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Saturday, May 7, 2011

XXVI - House Redoran (part 1)

Three hours passed and found Fen lying wide awake in her bed, staring listlessly at the ceiling. Every time she thought about convincing the Redoran councilors to support her, a nervous flutter went through her stomach. Despite the public not knowing about her, Fen’s grandmother had educated her well on the art of diplomacy, reasoning that she would need it someday regardless. Seems like now’s the time to use it, Fen thought to herself. She rolled over, trying to get comfortable, and saw the crack of light under the door widen. Then the door was open partway, and a hunched, emaciated figure was shuffling into the room, its heavy breathing raspy and loud.
Without hesitation, Fen seized the Staff of Magnus, stashed beside her bed for this very purpose, and leapt to her feet as the Ash Zombie limped across the flagstones to her. Fen swung the staff over its head and it fell with a solid crack and an inhuman groan.
“Fen!” Julan appeared at the door and his eyes widened as he saw the Ash Zombie at Fen’s feet. “The Sixth House is going after you!” he exclaimed, smacking his forehead in disbelief. “Gods, of course! I’m such an idiot!”
“I wouldn’t argue that,” Fen said wryly, setting the Staff of Magnus down and picking up the creature’s feet. “Help me with this, would you?” They carried the Zombie outside and left it in the scrub there, much to the suspicion of the night guard.
“I don’t feel much like sleeping now,” Fen muttered as she and Julan returned inside to the dark bar. All the other customers had long gone to bed. As the next morning dawned, Fen dressed in one of her nicer robes, navy silk with gold embroidery around the sleeves. She knocked on Julan’s door, checking to make sure her hair was in place and her shoes weren’t scuffed. Then the door swung open and Julan appeared, wearing the stained shirt and pants he had been on the day they met with his dented silver boots.
“Ready!” he said brightly.
“No, you’re not,” Fen replied, taking his arm and going back to her room. She swung the door shut behind him and started to dig through her bag, finally managing to pull out a wrinkled satin blouse and a pair brocaded ivory pants. “Put these on,” she instructed, adding a pair of embroidered cloth shoes.
“Are you kidding?” Julan replied, holding up one sleeve of the shirt. “I’m not wearing this. Shani might, though.”
“If I walk in there with a clear Ashlander in tow, the councilors will dismiss me without a thought,” Fen said sharply. “I’m not having you walk into their manors with me wearing that.”
“Fine,” Julan said grudgingly, taking the clothes back to his room. He came out, looking extremely uncomfortable and pulling at the tight satin pants. “I feel like an idiot.”
“You look quite dapper,” Fen muttered disconcertedly, packing everything back into her bag.
“I suppose you’re going to make me braid my hair like a girl too, aren’t you?”
“Actually…” she replied, turning around thoughtfully.
“I’m not doing it. Let’s just go.” Julan strapped his sword onto his lace-edged belt and grumpily followed Fen outside.
Fen had spent a fair amount of time in Ald’ruhn during her early days with the Mages Guild, but she had never entered Ald Skar, the colossal crab shell where the Redoran Councilors built their manors. She vaguely remembered Gildan, the Blades Trainer that lived in Ald’ruhn, explaining the concept of the hollowed-out crab shell to her, but couldn’t recall the details. She was, however, enormously grateful that all the councilors could be reached under one roof, unlike the Hlaalu and Telvanni representatives.
“This thing is huge,” Julan said as they entered the shadow of the enormous shell. “Gods, how long do you think it took them to hollow this thing out?”
“Dunno,” Fen muttered, heading towards the tiny, oval-shaped door set into the rough surface of the shell. They pushed it open and ducked inside, and Fen’s breath caught in her throat.
The inside of Ald Skar was cavernous, so enormous that the other side of the room was almost hard to see. The walls had a greenish cast about them, and they were ribboned with the bones of the great crab, stretching far across the ceiling. Some of the bones had been drilled with holes and had lanterns strung through them, hanging from loops of rope and giving a few hazy orbs of light up near the ceiling. A network of wooden bridges and platforms crisscrossed the shell, stretching from the platform Fen and Julan stood on to all the far reaches of the hall, which had small oval-shaped doors placed along it at regular intervals. Each door had a small platform before it and an enormous banner hanging over it, brandishing the family name in brightly-painted Daedric letters. A set of rickety-looking wooden stairs led down to the floor of the shell, where there seemed to be a few shops set into the walls here. The walkways were crowded with people – guards in bonemold armor patrolling the bridges, well-dressed pages for councilors hurrying back and forth running errands, lowly retainers clustered around the doors to the Council Manor, and so many nobles Fen felt dizzy looking at all the silk and brocade. At least two thirds of the Dunmer in this hall had to be related to a councilor somehow – for they all walked with an air that was familiar to Fen, having grown up in the palace, a sort of jaunty strut that showed they could order any of the people around them to hang themselves and they would do it.
“Get out of the way!” someone said sharply from behind, and Fen and Julan stepped aside as a commonly-dressed Dunmer man stumbled through the door, his arms full of bales of silk, and went down the rickety steps, disappearing into the crowd below. The man brought Fen back to her senses, and she grabbed Julan’s arm and waded into the masses, stepping sideways and around people and feeling nervous on the rope bridges, which she decided couldn’t possibly hold as much weight as they were. After stepping on someone’s foot twice, bumping a page that dropped his papers over the edge of the bridge, and stumbling into a guard that glared darkly at them, they finally made it across Ald Skar to the three oval-shaped doors leading to the council manor. The retainers scampered out of their way, and Fen pushed open one of the doors and ducked inside.
Thankfully, the atrium of the Redoran Council Manor was much tamer than the interior of Ald Skar. The ceiling was at a normal height and there was a round planter in the center of the room encircled by finely carved benches. Pages and retainers taking a break from their duties clustered there, while others stood in groups around the room and still others were carrying armfuls of papers down a wide hallway that turned off to the right. As they started to cross the atrium, one of the oval doors opened and all the pages and retainers in the room fell quiet and stood respectfully for the woman who had just entered.
She was beautiful, a fine-boned Dunmer woman with high cheekbones and dark, plump lips. Her sleek black hair was twisted artfully over her head, and her heavily lidded eyes gazed ahead, not taking any notice of the silent people standing in her honor all around her as she crossed the room quickly and smoothly. The two guards on either side of her went with her down the wide hallway, where her satin skirt whipped out of sight. The pages and retainers resumed their chatter, and Fen and Julan exchanged a glance.
“Who was that?” Julan murmured.
“I have a feeling she’s important,” Fen guessed, approaching a wide desk where a young Redguard woman sat stamping the insides of books with the Redoran seal.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in a bored voice, not looking of from her methodical stamping.
“Could you tell me about the Redoran Councilors please, sera?” Fen asked.
“The Redoran councilors are among the most distinguished and honorable Dunmer in Morrowind,” she said, a new tone of pride in her voice. She set her stamp down on her ink pad and reached behind her desk, withdrawing a small red leather book. She handed it over the table to Fen. “Here. Perhaps you’d like to review a recent edition of the Red Book of Great House Redoran. It lists the current Redoran councilors and their residences. You’ll find all of them under Ald Skar.” She picked up her stamp again and pressed it down firmly on the first page of her book, then slapped it shut and reached for the next one.
“Sera, could you please tell me who that woman was? Who just passed through here?”
“That was Lady Brara Morvayn,” the Redguard said, a faint note of remorse in her voice. The woman glanced up at them, her eyes shadowed. “You’re not from Ald’ruhn, are you?” Fen shook her head. “Morvayn Manor is the only councilor’s home that is outside the walls of Ald Skar. It was recently overrun by corprus monsters and Lord Morvayn was slain in defense of his home. The Lady, thank Vehk, managed to escape, but she is traumatized and barely speaks at council meetings anymore. The guards tried to enter to recover Lord Morvayn’s body, but three were killed and only one got out alive. So they boarded the place up and ordered that no one go near it.” She shook her head. “Such a shame. Lady Morvayn is so wise.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and she and Julan found an empty stretch of wall near the doors to stand and flip through the Red Book of House Redoran.
“Idiot guards,” Julan hissed as a few of them entered and went down the wide hallway. “Just closing off a Sixth House base like that, one that’s right in the middle of town, because they’re too cowardly to try again.”
“Nibani Maesa said we should start with Athyn Sarethi,” Fen said, finding the councilor’s page in the Red Book. His name was preceded by a long list of titles and accomplishments, then, at the very bottom, it stated he took up residence in Ald Skar. Fen pulled her locket out from under her robe and clicked it open, glancing at the clock side – it was nearly eight o’ clock.
“What’s that?” Julan asked. Fen looked up and found he was looking at the locket.
“Oh…it’s from my grandmother.” Fen quickly tucked the locket away again, hoping Julan wouldn’t press her. Thankfully, he dropped the matter and they left the council manor into the bustle and noise of Ald Skar. Fen found the banner emblazoned with Sarethi, Daedric for Sarethi, and they started their struggle through the crowd towards it. When they finally reached the door, a cluster of retainers huddled outside scurried out of their way and they climbed through the oval-shaped opening.
A wide set of stairs led straight down into a long, pillared room with an intricate mosaic ceiling. The pillars, too, it appeared, were covered in painted tiles, making a dizzying swirl of elaborate designs. The floor was smooth stone, and the room was lined with shelves that were filled with all manner of expensive and fragile-looking ornaments.
“Gods!” Julan muttered as they went down the stairs. “Would you look at all this? Why are the Redoran so materialistic?” At the bottom of the stairs, they saw a weary-looking Dunmer man in a lush red robe, standing over a table to sign a paper while an impatient page bobbed beside him. The man finished and handed the paper to the page, who quickly shoved it into the rest of the documents in his arms and hurried past Fen and Julan.
“Councilor Athyn Sarethi?” Fen said, approaching the man. He turned to look at them, his heavily lidded eyes apprehensive.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Could you tell me how a Redoran Hortator is chosen?”
“I’m afraid I really haven’t got time for this,” he sighed, rubbing his eyes. “Why don’t you speak to one of the Kinsmen about it? There should be a few hanging around the Council Manor.”
“I need your attention for this, Serjo,” Fen insisted, and he sighed again.
“Only the Redoran councilors can choose a Hortator for House Redoran, and it must be unanimous. The Hortator’s duty is defined by ancient custom, but, in essence, a Hortator is a House champion, and must be both skilled in combat and known for his courage and honor. A Hortator is chosen by consensus. Everyone has to agree. A single ‘no’ is a veto. First a Great House has to choose a Hortator. Then that Hortator has to go persuade the other Great Houses to agree to name him Hortator of their houses, too.” He suddenly stared hard at Fen, as if noticing her for the first time.
“Serjo, if you have a moment, I hope you will allow me to tell my story to you.”
“Go on, then,” he said suspiciously, and Fen began to talk, telling Athyn Sarethi about her knowledge of the Nerevarine Prophecies, her battle with corprus, the imprisonment of Mehra Milo for knowing too much about the Temple, her ventures into the Cavern of the Incarnate, and the blessing given to her by four Ashlander tribes. When she finished, she held up her hand and let the councilor see Moon-and-Star.
“You have told a remarkable story,” he said finally, in a grim voice. “It has the ring of truth. You may have been deceived, but I believe you. I may be able to persuade other councilors to believe you as well. But, as a condition of my support, I require a favor. Rescue my son, Varvur Sarethi, from Venim Manor.”
“Your son?”
“Yes, my son. He is being held in Venim Manor, which is the first manor to your right when you enter Skar. I have heard Bolvyn Venim is keeping him in the right wing of his manor. You must be careful not to kill Bolvyn Venim himself, or the other councilors will turn against you.”
“Bolvyn Venim is your Archmaster, isn’t he?” Fen said, recalling the name.
“Yes. He is a strong leader, and has done great things for House Redoran. How can I explain the hold he has over the hearts of the Redoran people?” Sarethi rubbed his eyes. “He brought us back from certain defeat. He moved the council here to Vvardenfell and took our share of the frontier lands. He is a natural leader, born to rule. One only wishes he was just and fair as well as strong.
“You must be careful not to harm Bolvyn Venim in any way. If you were to kill Bolvyn Venim now, the other councilors would turn against you. Once you have rescued my son, I will tell you a way that we might deal with Bolvyn Venim, but for now, just rescue my son, Varvur Sarethi.”
“Of course,” Fen said, and she and Julan bowed respectfully and took their leave.
“So the Redoran councilors kidnap each other’s kids?” Julan muttered. “Honorable, ha!”
They managed to cross the crowded interior of Ald Skar again to the oval door with the banner emblazoned Venim overhead.
“Julan,” Fen said, making sure they were out of earshot of two pages whispering nearby. “I think you ought to wait here.”
“What? Why?”
“I’m going to use my Amulet of Shadows to get to Varvur, and I have a spell that will make him invisible. One less person will make it easier to get out.”
“Are you sure?” Julan said skeptically.
“Positive,” Fen assured him. “I’ll be right back.”
Standing behind Julan so the pages wouldn’t see her, Fen slipped the Amulet of Shadows around her neck and seemingly vanished. She waited until a page pushed open the door to Venim Manor, then slipped in after him.
The atrium of Venim Manor was even more ridiculous than Sarethi Manor. Its ceiling was at least two stories high with a wide balcony running around the edge. A large round planter stood in the middle of the square hall, holding trees that grazed the tiled ceiling. The guards here were not Redoran guards – they looked like hired mercenaries, many of them wearing heavy Dwemer armor and guarding various doors and hallways as pages hurried past them. Fen kept to the edges of the hall so as to not bump into anyone and found the door to the right wing. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be going through the right wing, and she was forced to wait ten minutes until the guards changed shifts and one of them pushed open the door to the right wing. Fen slipped past him and down the stairs into an equally large room, though this one was laid with training mats.
Fen hovered around the edges of the hall, studying it carefully. She noticed a sheaf of paper with a key resting atop it on a bench and crept over to read it, avoiding the stocky Dunmer woman in full Dwemer armor who was patrolling around the area.


Keep our special guest in the room behind the tapestry. Make sure the door is locked and that he is under guard at all times. If he escapes, I will blame you.


Fen made sure the woman wasn’t looking, then carefully lifted the key off the parchment and closed it tightly in her hand so it wouldn’t be visible. She glanced to her right and saw a large tapestry hanging in its own niche. It had to be the one the note referred to.
Fen approached the tapestry and ducked into the narrow space behind it. There was indeed a door here, and the key fit perfectly in the lock. Fen quietly pushed it open and found a young Dunmer man standing there, bare-chested and barefooted, standing at the back of the tiny room. Fen pulled off the Amulet of Shadows and he gasped, surprised at her sudden appearance, and stumbled backwards.
“Shh!” Fen said quickly, pushing the door so it wasn’t quite closed. “I’m here to bring you back to your father.”
“You’re…here to rescue me?”
“You’re Varvur, aren’t you?” He nodded.
“Come here. I’m going to cast an invisibility spell on you. It will only last a minute, so we need to move quickly. And if you touch anything other than the floor, you’ll be visible again. Stay close behind me, all right?” Varvur nodded and Fen pressed her fingers to his forehead, casting the spell. She slipped the Amulet of Shadows back around her neck and they slipped out the door. Luckily, the door to the atrium had been left ajar, so they could easily pass through. A leaving the manor left the door open just long enough for them to get back out to Ald Skar, and Varvur’s spell wore off. Fen took off the Amulet of Shadows and gestured to Julan. The three of them pushed through to the other side of Ald Skar and into Sarethi Manor. As soon as Athyn saw Varvur, his face lit up.
“My son!” he exclaimed, and he threw his arms open, catching Varvur in an embrace. He looked up at Fen, and she saw there were tears in his eyes. “You have rescued my son, and for that, I am forever in your debt.” Athyn released his son and called for a guard, whom he asked to escort Varvur to his quarters. They left, and Athyn turned back to Fen and Julan, his eyes alive with new happiness. “You rescued my son. Words cannot express my gratitude. Therefore, I name you Hortator of House Redoran. I also promise that I will use my influence with the other councilors of House Redoran. Alas, there is one obstacle. Bolvyn Venim will never name an outlander Hortator. But if you have the full support of the council, he may agree to an honorable duel.”
“A duel?”
The duel is an honorable tradition dating back at least to the founding of Resdayn. Each party to the duel makes an agreement as to the compensation that will be given to the winner. The loser is legally bound to this agreement. Most duels are fought until one party admits defeat or falls in battle. The duel to the death is less common and only ends when one party is dead. The winner of a duel may take what he wants of the loser's possessions, but some consider this dishonorable.”
“Very well,” Fen said. “Thank you. So much.”
“See me again when you have won the support of the rest of the House,” he called after them.
“Well, that wasn’t too hard,” Julan said brightly.
“Now we have to talk to the rest of the councilors,” Fen said nervously. She knew the other councilors would be easily convinced with Sarethi’s blessing, but she knew that convincing Bolvyn Venim would be an entirely different matter.

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