INTERLUDE II: WHEN STARS ARE WEEPING

Nerevar swung his fist wildly, but in his befuddled mind the ruddy unremarkable face of a Nord was a lot closer than in actuality, and he missed, receiving a sobering thwack on the jaw. There was no pain, no feeling of dizziness, but he tasted blood on his lips, and the tavern ceiling, with its dazzling lights and sooty beams, blooming with rapacious red flowers, was swimming before his eyes. The crowd of spectators laughed, cheering the Nord on. Their faces – their awful, distorted faces – loomed above him, and then the ordinary onlookers from nearby shops, the no-good apprentices in frayed robes, habitual drunkards, gamblers, thieves and suchlike offensive lot disappeared and instead of them Nerevar saw naked women and men with shimmering wings and scaly bodies. He bought something to drown out the screams of the dying which haunted him since that rainy night, but how terribly true all of it seemed – the flowers, the winged people and the Daedra spawns around him. The Nord who looked like the vilest of Vaermina’s nightmares drove the tip of his heavy boot into his chest and Nerevar’s world flared up with the brightest of colors.

“Had enough, elf?” The Nord grinned in Nerevar’s face – his breath smelled of cheap beer, and he was missing one of his uneven teeth.

Nerevar rose to his feet slightly battered and bruised but retaining his mettle. A feeling of euphoria came over him. The Nord had heavy fists, but he was ungainly and sluggish from all the spirits and food he consumed before the fight, as if to show the eager audience that he was not a bit afraid of a scrawny Chimer in front of him. And, though he was scarcely scrawny, near the tall, sturdy Nord Nerevar did seem unimpressive in the eyes of the onlookers, and they bet considerable coin against him. Many hardy tavern brawlers in appearance resembled the Nord and, on most days, it wasn’t difficult for Nerevar to earn enough coin to pay for the inexpensive lodgings and food. He refused to think of anything beyond providing simple necessities for himself and Vivec, in spite of the orphan’s pleas. Vivec pleaded him to find a more honorable line of work which would in time position him to serve the queen of Mournhold, but Nerevar was overcome with that pernicious sort of indifference which betrays the ailment of the spirit, and no fervent plea, no emphatic admonition could rouse him to excitement. Almalexia told him that she had no need of him and his fortresses, and nothing burnt his soul quite like shame. Owing to that profound shame, Nerevar slowly altered his memories, and after a year elapsed since he met with the queen, no one could convince him that she flatly refused his offer. He couldn’t endure the thought that he led many young Chimer to their deaths in vain and he vividly imagined that Almalexia was not only deeply impressed with his feats and eloquence with which he described them, but promised him a position worthy of his talents, albeit like all dishonest rulers, she didn’t keep her word.

But that evening nothing troubled Nerevar’s addled mind besides the outcome of the brawl and how to land a particularly heavy blow on the Nord’s chin so that it would end in his favor. He desperately needed the coin to pay for his meager lodgings, for the owner who allowed him to stay in a small, tidy room was growing impatient with him. But, unbeknownst to Nerevar, fate had ordained otherwise. As they measured each other up, hands deceptively low yet postures strained, like two beasts of prey, a startled cry disturbed a tense silence – insofar as it was ever quiet in a tavern – and into the ill-lit room burst a dozen or so guards. A short Breton who owned the tavern squeaked loudly and disappeared into the larder with a trapdoor in it which led into the sewer; other disreputable customers scattered about the room, hiding under the tables or fleeing towards the stables, and someone carelessly used magic. A pile of hay on the floor caught fire and through the thick smoke which filled the room Nerevar perceived dark, twisted figures rushing about the room, each with a head of a nix-hound and tusks any kagouti would envy. One of the apprentices was screaming, his long cloak afire. Nerevar wasn’t frightened by the ghastly sight, but quite the reverse, he stood rooted to the spot by a feeling akin to fascination until the Nord pushed him out of the way, hurrying to escape the unexpected conflagration, and he fell. A guard grabbed him by the torn blouse and dragged him into the pall of smoke; Nerevar resisted, gesticulating wildly, and shoved the guard towards the room where he had once heard was the stepladder leading to the sewer, but perhaps he was raving or the roar of the fire drowned out his words and the guard didn’t understand him. He drew his sword and delivered a blow to Nerevar’s head with the heavy hilt. Nerevar didn’t remember much of what happened afterwards.

He came to his senses in a dank, dark room which resembled a prison or a cellar, and looking round himself, he excluded the possibility that he was in a cellar. The room was narrow, with a barrel ceiling and cold, wet walls made of uneven stones. In one of the walls was a recess with a small unlit candle in it and an earthen plate on which lay a few unremarkable but smooth rocks, such as those that are found on the seashore. The offering was more modest than the precious jewels he was accustomed to seeing in the houses of wealthy traders, but it was doubtless a prayer altar to the Three. Nerevar lit the candle with a simple spell. Underneath it, with a sharp object, some poor soul scribbled a desperate prayer to Boethiah in which she begged the Prince to save her from an imminent execution, but towards the end it turned into an unintelligible string of curses. To Nerevar’s greater horror, he was sober, sick and shivery, but he had no recollections as to why he was in the present predicament. He wiped the cold sweat from his forehead, strained his memory, paced from one end of the tiny cell to another, and recalled nothing. His memory was a deep, dark well, and he was gazing into it as if from above in hopes of catching a glimpse of light or a ripple in the glassy water, yet the longer he stared, the darker the well appeared to him, throwing back nothing. How many days or weeks or perchance months did he spend in this accursed prison?

“Calm down, Nerevar,” he whispered to himself. “If days or weeks passed since your imprisonment, someone would notice your absence. Vivec would find you. You swallowed some poison again and you’re suffering because of it. Swear to yourself that you won’t do anything stupid ever again. It is a misunderstanding and the guards will let you go in no time.”

But hours passed in oppressive silence and Nerevar didn’t exchange words with a single living soul, guard or prisoner, and he began doubting that there were guards or prisoners in this very odd prison. Or what seemed to him hours were mere instants, prolonged by boredom and anxiety, and hopeless longing to hear anything besides the howling of the wind or the distant sounds of dripping water. He didn’t sleep well; he woke up every so often, shivering with cold, tossed and turned on the narrow bedding, read a prayer to Boethiah and succumbed to slumber. One thought bothered him, but he wasn’t always aware of it. If he was imprisoned for disorderly conduct, he’d be in a cell with a dozen other misfits, yet to the extent that he could survey his surroundings, he was alone. No queer noises reached his ears, no light but the meager flicker of the candle disturbed his eyes.

The guard came for him in the morning, tied his arms behind his back, covered his eyes with a piece of cloth and led him somewhere through the tunnels and under the warm, bright sunlight. Nerevar tried counting his steps but gave up after five hundred. The guard refused to answer his questions and was very ill-disposed towards him, threatening to beat him senseless if he ran. Nerevar didn’t run; he had nowhere to be, no sense of purpose or fate to guide him, and no desire to be harassed by a feeble-minded guard.

After they climbed the stairs, the guard took the blindfold off him and pushed him into a room unremarkable in all save for the woman who sat on a wide bed in the company of a brutish-looking Nord. She was young but not dainty, with strong bronze arms which were exposed in the light leather lorica adorned with small ebony plates. She had a well-set figure, and her attire accentuated it. She wore her red hair in a modest bun, but the strong wind played with a few bejeweled pins to its heart’s content and her hairdo was lopsided, messy, making her all the more attractive in Nerevar’s eyes. He blamed the queen for his misery a great deal, but in spite of his deep-rooted resentment, he was not sure what to make of the green-eyed girl who sat on the throne of Mournhold longer than he fought for its freedom. Nerevar expected to meet a mature, wise woman, for with those women he always found a common tongue, but before a girl of such tender age he stood embarrassed and aware of his crass manners.

“Lady Almalexia,” he said, bowing his head low. The Nord woman in heavy armor whom Nerevar didn’t spare a single glance until then tried to step between them, but the queen, unabashed, rested her palm on her forearm.

“Tilda is overzealous and loyal to a fault,” Almalexia explained. “We can discuss anything in her presence.”

“There’s nothing to discuss, my lady. I imagine you surrendered Indoranyon to our sworn enemies and they gladly made it their home again. You had an opportunity to rebel against the Nords and you wasted it. You promised me… Ah, what does it matter? All rulers are ungrateful, cowardly fetchers!” And in a few colorful, obscene words the future Hortator described what should happen to such ‘ungrateful, cowardly fetchers’.

“You talk about gratitude… What audacity! You should be grateful I didn’t throw you in prison, s’wit! Do you think I’ll tolerate insults from someone of your standing? You will offer your apologies to me or I will have Tilda beat some sense into you. Boethiah be my witness, I didn’t want it to come to this… I didn’t want it at all, but you force my hand!”

‘Will it be so easy?’ Nerevar thought, loosening the rope with which his hands were tied. ‘A girl in a fancy robe, with a fancy title is still just a girl.’

But Almalexia with some effort restrained herself. “I should have expected it,” she muttered to herself. “Mercenaries are loyal only to gold. What do you say? Let’s not haggle over a few coins… Two thousand gold?”

“How difficult is this task, my queen?”

“I need a letter delivered to a reclusive Telvanni wizard. He lives on an unmarked island south of Tel Mora. Here’s a payment of a thousand gold coins for your travel expenses and gear. You will receive your reward upon returning to Mournhold with the wizard’s response.”

Nerevar shook his numb shoulders, watching the young queen with burning curiosity. “Your generosity is astounding, my lady. It must be a very important letter if you’re willing to pay thrice as much for its safe delivery as I’d get for a month of tedious guard duty. Not a note to a secret admirer, I take it?”

“Spare me your jests… Will you deliver the letter or not?”

“My answer depends on your honesty.”

“I owe the likes of you no explanations!”

“If I’m to risk my life for you, you owe me everything,” retorted Nerevar. “No one pays so much gold for a leisurely stroll along Azura’s Coast. And you can’t entrust this task to this mountain of a Nord… Is she less capable than I suspected?”

“You will not speak ill of Tilda!” Almalexia sounded exasperated again, cheeks flush with indignation, but she stubbornly refused to act impulsively. “It appears to me that we’re not on equal footing. I hold your abilities in deep respect. When I heard that a lone man inspired a band of villagers to rebel against the Nords and captured a fortress, I eagerly awaited your arrival. It was a remarkable feat!.. But you show me no deference! I approach you with a request, and you insult me. I try to reason with you, and you challenge my every word. What has your queen done to earn your scorn, mercenary?”

“You surrendered Indoranyon -”

“Enough of this! I gave it up to save your life, though you’re determined to see me regret my decision.”

“I doubt my life is worth anything to you,” Nerevar said heatedly. “Do you know how many of us died that night? They died because I wasn’t… Well, it’s all that matters. They’re dead and you dishonor their sacrifice.”

“And by letting you die I would somehow honor it? Far be it from me to think that a mercenary would be versed in House politics, but you seem to be oblivious of all except your umbrage.” Almalexia rose to her feet, leaning on the long ebony staff, and glanced over the room. “What you see around us is a lie. I am not proud of crafting it, but my people needed to believe there was hope… The truth is that the Nords are too strong. They allow my ‘illusions of independence’ because they do not think of me as a threat. I’ve convinced them of it. But the news of a courageous upstart capturing one of the fortresses along their supply routes agitated them. They demanded I execute you and give them back their city as a gesture of good faith, but that would leave me with nothing. I had to choose, and I concluded your life to be of greater value to me than a defenseless city. I convinced the Nords that I didn’t know who attacked them and that I had no hand in it. It took me a long time to allay their suspicions, so I made no attempts to contact you again. Vivec told me about your misadventures in the taverns -”

“Vivec?” Nerevar said through clenched teeth.

“He was stealing from the kitchens and I happened upon him once… or twice. I at once recognized your companion… a child who was neither a girl, nor a boy. I fed him and listened to the extraordinary tales of his adventures. For someone so young, he knows a lot about this world… Afterwards, he snuck into the palace from time to time to entertain me with his stories. That’s how I knew where to find you. He assured me that you were desperate to do some good and that you would seize this opportunity to serve me. He means well. How did you meet?”

“He tried to steal from one of my former companions. He was slowly starving to death. I took pity on him, but he mistook my kindness…” Nerevar murmured. A swimming came before his eyes and it took a considerable effort to sit upright and look at the face of the young queen. He didn’t hear himself explaining to Almalexia that he didn’t intend to sell a child, or that Vivec would not leave him alone after their conversation – as long as he kept talking, he would not fall apart in front of her, and it didn’t cross his mind that he may be saying utter nonsense. “I will deliver the letter,” he said all of a sudden and, shaking off loose rope, stood upright. “You can trust me with it.”

Almalexia extended him a small parcel wrapped thrice in a piece of silk which smelled of rare spices and musk, and Nerevar hid it in the lapels of his dirty blouse. The queen called to him when he was outside the door.

“If you try to open the letter, it will be ruined irreparably, and you won’t get your reward. You will do well to remember that.”

Nerevar nodded his head, pressed the parcel close to his chest as though it was a priceless treasure and ran down the stairs.

‘The queen is still a girl,’ he thought to himself in deep agitation, ‘but a girl worthy of my respect.’

***

Nerevar met with Vivec in their tiny room on the last floor of a building with tiny yellowish windows which overlooked the plaza and gathered his meager belongings into a sack: a worn-out simple shirt, a silver dagger, a Daedric sword and a cumbersome steel cuirass. While he was preparing for a long journey, Vivec boasted to him that he procured two magic scrolls which would take them to Sadrith Mora, and from there they would travel by sea to their destination. The youth prudently stocked up on levitation potions and various magical remedies. They didn’t have enough money for another pair of scrolls, and without scrolls or recall potions, it would take weeks to deliver the sorcerer’s answer to Mournhold. In the wilderness danger waylaid them everywhere: in a bite of a diseased cliffracer, in a skirmish with bandits, or in an encounter with something far more sinister.

The teleportation spell on the scrolls worked properly, and, as the world around them came to a standstill, they found themselves in the main temple of Mephala, fighting an unpleasant feeling of giddiness. Nerevar put on a long pilgrim’s cloak before he read the incantation on the scroll, and his appearance amidst the priests of the Webspinner, amidst the travelers who were passing through the town and robed sorcerers, didn’t attract anyone’s attention. Mephala’s priests were generally the quiet, impassive sort. They studied Mephala’s secret teachings, fascinated by patterns of fate in the Great Web and obscure alignments of celestial bodies, and expressed little interest in the outside world. Unless Nerevar set fire to the temple, the priests would ignore him, but he was nevertheless worried that the queen had mysterious enemies and made effort to blend in with the ill-matched travelers.

From the temple to the port, along a scenic rocky shore, stretched a small bazaar of no more than two or three rows of awnings from guar skin under which merchants and smiths displayed their goods and offered travelers to mend their armor. The weather was pleasantly warm and a stroll along the seashore seemed an inviting idea, but Vivec asked him for a few coins and ran off to gawk at the exotic fabric or trained animals. Nerevar found a quiet spot by the herbalist’s tent to pass the time and indulge in reflection. For an entire year he lived as if in a haze: he fought Nords in the taverns instead of battlefields, he woke up in the company of two or three women, remembering, to his disgust, neither their names, nor their faces, he drank to forget his failures and disappointments, and all this time the young queen understood what he couldn’t grasp. To her it was as natural as breathing to demand obedience and self-sacrifice from those who served her. When he sent the villagers to their deaths at Indoranyon, he acted as a king would act to win this war, and with his doubts and profound regrets he dishonored their sacrifice. Nerevar clenched his fists and uttered a loud groan. ‘I’m a fool,’ he berated himself. ‘How can I hope to lead anyone to victory? Why did I believe it had to be me? Any one of them can do it better than I! The queen is sure more deserving of the honor…’ Forgetting all but the thought which troubled him for a long while, Nerevar looked round himself to find Vivec, but the youth disappeared in the crowd which steadily flowed through the bazaar and towards the port. Nerevar elbowed his way through the throng of Telvanni retainers in brown robes and ran in the direction of an outdoor smithy where he had last seen Vivec, and many men and mer in the streets turned their heads to gape at him with unhidden animosity. They recognized in him an outlander and outlanders never found a warm welcome in the lands of proud Telvanni.  

Nerevar saw Vivec by the stall which was crammed with toys, tiny decorations from glass and ebony, cheap jewelry and other trinkets (even Dwemeri utensils). The youth chattered merrily with an older Breton woman, holding up a small flute to the sun, and he didn’t notice Nerevar until he seized him by the arm and unceremoniously dragged him away from the attractive shopboard.

“How do you know I will be the Hortator and lead the Chimer to victory against the Nords?” Nerevar whispered frantically.

“What are you doing, Nerevar? Let me go, please!” Vivec freed himself from his grasp. “I want to buy that flute.”

“You can get it later. First, answer me! Are you sure it wasn’t the queen?”

“I know what I saw. It was scary and confusing… I’ll never forget it. You’ll be the Hortator, with me by your side as your Councilor, and the queen will be our wife: yours at daybreak and mine by nightfall.”

“A woman cannot take two husbands and a man-”

“I know what I saw,” repeated Vivec, stubbornly lowering his head upon his breast.

Nerevar waved his arm with disappointment and Vivec, skipping over the small puddles left by the morning rain, ran towards the stall. For all his wisdom, he was still a child.

After Vivec paid for the flute, they descended the stairs which grew inside the hollow, winding root of a mushroom tree to the port and talked to an elderly Nord with a rugged face who told them that they could wait for a ship to Tel Mora or take a fisherman’s boat to the unnamed island of the reclusive Telvanni wizard. Nerevar decided that it was wiser to take a small shallop and slip out of Sadrith Mora unnoticed. There were quite a few boats at the quay, and by the time the sun began to set, they found a wealthy Bosmer fisherman who for a modest coin agreed to take them out to sea. The common folk were friendlier than the aloof Telvanni, and the fisherman eagerly engaged in a conversation with them. Nerevar spread out a warm blanket at the bow while the fisherman and a young, boisterous lass he introduced as his daughter raised the sails and grabbed a pair of oars. Nerevar made himself comfortable on the blanket and Vivec after some fidgeting and fussing settled by his side, resting his head on his lap. Only then was he content and quieted down. The sea around them was calm and pellucid like a mirror, in which the sun and the sky dressed in saffron hues were reflected, and it seemed to them that there were two suns and two skies and no sea at all. The boat glided across the bay with ease, rocking gently in the waves, and Nerevar while he watched the tall mushroom towers fade in the evening mist, slowly drifted into sleep.  

“What can you tell me about this wizard? Mavos Siloreth is his name, I think,” he asked, rousing himself. He couldn’t have dozed off for more than a few moments, for the quay, crowded with crude longships of the Nords and graceful like birds in flight flagships from Alinor, was still visible to the naked eye.

“Not much, I’m afraid, good man,” said the garrulous fisherman, dawdling with a tangled sail. “That’s just it, they are wizards, and no one knows anything about them. They keep to themselves and look down on us, commoners, like we’re their servants. Mavos is no different. I sell fish to his servants every week, but I’ve seen him only once. He didn’t speak a word to me or my daughter, but that expression on his face said it all. His ego’s as large as his tower and then some.”

“That’s unhelpful,” said Vivec, stirring.

“Do you think he’ll receive us?”

“I can’t say, sera. These wizards are capricious. Today he’ll see you and tomorrow he’ll find an excuse to keep you waiting for a week. My daughter and I…”

Nerevar lowered his head onto his travel sack and slipped a dagger underneath it, listening to the insinuating whisper of the waves against the wooden boards instead of the fisherman’s voice. It soothed his heart to be under the moon and stars, where he lived most of his life unaware of Mournhold’s vices, alluring as they were.

“Promise me that you won’t fight again,” whispered Vivec.

“In the taverns?”

“In the taverns or elsewhere… You won’t fight or drink like you drink until you’re sad and angry and have to go out and fight. I don’t want to see you like that.”

Nerevar glanced at his knuckles which hardly ever healed. “I’m sorry, Vivec.”

“It’s not your destiny. I saw it and Azura showed it to you, too.”  

“Anger consumed me whole, don’t you understand? I’m still angry, but it’s bearable… What did you tell the queen? She said you tried to steal from the kitchens.”

“I was starving, but you were too angry to notice.” Vivec brought the flute to his lips and struck a plaintive note. “I told her about the Dwemer who knew nothing of love, only numbers. She liked it, I think. She, too, knows nothing of love.”

…The island appeared as the thick nightly darkness fell around them and the fisherman lit a torch he had dipped in oil from kagouti fat so that it would burn brighter; that light was mirrored somewhere ahead of them and the fisherman turned the boat towards it, skillfully guiding it through treacherous waters. What they saw in the murk was a lone magelight which illumined a desolate wharf. The wharf itself was built upon a giant root of the mushroom tower which was lost to view in the distance and by virtue of its design – narrow and torturous – it could not accommodate any boats during the low tide. Nerevar jumped into the shallow water and held out his arm for Vivec who gripped it tightly. Together they made their way to the wharf. The fisherman waved his arm at parting and yelled something, but the loud sound of the waves breaking on the shore drowned it out. They were soaked to the skin by the time they found a lone guard snoring peacefully by a stone door to a grotto which seemed to have grown in the same manner as the tower and the surrounding buildings. Nerevar shook the guard by the shoulder and he woke up, looking utterly dumbfounded.

“Who goes there?” He hastened to light the torch and drew his sword.

“We’re messengers,” said Nerevar. “We need to talk to your master. Take us to him.”

“At this ungodly hour? How do I know-”

“By Azura, I could have killed you when you slept… but I’m not here to cause your master any trouble.”

The guard mulled over something in his head and pushed the stone door open, revealing an ascending grotto lit with bright magelights. Inside, it resembled a hollow tree trunk. The air smelled of earth and seaweed, but the floor was to Nerevar’s surprise dry and unmarred by lichen or other signs of rot. Many Telvanni dwellings boldly stood on the edge of water, yet some magic protected them from floods and decay from the time they were tiny saplings, and Nerevar couldn’t shake off an impression that the walls around him breathed and watched him from the deep shadows when he looked away.

The guard entrusted them to the care of a young servant girl of rather odd appearance: she was very pale, with thin angular features, dark, sunken eyes, and glossy, dark hair which accentuated her pallor. Nerevar couldn’t quite grasp what caught his eye, but he couldn’t tear his gaze off her unusual but not uncomely face, embarrassing her with his brazen curiosity.

“He was a Nord,” she said without expression, assiduously cleaning spotless glassware. “I meant my father, of course. I hear this question quite often.”

“And your mother was a Chimer?”

“A proud Telvanni no less,” she spat out the words with a poorly concealed loathing. “But what brings you here?”

“We carry an urgent message for Mavos Siloreth.”

“I’ll tell my master, but he won’t see you till morning. He studies the sky at night, and he doesn’t wish to be disturbed. In the meanwhile, I can show you to the kitchens. My master may be arrogant, but he’s not inhospitable… Ah, and I hope you brought levitation potions with you if you don’t know the spell. The kitchens are on the second floor and we don’t use stairs.”

Nerevar exchanged amused glances with Vivec and turned to the servant girl. “How should I call you?”

She shrugged her frail shoulders. “Cardea,” she said. “Cardea Fyr.”

***

In spite of his reputation of an arrogant, overbearing and pedantic mer, Mavos Siloreth sent for them early in the morning and received them in his study cluttered will all manner of magical trinkets: an ancient astrolabe, a dusty mortar, a large schematic of a summoning circle and a few jars with unappetizing contents. Above the fireplace hung a mummified and quite ugly-looking hand of a daedroth, but its purpose was incomprehensible to them. The room was well-lit in spite of the early hour. The eccentric wizard, wearing a long golden robe with a richly embroidered neckline and pink slippers, stood by the table and nonchalantly juggled a few tiny fireballs in dangerous closeness to a heap of dry parchment. He could be a few decades older than Nerevar, or a few centuries – it was hard to tell a Telvanni wizard’s age by his appearance.

“You must be the mercenaries Cardea told me about,” Mavos said, pursing his lips. “How quaint! Isn’t he too young to be a mercenary?”

“My name’s Vivec,” cheerfully said Vivec.

“Well, young Vivec, tell me why you disturb me from my work. I must admit I agreed to meet with you only because Cardea’s words left me frustratingly curious.”

“We bring a letter from the queen of Mourhold.”

“That’s certainly curious. What does it say?”

“We don’t know.”

“Of course! You’re just mercenaries. It was stupid of me to ask… Now, can I see this letter?”

Nerevar reached into his sack and handed Mavos the small parcel. “It’s enchanted,” he thought it fit to warn him.

“I know Sotha Sil’s tricks… There! These younglings think they know everything nowadays. Return to me in a few hours and I’ll have the answer prepared for you.”

They took their leave of Mavos and went down to the kitchens where Cardea was grinding herbs and other alchemical substances in a large mortar. She wore a simple blue robe and a straw hat with a wide brim, and the lower half of her face was covered with a cloth. Nerevar took a seat on a bench beside her and asked a cook for a healthy serving of spicy alit meat.

“How do I get back to the mainland?” he asked, savoring the delicacy.

“There’ll be a boat tonight. It’ll take you to Vos.”

“I can’t go to Vos!”

“The ship to Sadrith Mora won’t come by this island for another week and my master doesn’t like outsiders. You can’t stay here just the same.”

“And I won’t go to Vos,” retorted Nerevar.

“There was trouble in those parts a year or so ago. I remember hearing about it from a fisherman. Some upstart led a rebellion against the Nords. The news frightened the Jarl who resides in Sadrith Mora like he’s our rightful lord,” Cardea stifled a laugh. “Let me tell you, it frightened him out of his wits. But those poor souls… Some say all of them had died in a bloody skirmish and I believe it.”

“I haven’t heard anything about a rebellion,” muttered Nerevar, turning deathly pale.

“Then why won’t you go to Vos?”

“I have my reasons.”

“Well, it’s none of my concern, but I advise you not to abuse my master’s hospitality.”

Nerevar saw a chance to change the awkward subject. “You feel sympathy for the rebels and express no love for the Nords. Whose side is Mavos on?”

“Mavos is on Mavos’s side. But he harbors a grudge against the Jarl, so I think he’s plotting something… Why do you ask? Will you fight them?”

“Only Azura knows… Say, you father was a Nord. Why do you hate them?”

“That’s just it! Everyone despises me for something I didn’t choose to be!” exclaimed Cardea, crushing the frost salts in her mortar with great zeal. “For the Telvanni, my blood is too thin. I tell them that I can do magic better than their magisters, but – alas, it’s true! – I didn’t inherit any of their natural resistances to elements. They shun me for it… I’m still young and I outlived my father by fifty years! He rests in peace at the bottom of the sea and I’m suffering because he didn’t think twice before putting his hands on my mother!” She buried her face in both palms, trembling all over. “You’re the first free Chimer who knew of my tainted heritage and didn’t think it scorn to talk to me… I’ll help you if you want.”

“How can you help me?”

“My master doesn’t know it, but I can enchant scrolls. I study magic in secret and I’m quite adept at inscribing incantations on paper. I’ll make two scrolls for you and that young boy who travels with you.”

…Upon returning to Mournhold with Mavos’s answer, Nerevar was offered to join House Indoril as a retainer and he accepted the proposal, taking a name which his enemies would fear and his allies admire and cherish all throughout the long years to come. Vivec joined with him, too, albeit he refused to take on any names.  

***

“…I never asked Almalexia what was in that letter to Mavos,” Nerevar concludes with a smile. “It never seemed important to me. Many years later Sotha Sil let it slip that they discussed the nature of Daedric summoning and for a while, he entertained an idea of fighting the Nords with an army of animated constructs. It was a brilliant theory and he needed someone like Mavos to help him realize it.”

Voryn is aware that the Hortator is speaking, but he doesn’t make out the separate words, only the sound of his voice and the outlines of his face in the dim light of a lone candle. ‘On the honor that we share, I swear he’s more beautiful now than he’s ever been,’ he thinks wistfully.

“What’s with that expression, my old friend? It seems to me I talked your ear off and you’re awfully bored. If you wish to discuss the Council sitting -”

“Forget about the Council,” whispers Voryn.

Nerevar seats himself on the bed, understanding the delicate hint, and beckons Voryn to join him, but the head of House Dagoth stubbornly seeks refuge in his chair out of fear that his legs might give out under him. Nerevar is terrifying in his serenity, and Voryn worries that he didn’t remember to apply his favorite ointments before he left for the Hortator’s chambers, or that he doesn’t look consummate, like he always imagined he’d look in front of him. Voryn had lovers before him, but Nerevar has a domineering presence about him and in the Hortator’s shadow, Voryn feels diminished and utterly disarmed by the burning intensity with which he watches him.

“Make love to me tonight, Voryn,” Nerevar says and with those impassioned words, his timidity vanishes, and a pleasant feeling of warmth overtakes him. He can’t believe he spent many years denying to himself something so wholly natural – a few lifespans of men, no less, slipped by him and into the void where time goes until it’s sundered before he found the courage to tell Nerevar he loved him. It’s the curse of all Chimer to view the world as stale and unmoving, to live their lives unhurriedly because beyond the horizon is but another day in their endless youth.

Neither of them is young or invincible, and in the face of that understanding his fears seem childlike and unfounded. Voryn is no longer hesitant when he straddles over Nerevar’s long legs and makes himself comfortable on Nerevar’s lap, wrapping his arms around his neck and looking down at his unguarded face, as if to etch every line of it into his memory – the noble aquiline nose, high cheekbones, the slightly slanting eyes, and a beguiling curve of his well-defined mouth. Nerevar’s strong hands unequivocally settle on his buttocks and he kisses him deeply but gently, until Voryn is sure he can hear the flutter of his beating heart. He can’t keep his head well, because he wanted it for so long that he forgot the longing. He’s quashed it so meticulously that, when it awakens, bursts into being, it overwhelms him. Voryn sets to kissing him with verve, with teeth and tongue, and Nerevar, astonished at his impetuous lovemaking and breathless, allows Voryn to lead. The spidersilk robe Voryn is wearing slips off his shoulders and foams around them with blood-red lace and soft, slick cloth, crumpled between their heated bodies conjoined in a tight embrace. Voryn always looked lovely and solemn in darker hues of red, but Nerevar doesn’t appear to be appreciative of his careful choice of attire, undressing him swiftly and sloppily. There isn’t a trace of serenity on the Hortator’s countenance now; his brow is furrowed, uneven breaths escape his parted lips, for he can’t feign indifference at the sight of Voryn, nude and aroused, seated across his lap. Voryn shivers with excitement when Nerevar presses his lips to his skin and slowly trails his tongue along the neckline to his ear.

“Will you put a curse on me again?” he teases. “Am I too presuming?”

“I much preferred when you put your tongue to a better use, my lord,” says Voryn and closes his eyes. ‘My lord, my friend, my companion,’ he thinks but only to himself, relishing in the tender but insistent caress of Nerevar’s hands.

He doesn’t wait a long while for the Hortator to oblige him, unfastening his breeches and leaning over to him. Underneath all the garments, Nerevar is thinner than Voryn imagined – sinewy, hardy and scarred – and he enjoys exploring those blemishes while each mark tells him a different story: a story of conquest, or loss, or victories wrenched from cruel fate. Voryn gets to know Nerevar anew, without words, discovering what puts a frown upon his brow and what shatters his composure, leaves him moaning in blissful self-forgetfulness. Nerevar is no more restrained in bed than on a field of battle, entering the fray with the same vigor he makes love, but here he doesn’t insist on leading. Even so Voryn is wholly at his mercy; it excites him to give, to take his lover whole and firm into his mouth and guide him, with his tongue and skillful fingers, to the pinnacle of delight. Nerevar’s reassuring hand stroking his long hair, urging him to continue, is the reward enough; the look on his strained face is maddening.

…When Nerevar takes him from behind, disheveled and relentless, Voryn lets go of every thought and loses himself in the rhythm, weightless and drenched in sweat. Only Nerevar’s palms on his hips seem to ground him, but it’s no easy feat to keep up with him. There’s no sense of time where he is now. His mind is clouded. Voryn grips the headboard from exhaustion and prepares to make that last climb to the summit before he’ll plummet into the dark, aching yet utterly spent in ways he can’t remember spending himself. He doesn’t hear his moans and cries.

When he throws back his head in the final shudders of ecstasy, he sees a patch of the nightly sky and the stars, shining, weeping for the both of them.  

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** This chapter has an amazing side-story written for it, by AeAyem, “Thirteen Draughts“. It completes it perfectly, and her depiction of Vivec is to die for!

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