ALINOR (the island, not the city) was not that different from Auridon, Karim-dar found. Steep cliffs with views of the endless Etheric seas. Manicured forests of maple, laurel and larch. Towering spires with windows that gleamed like crystal. Snooty Altmer who kept their hands over their pockets when he walked past.
His latest assignment led him to a noble’s family home somewhere in the hills north of Alinor (the city, not the island) and west of Shimmerene. While he had trouble finding it on the map - and following the narrow road leading to it - at long last he arrived, in time for his meeting with the Kinlord.
Kinlord Rulinar Vicarian, the current patriarch of the esteemed family, was only too happy to have Karim-dar visit him at his home on the Queen’s behalf. While this looked good on paper (the letter was of very good quality and smelled nice, he was still tempted to fence it) the welcome made Karim-dar uneasy.
Too often in Auridon, Altmer welcomed him with false smiles, convinced he couldn’t find their secrets because he was a half-witted cat. They were not so welcoming when they found out the hard way that he could find any secret no matter how buried. Too often he was begged for help only to find the beggar was the culprit. Too often...
Razum-dar agreed with the knot in Karim-dar’s stomach: ‘this invitation stinks like last month’s catch’ was the exact term Raz had used. He warned Karim-dar to be careful, as he would be going in alone. Raz was tied down with the hunt for High Kinlady Estre, and the rest of the Veiled Heritance. There would be no help if Karim-dar was, once again, in over his head.
Karim-dar climbed off the pony and led it to the stables. A horsehand guided the mare the rest of the way, leaving him free to look around and stretch his legs. Well, as free as a strange Khajiit in a Kinlord’s home could be left unsupervised.
Ceynensel, the secluded estate of Kinlord Rulinar Vicarian and his family, boasted of a flooded Aldmeri ruin in its gardens. The estate was named after it, despite the ruins being no more than five interconnected rooms. A large rotunda had been built over it and the modest lake, with a floor of glass so one could look down into the ruins as they walked.
Karim-dar’s hairs bristled at the thought of that. Buildings over water were all well and good, but why would Altmer insist on looking at the water below? Did they like the hair-raising feeling that came with standing over water?
The gardens, thankfully, were in the back of the house. Karim-dar approached the front. The doorman held his arm - a very solid, armored arm - across the door as Karim-dar reached the last step. Karim-dar waited, patiently, swishing his tail slowly. The doorman didn’t move. Karim-dar blinked and cleared his throat.
“Can I help you... Cat?”
“This one has an appointment with Kinlord Vicarian.” The same icy glare he’d found every Altmer wore when looking at him. “Kinlord Rulinar? This one was told this glorious estate belongs to his family, yes? Was told to meet him here?”
“Eralon? Who is that?” An Altmer in fine dress walked across the marble entryway to the door. His eyes lit with recognition. “Aah. Karim-dar, yes?”
Karim-dar gave a prolonged nod, twitching his tail for effect. The nobleman smiled and laid a hand on the doorman’s shoulder.
“Thank you, Eralon. He is expected.”
The doorman gave the quietest of groans (which Karim-dar heard of course) and retracted his arm. Karim-dar stood up a little taller and walked inside. The nobleman walked with him, hands behind his back.
This must be Kinlord Rulinar, Karim-dar thought. He did fit the description Razum-dar had given him: an Altmer slight of build and quintessential for their race. For Altmer, that meant he had hair bright as the sands of Elsweyr, with eyes of honey and features that could cut paper. Also light enough that a good wind would knock him over. Very typical, very boring.
“Our apologies.” Rulinar stated suddenly. “He’s an older mer, has some of that sentiment regarding the younger races.”
Karim-dar shrugged. “This one has come to expect it. He is never disappointed.”
Rulinar laughed at that. “Well, I suppose I can’t fault you there. Aah- we can talk in the rotunda. The local guild insists there will be a shower of stars out tonight and I’d rather not miss it.”
Karim-dar’s ears flattened at the thought of seeing this see-through floor for himself. However, as Razum-dar was so fond of saying, being the Queen’s Eyes meant doing the tasks that must be done, no matter how dangerous, terrifying or embarrassing.
Karim-dar’s frowned and flicked a look up the stairs. After all they’d been through, Razum-dar had still never explained about that guar in the temple...
Karim-dar sighed. Razum-dar was certain this task was important, so he would do it. That old cat would owe him a drink just to make his fur stop standing on end, but the job would get done.
“If Kinlord Rulinar wishes to look at stars, this one doesn’t see why not-”
“Oh, no no no!” He exclaimed, pausing to elaborate. “I’m Illuvitar, his son. No, Father has already gone to bed. Do come this way.”
The mer walked down the hall to a large entryway; a patio lay beyond with a path to the gardens. The gardens, Karim-dar remembered, with the see-through floor over a lake. It was somewhat peculiar, going to bed at this hour. True, Altmer were strange people and they did many funny things, noblemen especially, but crawling into bed at five in the afternoon was odd.
“Perhaps this one’s eyes are not as sharp as they used to be, but that is Magnus in the sky, yes?” He asked, reluctantly following the Altmer out to the hedges.
“Yes. Father just has his schedule and he keeps to it like clockwork. Father sent that letter without hearing all of it and by the time I learned of it- well, you were already on your way.” Illuvitar paused beneath a statue of an Altmer wrestling with a snake - or perhaps it was a snake betmer underneath the coils. It was hard to be certain. “But surely I can answer any questions you have for Father. I do work very closely with him, as he’s close to... passing on the mantle, as it were.”
Karim-dar stared at Illuvitar, his great brown eyes unblinking as he thought. This was the sort of thing he expected: the shuffling around, the false smiles, the insincere apologies. So there was something going on with Kinlord Rulinar then. He would follow up on that.
“This one supposes if he has more questions, Kinlord Rulinar will be awake in the morning, yes?”
Illuvitar laughed. “I expect so, yes.”
The rows of manicured maple trees parted. The hedges led to a lake ringed with paving stones and modest areas for contemplation. A bench here and there. Beautiful golden flowers that glowed: sunbells, he believed they were called. Butterflies and songbirds. That thrice-damned gazebo spanning the lake.
Illuvitar crossed the lattice bridge and withdrew the pieces for a telescope from nice-looking boxes. Expensive boxes. The kind with stuffing on the insides perfectly molded to the contents. The kind that sold well at the Refuge.
Karim-dar remained on the wooden bridge just underneath the eaves, trying to ignore the shimmer of ripples underneath the Altmer’s feet.
“Now...” Illuvitar gazed fondly down at the cylinders in his hand. “What can I help you with?”
“You work with Kinlord Rulinar, yes?”
Illuvitar laughed. “I did just say that. Your hearing is impeccable.”
Karim-dar shrugged. He would beat a little around the bush, see what scurried out. “So you would notice if, say, anything strange were going on? With the servants, visitors, neighbors?”
“Karim-dar, there is nothing at Ceynensel that escapes my attention.” He sighed and looked down at Karim-dar, mildly offended. “I do wish you’d answer my question truthfully. We’re all friends here.”
“Karim-dar only asks because there are rumors that the Veiled Heritance has been seen coming and going from this place.”
Illuvitar looked out at the lake and frowned. “Oh, I find that hard to believe...” He muttered.
“This one has heard it.”
A slight blush to his cheeks when he answered. “And?” Illuvitar asked. Lightly. As if they were speaking of the weather. He continued attaching the various tubes and lenses to this telescope. Perhaps... he wasn’t listening?
“Forgive this one, but... is that all you have to say?”
Illuvitar shook his head and chuckled, setting down the telescope. He continued laughing as he sat down in a sunny spot and poured himself a cup of tea. He’d stop, smile, then laugh again. Karim-dar flicked his ears. It was not the laugh of someone evil, or malicious, more like... someone who was in on a joke, and Karim-dar was not.
“Young mer, I’m afraid you don’t understand. ‘Veiled Heritance’ isn’t a word Eyes of the Queen throw around these days without proof. If you were serious in these accusations, you wouldn’t have come to Ceynensel alone at this hour.”
“What makes you think this one is alone?” Karim-dar growled.
“-Don’t.” Illuvitar sighed. “It wasn’t a threat. You’re quite safe here, so long as you keep your fingers to yourself. Wouldn’t want the Watch to find that amulet you’re so fond of, would we?”
Illuvitar sipped his tea quietly and checked a pocket watch. Karim-dar’s tail was waving from side to side in bold strokes. He hadn’t expected Illuvitar to know he was an Eye, but then he wasn’t exactly hiding it. At least, he didn’t think he needed to when he came to Ceynensel.
“Threats and blackmail; this one does not think it looks good for you.” Karim-dar said slowly, keeping his hands free in case things - as they always did - turned ugly.
Illuvitar sighed (a longsuffering sigh) and set his tea down. “Sweet Lady, grant me patience...” He muttered, perhaps thinking again Karim-dar did not hear him, but he did.
Illuvitar straightened his robes. “You’re new at this ‘Eye’ business, are you not?” He gestured lazily, continuing before Karim-dar could rebut. “Oh, you can meld with the shadows well enough - any of your kind worth their skin can - those ears of yours can hear many things thought secret. Nobody notices one cat among the herd our Beloved Queen dragged home, and that is how you’ve lived this long.”
Illuvitar cleared his throat and wiped the teacup down. It was a pretty teacup, made of seashells with a handle sculpted like flower petals. It would fetch good price in a Refuge, if things went sour, if he didn't break it.
“This one thinks you like the sound of your own voice.”
“Do put your fur down. I’m not insulting you, your organization or the monarchy. We’re just having a little chat.” Illuvitar tapped his legs and walked back to the telescope, glancing at the sky. Magnus was starting to set. “Seeing as you’re new to the business - and an outlander besides - I will let you in on a little ‘intel’ your superiors should have passed along.”
Illuvitar picked up the telescope and attached legs to it, walking around the gazebo for a good place to put it down. Karim-dar remained standing on the bridge. As it got darker it was harder to see the water-
Illuvitar clapped his hands and crystals underneath the gazebo shone with red light. Karim-dar’s stomach dropped and his mouth opened slightly as he started panting. Now he could not only see the water, but it looked like blood. Altmer were very, very strange indeed.
“My family has been in the business of information since the Sload sacked Skywatch. We have served the Royal Family faithfully and without fail for two thousand years. For as long as there has been a King or Queen of Alinor, there has been a Vicarian in their court.”
Karim-dar swallowed. “This one is impressed. That kind of legacy does not come easily, but it is safer to ‘not put all one’s eggs in one basket’, yes?”
“Of course. However, can one really be blamed for supporting the future monarch? I would think anything else treason. We supported Prince Naemon and the High Kinlady, yes. The majority of Summerset did.”
Illuvitar adjusted the telescope one last time and pointed it at the eastern sky. A few stars were already coming out of Magnus’ shadow, and Jode was nearly eaten away. Jone was nowhere in sight.
What the Altmer said was true. Queen Ayrenn had been gone for nearly ten years; even Altmer couldn’t wait that long without a monarch. Prince Naemon’s ascension was the natural order of things, but so was Queen Ayrenn’s coronation once she returned. The other races - even the other alliances - accepted her as the Altmer Queen. From the opinions of the natives however, you would think the Altmer were the last to know.
“But you continued supporting them, yes? Even after Queen Ayrenn returned.”
At last Illuvitar looked uncomfortable. Finally, he was getting somewhere.
“There was a... extended period of courting with her Majesty, yes. You must understand: we had no idea what she was talking about with this ‘Dominion’ business. Allying with the Bosmer and Khajiit? Making a bid for the Ruby Throne when the last three dynasties have fared so well?” He waved his hand. “It’s a very noble goal, but without the plans to achieve it, it’s little better than a child’s dream. Not something anyone would put their gold or their names behind. We had to be sure she had the power and the will to fulfill her intentions. That’s all.”
“And you doubt her?”
“Now? No!” Illuvitar’s shout echoed over the topiary. “She’s a spirited woman, if soft-spoken and perhaps too kind-hearted for her own good. I daresay Estre’s betrayal has hit her rather hard. Leadership does require an iron fist at times, and I’m not sure she has the stomach for it. Not that she needs one; she has others to do her dirty work, so long as she doesn’t pry too closely.”
That last sentence was said with a knowing stare at Karim-dar. Yes, the Eyes did the dirty work for Queen Ayrenn. They went where she could not, heard what she should not. Did things no monarch should do, for the glory of the crown, the Dominion.
“If you do not doubt her, this one wonders why there are rumors of traitors and terrorists coming to Ceynensel?”
“There was something off about them. ‘Summerset belongs to the Altmer’ is all well and good if more than a trifle trite, but there were... rumors lately... Whispers of dealings with Daedra.” Illuvitar finished, drinking the last of his cup.
He was silent for a while, staring out at the lake. Karim-dar stared with him, his thoughts drifting to the anchors that pierced every bare patch of countryside. The foul things that were summoned by the Worm Cultists. The horrors that Auridon and Razum-dar were dealing with even as he had this ‘friendly’ chat with Illuvitar...
“I must admit if my family has a failing, it is our curiosity.” Illuvitar said, breaking his contemplation. “We’re so used to knowing everything that the hint of the unknown is the most intoxicating drug.”
“Everything, Illuvitar? Even the contents of other’s pockets?”
He hadn’t told anyone about the amulet of waterbreathing he had ah, ‘borrowed’ from that lighthouse outside Vulkhel Guard. Nobody had noticed it missing after the lighthouse’s destruction, and he’d only ever shown it to Connynque. Did she work for them? Had she mentioned it to a buyer and word got around? Karim-dar wondered if these Vicarians had eyes of their own in Auridon, and if they were friendly or not.
Illuvitar waved his hand dismissively. “Please. A few questions here and there, a few coins left in forgotten places- you know how it is. We know everything worth knowing. And a potential ruler of Alinor consorting with Daedra is something very much worth knowing.”
He stepped away from the telescope and stood straight, suddenly serious. Even the mirth in his eyes was replaced with something dead.
“I can assure you, Karim-dar, and your superiors, that every member of my family - even those scions without ‘Vicarian’ to their name - has severed all ties with the Veiled Heritance. You have my word and my life on that.”
Karim-dar studied the future Kinlord in the faint starlight and the reflected red water. So he did understand he was investigating his entire family. Razum-dar had explained (under heavy prodding) that members of this family were asking about the Eyes. Asking about becoming agents.
Knowing that spying or something like it ran in their blood, it wasn’t hard to see why they wanted in. There was still the question of if they could be trusted. Such a blanket statement was hard to take seriously. No one could speak for everyone in their family. Every family had its black sheep.
“You are so sure of this?”
“Positive.” Illuvitar nodded with a smile. “You see, unlike some noble families, we do not tolerate interaction with Daedra. At all. They’re- they’re destructive. Malicious. And extraordinarily cunning. Any of those is bad enough alone, but a combination of the three? Disastrous.”
He checked his watch again and frowned at the horizon, almost upset at the stars for following the Moons’ dance. “I wonder: did Estre really think Alinor would welcome her with open arms upon taking the throne, with all of Auridon a second Deadlands? What can she possible hope to accomplish now, besides a scorched earth?” He rolled his eyes, unrestrained ire in those golden irises. “But then, such things should be expected of Mehrunes Dagon’s lackeys.”
Karim-dar flicked his tail. It was not Illuvitar’s place, kinlord or no, to speak so ill of the Queen’s relations. It almost seemed they had danced around each other and now the bird had fled the bush, speaking openly. Yes, Karim-dar - even Razum-dar - had wondered such things in quiet moments. He knew Raz had, even if the older Khajiit did not put voice to it. It was not their place, no matter how true it was. It would hurt the Queen, were her Majesty to overhear, and neither of them would have that.
Still, the Queen was in Auridon, despite the Battlereave’s insistence that she be somewhere - anywhere - else at the moment. Auridon was many leagues from Ceynensel. If the Vicarians knew things about the Veiled Heritance, maybe things even Razum-dar didn’t know, it was Karim-dar’s duty to learn it.
“This one thinks she only turned to the Daedra after she had no other choice-”
“Oh don’t be naïve.” Illuvitar snarled. “One does not simply summon a Prince and demand a pact with them. It is a very slippery slope and she has been sliding down it for years now. The woman allied with the Maormer for Auri-El’s sake! She has dealings with Mannimarco!”
Illuvitar turned with disgust back to his telescope, twirling the dials and nudging it this way and that. Karim-dar walked off the bridge and onto the glass. He kept to the railings, in case the centuries old floor chose that moment to break at last.
“You have proof of this?”
“Somewhere." Illuvitar sighed and dusted his robes. He leaned back and studied Karim-dar with half-lidded eyes. "I don’t suppose you’d take my word for it?”
No. Something this important, this fantastical, Raz would insist on proof. Nothing less than correspondence between the former Psijic and the High Kinlady, or the word of her Eyes that they had seen such a meeting with their own eyes, would convince Queen Ayrenn of something so horrible. She was not one to believe bad things of anyone, which Razum-dar praised her for, not faulted her. To even hear rumors that High Kinlady Estre was capable such things would anger her, if there was not proof.
Even if their family were intelligence connoisseurs, the word of one Altmer - who may not even be trustworthy - was not enough.
“It is an interesting rumor. If true, the truth will come out, no?”
“Yes, I suppose it will.” Illuvitar nodded.
lluvitar stiffened suddenly and went back to the telescope. A few adjustments and twists of the knobs he gasped faintly.
“Aah, there you are.” He chuckled and reached for a quill, sketching quick illustrations in a velum journal.
“Magnificent are they not?”
Karim-dar shrugged. The stars were stars. The Moons were the jewels of the sky, but they were dying or laid to rest tonight. The Kinlord seemed to have forgotten him for the moment, heralding the end of their conversation. That was fine. Karim-dar still needed to search the manor for anything suspicious, a search best done when others were sleeping.
He made a show of yawning loudly, shaking his head and drying spittle from his whiskers and chin. Illuvitar turned.
"Forgive me. I'm sure you are tired and hungry from your journey here. Our cook has something prepared for you, and Corindar at the door can show you your room."
Karim-dar nodded and bowed, keeping one hand on the railing. "Karim-dar will see you and the Kinlord in the morning, Illuvitar."
He turned then and looked over the blood red lake, swallowing and tread shaking, sweating paws on the glass. He couldn’t steal anything tonight. No, that would be suicide. His last night however, he would pay the young kinlord back for making him walk over the lake back to safety. They would pay very dearly indeed.