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Sunday, October 17, 2010

I - Empty

Effe-Tei looked up from the scroll he was reading, his pointed reptilian face emotionless as the doors to the Reception Chamber opened and the guards pushed Fenara through, not bothering to stand at attention and simply leaving the way they came.
“This one falls,” Effe-Tei said, quickly getting to his feet and hurrying over on hobbling lizard steps to where Fenara was curled on the mosaic floor, sobbing. “Princess?”
“Effe-Tei?” Fenara said, looking up at him. Her tear-streaked face brightened at the sight of the Argonian, and as soon as he had helped her to her feet she threw herself into his arms.
“Come now, Princess,” Effe-Tei said soothingly. “You cannot go about groveling on the ground!”
“I’m not a princess anymore,” she said, her eyes welling up again. She broke away from him and went to a rose-tinted window, staring out at the Plaza Brisindi Dorum, which was bursting with rich colors. The smooth white and gold of the walls, the dark stone of the statue of Almalexia and Mehrunes Dagon in the center, the sparkling water of the fountain surrounded by planters of pink Timsa-Come-By and small circles of rich green grass that surrounded the cobblestone streets. And that wasn’t even the beginning of it, for the plaza was choked with vibrantly-dressed people going back and forth between Godsreach and the Great Bazaar, even beggars wearing gold threads. In Mournhold, the only thing that wasn’t astoundingly beautiful were the sewers. “Oh, Effe-Tei, how can I possibly leave this city? I love it so much.” She leaned her forehead against the glass, staring out longingly at the dizzying swirl of color below her.
“You must have courage, Princess,” Effe-Tei said joining her at the window. “Have courage, and there is no doubt in my mind that you will return to Mournhold.”
“At least you and Grandmother have faith in me,” she said, smiling very slightly.
“Speaking of Queen Barenziah,” Effe-Tei said suddenly, glancing quickly behind them to be sure the room was empty. “She asked me to give you this before I take you to Vvardenfell.” He reached into his purple robe and drew out a sealed letter. “She said not to open it until you are alone and not to let anyone see it.” Fenara’s face brightened. Perhaps, she thought to herself, they are instructions of how to return after I reach Vvardenfell. How to come back.
“Thank you,” Fenara said with a smile, tucking the letter into her tattered dress, which had once been a grand confection of embroidery and patterns and was now merely a rag draped over her narrow frame.
“We should go,” Effe-Tei said, glancing at the door. He moved to the middle of the room, standing just to the side of a large circular planter bursting with Timsa-Come-By. He held out his scaly hands and Fenara reluctantly took them. “Are you ready, Princess?” Fenara looked longingly around the Reception Chamber, then cast one more glance out the window towards the Plaza. She slowly turned away, back to Effe-Tei.
“Let us be off, then.” There was a sudden sensation of pain around Fenara’s head, then she was hurtling through nothingness, clutching Effe-Tei’s hands. Then, all at once, the sensation ended and they were standing in a dim room with a few shelves holding a set of decrepit books and a shabby bed in the corner. Before Effe-Tei could speak, the door swung open and a Dunmer woman with her white hair piled on top of her head came in, holding a scroll and a quill.
“Are you the one we’re expecting?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at Fenara. “The maid from Mournhold?” Fenara was about to speak indignantly, but Effe-Tei swiftly cut her off.
“Yes, we are from Mournhold.”
“Who are you?” the woman asked, squinting at him. She took in his Argonian form and her eyes flickered in disgust.
“My name is Effe-Tei, Sera, Mage of the Royal Court of King Hlaalu Helseth.”
“Well why are you here?” she asked, seeming unimpressed.
“I am responsible for transportation and inspection of travelers from the mainland to Vvardenfell, Sera, and have been since the boats were stopped because of the Blight.”
“Very well then. You can be on your way.”
“I am to stay with the Prin – with the maid until she is safely on her way.”
“Fine,” the woman said, rolling her eyes and spreading her scroll out on a table. “What’s your name, maid?”
“Fenara Alma – just Fenara,” she answered, catching herself with a look from Effe-Tei.
“And your profession?”
“Well…I was studying to be an alchemist,” she said, not untruthfully. The woman probed a bit more, asking this and that about Fenara and being answered with occasional help from Effe-Tei. When she was done, she rolled up the scroll and looked expectantly at Effe-Tei.
“Would you excuse us for a moment, please? I will send Fenara along when we are finished,” he added politely, and the woman grunted and left, swinging the door shut. Effe-Tei turned to her, pulling out two sheets of grubby paper. “These are directions to the home of a man called Caius Cosades. You are to find him and give him this package. They told me that someone at a place called ‘South Wall’ will know where he is.” Fenara looked down at the directions written in Effe-Tei’s familiar spidery hand, then at the garbled, sloppy letters of the package she was supposed to deliver. “It’s in code,” he told her, seeing her troubled look.
“Why?” Fenara asked, looking up, her face still puzzled.
“I don’t know, Princess,” Effe-Tei said with a slight sigh. “Although you can be sure I would tell you if I did.” He sighed again. “I should go. Both of us should go.” Fenara’s eyes welled up again and Effe-Tei held open his arms. They hugged tightly, then Effe-Tei pulled away. “Have courage, Princess, and you will return to the City of Light someday.” Effe-Tei turned once in a circle and was gone.
For a time, Fenara stood in the middle of the dark room, feeling more lost than she ever had before. Then she slowly opened the door to find herself on a deserted stairwell. She assumed she was on the second floor and went down to a broad reception room with three doors at the front. The Dunmer woman they’d spoken to was shouting at a sheepish-looking Breton, but she paused to thrust a small sack of gold into Fenara’s hands before she left.
Outside, the air was chill and the skies were steel-gray. The manor opened into a square plaza that was ringed with dull-looking brown houses all built in a similar style – flat, square roofs, rounded windows set with green glass, rough stone that was cracked and chipping. A single tree was planted in a small circle of grass, but it looked stunted and unhealthy. Beyond two short towers that flanked the opening to the plaza, a set of stairs led down into a street that looked equally dreary. There were people about, and those that were wore grim looks that appeared to be permanently set into their faces. In the distance, she heard a strange, alien cry, a long moan that echoed around the mountains surrounding the city.
Feeling awkward and unsure of where to go, Fenara decided to utilize a trick that her grandmother had taught her for when she was lost. She had never had to use it, having grown up in the seclusion of a palace she could navigate in her sleep, but she figured now was a better time than not at all. Picking a storefront a short walk away in the street below, Fenara began to walk purposefully as if she had lived in this town – in Balmora – all her life.
As Fenara started to descend the stairs into the street, she heard a raspy chuckle and turned at once to see a guard clad in bonemold armor leaning against a nearby wall, chortling to himself at the sight of her. She realized that she must look foolish walking in the fashion of a princess in a grimy town with a filthy dress, and her cheeks flared. Abandoning her grandmother’s method, Fenara quickly asked the guard where she might find the South Wall.
“South Wall Cornerclub?” he asked, and she nodded, assuming that was what she was looking for. “Sure. Go straight down the stairs there and cross the river, then go all the way to the end of the street and through the last arch. You’ll smell it before you see it.” Puzzled at his last statement, she thanked him and started down the stairs again, ignoring him as he called after her, “And walk in with that fancy strut, lass, they’ll give you a discount!”
Cheeks flaming, Fenara followed the street down to a narrow river that cut through the center of town and crossed a low stone bridge over it. The water looked icy as it lapped against the stone walls of the dam, and Fenara shivered, thinking longingly of the fur-trimmed cloak hanging in her quarters in the palace.
As Fenara started towards the end of the street, she suddenly understood what the guard had meant. The air here was sticky and sweet, so sweet that it tasted foul upon her tongue. It had an odd smell to it too, like a combination of honey wine and hard candy. Fenara found the cornerclub easily enough, stepped around a drunk man collapsed on the stoop, and went inside.
The cornerclub was dank and hazy the hallway she came into, with a single candle melted onto a barrel offering light. Fenara passed by the heavy-looking Nord woman in the corner that glared at her with hooded eyes, as well as the scrawny blonde Bosmer man that sat on a crate cleaning his fingernails with a rusty dagger. She was reluctant to descend the stairs into the bar, but was more reluctant to ask someone in the hallway for help.
The sugary smell in the main room of the club was overpowering. Fenara nearly choked on the foul fumes and her eyes watered from the smoke. Squinting, she made out the source of the haze, a group of four Imperial men at the other end of the bar that were sitting around a dented copper pipe with tubes protruding from its mouth that was releasing the pinkish smoke into the air. Looking away, Fenara noticed a Khajiiti woman that looked relatively normal, and she made her way over to her, trying to ignore the smell.
“Excuse me,” Fenara said, and the woman looked at her with wide feline eyes. “Um…I was wondering if you could tell me where I could find a man called…um…Carus Cosades.”
“This one means Caius, does she not?” Fenara took a step back, startled. The only Khajiit she had ever met before was her chambermaid, who had grown up in the palace and spoke with the eloquence of a trained servant. This woman, however, had a harsh hiss that lingered beneath all her words, which were strongly accented to the point of being difficult to understand.
“Oh…um…yes, Caius is his name. I’m sorry.”
“That is no problem to Chirranirr,” she said, her black lips stretching into a smile. “Caius Cosades is here often. Chirranirr knows why this one looks for him here. But Chirranirr does not know where the old sugar-tooth lives. This one should ask Bacola, this one should.”
“B – Bacola?”
“Bacola Closcius, nice man with plenty of sugar. Lets us use the skooma all we want.” She laughed, a deep, purring noise that sounded odd in her throat. “He may be upstairs.” She laughed again and sat down, her eyes growing unfocused as she reached for a purple bottle on the table. Deciding she would have no more luck with this woman, Fenara went back up to the shadowy hallway and up the stairs again, where she found an Imperial man locking a door he had just stepped out of.
“Excuse me,” Fenara said, and he looked up, slipping the key into his pocket. At least he seems sober, she thought to herself. “Could you please tell me where I can find Bacola Closcius?”
“That’s me,” the man said. “What can I help you with?” Fenara breathed a small sigh of relief.
“I’m looking for a man called Caius Cosades,” she said. “I was told you knew where to find him.”
“Sure,” Closcius said good-naturedly. “Old Caius lives one street up from us. Go out the front door and turn right, then walk to the end of the road. He rents a little house just up there.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully, and Fenara quickly went back downstairs and out onto the street. She breathed a sigh of relief at being out of the choking atmosphere of the cornerclub, then started up the street to where this Caius Cosades apparently lived.
She knocked twice on the door, pulling the package she had been told to deliver out of her bodice. When there was no answer after a few moments, she knocked again. Silence. Fenara knocked a third time and was preparing to leave when the door was suddenly flung open and a half-naked man with wildly bloodshot eyes was on the threshold, shouting.
“Damn it, Ralen, I told you –” he stopped, seeing Fenara. “What do you want?” he asked shortly. Feeling strongly that this man couldn’t possibly work for the Emperor, Fenara squeaked an apology and started to leave. “I asked you what you wanted!” he roared after her, and his voice echoed on the empty street.
“I – I’m sorry,” Fenara stammered, clutching the package. “I’m looking for C – Caius Cosades.”
“Well I’m Caius Cosades,” the man said sharply. “What do you want?”
“I – um – I have a package for you. I was told to deliver this.” She held out the letter, and he yanked it out of her hands, broke the seal, and read quickly. When he finished, there was a long silence, then he looked up at her slowly, scrutinizing her face.
“Come in,” he said gruffly, and he turned sharply into his house. Fenara followed and found herself in a dim room strewn with rubbish and sharing the same sugary smell as the South Wall Cornerclub. “Shut the door,” Cosades said, and Fenara reluctantly shut out the light. “This package,” Cosades said, limping over to the table and setting the paper down. “Says that you are to follow my orders. And that your name is –” he glanced at the letter again. “– Fenara. Are you ready to follow my orders, Fenara?” Taken aback, Fenara blinked.
“I –”
“Yes or no, and if the answer’s no you’re disobeying the Emperor and I can have you arrested.”
“Then – then yes, I suppose.” Fenara realized her hands were shaking and clasped them tightly.
“Good. Now I’m supposed to make you a novice in the Blades, and that means that you’ll report to me.”
“The Blades, sir?”
“We work for the Emperor. We’re his eyes and ears. And by agreeing to follow my orders, you’re agreeing to join the Blades. So welcome to the service, Novice Fenara.” Fenara’s head was spinning. This old man who lived in a dark house in a dingy city was a…spy? But Cosades was already speaking again. “…need a cover identity. Around here, a lot of people go by ‘freelance adventurer.’ Join up with one of the guilds and get so experience under you’re belt. The Dunmer here will be able to see that you’re an outlander from a mile away. Let’s try to fix that.”
“And what about your…um…orders?”
“Those are my orders, Novice,” Cosades replied simply. “You’re painfully new in Vvardenfell, and you could do with some training. I’ll give you the names of some of the trainers around here you can use, and then I want you to get out and come back when you’re more prepared for stuff that’s going to be a lot more difficult than anything you’ve done before. Here.” He limped over to a crooked lockbox on a shelf and counted out a few coins. “Here’s two hundred drakes. Go get yourself a decent weapon. Or armor. Or something. Then come back, and I’ll have orders for you.” He found a spare bit of parchment on the ground and scribbled a few names on it, then handed that to her as well. “These are the Blades Trainers. I want you to visit each of them before you do anything else. Maybe they’ll be able to break you in a bit.” He didn’t seem to have anything more to say, so Fenara moved gratefully towards the door. “Oh, and there’s an empty apartment upstairs you can use until you find yourself some better lodgings. Just out the door and to the right. Should be unlocked.”
“Um…thank you.” With that, Fenara was back outside in the bleak, late afternoon light. She fingered the four fifty-drake pieces in her hands and glanced up. She mounted the stairs right beside Caius Cosades’ door and found herself on a small landing beside a door, which opened easily into a tiny, one-room apartment. There was a bed in one corner beside a ladder that led up to a trapdoor on the ceiling, as well as a dresser and a table, but the rest of the room was bare. Fenara pulled off her shoes, which were more like bits of ragged cloth wrapped around her feet, and left them by the door, moving gratefully to the bed. She collapsed on top of it, only to be met with a thin mattress that she could feel the wooden bed slats through. Cringing, Fenara sat up and pulled the two letters out of her bodice, opening the one from her grandmother first. She took a moment to relish in the familiar handwriting that filled the page, then began to read.

My sweet Fen,

I sorely wish that I will never have to send this letter. I hope with all my being that by the end of your trial, your arrogant father will have seen reason and will forget this matter, and you never have to read these words, but since it apparently is not so, I will be blunt.
You should not have tried to touch the Kanet. We both know this, and I’m sure you know it now better than anyone. However, it was an unavoidable curiosity, and I partly blame myself for not taking the opportunity to study it carefully alongside you, for I could tell you had an interest in alchemical arts from the time you were young and would eventually be interested in its properties. But let us not dwell on the past – you know now that what you did was wrong, and that is that.
I have told you before that your father is a powerful man and wishes he didn’t have an unconditional love for you. He is, however, your father, and does love you, despite what you may think. In the days when you first came to the palace, he spent many nights awake in my chambers, speaking to me nervously. He was worried, poor man, about being a good father to you, about raising you properly, about you not having a mother figure in your life, about how you might be ridiculed and mocked for your improper heritage. I did my best to comfort my son, and for many years he truly did love you. You probably do not remember, but you would often come running in from the gardens to show him a particularly lovely Timsa-Come-By or a damaged butterfly, and the look on his face, to gaze upon his only heir, was filled with so much love it made my heart ache. So you see, he truly does love you, and I know it has pained him to send you away.
He would not have done it, but his new advisors, as you know, are slimier than scribs, and are possibly among the foulest men I have ever met. Helseth is easy to manipulate, you see, and they know that you are an intelligent young woman. They fear that, once Helseth is gone, you will be wise enough to be rid of the corruptors, which of course you would be, and this worries them. They were the ones that convinced your father that you needed to be gone in any way possible. They were the ones that pushed him into taking the first opportunity he could to exile you from Mournhold. I, unfortunately, do not have much power here anymore, as the advisors have convinced my son that I am a senile old woman. If I could have, you know I would have tried to save you. And dear Fen, I tried so hard to convince your father to rethink his decision. So incredibly hard, Fen.
But you are strong, and I know you will survive. You must do as the Emperor’s men command you, for I have a strong feeling that they will be your ticket back to Mournhold. Follow your orders and live diligently, and I know, dearest Fen, that you will return to me someday, and Helseth will see the errors of his ways. Buy as many books as you can and study as often as you can. Study alchemy intensively, collect new ingredients, write reports, become skilled. Perhaps when this happens, you will be able to convince Helseth to rid himself of those foul advisors and see reason. I have confidence that you will change the way things in Mournhold are run, dearest Fen.
And now to the specifics. My friend Ranis Athrys is the head of the Mages’ Guild in Balmora, the town where Effe-Tei took you. She owes me a favor, and I told her I had a close friend coming to Balmora that needed help. She does not know of your royal heritage, and nor should she. Or anyone else, for that matter. I advise you not go by Fenara while you are in Vvardenfell, for it is an odd name and there are those few that know of your existence that may make the connection. But, in any matter, tell Ranis that you are the friend Barenziah sent and you need help. I’ve asked her to get you into the Mages’ Guild, where you can expand upon your alchemy studies, and to be sure that you are safe and have a place to stay.
Know this, Fen. If anyone were to discover who you are, then the consequences could be great. You must not reveal your identity to anyone, or it could mean your death by those who are against your father’s rule, and, although you may not believe it, that would hurt him more than he could bear.
I love you more than I could possibly write on this page. Be strong and pure of heart, Fen, and you will return to the City of Light and Magic. I know you will.

Much love,

Fenara reread the letter until she had the words memorized, then she held the parchment close and breathed in the scent of dried ink, trying to catch a hint of her grandmother’s comforting smell, a mix of roses and binding glue. She thought she caught a trace of it, once, but then it was gone again, and it was just a bit of parchment. Fenara picked up the envelope to replace the letter and felt something heavy in it. She peered inside and saw a small coil of silver chain in the corner. She pulled the chain out and found it was the chain of the locket her grandmother had given her for her fourteenth birthday – a small silver circle at the end, inlaid with one round, pale blue stone. Fen pressed the catch and the door flipped open, revealing the left side with the tiny ticking clock and the right with a minute drawing of Fenara and her grandmother, sketched with smooth, yet detailed lines. Fenara closed the locket slowly and slipped it over her neck, tucking it under her robe and feeling its comforting tick against her heart.
Carefully folding the letter and slipping it back into her bodice, she turned to the one that was stamped with Helseth’s seal. Her fingers shaking, Fenara broke the wax and unfolded the paper. Helseth’s letter was much shorter.

Dearest Fenara,
It is with great sorrow that I write this letter. It is to my eternal regret that I turned you away when we first met, despite your very strong resemblance to your mother. I confess that I loved her, but she was not my wife, and we face the highest obligations to propriety in our position.
Nonetheless, I soon relented. I could not bear that, after she died, you would be raised as a commoner instead of a royal heir. So, I took you in and raised you as my own. I fear I may have rather spoiled you, so perhaps there is some explanation for your extraordinary betrayal. I will not, however, accept any blame for this. It was your choice to steal from your father and king, and that is treason.
I gave you so much, Fenara. And yet you defied me.
You are a child of kings, an heir of Morrowind, and you will demean yourself to such petty crimes! Given the sign you were born under, perhaps it was to be expected, but you still have a choice in these things, and you chose ill, Fenara.
Though it breaks my heart to say it, you are no child of mine. No more shall you bask in this privilege. No more shall my subjects proclaim you my heir. You are henceforth stripped of your title, Princess Almalexia, and exiled from the Royal Court. Remember this, Fenara. We are what we make ourselves, and you, former princess, are nothing.
I have shielded you from prying eyes all these years, and no portrait has been made. Therefore, there are few who will recognize you. You will find yourself unknown, and since you have spent so many years in such luxury, hard work will come a shock to you. And such shall it! Perhaps, and it is my deepest hope, that removed from Royal privilege you may find within yourself some measure of decency, and through hard work redeem yourself.
In so vain an anticipation, I have spoken with the Emperor. On his command, you are to go to a man called Caius Cosades on Vvardenfell, who will instruct you in your service to the Empire.

Helseth, King of Morrowind

Fenara stared at the last word until the letters blurred before her eyes. She set the letter aside and looked down at her soft, uncallused hands.

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