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A Moment's Shelter [Complete]


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The floorboards creaked, the ceiling leaked, and there wasn't a gods-damned drop of warmth to be had in the little ramshackle tavern that had been more or less built into the cliffs. Carving through solid stone for a refuge in which to house this edifice, however, didn't seem to have made a lick of difference: the whole of the interior was damp, moss grew in the dark recesses and in the shadows around every corner, and most of the wooden structure was rotting away, as were the tables, the stools, even the bar. Whatever the architect's designs, Byregot had abandoned him to Halone's judgment, and She had found him wanting.


Suppose he ought t'have thought things through first, 'fore buildin' on the edge o' the Oakwood. Ought t'have known better.


There came the chink and jangle of glass on glass as a dark figure clad in the leathers and felt of the latest Lominsan fashion worked his way slowly down the counter, lifting, unstoppering, and replacing ancient bottles of aged liquor one a time to sniff at their contents. He methodically worked his way from left to right, top to bottom. Each successive glass was met with a frown or a grimace; occasionally, the man would scoff, as if offended by the apparent lack of a vintage that met with his approval.  


"Shite... there ain't a bloody thing worth drinkin' here."


At last, though, he rose, prize in hand: one dusty bottle of Admiral's Ale. Satisfied, he reverently deposited the liquor on the bar before diving beneath the counter; he emerged again, a pair of tumblers in hand. He contemptuously lifted a bottle of whiskey that he had rejected earlier in the evening, doused a rag of a cloth with it, and wiped the tumblers clean. There came a creak behind him, from towards the entrance, but he paid it no mind. His work done, he hopped onto the bar, rested his feet against a pair of stools, and poured the two glasses full. His own tumbler, he raised to the batwing doors in mock salute, shite-eating grin on his face as he greeted the newcomer.



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Nero gave a disdainful frown at the establishment, wincing as he felt a particularly ample amount of dew drop onto his head. His earrings jingled as he gave a brief shake of his head in an attempt to banish the uncomfortable feeling of moisture, to no avail. The smuggler was dressed conservatively, a contrast to his usual flair, and an annoyed sigh escaped from his lips as he brushed a hand through a nest of hair.


"I suppose this is an alright location," the Hyur said more to himself than to Osric as he took a seat on the stool, scanning the space around him. "Sort of screams 'I am a deranged hobo', though on reflection that's not an inappropriate connotation." Nero raised an eyebrow at a particularly fascinating wall as he gathered his thoughts in contemplation; why he had agreed to this meeting was beyond him, but then prevention was better than a cure, and if meeting this once would mean the Flame Sergeant ceased his prodding, then all the better.


The smuggler turned his attention to the man sitting across from him and folded his arms, nearly leaning back on the stool before recalling that it was in fact a stool, casting a cursory glance at the tumbler full of liquid. "Though I appreciate the drink, neither of us are here to enjoy the other's company, though that smug grin of your suggests that either you've information to ruin me or you just got your cork popped. Perhaps a mixture of both."

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Osric chuckled at the gibe; subtle, petty insults were just another facet of life amongst thieves, pirates, scrags, coves, and all other seaworthies of note. He'd grown accustomed to this long ago, and if Nero thought that a few measly words were going to shake him, he was wrong. That said, the man seemed to be in genuinely good humor for once, a nice contrast to their first meeting. It was entirely possible that those words had been thrown out there by mere habit, without venom or ill intent.


Astoundin'. How in the seven hells did you talk him 'round to meetin' with me again, Roen?


Did it matter?


Somethin's off. Somethin's different about him. He's--


Did it matter?


Mayhap this time, each of us'll be willin' t'hear out the other.


"Not like I chose the venue, but seein' as how it suits you, I ain't goin' t'complain."


The soldier took a long, slow pull from his glass as he peered over the rim and across the room at the smuggler. The man's near-fall off his stool elicited a small smirk. The next few words out of Nero's mouth, though, dashed most if not all of Osric's hopes to the ground. He shook his head and sighed.


"Ruin you, eh?"


He paused. It was a small pause, just long enough to take a short, quick sip of ale, just long enough for him to gather his thoughts. He coughed as he lowered his glass, made an effort to cover his face with the back of one gauntleted hand. He set his tumbler aside, then gripped the edge of the bar as he turned to face the smuggler once more.


"That's our problem, ain't it, yours and mine? You think I mean t'ruin you. Think I want you ruined, you and your plans." He scoffed. "Think it through. You ain't some wool-headed gadabout, nor some liver-bellied scrag what can't face the truth." 


His voice dropped a register, fell from a boisterous volume to a whisper, and if sheer will had been as much a force to be reckoned with as aether, he'd have pinned Nero to the man's seat with his stare.


"Tell me something, Sebastian. Why am I here, alone, meeting with you, while my fellow servicemen board Maelstrom vessels and perish by the dozens when your own ships send theirs to the bottom of the Rhotano? Why am I committin' treason, lettin' you walk and leavin' you free, rather than calling in my men to clap you in irons, when a mere drop of my name and rank in the right place and the right time by you and yours could have me executed?"


He leaned forward and threw out his hands.


"Why would I be doin' any of this if what I wanted was to ruin you?"


Osric snorted as he pushed himself to his feet, turned to pick up his glass and threw back the rest of his drink. He glanced at Nero as he plucked the bottle and the spare tumbler off the countertop and walked over to the smuggler's table.

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Nero rested an elbow against the table, leaning his head against his fist, considering his words carefully. His face was concealed by a placid veneer of cordiality, though his thoughts ran through his mind.


So the Sergeant already knew about his alter ego. The smuggler had to admit to himself that he had not been doing that excellent of a job of concealing it; the false Sebastian was nothing more than a surface front to dissuade the bookkeepers and occasional customs officials. Any sort of focused investigation would, when combined with asking the right people, reveal who Sebastian Redgrave really was.


And the comment about Maelstrom vessels...that was a test. Its presence as a test was so obvious that Nero wasn't entirely sure if it actually was what he thought it was. It was a common way to draw information out from people; drop some sort of false news or knowledge and see if the opposing party corrects that assumption, directly or indirectly. It had to be that kind of test; Melkire wouldn't be so ignorant as to imply that Nero was managing to get away with raids on the Maelstrom without attracting the attention of the Knights of the Barracuda.


Nero nearly snorted, a myriad of answers that varied in their vitriol resting on the tip of his tongue. Why would Melkire be doing any of this? Because the sergeant knew he had no authority to convict Nero outside of Thanalan. Because he knew that removing Nero would only be a temporary solution. Because in the mind of Nero Lazarov, Osric Melkire and Roen Deneith were two of the same people: self-righteous moral crusaders who wanted to use him for his plan, only to condemn him when they saw fit. It took some effort to keep the sneer from his face.


Nero raised an eyebrow. "I take it you're not the sort who does well with snide comments, so I'll refrain from that in the future. In any case, you should understand my position. Agreeing to this meeting was risky enough. There are exactly three kinds of people who want to meet a man like me in a location like this: people who want to do business, people who want to kill me, and people who want to do business and then kill me. Two of those three options end with me dead, and you are absolutely one of the latter two. You understand my apprehension, of course."


Nero shifted from leaning his head against his right fist to leaning against his left. "And I know you, or rather, I know men who are just like you. You don't forget, and you don't forgive. Even if I do believe that you're just here for some open dialog and a civil sharing of ideals, I have everything to lose and nothing to gain from confessing to you my plans and motivations, which is obviously why you called me here. In short," the smuggler crossed one leg over the other and leaned back slightly. "in every possible scenario of this conversation, you need me more than I need you. So no, I don't know why you're doing any of this, or rather, I don't know why you thought any of this would work." Again he leaned on his fist, smirking slightly. "But I will let you amuse me with your answer."

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"I take it you're not the sort who does well with snide comments, so I'll refrain from that in the future."


The sergeant rolled his eyes derisively, then proceeded to deposit both glasses and the bottle on the table. He didn't miss the tension in the air or the taut look on Lazarov's face as he sat down in time for the smuggler to launch into his own monologue, this one full of mind-blowingly stupid assumptions, childish prejudices, and vain paranoia.


Osric didn't forget, and he didn't forgive? Askier Mergrey wouldn't still number among the living if that had ever been the case. Stepping back out of his own boots, putting on someone else's, compromising, coordinating... that had always been how the sergeant preferred to operate. Grudges had no place in business, whether that business was in coin or in blood.  


Nero had nothing to gain from meeting him here? He had eyes and ears across the realm, Aldenard and Vylbrand both! The resources he could call on, the authority, the pull he had thanks to his position with the Red Wings... and he'd been instrumental in thwarting gods knew how many recent--


But Lazarov doesn't know any of that, does he? He thinks I'm just some lowly sergeant.


"My answer?"


He sighed as he shoved Nero's full glass gently towards the man.


"Well, you're right and you're wrong. You're right in that I need you more than you need me. Won't deny that." He pushed his own empty glass aside and leaned forward, hands crossed, arms on the table. "But you're wrong in thinkin' y'know me, thinkin' you know what kind o' man I am, what I am, who I am. Truth is, you ain't bothered with your research. I have."


He leaned back, just far enough to reach down and pull a rolled sheath of papers from a large belt pouch at his waist. A flick of his wrist sent the scroll tumbling across the table.


"Frankly, we could be here all night, with you sittin' pretty and findin' all manner o' inventive ways to call me a squatter - that's everythin' the Maelstrom has on you, your crew, and your activities, by the by - and I'd find that less insultin' than your assumptions about me, and that'd go the same, I'm guessin', for you. So do us both a favor and stuff your idiocy somewhere that ain't this ruttin' room, eh? We both know you're capable o' better than that."


He reached for the bottle of ale and refilled his glass, eyes on Nero the whole time, a polite smile on his lips.  


"Lominsan-bred thief-turned-assassin, which is how I can tell y'ain't native, gadabout. That and crossin' palms with enough ol' streetrunners, jacks, and serps to find out for sure. Anyroad... I chose family o'er everythin' else, had my tail chased out o' Limsa for that, and found refuge with the Jewel. Owe the sultanate my life. Radical Royalist, at your service... not that you seem inclined. Took up arms with the Flames, served as a soldier for five cycles, and then I was taken aside for... something else. Something better. For my connections. Connections enough to know the names and faces of most o' the players in this game o' yours and Jamesons'."


Osric took up his tumbler and shrugged as he swirled the tumbler.  


"You and I wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for Roen. I'd be back in Thanalan, and you'd already be in the gaols, if not six fulms under. We're here because I've learned over the past cycle, to my pleasant surprise, that those whom she trusts tend towards the sort o' honorable and noble rutters what mean well, and when they go sour, she can tell."


One sip, two sips, three sips were taken in silence as he paused to collect his thoughts.


"You know my interest already, more like than not, so you know how I'd like to use you. What I'd like to know is how you'd use me. Ain't a point in draggin' this out any longer if I've nothin' to offer you. Seein' as how you showed, though... I'm guessin' there is."

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It was rather embarrassing, the truth: Nero hadn't done his research on the sergeant. The smuggler hadn't bothered. The Flame sergeant barely registered as an obstacle, much less as a possible associate, and Nero's knowledge on him was woefully inadequate. The number of people trying to kill or arrest the pirate had been growing steadily, and Nero had far more capable enemies to be wary of. He left his head leaning on the fist, the omnipresent smirk plastered on his face as he considered his option. 


Nero's other hand thumbed the scroll. He didn't need to read the contents. The Storm was not nearly as eccentric as the Serpents and not as corrupt as the Flames. If the Maelstrom had enough evidence and information to act against him, they would have done so by now, and with extreme prejudice. Still, knowledge was power, and knowing exactly what the perimeters of the game were allowed the smuggler to try to manipulate it that much more.


That brought his attention to the Sergeant's last assumption. Indeed, Nero had agreed to the meeting in an attempt to gauge whether or not Osric would be useful. It was difficult to tell if it was his perception or simply his blinding cynicism, but the man undoubtedly possessed an infuriatingly prevalent sense of virtue that would certainly hinder more than help--especially if their last meeting was anything to go by.


Still, something didn't sit right with the smuggler. The entire reason Osric had pursued this meeting in the first place must have been because the Sergeant had some manner of leverage. Idle threats and justice posturing was little more than faffing about, and the Sergeant knew that. Thus, two possibilities existed: one, he held incriminating evidence and information that would allow him to strongarm Nero into cooperation. The Sergeant had claimed otherwise, but there was no reason to make assumptions based on the contrary. The other possibility was that the Sergeant had access to something that Nero didn't, and might need. This could be anything from information to contacts to being a long lost twice-removed relative of Ishgard's Holy See who was born as a Highlander in some freak interracial affair that would throw the political stability of Coerthas into a boiling pot of chaos and bedlam as a quasi-religious civil war erupts in order to purge undesirable elements from positions of Ishgardian governance.


In his mind, Nero politely asked his thoughts to eliminate that last idea as a possibility. His thoughts obliged.


In any case, it was a good question. Assuming they did ally--and again, Nero searched his mind for anything that outweighed the downsides of such an alliance, and precious little came forth--how would he use Osric? A scapegoat would be useful, but if Nero assumed that the Sergeant had a position of power in reputation, that wouldn't be very effective. Information on the nobility might prove useful, but Nero could practically hear the combined indignant yammering of the Sergeant and Roen even considering felling more nobles, and that din was something he wasn't willing to put up with. Bandits? Osric Melkire did not have the capability of purging the gangs and banditry from Ul'dah, or he would have done so by now. Besides, the instant Nero let slip one hint about Scythe or Scythe's Limsan weapons, it would all go to the hells.


The smuggler spun the issue in his head. Perhaps the problem was with his assumption. From only one conversation, Nero had immediately painted an image as to the Sergeant's demeanor and motivations: the exasperating moral crusader, fighting for the innocent, never willing to kill or maim or blackmail. Always pushing for what was right, while at the same time rigid in his ways and unwilling to change. The Sergeant's comments implied an indignation at being portrayed as such.


"The question is not what I would have you do," Nero spoke finally, his tone thoughtful. His head switched to leaning on his right fist. "The question is, what are you willing to do? I don't suppose you'd be willing to, I don't know, cripple Ul'dah's economy? No, that would harm the innocents. Purge the bandits and corrupt Brass Blades? If you could do that, you'd have done it by now. I suppose I could have you gather information to blackmail the nobility into surrendering their assets to me, but I have the feeling that you'd object to that. What about just outright killing Taeros? But oh, it's about 'sending the message that justice exists', or something. And I already have Roen for that."


The smuggler puffed his cheeks out and blew air from between his lips in a childish "pbbbt" as he spun his left hand in circles in the air before speaking. "Hypothetically, let's say I do agree to this little alliance. Naturally, you want me to tell you all of the intricacies of my plan and who it involves so that if, or rather, when it goes too far for your delicate, delicate sensibilities, you'll have all of the information you need to throw a wrench into the cogs and bring everything I've worked so hard for to a screeching halt. I understand that part perfectly."


Nero bit his lip in thought before nonchalantly shaking his head. "Nope. Can't think of anything. Of course, I have in my head this image of you as the virtuous and noble soldier whose first duty is to his conscience and who has a line he will never cross, and that admittedly rigid assumption has your prospective uses to me limited to say the least. You know, typically the first step in preparing for a business deal is preparing an offer in which the other party will be interested in. You would not make a very good entrepreneur, if this meeting is any indication."


Would it be easier to make alliances if he weren't so caustic? Very likely. Roen had questioned him on it previously: Nero showed so very little of himself to anyone. The wall he had built around himself was covered in cold steel and piercing barbs. His thoughts, his motivations, his limits...all of these things were hidden.


Sharp focus was brought to his first meeting with Osric Melkire. After the Sergeant had left the dock, Nero had been left wondering when he had grown so jaded, so extreme. It was a simple matter of manipulation. Say some pretty words, enough to get the Sergeant on his side, then lead him off on some chase, use him until his value had been exhausted, then throw him away.


What, then, made it so difficult? Such manipulations were so very easy before.


After Daegsatz' death, however, Nero noticed himself growing more vehement, more rigid. He did not just want to change Ul'dah, he wanted everyone to admit that they were wrong and that he was right. He wanted to rub the city's face in it. He wanted to dirty the pretty armor of the Sultansworn, cut off the hands of the thieving Brass Blades, put out the eyes of the lecherous bandits, and break the knees of the bellicose Immortal Flames. It was...childish, and egotistical, and it was starting to become a problem.


Nero sighed briefly, taking his head off of his fist. His mental problems would be taken care of later. For now, he should focus on swaying the Sergeant to his side. "What I want is to change the balance of power, so that people in that wretched hive have a chance. An opportunity for something better. A place where their children can grow without hardship. Change is never easy, and a brighter future will not come without blood." Nero leaned forward, pointing a finger at the Sergeant. "I'll ask again, and I think this question is just as important, if not more important to yourself as it is to me: what are you willing to do, to see that change?"


A fiery corner in the smuggler's mind raged at the question, even as it left Nero's lips. Melkire will not help you. He cares for nothing but the 'right' way, so that when he views his failure, he can tell himself that he did everything he could. He will oppose you. He is content to let the Jewel waste away in corruption and filth for the sake of his conscience.


Do not trust him. Do not work with him. He will be your end, as he was the end for so many others.


Nero focused a hard stare slightly to the left of the Sergeant's head in an attempt to suppress his doubts.


Yet they were growing louder.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The sergeant's eyebrows climbed up as the man took a deep breath and huffed it back out, one hand digging beneath his bandana to scratch at his hair.


"Now there's a good question. Think it might be best if we work back to those suppositions o' yours, then work our way forward, eh? Gives me some time t'collect me thoughts, that's for sure."


Osric drank down the rest of his glass and set the tumbler down on the table again, then slapped his knees as he leaned forward and frowned. He grunted, then shifted closer, resting his elbows on the table as he started to count off the fingers of one hand with the other.


"We're both better if I'm hands off when it comes to markets and prices and investments and capital and all that wash.... Siftin' through the desert for bandits? Ain't easy without the constabulary, and purgin' those ranks is slow going. Always has been, always will be. Even more so for a single man o' my resources. You'd need a man o' the General's means without the shackles of his allegiance." The man's tongue all but dripped venom as he went on. "And unless you're willin' t'stand as dictator like the good Admiral, red tape's a coeurl. As for blackmail? I've no objections to that." He cracked a small smile. "Shite, do I look noble t'you? You must be blinder than I thought. Anyroad, most o' that lot are thrown in with the rotten side o' the Syndicate. As if I'd care for 'em."


The sergeant paused for a moment.


"Now, solving Jameson...." He shook his head. "A friend o' mine was once willing t'do the deed for me, but he's been in absentia for, shite, a good moon now. I'm sure we can arrange somethin'. Hells, he'd only need be out o' the city and away from pryin' eyes long enough for me t'slit his throat. But I won't be doin' the deed in the city. I've things to live for, and no, they ain't 'justice' or any o' that bilgewater."


Justice is cruel. Had Justice won out, I would've died at Vesper.


She showed me Mercy.


Ain't that why I'm sittin' here now?


He eyed the man sitting across from him. Nero Lazarov. Smuggler-turned-pirate, of a sort. A man driven by... what? He didn't know. He supposed he'd never know, given how reluctant Nero was to trust him. Whatever it was that drove the smuggler to such radical ambitions, it had something to do with Brass Blades. Brass Blades, and....


"You're right, I'd make an awful what's-it. Commerce wasn't ever a specialty for me. Neither was sellin' m'self, nor makin' proposals. Hells, someone once told me I didn't give a tuco's piss for Ul'dah. Took me a long while to see the truth and face it, but he was right. I don't. I care for some o' the people in it, and that sort o' sentiment doesn't hold any coin with anyone."


The palms of his hands dropped to the tabletop as Osric pushed himself to his feet.


"I once accused you of not givin' a thought to those who might perish. Now you're tellin' me that you want t'give them a chance, a place for the children. Ain't sure if you're lying t'me or to your own self. I suppose it doesn't matter." The man set his teeth, drew in another deep breath through his nostrils. "All I've ever wanted out o' you is the chance to walk behind you as the city burns. To reach into the dark alleys, the broken buildings, the shattered homes and pluck out those that can be saved from your fires. The innocent and the children."


His hands clenched into fists, the leather squelching as they did so. The sergeant exhaled. Long. Slow. Steady.


"For that chance, I'd hand you the keys to the kingdom."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Nero gave a hard stare to the sergeant for several long seconds before grinning and leaning back.


"I suppose this all works well for you too, hmm? If I end up crossing a line, you'll be in a convenient position to take me down and reap some accolades." He gave a slight shrug and in two smooth motions, snatched the tumbler from the table, brought it to his lips, ingested a single gulp and placed the vessel back on the table. He grimaced somewhat at the taste of the liquor--it wasn't as pleasant as he'd hoped--but waved a hand nonetheless.


"Fine, then. You want to know what I plan to do, and in return you're willing to be an agent. Of course, how useful you'll be--with regards to that aforementioned red tape--remains to be seen. Though, the fact that you're associated with the Flames--quite publicly, I might add--reduces your utility somewhat. You wouldn't be allowed on the same street as any nobles worth knocking down, and blackmail material in Ul'dah is mostly worthless unless profits or the loss thereof is involved."


The smuggler folded his arms and rest one leg on the other. "Well, while we're being frank with each other, I don't want to kill anyone I don't have to. As the other side of the law, I'm sure you're familiar with the annoyances involved when dead bodies appear. That said, you're worth nothing to me as hired muscle and even less as a bagman. So I suppose if I want to use you effectively, I'd have to use your connections." Nero began tapping a finger on the table. "Care to enlighten me as to how those connections will help?"

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'll take what I can get, and if that's what I'm getting, I'll take it.


Osric gave the man a little smile as he walked around the table, took up the bottle as he went, and refilled Nero's cup.


"Simply put," he replied, his eyes fixated on the smuggler's glass as he poured, "my contacts' resources would become your resources. I run a network o' folks what treat favors as coin for trading, and I'm willin' t'incur whatever debt you rack up."


He lifted the neck of the bottle just in time for the ale to reach the rim of the tumbler and no further. Satisfied, he circled around behind Nero as he resumed his trip around their table, then set to refilling his own glass as he sat back down.


"Say you've reason t'acquire a special type o' munitions. I know the bastard that helped hit your warehouse; more often than not, he works for me, so there you go, home-made explosives, military grade. Mayhap there'll be need t'hunt someone down through the Shroud; I know enough Keepers for that, whole clan's worth. Better yet, I know their matriarch. Somethin' aetheric verified by a mage, white or black? Done, meeting arranged within minutes. Troubles in Coerthas? Hells, I know a dragonslayer or two, at least one o' which served with one of Ishgard's Great Houses."


The sergeant rolled a hand as he set down the bottle of Admiral's Ale and picked up his drink.


"Small network, but extensive. Reach exceeding the grasp, and all that nonsense. Shite, how do you think I'm able t'reach you? I'll tell you how. Made a history out o' makin' friends and acquaintances with these folk. I'm the man who knows most everyone, and most everyone knows me."


He took a sip of his ale, then pointed at Lazarov.


"Has its disadvantages, as y'said... but most o' those go right the window, crash, defenestrated, when the task at hand doesn't require m'own self."


Melkire plucked a coin from his purse, set it against the table, and tapped it twice.


"I'm no good with 'profits or loss thereof.' Why? Because I don't have to be. You need someone hit? Someone blackmailed? Bribed? A door opened? Althyk's Axe, you want a man placed in the palace, give me half a moon and enough breathing room t'get creative, and it's done."


He took another sip, then leaned back in his chair.


"Tell you what. Give me one o' them, what are they called, hypotheticals, give me a hypothetical and I'll tell you how my connections would get the job done."

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Nero frowned. It was true that several of those things would be useful in the right contexts, but those applications were very...pedestrian. But then again, the worth was not in the actions themselves so much as it was the alleged reliability. Any self-respecting underworld setting had its own ring of informants and saboteurs, but the problem with relying on criminals for that sort of sensitive work is that it tended to be rather like using a coeurl to clean out a pantry: loud, noisy, and messy.


And what was the price? Information. 


This would be an extremely expensive prospect indeed.


"A hypothetical, then," the smuggler echoed, leaning back in thought. "Fine, then. Let's say I want to use your network to destroy an entire noble house in one night. Tell me how you and your fellows would go about this." It was partly a serious idea and partially a test. A person of a boorish or slow-minded mentality would immediately assume that "destroy" was synonymous with "kill", and balk at the prospect. The Flame Sergeant wanted to participate in Nero's activities to find out what the latter was doing, but his annoyingly stalwart moral boundary meant that he and his associates would be limited in their usefulness at best, and completely unusable at worse. Thus, the Sergeant would have to make up for it with creativity.


"I don't particularly care how it's done, so long as it's done in a way that it is not directly linked to me. Pitch me some ideas as to how best to use this network of yours, because to be quite frank, I don't particularly need another set of tools unless you happen to be incredibly wealthy or extremely influential in the political sector."


Nero folded his arms. "Convince me that you can be of use."

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"The trouble with noble houses is that the extents of their influence oft lend them a robust health that's quite damnable to those who wish 'em ill. Not t'mention the bit where they backtrace your efforts and then set their own men t'slitting your throat. Gettin' it done in one night, though - and I'm assumin' without preparation time - well," The former assassin grinned. "that's why you find yourself a few rival houses and set them up to do your dirty work for you."


He started counting off on his fingers, extending each digit as he did so.


"Three things a noble house has goin' for them: coin, allies, and 'respectability'... let's be honest and just call that last one 'reputation'. You hit all three hard and fast, and they rarely recover. No need to tear their halls down, or stick each 'n' every pig livin' in 'em. Make 'em look too big for their britches, and they do that to themselves."


Osric threw back the rest of his glass, then turned it upside-down and placed it back on the table. Then, from beneath various layers of fabric and leather, he drew knives two at a time, pinning each point-first into the wood around the tumbler.


"You get enough houses to turn on your target, and they're as good as done. Find out which houses they're on the outs with, then send a different messenger 'round t'each house, tell 'em the messenger's from another o' those same houses, and that a mutual interest is shared in putting a rival out o' business. The proposal put to each is simple: a series of failed assassination attempts on the household heads, staged in concert, will do in the target's reputation, evidence of guilt to be planted by an anonymous party, that bein' yours truly and his friends' 'friends' in the Blades and other such establishments. Best part is, the rival houses won't even care that the messengers ain't from their fellows, so long as the effort is real and there's profit to be had."


The sergeant shrugged.


"Course, that evidence I mentioned won't be limited t'just us sneakin' in and leavin' behind forgeries and such, oh no. Research the job ahead o' time, that's always the way, and that'll be enough t'approach the target that mornin' with some bauble or another that they'd be willin' to part with coin for. Some knickknack for their child, perhaps, or some quantity of goods they go in for as commodities. Simple transaction... 'cept that'll look all kinds o' suspicious in hindsight."


He poked at the knives' hilts, one by one, and listened to the wood creak.


"Suspicion breeds fear, 'n' fear brings out the claws. Those 'allies' of theirs might stand aside - understandable, no noble wants that much pressure on their own neck for the sake of another's, especially when a few o' those assassinations weren't staged save for their paperwork - or they might stand together. Might even turn on the target, with the right incentive, that bein' coin or rights to trade routes or whatever the case might be. Don't matter in the end. What matters is that the target comes out the lesser for it, and trust me, if they're having t'splurge on expenditures t'keep from goin' under, they'll lose that weight in coin. Hells, it doesn't even matter if they win out against their rivals; they'll still come out the aggressors, and that'll ruin them, unite others against them."


Melkire raised his eyes to meet Lazarov's again.


"Ain't nothin' so devastatin' to a house o' nobles as bein' turned on, and havin' nowhere and no one t'turn to. My contacts and I - Blades, Flames, beggars, huntresses, and more, dependin' on how much time y'give me in advance, and no, I ain't giving you names, you know how this works - we can execute somethin' on this scale in a night. The damage and repercussions will persist forever."

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Nero paused, being careful to mask the surprise on his face. He hadn't expected such a thorough answer. Indeed, the confidence with which the Flame Sergeant casually outlined his approach to bring utter ruin to the prosperous and delusional implied extensive knowledge that likely outstripped Nero's own. The smuggler was far too egostistical to openly--or even inwardly--admit that in this subject he was outclassed in both knowledge and resources, but he did feel a certain amount of grudging respect develop.


Along with that, however, came forth the furious flag of wariness. It was fairly obvious that Osric was not just a simple lawman. There was a dark element to his past, one seeped in blood and shadows. What caused Nero's wariness wasn't so much that fact, so much as it was his suspicion that the Flame Sergeant deliberately revealed that facet of himself...perhaps as a challenge.


Nero leaned back in the chair, his arms crossed. Though he'd made disparaging and dismissive comments earlier, he couldn't ignore this kind of opportunity. It wasn't because he necessarily needed another set of contacts, but rather, having those kind of people one hundred percent committed to hunting him as opposed to hunting for him could prove...problematic.


Several long minutes of contemplative silence later, he finally spoke. "Get rid of Taeros. And anyone associated with him. I realise that some of them may be your...not necessarily friends, but acquaintances, at least, and thus you're in the most advantageous position to remove them as a threat without killing them. Once I've confirmed with my own sources that he is either dead or otherwise removed, then I can seriously consider letting you in on the plan."


It was a long shot. Proposing this kind of thing ensured that Nero risked nothing while having the greatest gains, something Osric would obviously pick up on.. Still, what he had said earlier still held true in the smuggler's mind: the Sergeant needed him more than he needed the Sergeant.

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Osric Melkire, soldier for the sultanate, once known as Dirk Problemsolver, assassin for hire, stared long and hard at the man he could have been had he signed on with Worthy Jetsam for more than a mere half-dozen moons. His hands ceased to play with the forest of hilts protruding up and out from the table before him. His breathing slowed. His shite-eating grin died. 


He grunted. He reached forward. He pushed his tumbler towards Nero. He drew his blades from the woodwork. He sheathed them one by one. He left the last, a single pesh-kabz, embedded where it stood. He pushed his chair back. He rose to his feet. 


One hand snaked upward and turned over as he seized the neck of the bottle in a reverse grip, lifted it up high, and in a single motion that made use of his wrist, his arm, his hips, his legs, and his weight, slammed the glass down and broke it against the edge of the table, shards of glass flying every which way. 


The sergeant didn't spare a glance for his "guest" as he threw what was left in his hand aside and into a far corner. Instead, he leaned out over the table and starting moving shards around until he had a circle of broken glass surrounding the knife. His eyes never once left his task. 


"This game is different," he breathed. "As an extension of another's will, he benefits from their aegis. As their instrument o' choice, he has had some time t'entrench himself in the affairs o' the city, to ingratiate himself with its worthies. His is a web o' dependency: associates, business partners, contacts, acquaintances, they all benefit far too much from his ever-present influence to ever allow him t'come to harm. To try for him directly is to be cut."


A smile touched his lips again. 


"Different game, similar solution." He waved a hand out over the broken glass, then wrapped his fingers tight around the hilt and slowly drew the pesh-kabz from the wooden table. He slid the knife home into its scabbard, then turned and walked away, pausing only in the doorway long enough to glance back over his shoulder.


"Then we're agreed?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

"We've agreed to nothing until you show me some results," Nero quipped, his trademark smirk masking his expression. "After all, there's no point in making plans to build a house if the trees have yet to be cut, no?" The smuggler leaned back in the chair, balancing himself carefully on two of the chair's legs as he propped his feet up on the table, glancing at the back of the Sergeant's head. The corner of his eye quietly observed the myriad of stab marks in the wooden table, his earrings jingling slightly with the motion.


"Show me what you can do...and then we'll see where it goes from there," he murmured quietly, folding his arms.


Yes, this was a safe plan. Nero was risking absolutely nothing in this. If the Sergeant was caught, he couldn't reveal anything worthwhile. If Melkire died, then it would simply be a lost opportunity, and Nero could hardly be blamed for something like that. And if Melkire succeeded, then Taeros would be out of the picture, and that was one less enemy he needed to concern himself with.


The corner of his mind was still apprehensive, however. Things were going a little too smoothly. There was the possibility that despite his posturing, the Sergeant would maneuver against him while operating under the pretense of working for him. Precautions would have to be taken.


"Show me what you can do," Nero echoed, more to himself than to the sergeant.

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Osric snorted. "Auditions," he spat. The sergeant left the ramshackle tavern to Nero and made his way out into the rain. He sighed as he paused to readjust his soon-to-be-soaked-through bandana, then tapped at the pearl in his left ear as he resumed the long walk back to Aleport.


"Hilkan, this is Shadow. Reporting in."


They spoke over the company linkshell for a good bell or so, blissfully unaware that events beyond their control would soon scatter their plans to the winds. Two moons would pass before anyone in Thanalan heard from Osric Melkire again.

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