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Saturday, December 17, 2011

VIII - The Common Tongue

Delitian was far from pleased by Fen’s report.
“They’ve all escaped? All three?” he said incredulously when Fen told him. She nodded, her throat tight. “I don’t believe this,” the captain muttered, rubbing his eyes. “There must be a leak here at the palace. Did you give anyone else this information?”
“No,” Fen said, perhaps too quickly. Delitian eyed her suspiciously.
“I’ll tell the King you did your best, then,” he told her slowly. “But I suppose there’s another way you can help.” Fen’s heart was sinking. Despite her protests against Julan, she had half been hoping that Delitian would just tell her to leave, relieving her from this mess.
“What is it?”
“I want you to find the author of The Common Tongue.”
“The broadsheet about my father?”
“The very one.” Fen gave a small sigh of relief. At least there would be no murder involved – she hoped. “When we make official inquiries, people just look stupid and assure us they have no idea what we are talking about. We think you may have better luck – particularly if you approach less-reputable citizens – persons who place profit above honor.”
Like Helseth, Fen thought to herself.
“First we want you to ask around and discover who is writing these lies. Then we want you to find him and persuade him to stop printing lies. The manner of the persuasion is left to your discretion. You will be discreet, of course,” he said firmly. “We don’t want to appear to be threatening the time-honored Imperial traditions of encouraging free speech.”
“Right,” Fen said coldly, turning to leave. “I’ll take care of it.” Feeling strongly that the anonymous writer probably wasn’t printing much in the way of lies at all, Fen returned through the darkened streets to the Winged Guar, where the bar had, for the most part, emptied to a few late-night drinkers. She went straight to her room, eager to sleep, and found Julan still there, sitting on her bed, flipping through a book that had been on her table.
“Oh,” he said, tossing it aside as Fen opened the door. “Hi. Um. I wanted to talk to you.”
“What?” Fen said tiredly as she closed the door, wanting nothing more to fall into bed.
“Fen,” Julan said, standing up and coming over to her. “I know you don’t want to think about this, but you have to realize sooner or later that being this close to your father is a bad idea.”
“Julan,” Fen said, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
“You’re never going to want to deal with it!” Julan said earnestly. “Fen, I’m telling you this because I’m worried about you! Just being in this city is a huge risk, not to mention the fact that you’re in and out of the Palace every day! It isn’t safe!”
“I’ve done things that are a lot more dangerous than this.”
“You’re not listening to me,” Julan said severely. “Fen, Helseth’s tried to kill you twice. Who’s to say he won’t try again?”
“I have to do this, Julan,” Fen told him. “I know it doesn’t make any sense and I know I’ll never be the Princess of Mournhold again, but…but I need to do this. And I need you to understand that.” There was a long silence in which they both stared at one another, defiant, then Julan’s eyes finally flicked down.
“Fine,” he said in a resigned tone. “Fine. You’re guarshit crazy, Fen, but if you’re staying here then so am I.” Fen gave him a small smile.
“Great. Get some rest. Tomorrow we have to go find the one who’s writing those broadsheets about my father being a poisoner.”
“So you…killed the traitors?” Julan asked nervously.
“I let them go. They all fled the city. Delitian never suspected a thing.” Julan grinned broadly.
“What a fetcher,” he said cheerfully, pulling open Fen’s door. “Wake me up when we have to leave.” Smiling, Fen shut the door after Julan and collapsed on the bed, exhausted.
The following morning, Fen roused Julan and they set off for the Great Bazaar, Fen having found that the marketplace is usually the best source of information. She sent Julan to the more bustling half of the Bazaar, figuring he would have better luck there, and she moved around the edges of the crowd around the theatre, watching for someone that looked as if they might tell her something.
At some point, Fen heard her name called, loudly, across the square. She thought for a moment it was Plitinius again, but instead a small Dunmer woman was hurrying towards her, her hair drawn up in an elegant twist.
“Sanaso?” Fen said, surprised, as the woman threw herself into Fen’s arms.
“Lady Fen, how good to see you again!” the bookseller said excitedly.
“Where’s Bedal?” Fen asked quickly, glancing around.
“He’s in Firewatch. We’re staying with my parents until we can set up a new bookshop somewhere. I had to come back to get the rest of my books, I just couldn’t stand the thought of someone taking them. Bedal didn’t want me to come.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Fen said quietly, directing Sanaso away from a nearby High Ordinator. “You could be recognized.”
“I’m only here to get my books, then I’ll be back in Firewatch. Come with me!” she said brightly, as if she had been best friends with Fen all her life. Fen followed her as she unlocked the door to the bookshop and slipped inside. It was dark and smelt a bit musty, a scent that hadn’t been there yesterday.
“Oh, gods, it’s barely been a day!” Sanaso exclaimed, closing the door behind Fen and going to open the shades over the windows. “Some of these books are quite old, though.” She disappeared into the room behind the counter and Fen sat down in a small reading area in the corner. Sanaso reappeared a moment later, her arms full of empty leather sacks. She went to the first shelf and began piling books inside as Fen watched.
“Sanaso,” Fen said slowly as the bookseller moved to the lower shelves.
“Have you read The Common Tongue?”
“Well…” Sanaso hesitated, then turned to face Fen. “I’ll tell you, but just because you helped us so dearly. I’ve read it, and Bedal’s read it, and it worries us.”
“It worries me too,” Fen replied quietly, not untruthfully. “I’m trying to find the person who’s writing it.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know who that could be,” Sanaso said, turning back to her books. “But I would ask someone that deals in shady business.” She tied the sack shut and reached for another one. “Like a pawnbroker.”
“Is there a pawnbroker in Mournhold?”
“Sure, on the other side of the square.” Fen quickly stood up.
“Thank you, Sanaso, and I’m glad you and Bedal are safe, but I’ve got to go.”
“Have a book,” Sanaso said suddenly, gesturing to the shelves. “As thanks. You like books, don’t you?”
“Oh, Sanaso, I couldn’t –”
“Please, Fen? Here, you would like this one.” Sanaso reached for a thick, simple-looking book bound in red, embossed with – she was surprised to see – her own family’s crest. Fen took it and opened the cover to read the title. Her heart skipped a beat. The Complete Real Barenziah. By Anonymous. She looked back up at Sanaso, who was grinning broadly.
“There are only a few copies of the complete version. And that’s the uncensored one, too.”
“And this is about Queen Barenziah?” Fen said breathlessly, looking back down at the title page.
“Oh, haven’t you read them before? They’re really quite good, very well-written. Hard to find in Mournhold, too.”
“Thank you,” Fen said distractedly, closing the book. “Um – I’ll see you later, then, Sanaso.”
“Thank you again!” she said brightly as Fen went back outside. She slid The Complete Real Barenziah into her bag. She had never realized there was a biography of her grandmother other than the officially chartered one. Her father had made sure to keep close tabs on the books that entered the Palace library when she was young.
Fen didn’t see Julan anywhere, so she crossed the square by herself to the pawnbroker’s. It was dim and grimy inside, the shelves and tables piled with all manner of broken and unwanted objects. A stooped Argonian man in a stained white cotton shirt stood behind the cluttered counter, studying a cracked, dusty soulgem by the light of a greasy oil lamp.
“Um…excuse me.” The Argonian looked up and his reptilian face contorted into a mean expression.
“You buying or selling?” he asked shortly, setting the soulgem down.
“Looking, actually. For information.”
“We don’t sell that here,” he snapped back. “You buy, you sell, or you get out. No looking.”
“Can I buy the information then?” she asked, reaching into her bag and extracting several septims. The Argonian eyed them greedily and she slid them across the counter.
“What do you want to know?” he growled, snatching the coins out of the air and reaching below the counter for a dented lockbox.
“I’m looking for the author of The Common Tongue.”
“Here’s what I’ve heard,” the Argonian said in a steely voice, dropping the coins into his lockbox and shutting it again. “I’ve heard that the one who writes The Common Tongue is someone named Trels Varis. Now, this is not a name known to me personally. I make it a habit to know the names of people in Mournhold personally. And this one I do not know. And other people I talk to also do not know. Which is noteworthy in itself. I make the guess that this one is well-hid, and wants to stay well-hid. But where do I first hear about this one? In the Craftsmen’s Hall. So maybe that is a one place to look.”
“Thank you,” Fen told him, and she quickly went back out into the warm brightness of the Bazaar.
There you are!” Fen heard someone say, and Julan hurried over to her from where he had been sitting with his arm around a young Dunmer woman. “I’ve been looking everywhere.”
“Looking hard, I see,” Fen said as the Dunmer woman glared at Julan and stood to leave. “We’ve got to go to Godsreach. The pawnbroker said that he might be in the Craftsmen’s Hall.”
The Craftsmen’s Hall was a large building situated near the Winged Guar. It housed all manner of builders and crafters, as the name suggested, and as they entered they were immediately accosted with the noise and bustle of the place as soot-covered apprentices hurried back and forth, their faces harried and their arms full. They managed to stop one or two people, but no one was much help when asked about Trels Varis. At some point, Fen lost track of Julan – he didn’t reappear until she was arguing with a red-faced Nord by the forge.
“Hey,” he said, tugging on her sleeve. “Come look at this.” Fen left the Nord mid-sentence and followed Julan out of the thick of people and down a short hallway that ended in a single door. A sign was posted over the door, reading Keep Out! in thick, black ink.
“Well, that’s conspicuous,” Fen muttered, checking the door. It was, as she suspected, locked, though a quick spell and it clicked and swung open into a storage room so small that Fen could touch two walls at once with her arms outstretched. There was a large trapdoor set into the floor, and Fen and Julan exchanged a brief glance before Fen knelt to open it.
Excuse me,” an irritated voice said as Fen’s feet touched the floor at the bottom. She turned and saw she was in some sort of office – there were several tables laden with parchment and quills and the shelves were stacked with untreated guar hide. Four or five Dunmer men sat around the tables, and they all looked like they had been busily at work until a few seconds ago – now they all stared at Fen. The man who had spoken, who sported a blaze of shoulder-length red hair, stood up abruptly and walked around the tables to Fen. “What are you doing here? And may I suggest you make your answer very clear, because this office and what we do here is a well-kept-secret. And we wish to keep it a secret, even if it means that you do not leave here alive.” Julan dropped unceremoniously from the ladder behind Fen at that moment, and the red-haired Dunmer glared sternly at both of them.
“Are you Trels Varis?” Fen asked.
“What does it matter to you?”
“You will stop printing lies about King Helseth,” Fen said firmly, and Trels Varis smiled slowly and walked a circle around Fen once, looking her up and down with a smug expression. Julan curled his hand around the pommel of this blade, and Fen touched his arm to stop him.
“Feranos, hand me that file,” Trels Varis said, going over to the tables, and one of the Dunmer at the tables extracted a thick folder from beneath the parchment before him. “Let’s see,” Varis said slowly, opening the folder and flicking through it. “Ah. Here it is.” He looked up at Fen, an uncomfortable smile on his face. “Allow me to formally welcome you to our office, Princess.” Fen’s heart skipped a beat.
“I – What are you talking about?” she said quickly, though her voice shook.
“You know exactly what I am talking about,” Varis snapped, dropping the folder on the table behind him. “Our mission here is to expose the truth about Helseth to the people of Mournhold, and part of that truth is his illegitimate daughter. Trouble is, we have so much to reveal about him that we haven’t gotten around to that lovely little tidbit yet.” Fen realized her hands were shaking. This wasn’t simply a matter of following Delitian’s orders anymore – now it concerned her too.
“How did you find out?” she asked, still in half-disbelief. “It – It was kept a secret.”
“We have our ways,” Varis said simply. “And when this city finds out that their Princess is also the Nerevarine, Helseth will have a lovely fit.”
“You can’t do this.”
“Who’s to stop me?”
“I will,” Fen said angrily. “If I have to cut down each one of you in turn I will. I won’t let you endanger my family like this.” A spark formed in her hand, a spell dancing in her fingertips. The men at the tables glanced at one another. Varis looked somewhat unnerved now. There was a brief silence in which everyone stood tense, waiting to see what Fen or Varis would do. Finally, Varis broke – he picked up the folder with Fen’s information and carried it to the fireplace.
“I am an honorable man, Princess,” he said, this time with sincerity in his voice. He tossed the folder into the fire, and it immediately started to blacken and curl around the edges. “I admire your blind dedication to your kin, however rotten those kin may be. We will stop printing about the Royal Family at once.”
“Thank you,” Fen said softly, and the sparks dancing around her fingers died.
“A word of warning,” Varis said, crossing the room to her again. “Should you return here, we will be gone. We will not print anything about Helseth again, but that will not stop us from exposing the other lies of this city.”
“I understand.”
“Good. Begone, then.” Fen and Julan climbed back up the trapdoor and made their way back to the Palace, not speaking. Varis’s knowledge of her identity made her anxious, and she wondered nervously who else in Mournhold knew who she was.
Delitian was exceptionally pleased with Fen’s confirmation that The Common Tongue would no longer print any material concerning the Royal Family.
“You show fine judgment, Princess, and a light touch,” he said gesturing to a few pageboys that were passing through the Reception Chamber. They nodded and hurried off. “We are very satisfied with your service, and are pleased to give you a rich reward, and great honor besides.” The pageboys returned, carrying a long, thin wooden crate between them. They moved to stand directly before Delitian, and he lifted the lid of the crate to reveal a long, black-and-red blade laying in a velvet cushion. “I give you a King’s Oath Blade – exactly like those used by the Royal Guard. Only those sworn to the king’s service and tested by great trials may use them. They bear deadly curses that kill thieves and traitors. I salute you, and welcome you into our brotherhood.” Delitian lifted the sword from its cushion and held it out to Fen, who took it without showing her disgust.
“Thank you,” she said as one of the pageboys took the crate under his arm and departed, while the other remained by Delitian’s elbow.
“There’s one other thing,” Delitian added in feigned afterthought. “Queen Barenziah wishes to speak to you. Neldam will take you to her chambers.” Fen’s stomach dropped.
You told her?” she hissed. “You told her I was here?!”
“I told no one,” Delitian snapped. “I was telling her and the King of this anonymous aid’s recent help with the traitors and she came to me privately and asked to meet with you.”
“I can’t,” Fen said at once. “They can’t know I’m here.”
“I made an exception for you once, Princess,” Delitian snapped. “Do not ask me to do it again. If you refuse the Queen’s summons, I will be forced to jail you without trial.” For a moment, they just glared at one another, then Fen gave a small nod.
“Fine,” she muttered furiously. “I’ll go.”
“Good. Neldam, take them to the Queen’s chambers,” Delitian directed the pageboy, and he left down the hallway that led to the guard’s quarters, leaving Fen and Julan alone with the page.
“This way,” the page said, starting toward a door.
“One moment,” Fen told him, and she turned to Julan. “Go back to the Winged Guar.”
“No, Fen,” Julan said, as if he had been expecting her to say this. “I’m not letting you walk into the Palace on your own. That’s like walking into the lion’s den.”
“Please, Julan,” Fen whispered, willing her voice to keep steady. “I need to do this alone.” Understanding seemed to flare in Julan’s eyes, and he nodded.
“Be careful.” He turned and went back out into the darkening courtyard. Fen turned back to Neldam.
“Take me to the queen,” she said, clenching her hands and forcing them not to shake. Neldam gave her a wildly confused look, then started down the corridor, Fen right behind.
Every step they took closer to Barenziah’s rooms, the faster Fen’s heart pounded in her chest. She had no idea what to expect – would her grandmother call the guards as soon as she saw Fen’s face? Or worse – would she tell Helseth the moment Fen was gone? Fen kept her head down and hidden by her loose hair as she followed Neldam through the Palace, which was busy with courtiers and pages doing their evening duties. Fen heard dozens of familiar voices, and she had to struggle to keep herself from collapsing from fear on the tiled floor.
Finally, they stopped. Neldam knocked once on an achingly familiar door, and it was opened by Habanj, Barenziah’s chambermaid.
“The one Queen Barenziah asked to see, from Delitian,” Neldam said, and Habanj looked up at Fen. Fen dared not make eye contact with the Khajiit, lest she be recognized, but she slipped into the room at the chambermaid’s gesture, keeping her head down. At once, she was accosted by the comforting smell of her grandmother, roses and binding glue, and she refused to look up at the room, knowing that it would bring out too many memories at once.
“Follow, please,” Habanj said, and she walked towards the back of the main room to Barenziah’s bedroom. Fen followed her slowly, drawing out each step until Habanj opened the door and stood back for Fen to go through. Struggling to block out all the memories that rushed in on her, Fen stepped inside and felt Habanj close the door on her back.
“Look so that I may see you.” Fen slowly raised her eyes to the voice that had guided her through her childhood, and the moment she saw her grandmother’s face everything came loose – tears sprang to her eyes and she fell into Barenziah’s arms, sobbing out everything that had plagued her since she the second assassin.
Finally, when Fen felt she had no more tears to cry, Barenziah held her back, studying her face.
“Oh, Fen,” she said softly, touching her granddaughter’s cheek. “What has happened to you, child?”
“So much,” Fen choked, and Barenziah steered her over to the fireplace, where there were two chairs that Fen had probably spent nearly half her life sitting in, listening to her grandmother talk. Fen sat down in the one on the left, the one that had always been hers, and closed her eyes, leaning back against the cushions. She felt like a cloth wrung dry of emotion. There was a small chink of silver and the sound of Barenziah settling herself in the other chair, as she had before so many times. Fen opened her eyes, which felt itchy and dry, and took in the elegance of her grandmother, with her smooth, age-defiant skin and her piles of snowy hair, the simple way she sat with her fern-green robe piled at her feet. It was a startling contrast to how Fen imagined she looked, ash-worn and beaten and bruised and scarred by her time on Vvardenfell.
“Drink,” Barenziah said, gesturing to the table, where a tea tray was laid out. Fen obliged, and she clutched the cup with quavering hands. Barenziah studied her for a time, and Fen felt instantly relaxed with her grandmother’s familiar gaze on her. “Tell me,” Barenziah finally said, “what happened to you after you left Mournhold.” After a moment, Fen slowly set down her cup and began to speak. She told her grandmother everything – her earliest days in the Mages Guild under Ranis Athrys, living in a dingy apartment in Balmora, gathering information for Caius Cosades, her ventures into Dwemer ruins, finding Julan at Ghostgate, climbing Red Mountain for the first time, traveling to the Urshilaku Camp, contracting and curing her Corprus disease, learning the words of the Nerevarine Prophecies. She spoke of taking Moon-and-Star from the Cavern of the Incarnate, of finding Han-Sashael’s bones with Julan and Shani, of being named Hortator and Nerevarine, of her meeting with Vivec. She explained climbing Red Mountain again, this time to find Keening and Sunder, then assaulting the citadel of Dagoth Ur and destroying the Heart of Lorkhan. She left out nothing, recounted the entire previous year of her life under the unwavering attention of the queen of Mournhold. When she had finished, she took a small sip of her now-cold tea, her mouth dry as a bone.
“I had a feeling,” Barenziah said softly. “When news reached Mournhold that the Nerevarine had cast down the false gods. When they said she called herself ‘Fen,’ and they knew nothing of her past.”
“Do many people know?”
“Not in the Palace. I was the only one that ever called you Fen. To the rest, you are Princess Fenara, and you have been banished to never return again.” Fen closed her eyes. Hearing her grandmother say it made her treason feel much more real. “Fen,” Barenziah said, and it sounded odd to hear the world’s name for her on her grandmother’s lips. “I am so proud of you.”
For a moment, Fen just stared at her grandmother, this beautiful, aged Dunmer with a face that was hardened with seeing so much, and her heart skipped a beat at the thought that she was proud of Fen. Fen, who had, for years, been certain she would live her entire life cloistered in the seclusion of the Palace, whose people would never even know her name, who had spent much of her youth staring longingly past the Palace walls. And Barenziah was proud of her.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and the ghost of a shadow appeared on her grandmother’s lips. For a long while, they remained like that, both women watching one another silently, conveying so much through their near-identical eyes.
“I do not know what to do,” Fen confessed finally. “I want Father to accept me, but I do not want to return to hiding in the Palace for my entire life.” Barenziah studied her granddaughter thoughtfully for a moment, her penetrating eyes pensive.
“I cannot speak to him, for he will not listen,” she told Fen. “Now, action is the only way that you can set things right. Mournhold is a town of two minds, my Fen. On the one hand, there is the monarchy, led by your father, and on the other there is the Temple, and the goddess Almalexia. It is hard to know whom you may trust. While there has been no open hostility between the two, there are always undercurrents that bear watching.” Barenziah leaned her cheek on one hand, gazing into the dark ashes in the grate of the fireplace. “I would like you to make yourself known to the Temple, though not as a princess. See what you can learn. Speak to Fedris Hler. He is a powerful man in the Temple, a confidant of Almalexia.” Fen smiled slightly despite herself.
“The Temple does not think much of me these days, Grandmother.”
“Then it would be best if you did not tell them who you really are, wouldn’t it? The Nerevarine or Helseth’s daughter.” Fen leaned back in her chair, staring at her scratched and scarred hands.
“I don’t understand,” she said after a moment. “When I was young, we always went to Temple. You told me stories of how Almalexia walked the streets and healed the sick. I…” Fen paused, looking back up at Barenziah. “I thought that, if anyone, she was the one of the Tribunal I could trust.”
“For the Dunmer, Almalexia has always represented the motherly virtues of compassion and forgiveness, healing and protection, but in recent years, since the war with Dagoth Ur, she has become a harsher, more unsympathetic patron. Almalexia has changed, and many followers feel she has not changed for the better. A movement within the priesthood critical of current practices – the Dissident priests – has been ruthlessly suppressed by the Temple.”
Before Fen could reply, there was a timid knock at the door. Barenziah stood sharply and opened it, revealing Habanj standing there, though her view of Fen was blocked by the Queen.
“The Lord King Helseth wishes to speak with Your Majesty,” Fen heard Habanj say, and Barenziah tensed.
“Tell my son that I am preparing to go to dinner, and he will have plenty of time to speak with me there. There is no need for him to pester me while I am in study.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Habanj replied, and Barenziah turned back towards her granddaughter.
“You must leave now,” she said softly. “And we cannot meet like this again, Fen.” Fen stood slowly, and Barenziah enveloped her in her warm, strong arms, letting Fen breathe in the old scent of her silken, snow-white hair. “You are so strong,” Barenziah whispered. “Do not let that strength die, my Fen.” Barenziah stood back, cupping Fen’s cheek in her hands and smiling, very faintly. “You are a smart girl, and you will be all right. Seek out Fedris Hler, and perhaps that will set you on your way toward your father’s recognition.” Fen nodded silently and Barenziah pulled at old cloak from her closet. “Cover your face,” she said, handing Fen the cloak. “I will have the page lead you out through the kitchens, just in case, but it is still best you are not seen.”
“I understand,” Fen replied softly, and Barenziah touched her cheek once more.
“Be strong,” she whispered, and with that Fen was led away into the labyrinthine corridors of the Palace, away from her grandmother and the comforting smell of roses and books.

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