enigmatic smile. “Let us take care of that?” She cleared her throat, not really wanting to go much further into detail than that. The less he knew, perhaps the better. “Where is the original list kept?”


The Hellsguard slowly narrowed his eyes on her, skepticism clearly written in his face. “It’s kept by a Lalafell named Kejin Zinjin. He has an office above Ruby Road Exchange. He updates the list whenever he gets new names, and hands out a new list every fortnight. He keeps the original in a lockbox in his office.”


The paladin nodded, cataloguing the info in the back of her mind. She furrowed her brows when she saw Broken Nose’s attention turn back towards Nero, however.


“This doesn’t sound like you, Deneith.” The Hellsguard sneered in the man's direction. “Your Limsa trader come up with this crazy plan?”

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"This Limsa trader seems to be the only one besides Roen who gives a rat's ass about the people this city has discarded," Nero retorted, breaking the silence he had been maintaining while the paladin had negotiated with Broken Nose. "Trust Ul'dah to kick the teeth of whoever tries their hand at altruism." He had gained control of his words again, but his residual anger still smoldered, and it was with his full consent that his words shot back to the Hellsguard. Regardless of what the Hellsguard thought of him, the smuggler made his message perfectly clear: if it weren't for Ul'dah being Ul'dah, this would have never have happened in the first place.


It would be incredibly inappropriate for him to change demeanours so suddenly, and so the 'offended trader' front would have to serve him for now. Even so, Nero gave an apologetic nod of his head. "I...will endeavour to repair my attitude, should we meet again, ser. You do have my gratitude for your assistance." The apology sounded flimsy, but it would have to do. The corner of his lip curled into a small, yet contrite grin. "Should our next encounter fail to be pleasant, then you may consider my ribs yours for the breaking."


It didn't take any divination for Nero to sense when his presence was no longer welcome; he made a slight gesture to Roen that he would wait outside and allow her to finish any discussion she might have with the Roegadyn, making a hasty exit. Exiting before her was becoming a habit, but the longer he stood in the Brass Blade headquarters, the more his skin began to crawl.


It was with some measure of relief that the smuggler exposed himself to Thanalan's oppressive heat. The simmering mugginess was actually quite refreshing, given the circumstances, and ironically gave Nero some time to cool down. He had his arms crossed again, but his foot tapped the ground restlessly as he leaned against a pillar, indicating a flurry of thought perpetuating inside his mind.


That was a mistake. A massive mistake. An inordinate screw-up of catastrophic proportions. Nero did not have the room or influence to make such enemies so quickly. And if they were friends of Roen, then it was likely that they were at least somewhat trustworthy. It should have been incredibly easy. The smuggler should have been able to easily sweet-talk his way to Broken Nose's good side and be in good standing with a valuable ally.


So what had happened? Why had he lost himself to anger in that moment? Such things were dangerous. Broken Nose would have absolutely refused to assist had Roen not been there to plead him. Was it just repression? Nero didn't consider himself an emotional person by any means; Vail had taught him that reason and logic should always prevail, and that losing one's head meant potentially losing everything.


He was angry. Angry at Ul'dah, angry at the Brass Blades, angry at Vail, but most of all, he was infuriated with himself. That outburst was an embarrassment. It was more than just embarrassing; it was shameful. And Nero had exposed another vulnerability to Roen. The paladin already knew more about the smuggler than he was comfortable with anyone knowing. 


Nero couldn't help but let out a small, bitter chuckle. Now it would be her turn to lecture him on the values of pragmatism. With that childish tantrum, he'd very nearly ruined their only chances of accomplishing their goals.


Thus, only one thing was in order.


As if on instinct, Nero turned to face the pillar he had been leaning on, gripped it with both hands, and hurled his head at it. An uncomfortably loud thwack that accompanied the impact, and the smuggler fell to his knees, clutching his forehead. "Halone's great frozen ass," the Hyur gasped a mix of exclamation and curse. A tiny trickle of blood seeped through his fingers; the pillar had broken the skin but otherwise done little visible damage besides leave Nero slightly dazed.


In lieu of Vail being there to smack his head with an oar, the pillar would have to do. As of this moment, Nero considered himself cured of such impulses.

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“You sure you want to throw your lot in with the likes of him?


Roen glanced to the door, her eyes lingering there as she tried to dismiss the perplexed crinkle on her brows before turning back to Broken Nose. She gave the Roegadyn a meek shrug in response. “I am finding that he can be a little…baffling at times. But he has his heart in the right place.”


The Hellsguard snorted and shook his head. “You and your bleedin’ heart, Deneith. It’ll get you in more trouble than it’s worth.” He seemed more relaxed now that the hostile Hyur had gone.


The paladin curled a lopsided grin at him, crossing her arms. “I do not think I am wrong about you either.”


Broken Nose snorted even louder, purposefully so. “HA! That remains to be seen! You weren’t so crazy about me when my spit landed on your boots that first day.” As if remembering, he dug into his belt pouch to draw out a pinch of grassweed--his favorite chewing herb--and stuffed it in his cheek.


Roen wrinkled her nose. “I do not know what you like about that bitter thing.”


“It’s an acquired taste,” the Roegadyn shrugged with a stained toothy grin. When a brief silence fell between them, his brown eyes regarded her up and down, his cocky expression fading. “Good to see you well, Deneith. After all that.”


She could only manage a subdued smile in response. The last time they had really spoken to each other was before the kidnapping--before everything that had twisted her world so sharply. She avoided his gaze by dipping her head and glanced at the desk, fingers brushing over some random piece of parchment. She was eager to leave the subject. “Gratitude for your aid at the Silver Bazaar.”


The Hellsguard let out contemptuous snort. “Taeros’s not goin’ to be happy about all that, but he has little pull with the Rose now.” The Roegedyn's chain-mail rustled as he leaned against the wall. “You goin’ after him. Not a safe thing to do. Or wise. But…you never been known to be wise.” He gave her another toothy smile.


Roen canted her head, amusement lightening her features. “And now you are helping me. I could say the same about you.”


The Roegadyn was fingering out more grassweed from his pouch when he paused, giving her a pointed look. “Just look out for yourself, eh? If that pompous Limsan gets out of hand, I’d be happy to break a few ribs.” When the paladin quirked a brow at him, he gave her an exaggerated shrug. “He offered! You heard him!”


Roen shook her head and sighed. “Well, I will return for the list later. I should make sure our mutual friend has not gone off and offended more people.”


“Hmph,” the Roegadyn grunted as he returned to the desk. As Roen closed the door behind her, she heard him call out one last time. “My offer stands! Ribs!”


Roen ducked her head as she strode out of the Headquarters, putting her stoic visage back in place. There was no need for others to know that she and Broken Nose were on friendly terms. But the extra effort to draw her brows low were no longer needed when she stepped outside and her thoughts turned to Nero. She rounded the pillar where he caught a glimpse of him, her tone already lowering with reproach. “What was that all about--”


She paused when she found him on his knees, one hand on his head. Was that...blood?

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"Not so loud, please," the smuggler pleaded, raising a hand to shoo the paladin away. He inhaled through gritted teeth, before letting his breath slip through his nose. Nero's head still rang with the memory of the impact, but his vision began to clear. Some blood had dripped onto the pavement; it wasn't anything that indicated a major wound, but it was just enough to be somewhat worrying. It seemed as if Halone herself had saw fit to punish Nero with a blow from her shield.


"Before...before you ask, I have just managed to cure myself of all of the various ills that had been afflicting my mind...agh.." A soft groan escaped from the Hyur's lips. "A malevolent shadow was...um, mind controlling me. Which is why I spewed all those insults at your friend. Yes. That's it. That's a defense that will hold up in court, right?" The pain gradually began to dissipate enough for Nero to start making his usual quips and deflections. He slowly stood up from his kneeling position, somewhat wobbly, a hand clutching his temple. A small trickle of blood ran itself down his nose and the left side of his face, running along the prominent scars that occupied those areas of his head.


Nero briefly buzzed his lips and shook his head, an amused and pained grin cresting his face. "What I meant to say was that...um...that was a test! To see if he was really your friend. Or something. Yes. And you passed. Good job." The smuggler padded Roen's shoulder like a parent congratulated a child, even as he winced again. He withdrew a handkerchief from his trouser pocket to dab at where the pillar had broken his skin. The bleeding seemed to stop, but as the pain gave way to soreness, Nero began to seriously consider retrieving his thaumaturgy scepter just to cast a blizzard spell at his face in lieu of using cold water to soothe his aching temple.


"Anyway. Nanawa mines, and Kejin Zinjin. I personally recommend we go for the mines first. The sooner we can get those supplies to the refugees, the sooner they can find some measure of relief. And then we can turn our attention to the list." Nero's stomach rumbled quietly, causing the smuggler to glance away, somewhat embarrassed. "Though I recommend we do so after we eat supper. We'll need a plan anyway before just assaulting the place." He turned his gaze back to Roen and flashed her his trademark smirk.


"If you're up for it, I know a place. Discrete, covert, and the food's almost good enough for a dinner date," he commented idly.

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