Author Note: Okay, normally I don’t like to do this but I HATE this chapter. I’m not saying that for reassurance, but this is not how I wanted this chapter to turn out. But it’s done, so I’m posting it. It will move things along. I am, however, kind of pleased with the little Game of Thrones inspired headcanon I came up with. So that’s nice.
This chapter picks up from here.
OhShit OhShit OhShit OhShit OhShit OhShit OhShit
Nerussa was numb, paralyzed by a disconcerting combination of abject fear and despair. Whatever hope she might have retained following their failure at Fort Frostmoth—that some priestess of Arkay could clarify their failure and put them back on a path to obtain Divine approval—was shattered, replaced by the fear of these Dunmer who caught on to their lie. Of the Dunmer Great Houses, Redoran was the most austere, and would not tolerate their deceit. The assistance they’d lent Captain Veloth might gain them some favor or it might be viewed as a shrewd maneuver on their part to usurp the island’s resources. She looked over at Evangeline who was staring at the councilor pensively, hands drawn together, fingertips lightly touching her lips, her composure completely intact. Nerussa prayed that her friend’s calm was sincere. Right now Evangeline’s self-possession was their only resource. However, with one arrogant step it could be their undoing.
“Evangeline Sigeweald,” Adril Arano’s emphasis on her name deepened. “You’ve been brought before—”
“I’m sorry, am I on trial? Is that why we skipping the greeting ceremony?”
Nerussa groaned inwardly at the interruption. Evangeline’s self-assurance was indeed unscathed, as was her nerve. This confrontation would be over soon, she surmised, likely with charges of false testimony, unlawful removal of artifacts, and everything they could throw at them. They would end this day, reunited with Xeri in the dungeon.
Councilor Morvayn remained quiet, his countenance betraying intense curiosity as he observed Evangeline. Only Adril seemed astonished at the woman’s audacity. “Is she demanding a hearth ritual?” He directed this to the councilor but then turned to face the women. But before he could say more, Evangeline spoke up again.
“Sera, I am in no position to demand anything.” She paused. “I am merely expressing surprise that someone who arrived bearing no open hostility toward you and your people would be denied a basic rite of Dunmer hospitality.”
“If you recall, you arrived with an individual suspected to be involved with threats on the councilor’s life.”
“Oh, has Xeri Tharys been charged with a crime?”
“You concealed your identity.”
“And as you are no doubt familiar with my current occupation, such a measure is understandable, if not justified, yes?”
“Sera Evangeline is correct.” Councilor Moravyn spoke up, raising his hand to prevent more comments from Adril. “Cindiri, will you please prepare for the ritual.”
In noble homes, the Dunmer hearth ritual was performed with informal drinkware, small cups and a decanter from which an ordinary Dunmeri liquor was poured. Fancier liquors, something that might be served at a formal dinner, were not appropriate, as the ritual was intended to represent an invitation for open and frank discussion rather than more formal etiquette practices.
Cindiri returned and poured an unlabeled bottle in to an earthenware pitcher. Then, after distributing cups, filled everyone’s half way with what appeared to be sujamma. Every part of the ritual was important—including the way the cups were filled, in front of everyone. It was meant to indicate the visibility of the labor, not concealed as with a formal dinner.
Formalized informality. How very Dunmeri, Nerussa thought as she accepted her drink from Cindiri. “Thank you,” she said, forcing a smile. Evangeline continued to hold herself with confidence, but Nerussa’s assurance was waning, worried that Evangeline’s pluck would eventually be received as impudence.
When everyone was served, Lleril held his cup forward and spoke. There was no designated salutation; hosts were merely expected to welcome their guests and make necessary introductions. Any other comments were a matter of preference.
“On behalf of house Redoran and clan Moravyn, I would like to welcome Evangeline Sigeweald and her companion, Nerussa, to Raven Rock and to our home. You are familiar already with the second councilor, Adril Adrano. With us also is his wife, Cindiri.”
After offering a nod, everyone threw back their drink—a completely unremarkable sujamma—and then placed their cups on a nearby table, thus completing the ritual. Evangeline spoke first.
“Before we begin what I expect to be a frank discussion, rather than a interrogation, I need to say that while I intend to speak openly about our intentions, I will not divulge anything that would put my dissidents or my cause in jeopardy.”
It was a bold move, setting the terms of the discussion but Adril dared not show any admiration in his response. “Even if that would risk your ability to lead them?” he asked. “An arrest by House Redoran would certainly compromise that.”
“That is sacrifice I am willing to make,” she replied, her countenance unchanged. “My leadership is not authoritarian. I have faith that my officers will carry on without me.
Nerussa looked past Adril toward Lleril who sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin. He appeared to relax some, but it was unclear to her if this meant Evangeline was putting him at ease or if he was simply settling in for a conversation they intended to draw out. With his eyes still on Evangeline, he waved Adril on.
“Very well,” Adril began. “This is what we know. You arrived several days ago from Skyrim with two companions, one of whom, Xeri Tharys, has been taken into custody on matters pertaining to threats on the councilor’s life. Two days ago you approached a guard and offered him a sum of money for information on the prisoner. Do you deny this?”
“Of course not.”
“We regularly allow prisoners supervised visits with companions. Why the secrecy?”
“At the time, it seemed prudent to maintain our cover—that of independent scholars who hired an unknown mercenary to accompany them.”
“Well, it is no secret that Xeri Tharys has a long history with the Sigeweald family and the dissidents. What good would further denial do, when it could easily be shown otherwise?”
“Right.” Adril drew this word out and paused again. “And then yesterday, you lent support to my guards in defeating some ash spawn and were instrumental in the defeat of the undead General Carius Falx, who had apparently declared war on Raven Rock.”
“Would this not establish an alliance then? If not with my cause, then with me.”
Under the circumstances, the leap from deceitful dungeon raider to military ally was bold, but that was the bravado for which Evangeline was known.
Adril’s reaction betrayed a mix of incredulity and intrigue. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said, his tone increasingly assertive. “Your intentions are still unclear, if not outright suspect. You will explain your reasons for being here and your interest in the Fort. And even if your reasons are satisfactory, you will still have to convince us why having you on the island is not a liability.”
At no point did Evangeline ever turn to Nerussa for affirmation, unspoken or otherwise. Nerussa was not concerned by this—that Evangeline would command complete control of her stage was to be expected. But though she was quite familiar with her level of poise, not knowing how far Evangeline was willing to go was causing her a great deal of grief. Should she strain the boundaries of polite society, there would be nothing to stop the Redoran from putting the woman on a ship back to Skyrim, never to return.
“Our task here was quite simple. We were to locate an Imperial General, the aforementioned Falx, collect papers and artifacts, and report on his status. It’s part of a much larger mission.”
On this last point, Nerussa gasped. No, she thought. Please, no. Evangeline couldn’t possibly be this stupid. They had no official confirmation that they had failed the trials but certainly, divulging its secrets would offer them no Divine favor.
“Who sent you?”
“That I will not reveal.” She paused, looking purposely contemplative. “Though I can tell you that our benefactors command a great deal of authority…in some circles. They are powerful and completion of our tasks promises to bring in resources that would greatly assist my cause.”
Despite not giving much away, Evangeline’s dance around the details of the trials continued to leave Nerussa feeling quite nauseated, but she merely nodded along, attempting to push her discomfort away.
At this point, Lleril, who had been observing Evangeline cautiously, appeared to ease up a little, though he spoke with some firmness. “Tell me,” he began, “what do you know about House Redoran.”
As Nerussa wondered if a bit of admiration would help their case, Evangeline launched into a fact-based, dispassionate response. “Only a bit of historical knowledge,” she began. “I know that during the Oblivion crisis, you were responsible for building an army after the Legion pulled out. And also that the house led most of the relief efforts after the Red Year.” She paused, a contemplative expression on her face so exaggerated, Nerussa wanted to laugh. But her stomach hurt too badly.
As if Lleril could read Nerussa’s mind, he paused as well, waiting for Evangeline to weigh in with her assessment of Redoran’s accomplishments. But as she remained steadfast in her impartiality, he offered a slight grin.
“What of the other Houses? I presume you have allies from House Hlaluu.”
“You mean, the former House Hlaluu.”
“Good answer,” he replied. “So, in exchange for their support, are you to help restore that house to its former glory.”
“No, not at all,” she said. “We do not possess the resources needed for such an endeavor. And most of our contacts with that house are from former Blades and their families—clans whose association to Hlaluu are distant at best.”
“Well then, presuming you are not lying—”
“Presumably someone would have sensed any insincerity on my part.” She was referring, of course, to the enhanced empathic abilities of many mer. Though it was not actually possible tell if someone was speaking dishonestly, detection of the heightened emotional responses associated with dishonesty was possible.
Adril was growing visibly annoyed, but Lleril was clearly suppressing a grin. He spoke before Adril could protest.
“I must say, you’ve convinced me of your fortitude if nothing else,” he conceded. “But as I am under no obligation to allow you to remain on the island, I must ask, what guarantee can you, a known subversive, offer to put my mind at ease? That your presence will not be disruptive or dangerous?”
“The Thalmor are here,” she said. “On Solstheim.”
With this, Nerussa’s heart dropped into her gut and if she’d had any food in her stomach, she would have vomited. “What? WHAT? How long have you known this?”
Evangeline responded to her friend’s panic with only a gentle smile before looking back at the Dunmer intently. “We are not safe here and we are not asking for protection. But the presence of the Thalmor, would that not motivate us to keep out of trouble? To remain vigilant?”
“Indeed, there is a small contingent of Thalmor up on the northern shore. They have not formally announced their presence and we’ve elected not to confront them. Yet.”
“And you won’t I presume,” Evangeline said. “I mean, why would you?
Finally, Lleril gave out a loud chuckle, a sound that was strange to the point of disturbing, coming from the terse Dunmer.
“Very well then, I have made a decision,” he said, smirking. “I will not force you to leave—at least not until this business with Xeri Tharys is cleared up. Of course, you were correct in your estimation. We cannot protect you.”
Nerussa was having a hard time focusing. Her body felt cold and sweaty. She had stopped listening to the others and was now calling upon the gods, praying that the Redoran would throw them out and that the transition to their Divine subjugation would be relatively painless. Anything, she thought, anything to get away from the Thalmor.
“We have to go. They aren’t going to help!!” Nerussa was thoroughly panicked.
“Of course,” continued Lleril, as if Nerussa had not spoken at all. “We would have nothing but praise the scholars, Harinde and especially Caterine Louvier, who I have known for years, having first corresponded with her when she inquired about the Ashfallow Citadel excavation.”
“But…but you didn’t know us…” Nerussa sputtered. “Oh, wait, I see then. Thank you.” That the Redoran were willing to maintain their cover was somewhat comforting—at the very least, it would give her and Evangeline some time to plan.
“I presume you’ve settled things with your Telvanni contacts as well,” he said. “And they know you are here.”
“My what, now?” Though caught off guard, Evangeline’s voice remained firm.
“Your Telvanni contacts,” replied Adril, though his voice lowered as if were suddenly unsure if he should be saying anything at all.
“What Telvanni contacts?” Nerussa’s voice had calmed considerably, but now she was growing a bit irritated with her companion. What else had Evangeline not told her?
“I’m sorry, I am not quite sure to whom you are referring.” For the first time, Evangeline was genuinely perplexed.
“We received some correspondence,” Adril said, stepping to his desk and removing an envelope, which he held out to the women. “As no one actually saw who brought it, we assumed it came from the Telvanni village in the south by some wizard’s recall or courier spell. That’s how we knew you were here.”
Nerussa gasped. It was the Divine’s latest missive. The trials were not over.
She took the parchment and held it to her chest. “Thank you, thank you,” she said, the words quivering in her throat. “We should go now.” She needed to get back to their room and translate the letter.
As Evangeline nodded and the women stepped back to leave, Lleril jumped up and gestured toward the Breton. “Evangeline,” he began. “Before you go, might I have a word with you in private? It will only take a moment.”
“Of course,” she replied, moving aside and offering a casual farewell gesture to Nerussa who left quietly, nodding the others, only barely making eye contact. She was still rather rattled.
It wasn’t until she was outside that the full weight of Nerussa’s anxiety dissipated, leaving behind a raw feeling of relief mixed with caution. Evangeline still needed to explain why she said nothing of the Thalmor’s presence earlier. Clutching the missive to her chest, she leaned against the stone wall of the Councilor’s house and took a deep breath. Several guards paused to look but she shook her head toward any who dared to ask if she needed help.
At this point, all she needed was sleep. She waited a few moments, but when her head started bobbing, her body threatening to collapse on the ground in exhaustion, she decided to head back to the Retching Netch. As she began to amble forward, Evangeline stepped out of the door.
“Well then,” she said, catching up to Nerussa. “Let us get some rest. If the trials are on, presumably we have some work to do.”
“Indeed,” Nerussa replied. “So, what did Lleril want? To sign his copy of The Thalmor Mistake?”
“He invited me to dinner,” she replied, her voice restrained, making it impossible for Nerussa to gauge any sentiment Evangeline might harbor toward the councilor.
“Oh really?” Nerussa looked at her friend intently, trying to decide if she should regard this with a look of stern disapproval or acute curiosity.
“Please don’t look at me like that!”
“Like you really, really want to admonish me—even though you likely won’t.”
“Of course I won’t! You’re not a child. It’s just…is it wise to pursue anything outside of a detached camaraderie with these people?”
“That’s fair,” she said. She paused, stopping just outside the Retching Netch. “Unless you think, it would more advantageous to….”
“You aren’t suggesting!” Nerussa was horrified. If they were in a desperate situation, manipulating intimacies might be a reasonable choice, but they were not in such a situation. Were they? she wondered. Were they headed that way?
“No, please Nerussa, no,” she protested. “It’s just—a friendship, of a degree, might be mutually beneficial.”
Nerussa nodded. “And we’re going to need all the help we can get.”