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Saturday, October 8, 2011

III - Of Public Opinion

At some point, Fen and Julan made their way silently back through the sewers and up into the warm bustle of the Great Bazaar. Fen carried the crumpled writ in one hand and kept her eyes down as she led the way back to Godsreach. Julan said nothing when they returned to the inn and Fen went straight to her room, shutting the door firmly on lunchtime diners. She sat at the round table, reading the writ over and over again until she could repeat the words in her head. There was no denying – Helseth had hired the Dark Brotherhood – twice – to kill her. His daughter. Fen pushed sharply away from the table and started to walk circles around the room, her head pounding.

There was a soft knock and Julan appeared, his hair damp and no longer carrying the stench of the sewers.
“You okay?” he asked quietly, slipping in and shutting the door. Fen sat down on the edge of her bed, staring at her scarred hands.
“No,” she said softly, and her voice was choked. Julan sat down beside her. “I just…I don’t want it to be true, Julan. I know it is, but I want so badly to be dreaming, or mistaken, or…something.”
“Of course you do,” Julan replied. “But Fen, you can’t let this go. Even if Helseth is the king, he still hired the Dark Brotherhood, which is illegal.” Fen gave a short, humourless laugh.
“If I tried to tell someone about this, he could have my throat slit in a second.”
“Fen,” Julan said seriously. “You have to report this. We both know you need answers, at the very least.” For a moment, Fen was silent.
“You’re right,” she muttered finally, her voice cracking. “You’re right. Let me change…” she stood up and realized her hands were shaking. Julan waited outside and Fen hastily changed into a clean robe and rinsed the stench out of her hair. Writ in hand, she and Julan left the Winged Guar into the warm evening. The sky overhead was a pink-tinged blue, and the cobbles were crowded with contented people making their way home. Pleasant chatter rose above the crowd, and cicadas buzzed from the planters that lined the streets. It was so serene, so calm. So different from the scarred and shady underbelly of the sewers.
They crossed into the Plaza and Fen went straight to one of the guards in rose-coloured armour, Julan by her side.
“Speak to Tienius Delitian,” he said when she explained the occurrences to him, carefully leaving out the bit about Helseth being the hirer and trying to make it sound as if she thought it was merely someone within the palace. “The captain of the guard. He’ll be in the Royal Palace somewhere.” To Fen’s relief, Delitian was not in the Throne Room where he was usually stationed, but rather in one of the reception halls, signing several papers that a pageboy was holding out to him.
“Excuse me, Captain,” Fen said quietly, and Delitian turned. He was a tall, muscular Imperial man that had always intimidated Fen when she was a child, though now she drew herself up and looked at him firmly. Delitian stared at her for a moment, then quickly dismissed the pageboy, leaving them alone in the reception chamber.
“I had not expected to see you here, Princess,” he said, his expression unreadable. “It has been nearly a year.”
“I know,” Fen replied. “I would not have come if I didn’t absolutely have to.”
“If you are discovered, the King will have you hanged.”
“Would you tell him I am here?” Fen asked.
“I couldn’t,” Delitian sighed. “I have known you since you first came to this palace, Princess. Though I am bound by contract to report you if you are seen in the city, I would not turn you over to your father’s wrath. I have a daughter your age,” he added grimly, “and it pains me the way the King has shuttered you from his life.”
“Thank you,” Fen replied quietly. “He…he is not ready to see me, I think.”
“No,” Delitian agreed. “But, Princess, could I ask you why you have returned?”
“This,” Fen said, holding out the crumpled writ. Delitian took it from her curiously and unrolled it. His face turned grim.
“I won’t pretend I don’t know about this,” he said softly, and Fen’s stomach dropped. She had still been clutching the ounce of hope that she was wrong, that Helseth had not sent assassins after her. “The King feels you are a threat to his monarchy, Princess.”
“How?” Fen asked incredulously. “I am his daughter! His next-in-line! If anything, I should be the opposite of a threat!”
“Not that,” Delitian told her, rolling up the writ again. “The matter of you being the Nerevarine.”
Fen’s heart skipped a beat.
“He knows about that?”
“Everyone knows about it,” he told her. “But very few know that the Nerevarine is also their princess. The people of Morrowind trust and adore you, Princess, and that is far from the general opinion of King Helseth.”
“If he would cease trying to be rid of me, I could help him!” Fen said furiously. “It doesn’t have to be one way or the other!”
“In that case, you can help him,” Delitian said suddenly. “Just not directly.”
“What do you mean?” Fen asked suspiciously.
“There are rumors among the people about your great uncle’s death. Rumors that Athyn Llethan did not die a natural death. There’s no truth to them, of course,” he added hastily. “Speak to the people about King Llethan’s death. You are not known to them as my representative or the princess, and they may be more candid with you. Let me know if you find the source of these rumors.”
“Will no one suspect?”
“Very few know of your true identity, Princess,” the captain told her simply. “You will be protected. Now, if you will excuse me.” With that, he turned and strode out of the room, leaving Fen and Julan alone in the reception chamber.
“Are you sure he isn’t going to tell your father?” Julan asked worriedly.
“He needs me,” Fen said, going to the door that led out into the courtyard. “He wouldn’t.”
It was late in the afternoon, and Fen and Julan headed for the Great Bazaar, where Fen reasoned there would be the most talk surrounding the death of her great uncle. She had attended his private funeral shortly before her exile, though she had only met him once or twice as a child and her only memories of him were those of a tired old man.
The Bazaar felt strangely quiet, and Fen only realized why when they came upon the outdoor theatre, where an enormous crowd had gathered in the stone benches before the round stage, looks of irritation playing on their faces.
“What’s going on?” Julan asked blankly.
“They’re putting on a play, it looks like,” Fen said, bypassing the stage. She had never much cared for theatre. As they went around to the other side of the stage, they collided suddenly with a bright-faced Dunmer man swathed in flamboyant attire, and he quickly leapt to his feet again.
“Terribly sorry!” he said hastily, helping Fen up and mopping his brow with a hankerchief. “I’m all in a tizzy. Allow me to introduce myself.” He stuck out his hand cordially. Fen took it and he knelt low to kiss it. “Meryn Othralas, founder of the Mournhold Players. You came here, of course, to see our fabulous production of The Horror of Castle Xyr, did you not?”
“Actually – ”
“Well, I’m very sorry to inform you that we won’t be putting on the show today. I was just on my way to tell our audience. The troupe has its own drama to worry about at the moment.” He closed his eyes dramatically and paused. After a moment, he opened one eye, looking expectantly at Fen.
“Um…why not?”
“Would you believe that the very day we are supposed to open this superb production, our leading actor, Tarvus Beleth, comes down with collywobbles?!” Meryn exclaimed loudly. “We can’t find anyone to take over his part! I would do it, but my expertise is desperately needed backstage. So now I’ve just got to stand up here and try to drive people away from our heavily promoted production.” He mopped his brow with the hankerchief again. “I just wish we could find someone who looks like – ” he paused, staring past Fen at Julan as if noticing him for the first time.
“Wait just a minute there, Dunmer,” he said slowly, looking Julan up and down. “You know, you kind of look a little like Tarvus. I think this might work. What do you say? Would you like to take on the part of Clavides, Captain of the Imperial Guard, in our production?” Julan stared blankly at Meryn.
“I…well, um, I’ve never been in a play before.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to it! All you’ve got to do is stand up there and really feel the lines. And we so badly need someone to take this part. I would pay you, of course.” At this, Julan’s eyes brightened.
“Uh…sure. I’ll give it a try.”
“Fantastic,” Meryn said as Fen turned to glare at Julan. Meryn whipped a thick ream of parchment from his belt and held it out to Julan. “Here, take a copy of the script. As you can see, people are already starting to gather, so we need to get this show started. I’m sure you know The Horror of Castle Xyr quite well, don’t you?
“Well – ”
“Of course you do, so there’s no need for a lengthy rehearsal. Review the script for the next two minutes, then talk to me again. Make sure you come back within two minutes, as our play requires exact timing to pull off correctly.” With that, Meryn hurried past them and stepped out onstage to thunderous applause.
What are you doing?” Fen hissed as Meryn started to speak to the delighted audience.
“I’m helping them out,” he said feverishly, flipping open the script. It was nearly two hundred pages long, and the print was small. “Gods…this is lengthier than I thought.”
“I don’t believe you,” Fen said in disbelief as Julan started flipping through the script.
“Fen…there’s no way I can memorize all this!”
“Then you shouldn’t have agreed to do it!” Julan shot her an earnest look, and she sighed and snatched the script from him. “I’ll wear my Amulet of Shadows and whisper you the lines,” she said, extracting it from her bag. “Better than nothing.”
Meryn’s opening remarks ended with more applause, and he appeared backstage just as Fen vanished.
“Good job, ah…what was your name?”
“Excellent. Good job, Julan. You’re right on time. Let’s get this show on the road. Do you have the script?”
“Um…I lost it.”
“No matter,” Meryn said lightly. “All you have to do is head out there through the door, hit your mark in the center of the rug next to Gureryne, stand still, and deliver your lines. She’s already out there. Move quickly through the door – timing is everything. And be careful, the audience knows the play well, and I’ll be counting your mistakes. Break a leg!” With that, he seized a dented Imperial Legion helmet from a chest of props, jammed it unceremoniously on Julan’s head, and gestured to the door. Fen opened the script, which had turned invisible with her, and slipped through the door behind Julan, standing just over his shoulder on the stage. There were more people than she had expected in the audience, all of them watching excitedly as Julan stopped in the centre of the rug and turned awkwardly to speak to a white-haired Dunmer woman waiting there.
“Good evening to you, serjo,” she said brightly, stepping back to shut the door behind Julan. Fen squinted at Julan’s first line and leaned towards his ear.
“‘Good evening, is your master at home?’” she whispered.
“Um…good evening, is your master home?” Julan repeated nervously. The woman grinned broadly.
“No, serjo, it’s only me here. My master, Sedura Kena Telvanni Hordalf Xyr, is at his winter estate. Is there something I can do for you?” Someone in the crowd tittered excitedly and Fen quickly glanced at the next line.
“‘Possibly. Would you mind if I came in?’”
“Er – possibly. Can I come in?”
“Certainly, serjo,” she said cheerfully, crossing the stage to a small table with several bottles on it. “May I offer you some flin?”
“‘No, thank you, what’s your name?” Fen whispered, following Julan as he went to stand by the table. He repeated it back and the Dunmer woman poured herself a goblet and took a long drink, then smiled.
“Anara, serjo.”
“‘Anara, when did your master leave Scath-Anud?’”
“Um…when did…he leave?”
“Who serjo, my master?”
“Why, more than a fortnight ago!” she exclaimed.  “That’s why it’s only me in the castle, serjo. All the other servants and slaves who tend to his lordship travel with him.” She paused and took a step towards Julan, placing a familiar hand on his shoulder and smiling oddly at him. “Is there something wrong, serjo?”
“‘Do you know an Ashlander named Ashur-Dan?’” Fen read, relaying the line to him in a whisper.
“Do you know an Ashlander named….um….Nibani Maesa?” Fen sighed and the Dunmer actress looked puzzled. The audience tittered loudly.
“No, serjo, I know no one by that name.”
“‘He’s dead. His last words were ‘castle’ and ‘Xyr.’’” Julan repeated the line, and the actress looked politely confused.
B’vek, that’s strange,” she said brightly. “I suppose it’s possible that my master knew this man, but being an Ashlander and my master being of the House of Telvanni, well, if you’ll pardon me for being flippant, serjo, I don’t think they would be friends.”
“‘Could I look in your master’s library?’” Fen whispered.
“Can I….look in the library?”
“Please, serjo, go wherever you want. We have nothing to hide. We’re loyal Imperial subjects.”
“‘As I hear, are all Telvanni.’”
“As I hear, are all Telvanni.” Fen started to push Julan in the direction of the ‘library’ Anara had gestured to, but she had barely touched him when there was a sudden stir in the audience and a Dunmer man had sprinted up onstage, a Daedric short blade drawn. Fen glanced back down at the script – there was no fight scene there. She quickly dropped the script and shoved Julan roughly to the ground as the assailant’s wazashiki just barely missed him. The woman playing Anara screamed and Fen, still invisible, shot a powerful frost spell at the attacker. The audience gasped. He stumbled slightly, just enough to give Julan time to leap up and rush forward with his father’s blade. Fen hung back, not wanting to accidentally injure someone in the audience, while Julan and the mysterious Dunmer parried. Before long, Julan cast a lucky blow and sent his blade straight through the man’s chest and pulled it out coated in blood. The man collapsed and the audience leapt to their feet, cheering wildly.
Julan glanced down at his attacker’s body, then at his blade, then at the screaming audience, clearly confused. The Dunmer actress quickly stepped forward.
“You should go and see Meryn,” she muttered, touching Julan’s arm, and Fen seized his wrist and pulled him offstage.
“What the hell was that?” she demanded, yanking the Amulet of Shadows off her neck and rippling into visibility. Meryn grinned nervously.
“I…ah, hope you can forgive us, Julan. But we knew that assassin would attack sooner or later.”
“You knew about this?” Fen said incredulously as Julan pulled off the dented Imperial helm, still looking confused.
“Yes, well, you see, our lead actor, Tarvus, recently had a somewhat indecent tryst with the daughter of a Telvanni diplomat. The diplomat caught him in the act, and vowed revenge. Since Tarvus changes residences frequently, we knew an attack would come during his performance, when the diplomat could be sure of Tarvus’ location.
“Hopefully, since you were able to dispatch the would-be assassin, the diplomat won’t try again. I know that the services of the Morag Tong are very expensive to enlist. I apologize for using you in this manner, Julan, but I hope you understand why it was necessary.”
“You’re going to pay me, though, right?” Julan asked.
“Ah, yes, well, I do intend to pay you in full,” he said, snapping his fingers. A dark-clothed crew member appeared beside him, ready with a sack of coins. “Let’s see, during the play you made several mistakes, even with your friend here whispering the lines in your ear. Not quite up to the standards of a professional troupe like the Mournhold Players, but not too bad, nonetheless. Your acting needs work, though it wasn’t bad for an amateur.” The crew member handed Meryn two thousand-Septim coins. “Here, take this gold as payment,” Meryn said, holding it out to Julan. Thank you again, and I hope you can forgive us.” Fen shot Meryn a nasty glare and they started to leave, but were suddenly surrounded by a flood of excitedly jabbering people, all of them wanting to get close to Julan.
“That was an incredible performance!”
“It was much shorter than the original, but what a new ending!”
“That man is still laying on the stage bleeding! I swear that swordfight almost looked real.” Several people jockeying for position in front of Julan were holding out bits of parchment and quills, shouting for his autograph.
“Come on,” Fen said, grabbing Julan’s wrist before he could take the quills and extracting him, with some difficulty, from the crowd.
“They were fans!” Julan snapped, pulling his hand out of her grip. “They wanted my signature.”
“We have more pressing things to do, I’m afraid,” Fen replied, quickening her pace. “Let’s go back to the Winged Guar. Someone there will talk.”
Going to the Winged Guar, it appeared, had been the opposite of what Fen was hoping to achieve – it was evidently the place all the theatre-goers went after a performance to discuss the show in depth, and as soon as Julan entered there was a loud cheer and he was surrounded once again. Fen let Julan’s admirers drag him to the bar for drinks and went to the upper level of the inn, where several people that were evidently not enamored by Julan’s performance were dining together, talking animatedly from their different tables. When Fen entered, one Breton woman hailed her.
“Welcome, Lady Nerevarine,” she said, gesturing to a free seat at her table.
“Thank you,” Fen replied, sitting down.
“We didn’t expect to see you in Mournhold, Lady Nerevar,” someone said, and there was a murmur of agreement.
“I grew up here,” Fen told them. “I wanted to visit.”
“You didn’t come at the best time,” said a heavyset Nord man at another table. “Since King Llethan died, this city has been in a state.”
“I heard about that while I was in Vvardenfell,” Fen lied. “How did he die?”
“Natural causes,” a few people said, but the Breton woman Fen was sitting with shook her head.
“That’s not what they say over at Llethan Manor.” Fen looked at her curiously.
“What do you mean?” The woman leaned forward.
“If you want to know, talk to Llethan’s widow herself. She’ll tell anyone who’ll listen how her niece’s son is a murdering, power-hungry tyrant.”
“And she hasn’t been hushed up?” A few people looked impressed.
“Maybe the Nerevarine knows more about Mournhold’s government than we do!” someone said, and pleasant laughter filled the room. After the subject changed, Fen managed to excuse herself and slip outside. An Ordinator gave her instructions to Llethan manor, and she entered silently.
The front room was small, and a Bosmer woman with violently red hair and bonemold armor sat in a chair beside a door, flipping lazily through a book.
“You here to pay your respects to Queen Llethan?” she asked without looking up.
“Go on through, then,” she said, nodding to the door. Fen pushed it open and found herself in a small library where her great aunt, a slender Dunmer woman with a wizened face and a pile of blue-black hair sat reading sympathy cards at a desk. She raised her eyes to meet Fen’s and squinted.
“What do you want? Come to say you’re sorry when you didn’t even know the man? Or did he owe you something?”
“Sera, I am your great-niece. Fenara. We spoke at King Llethan’s funeral.” The woman studied her for a moment.
“So you are. Call me Ravani, then, child. And tell me, what are all these rumours in the family of you being sent to Vvardenfell?”
“It’s a very extensive story,” Fen said quickly. “But Ravani, I’ve heard tell that you don’t believe that my great uncle died naturally.”
“Are you working for Helseth?” Ravani asked suspiciously. Fen shook her head. “They murdered him!” Ravani shouted suddenly, balling her hand into a fist and slamming it into the table, flying to her feet. “Helseth and his spiders! Everyone knows, and no one lifts a finger. Imperial justice! Hah! I SPIT on Imperial justice! They killed my husband, and now that wicked man is king. I curse Helseth, and all his kin! May they die tomorrow, weeping, watching their children die today!” She paused. “Save you, of course, child.”
“How do you know he was murdered?”
“Everyone knows,” she snarled. “It’s there in print, for everyone to see, in the broadside sheet called The Common Tongue. It says Helseth poisoned hundreds of people when he was in the West. If Helseth was a wicked murderer before, why not now?”
“If it is any condolence, he has tried to have me killed as well. Twice.”
“It doesn’t surprise me. I’m next, no doubt. After that he’ll go for Barenziah.”
“Thank you for your help,” Fen said quickly, suddenly uncomfortable, and she quickly departed the manor and headed back to the Winged Guar, her head bursting with questions. The people said that Helseth had murdered Llethan. A year ago, Fen would have scoffed at the idea, but now that he had tried twice to kill her, the thought of him poisoning Llethan did not seem very unlikely at all.
In the time she had been at Llethan Manor, much of the crowd from the theatre had dwindled away, and Julan was now left sitting at the bar with three Dunmer girls wearing low-cut dresses, all of whom were giggling uncontrollably with a plethora of Mazte bottles by their hands.
“But they didn’t – hic! – tell me abou’ the surprise ending!” Julan was saying. “I didn’t – hic! – realize that fetcher was going to – hic! – attack me! Bu’ I was ready. An’ I pulled out my sword an’ – sliced ‘im!” The girls giggled again, and Julan wheeled around. “Hi Fen!” he said brightly. “We’re just talking ‘bout my play!”
“Right,” Fen said wryly, going to stand by the bar. It was littered with rubbish from the dinner-goers that night, and a few scraps of paper littered the floor. She bent down and picked up the largest one, emblazoned boldly at the top with The Common Tongue. “Perfect,” she muttered, folding it once. “Julan, I’m going to bed. We have to be up early tomorrow to visit the palace.”
“Okay, Fen,” Julan slurred before wheeling back around. “So I was jus’ standing up there, saying my lines, and this s’wit runs out of the audience!” Fen shut her door on Julan’s tale and sat down on her bed, opening the broadsheet to read it, despite her not wanting to:

I have a little list. They never would be missed.
Appearing at the top – three names... Anhar, Khajiit male – Martyrius Arruntius, Imperial male – Jusole Asciele, Breton male. What do these three names have in common?
All three at one time or another represented an inconvenience to a Western noble prince named Helseth.
Anhar was an agent for Eastern ebony merchants. There was an unfortunate scandal concerning improper contracts offered to Helseth as compensation for his assistance in obtaining ebony import remits from the Imperial Board of Census and Excise. Luckily for Prince Helseth, this scandal blew over when no one could be found to testify. Is it just a coincidence that Anhar's health went into a steep decline, just as he was to testify before the Imperial magistrates? He died a natural death, according to the Imperial coroners. Convenient and timely, perhaps, but natural.
Martyrius Arruntius was a city alderman of Wayrest. Prince Helseth's liaison with the alderman's married daughter was potentially embarrassing to the Prince – especially when Martyrius Arruntius forcefully pressed his suit for 'predatory adultery' in Wayrest's courts. Many thought it strange that Martyrius Arruntius should suddenly fall ill and die of 'exhaustion' on the eve of the trial. The suit was settled out of court, and charges dismissed. The Imperial coroners ruled that Martyrius Arruntius had died a natural death. Convenient and timely, admittedly, but natural.
Jusole Asciele was a diplomatic attache at the High Rock embassy in Wayrest. Widely rumored to be an intelligence officer, Jusole Asciele was often seen at court, taking a great interest in the affairs of Queen Barenziah and her family. It is said that Wayrest can be a beastly uncomfortable place in high summer. Perhaps the Breton's constitution was ill-suited to the relentless heat and pestilential swarms of the southern Iliac. Jusole Asciele took suddenly ill one evening, and within three days he was dead. Once again, Imperial coroners ruled that Jusole Asciele had died a natural death. Convenient and timely, yes, but natural.
And these, The Common Tongue notes significantly, are only the 'A's on the list.
Some have quietly suggested that Prince Helseth was the most accomplished and subtle poisoner in the West. But The Common Tongue has never seen a single scrap of evidence that would prove such an indictment. [Admittedly, the absence of such proof could count as qualifying towards the title of a 'most accomplished and subtle poisoner'.]
And, further, The Common Tongue does not wish to suggest that King Helseth is a poisoner, or that the recent death of King Athyn Llethan's was a poisoning, and not a natural death. The Common Tongue has never seen a single scrap of evidence that would prove such an indictment. And the Imperial coroners have ruled that Athyn Llethan died a natural death.
            Fen lowered the broadsheet slowly. She had seen the book A Game at Dinner before, but had never thought to read it, not realizing it was about her father. And reading The Common Tongue made her think that Helseth trying to have her murdered was not as unlikely as she had thought.

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