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Saturday, May 21, 2011

XXVIII - House Hlaalu

Despite being a member of it by birth, Fen knew little of the inner workings of House Hlaalu. She had learned over the past few months that they were considered to be the dregs of the Great Houses, called liars and thieves by anyone who was not a part of it themselves. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that Fen prepared herself to meet with the Councilors of the House, for she felt rather unsure of what to expect.
Nibani Maesa had suggested they start with Crassius Curio, the eccentric Imperial Councilor who lived in a manor atop the Hlaalu canton in Vivec. The manor dominated the centre of the plaza, with its domed greenglass ceiling almost touching the roof of the plaza. The two Bonemold-suited guards outside let them enter without question.
As they stepped inside Curio Manor, Fen felt suddenly like they were inside the Royal Family’s summer estate in Tear. It was decorated as lavishly as a Hlaalu dwelling could be – richly woven tapestries covering the stone walls, mahogany tables set with rows of dazzling engraved silver, shelves lined with brightly bound books with their titles stamped in gold. Fen stepped forward uncertainly, and her foot sank into a plush crimson carpet woven with tiny Khajiiti warriors. They were given directions to Curio’s office, where they found him leaning back lazily at his desk, ham-fistedly clutching a goblet of wine in one hand and a book in the other. Curio was a stocky man, with thinning hair and a wide stomach. His eyes were bright, however, and he lowered his book as they came in.
“Guests!” he said brightly, snapping the book shut and tucking it under his arm. He stood up, throwing his arms out in greeting and sloshing wine down his arm, though he didn’t seem to notice. “Droven, the door, please,” he added, and a Dunmer servant just outside pulled the door closed. Curio held up the book with a mischievous grin and Fen saw a very explicit drawing of a naked woman was embossed on the cover. “Pornography seems to be the only good thing we’re getting from Daggerfall these days, eh?” he said cheerfully, tossing the book onto his desk. “So! What can I do for you?”
“My name is Fen, Serjo,” Fen said, pulling back her hood. Curio gave her a warm, close-lipped smile.
“I was wondering when I would meet you, pumpkin!” he said jovially. Fen blinked.
“I – pardon?”
“It’s in all the papers! How you’ve been tittering around House Redoran and the Ashlanders, asking for support because you’re the Nereva-something. I knew it was only a matter of time!” Fen paused a moment, unsure of how to answer.
“Well – I am here to ask if I might have your vote for the Hlaalu Hortator. Because –”
“Of course you can, pumpkin!” Curio said swiftly. “But you can’t just expect me to grant your request on the spot! If I did that, every pretty Dunmer maid that walked in here would get whatever they asked of me!” He took a step towards her and his eyes traveled down her body. “Not that I meet many pretty Dunmer maids.”
“What do you want?” Fen asked sharply, taking a half step back, and she felt Julan tense behind her.
“Two thousand septims should cover it, I think.” Relieved, Fen counted out the coins and passed them to Curio while Julan doubled up with silent laughter. “Lovely,” Curio said, pocketing the gold. “Now, my dear, I will gladly name you Hlaalu Hortator.”
“Can you tell me about the other councilors?” Fen asked, sharply elbowing Julan in the gut.
“Dram Bero lives in Vivec, but no one knows where,” he said thoughtfully. “Funny lad. And Yngling Half-Troll is an uncivilized loon who lives in a manor atop the St. Olms canton. Omani and Ules are in Orvas Dren’s pocket and won’t do a thing without his approval, so go to him first. He has a plantation out by Suran.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and she grabbed Julan, who was still giggling, and they left the manor.
“You should have seen your face!” he gasped, and Fen shot him a look.
“Let’s knock off Yngling Half-Troll,” Fen muttered, unfolding the copy of the Yellow Book, “then we can see if we can find this Dram Bero.”
It turned out that Yngling Half-Troll, like Crassius Curio, only required a bit of coin to agree to vote for Fen, something that made Julan positively indignant.
“Hlaalu are all lying, cheating idiots,” he said fiercely under his breath, and a passing pageboy glared at him.
“Express your frustration when we’re not in their manors,” Fen snapped, and they came out onto the St. Olms Plaza once more. “Or at least when we aren’t in Vivec.” She glanced around. “Curio said Dram Bero lived here somewhere.”
“Bero?” said a voice from behind them. Fen turned. It was an old Imperial man in tattered clothes, sitting on the edge of a planter and smoking a pipe. He scratched his beard. “Dram Bero wanders around this plaza an awful lot. Nobody knows where the fellow lives, though.” The man leaned forward. “I seen him go inter the haunted manor ‘round by the Temple a few fair times.”
“The haunted manor?” Fen repeated.
“Aye.” The man shuddered. “Redguard kid went in there in a dare few years ago. Di’n’t come out. People’ve been scared ter go near it ever since.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and she and Julan went around the Tribunal Temple and quickly found the haunted manor, a small building oddly set off from the others around it.
“Haunted manor,” Julan scoffed as Fen opened the door with a click. Inside, the manor certainly seemed to fit the part. It was dimly lit, with the only light leaking in from the thick, wavy greenglass window. The room was a mess, broken chairs upside down and shards of a clay pot scattered about. Thick cobwebs were strung across the corners, and pages torn from a book littered the floor.
“Let’s look around,” Fen said, closing the door and crunching over the clay shards to the other side of the room. Julan stayed where he was, his eyes wide. “Julan?”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he muttered quickly, hurrying over to Fen and hovering by her arm. Fen bent down and picked up one of the pages, scanning it briefly – it appeared to be out of A Dance in the Fire. She was about to drop the page when Julan clutched her arm.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered.
“Hear what?”
“It was like – someone laughing.”
“You’re imagining things, Julan,” Fen said dismissively, shaking him off and going down a short hallway. She had barely gone three paces when Julan was tugging at her arm again.
“I heard it again.”
“Calm down.” Julan gripped her tighter. “Julan,” she snapped, trying to tug her arm out of his grasp. There was a sudden crash from down the hallway and Julan let out a high-pitched shriek and made a beeline for the door. Fen seized the back of his shirt and pulled him the hall to the door the crash had come from and was now emitting what sounded like the laughter of a large group of people. Julan was shaking like mad. Ignoring him and preparing for the worst, Fen kicked open the door.
They were in a long, low-ceilinged room, being stared at by two tables full of people in finely embroidered clothes, all of them silent. Fen cleared her throat.
“Um – we’re very sorry to intrude, but we’re looking for Dram Bero…” A Dunmer man at the head of the table stood up.
“I am Dram Bero,” he said, and Fen was relieved to see he did not look angry, merely politely puzzled. “My companions and I take great care to keep ourselves hidden. I suppose we will have to be more careful from now on.” He smiled. “But since you are here, won’t you join us?”
“Certainly,” Fen answered, shutting the door behind them, and the people at the tables resumed their chatter. Dram Bero had a servant bring out two extra chairs, which were placed right beside him at the head of the table. The servant brought out a pitcher of wine and filled Fen and Julan’s goblets. Food was served, and they were halfway through dinner when the inevitable arose.
“So, Fen and Julan,” Bero said, setting down his fork. “What brings you to my manor?” A curious silence fell on the table, the rest of the party waiting for their answer.
“I seek to be named Hlaalu Hortator,” Fen said finally, and a few of the guests nodded knowingly.
“The Ordinators burst into my shop the other day!” a white-haired Dunmer man exclaimed loudly. “Searching for you, m’lady. I told them, ‘I’ve never seen this Fen in my life! And if I did, I wouldn’t be telling you lot where she is!’ From what I’ve heard, the Temple’s gone rotten!” There was a murmur of agreement.
“I can assure you now that you will have my vote for Hortator,” Bero said, and the guests burst into cries of approval and raised their goblets. Fen thanked Bero sincerely when they had finished and she and Julan made ready to leave.
“I should tell you,” he said as he walked them to the door, “that I take extreme caution not to be found and that precious few know of my existence here. If you return again, my household will have most likely moved.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve caused an inconvenience,” Fen said, but Bero waved her apology away.
“It’s no matter. We were going to relocate soon anyway. But I do hope you succeed in this Nerevarine business.” They thanked him again and went back outside to the plaza, where it was significantly less crowded due to the lateness of the hour. Fen took one look at Julan and burst into laughter. His face turned bright red.
“You screamed like a child,” Fen gasped.
“Shut up,” he muttered. “Shani locked me in an ancestral tomb when we were eleven. I hate ghosts.”
“Even the kind that don’t exist?” Fen quipped, and Julan shot her a look.
They returned to the Mages Guildhall to stay the night and rose well before the sun the following morning. Fen had an apprentice mark Dren Plantation on her map and they set off towards the Silt Strider. To reach the Plantation, they would need to travel east out of the city of Suran. Suran was a fairly large town nestled deep in the hills of the Ascadian Isles, known mainly for its notorious red light district.
The Silt Strider ride, mercifully, was short, and Fen only felt faintly ill as they dismounted. Dawn had only just started to break on the horizon. The streets were quiet, the taverns closed up until evening and the lamp-boy going about with his long-handled extinguisher, putting out the flickering flames atop street lamps.
Fen and Julan went down quietly into the silent streets, Fen leading the way toward the east-facing gate out of the city. As they started down the road towards Dren Plantation, Fen glanced over her shoulder at Suran, slowly shrinking behind them.
“You okay?” Julan asked suddenly. Fen dropped her gaze.
“I’m…fine.” She tucked a loose strand of hair that had escaped her braid behind her ear and looked up, squinting against the rising sun. “It’s just…odd, I guess. I know Suran kind of has a poor reputation, but…I don’t know, I suppose I’ve just been so preoccupied that the quiet feels strange.” Fen shot a sideways glance at Julan. “Is that peculiar?”
“Nah, I know what you mean,” Julan said vaguely. “Hey, is that it?” Fen looked up. They couldn’t have been walking more than a quarter of an hour, and already the bulbous, unmistakable shapes of netches were visible in the distance.
“Must be,” she muttered, and as they came closer, a high stone wall came into view, and the dangling tentacles of the netches disappeared behind it. Soon they had come upon a large arch leading into the interior the ranch, where they were stopped by a heavyset Dunmer guard in Bonemold armor.
“Name,” he said in a bored tone, not looking at them.
“Mehra Milo,” Fen said without thinking. “And Athyn Llethan,” she added, using her great uncle’s name for Julan.
“Go ahead,” he mumbled, stepping aside.
“What was that about?” Julan whispered as they passed him. “He didn’t even want to know why we’re here.”
“He’s probably checking for us,” Fen murmured back. “They must know we’re going around to the councilors by now –” But Fen’s train of thought was lost as they came around a corner and into the interior of the Plantation. The closest to a plantation she had ever seen were a few small ash yam farms during a walk to Vivec. This was far larger, however. To their right, two rows of slave shacks were erected, a few with tables and stools set up outside, though no one occupied them. Across from the shacks, a tall stone guard tower rose up, identical to one that Fen could see on the other side of the vast plot of land. A hard-packed dirt road led past the shacks and up a small hill to where a sprawling Hlaalu manor overlooked the entirety of the Plantation. This, however, is not what caught Fen’s attention – rather it was the sight just beyond all of this.
Huge, vast fields of loose dirt stretched out for miles, attended to by slaves that bore rakes and netch hooks. The netch, enormous floating creatures with dangling tentacles, drifted lazily over the fields, letting the edges of their limbs drag through the soil. Other slaves carried armfuls of ash yams that the netch had turned up and deposited them in large iron tubs at the edges of the fields. Dunmer overseers prowled along them, carrying whips and observing the work carefully.
“I’ve never been this close to a netch,” Fen breathed, watching a female block out the sun for a brief moment.
“Gods, Fen, they’re only netch,” Julan said, rolling his eyes, but Fen was completely enthralled. In Mournhold, the only animals she had ever seen were the scribs that were sold as pets in the Bazaar and a domesticated Durzog she had had as a small child. Coming across wild guar and having to fight kagouti was enough of a shock, but the netch were an amazement unto themselves to her.
When Julan had finally tutted enough, they climbed the steep hill up to the manor, following carts and delegates of House Hlaalu that had business to conduct with the Councilor. Inside, they were all led into a large antechamber, where Fen and Julan sat for nearly an hour among messengers and petitioners until they were called.
“Mehra Milo and Athyn Llethan,” the guard in charge droned, and they hurriedly got to their feet and followed him from the chamber.
They were led to a small office, where the guard ushered them in and left quickly, shutting the door behind them. Orvas Dren, an imposing-looking Dunmer man in unremarkable dark clothes and silver boots, sat at the desk, gazing at them with a hard, somewhat quizzical look.
“So,” he said when the door had shut. “Why don’t you two tell me your real names?” Fen’s heart skipped a beat.
“Athyn Llethan is the name of the Hlaalu king that ruled Morrowind while Barenziah lived in Wayrest,” he said simply. “Who has, incidentally, just recently died in Mournhold. One can only assume that you are not really Mehra Milo either, although I applaud your knowledge of the Hlaalu family tree.” This is not going well, Fen thought urgently.
“I…apologize for the deception, serjo,” Fen stammered. “You see, I had a feeling we would be turned away if we used our true names, and it was urgent that we speak with you.”
“Obviously,” Dren said wryly, “or you would not have used such a manner to meet me otherwise. Now, I have limited time to offer you, so please conduct this urgent business quickly.” He gestured at the chairs before the desk, and Fen and Julan sat. Fen cleared her throat nervously.
“Um…my…my name is Fen, serjo. I –” Dren held up a hand, stopping her, his mouth forming a cold line.
So you want to be Hortator of House Hlaalu. And you’ve come to me.” Fen nodded. “You show unusual wisdom for an outlander.” Dren leaned back in his chair. “But what’s the title of Hortator worth to you? Why do you want to be Hortator?” Fen thought carefully before answering him. Dren had instantly known her great uncle’s name. That had to mean that the old Morrowind meant something to him…and he was a Hlaalu…
“To protect Morrowind from the Empire,” she said, and she suddenly believed it. All this time, she had had the underlying assurance that the Empire was with her, that they were close behind her in this whole mess, but now that she spoke to Orvas Dren, she realized it was the opposite. The Empire hadn’t actually believed she was the Nerevarine at all. They wanted a pawn to control and had gotten lucky. And she was the last of the ruling family…it was her duty to protect Morrowind by birthright as well as her position as the Nerevarine. And the Tribunal…they had murdered Nerevar. They couldn’t be trusted either. They were the reason Morrowind was under such despair, and to let them continue as manifestations of the people’s faith would be failing in her position of protection.
She looked back up at Dren.
“To protect Morrowind from the Empire,” she repeated, more firmly, and he gave a flicker of a smile.
“I have long believed it was a mistake to turn from the old gods,” he told them, shaking his head. “Perhaps Azura is with you after all. And perhaps not.” He sighed heavily and stood up, going to stare out the window with his hands behind his back. “I will tell you that I’ve spoken with Dagoth Ur. He promised me the same thing. That he will drive the foreigners from our lands. But I am not one to ignore opportunity, nor am I one to be troubled by rubbing two sides of a coin. If you are a lady of your word, I am your ally.” Dren turned to face them. “I will tell Velanda Omani and Nevena Ules to support you as Hortator of House Hlaalu.”
“Thank you,” Fen said gratefully, realizing she had been holding her breath. Dren gave her a grim, thin-lipped smile.
“I certainly hope you can restore peace to this dying land, Princess.” Fen faltered.
“You know…?” she whispered.
“Of course I know. We are distant relatives, you and I. Your father and I were good friends many years ago. I was the first person he told when you appeared on his doorstep.”
“And you recognized me?” Fen said quietly.
“Instantly. You are the very image of Helseth. And your grandmother, for that matter.” Seeing her nervous look, he added, “No one else knows this, Princess, and no one else will as long as I control the information. Now if I were you, I would see about getting the support from the rest of the Great Houses.”
“Yes,” Fen said breathlessly. “Yes, thank you. Come on, Julan.” Dren did not reply, but merely watched them go, a sad smile playing on his lips.

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