Back in April of 2017, we had an idea: what if we wrote a scene to go along with Alyc’s Pathfinder campaign? A little side thing that would let Marie’s con artist PC get in some flirty time with a potential love interest, a hooded vigilante she’d had a few run-ins with before. Marie could write her character’s dialogue and actions and so forth, and Alyc could write the NPC, and it could be a cute little caper of the sort that wouldn’t work nearly so well as an in-game scene.
Little did we know what we were about to set in motion.
Here, for your entertainment, is the Scene That Started It All! It has been only lightly edited for your consumption, specifically to remove references to canonical Pathfinder characters, locations, and so forth, since that intellectual property does not belong to us. In some cases we’ve replaced those with references to Rook and Rose characters, where a reasonable analogue exists — but don’t read too much into that; the prior versions of them are often quite different. (For example, the resemblance between Donaia and her game equivalent basically ends at “the head of the noble house Ren’s trying to profit off of.” Game!Ren wasn’t even trying to get adopted, though it wound up happening anyway.) Where there’s no analogue, we’ve subbed in wholly new names, to preserve the sense that this scene is referencing a larger world of people and events and conflicts which didn’t wind up anywhere in the novels.
Timing-wise, this takes place after the Rook ambushed Ren in her kitchen, though in the game she was far more coherent and functional for that version of their confrontation (and tried a lot harder, though equally unsuccessfully, to stab him).
Despite the Viraudax household only consisting of three rooms – kitchen, parlour, and boudoir – Tess has peculiar and very specific notions about how that household should function on a daily basis. Once she and Ren have woken from their hearth-side pallets and broken their fast on day-old bread from the Raneiri family’s bakery, she wraps Ren in a frilly day-gown and shoos her into the parlour to sip tea and review her correspondence ‘as a proper lady should.’
It’s proved prescient on several occasions when Giuna or Lady Traementis or some other lady of Renata Viraudax’s acquaintance drops by unannounced for a casual social visit. There are no unexpected knocks at the door this morning, however, as Ren slices open envelopes with a blade sharper than most ladies employ.
Until she reaches one in the middle of the stack, made of fine paper, sealed with black wax that makes the stamp difficult to discern.
I understand fine ladies such as yourself are fond of taking Lavender’s Luxuriant Liniment for everyday complaints. Having come across some complaints myself, I am curious to know more about how this rumored cure-all is made.
If you are not otherwise engaged this evening, I wonder if you might join me at the location to discuss this and other matters.
It is my hope that, with your assistance, no knives will be necessary.
Ren folds the paper with the graceful hands of Lady Renata, her posture perfect even though no one is there to see. It is important to maintain boundaries: the parlour is the lady’s territory, as the kitchen is Arenza’s.
Except that those boundaries are cracking more with every passing day.
The Rook. A mystery wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a cloak she dearly wants to rip off — to lay him open the same way he did to her. Not to expose him to others; she could have done that when she lost her mind and started babbling all her own secrets in Cinciterro’s office. But just to know. To restore some kind of balance of power between them.
Whether she will get what she wants at Lavender’s Perfumery is anyone’s guess. But there’s only one way to find out.
Lady Renata rises from her seat and sweeps through the door into the kitchen. Her accent relaxing into Vraszenian irony, she calls out to Tess, “It looks like I’m going to have another late night.”
A daytime casing of the area reveals nothing particularly out of the ordinary. The shopfronts at the Crown Street Crossroads are constantly in flux, opening and closing based on student whim and noble fashion. With its doors open for the better part of two years, Lavender’s Perfumery is positively venerable by area standards. The milliner next door has posted a sign indicating it is permanently closed. The tea shop across the street that Lady Renata patronized not three weeks before is now called The Twisted Pear and specializes in Isarnah cuisine.
Traffic is busy enough and Lady Renata popular enough that she has to endure constant interruptions of her window shopping, especially when she nears the crowds lining up outside the perfumery. Several ladies and gentlemen of her acquaintance waylay her, complimenting her on the dewiness of her pallor – a sure sign of good health – and inquiring how long she has been a customer of Lavender’s. And if more than a few invite her to join them in complaining about the newer custom clogging the doorways and the nasal passages with their stink, well, Lady Renata has become quite adept in removing herself from those sorts of conversations.
A few hours later, the nighttime streets are as deserted as the daytime ones were bustling, nobles and students both preferring other sorts of entertainments for their evenings. Stoops swept, ware displays brought back in, one by one the shop owners close their downstairs. One by one, lantern light flares and flickers in the apartments above. One by one, those lights are doused. The sickle moon rises above the rooftops, and quiet descends on the Crown Street Crossroads.
No one mobs Arenza Lenskaya. If all is going according to plan, nobody even sees her — though with the way her life has been lately, “going according to plan” is a phrase to induce slightly hysterical laughter. She counts herself lucky that she manages to scale the side of a building without mishap, given how little practice she’s gotten in recent months. Keeping a careful eye out for the Guard, will-o’-the-wisps, giant spiders, roof-running elves and their falcon companions, and any other potential hazards, she settles herself in at a good vantage point, with a wall at her back. She might or might not succeed at spotting the Rook’s arrival, but she’s damned if she’s going let him sneak up on her from behind.
A scuffle of a boot on shingles – possibly deliberate – and a shift in air that ruffles the hair at her temple, alerts her that she is no longer alone. A shadow in layers of dark leather and silk leans against the edge of the cupola that shelters Ren. His cowl obscures most of his face; the shadows do the rest. Still, she can see a strong jaw with its own shadow of stubble, lips pressed tight in a not-quite frown. He looks almost familiar, like meeting someone’s brother. And yet she can’t place him.
Magic. Even with her suspicions in place, she can’t confirm or deny them. He could be Vargo . . . but she could also convince herself the face under that hood is Thrakgaash’s.
He watches the street with arms crossed, the same pose he held in the shadows of Cinciterro’s office. When he speaks, his voice is as layered as his disguise. Rich leather and smooth silk and familiar-yet-not.
“You seem slightly paranoid, my… Arenza. For someone who requested this meeting.” The slightest tilt of his chin gives the impression of a sidelong look. “Care to tell me why?”
“I’m tired of being surprised.” Her tone is light, but there’s an edge to it that she deliberately allows to show through. “And although you are of course a gentleman who would never put someone in fear of her life, not everyone in this city has your manners.”
“I sense a reprimand in there somewhere, but of course I must be mistaken. Surely a lady wouldn’t hold grudges.” His words hang not quite long enough to allow for a response. “But now that we’ve established just what sort of lady and gentleman we are, perhaps you would care to tell me why you requested this meeting.”
She glances down at the quiet, opulent street. “Well. I had imagined that you might knock on my door and we could have a conversation like civilized people. But your letter implied you have other plans, and I confess I’m curious what interest the Rook would have in a perfumery selling one of a thousand ‘miracle cures’ for the plague.”
His lips twitch, and there is no mistaking the smile in his voice. “You have a very strange impression of me if you think I do doors. Speaking of which. Down.”
He crouches and slides down the roof, quiet as a cat, to peer over the edge. Across the street, three figures emerge from the boarded-up side entrance to the closed milliner’s shop – two burly and dressed in the homespun of laborers, one slight, with a black shawl draped over her head and wrapped low around her face to hide her hair and features.
“This city does love its masks,” he mutters, more breath than sound. Ren, pressed flat against the shingles just a foot away, can barely hear him.
Only after the small crew has skulked out of sight does the Rook stir. “Right. Shall we? I’ll meet you inside.”
Without waiting for a response, he rises and runs down the row of shops, darkness swallowing him much more quickly than logic and the scant moonlight can account for. Only because she’s looking for it does Ren see the flutter that might be an imp, or a bat, or a startled bird… or a man making the impossible leap to the rooftop of the abandoned building across the way.
“Must be nice, being able to afford fancy magic boots,” she mutters under her breath. She presumes it’s boots. Hopes so. If it’s boots, then maybe she’ll be able to keep up with him after she wins her fortune.
Assuming she succeeds.
Now is not the time for such thoughts. Ren eases herself off the roof, taking the slow route to her destination. The lock on the side entrance isn’t trash, but it isn’t good enough to keep her out, either, and an ear pressed to the door reveals only silence. After one last glance around to make sure she isn’t observed, Ren slips inside.
The downstairs is dusty, unused. A closed milliner’s shop, just as the sign advertised. Except — hasn’t this shop always been closed? Before the milliner’s, it was a cobbler’s. Before that, a wax merchant’s and a tailor’s. In the last six months, at least as many stores have closed here, but Ren has never seen them open.
On the air, under the dust, she smells the tang of shoe polish and the sweet, mellow scent of beeswax.
A trail leads through the dust, streaks and swirls as though someone has poorly mopped the floor and left the wet dust to dry. Tess would be horrified—she’s developed views on cleanliness almost as strong as her views on what a proper lady should be doing with her mornings. The tracks lead to a flat platform and a winch, the sort to lift supplies to a storeroom above.
Except what Ren finds above isn’t a storeroom. It’s some sort of laboratory, far longer than the building footprint would account for. Unless one presumes it extends over the neighboring building.
The Rook is already there, dipping glass stirrers into pots and beakers, lifting them to sniff at the contents.
“You asked why the Rook would be interested in a business selling false cures. I would counter by asking why you wouldn’t be.”
Ren begins to search the room herself, holding items up to the light from the window. In between, her eyes rove over the walls and floor, in case they conceal secrets. “Fake cures for diseases are as common as fleas on rats. Most of them are harmless. I’m guessing you think this one isn’t — or have you been spending your nights chasing down every vendor of colored water and scented fish oil in the city?”
“So. A bit of one and a bit of the other.” His back is to her, the comment quiet, like the one about masks. Not meant to be heard. He turns and leans against the worktable, arms crossed. “Not every snake oil peddler has the patronage of the wealthy and powerful in this city. The Guard can stop them, and few trust them enough to beggar themselves for a bit of hope. But who can touch a place like this,” he waves a hand streetside, “when nobles hate nothing more than to appear gullible? And who can stop desperate people who would pay anything to buy the health that rich people are guaranteed?”
She doubts she’s going to learn anything from the bottles. That’s more Gundlag’s territory — she refuses to call the half-orc by her rude nickname, even in her own head. Ren cocks her head at the Rook. “What are you hoping to find here? The recipe for the cure, so that you can make it public and prove that Lavendra Pagliota is making a profit she doesn’t deserve? It will be an uphill fight. As you say, people hate to appear gullible, and nobles most of all.” It’s part of what makes them easy to con. But she suspects that reminding the Rook of her profession is a bad idea. “Or do you think the supposed cure is actually hurting people? Or that someone is manipulating Pagliota, playing a deeper game?” The constantly-abandoned business next door certainly raises a few suspicions.
“I think… no, I know, that the cure is river water, sugar, and essential oils.” He uncrosses his arms, pushes away from the table, crosses the distance between them until he is standing close enough for Ren to hear his breathing. Close enough for stabbing, should it come to that. He is not, she notices, wearing his swordbelt or rapier.
“I don’t care about Pagliota or her profits, and that’s all I’ve found here.” He tilts his head. “Just a greedy, self-involved woman. No deeper game. But I care about stopping this trade before it gets any worse. Before people do get hurt because they’ve spent more than they can afford, or they believe in this cure so much that they make themselves more vulnerable to the actual plague.
“That is why I’ve asked you to come here.” He lifts a hand. Hesitates, and lets it drop. “Who better to foil a con artist than a better con artist, yes?”
The words hang in the quiet air of the room. Whether she reminds him of it or not, they both know what she is — and apparently his hostility at that fact has faded. Because of the farce over Orjezan, or because he knows she isn’t really a noble? She isn’t sure. But he’s willing to use her skills, apparently.
It might be flattering. It might not.
Ren steps away. It’s too difficult for her to focus with him standing that close. She makes a slow circuit of the room, brushing her fingers across the glassware, thinking out loud. “As I said, proving she’s a fraud could be difficult . . . and if you succeed, they’ll crucify Pagliota, just to make themselves feel better. If what you want most is to keep this from continuing — and you don’t want her torn limb from limb — then it might be easiest just to work on persuading her to give it up.” She pauses, considering. Then she realizes she’s trailing the tip of her tongue across her lip while she thinks, and makes herself stop. “I would need to know more about her to guess the best way of doing that, but I can think of several possibilities already.”
The silence hangs too long, as though he is distracted, but he is not looking anywhere but at her. Until he looks away, clears his throat. “Oh?” His question scrapes the bottom of his range, an octave darker than hers.
She hadn’t taunted him like that on purpose, but she can’t deny a little burst of satisfaction at seeing him off-balance. Ren pulls her thoughts together — again. “Well, you could break into her house in the middle of the night and scare the shit out of her, saying that if she doesn’t stop, you’ll be back, and not so forgiving the second time. But I’m sure you’re capable of thinking that up yourself — and since you haven’t done it, I assume you’d prefer a different route.”
His lips curve into a one-sided smile. His tone remains low, intimate, as though sharing a joke. “No. I save such behavior for women I—Wait!” In a few long strides, he is across the room, gloved hand wrapped around her wrist and yanking her back. His nostrils flare, breath coming hard and angry. Not at her, but at something on the table. A dish of coins stamped with no sigil of any kingdom Ren knows. He tugs her away before carefully releasing her. “I think matters have just changed. Pagliota needs to go down.”
Ren’s annoyance over not getting to hear the end of that sentence dies under the weight of more pressing concerns. “What is it?”
His jaw clenches, lips flat in anger. He releases her wrist, but only to pull a dark cloth sack from the folds of his coat. The dish rises at the command of his extended hand, floats over, and tilts. The coins shirr against each other and clink when they hit the bottom of the bag.
Only when the dish is back on the table, the bag tied closed, does some of the tension leave him. He glances down at her. “Have you heard the rumors of the chest that was found washed up on the east shore? The one full of coins just like these?” He lifts the bag and tucks it away in his coat. “That is how the plague came here. That is how it spread.”
Ren instinctively backs up a step. Then she thinks about it and retreats another pace, heart pounding. “Is it — am I –”
His hand rests on her forearm, a gesture of comfort, concern, rather than confinement. “No. You didn’t touch them. The curse requires contact.”
She instantly reviews every movement she made, every object she brushed her fingers across as she thought. No, the coins weren’t among them. Not even the dish. He stopped her in time.
This time when she licks her lips, it’s because her mouth has gone suddenly dry. “Thank you.” It comes out little more than a whisper.
He nods, seems to realize he’s still touching her and lets his hand drop to his side. Takes a step back and a deep breath. “I apologize for asking you here. I should have investigated more carefully. It was not my intent to put you in any danger.” Shooting a glance at the supply lift, he says, “You should go. It doesn’t take them long to get to the river and back.”
She has a thousand unanswered questions, ranging from “what do you mean when you call the plague a ‘curse’” to “if I touched your face, would the enchantment keep me from feeling what’s underneath the illusion,” but with her pulse still much too fast, all she can seem to manage is sarcasm. “Danger. Yes, by all means let’s avoid that; my life is ordinarily so safe.”
A ghost of a smile haunts his lips. “And here I assumed you preferred to be interesting.”
She’d slipped into Renata’s diction with that comment, if not Renata’s accent. Ren takes her own deep breath, willing her body to forget the brush with death, to remember who she is right now and what she’s doing. “Since we don’t have much time, best if you’re quick with your answers. What do you know about the plague? Why do you call it a curse, instead of a disease? And –” She glances back at the empty dish. “Are gloves enough to protect against it?”
As though her crisp questions have snapped him back to attention, he breaks their tableau and begins searching the tables more thoroughly.
“There’s a cult operating somewhere in the city. They’re the ones behind the plague. The first outbreak was from a shipwreck. It was carrying several chests of coins, one of which escaped destruction.” Drawers rattled. A lock gave way so quickly to his fiddling that she barely caught a glimpse of his picks. He did not seem particularly concerned with leaving the lab looking untouched. “There was a curse on the coins within the chest. That is what spreads the disease. Another cache was meant to be spread from the Rotunda, but… that was discovered and disposed of. Most of the coins were accounted for last month, but there’s still a stream going out from somewhere.”
Ren joins him in the search, working her way from the far end of the table toward him. He hasn’t tried to rush her out the door again, but she doubts he was lying when he said the others would be back soon. “Gloves are enough to avoid the curse,” the Rook adds, “but not the disease once it has developed.”
“Still. Lady Renata may start a new fashion for gloves.” She slides her hand under the lip of the table and encounters something that isn’t a drawer. A quick jerk pulls it free: a green-bound journal.
He straightens, looking from the journal to her face. “And what have you there?” Laying a finger on the edge of the binding, he tips it just enough to allow the gold embossing on the cover to catch the lamplight. The standard script that decorates the covers of accounting ledgers.
“Hm. It seems you’ve found the treasure.” He lifts his hand, and perhaps it’s just chance that his fingers brush the back of hers when he drops it. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to trade for it?”
She can’t stop her eyebrows from rising. “What are you offering in exchange?”
His laugh is little more than a breath. “You have the prize. Doesn’t that mean you set the terms? I can only guess at what a fine lady might want.”
I want to know who the fuck you are. I want to know if you’re Vargo and playing with me like a cat with a three-legged mouse, or if something else is going on here. I want to know something I could use against you the way you could use what you know against me.
But as true as that is, it isn’t what she wants most.
All flirtation drops away. “I want to know how you found out. Where I slipped up, what clue I left lying around that led you to my doorstep.” She doesn’t say it, but the echo resounds anyway: I want to know how to prevent anyone else from following you through that gap.
Without the other end to hold it up, his flirtation drops as well. “Ah.” He takes a step back, shadows working across his jaw as he considers her price.
Another step back. His arms fold, chin sunk to his chest, which cloaks everything she might read in shadow.
Each word is careful. Calculated. And almost as impossible to read. “After Orjezan was taken, I decided that I had been too lax in learning what I could about the Lady Renata. So I set about finding out. You have a maidservant. Tess. Former Finger. She makes all your clothing. Rather brilliantly, I might add. And she keeps her mouth shut about her Lady’s business tighter than an oyster.”
Another pause, a soft huff that might have been a laugh. “But Tess has a sweetheart. Paolo. And he worries about her. Why does she need to buy day-old bread? Why does she have to recycle fabrics and jewels for her Lady’s gowns?” He unfolds his arms and holds out a hand. “Does that pay your price?” Then in a rush he adds, “He cares for her, or he wouldn’t be so worried. Don’t blame the boy. Don’t let Tess blame him, either.”
Ren closes her eyes. It’s a tell, but preferable to letting him see what’s in them. The house of cards is falling down. It was always fragile; it always relied on no one pressing too closely. If it wasn’t the Rook, it might have been Sibiliat Acrenix. Might still be her, if Ren can’t accomplish the impossible and acquire the kind of wealth she’s been pretending to have all along.
How could she blame Paolo? There was never any way to plug every possible hole in her masquerade. The ledge has always been as thin as a razor, and the drop beneath deep enough to kill.
She forces her eyes open, her expression clear. The last thing she can take right now is the Rook’s sympathy, and if he tries to offer it, she’ll wind up capping her evening with another humiliating failure to hit him. “I see. Thank you.” She means to hand over the ledger with a flourish, but the movement ends up too tight for grace.
He catches her hand rather than the book, gives it a gentle squeeze before sliding back to take the prize. “I cannot promise that we will always be allied, but I promise to you that I will never use this against you again. And I apologize for ever doing so.” His lips twitch, almost a smile. “You would think I’d know better.”
It eases the tension in her shoulders a tiny bit. And because honesty is a bad habit that seems to get worse with indulgence, she says, “You know I can’t resist trying to uncover your secrets. But you have a sense of how well I keep my own; I’ll extend the same to you.”
“I will consider myself forewarned and enjoy the challenge. In the meantime…” He taps the ledger. “This should contain reason enough for the bank to shut Mistress Pagliota down and have her questioned about those coins.”
Holding a free hand out for her, almost like a proper gentleman, he asks, “Shall we depart, my… Arenza?”
It’s Lady Renata who lays her hand in his. She used to be good at keeping the two separate. But on the path she’s walking, there may not be any place for Arenza anymore. “We shall.”
The kitchen is quiet and dark when she gets home, Tess sleeping peacefully by the embers of the fire. Normally she frets when Ren is out late, but apparently she trusts the Rook to deliver Ren home safely.
Moving silently, Ren unbuckles her weapons belt, shrugs out of her armor, and picks up a candle and a small bag, taking them into the parlor.
By the light of the candle’s flame, she sits upright, eyes closed, thinking. The Rook is not the first. Not the one who rescued Vilčin Anziely. Not the one who sprang Orjezan from his captivity. She thinks about everything the Rook has done, all the stories told about him — and then she thinks about her own experience of the man, the way he talks, the ease with which he disarmed her that night, the shifting tones of his voice and the feel of his gloved hand around her wrist.
When her sense of him is as strong and clear as it can get, she opens her eyes, and begins to lay out a pattern.
If some beats of this sound familiar, that’s because the equivalent scene in The Mask of Mirrors is the break-in at the abandoned wainwright’s. A tiny number of lines survived more or less verbatim! . . . but a great deal around them changed. This scene is a really good example of our game-to-novel process, in that the emotional spine remained intact — the nature and arc of the relationships between the characters — but we stripped away the plot specifics and built something wholly new around them. And it’s largely our core set of characters who remained the same, with the secondaries (Tess excepted) undergoing a great deal more mutation in order to support and propel those new plots.
We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse behind the scenes!