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Saturday, November 19, 2011

VI - Evidence of Conspiracy

It had been over a year since Fen had last been in the Palace, but her memory served her well as she and Julan made their way through the finely tiled reception chambers.

“That’s the way to the Imperial Cult shrine,” Fen muttered, glancing off to the left. “So that means the guards’ quarters are over here.”
“This place is a maze,” Julan said, in half-awe and half-disgust. “How do you find your way around?”
“I went through a bit of a rebellious phase when I was younger,” Fen said distractedly, peering down another hallway to be sure no one was listening. “I wasn’t supposed to ever leave the Upper Hall of the Palace, and I managed to find ways to sneak down here and get out into the city if I had a few coins to bribe the servants.”
“And you weren’t recognized?”
“The only guards that knew me were the ones here,” she told him. “I was perfectly fine just wandering in the city.” She turned a corner, and nearly collided with a tall, sharp-boned Dunmer woman in Rose Guard armour, carrying her helm under her arm. Her eyes were sharp, and Fen felt heat rise in her cheeks. How much did she hear?
“We don’t allow civilians into these areas of the Palace,” the guard snapped, her lip twisting and her eyes narrowing. Fen held in a sigh of relief.
“We were just –”
“I’m looking to join the Royal Guard, actually,” Julan said, swiftly cutting her off. Fen quieted, deciding it would be best to let Julan handle the guard.
“Both of you?” the woman snapped, glancing at Fen.
“Er…no, this is my…sister. She just came with me.”
“I’ve never been out of Balmora before,” Fen lied smoothly, and the Dunmer’s face softened suddenly.
“I grew up in Balmora myself. I’m Aleri Aren,” she added in a much warmer tone, inclining her head towards Julan. “Been destined for the Royal Guard all my life, and so was my mother and her mother. I served King Llethan for many years, and now I’ll serve King Helseth. Long live the King, and long live the Emperor,” she added in a rather halfhearted tone. “It’s none of my business, of course, but why do you want to be a guard? You look like you’ve done well enough for yourself as an adventurer.”
“Er – not so well, actually,” Julan said quickly, his cheeks reddening.
“What do you think of King Helseth?” Fen asked, and Aleri glanced at her.
“It is my honor to serve King Helseth and Queen Barenziah,” she said simply, though there wasn’t much feeling in her words. “Anyway, if you want to join the guard you’ll have to speak to the captain. Excuse me.” She passed them and continued down the hall, the sound of her boots clicking on the tiles gradually dying away. Fen and Julan exchanged a glance.
“This way,” Fen said finally, going down the way Aleri had come from to the door that led to the guards’ quarters. They emerged into an empty common room, featuring little more than a few shelves and a round table. Julan picked up an empty tankard on the table and sniffed it, then made a face.
“Ugh…what kind of shit do they drink here?”
“Let’s go up,” Fen said, gesturing to the stairs in the corner. They mounted the stairs and found themselves in a long room lined with beds, each separated by a folding screen. Just as they entered, Fen heard two voices, arguing, down the opposite hall. She grabbed Julan’s arm and they ducked behind a folding screen just as two Royal guards entered the room, holding their helms under their arms.
“Helseth is no fool,” the darker of the two men was saying. “He’s got to keep some experienced men like us around. And they need us to teach those new fellows their business.”
“They’re not going to keep us around if they suspect us,” the second man said, turning to stand directly in front of his companion. “Helseth’s power is more important to him than having experienced guards, Ivulen. Hell, the Nerevarine could come in here and he wouldn’t let her in his guard. He just doesn’t trust us.”
“Unlike King Llethan,” Ivulen muttered crossly. “That idiot had no idea what we did, and didn’t much care.”
“But now we have to deal with Helseth, and once that’s done there will be a new tone around here. Did you talk to Aleri?”
“Yeah. She said she switched the watches for us.”
“Good,” the second man said firmly. “It’s only a matter of time then.”
“Get up,” Fen whispered to Julan, nudging him. They got to their feet just as the two guards turned.
“Who are you?” Ivulen said crossly, not seeming to notice that they had been crouching behind the screen.
“I’m Athaso Rindal. This is my sister Fedura. I’m looking to join the Royal Guard.” The two men exchanged glances. Fen, remembering Delitian’s words about House Hlaalu, quickly interjected.
“Our father is a Hlaalu councilor in Balmora,” she said, trying very hard to sound pompous about it.
“Oh? Really?” Ivulen said genuinely. “Does Tienius Delitian know that?”
“Did you talk to Aleri Aren?” Julan nodded. “You should tell her that you’re House Hlaalu. Really. But don’t tell Tienius Delitian. Just tell Aleri Aren.”
“Why –?” Fen started, but the two men pushed past them and went straight back downstairs. “Right,” she said, glancing around to be sure they were alone. “You go and find Aleri and tell her that you’re Hlaalu. I’m going to poke around a bit in here.”
Julan went back downstairs and Fen pulled the Amulet of Shadows from her bag, slipping it around her neck and instantly becoming invisible. She went to the first bed, checking under the pillow and the mattress, then carefully opening the chest and starting to rummage through. There wasn’t much of interest – just a dull dirk, a few books, and a dented copper necklace. She was just closing the chest when she heard a noise behind her and turned silently. Ivulen was back, clutching his helmet nervously and glancing around.
When he saw the room was empty (or appeared empty), he hurried over to the bed Fen stood by. She carefully backed out of the way as Ivulen went to the table at the end of the bed, pulled out a quill, and made a couple quick slashes on a parchment sitting there. There was a sudden noise and a second guard appeared, making Ivulen jump.
“Ivulen, we’re on Plaza duty in five,” he said, and Ivulen hastily swept the parchment off the table and nudged it under the bed. As soon as he was gone, Fen picked up the parchment, studying it closely. The handwriting was tiny and almost illegible, with frequent misspellings. But three names are always correctly spelled – Milvela Dralen, Ivulen Irano, and Aleri Aren – and those watches when all three are the only guards in the Throne Room have been underlined twice.
“Fen? You in here?” Fen pulled off the Amulet of Shadows and became visible to Julan, who had just entered. “Aleri basically told me Ivulen was an idiot,” he said, and his eyes went to the parchment in Fen’s hands. “What’s that?”
“I think this is the proof we’ve been looking for,” she said, handing it to him. He glanced over it, squinting at the miniscule print.
“Does this mean I can take my hair down?”
“Yes,” Fen muttered, taking the note back and folding it in half. “Let’s go take this to Delitian, then we can go back to the inn for dinner. Hopefully he won’t have any more spying for me to do.”
Delitian was oddly delighted at the note when Fen handed it to him.
“This is Ivulen Irano’s handwriting on the note. He notes the watches when Dralen, Aren, and Irano are the only guards in the Throne Room. I believe I’ll change the watch schedules to prevent that,” he added, folding the note and slipping it into his belt. “And I’ll need to keep a close eye on all three. Very shrewd work, Fen. You’ve brought me clear evidence of disloyalty among the guards. Now I need your help finding evidence of conspiracy against King Helseth among the Hlaalu nobles.” Fen sighed heavily.
“What makes you think I would find evidence of conspiracy? I have been to see Ravani once already, and she is just as convinced as the rest of Mournhold that Helseth murdered King Llethan.”
“Do you want to regain your father’s trust or not?” the captain asked severely. Fen gave him a hard look, then nodded once. “Good. The old king’s Hlaalu supporters haven’t accepted King Helseth's accession to the Throne with good grace, as you’ve seen. Maybe they think that another candidate – a Hlaalu candidate, for example – would be better. Maybe they have some plan to express such a preference. If so, I doubt they would be candid about it. But maybe you should search Llethan Manor for documents, diaries or other tangible evidence of such plans.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Fen said, and Delitian sent them on their way.

* * *

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