In the days following Molag Bal’s incursion into Mournhold, thick, chilly fog crept over the city. It settled upon the bazaar, hanging low over the gray expanse of the river, and scattered in ghostly-white wisps above the barren fields, and the sleepless silhouettes, the uncertain shapes and lights faded into the murk, assuming the likeness of restless ghosts. After the herald announced the Hortator’s decision, the guard of House Indoril went around the city, and when the townspeople heard the heavy, even tread, they hid in their homes and many a white face watched from the window as rows of Chimer cased from head to toe in steel vanished in the fog. The cozy narrow squares, the quay, the vast stone staircases and flowerbeds under the tall mushroom trees – favorite places where citizens of Mournhold would gather on an ordinary day to gossip about rumors from Vvardenfell and colorful lives of their neighbors – were deserted. The bright-lit windows of merry taverns and alehouses dimmed or were snuffed out, adding to the overall impression of desolation. The city of Mournhold wasn’t brought to its knees, but, preparing for battle, it succumbed to fear, and the unordinary mist appeared to all eyes its otherworldly manifestation.
In uncertain times Chimer, in a fit of religious fervor, frequented secluded shrines and temples so as to appease the anger of their ancestors with lavish offerings and beg for their protection. No one loved their gods more ardently than Chimer in a time of need and, though deeply selfish, their love was spectacular and gaudy in its outward expression. It was customary to leave precious stones, herbs and bread on the altars, but some Chimer felt that traditional offerings were too meager to appease the gods’ wrath. They stripped their houses of statues, vases, paintings, carpets and furniture, loaded them on guar-drawn carts and left them by the temple gates to the great annoyance of priests who didn’t know where to keep these massive decorations. The quick-witted and dauntless priests broke temple rules and it wasn’t uncommon to spot a Dwemeri cabinet encrusted with an Indoril coat of arms in possession of a street merchant or an exquisite vase from Summerset Isles decorating a dwelling of a lowly retainer.
But many Chimer, though they believed staunchly in might and benevolence of their ancestors, favored cautiousness and pragmatism over foolhardy bravery. They stocked up on cheap spells and scrolls and diligently cast them on their doors and windows – one in every five doorways bore traces of an intricate magical figure which served thieves and bandits as a warning. It never occurred to them that the wards would protect them from an occasional impudent pilferer, but they were powerless against the dreadful Daedra of Oblivion. And useless as they were, cheap enchantments often started fires, but greed is an irrational force, a disease which afflicts the poor and the rich, the noble and the ignoble, the Ashlander and the city mer.
A faulty enchantment caused a fire in the poor district of Mournhold which abounded in wooden hovels and whilst the guards and townsfolk poured buckets of water on the blazing straw roof, whilst a breathless youth begged a Telvanni mage to call forth a storm, the vigilant watchmen found a ragged fellow who drew on the walls of his ramshackle hut odd figures and symbols, muttering incoherent words to himself, and dragged the poor wretch to the city prison. The Telvannni sorcerer intervened on behalf of a harmless servant of Sheogorath, and the watchmen released him, but a few hours later he was found beaten to death near the empty Arena. A zealous guard mistook a half-naked Nord, who vehemently claimed that a cunning witch had robbed him, for a servant of Molag Bal and realized his blunder when he took his prisoner to the Hortator. A few sorcerers surrendered their Daedric artifacts without resentment, but rare acts of obedience neither assured nor gladdened Nerevar.
The Hortator listened to the news, drank tea with Dagoth brandy, peered into the fog with inexplicable melancholy, feeling at a loss but expressing none of his confusion. “I assure you all is as we have foreseen it,” he lied, smiling, exchanged solemn bows and, with a terrible sinking feeling, waited for a messenger or a note from Voryn. Almalexia, in a fit of generosity, ordered the priests to hand out food and money for the poor and he let her be, observing her from afar through the eyes of loyal servants. Sotha Sil locked himself in his cave, incensed at the thought that the insolent intruders dared play the master in his most secret and sacred of dwellings, and refused to see anyone. Vivec was all in a dither, rushing about the palace and meeting with many dignitaries from the Great Houses, but their paths crossed seldom, and it seemed to Nerevar that the youngest Tribune purposefully avoided him.
Then the Ashlanders arrived.
They poured through the gates – wiry men and women in ornamental furs and headwear, with rosy tattooed cheeks and brilliant eyes – and were at once surrounded by the guards who treated them in an aloof manner. Many tribe leaders and Wise Women came to the Council sitting, but only four of them were allowed to take part in it. Ashkhan Dun-Ilu of Ahemmusa was among them and Tamal of Kumanishapu and it would be their duty to announce to the rest of the tribes the decisions of the First Council. In a matter of hours, across the entire span of the inner courtyard, a multitude of dark tents sprung up, fires were lit, and a quiet music of a bamboo flute was wafted to the sentries’ ears. In spite of the fear which took hold of Mournhold, in spite of the innate hostility and mistrust between the Ashlanders and the settled Chimer, the guards didn’t harass the lone player and he played, fierce and unafraid, far into the night.
On the day of the Council sitting, Nerevar was roused from his sleep when it was still dark and at once received Renam Indoril – a petty Councilor who was brave or foolish to deliver him the will of House Indoril. He looked at Nerevar with a sense of unchallenged superiority and, seating himself on the chair, said:
“In troubled times, we always asked our ancestors for help and House Indoril believes that we should appeal to them urgently… and we surely – as surely as our House is to rule Chimer another thousand years – do not expect any objection from you, but we find you uniquely inapt for the task. Please, understand our predicament! Our ancestors are capricious and proud, and they will not answer the call of someone who wasn’t born into House Indoril. We do not wish to say that your ancestry isn’t splendid in its own way, but in our House you’re an outsider. It is our humble request that the queen performs the summoning ritual. It’s a rather… delicate matter.”
“I’ve defended our realm from the Nords,” objected Nerevar, “I’ve done your ancestors proud and you still dare call me an outsider! What nonsense!”
“It’s not how our ancestors see it. You did your ancestors proud! And it’s unwise to anger them lest they wreak terrible vengeance on the offenders… The story of Balreth and Sadal is still fresh in our memory. It was during your war with the Nords – how timely you reminded me of it!”
Renam was implacable and Nerevar had to make concessions, but he didn’t forgive the Councilor’s churlishness – it wasn’t in the Hortator’s habit to forget however paltry an insult. Almalexia was beside herself with joy when she heard of her small victory. She glanced affectionately at Vivec with whom she kept company quite often as of late, but Nerevar didn’t perceive anything off-putting in their flustered manners. We often lose sharpness of insight with those we have known the longest; our mind is easily lulled by a false sense of immutability, by a monotony of passing days.
Dressed in long white robes, seven figures descended into the Indoril crypts deep beneath the Mournhold palace, carrying candles, magelights and incenses. In front of an ornate reinforced door, they stopped in profound veneration and asked their ancestors for permission to enter. Behind the door was a vast room with a vault ceiling, impressive for its remarkable sense of proportion, empty, bleak and poorly-lit. An expansive mosaic which depicted a woman resting in the coils of a giant snake covered the floor. Its magnificent forms seemed wasted on the dead spectators whose eyes were blind and hearts indifferent and cold, yet Nerevar always felt that the crypt teemed with unseen, unearthly life whose presence was felt in a breath of cold wind, in the even quivering of candle fire. In the farthest corner of the vault, stood an altar bathed in faint light, with a bowl, a skull and a tall urn upon it.
Almalexia immersed her hands into the ebony chalice filled with clear water, shook the droplets from her fingers and uttered a few words in Velothi language, spreading wide her arms and raising her head aloft. Nerevar knelt on the floor behind her, but he didn’t understand what the queen said; the words were brusque, old, unmeaning to all save for the oldest of Wise Women or passionate Temple archivists. Above the chalice appeared a tall shadow of a broad-shouldered Chimer warrior in ceremonial armor. The colors of his lavish attire had faded, and the intricate adornments appeared blurred, but the warrior carried himself with authority which didn’t diminish with the passing of time, and his head and shoulders were habitually unbowed.
“Why have you summoned me?” he asked them in a surprisingly gentle voice, but his burning eyes were fastened on Almalexia alone. Nerevar felt a surge of spite towards the proud spirit who didn’t fail to remind him that he was an outsider adopted into the House, undeserving of his attention, but his anger was tempered by his reverence of ancestors.
“I came to seek advice, ancient one,” answered the queen, smiling tensely. “We heard many a story about your valiant determined opposition to the evils of the bad Daedra. Now our city is in peril once more.”
“And you come to the dead for aid! Why don’t you bother the living with your endless questions? Let me rest in peace.”
“And in peace you shall rest, venerable ancestor. But I must ask you for council before I will let you pass through the Waiting Door. I begged for your wisdom when the Nords ravaged my city, yet you kept silent. I won’t plead again, nor will I do nothing whatsoever.”
A mournful sigh passed the lips of an old spirit. “Very well, ask your questions, sera, lest I’ve been awoken pointlessly.”
“Molag Bal, the Prince of Brutality… I want to know how to defeat him.”
“Alas, we never clashed against him, but Mehrunes Dagon… yes, him we overcame if you wish to call it a victory. My body is dust and with it, my injured vanity. We only delayed him. The victory was hollow and without triumph.”
“I prefer a hollow victory to a bitter defeat,” said Almalexia firmly.
“You wouldn’t be so convinced, my queen, if you witnessed our sacrifice – the act so noble yet foreordained to fail. But enough of this! Few things mean anything in death… I cannot tell you how to fight your foes, but I can retell you a long-forgotten tale of how we fought ours.”
“It’s still unclear to me what my venerated ancestor tried to tell us – his tale was awfully cryptic,” said Almalexia later, leafing through the pages of a rare book. “In spite of Renam’s hopes, little was revealed to us. Daedric Princes are incomprehensible! Well, I didn’t have to talk to a musty spirit to hear that trivial bit of knowledge.”
“I wish you were more respectful in your attitude towards our ancestors, my queen,” muttered Nerevar.
The three of them, with Vivec lolling lazily between the royal couple, rested on the embroidered cushions scattered round a low table upon which a ghalyan smoked unheeded. It was polite to take an occasional puff from the ghalyan which contained an aromatic mix of herbs and moon sugar, but none of them were in a hurry to partake from the ornate glass vessel with an ebony shaft in the shape of a graceful snake. It was unusual to request a ghalyan and not share it with the rest of the interlocutors, but it was an unusual day and breaches in prescribed etiquette were forgiven.
“He suggested a willing sacrifice! What is more abhorrent to a Daedric Prince than a sincere, selfless sacrifice? It’s absurd!” Almalexia exclaimed with burning indignation.
“In all fairness, he warned us that we might not like his answer.”
“You have ill sense of humor, Nerevar… To know that some of my ancestors are cowards is unbearable. What they’ve done contradicts all teachings of Boethiah. The Prince taught us to persevere against all odds, to find comfort in cultivating a strong will… And they’ve forsaken it all!”
“Ayem, you’re upset. The Council sitting is in a few hours -”
“These are my ancestors, Vivec! A disgraceful bunch.” Almalexia rose from the cushions. “We’ll fight Molag Bal. We’ll meet his horde in a clash of arms, slay his most loyal servants, forbid his worship, stifle the seed of his corruption in its womb. Is it not enough? I refuse to believe it.”
“Haven’t you heard the news?” Nerevar asked morosely. “Molag Bal is cunning and deceitful. In brutality, he rivals Mehrunes Dagon, in cruelty Sheogorath; he is vengeful like Malacath and licentious like Sanguine. Uprooting all pernicious Daedra worship from Mournhold, you’ll drown the city in blood. Is Sil truly our only hope?”
“You make a terrible advocate of caution. Did age dull your acumen?”
Vivec leaped to his feet, blushed, but thought it wise not to make a scene and reluctantly sat down.
“You’re forgetting about me,” he said. “I may not be vainglorious, and Mephala enjoys a spider’s obscurity, but to ignore her role in this confrontation is a folly. Instead of arguing with each other, why haven’t you asked for my advice?”
Almalexia’s hard features gradually unbent. “Well, I’m asking you now, Vehki.”
“I think I can help. Dinara Dres… I’ve asked around about her. Why does Molag Bal seem to favor her if you have the heart to call it ‘favor’? In the morning I received word from one of my most trusted and loyal spies. She had to ride four guars to the death to bring me her findings on time.”
“Well, go on, don’t keep me in suspense.”
“When you asked me to find you a suitable replacement for the Grandmaster of House Dres, I began to wonder why Favela was allowed to keep her seat on the Council even after rumors spread that she was suffering from witbane. I find a great many things suspicious. Why did duke Melen urgently send for his mistress before breakfast? Isn’t it suspicious? But I thought nothing of it at the time and it was my mistake. There’s quite the story to it.” Vivec sprawled comfortably on the cushions, taking delight in having all the eyes in the room on him. “In my childhood I came to regard witbane as a disease afflicting those who suffer terribly in life. My intuition didn’t fail me. I dug in deep, bribed, threatened and at last I discovered that Favela in her youth caught the eye of Molag Bal. Molag Bal amuses himself with upsetting the purity of our bloodlines, and Dinara is the product of that unnatural union. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination… When Favela’s father learned of the tragedy, he took his own life out of profound sense of shame – a weak, deplorable mer! – and Favela took it upon herself to lead and guide her people. She hired a Morag Tong assassin to silence everyone who knew that the Lord of Brutality fathered her child, but an Argonian slave escaped her wrath as did a few nobles. There was a rumor that many years later Dinara slaughtered an Argonian family in the Black Marsh to receive Molag Bal’s famed mace. Those were the descendants of Listens-to-Rain who likely knew nothing of their ancestor’s transgressions against House Dres.” Vivec paused, taking a deep puff of the ghalyan. “Kragenmoor forgets nothing, but the surviving nobles reasoned that it was best to keep quiet than bring shame to their House. Favela’s rule was safeguarded by the awful secret. The longer she ran the affairs of House Dres, the more her inner circle feared that a revelation of that magnitude would ruin them… Meanwhile, life ran its course. Favela had another daughter from a short-lived marriage to her distant relative. Everything was going well for House Dres for a while. And what became of Dinara? I can but speculate. Perhaps Molag Bal got to her or she turned to Daedric magic, sensing that she didn’t belong in her mother’s court or her slave-pens. I don’t deem it important.”
Nerevar awkwardly put a hand on Vivec’s shoulder instead of embracing him as was his impulse. Vivec turned away to hide his embarrassment, and the Hortator caught a glimpse in him of an odd, wise urchin who held his attention in bygone days.
“It’s, frankly, the best news I’ve heard since chil’a. Accept my profound gratitude, Vivec… While I racked my memory for answers, you found what I needed to set everything aright.”
Almalexia followed Vivec’s example and sharply inhaled the aromatic fumes from the ghalyan, throwing back her head and watching him with rapt attention through the clouds of whitish smoke.
“These are grave words. I never knew Favela well, but I find it hard not to admire her. I wish… I regret I’ve never taken the time to become closely acquainted with her… We should let her memory be in peace.”
“Favela is dead. What’s my pity to a dead woman? And her daughter is my sworn enemy… Your pleas for compassion ring hollow to me.”
“Show compassion for your enemies so that when you find a sword pointed at your chest, they may show compassion for you.”
“I pray to Azura that this day never comes… You wanted to know how we will fight Molag Bal? It’s all clear to me now. Today we will seize control of the Council. House Indoril will stand by me as it always did, and House Dres will bow to our will lest they suffer a humiliation. I suspect they won’t choose to tarnish the honor of their House no matter the severity of our demands.”
“It’s only two Houses out of four,” said Vivec, holding up two fingers.
“If House Telvanni abstains from voting, I’ll need the support of one other Great House – House Dagoth. You may rest assured that I have it.”
“Why are you so certain that you have it?”
“I had a rather illuminating conversation with the Grandmaster of House Dagoth while we were trapped in the sewers. What came out of it? That’s none of your concern. But I’ve placed my faith in him, and I trust that you and I are of one mind… Or should I worry?”
Nerevar exchanged brief smiles with Almalexia and the queen shook her head as if to say that he shouldn’t expect any nasty surprises from her, but he didn’t know what to make of the gesture, nor did he have the time to give it thought, for their conversation was interrupted by a breathless servant who told him that the heads of the Great Houses were ready to receive him.
Voryn returned to Kogoruhn as soon as he felt thoroughly rested and capable of casting a spell of recall without a hitch. A failed incantation would sap his strength and give him an awful headache or a feeling of nausea, and it would take him too long to mend the invisible ties between anima and Aetherius. Voryn considered himself a temperate and sober-minded person, but it was difficult for him to restrain himself on that occasion. He was overcome with unfamiliar impatience; he couldn’t stand still for a moment, pacing back and forth and cursing his irredeemable weakness. It was unbearable for him to think that he abandoned Nerevar in time of trouble: no ailment, no wayward chance, no twist of cruel fate could deter him from rejoining with his beloved lord. He longed to be in Nerevar’s arms, to rest his head on Nerevar’s breast, to kiss Nerevar’s lips, to assure him of his love and devotion until there wouldn’t be a shadow of mistrust in his eyes. And the words he said and hadn’t said rang in his ears, unwelcome, unforgiving.
Before he journeyed to the palace, Voryn scrubbed himself clean and applied magical unguents and perfumes and hair fragrances to banish from memory the pervasive odor of the sewers, and everything seemed to him wholly orderly and natural again. Even Vemyn’s and Odros’s affectionate reproaches and questions about the incident in the Arena didn’t vex him – he remained silent as they clothed him in a red-and-black ceremonial robe with curved pauldrons and golden embroideries on the sleeves. The Dwemer clock on the table whirred quietly, reminding him that he had no time to spare.
Voryn’s first visit was to Almalexia. It wasn’t a polite visit of a House noble to his queen, nor was it a friendly visit, and Voryn didn’t know what he’d tell her when he saw her, only that he needed to see her. Gilvoth was right when he said that no woman attracted his interest, though it rang like an accusation. Deep down, Voryn felt guilty for his inability to live up to his brothers’ expectations by marrying a woman, but these were his failings as a ruler, not his inadequacies as a person. Nevertheless, he didn’t want to tarnish his love for Nerevar with a feeling of guilt, and perhaps he sought assurance from the queen, or he needed to confront her like the condemned longs to confront the accuser. It was an inexplicable feeling.
Voryn found Almalexia in her chambers reading, and she was astonished to see him but not altogether displeased. She was dressed in furs and silks, but her hair was gathered in a manner worn around the house and to Voryn she appeared less a statue – warm and familiar, and bright.
“Voryn, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” Almalexia asked after they exchanged greetings. “But that can wait… Allow me to express my joy that you returned to us safely. My husband’s love for Resdayn is not as strong as his love for dangerous, extraordinary adventures. I apologize on his behalf for putting your life in grave danger, as he won’t deign to apologize himself.”
Voryn was tempted to say something rash or sarcastic, but he bowed his head and held back his tongue. “I am grateful to my queen for her concern about my health, but we’ve been through worse. I’m happy to bear any pain in defense of our land.”
“If you’re looking for Nerevar, he’s talking to a Dres councilor.” Almalexia turned away in disappointment and resumed reading her book.
“No, my queen, I wanted to talk to you if you have time to hear me out.”
“Now you’ve piqued my curiosity. Speak your mind freely, Voryn.”
“After the confrontation in the Arena, we found ourselves in the sewers as you undoubtedly know. Among the few skeletons we cut down, there was one who wore an amulet with a faint of magic about it. I think you’ll recognize it.” Voryn handed Almalexia the medallion he tore off the skeleton’s neck. “Something about it seemed to me familiar. I asked the Hortator if it could be that same amulet and he confirmed it”
“It’s a curious thing… from a distant time before the war. The honorary guard of Mournhold… valiant, noble-minded, and short-lived. I was very young then. Everything was so much clearer.”
“It’s just a trinket, my lady -”
“No, Voryn, do not presume me ungrateful. I see in your eyes a want to confess something to me. Or do you wish to ask me for a favor? Don’t hesitate! I’m predisposed to lending you my ear.”
An absurd thought flashed through Voryn’s mind that he would tell her everything and he imagined how she’d look at him – angry, defeated or indifferent – but the strange feeling passed.
“My queen,” he said, “I want peace. I propose we entrust our fate to Nerevar as we had done in the past. Today let’s be his allies, his faithful servants -”
“Did he send you to chastise me? The audacity of that man!”
“No, I came of my own will. And I would not dare scold a queen… I know he won’t ask for your support out of pride or some other strong sentiment, but I have none to speak of. If the queen expects me to beg, I’ll beg her on his behalf, on behalf of all Mournhold. Give him your vote and let’s be done with it. Our attempts to fight Molag Bal have been easily foiled because each of us acted alone. If all Houses act together, we will uproot his influence from our realm for many years to come.”
“And then what?” the queen exclaimed bitterly. “You don’t understand how Nerevar’s mind works. While your attention is preoccupied with defeating Molag Bal, he thinks of what will happen thirty – no, fifty! – years from now. Everything he does has lasting consequences. Give him my vote… I gave him my vote once. I thought he would defeat the Nords and vanish into obscurity, but when he asked for my vote, sweetly, he set his sights on the throne of all Resdayn.”
The queen was adamant, and Voryn took his leave of her as her handmaidens rushed in to clothe her for the Council meeting. He didn’t expect Almalexia to agree with him, but he was convinced that the deep resentment she bore against Nerevar was genuine. And when he met with the Hortator, Voryn kissed him with abandon and whispered sweet senseless assurances into his ear, knowing that in every word they’ve said to each other there was no lie.
The First Council met in a large chamber behind the throne room. There were two long tables in it from expensive wood and between them gaped a vast fire pit which heated and illumined the room; the fire was bright and merry, the air stuffy, and the zealous servants now and again threw more aromatic wood into the greedy flames. The chairs were lined up along the outer side of each table opposite of the fire pit so that the councilors would always face each other, but few found the arrangements of the furniture comfortable. While they spoke, the councilors had to rise from their seats and lift up their voices so that everyone sitting at the opposite table could hear them. On the back of each chair were engraved the heraldic bearings of the House and the noble family of the councilor to whom the seat belonged – councilors held the title until death relieved them of the burdens and privileges of their position. On a rare occasion, a minor House would be invited to participate in the Council gatherings and then a chair with its heraldry would be brought to the table, but on the memory of most participants such honors were bestowed only once on House Mora. House Indoril had the most seats followed by House Dagoth whose Grandmaster was awarded the title of Lord High Councilor and king Dumac who represented the free and independent people of Dwemereth. The Ashlanders had no seats on the Council and they neither demanded nor desired them for as long as Nerevar invited them to the table and resolved their disputes with the House nobles. The only Argonian allowed in the Council chamber was a freed slave by the name of Weewish who spoke many dialects of Aldmeri and translated now for the Ashlanders, now for the Dwemer when they couldn’t understand the nuances of the formal Velothi language in which all important affairs were discussed.
When the councilors took their seats, the guard left the chamber and closed all doors so as to warn any careless or insolent intruder against disturbing the sitting. The king and his Tribunes – bedazzling and stern – sat at the table together with the Dwemer, Telvanni and Hlaalu councilors, and opposite of them the rest of the pompous gathering settled in their chairs, talking quietly among each other. The councilors often vied with each other in extravagance of their rich attires. That year heavy fur collars were in fashion although no one complained that the Council chamber was poorly heated, and Cardea distinguished herself with a lush, embroidered collar so long that it reached her elbows, contrasting with her comely ascetic features, broad shoulders and short hair. It earned her a few jealous and derisive glances and remarks, but she, faithful to her Nordic heritage, didn’t bat an eyelid. Among the Dwemer, Dumac’s armor stood out for the heavy adornments from gold on his breastplate. As darkness came, crimson sheens from the fire pit spattered across his polished plate-armor, and the mighty figure of the Dwemer king appeared soaked in blood.
The first to speak was the councilor from a minor House who claimed his descendance from Jarls of Skyrim and he explained at length and in vague terms why his House should be granted an honor to sit at the table with the rest of them. It became a tradition. Many small Chimer Houses desired a seat on the Council and for that unattainable privilege their leaders would go to great lengths and stoop to the basest behavior. Every year a dauntless head of one of those unfortunate Houses bribed a few councilors or found favor with them through hardly upright means and put forward his arguments abounding in high-flown phrases and references to obscure laws before an audience disinterested and selfish. The success of House Mora inflamed them, but none could boast of repeating it. After the introduction, Nerevar ceased listening to the monotonous mutter of the elderly Nord and his thoughts drifted away. He glanced to his left where Vivec sat and noticed that his Tribune was preoccupied with sketching something on a piece of paper. He asked Almalexia to move her arm and both of them saw a portrait of the old Nord who was speaking at present with an exaggerated nose, grotesque lips and enormous ears. Nerevar didn’t have the heart to reprimand his assiduous Tribune for the drawing and the three of them quietly laughed.
After a quick and unenthusiastic vote, the indignant Nord was sent away, and Sotha Sil rose from his chair. He looked agitated and pale in his long black robe, and he accompanied his words with rapid gestures.
“Lord Nerevar called me to explain my… findings to the Council,” he muttered quickly, avoiding to look anyone in the eye. “What I found is… troubling. But it’s no easy task to explain it in a straightforward and concise manner. Have you, esteemed Councilors, heard about Arena Supermundus?” He coughed miserably, and went on in a quiet, dispassionate voice as if it pained him to speak. “Do not confuse Arena Supermundus with Nirn which means ‘arena’ in the language of our ancestors. Imagine a wheel – a wheel of a wagon will do – which has eight spokes and sixteen realms or tones, as our esteemed Kagrenac would say. There’s more to this grand arena – sun and constellations and Aetherius – but today I will speak of the vast sea of Oblivion and its mysterious realms. Forgive me, what was I going to say?.. Ah, yes! It’s no coincidence to me that our Dwemer colleagues arrived at the same conclusion. And the truth is often less straightforward. Just as sixteen primary tones may shatter, with mathematical accord, into sixty-four secondary tones, and so on and so forth, there exist pocket realms of Oblivion whose nature had not been thoroughly studied. These small realms attracted my interest.
“It’s not a secret to anyone who devoted time to understanding magical arts that mystic soul energy can be used to animate dead and cast powerful spells. The knowledge of it is not widespread. It is a sacrilege to suggest that our venerable ancestors were mere material... We condemn the practice of trapping the souls of the living beings and, truthfully, until now many of us deemed it impossible. But Molag Bal’s vile practices had me questioning the foundation of our understanding of the world. What happens to the soul of a living being after it is trapped in a corrupted soul gem? I fear that without it we cannot understand the intentions of the Prince of Rage.”
“Is it… denied Aetherius?” whispered Cardea.
“I’m afraid so. Without Azura’s Star, we wouldn’t know… There is a realm in Oblivion which belongs to no Daedric Prince, and perhaps for that reason alone Molag Bal covets it. I cannot say. It is inhabited by ghosts whose souls have been imprisoned in cold gems. Pale, tortured reflections of the vibrant energies which once coursed among the stars. Some call this realm Soul Cairn.”
“And what did Molag Bal gain from invading Mournhold? It’s unclear to many of us.”
Almalexia got up from her seat.
“We captured a monstrous creature in Bal Fell and imprisoned it in the caves beneath the palace. She would have revealed to us the purpose of this grand madness… To my deep regret, I must inform you that House Dres betrayed us. Only leaders of the Great Houses knew where to find that creature. Dinara Dres led the Daedra to the caverns, freed the creature, and now it returned to its master’s side.”
Murmur arose in the chamber, and before anyone could interrupt her or bring her to reason, an elderly Dres councilor leapt to her feet with surprising mettle. “We didn’t know about Dinara’s collusion with the Prince of Enslavement!” she shouted hoarsely. “No one knew! Now we have no heirs, our reputation is smeared, our profits are suffering – we’ve been punished enough!”
It was a brazen breach of etiquette to stand while the queen was standing, to speak while the queen was speaking, and other Dres Councilors talked the enraged woman into sitting down. The queen frowned and continued her speech.
“We took into consideration all the mitigating circumstances as we are not without mercy. Our investigation will expose all who plotted with Dinara and we expect reciprocity, conducting it. But that’s not what I propose to discuss today. I propose to temporarily expel House Dres from the Council on the suspicion of colluding with the enemy. We don’t know -”
“It’s a travesty!” someone from the opposite table exclaimed, forgetting about etiquette.
“Would you still call it a travesty if you knew that one of them was corrupted by the Prince of Rage?” Almalexia insisted, her features immovable. “Think about it! Molag Bal will learn all your clever artifices and strategies as soon as the doors to this chamber open. Esteemed councilors! There will be no victory for us if we disregard the obvious dangers.”
“The queen speaks the truth, but what evidence is there that such dangers do exist?” Kagrenac said quietly, rising from his seat. All eyes were on him, and the room grew quiet. He had an air about him of an aloof observer that disquieted many – nothing seemed to attract his attention, his countenance was perpetually twisted in a bored or derisive grimace and he spoke very little. When he did deign to speak, he never looked at his interlocutors but at something behind them, as if a chair or a table, or a brass sconce were vastly more curious and amusing to him than the conversation. “I don’t dispute that we’re in grave danger, but logic dictates that we never act on a mere suspicion. A suspicion is like a superstition. Today we see, clearly, all that we want to see. Instead of following the way of reason, we enforce on others our own unreasonableness. We become victims of our imagination. Tomorrow’s a different story… Who is to say that other Houses are above suspicion?” And he sat down, losing interest in a conversation which drifted away from the topic.
“Lord Kagrenac is right,” said the Dres councilor. “It’s an abuse of power to expel anyone from the Council chambers because a shadow of suspicion fell on him. Who will it be tomorrow? What accusations warrant such harsh punishment? The mere suggestion of such sort is a mockery of this council!”
“Fine, I’ll withdraw my proposal. But I’ll watch you closely. Don’t give me reasons to suspect you or, Azura be my witness, I will have you expelled for a hundred years!” And Almalexia sat down, formidable and undeterred.
Vivec took her place and retold his story for the Council, omitting a few important details of Dinara’s relations to Molag Bal, and the Hortator idly glanced at Voryn. Vivec’s voice blended in with the crackling of fire and Voryn’s eyes shone brightly across from him, and, letting his thoughts rove, he saw nothing but those eyes and heard nothing but the singing voice.
“I wanted to add something,” Cardea’s voice rang loud and clear, and the Hortator returned his attention to the present happenings. Vivec took some time to recount the fruits of his investigation, embellishing his role in it, for the shadows outside the window deepened and the last ghostly gleams of the dying winter sun vanished from the cheerless sky. “The manner of death of my colleagues at Bal Fell was rather peculiar… unfortunate but peculiar. It was a voluntary sacrifice. I concluded that their minds have not been their own. Maybe it happened to Dinara, too, and no one is to blame but Molag Bal.”
“How is it that their minds ‘have not been their own’? Explain yourself, esteemed councilor.”
“I wish I was ready to give you a neat explanation on a silver platter, my lords. But we’re not dealing with a mediocre sorcerer. The wizards did not act of their own accord. Something… someone took possession of their minds, extinguished the sparks of rationality in them and drove them to take their own lives. Such fate befell the entire village. In spite of Sotha Sil’s enlightening discoveries, we know very little about our adversary.”
“And if you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory you will also suffer a defeat,” whispered Nerevar and poignantly sighed. The ancient wisdoms of Boethiah have never rung truer to him.
A heavy chair was moved back with a creaking sound, and Galmis stood up – an ominous figure in a grey and white robe with an ornamental mauve sash and wide sleeves reaching the wearer’s hips. “Far be it from me to suggest that having a Telvanni councilor on the Council is a waste of a seat, but a half-Nord fetcher who may be colluding with our enemies -” he stopped short.
“Why did you stop, Councilor?” Cardea said mockingly. “Please, go on, say what you intended to say. When it came to licking the Nords’ behinds, House Hlaalu knew no equals. It’s all about the profit, isn’t it? You speak of my tainted heritage as if you understand what it means to be born in Sadrith Mora with Nordic blood on your veins. You understand nothing! It has been more than a century since the Nords were driven out and on the battlefield, I fought them with the rest of you. And House Hlaalu… If the Daedra craved exotic foods and fine silks, if the Daedra understood the pleasures of men and mer, if the Daedra needed our weapons and armor and bread, House Hlaalu would be the first to offer them a hand of peace and welcome them under their roof.”
“How dare you!” Galmis exclaimed, red in the face. He didn’t wait until Weewish translated his words. “House Hlaalu understands the necessity to survive in the most desperate of circumstances, but we never bowed to the Nords.”
“Lady Cardea is not wrong,” said one of the Redoran Councilors. “With all due respect, Galmis, all of us were trying to survive. Many of us surrendered to the Tongues to avoid slaughter and to spare our people a fate more terrifying and brutal than paying a tribute. But your mother – ancestors guide her soul! – went too far. She traded with them.”
“What hypocrisy! How’s trading with the Nords any worse than inviting them to your houses, drinking with them and allowing them to wed your sons and daughters? Trade is a way of life for House Hlaalu. If we can’t trade, we can’t survive, and a dead man can’t be bargained with.”
“Trade is such a dirty, unworthy vocation for a true descendant of Veloth –”
“And, muthsera Berano, issuing scrips you never intended to honor wasn’t unworthy of a true Veloth’s descendant?” Galmis proclaimed with a strange, furious expression.
“Muthseras, how do you propose we defend Mournhold?” Almalexia interrupted them irritably. “You seem unable to agree on what to have for breakfast, yet you were quick to reject my suggestions.”
‘Hungry nix hounds fighting over a dead rat,’ Nerevar recalled, smiling to himself.
And then something striking happened: an Ashlander got up from his seat in the corner and raised his voice. The Ashlanders were voiceless in the Council chambers; they came to the Council sittings to listen to the House lords and to resolve their disputes with them, but it didn’t occur to anyone to ask for their advice or mind their tongues in their presence. Galmis and duke Melen on the rare occasion that he deigned to attend a Council sitting spoke in colorful and offensive language, calling Ashlanders ‘dirt-loving fetchers and ‘filthy guar herders’ for all to hear. Yet, the Ashlanders remained silent, not out of humbleness or reluctant acceptance but out of disdain for the loud-mouthed lords and stubborn pride the root of which lost its meaning to most.
The Ashlander who spoke out was none other than Dun-Ilu and he took everyone by surprise.
“Talking seems to me such a wasteful endeavor. You talk and talk and never agree to anything. If it wasn’t for our respect to lord Nerevar, we wouldn’t even come here.”
“And how can an uneducated mer like yourself grasp the importance of our discussions?” said Kagrenac. “To condemn one who seeks answers is easy for someone who never appreciated the splendor of reason to which nothing unreasonable could attach itself.”
“Let him speak.”
“But, Lord Nerevar, he insulted -”
“I prefer a pointed word to a pointy stick. Let him speak his mind.”
“I’ll let the esteemed lords of the Land argue over such matters.” Dun-Ilu called them ‘rulers of cities and dwellers of brass fortresses’, and Weewish tactfully translated his honorifics as ‘esteemed lords of the Land’. “I came for what is mine by common law.”
“And what is it? If you are talking about the land reform –”
“No, that is not what I ask of you today. I’m talking about the grave offense his family committed.” And Dun-Ilu pointed across the room at Voryn.
“Offense? What offense?” was heard from across the table. The Council chamber came alive with the rustle of lush garments, twinkle of expensive jewelry, whispers, gestures, and curious glances, as the nobles turned to each other eager to hear a bit of tittle-tattle.
“I object to this manner of inquiry,” said Voryn. His tall figure seemed clad in flame.
“On what grounds?”
“It’s not a matter suitable for these chambers. It’s selfish of you to distract everyone’s attention from the grave dangers which threaten our Land. The queen is right. We should be deciding how to protect Mournhold from Molag Bal. The artifacts, the black gems, the cults, the strange possessed… We should devote our utmost attention to solving this puzzle.”
“Yet I have the right to demand a resolution. I’m owed that much. When we ran into the Great Hunt of the Huntsman, the mer from brass fortresses weren’t there to aid us. Ald’ruhn was spared the fate of one of our tribes which lost its Ashkhan, gulakhan and the Wise Woman in one night. The people had to join their kin in Noormoc or die. How’s Molag Bal our concern?”
“You’re wrong, my brother-in-faith,” said Tamal. “I sent my cousin to Mzuanch. He told me what he saw. Death itself is more merciful than Molag Bal.”
“If you insist, Dun-Ilu, I’ll heed your wish for a hearing but not today. It’s not a matter to be discussed by the entire Council. I’ll meet with you on the sacred ground, as prescribed by the custom. I haven’t forgotten our customs, no matter what you happen to think of me.” Nerevar stole a glance at Voryn. “Will my answer satisfy you, Lord High Councilor?”
Voryn bowed and sat down.
“I… withdraw my demand as well. Your wisdom exceeds mine, Great Ashkhan.” And Dun-Ilu, to everyone’s relief, sat down as well.
“Truth to tell, it was touching, but I’m leaving. I have to think about protecting my House and my retainers,” said Galmis. “I can’t believe I agree with this Ashlander, but he’s right. Our duty should be to our House first and we’ll defend ourselves gladly. No mer will protect anything more eagerly and zealously than what belongs to him.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Galmis, or I’ll have your head. Do you hear me? I still speak for the Law and the Land.” Nerevar leapt to his feet and went on hotly: “Have you forgotten how we defeated the Nords? We’ll fortify our defenses in Mournhold, Ebonheart and Suran and expand the city guard. Grandmasters and Archmagisters will come together in defense of our land. The brightest minds of House Telvanni and the strongest wills of House Indoril! Who can withstand our combined might? That’s how we defeat Molag Bal.”
“And how do you suggest we pay for everything?” asked Almalexia. “A stronger garrison in the capital is a drain on our coffers.”
“The treasurer will figure it out.” Nerevar waved his arm.
“I object. I think the talk about fortification is hasty and premature. We aren’t under siege. It’s easier to find the cultists’ lair wherever it may be and destroy it.”
“Finally, lady Almalexia talks sense!”
“Does this mean a new tax? There’s always a new tax.”
“And what if it is a new tax, lord Berano? He has my vote if it means we’ll be safe. All this talk of deranged cultists gives me the creeps.”
“You’re a fool, lord Irak, and a coward!”
Amid the uproar, Nerevar remained standing.
“I must have misheard something, lady Almalexia. Even after our successes at Bal Fell and Mzuanch, we’re not any closer to finding the lair than we were a year ago.”
“Until they attacked Mournhold, we thought they were but a disorganized band of mad cultists. We’ll look again. It won’t be as costly as paying more guardsmen, mercenaries, and House kin.”
“We should vote,” someone said hesitantly.
“We shouldn’t vote without that fetcher Melen, it’s against tradition.”
“But he’s not here, is he? Does anyone know where he is? Debauching an old mistress and drinking?” Dumac said airily. The patriarchs of House Redoran kept perplexed silence, and he added: “The first proposal of the day is fortification of Mournhold. All in favor?”
Despite the enthusiastic support of House Dres, the Council had again reached stalemate – for the first time in many years, House Telvanni didn’t abstain from voting.
“What Sotha Sil told us was overwhelming, revolutionary,” recalls Dagoth Ur. A privilege of godhood is to be ever-present – here, he studies the principles of an unparalleled Dwemer genius; here, he looks at the world through the eyes of his servant and laments what became of it, and here, he reminisces. A god needs not divide his attention. “I will not lie to you – the mystery of the grand Arena tempted me. It was the first time I’ve seen it wholly. Do you remember it, brother Odros?”
“Of course, I remember.”
They are inseparable, he and his brothers. They can hear him without seeing him and their thoughts pass between them like spoken words.
“The god of schemes influences us in incomprehensible ways. Even the wisest of us and the cleverest couldn’t predict the outcome. The wisdom of the blind and the cleverness of fools! But Kagrenac already knew. He sat there, looking at us, and our blindness amused him. Beneath the Red Mountain, his tonal architects began building Numidium, but he’d never share his secrets with us… Perhaps only now, perusing at his plans, I understand him at long last. But even he underestimated the Daedric Princes like that crafty dwarf in Nerevar’s tale.”