The old Chimeri dwellings were mazes of narrow hallways, prayer rooms, hidden passageways, and dim audience chambers full of secrets which festered in the shadow of their oppressive magnificence. Nerevar had a hard time getting accustomed to the stifling atmosphere of the fortresses and palaces – he loved the expanse of the wide blue sky above his head. He would often wake in the middle of the night, restless, take a sheet from his bed, wrap himself in it and lie down on the cold, hard floor so that he’d face the ceiling, and only then would he succumb to dreamless slumber.
When Nerevar walked into a large, dim room full of people, he felt smothered by the splendor of overdressed guests, by the brightness of red-and-white paper lanterns and dreugh wax candles, by the heavy, heady smell of incense. Besides the wooden doors which were rich in carving, the interior – the stairs, the banisters, and the floors in the ancient fortress Telasero were chiseled from rough stone. The dominance of the vaulted ceilings from brownish-green stone cast a melancholy over him, the glow of kitchen furnaces couldn’t dispel the all-pervading gloom.
It was the first day of the former Hortator’s wedding (though to his face, no one hinted at his one-time glory and addressed him as if he still held the title), and he spent it far away from the capital. Dumac’s escort refused to accompany the esteemed Dwemer leader to Mournhold in fear of an ambush. In the letter, one of Dumac’s scribes officially and in an appropriately pompous tone apologized for the inconvenience, pleading the danger of scattered Nordic bands which still harassed the Chimer and Dwemer settlements, but Nerevar wasn’t fooled by it. Dumac feared that his new allies would not adhere to any agreements and try to get rid of their sole rivals in their bid for dominance over Resdayn. Nerevar’s assurances to the contrary meant very little to him.
It was the first day of the Hortator’s wedding, and many councilmen and kinsmen, and master wizards flocked to Telasero to offer Almalexia and Nerevar declarations of undying loyalty and bring them traditional gifts. The Hortator was wearing an attire from dark spider-silk with a touch of saffron-yellow, and around his shoulders was draped a scarf of blooming scarlet – a gift from one of the Ashkhans. A necklace from cliffracer feathers, pearls and pieces of baby shalk shells on his breast was another gift from the Ashlanders.
It was the first day of the Hortator’s wedding, and one of the Indoril House cousins was particularly keen on capturing his attention. As soon as Nerevar went into the solemn feast chambers, the impertinent House cousin took him by the elbow and led him into the crowd, and, oozing sweet flattery, asked him for some insignificant favors. Nerevar couldn’t remember his name, but he vaguely recalled him laughing at his “uncouth manners” all those years ago. At present, the House cousin was flattery incarnate and expressed intense interest in the Hortator’s taste of wines and teas.
Nerevar wrenched his arm out of his grip and dove into the crowd where it was the thickest. He noticed a familiar imposing figure clad in purple and scintillating gold and hurried to greet his friend.
“Dumac, long time no see,” he said. “I apologize for the delay, but I’ve been terribly busy all morning. Everyone wants my attention if you can imagine. There was a time when they wouldn’t even look at me… Ah, what am I about? How have you fared?”
“You’re in a hurry, not I,” Dumac smirked into his beard. “I tried… spicy alit meat, I think it was. What an awful taste! I had to drink some ginkgo nectar to drown out the odious flavor of that spice.”
“Don’t the Dwemer… eat meat?” Nerevar felt awfully stupid for asking, as it hadn’t occurred to him during the war to pay attention to the Dwemer delicate sense of taste.
“Not alit meat, no. I thought I’d taste it, and it was, frankly, awful, but I don’t regret giving it a try.” Dumac laughed airily.
“I hope your companions -”
“My companions can take care of themselves… But you reminded me of something, my friend. Let me introduce you to Chlazgar, one of my best Tonal Smiths.” A tall Dwemer of swarthy complexion approached them and politely inclined his head. “At my behest, Chlazgar worked tirelessly on a very unordinary gift for you and your future wife. I hope it will be to your liking. And accept my sincere congratulations, of course. It’s a momentous occasion for our alliance.”
Behind the closed doors, far away from prying eyes, Dumac disapproved of the marriage out of deep antipathy for Almalexia, but it was so common for their people to despise and berate each other for trifles that Nerevar didn’t pay attention to his complaints. The Temple priests who taught Nerevar how to read and write after they found him – a lone, unneeded child – on the stairs of their Temple believed that the Dwemer were born with half a soul, having sacrificed another half to the void, Sithis. In hindsight, it was an awful thing to believe, but Nerevar didn’t dwell on it until he broke bread with a Dwemer and defended a fortress side by side with their king. In hindsight, it was difficult to eradicate a belief which was etched into the collective memory of their people together with fear and pain, and countless half-healed scars.
“A momentous occasion indeed,” Nerevar echoed, raising an ornate cup.
Chlazgar brought with him a centurion spider and to his back was fastened a gilded chest with engravings of mysterious shapes which resembled ornate scarabs and emperor crabs, tempered by soft lines and made to look less ominous. When Chlazgar threw back the lid, Nerevar was momentarily blinded by a brilliant glow of unbridled fire which could melt gold, it seemed, and then, in the dance of sparks, he saw a blade of deadly elegance.
“I called the sword Trueflame,” said Dumac. “Chlazgar boasts that it can kill a god. I assumed he meant one of your gods.”
A few Chimer nobles turned and stared at them with animosity, and Nerevar quickly beckoned Dumac to follow him to the opposite side of the room.
“It’s a priceless gift, my friend,” he hastened to say something to fill the awkward silence. “I’m not sure any words will suffice to describe my sheer awe. I’ll make it worthy of your name by slaying our common enemies with it. Rest assured, it won’t collect dust in a sheath.”
“It’s but one of a pair. Wait until you see Hopesfire!”
“Dumac, my dear friend, your gifts surpassed all expectations.”
“Enough! Enough of this! You know how terribly fond of you I am, Nerevar.”
They embraced each other, and Dumac kissed him on the cheek. It was a habit he picked up from the Nords during their negotiations with Jurgen Windcaller to secure a fair exchange of prisoners. Dumac was so eager to try every new trick, custom and frolic of the surface dwellers that he spent a good half an hour exchanging hearty greetings with the entire Chimer and Nordic retinue.
Nerevar excused himself and went to look for Almalexia whom he hasn’t seen since his arrival at Telasero early in the morning. It was time to speak before the honorable gathering, but the queen mysteriously vanished, and no one saw her after their retinues parted ways. Could it be possible that his future wife ran off on the eve of their wedding?
Vivec, on the other hand, got in his way since dawn, but they didn’t have time to speak frankly with each other until the ceremony commenced. Nerevar finished a long and tedious conversation with two Indoril Councilors who intended to endorse building an outpost near the Red Mountain as a sign of their willingness to work together with the Dwemer on a new road. Feeling ill at ease, Nerevar went outside to get a breath of fresh air. Vivec found him staring at the gentle curve of the firth from atop the long staircase.
“You’re not really going to marry Almalexia, are you?” he asked. He was on the verge of tears. “You’re a terrible match for her. You don’t particularly care for her and you don’t enjoy her company. She doesn’t want to marry you either, no matter what anyone says.” He grimaced, yet it came out as a pitiful pout. “I’ve thought about what we could do -”
“I know that you take our fates close to heart,” Nerevar said with a strange smile. “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“How can you be so indifferent? It’s your wedding! And don’t tell me that you’ve been forced into this marriage. I’ve seen you… I’ve seen how you defeated Chemua, and I fought with you at the Red Mountain and beyond. When the Dwemer refused to talk to us and threw us out, we found a way to make them listen and now we drink sujamma at the same table! We worship the glory that is Boethiah, we -”
“It’s not the same. Our happiness is not the cornerstone upon which the united Resdayn will be built. It’s our marriage. We either get married or we go to war with each other, and this land has suffered enough misfortunes… Cheer up, Vivec. It’s not a sorrowful occasion. I’m certain that with time we will learn to love each other.”
“If it’s war you fear, walk away. It’s not too late.”
“We’ve had this conversation many times over. Why do you bring it up again? I’ve got nothing to say. They were born to rule, and I’ve won my place by conquest, by right of daring and enterprise. I’ve bargained, I’ve ruined lives, I’ve bled for this victory, and to walk away now, to bow, to fade in obscurity… They’d have to kill me.”
“But it’s just a chair. A stupid, gilded chair. Marry one of them,” Vivec pointed towards the crowds of House lords who idled about the square or gathered around ash-beds and argued about something with great animation. “Any one of them will be overjoyed. I have it on good authority that lord Dagoth -”
“Ah, Voryn… Not another word about him.”
Nerevar was certain, to the extent that anything in his madcap life could be certain, that Voryn Dagoth was infatuated with him, but after an awkward kiss they shared in the suffocating darkness of the tent, he took an uncharacteristically cowardly way out and feigned one excuse or the other to ignore his advances. In another life, Nerevar could have given Voryn what he wanted, but the euphoria of triumph eclipsed the sweetness of love, and the Hortator lost his head. At the tip of his fingers, he felt threads of fate quiver, disturbed by the heartbeat of a new entity born in bloody victories and daring bids for power – a new, restless entity they began to call the First Council because it was the first of its kind in the shared history of their people. Nerevar didn’t know what would become of it, but he thought of unprecedented prosperity brought about by the alliance, of gardens blooming in the wasteland, of well-paved roads which encompassed lush islands, of cities and towers scraping the underbellies of clouds, of metallic armies repelling invaders in place of saltrice farmers, of new glories and new triumphs, and the medley of images surreal and prophetic preoccupied him wholly. Nerevar thought of so many ideas at once that the overwhelming excitement paralyzed him rather than invigorated. The untrod road wound in darkness, and he was terrified of making a misstep.
“Can you promise me, at least, not to hurt her?” Vivec’s voice roused him from his thoughts. “After she gives you what you want, don’t hurt her.”
“She won’t die by my hand if that’s what you want to hear… Besides, didn’t you say it, once? You said that the queen would be my wife… What came over you that day? But you were right.”
“Is it my fault, then? By the Three! It was a horrible thing to say and I was stupid… Stupid, stupid Vehk.” Vivec hung his head. “I’m a liar and a storyteller. I blabber a lot and tell tall tales, and interpret half-truths Mephala showed me on the tapestry of stars, but it’s you… it’s you who make them come true!”
There was a sudden commotion behind them, and Vivec didn’t get to finish what he wanted to say. A small crowd of nobles approached them, and in front of it walked the familiar House cousin whose name Nerevar couldn’t remember even if his life depended on it.
“My lord, we were looking all over for you. The speech… It’s time.”
“Where is Almalexia?” Nerevar asked sharply.
“We don’t know, we sent a guar rider to the nearby village and -”
“You’re a fool! How can I say my speech if the queen isn’t here yet? Find her at once or I’ll strip you of your title!”
Something went terribly wrong, but Nerevar couldn’t quite put his finger on it – the queen’s absence, the sickly-sweet mien of the House cousin, the woefully delayed arrival of Voryn Dagoth seemed to be connected somehow, but the puzzle passed his comprehension. Nerevar shoved the noble out of his way and with a brisk gait, headed back to the room where the feast was still in full swing. A few Indoril kinsmen so far removed from the seats of power that Nerevar suspected they had invited themselves to the ceremony smoked skooma in the poorly lit hallway. Their faces were dark, blurry blots. Nerevar turned around the corner and staggered, leaning against the wall. A swimming came before his eyes. He shook his head, unsheathed his dagger, swung it wildly, but the blade ripped through empty air, and he sank to his knees. He felt as if his entire body was on fire, but it refused to obey him, and his fingers lost their grip on the rough wall.
There was a movement behind him and ahead of him; a few people rushed towards him, strong arms helped him up to his feet, nearly carried him into a small room, and concerned voices he couldn’t quite match with the faces of the nobles around him kept asking him if he had been wounded. There was a light patter of feet in the hallway, and then Nerevar heard the heavy tread of the armored guard and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Someone tried to poison the Hortator,” a hysterical voice rang above his head. “There’s a traitor among us!”
“I’m well,” Nerevar tried to assure them. “There’s no need to worry.”
“Get him a healer!” the same voice exclaimed.
“I don’t need a healer!” Nerevar grabbed the Chimer by the blouse from light, tender silk and it ripped when he pulled at it. The mer stopped, and the Hortator took a good look at his face. “It’s you again, House cousin. What a convenient coincidence that I keep running into you! Where is lord Dagoth? Where’s the queen?”
“There was an ash storm -” he choked on his words.
A sinister-looking slender figure in a black cloak came up to him from behind – Nerevar’s attention was preoccupied with the hapless House cousin and he didn’t notice her until she noiselessly slipped into battle stance. The House cousin, wide-eyed with terror, turned to face her just as the sword, guided by a sure hand, was thrust into his stomach. The cousin made a gurgling sound and the woman stabbed him again and again, and after his body went limp and he ceased groaning, she gently lowered him on the floor and wiped the bloody blade pristine on his blouse.
“I’m here,” she said quietly, tiredly, and threw off the hood. The messy locks scattered on her shoulders – her head seemed crowned in fire. “And it’s my gift to you, my future husband.”
“Slippery fetcher but not particularly clever.” Almalexia stooped over the body of the House cousin who lay there with a vacant stare and an indescribably inane expression on his paling face. She turned his pockets inside out, and found a small ebony dagger, a sealed writ for execution with both of their names on it, and a small vial of vivid ruby color. The guards who heard the struggle burst into the room, but she calmed them down with a few kind words and handed them the evidence.
His knees were still weak, and Nerevar subsided into a large chair.
“Is this sore loser with Morag Tong?” he tried to joke. “The guild was never short on decent assassins.”
“No, he was the one who hired them. There were others. We encountered them on our way to Telasero. But you’re right, in a way. One of these unfortunate assassins desperately wanted to save his life and he talked. He told me everything.” Almalexia scoffed. “In the days when my family ruled Mournhold, an assassin who talked was considered great shame for Morag Tong.”
“Do you truly believe that this House cousin had the gall to get rid of us all on his own? He has neither the gold nor the influence to pull it off. The Grandmaster would never approve a writ for the both of us unless the other nobles backed him.”
The blood rose to Almalexia’s cheeks, and her eyes flashed fire. “If there were other culprits, the assassin didn’t know. As I said, our dear Indoril cousin wasn’t particularly clever, and he left us clues… Or maybe he conceived of the scheme alone and carried it out alone. And he got sloppy. I suspect that there may be rogue assassins within the Morag Tong, worshipers of Mephala who spin their own web.”
“But Boethiah was with us today.”
“Don’t think too high of your own importance, Nerevar.” There was a hint of bitterness in Almalexia’s voice. “In the eyes of Boethiah, we are dust.”