The Open sign on the door has disappeared. The window remains open, but the bowl of berries and seeds Deceit has become used to snacking on over the last century are nowhere in sight. A peek inside reveals more questions than answers, with it’s toppled furniture and spilled potions; a waste, really. Several weeks worth of work had been smashed upon the walls and floor, and the glass had yet to be cleaned up, despite the lingering tell of magic in the air.
Deceit releases a loud ‘caw’ and receives only an echo in return.
Hm. This does not bode well for the Masters preference towards the healer. Perhaps a replacement will be needed?
The spirit decides to do a quick survey of the area for the woman, in case a replacement will not be required after all.
It circles the house a few times before flying off, seeking any sign of her it can find. About half a mile East of the house, it spies a plainly dressed woman dangling her legs into a slow moving river, her emotions bundled tightly to herself.
‘Ah’, it thinks. ‘That is likely her.’
Deceit makes a soft landing nearby, floating into the fade to avoid detection.
She does not look as she normally does, it thinks.
Her left eye is red rimmed and swollen from an overabundance of tears, Sylaise’s vallaslin warped oddly over the patchy skin. Her arms are bruised still, but there appears to be a new layer on top of the lingering ones she normally sports under her coats and she has scrapes on her knees that are still bleeding, slowly.
As it approaches her, it notices her other eye has turned a dark shade of purple, and is more swollen than the first, and that she is sporting a necklace of bruises to match. Her emotions are being clutched into herself, as though she is frightened to allow them to breathe and Deceit briefly wonders if its partner might not be better suited to this particular task.
Something has gone wrong.
Her usual smile has vanished and she stares into the river numbly; Deceit is reminded briefly of Contemplation, and wonders if it has perhaps taken its own interest in the woman, however he sees no such spirit near her.
The ones it does see are….concerning, given its Masters own interest in the woman.
Still, it was tasked with keeping an eye on her and reporting back, and it will carry out its orders.
Deceit steps back through the dreaming and caws softly, craning its neck up at her. She startles, her hand shooting up to her chest and clutching at her shirt. Telling.
Her body language relaxes, marginally, when she sees Deceit, and she plasters her smile back onto her face, but it is not so simple to hide from the spirit. Still, it will allow her what little armors she has for herself. She will likely need them.
“Hello little bird. What are you doing out here?”
Deceit gives her a quiet caw, and steps closer, nudging lightly at her hand.
“Ah, I’m afraid I don’t have any food on me. My apologies. You will need to find someone else to feed you now, I think.”
Deceit tilts its head further, and nudges at her hand again.
Selene rubs two fingers gently down its neck and lets out a sigh. A wave of regret and loss pour out of her, before she reigns them in again.
“I have been replaced, little bird. The Lady has deemed to open up a clinic close to my own home. It is good, for the people. They will have access to a wider range of healing capabilities, there will be a whole team of healers to look after them, with access to much better resources than I could have offered.” she pauses “Still, selfish of me, I suppose. To wish I could have kept my own open. I have no other skills to offer our Lady, and I am not properly skilled enough to be employed in the new clinic.” she rubs gently at the marks on her neck, and winces “That has been made abundantly clear.”
Deceit thinks to itself, wondering at assisting without making itself known. It flies off, and takes note of the loneliness that sparks from her when it goes before returning with a branch of berries.
It places them down, and nudges them towards her.
She blinks, looking first at the berries, and then at Deceit. She carefully removes one from the branch and holds it out towards Deceit, but it pushes her hand back towards her. She makes a quiet ‘ah’ sound, and eats the berry herself. She offers the next to the raven, who takes it readily, and so it goes until the berries have disappeared.
Her cloud looks better now, it thinks. Less tangled up and more docile. Perhaps she has made a decision on something?
“Can you keep a secret, little bird?”
‘Oh yes’ Deceit thinks ‘but you may not like where I do so,’ but it only caws quietly at her.
“I am going to run away. There is nothing for me here now, and if I return it is likely they will come back for me, and I will not have the opportunity to run again. Surely there has to be someplace else out there in need of a healer, even a lowly one like myself, right?” She turns and looks up at the sky before continuing “I don’t suppose you would know of someplace I would be welcome would you?”
Deceit ponders for a moment.
“Perhaps” it responds.
Selene turns. Stares. And Screams.
Deceit waits patiently for the woman to stop screaming.
It takes some time. She scrambles backwards, and her alarm is very palpable. It looks almost painful as it twists her expression, in amidst the bruises on her face.
“Y-you… you are an elf?!” the woman finally manages to demand, once she has finished screaming, and put more distance between them.
Deceit considers this. It is and it is not, which is true of many things. Right now it is a raven, but it is also not a raven, and never has been. It is itself, and it is someone else, too. It is the truth - because it must know truth to disguise it - but the essence of it is a lie.
This does not seem like it would be a useful response at the moment, however.
Through the bond, it contemplates the facets of this matter, consulting with the Great Aspect, and with Fear, in the simplistic passing of senses and images and basic thoughts and emotions. The Great Aspect is not pleased by the woman’s treatment. This displeasure filters through into Deceit, and after a few moments, a decision is made.
Deceit flaps its wings, and the air shifts, and the shape of it changes. A black-feathered cloak falls from its shoulders, as the simplistic form of the raven grows long, and the feathers on its head turn to dark locks of hair, and the outline of an elf clad in dark layers overtakes it.
The woman is afraid.
Deceit extends a bony, narrow hand towards her.
“I will not harm you,” it says. This is not a lie.
The woman stares, and does not accept the hand; though she does not refuse it, either. She seems caught by indecision. Deceit is patient, however. It waits, as she stares, and swallows, and remains curled defensively inward. Her eyes flit all over the form it has taken.
“You are unmarked,” she notes at last, in a quiet voice. “Are you Nameless?”
It shakes its head.
“I am named Deceit,” it tells her.
The response provokes more fear, and shock. The woman makes a sound that is possibly a laugh, but does not carry humour, nor relief. She is attempting to find some front she can wear. Some further defence that she can wrap around herself, but her efforts are failing.
“You… you mean Lord Dirthamen’s Deceit?” she finally manages to ask. She is trembling, now. “You have been deceiving me this… well, no, of course you have. But why? Because - because I danced with him once?”
Deceit inclines its head.
It does not always comprehend the aims of the Great Aspect; and yet, by the same token, it can never fail to. Such aims are Deceit’s own, and yet Deceit itself is not separate enough to comprehend every nuance, or see the scope of every motivation. The woman is warm and good, has does nothing to merit punishment, and is… worthy of concern, even if Deceit does not entirely understand why, in particular, it matters, when she is not even one of their responsibilities. But Daughter has been changing their perception of responsibility; and the Great Aspect is always the first to grasp these changes.
“You should take my hand,” Deceit recommends. “Your prospects are not good here. They will be better, if you accept.”
The woman wavers, and is very afraid. Fear would almost certainly do better, here, but it would never have been able to disguise itself well enough for this task. After a moment, though, the woman’s fear of one unknown danger proves greater than her fear of another, and she reaches out and takes their hand.
Deceit helps her to her feet. It pulls the feathered cloak from its shoulders, and wraps it around her own, and lifts the hood above her head. They feathers cast her bruised face in shadow.
“Close your eyes,” it advises.
A tear slides down her cheek, but she does as asked.
Deceit raises its hands and closes them, and the light flashes, and magic streaks through itself from all corners. The feathered cloak wraps around the woman, and carries her through the Dreaming. Along the currents that run between Deceit and the Great Aspect, until she is safely delivered into his presence.
It is a tiring endeavour.
Deceit wavers, when it is done. It takes a moment, and draws strength from the Dreaming. One of the congregated spirits offers a fragment of power, and it accepts, repaying it with a secret. The exchange is enough to bolster its form again. It lets the image shift, until it takes on the appearance of the woman. Matching detail for detail, right down to the necklace of bruises and the red-rimmed eyes.
Then Deceit waits by the river.
Time passes. It listens to the currents of the Dreaming, and the rush of the river water, and the whispers of the natural spirits that congregate around. The sun is low by the time someone comes; an elf in Sylaise’s vallaslin, hard-faced and calling out. Deceit stays by the river until they are much nearer.
“Have you been out here all day?” the elf snaps. “There are still duties to tend to, even if your healing skills are no longer required. You were told to come and accept an evaluation from…”
The elf’s rant trails off as Deceit stands, and glances back only once, before flinging itself into the river.
The water rushes up to greet it.
It is painful, at first. Cold and violent, as its form is smashed against passing rocks, until at last it slips beneath the current and into the Dreaming instead. There the river is warm, and its passage is energising, rather then distressing. The last remnants of the shape it had adopted are twisted away from it, as it tumbles down and down. Until at last the river twists down into the tangle of other dreams, and Deceit bursts from it, spreading black raven wings.
It soars towards tumultuous skies, and is quite pleased with the trick it has played.
She is not quite sure where she has been sent. Everything is hazy and her head is swimming in sensations she can’t quite put her finger on. Perhaps accepting help from a Deceit spirit wasn’t her smartest idea, but it’s not like things could get much worse for her.
…this was a bad idea.
Things begin to clarify for her, slowly.
There is a man standing before her, but she can’t quite seem to distinguish any features. After a moment she realizes why; he is wearing a mask.
Of course. She really shouldn’t have expected anything less, she supposes.
She hastily moves into a bow, more than aware that there is a very high chance that she has been whisked off here to be used for some secret-evil-Evanuris sacrifice…thing. Sure, that sounds right.
Then again, sending someone to spy on her for a century seems a bit excessive if she’s just going to be killed anyways. Maybe there’s something else at play here?
Does he do this regularly? She really should have paid more attention to world politics, she’s not actually sure of his usual actions. He’s the one with the daughter, right? The new one. Maybe she’s going to be given to his daughter as some sort of sacrificial present? Twisted, but not unheard of. Maybe he is having a fight with Lady Sylaise, so he wanted to steal something that couldn’t be traced back to him?
She realizes she has yet to actually speak, and that he is simply staring at her (Probably? Are his eyes actually where the holes for them are?) and that she is still in the cloak. What’s the protocol here? Should she take the cloak off and hand it to him? Or a servant? Or should she give it back to Deceit directly? She doesn’t seem to see the Spirit anywhere when she glances around, so she pointedly keeps her gaze directed at the ground.
“My Lord Dirthamen. I apologize for the intrusion, I did not mean to take advantage of your…” she pauses, trying to think of an adequate term before giving up with “hospitality.”
He nods, and she wonders if she is supposed to continue. ‘May as well, it’s not like my chances of surviving the day are particularly high anyways,’
“It seems your spirit of Deceit has been visiting me regularly over the last century and…no, you already know that, of course you do, I apologize my Lord. Recently I was…no, that’s just another excuse, and probably something you already know as well. I am sorry, my Lord. I-I don’t know what I am doing h-here.” She hears him take a step towards her and it takes her a moment to realize the world isn’t shaking in his wake but that she is, she is shaking and she is crying and she is scared and she feels so useless, she has always been useless and just wasting time and now she is going to die and no one will mourn her or miss her and-
The hood is pulled back, and there is a finger under her chin. She is fairly certain her eyes are still leaking and ruining his gloves and she will likely be punished for that as well as whatever else she is here to atone for. Did she offend him, when they danced? No, he said he had enjoyed it, surely he wouldn’t have done so if she had done something incorrectly then. He mentioned wanting to dance again. Should she have…followed up? Written him a letter perhaps? No, that…he can’t really have expected her to get a letter sent to him directly, it would never have been allowed.
“Are you in pain?” she hears him rumble, more than speak. It is mildly off-putting, but she thinks he is trying to be…gentle? She feels more than sees his eyes on her face and she slowly shakes her head.
“No more than is bearable, my Lord.”
She can’t actually see his mouth, but she gets the impression that if she could he would be frowning. His cloud is tinged with…concern.
What? That can’t be right.
She feels his mana start to run over her, and she flinches when it touches her eye and neck, and immediately begins to apologize before he moves his hand to place a finger over her mouth.
“You do not need to apologize. You are safe here.”
She levels her gaze at him and speaks before she can stop herself “Forgive me if I find that difficult to believe, given that you have been spying on me for a century.”
Oh no. That was not the time for her backbone to take over.
Ohhhhh, he’s definitely going to kill her now.
Goodbye life. No uthenera for her, just eternal torture. Torn apart by spirits in the dreaming perhaps? Turned into a conscious statue maybe? Nothing good, she’s sure.
But he just tilts his head curiously at her “You are upset with the actions We have chosen?”
She remains silent, fighting back her adrenaline before it gets her into any more trouble. What can she even say to him? That she is upset he chose to carry on a lie to her for a century? That she is upset that she was sent through the dreaming without rhyme or reason? That she is upset her lot in life means that she is just supposed to accept that her only options are to choose between which people in power she is the most afraid of, or that she should thank him from freeing her from one fate only to surely tie her into servitude himself?
“No, my Lord Dirthamen,” she says instead.
Disapproval radiates off of him, but as she pushes down her own surge of emotions she is too tired, too worn to care. “You will be afforded a room here, until a suitable place for you can be found. We will discuss what skills you would like to pursue when you wake.”
“I am not-” she manages, before she is suddenly overtaken with a disturbingly comfortable peace of mind, and slips into the dreaming.
‘We will be discussing that as well’ she mumbles to herself, as she begins her explorations.
Selene is afraid of him.
Dirthamen is accustomed to being feared. He is powerful and, he has gathered, often difficult for others to anticipate. This makes him seem unpredictable, which is a beneficial quality in many ways; but is not reassuring. He is not surprised by Selene’s fear.
Her spark of anger gives him pause, however.
He thinks on it, as he sends her off into the Dreaming. It will be easier for her, if she can rest, and be healed, and then wake to consider matters anew. Or at least, he assumes it will be. That is what he has observed in other cases. Though there are exceptions, too, of course. There is a chance she will be angry; and he finds himself intrigued by the prospect.
Her denial is frustrating, though. He does not care to be lied to. But she is afraid; the fearful lie to protect themselves. He keeps this in mind, as he catches her before she can collapse. For a moment he examines her features. Then he shifts her over to one arm, and lifts his hand; and it is the work of a moment, to take Sylaise’s writing from her face.
Her bare features look very… clear, even with some of the discolouration of her bruises still lingering. It seems almost a shame, to rewrite his own vallaslin across such a canvas. But he does, because without that, she will not fare well at all.
Then he carries her with him out of his study, and into the corridor beyond.
The sentry on duty blinks at them, and surprise rises up around them before it is swiftly quelled.
“My lord,” they say, simply.
Dirthamen hands Selene to them. Still wrapped in Deceit’s cloak.
“Take her - with care - to the Healing Halls,” he instructs. “Have them repair her injuries. Then send Sanehn to me.” Sanehn can see to the preparation of chambers and suitable accommodations, he thinks. She is talented at organising the care of his people, and has risen admirably to fill up many of the spaces left blank by his daughter’s ascension.
The sentry complies with a bow, and sweeps off with Selene. Dirthamen watches them go a moment, before returning to his study. Deceit is well-pleased over its recent exploits, and is whirling through the Dreaming. Fear is wary of this turn of events; but that is only to be expected.
Still, he is somewhat surprised when Deceit makes an inquiry after Selene, and a request. After a moment, though, he simply acquiesces; and the raven wings through dreams to find Selene’s own wandering consciousness. He observes through Deceit’s eyes, for a moment, as it greets Selene, and she responds still with fear and wariness and hesitance. But then his attention is called to the Waking world again by a knock on his door, as Sanehn arrives.
In the midst of making arrangements for Selene, he becomes aware of a bolt of shock. It distracts him, a moment, and he tilts his head, as Deceit sends him the answer - the shock is not its own, but what it has picked up from Selene. In the Dreaming, his newest subject has discovered the change to her reflection; the writing that has been rewritten. Her feelings over it seem to be strong, but not clear. The greatest one is, again, fear; and resignation, but also, inexplicably, frustration.
Deceit does not know why, either.
It asks her. But she gives only yet more denials, in return.
Dirthamen frowns. His daughter knows more, on the sensitivities of markings. Perhaps Fear can be sent to ask for her advice. This is a strange move for him, he knows. He has been negotiating with Selene over this subject for some time, but his sister had proven more eager to redirect his attention, than to seize the opportunity presented by his existing interests. She had been set upon winning him over to favouring her Melarue; as if Dirthamen had suddenly opened a doorway within himself to carnality in general, and not one individual in particular.
“Shall I leave you to confer with yourself, my lord?” Sanehn asks, after a long moment of silence on his part.
“Yes, please,” he says. “If any issues with the arrangements are raised, let me know.”
With a nod, she withdraws.
Dirthamen makes his won decision, simultaneously, and sends Fear to find Mana’Din. His daughter is not asleep; the raven passes through to the Waking, and Dirthamen’s awareness of it dims, by necessity. In the Dreaming, Deceit reclaims its feathered cloak from Selene, and its plumage grows as the magical weight of it is renewed in its form.
Why are you doing this? Selene asks. What is to become of me?
You are Dirthamen’s, now, Deceit offers, simply. In its own perception, a concept of kinship rises up. This is something it has in common with Selene.
But Selene does not seem comforted.
Selene wakes up feeling, well, better than she has in a long time to be honest. Her joints and muscles don’t ache for the first time in decades, and she thinks she could probably just lay in this bed forever and be completely fine with it.
“That would be a waste.” she hears from the chair beside her bed.
She sighs, one hand flopping over her eyes.
“Good morning to you too, Deceit.”
The spirit inclines its head, and waits as Selene turns and gets out of bed. She lets out a quiet groan as she stretches briefly, and wanders around the room. It’s much nicer than her home was, well decorated with several large windows. Everything is neat, and in its place without a spec of dirt or dust anywhere.
She opens the closet, and her breath catches. It is filled with silks, and satins, and magic woven into cloth and she runs her hands gently down the patterns as she turns to Deceit. “I cannot wear these.”
“You can here. Measures have been taken.” the spirit nods “Wear what you like.”
Selene turns back to the closet, chewing on her lower lip nervously. She peruses through the options, and chooses one of the plainer pieces-a sleeveless black dress with silver embroidery and a high collar. Nice enough to not offend, but not nearly so opulent as to draw attention, she hopes.
She begins to undress when she sees Deceit still sitting in the chair, and still looking like an elf.
“Er, do you think you could…”
“I have seen you change before, there is nothing to hide.”
“Yes, but you were a bird then.”
“I was as conscious of things then as I am now.”
“Is that supposed to reassure me?”
Deceit drums its fingers on the arm of the chair, but closes its eyes. She is still a bit uncomfortable, but changes quickly until she realizes it is supposed to button up the back. Embarrassed, she asks Deceit for its assistance.
“May I open my eyes for this task?” it teases.
“Oh, don’t be an ass. I think I liked you more when you couldn’t talk.”
“Would you prefer I did not speak around you then?”
“No, that’s not what I…” she sighs “Sorry. Thank you. I was just trying to do a bit of friendly teasing.”
Deceit pauses and finishes the final button.
“Is that how you see me?”
“You said friendly. Is that how you see me?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, lying is a terrible basis for a friendship, so I would appreciate if you were honest with me, moving forward, but I would consider you a friend, certainly.”
Deceit tilts its head at her, and she tries not to giggle at how reminiscent it is of their Raven form “I do not know if that would be possible.”
Selene hm’s to herself thoughtfully “You could lie about me, rather than to me. I don’t really have a name to protect anymore, and my existence here is in itself a deception, so it wouldn’t really be so much of a stretch, right?”
Deceit considers her offer for a few moments “I will make an attempt. Will you be repaying me with the same then?”
“What, tell you the truth?” she shrugs and nods “I will make an attempt,” she recites back to him, mimicking his serious tone.
She stops when she catches her reflection in the mirror. Her face is repaired but…different. Well, probably not actually different, aside from the markings. She runs her fingers lightly down the silver writing, and is weirdly grateful for the change in color-the light pink that had been in style when she got her markings reminded her more of a branding than anything else. Still, she feels strangely disconnected from the face looking back at her, and it makes the pit of her stomach clench as the playful mood evaporates into one of frustration.
“They are not so awful,” Deceit states “And they will keep you hidden.”
Selene scoffs “Sure, I’m sure there are entire armies on the search for a dead lower-class healer. Can’t have anyone recognizing me.”
“You are still upset?”
“Is that really so strange?”
Deceit stares at her “I have seen you give kindness to those who have hurt you repeatedly, but We save you from a situation you were unhappy with, give you shelter and clothing and safety, and are treated with scorn?”
Selene pauses, and considers “…You are right. I am grateful, for your help. But it does not mean I have to be grateful for his.”
“We are not as separate as you seem to believe. He has done nothing to harm you, and nothing to earn your anger. You have lied to him, repeatedly, through omissions and denials. Perhaps it is you and I that are alike, and We have misjudged you, then?”
“What was I supposed to do? Tell him the truth? I have experienced firsthand what happens when you tell someone who is above you something they do not wish to hear. I am tired of being told that when someone makes their own decisions about what to do to my body, I should say ‘thank you sir, may I have another’. I have sworn no fealty, I have made no oath. You tell me he is interested in me, but he does not know me. It seems to me as though He saw a pretty face at a dance, and decided that I was something for him to possess, and my face marks his claim more clearly than any bruise ever could. When he bores of me, I will be tossed aside like a used doll and he will move on to the next creature to catch his eye, because that is how the system is designed to work. So tell me, Deceit, precisely which part of this situation am I supposed to find flattering?”
The spirit is taken slightly aback by her rage, unsure of how to respond to this situation, and so it relays it back to the Great Aspect for guidance. He is also unsure of how to proceed, and commands the Spirit to bring Selene to the study, in hopes of getting things sorted.
“We should go.” Deceit says
Selene relents and follows him out.
Fear is still consulting with Mana’Din, when Deceit brings Selene back to his study, after relaying the contents of their more recent interaction.
Dirthamen is still uncertain of how to approach her anger, distress, and obfuscation; though Fear is illuminating several things with Mana’Din. His daughter does not know Selene, and apparently this is an impediment to her own assessment of the situation. But she has taken a step into the Dreaming to consult, now, and is offering a variety of possibilities.
“In the simplest terms, if she has been mistreated, then she will be afraid of being mistreated again. If she has felt helpless, then she will be afraid of feeling helpless again. You must make your intentions clear, but even then, she might not trust them. Do not punish her mistrust. The purpose of it is not to insult you, it is to protect her. Even if it seems insulting.”
Fear understands this, and it is good that Mana’Din is explaining things in terms it can readily comprehend, because that makes it very easy for the sentiments to pass through to himself in turn.
Deceit is in elven form, again, when it escorts Selene back to him. Dirthamen gives it a moment, and then bids it return to the Dreaming. There are other matters it can attend to, for now.
Selene’s nervousness increases at Deceit’s withdrawal, however.
He ponders this.
“Do you like birds?” he asks.
Selene blinks, and opens her mouth. And then closes it again, and fixes her gaze firmly onto the floor in front of her.
“Of course, my Lord,” she says, quietly. It is a… simplistic answer, and seems to presume some anticipation on his part, but he does not think it is necessarily untrue, either. Fear relays it to Mana’Din, and Dirthamen perceives an instance of her running a hand down her face.
“She is probably tying herself into knots trying to guess at your motives,” his daughter opines. “Tell her plainly what you expect, and try to make her more comfortable.”
“Would you like to sit down?” Dirthamen offers. The silvery fall of the dress she is wearing suits her, and he is surprised to find himself sparing a moment to admire the change which a better style of dress affords her. She looks very tall, in it. But that is neither here nor there, he supposes.
“No, thank you, my Lord,” Selene replies, and remains stiffly on her feet.
Dirthamen does not press the matter. If she is more comfortable standing, then that is what is relevant.
Tell her plainly what you expect.
That is a surprisingly difficult prospect, he finds, as the silence stretches on between them. In no small part because… he is not certain what he expects. These actions are unlike him. There is a boldness in the moves he has chosen, a risk he would have, just centuries ago, considered to be not worth taking. The last time he made such moves, he adopted a child. But perhaps that has influenced the shift in his perspective. Despite the consequences, he cannot regret any part of that decision.
In that case, it may be best to simply start with what he does not plan.
“I have no intention of harming you,” he tells her. “Not now, nor in the near future. Should my presence prove unpalatable to you, then you will be given suitable accommodations elsewhere in my territory. Or my daughter’s territory, if that would be to your preference. I am not as skilled at handling these matters as she is. I will make no demands upon your body. You are my subject now, which means that I am responsible for your well-being. Among other things. If you break the laws of this territory, you will be punished, as any other person would be punished. But that is the extent of the danger you might face. You are under no obligation to like me.”
Selene looks up. Her emotions are difficult to read, and her expression is equally challenging to interpret. But he thinks suspicion is written throughout her countenance, to some degree.
“Then why am I here? Why have you been spying on me?” she asks, at last; before lowering her gaze again.
Dirthamen tilts his head, and considers.
“I find you compelling,” he says.
The answer makes her flinch, for some reason. Her hands flex, and she glances at him again, before staying precisely where she is. Dirthamen considers, again, and then makes a decision; he calls back Fear, and thanks his daughter. The raven arcs through the Dreaming, but it takes time to make its way back to him, even so. Across borders and past barriers, through secret paths that it has forged along with Deceit, over the years.
“I do not suppose I can stop you from doing whatever you feel compelled to,” Selene finally says, rigid as a board.
“No,” he confirms. “You cannot. But I am not ruled by compulsion.” Not in most cases, at least. But she had taken Deceit’s hand. She had accepted the offer, and so even now, he thinks, he is not so far gone.
“So, what? I am supposed to just…” she begins, and then bites her tongue. “Forgive me, my Lord. You are, of course, very virtuous.”
That would be a pleasant and uncommon compliment, he thinks, if she was sincere in it.
“You may speak plainly, if you would prefer,” he offers.
“And die?” Selene asks, with a bitter laugh that she swallows, as she pales again. Her limbs shake, slightly. Dirthamen thinks he would like it much better if she would talk to him as she had before, when they had first met at Sylaise’s ball. When she had thought him only some other elf in attendance, and not the leader of a territory.
Fear arrives, then.
As the raven breaks through the Dreaming, Selene flinches, and braces herself. Fear takes up a post over the doorway, and observes her keenly.
She is terrified, it confirms.
What of? Dirthamen wonders.
Hmm, Fear says, and after a moment, whirls down towards the floor. It is not nearly so adept at changing its form as Deceit, of course. But it can manage the shift. Its wings flurry, and a shadowy, elven toe touches the floor, rather than a raven’s talons. Fear’s body is spindly, and dark, all disjointed limbs and sharp, unearthly features. The hollows of its eyes are deep, and they glint like embers. Selene’s eyes are wide as it reaches for her, and grasps her by the wrist, and then the chin.
Fear locks her gaze to its own.
Dirthamen considers stopping the encounter, though. Selene is very pale, and he can feel her alarm quite clearly, for all her lack of voiced objections.
It only lasts a moment, though, before Fear lets her go.
“We will not do that,” it tells her; its voice a whispery echo of his own.
Then it snaps back to a more comfortable shape, and wings its way up to another perch in the higher reaches of the room.
She is afraid we will break her, Fear clarifies. In the many ways a person can be broken. She is afraid of suffering what she has suffered before, but also of losing herself. There are many layers to it.
They contemplate this matter together, for a time. But there does not seem to be a clear resolution to it, yet. Patience and observation would probably be best. Dirthamen is surprised by his own impulse to have Selene’s discomfort banished at once. He supposes it stems from that same desire in him, to have her speak to him easily again. She cannot do that if she is convinced he may reprimand her for it. But his own assurances have fallen flat.
Time may be the only hope of easing her distress.
“You may have a month,” Dirthamen informs her. “Spend it how you wish. You may familiarise yourself with the rest of my people. You may pursue your interests. Your rank and role of the moment are Attendant to me, but your duties will only be to yourself, for now. This should afford you the freedom to commission tutors, if you should desire, or request and assistance you might need.”
“And when the month is over?”’ she asks, quietly. Her head remains bowed.
“Then we will speak again,” Dirthamen decides. By that time she may be calmer, and have requests regarding her own path, and will, perhaps, speak to him more easily.
Or she will cement her dislike for him.
Either outcome will provide a clearer way forward, though.
Time seems to move very slowly, at the beginning of the month.
She spends the first week looking for ways to escape.
She treads old paths that seem untraveled and searches for gaps in the dreaming, but each time she thinks she has found an exit, Deceit or Fear are on the other side, waiting.
She much prefers when it is Deceit.
She begins to wander the buildings in the second week. She finds a library that she enjoys (and a second library she is repeatedly shooed away from), as well as the gardens where she offers to help when they need it.
She is told to speak to Sanehn if she needs help with anything, who seems nice enough, but she tries not to bother her too often. Mostly Selene asks to be shown where she can retrieve food items and materials for her rooms from, in case she is ever in need of anything.
When Sanehn informs her that she can simply ask someone else to get things for her due to her rank, Selenes stomach twists and she excuses herself to try and find their location on her own.
Finding things on her own here turns out to be a terrible idea.
She nearly falls into a gaping, moaning, chasm behind an (unlocked, she swears) door, before Deceit flies her out and gives her a stern lecture.
Right. Ask before opening strange doors. Got it.
The third week is spent trying out various venues of study. She tries a variety of fighting skills, and discovers that she is terrible with all form of weapons. The swords seem to swing her around more than she does them, she cannot notch an arrow to save her life, knives keep slipping from her grasp, and she has whapped herself in the head with the staff enough times please put it away, thank you.
The magic lessons are nice though. She quite likes the meditation, something she never really had time for before, but she realizes it is also an easy way to lose track of time when she accidentally loses an entire day teetering on the edge of the dreaming.
The fourth week she tries to focus more on the written arts, as she panics trying to find a suitable place for herself in this domain. She quite likes the older mathematical theories in some of the rarer tomes, and eagerly devours their contents. She takes a variety of the books, along with papers and quills to a large empty room with high ceilings she discovered in her second week that seems to be empty most of the time. The ceiling is made up of a large glass dome, and she can see the sky through it when she looks up.
After several hours of staring at letters and numbers that seemed to have trouble staying on the page (she’s not sure if it’s an enchantment to keep her from reading it, or just a troublesome spirit playing pranks) she lets out a loud “UGH” and flops onto her back in the middle of the floor.
The sound echoes around her, and after such a long time surrounded by silence (Seriously, why do so many of these people never speak? Is there some sort of ‘don’t get attached to the new girl she’s just a temp’ rule floating around? Probably) it’s a massive relief just to hear something. She experiments with the acoustics of the room briefly, sounding out her consonants and sounds and just making strange noises in general.
Once she bores of that, she stands, brushes herself off, moves to the side of the room farthest from the door, closes her eyes and imagines a stage beneath her feet. She starts quietly, humming out a tune her mother used to sing when she was younger and still welcomed by her family.
Once she feels comfortable she has found the right key, she adds words, and emphasis in the appropriate places as she sings. It has been a long time since she sang outside of a few quiet bars for her younger or more panicked clients, so her voice cracks on a few of the higher notes, but she pushes through it, determined to get to the end of the song.
She feels comfortable, and safe for the first time and as though things might manage to turn out alright for her. No one has harmed her, or attempted to, her needs have been more than met, and Lord Dirthamen seems to actually be well received by his servants.
As the song swells and she prepares for the climax, she opens her eyes and spies Fear sitting on the dome above her.
She immediately stops, clutching the too-fine fabric at her sides tightly, still too familiar with the last time Fear came close to her.
When it doesn’t fly off, she gathers up the books and papers she had brought with her, and heads back towards her rooms instead.
At least she can pretend to have a moment of privacy there.
As Selene finds herself in the month’s grace she has been given, Dirthamen is visited by his daughter.
Mana’Din is Lavellan, is his child, and he is happy to have her visit. Though raising her took only a small percentage of his life, in practice, there are still days when he finds himself expecting to find her within the walls of his palace. To hear tiny footfalls trailing after his own, or to look towards a certain corner of his study and see her ensconced there.
She is a balm to the wound of his absent brother. The silence that still clings to parts of his soul feels less distant, when she walks up to him and puts her arms around him. Rests her forehead against his own.
Mask to mask.
“Tell me about this matter. This woman you have found,” she asks him.
Selene is in the libraries, attempting to explore a passageway which contains an infinite loop. She has realized the trap, but has not asked Fear for help in escaping it yet. There is no danger, though. And Dirthamen hopes she will find whatever she is seeking enough to satisfy her, before she becomes unduly distressed.
He draws his daughter into his parlour, and begins to explain. As best he can.
“There was a party,” he says. “She spoke to me. I do not think she knew who I was. She has been mistreated, and I asked her to dance. I had thought the attention might afford her some advantage with Sylaise. But Sylaise has only become convinced that I possess more generic weaknesses than particular interests.”
Mana’Din taps the side of her mask.
“An uncommon error,” she muses. “And now you have… stolen this woman from her?”
“Yes,” Dirthamen confirms. “Her mistreatment had grown excessive. Deceit was watching it. We offered her a way out, and she accepted. But. She has been… unhappy with this resolution. She claims Deceit as her friend, but distrusts me. I have given her a grace period, to adjust, but she dislikes… many things. She is difficult to anticipate.”
Mana’Din ponders this for a moment.
“And you wish to anticipate her?” she surmises. “You are not content to simply let things happen as they will, or to stand back and observe what she will choose to do, for good or ill?”
“I am not,” he confirms.
“You like her,” Mana’Din suggests.
“Yes,” he allows. “Deceit has shown me much of her.”
“But Deceit - both kinds - have been the only proxy by which she has known you,” his daughter points out. “As your servant, she is utterly at your mercy. She lacks true choice. You could take her life upon a whim, and even though I know you would not - that you value people - that doesn’t erase your power over her. Any interaction between you is layered by this dynamic. She cannot safely go against you, and you cannot suppose that any choice she makes towards you is freely given.”
This is true, though Dirthamen once again wonders at his child’s capacity to value freedom and autonomy. He does not know if he has rightly met any free being in all of the universe. Even a Spirit of Freedom is bound by the limitations of form and environment. But choice is important, and the restrictions that their expectations place upon it have only become more clear to him, over the years.
His mother’s empire is great in its faults.
“What do you want from this?” Mana’Din asks him.
What does he want? His eye falls to Selene, and he thinks of his brother’s absence. He thinks of friends he never earned, in the days when those he might have approached as an equal were still plentiful.
He is lonely, he knows. His daughter is often gone, and his mother feels far from him, and his brother is sealed away.
“I wish for her to speak to me as she did, at Sylaise’s festivities, before she knew who I was,” Dirthamen at last admits.
“You want her to know who you are, but still talk to you easily,” she surmises.
“Yes,” he agrees.
“This will take time,” hie daughter tells him. “It is not impossible. But if you would have her be comfortable in speaking to you, then you must earn that trust. And you must speak to her often. You must let her say her piece without consequence, even if she insults you. You will always have power over her, but, if you want this, then you must not use it. Let her make her own choices, and her own mistakes. Even then, what you want might not happen for a very long time, if it ever does.”
It is something worth longing for, Dirthamen decides. Perhaps, in some ways, it is something he has already longed for across thousands of years of living.
“When her month is up, if she wishes to leave, I can take her,” Mana’Din offers.
“I do not like that idea,” he admits.
His daughter smiles, a little.
“No. But there are worse ones, and I will tell her a lot of embarrassing stories about you,” she offers. “That is bound to help reduce her fear.”
This is true. Mana’Din does seem capable of defeating his reputation, at least, for small periods of time. Many of his higher-ranking servants are much freer in how they approach him, since she came. And even his lower-ranking ones do not drop so readily to the ground when he makes his way past them, now.
Dirthamen sets the matter aside for further consideration. His daughter will help, he knows, but she will also uphold her responsibilities to anyone in her territories. Including Selene. That is reassuring in its way, though her lands are still far too dangerous.
“What of you?” he asks. “Are you still employing rebel assassins at your council table?”
“No one on my council is foolish enough to assassinate me,” she replies.
Their conversation turns, then, and runs over a number of topics before her visit must finally come to an end.
Dirthamen meditates upon his daughter’s assessments, and his own desires, and the nature of the world, and the thought of Selene, for a long while afterwards. For days, in fact. He drifts through the Dreaming, and consults with the spirits he finds there. Many offer assistance, but after consideration, he turns them down.
It is singing that draws him up from his contemplation at last. Singing that come from Fear, but of course, it is not Fear doing it. An echo of Selene dances through the fragments of the dream he is, like a ghostly shade. Singing and moving, beautiful and fragile before the image is lost.
It makes DIrthamen think. The first time they met, it was a party. They danced.
The night before Selene’s month is up, then, he conjures a dream. Vaulted ceilings and elegant floors in an approximation of Selene’s palace chambers. He does not know if it is correct to their first meeting; there have been so many balls, so many festivals, so many dances over the centuries that his impressions of them tend to bleed together. But the chamber he creates is filled with music and dancers, nevertheless.
He wears a dark, starlit suit, and stands in the midst of the dance floor. And waits, for Selene to dream.
Some spirits come. Drawn in by the shaping of his dance hall, and the ringing of the music. They take forms, and drift across the floor. Some dance themselves. After a time, the light turns radiant, and Dirthamen stills as he feels the telltale edges of a spirit he has not sensed in… a very long time.
One he had not thought he would meet again, in truth.
It is there and gone but a moment later; and yet the dream becomes more resplendent than he ever could have made it, by its passing. Almost indistinguishable from the most opulent of his sister’s celebrations, and yet, there is a shine to the lights, a subtlety to the shadows, that speaks of his own predilections.
When Selene arrives, a spirit of Desire first sweeps her onto the dance floor.
She is dressed in moonlit silk, and her eyes are wide as she takes in the chamber.
“Is this… a dream?” she wonders, and her doubt is understandable.
“Yes,” Dirthamen confirms.
She turns to face him, and stills in surprise.
He offers her a bow.
“Forgive me. It was comfortable to speak to you in this setting, once. I had hoped it might be, again.”
This is why it seemed familiar, she thinks.
He is wearing the same suit, and it makes something catch in her throat.
He is very handsome, even if she cannot see his face, she thinks again.
He bows, and she panics. She should be bowing, or curtseying, or kneeling maybe? She gets caught doing a strange mix of the three and ends up feeling more awkward than before. Disappointment briefly shoots out of Dirthamen before disappearing.
“I am sorry, my lord. I did not think to learn the proper greetings during my month. I will attempt to rectify my mistake, before we meet tomorrow.” she pauses, and considers the situation “…are we still meeting tomorrow? Or is this…it?”
Dirthamen is silent for a moment before he answers “I would like this to not be ‘it’. But it is your decision.” he holds a hand out. “Will you dance with me?”
Selene hesitates. She thinks of the past month, and the things that she has seen. The way she has been treated. She thinks of Deceit, and of Fear. She thinks back to the night they met.
And she chooses to take his hand.
He steps towards her, moving into a casual waltz. Music swells around them, though she has difficulty pinpointing the source, as she follows Dirthamens lead.
“How have you spent your month?”
“Is this the part where I pretend you haven’t been watching my every move?” She questions aloud, before flinching “I’m sorry my Lord, I just-”
“No. That was fine. I prefer when you speak candidly. You are correct, We have been keeping an eye on you, to keep you out of trouble.”
“Yes, I gathered as much when Deceit saved me from falling to my death in that chasm. Thank you, I suppose.”
“I am merely glad you were unharmed.”he hesitates a moment “I would appreciate if you did not attempt such dangerous excursions alone, however.”
Selene laughs, at that.
Dirthamen is pleased with the sound.
“I will do my best, my lord.”
The song ends, and flows effortlessly into the next, as the dance continues.
“Have you decided what you would like to do here?” he inquires as she spins out and back into his arms, falling easily back into the steps and the mood from the party.
“Mm, not quite. I have…” she bites her lip nervously, and almost misses her step “I made a list. I wasn’t sure what you actually have a need for here, so I listed out a few options based on what I think I might prefer, and ranked them accordingly. I was going to discuss them with you tomorrow, but if you would rather do this here, I will do my best to recall the information for you.”
“That will not be necessary. We will still meet tomorrow, in my study.” he ponders her, and the change in her demeanor from what he has seen through Their eyes. “You seem happier here.”
Selene missteps, and Dirthamen effortlessly corrects her with an arm wrapped around her waist pulling her closer.
“Do I?” she gulps, desperately reminding herself of their stations and propriety and trying to focus on anything other than his arm nestled securely around her in a way she does not seem to find unpleasant in the least.
“Yes. Although whether it is the location or the scenario eludes me still.”
“Apologies, my Lord Dirthamen.” she says, trying again to remind herself of who, precisely, he is. They seem to have stopped dancing, and are now standing in the middle of an opulent ballroom, with very little room between them.
Dirthamen takes note of her supposed discomfort, but attributes it to the wrong element and takes a step back, releasing her.
“Apologies are not needed. Thank you, for gracing me with a dance once more. I hope it will not be our last.” he places another kiss to her hand through his mask, and vanishes, leaving her alone with the ballroom.
Desire, who had been watching from across the floor groans and runs a hand down its face.
Selene tries to regain her wits before waking up to start the day. It is a more difficult battle than she would care to admit.
Longing and Desire are not, come to it, very far apart on the spectrum of things.
And the spirits still recall Dirthamen as Longing, at times, though he has moved further away from the simplicity of that nature since he acquired his daughter. But the primary difference, Desire knows, is that longing is somewhat more… resigned, by inclination.
The ballroom dream lingers even after its intended occupants have left it. Long enough that, as it drifts further from its nearness to the Waking world, Glory returns. Desire whirls around the dance floor, and finds itself caught at once in bright, gleaming arms. Vast and gentle, at once, as they they sweep Desire up in a moment of whirling grace.
The shape of Glory is not quite suited to the ballroom; not quite a dancer, as it spreads too far to take up anything less than the whole of the scene. But for a moment, part of it is small enough for even Desire to hold.
The warmth of it suffuses Desire so thoroughly that even once the dream does dissolve, and Glory is gone again, they feel alight with their own purpose. They flit through to the Waking, and find another of the evening’s dancers still making her way through her morning breakfast; eating alone, and obviously plagued by contradicting wishes.
“Safe,” Desire muses. “But also, free. Unrestricted, but, not exposed. You wanted to keep dancing with him, and speak to him more. But your steps stopped.”
Selene glances up at her, blinking and startled, at first; but then her countenance relaxes. Spirits do not seem to disquiet her the way that other elves sometimes do.
Desire knows. Sometimes elves take the costs of their own desires at the expense of others.
“Does it matter what I want?” Selene wonders. “Dirthamen… any of the Leaders of the People can take what they wish. If one of them wants something from me, then, the matter is already decided.”
Desire is quiet. It thinks of Glory, and of all the things that might endanger it. Even the greatest of spirits can fall prey to the machinations of those in the Waking world. Wants can conflict; and power is often the deciding factor in whose are realised.
“What Dirthamen desires is companionship, freely given. To take that by force would be the undoing of his own wish. One cannot achieve their desires by undermining them, unless they are willing to change the shape of them.”
Selene stares a moment, clearly a bit taken aback. She blinks.
“Are you telling me he is lonely?” she wonders.
“I do not know,” it admits. “I know what he wishes. I am only telling you this much because desires should be achieved. If you are going to seize yours, you must decide upon them. To do that, you must know what might truly be achieved, and what might be illusions cast around you.”
“Desires can change,” Selene says.
“And power might shift,” Desire reasons. “But today, you have desires, and the power to reach for them. If tomorrow, you might not, does that not mean you should seize the day?”
As the woman is contemplating this remark, then, the spirit flits off once more. It traverses through several more halls; visits other elves. It sits in quiet with Sanehn, who desires easy, unspoken company; and sings for Halvarel, who wishes for the songs of days gone by. Or, rather, the days gone by; Desire could only craft those in a sleeping dream, however.
It makes its way up and up to where Deceit lingers in the rafters of a library, resting its plumage from a recent endeavour in the Dreaming.
Deceit’s desires are Dirthamen’s.
But… not entirely.
“I could hide her,” the raven reasons. “Even from him. I could make her a cloak that would hide her so thoroughly, she could walk the streets of Arlathan itself and none would remark upon her. None would know, save I, and then only if I looked for her.”
It does not know if it desires this, though. So Desire leaves it, and carries on, and then drifts away.
Back to Glory.
Back to the brightness of its own wants.
She is not sure what to make of Desire’s advice.
She finishes her meal, and heads towards her appointment with Dirthamen.
Her lists are folded up in her pocket, two carefully laid out graphs of duties the territory employs, edited down from several pages filled with the pros and cons of each and separated and ranked based on which she feels she would be most suited for, and which she would actually enjoy.
She is still unsure which list to present.
She reaches the doors of his study and shifts nervously on her feet. She is not sure if entering unannounced would be wise. She looks around until she finds the guard and asks if she should knock, or wait for the doors to open. The guard just shrugs.
She decides to knock; he hasn’t punished her yet, hopefully her luck can hold just a bit longer still.
“You may enter,” emanates from within.
Fear and Deceit are waiting in the rafters above, while Dirthamen stands behind his desk, still.
“Would you care to sit?”
She hesitates, but nods “Yes, my Lord. Thank you.”
He seats himself when she does, and Selene chews on her bottom lip, nervously fumbling with the lists as she takes them out, trying to flatten them against the edge of his desk.
“Uh, so, I, um.” she sighs, and takes a deep breath, trying to control her nerves “Thank you. For last night. It was lovely, and I enjoyed it, and you left before I could say thank you. So, thank you.” she feels like an idiot, stumbling over her own words and repeating them so much, but Desires advice is still fresh in her mind and, well.
He could still decide to kill her.
“You are welcome,” he responds, and his aura seems to warm, just for a moment. She thinks she sees Fear adjust itself on the rafter above them, but says nothing. “Have you found a position to your liking?” he inquires.
“Oh, uh…” she glances between the two pieces of crumpled paper in her hands, and it feels like he is frowning again.
“…if you would prefer to leave, it can be arranged.” he says, quietly.
Fear and Deceit definitely rile up a bit, and she briefly wonders why, but there are other matters to tend to.
“Do you…do you want me to leave, my Lord?”
He is silent, but the spirits above them are active and she wishes she could hear what was being discussed.
“We would not keep you where you are unhappy. My daughter has agreed to give you a position in her territories, if you are interested.”
She is very confused. First he brings her here and marks her and promises safety, and now he is sending her to Falon'dins lands? She might’ve had a better chance at survival where she was, in that case.
Is a month all that it took for him to tire of her? Does he regret that she accepted the offer? Does Deceit? She had thought they were friends, but perhaps she was mistaken. Same old story, she supposes.
“I…” she looks at the lists in her hands, thinks of the time she has spent exploring the bits of his territory she had access to. She thinks of their time in the fade. She had even entertained the thought that perhaps he…No. That would be preposterous.
’Seize the day’ Desire had told her.
“I want to stay here, my Lord.” she says.
Then her stupid mouth keeps going “If you have not tired of me, that is. I like it here. The people are nice, and it’s a bit quiet but quiet can be good, and you have been kind to me despite my rudeness and Deceit is the best friend I have had in quite a long time and I’m not quite sure what that says about me, nothing good I’m sure, but then spirits have always been easier to handle than elves, and I know I don’t have any useful skills or really much at all to contribute to your people so I understand if you are disappointed in the truth of me, but-” she flinches and clasps a hand over her mouth, realizing that she is still talking.
She slowly releases her hand and a breath “I am sorry, my Lord. I did not mean to waste your time with my meaningless rambling.”
She hands him the list of what she thinks would be most useful, and crumples the list of her actual preferences back into her pocket.
“I believe these positions would make me the most useful to you, if you decide not to send me away. Thank you for your time, My Lord.”
She bows, and hastily makes an exit, her heart pounding in her chest and her ears.
That probably could have gone better.
Dirthamen sits for a long moment, after Selene is gone.
The list she had given him is still in hand, when Fear finally drifts down from the rafters, and settles onto his desk. They do not speak at first, but their conference is intense. Fear recognises some of Selene’s hesitations, but does not comprehend the motivations or implications of all of them.
“She is afraid of being denied, and clever enough to know that the first step in that is requesting something,” Fear decides.
Dirthamen considers this. Moving too many steps ahead, or too many steps back, is a situation he can sympathise with. Seeing too far down the path and presuming that one’s perspective is absolute is a common failing of many elves, but especially those in positions of leadership. He has rarely met any at all who have no succumbed to it, and it is a frequent folly of his own.
He looks down at the list.
With a wave of his hand, he dismisses Fear and Deceit. Fear wings off to go and check the wards along the river stations, while Deceit makes it’s way back to Selene; intent upon assuring her that, indeed, they are friends of some fashion.
Dirthamen is given to an odd sensation.
It is very strange, to be envious of himself.
When it clears, he looks back towards the list, yet again. Selene’s script is… somewhat difficult to decipher, in places. The page has been blotted out and crumpled, with options crossed out, and he wonders if this was, in fact, meant to be her final draft of a proposal sent to him. She has drawn a plant in the margins.
It is a very nice plant.
There are also, he finds, many equations written across the back. Numbers and letters and symbols he takes a moment to recognize as mathematical signs. It has been a long time since he regularly familiarized himself with the basic principles of arithmancy, but not so long that he has forgotten how to recognize them. He considers them for a moment. The equations look very good, in fact. They seem to be an attempt at gauging the likelihood of success in various endeavours.
A wise choice, he supposes, for someone considering their immediate prospects.
Flipping the page back over, however, he finds that he has difficulties making complete sense of the recorded lists. There seems to be a tiny written list of magical components in one part, and then a series of colours beneath it. The only job he notes, at first, is ‘archivist’, but that is in a margin note which simply says ‘check with the archivist’, and lacks further context.
Dirthamen chooses to see this as good advice, however, and after a moment, he heads towards his libraries.
Several of his people bow as he makes his way past them. He commands the attention of a servant, and bids them send Sanehn to him, and pauses briefly to receive a convenient patrol report from Boraan, and have it sent down to Knowledge.
He reaches one of his libraries, and does indeed consult with the archivist over which tomes Selene has been reading, in particular. Advanced mathematical and magical theory seems to interest her, and Dirthamen considers. There is a need for mages to work on dismantling and re-staging some of the labyrinths in his territory. It is a field which requires a certain degree of inventiveness, but also one which must, generally, be worked up towards. And it necessitates travel, although… communications between himself and the landscapers, architects, and others typically employed in such tasks has often proved an awkward field, rife with miscommunication and baffling reports.
It would keep Selene close to him, to appoint her to the task of forwarding, deciphering, and innovating with regards to such matters. Making certain that his labyrinths remained function, and were dismantled when needed, and also that… subjects were not… lost track of.
But is this actually what she might be requesting, or is his own desire to keep her close clouding his judgement?
He cannot tell.
He is still mulling over the matter when he becomes aware of some disquiet, courtesy of Deceit. His own thoughts had been distracting enough that he had nearly ignored their attempts at conferring with him.
She is alarmed, Deceit tells him.
I am uncertain. She only keeps asking if you have read the paper yet, and pacing.
Dirthamen looks down at the page in his hand.
Perhaps she is anxious to know his decision?
Well. He supposes he can help with that, at least.
Please tell her I have, and bring her back to my study at once, he decides.
She can’t believe she gave him the wrong paper. She must have been too distracted when she grabbed them this morning, and she can’t believe she gave him a piece of her research instead of the list.
She had one job.
She’s definitely going to be sent to Falon'dins lands now. She is idly wondering if she should start packing, but she doesn’t actually feel like anything here actually belongs to her, so there’s not even much point when Deceit tells her Dirthamen would like to see her in his study again.
“You are not in any trouble,” it tries to assure her.
“He made a single request of me and I screwed it up, Deceit!” she groans and buries her head in her hands, plopping onto the edge of her bed rather than heading for the door. “So much for making myself useful. All I’ve managed to do is show him what a mess I am. Uggggghhhhh it wasn’t even a cleaned up set of notes, it was mostly scribbles. He’s going to be so mad I wasted time on that..”
Deceit slowly takes a seat beside her, and tilts its head “I do not understand why you are so distressed. He asked you to take the time to look into what you would like to do, and the paper he has is proof of such endeavors. There would be no reason for him to be upset.”
Selenes head shoots out of her hands and she gestures flailingly towards the ceiling “Yes, but when people say that they mean they want you to pick a skill that is useful to them! Medicine, or magic, or combat or something. Not numbers and old equations nobody cares about anymore.”
“Given that you almost took your own head off with the sword in the training yard, it is highly unlikely We would want you to pursue that particular path.”
Selene levels her stare at him and then lets out a quiet breath, her mouth forming a small smile before she nudges him playfully “Careful, that was almost a joke. Wouldn’t want people thinking a scary guy like you has a sense of humor, hm?” she sighs and stands before he can respond, and holds her hand out to him.
“Alright. Let’s go see the God King and hope I don’t get shipped off to be killed by wild beasts.”
Deceit stares at her hand for a moment, before taking it and leading her out.
When Selene comes in, she is clearly tense.
Dirthamen makes a preliminary effort to be reassuring.
“I liked your drawing of the plant,” he says.
Selene falters, briefly, upon the threshold. After a second she folds her hands in front of herself, and bows her head.
“Forgive me, my lord. That was an inexcusable error,” she tells him.
Dirthamen looks down at the page.
He will grant that some of the technical aspects of the sketch are not in keeping with the higher standards of his artisans, but he does not see that it merits an apology. It is not an official commission, and Selene has not been appointed to the role of artisan. Though he does also know that several of his fellows take exception to being given gifts which they deem insulting or of insufficient value.
“I am not insulted,” he assures her. “I believe I have determined a suitable place for you, if you are interested. Though you must feel free to voice any objections, discomfort, or inappropriateness you perceive in the notion. I am aware of your healing skills. If nothing else, an outpost similar to the one you manned in Sylaise’s territory could be made available to you. But your capacity for research, mathematics, and magical theory have also caught my attention.”
Selene blinks, and looks over at him. She remains standing, for a long moment, before venturing a few steps closer. Her mouth opens, but after a moment, closes again. As if she is distrustful of her own voice.
Or perhaps she thinks he would not welcome her comments? But no, he just said he would. And she cannot have taken recent vow of silence; those must be approved, and she spoke to him as soon as she entered the room, besides.
Dirthamen gives it another moment, before continuing.
“The planning and organisation of my labyrinths is a considerable task, and one which is often subjected to communication difficulties. Many workers and creative minds from a variety of disciplines contribute to the project, but few have an in-depth enough understanding of one another’s fields to avoid misinterpretations. Additionally, my own communications skills can be… insufficient to the illumination of my ideas. You have shown a good capacity to communicate with Deceit on a regular basis, which is unusual, but more than that, you seem to have a great deal of insight and interest in many fields which intersect in these duties. I would appoint you the role of Advisor and Maze Coordinator, if you would accept it. Though obviously a training period would be required. Possibly over the course of several years, if not a decade.”
She stares for long enough that Dirthamen feels compelled to check his mask. But no; it is in place.
“I didn’t even give you the right list, and you want to put me and advisor and put me in charge of… I’m not even sure what this is,” she admits.
“Ah,” Dirthamen says, even as she looks as if she would like to swallow her own tongue. He rises from his seat, and moves over to the other side of the office, where several work tables are arrayed. He touches the surface of one, and an image lifts to it of one of his more recent projects. The outlines of walls and symbols denoting various types of spaces light up, until he bids the image change to one which is more textured, and illustrative of the project as a whole.
“My province as an evanuris is knowledge and mystery. Labyrinths are a combination of the two. They often house secrets, as well as opportunities. The challenges within are meant to offer elves a chance to exceed their fortunes, overcome their flaws, and discover new perspectives. But they are not easy, nor simplistic trials. Therefore they are also complex constructions, which relay upon a multitude of skills and features. The labyrinths are designed by myself, though often with the input of several advisors.”
He looks back towards Selene, who is now staring at the table with interest.
“If you would like to see one in person, I could show you,” he offers.'
No, you know what, she still isn’t quite sure what her title actually is but yes, she accepts, absolutely, thank you.
She doesn’t just say that though. She’s still staring at the display in awe when he offers to take her to one in person.
She makes a conscious effort not to actually jump up and down in excitement, but she’s sure it’s probably radiating off of her anyways.
Working in a field she’s actually interested in? That gives her freedoms and the ability to design and calculate and not get in trouble for it?
She doesn’t even care if he kills her at this point, just let her play with some of these puzzles first. Totally worth it.
“Yes, I would love to see one in person, thank you, yes. When can we go?”
He is staring at her again. She’s getting used to it, and stares back while she waits for his answer.
“Now, would be acceptable if you are available.” he answers, slowly.
“Yes, okay!” she almost reaches out to take his hand by reflex, but manages to stop herself just before she does. He’s still much more powerful than she is, and she needs to at least live long enough to see the labyrinth.
She’s buzzing with energy just thinking about it.
She’s…actually bouncing on the balls of her feet like a child waiting for a present.
Calm down, Selene. Be cool. Don’t ruin this.
She follows him out through the study, still caught up in her head thinking about possible designs and old riddles she knows, and there is probably some sort of ‘respectable’ amount of distance you are supposed to leave between yourself and the God-like ruler you work for, but she’s too caught up in her thoughts to remember it, and too busy asking questions as they journey besides.
“How large are they?”
“As large as they need to be.”
“How many subjects go in them at a time?”
“One, as the standard, but it can vary.”
“Do they have to remain stationary?”
“No, I don’t suppose they do.”
“How much time does it take to create one?”
“As long as it takes for it to be sufficient, though if there is an immediate need one can be assembled from pieces of others.”
“What if someone is familiar with the old pieces, wouldn’t that make it easier?”
“I suppose it would, but it has yet to come up.”
“Interesting. Do you have a lot of them?”
“So I have been told.” he nods.
The conversation continues easily, as Selene flows from one subject to the next, asking questions freely. Dirthamen answers them all eagerly, and the people they pass whisper among each other as they see the pair traveling so close together, Selene’s body language now suggesting an easy, open camaraderie.
“Ok, ok, but do they have to take place on the same plane of existance? Like, could you make one where you start in person, and then the mid section is in the fade, and then the end is still in person?”
“…It is an interesting concept, but I am not sure how one would accomplish it.”
“You could make the one in person simple, but with wards in certain locations perhaps? Like, if you take a left, and then a right, and then another left, you get blocked, but if you travel to that location within the fade, there could be a puzzle or test to conquer within the dreaming, and once you have completed it there, it would unlock on this end, and you keep going until you hit the next ward, and so on. Although, that would probably require an awful lot of power, and the correlating wards would have to trigger together or you risk people cheating, and you would have to worry about spirits potentially messing with it or laying their own traps over yours…”
Dirthamen comes to a stop at what appears to be the edge of a cliff overlooking a large lake.
“Oh, did we make a wrong turn somewhere?” Selene asks, taking a quick glance around.
Dirthamen waves his hand, and a large layered structure emerges from the water.
“No. We have arrived.”
Selene’s eyes widen as the entrance to the labyrinth reveals itself.
Rising up, past illusions but also by way of a mechanized system which June’s followers had perfected years ago. Dirthamen hopes this is a good sign, as he feels her excitement continue to bubble up.
He had not realized she was so versed in Transitional Theorum and energy reserves. It makes him wonder what other knowledge of hers he might have overlooked, across the years. It makes him regret never sending her any books, while Deceit was observing her; and regardless of her answer, should she choose to stay in any capacity, he resolves to have her granted clearance to access several more restricted libraries.
“This one is still under construction,” Dirthamen explains. He pauses, and glances towards her. “It would likely be safest if you were to take my hand. Most of the spells and wards in the labyrinth are keyed to ignore my presence, so we will pass more efficiently in the tour if you maintain contact with me.”
Selene blinks. Her eyelashes flutter and the light from the risen labyrinth catches momentarily upon the angles of her cheekbones, before she reaches over and extends her hand.
Dirthamen takes it.
Her grip is very light, at first.
But as he summons the walkway, he begins to explain more of how the structure works. And as he does, Selene’s arm relaxes, and her fingers curl more easily around his. They speak of spells and theories and the purpose of this particular labyrinth, turning the matter over until they cross the threshold, and find themselves met with an array of doors. Dirthamen waves a hand and the illusions of the first chamber are revealed. The walls turn transparent.
“Oh, do they all do that if you need them to?” Selene wonders.
“In most of the more recent ones, yes,” Dirthamen confirms.
“Has anyone ever figured out how to tap into the magic themselves, and use it to cheat?” she asks, and reaches out for one of the walls. She hesitates, and glances back. Seeking permission, perhaps? Or confirmation that it is safe? Dirthamen nods either way, and her fingers trace over the markings inscribed below the transparent surface.
“Thus far, it is has proven a more challenging prospect than simply completing a labyrinth,” Dirthamen replies. “The spells are very specifically aligned to me.”
“How?” Selene wonders.
“Blood sacrifice,” he admits.
She stills, and something in the air around her goes uneasy. Her grip in his hand tenses, again; not hold him tighter, but rather turning rigid, as she glances back at him. Then she ducks her eyes to the floor.
“I… I see.”
Dirthamen wonders at her change in mood.
“Do you object to that?” he asks.
“No, my lord. Of course not,” Selene replies. But she is not being honest.
Perhaps it distresses her the same way it does Mana’Din?
“The process is not painful,” he says. “It only takes a moment, but I know of no more thorough means by which to bind the firmament of these structures to myself. Blood can interfere with the Dreaming, but it also carries impressions unique to to the body it comes from. Others may take on my form - or one version of it - but they cannot replicate the effect. Using my blood is a necessary precaution. Labyrinths often contain valuable knowledge and artifacts that are meant as worthwhile boons to those who solve them, but that makes them enticing targets for thieves. And vandals.”
Selene stills again, and blinks. Dirthamen can feel her surprised.
“You… only use your own blood?” she asks.
Now it is his turn to feel surprised. Though he supposes, if she is not familiar with the craft, that she would not anticipate such seemingly obvious details. Dirthamen himself has only recently begun to explore this field of magic.
“If I used anyone else’s, it would defeat the purpose,” he replies.
Her shoulders ease, at that; and her grip relaxes, again.
Though some of the tension of the moment still lingers in their interactions - only lightly - as he gives her a gentle tug, and begins pulling her through the rest of the maze. He shows her different levels, and entrances, and exits, and traps. Before long she is swept up in the excitement again. It is only that every so often she glances at him, and goes quiet instead.
But perhaps, he thinks, it is contemplative silence, rather than uneasy.
By the time they make it to the other side of the maze, night has fallen. They step through the victory exit, and Dirthamen lets go of Selene’s hand to send the labyrinth back down again. His palm is warm. A cool breeze stretches around them, and delicate, flowering fruit trees sway behind them.
Selene turns her face towards it, and breathes it in. Clouds drift slowly past a round and silvery moon overhead.
Dirthamen pauses, a moment.
“Would this be a field of interest for you?” he asks.
The question makes Selene laugh. And laughter makes her eyes bright, like the stars.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes. I accept.”
The words fill his chest with warmth.
Behind his mask, he smiles.
She’s got a job. A real one. And it’s not even vaguely related to healing.
Her father would be pissed.
She dreams of the labyrinth, numbers in puzzles, and converses easily with a drifting spirit of Wonder swirling through the (much smaller, and much simpler) maze she focuses on conjuring around them. Oh, she knows she won’t be creating them in truth, but she’s eager to get started. It is probably unwise, she thinks, to show her desires so clearly. Still, Dirthamen (Lord Dirthamen, she reminds herself, although there’s probably several more titles and adjectives she’s supposed to add on that she is unable to remember) seemed pleased enough with her endless line of questions.
He has become a surprise in himself, she thinks.
He allows her to speak without interruptions, he has given her more freedom than she thought she would know in her lifetime, more than even her parents have, and he is more pleasing to look at than he really has any right to be with so many of his features obscured.
The Desire spirit from earlier glides up to her with a large, teasing grin on her face.
The thought of what that probably means makes Selene’s stomach drop. Or maybe that’s just butterflies?
“Oh no. Keep moving you. I don’t need anything, I am doing just fine, thank you,” she tells it.
Desire barks a laugh, “You have been spending too much time with Deceit, I think. But I will not force you to endure my presence, if you wish to remain in its grip.”
and with that, she drifts off once more.
Deceit lands atop Selene’s shoulder a few moments later, peering curiously at the walls of the maze shifting around them.
“You are attempting to hide?” it inquires.
“No, no. Just playing around.”
Its head tilts “You are pleased, then? Happy?”
Selene leans her head gently against its own on her shoulder before straightening back up “Yes, I suppose I am. I owe you a great deal. If I can assist you in some way, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Deceit ponders her offer before nodding “I will remember.”
The two of them spend the rest of the night together. Deceit offers Selene a few tips to making her mazes more complex, how to cast illusionary walls or hide openings where one would not normally think to look. She eagerly absorbs the information and for the first time misses something from her old life; her journals had all been left behind, surely long gone by now, and all of her notes along with them. She makes a mental note to find out where she could acquire a new one, especially with a potential decade of training ahead of her.
A thought occurs to her
“Where am I supposed to go tomorrow?”
“Ah, for your new position?”
Deceit is quiet for a moment before responding “You may report to the study again.”
“Oh.” she replies.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, no, of course not.”
Deceit frowns at her, its wings ruffling briefly.
She sighs “Sorry. You’re right. It’s not that anything is wrong though, just…” potentially disastrous she thinks “worrisome. I would think one of our leaders would have more important matters to attend to.”
“His tasks are still being performed optimally. There is no reason to worry. Besides that, We enjoy your presence.”
Selene blinks. Blinks again.
“Sorry, wanna run that by me again?”
Deceit tilts flies off to sit on the edge of a wall beside her and looks at her curiously “We are still trying to make sense of it.”
“Sense of what? Of me?” but the end of her question fades off as the images in front of her blur and she finds herself awake in her bed, sunlight gleaming through the window.
She groans and runs a hand down her face.
She gets dressed for the day, putting on something much more ornate than the clothing she had been wearing, but the pants will make it easier to move quickly if she needs to today.
She looks at herself in the mirror, and eventually settles on simply leaving her hair down, pinned back on one side with a star shaped pin.
Alright. So things are a little weird. She can handle weird.
Dirthamen does not often contemplate matters of physical appearance.
Today is an exception, however, as he spends the night resting; and rouses in the morning to bathe and dress. He cleans his body, and glances towards the mirror.
A countenance alike his brother’s stares back.
Dirthamen pauses, a moment, to examine the reflection. It is not a precise copy. His hair is dark, where Falon’Din’s was always fair, and his eyes look more akin to his daughter’s. But the features are there, refined and sharp, and he inhales slowly as he regards his mirror.
He wonders if Selene would like this appearance.
And then he feels a pang of visceral guilt.
Traitor! You have betrayed me! All I have done for you, all I would do for you… and this is how you repay me? I would never have betrayed you! I would have chosen no one above you!
Falon’Din’s voice still rings in his memories. Still aches, from the wounds he had torn open; internal and external alike. Cleaving at Dirthamen. Trying to break his hold on the world entirely.
He does not regret it. He reminds himself of this, as he pulls his mask back on.
But it still hurts.
The ache persists as he dresses, and he sends Fear to the boundaries of his brother’s prison. Still strong, and really there is no need to check again for another thousand years, but Dirthamen does. There are echoes of Falon’Din’s presence in the place where he sleeps. Ripples of old and twisted purpose; whispers of the connection that yet lingers between them.
He has almost forgotten that Selene was to report to his office, until he arrives to find her waiting outside of it.
It is surprising. Some of the ache in him eases, just slightly, to realize that his day need not be empty. He bids her enter with him, as she seems to struggle with her greeting somewhat, and draws in another long, careful breath.
“Before you begin interacting with the various projects, you must familiarize yourself with the other people working in this field, and the active projects already engaged. This will give you some insight into how things work, and where the issues are,” Dirthamen reasons. “Tomorrow, I will assign you to one of the overseers on the current construction site. When you feel you have sufficiently grasped the function of her role, I will assign you to another project overseer. But for today, you may research.”
Raising his hand, he gestures towards the workshop corner of the study.
“All of the relevant information to current projects can be found there. I have also granted you access to the High Libraries of the palace, and most of the archives in my major cities, and the Sunken Library of Arlathan. Since you have been granted rank and duties, you will also be given a travel pass tomorrow,” he explains. “Sanehn is making it for you today. It will permit you free use of most eluvians within my territory, and a network which connects to the Arlathan estate, and an emergency route that flows into my daughter’s lands. Though it is not recommended you visit there without sanction from me. Since you are not familiar with my territory, I have take the liberty of procuring you a basic map to its libraries, so you will know best which roads are open to you.”
Heading over to his desk, he lifts up the map, and extends it towards him.
Selene is staring, wide-eyed.
“I… what?” she asks, dazedly.
Dirthamen pauses, and checks the room, but there have been no concussive spells used recently. He always discreetly checks his mask; but it is in order.
“Is something wrong?” he wonders.
“You… the Sunken Library?” she finally asks, swallowing as she reaches up to take the map. She holds it as if it is a rare and precious thing, and not simply a parchment he saved her the trouble of acquiring. The libraries she had access to for her month-long stay could have easily provided her with such public routes. “In Arlathan? I can go there?”
“Not for a week, at least,” he says. “You should complete your orientation before travelling. Otherwise you may not be able to return in time to attend your duties.”
“I though only evanuris were permitted into those archives,” Selene presses.
“Oh. No,” he corrects. “My highest followers are also given leave to access them. The library is mine, after all.”
“Well, yes, but…” Selene hesitates. “I don’t have to get my tongue cut out, do i?”
Sometimes he has difficulties following her train of logic, he thinks.
“No,” he says.
“Or my eyes blinded?” she wonders.
“Face bound into a permanent mask of sorrow?”
“No. You need endure no body modifications,” Dirthamen tells her. “Though some wish to.” He finds himself hoping she will not request such things. The last follower he had granted access to the library had asked to be rendered mute. It had been very odd.
He likes Selene’s voice.
“But I should not speak of what I read there?” Selene checks.
Dirthamen considers that.
“You may speak of it when the knowledge is relevant to the duties you are performing,” he says. “But do not offer it freely. Secrets are the truest currency of Elvhenan, but they lose worth once they have been spent.”
His chest aches, and the weight of many secrets burrows into him. Secrets no one else knows. Secrets only Falon’Din also knew, that have gone to sleep alongside him. Dirthamen gestures towards the workshop of his office; to the schematics and records and accounts, and Selene heads towards them in a state that seems trapped between exultation and disbelief.
Excitement for her tasks soon takes over, however, bubbling into the air around her as she begins to go over the progress reports, and puzzle her way through the web of workers and craftsmen and resource managers that is nearly a labyrinth in and of itself.
Dirthamen settles into the middle of his study’s floor, for his own part, and sends Deceit to collect reports from the outposts near Ghilan’nain’s territories. He is focusing through Deceit when he hears Selene’s footsteps approach; vibrations of her presence in the Dreaming halting not far from his post.
After a moment of what seems to be assessment on her part, she turns around.
This happens several more times, before Dirthamen thinks to inquire after her behaviour.
“Did you need something?” he wonders.
“I would not disturb you,” Selene says. “Only, I cannot find the project reports from last winter.”
“That is because they do not exist,” he replies. “Reports are gathered at the end of each month. This project started at the end of last winter, but the overseer in charge of the site was vapourized before they could be delivered.”
There is a pause.
“Vapourized?” Selene asks.
Dirthamen raises a hand, and calls the relevant incident report up from the stacked shelves behind his desk. The source of the anomaly was discovered, but it still, he thinks, should prove an interesting demonstration of the inadvisability in attempting to breach his wards.
Selene takes it, and then withdraws once more.
It is surprisingly pleasant, Dirthamen thinks, to work in a shared space with an intelligent colleague.
She makes a list of people she comes across in her reading, leaving notations next to each based on the project report, so she can clearly see the overlaps.
A travel pass.
She makes notes based on how long each project takes relative to its size and materials, versus how long they are active and how many subjects travel through.
The fairly vast difference in numbers of the amount of people who make the attempts versus those who emerge (victorious or otherwise) worries her, and she makes a note to ask the appropriate people about it later.
The Sunken Library of Arlathan
She’s still not sure what precisely she’s done to merit the amount of trust he’s putting in her. She was trying to run away a couple of weeks ago, and now he’s given her a map and permission to travel outside of his territory.
It doesn’t tempt her to run like it would have then, somehow. She’s concerned about how quickly she’s acclimated, but with the opportunities he’s been giving her, it’s hard to stay angry.
Desires smirk flashes briefly in her head and she lets out a groan.
Her eyes are burning, and she wonders briefly how long she’s been going through these reports. Dirthamen doesn’t seem to have left the room either, and she mentally debates with herself before squaring her shoulders and approaching him, waiting patiently for his attention to return.
It’s harder to tell than she thought it would be.
Eventually his finger twitches
“Do you need something?”
“No. Well, yes. Sort of. I thought you might, maybe. Do you uh. I mean, not to imply that you’re not..I mean I don’t want to be rude. Nevermind, it was a silly question. Forgive me.”
“Selene, what do you wish to know?”
She pointedly ignores the flipping sensation that hits her when he says her name “Do you eat?”
“Would you. That is, you haven’t left all day, so I thought, maybe.” she sighs “Would you like to eat with me?”
He is quiet.
She feels like an idiot.
“I mean, I could grab some food from the hall and bring it back for you. I’m sure you’re busy, I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t preoccupied with something, I just.” she groans. “Nevermind, forgive me my Lord. I’ll go back to work.”
She turns and goes back to her work area, mentally berating herself and buries herself back her research.
After another hour or so passes, the doors to the study open, and someone brings in a tray with assorted foods on it. Small foods mostly, fruits, cheeses, and small breads that can be eaten while accomplishing other tasks. They leave it on Dirthamens desk, bow, and exit the study. She peeks over at the tray and feels her stomach grumble before quickly returning her attention to the notes in front of her.
“Are you not hungry?”
She turns when she hears his voice.
She eyes the tray, and then looks back to him.
“I..will eat when you are finished, My Lord. Thank you.”
his fingers drum uncertainly against the edge of his desk.
“If you would rather go to the dining hall, I would understand. I was unsure of your dining choices. Deceit informed me you were likely to enjoy these. I did not mean to misstep.”
Selene almost laughs at the absurdity of his statement.
“You did not misstep, my Lord. I did not want to offend you. Thank you, for taking the trouble. You are too kind.”
She actually means it when she says it, too.
Dirthamen is half in the Dreaming, still, as Selene gathers up the tray of food.
He is a little surprised when she looks at it, and then looks at him; and after a moment, carries it over to where he is sitting, and settles in front of him with it.
The treats she favours are easy to consume, and tend to leave little mess behind. Dirthamen supposes they are a practical choice for a healer, who would need to be able to spring up and leave a meal behind should an emergency call for it.
After a few quiet moments, during which she continues to not eat, Dirthamen assesses her previous comments. Perhaps he should start?
He reaches over, and lifts up one of the light pastries filled with spiced meats and berries.
As he does, Selene takes up a stick of salted bread and holds it between her teeth, and pours them both glasses of mead from the pitcher on the tray. She glances towards him, curiously, as he checks his appearance - not inappropriately abstract, he thinks - before taking off his mask.
He bites off a piece of the pastry.
The salted bread falls out of her mouth, and she has to catch it before it hits the floor.
“If my appearance is disquieting, I can alter it,” he offers. “Or replace the mask. This is easier, however.” His mask is somewhat resisting to changing its own form. If it were not, then it would probably shift and re-model itself nearly as often as his face does, given how much of it has absorbed aspects of himself.
“No!” Selene assures him. “You are not disquieting, you are very beautiful!”
Dirthamen wonders if he has adopted an appearance similar to Sylaise’s, since morning.
He takes another bite from the pie, and Selene seems to watch him in fascination for several moments, before her stomach rumbles a reminder that she also requires sustenance. Then she turns hastily back towards the meal.
“Is it overstepping if I ask why you wear a mask?” Selene wonders. “Only, I had heard that your appearance was not… normal.”
Dirthamen tilts his head.
“It is sometimes normal,” he explains. “It changes often, and I am not good at realizing the forms it has taken until after they are done. It was an issue in my youth, especially. I resolved it by creating a face that would not change.”
“So do you just… look like different people, or…?” she asks, taking up one of little pies herself.
Dirthamen blinks, and feels his features rearrange into something less commonly elvhen. His skin goes pale, and gleams like crystal, and his hair turns to white flame, and his vision alters in a way that he knows means his eyes have reshaped themselves. He waits to see if the change is distressing; but Selene only looks fascinated.
“But you’re still beautiful!” she blurts.
“Thank you,” he says, and takes another bite from his pie. The compliment is very warming. It seems to go both ways, as Selene’s cheeks darken, and she takes a sip of her drink.
That ends the conversation of his appearance. Though it is still novel, he finds, to be able to sit and speak with someone while he is eating. Someone who is not his child, anyway. But even Mana’Din had not eaten with him often, as he had mostly been preoccupied with observing her own dietary needs were met, and simply sustained himself while she was sleeping.
Sitting on the floor, eating from a shared tray, is… pleasant, he decides.
At length Selene begins to ask him about some of the reports she has been reviewing, instead, and he answers his questions as best as he is able. She is a good selection for this task, he decides. Already she is beginning to organise matters into a more comprehensive form.
“Innovation will like you,” he decides. “She is currently irate because she does not normally do well with understudies and apprentices. I make her take them anyway, because she is a good teacher. But she detests people who do not ask the right questions. You are the opposite of that, I think.”
Selene blinks a few times.
“Is that who I’m going to be working with tomorrow?” she asks.
“Yes,” Dirthamen says. “Do not worry. She does not actually whip anyone. She lies about that often. She also does not feed anyone to the ‘grinder’. The grinder does not exist.”
For some reason, that comment prompts amusement.
“I think I know the type,” Selene tells him. “There are worse ones to deal with.”
On that, he can readily agree.
Oh no he’s hot.
She knew she was in a little bit of trouble before. She did. Selene has never been very good at making smart, logical decisions.
But developing feelings towards the almost-all-powerful could-have-her-killed-on-a-whim literal-mass-murderer?
Probably in her top ten.
So much for the ‘hes probably a mess under the mask and its a good barrier that I’ll never see past anyways’ theory.
She is in so much trouble.
Maybe she should run after all.
But even as his face continues to shift throughout their meal, she can’t seem to find a single one displeasing, or even offputting. They’re outside of the normal standards of beauty that she would see in Sylaise’s territories, of course. But for her, it’s just another reminder of how far removed he is from the elves she’s used to seeing.
It’s a pleasant sort of change.
They finish the meal, and the mead, and her head feels warm, but she stacks the dishes together on the tray and stands.
“I will send for someone to collect them.” he informs her.
Selene just shakes her head “Don’t bother them with it. I know where the kitchen dishes go, I’ll just drop these off and come back to finish my notes.” she pauses before continuing “Thank you, for the company.”
He nods back at her “Thank you for the same.”
She bumps the study door open with her hip, carrying the tray with both hands and steps out.
She nods a polite greeting at the guard on duty and makes her way down the hall, humming quietly under her breath.
A few minutes pass.
A few more.
She stops, when she realizes that she doesn’t actually recognize this area. She balances the tray on her hip with one arm and digs through her pockets with the other, looking for the map he had given her.
The map sitting with her notes.
Chalk another one up to bad choices, she thinks.
Well, I suppose I can just go back the way I came.
She turns around on her heel, and starts heading back.
Yet more time passes, and the hallways don’t become any more familiar.
There must be someone around, surely. It’s not like there would really be completely empty sections of his home riddled with traps. Who does that?
So, still a bit warm from the mead, Selene opens the first door she sees on her left.
There is no dust, no webs, no dirt anywhere.
And there is a light, peeking out from behind a closed door against the wall.
'Ah, I’ll just ask whomever is back here for directions.’ she thinks as she opens it and steps inside.
The light is blinding, and she blinks rapidly until her eyes have adjusted.
There is nothing in the room but empty walls.
She feels something soft brush against her leg, and hears a soft rumble coming from behind her.
Her barrier goes up in reflex and the tray falls with an echoing clatter. Selenes arms shoot up to guard her face as the creature roars and she is knocked backwards.
Her barrier shatters, and all she knows is darkness.
When Selene leaves the room, Dirthamen drifts back into the Dreaming.
Fear and Deceit are both attending their duties, and his attention is drawn away that it takes him a moment to realize that Selene has been gone overlong.
He frowns. That is… uncommon of her. Though perhaps her punctuality is being affected by some outside factor. He summons back Deceit, who wings through the various Dreaming layers of the palace, searching.
Cannot see her.
That is not good, Dirthamen thinks. Would she have left the palace? She does not even have her pass until tomorrow. No. He thinks that even if she meant to flee to Nameless lands, or otherwise roam, tomorrow would be the more opportune time for numerous reasons.
Which means either someone has absconded with her, or she is in a sealed part of the palace.
How would she get into a sealed portion of the palace?
Someone must have removed the ambiguations on a pathway. She was headed for the kitchens. There are only a few likely options, then. Deceit wings towards one as he heads for the other, making his way with haste down the hall. There are maze creatures being kept in both hidden passageways; a slumbering gift from Ghilan’nain, and a wild, magic-resilient large cat that was discovered by his own scouts.
He reaches his destination first, and accesses the chambers to find that the slumbering feathered serpent is still slumbering, and has not recently eaten.
But still worrying.
Deceit reaches the second chamber, and is met with a far less ideal sight; the cat has broken free of its restraints, and is rounding on an unconscious Selene. Or possibly just stunned. Dirthamen rushes towards the location as Deceit deals with the cat, distracting its attention away from the prone woman. It is difficult to perceive much beyond the fight. But Selene wakes in time to see a giant raven being torn to shreds by a voracious feline.
“No!” she cries, and attempts a spell.
Dirthamen takes a shortcut through several floors, as the feline’s attention is redirected towards her; and the illusory raven which Deceit had created fall in a bloody heap, and Deceit itself grasps Selene and moves her backwards, erecting a barrier that will not hold long against the feline’s anti-magic properties.
Dirthamen reaches the chamber, makes a quick choice, and stops the cat via the most expedient means available.
He lights the incendiary runes beneath it, and blows it up.
The explosion does not tax Deceit’s barrier nearly as much as the beast would have. Deceit is hastily shifted, with long black feathers still draped from his arms, and raptor-like hands clutching Selene. She gapes, as the remnants of the explosion clear.
The feline’s corpse is… not in good condition.
Selene’s distress is palpable.
At least, Dirthamen thinks, she did not open the wrong door and manage to utterly sever her consciousness from her body. Whoever is responsible for this will not escape punishment, he decides. His heart is beating more quickly than usual, and dread is climbing up his spine. Clinging to his chest.
He walks over to Deceit and Selene.
“Are you hurt?” he and Deceit ask, simultaneously and with one voice.
Selene looks nauseated, and still alarmed, as she attempts to voice a negative.
Take her to the healers, Dirthamen decides. Or possibly Deceit is the first to suggest it. It is difficult to tell, at the moment. Fear has veered closed to the palace, drawn in by their alarm; but with the wave of a hand, he sends it back off again.
He whirls on his heel, and leaves Deceit to see to Selene, before beginning his investigations into this sabotage. None but a member of the palace staff could have access to this chamber, and either deliberately leave it open, or negligently fail to close it. Neither prospect is acceptable. There are traps throughout his palace, and once this was not an uncommon occurrence; but the only traps that have remained accessible to the uninitiated should be non-fatal ones, these days.
Whoever is responsible may well serve as the first volunteer for his new maze.
They are speaking to her.
It sounds like everything is being filtered through water, and she wonders for a moment if perhaps she truly did drown in the river. If everything so far has been a dream, some last ditch effort of her mind to make her believe she managed to accomplish something worthwhile in her life.
She thinks of Dirthamen, and his changing faces. The way he made her feel.
How easy it became to speak with him so quickly.
She thinks of Deceit.
She remembers the feathers, shredded and bloodied falling in front of her and she jumps up, and feels someones hand pushing against her shoulder.
She pushes back, screaming.
“Deceit, where is Deceit?”
Falling. Falling. He is falling.
Someone is talking at her but she has to get to him.
She can help.
She has to help.
Her fault her fault she finally made a friend and this is her fault.
A large hand grabs her, pushes her down onto a bed and no no no not again no not here not here.
Someone else is yelling and they are angry and she knows it is likely at her but no no she won’t she won’t not again but she is suddenly overcome with fatigue, her body relaxes against her will and she falls into the dreaming.
Deceit is yelling at the healers.
It is not a tactic they normally resort to, but Selene is screaming and it is distressing.
They settle on forcing her into sleep and she quiets but she does not seem any less distressed.
She called for them. Repeatedly.
They were not expecting that.
The healers assure them that her physical wounds are all easily dealt with, her scrapes cleaned and closed and they hand them a jar with a salve inside to assist with any lingering pain in her head.
Deceit carries her back to her room and places her atop her own bed.
Distress still seems to be radiating from her, so they resolve to visit her in the dreaming and ensure she is alright.
She is running through the maze she had formed with them the night before, searching through all of their hiding spots and dispelling most of their illusions.
It appears beside her, still in its elven form “What are you running from?”
She skids to a halt, tears pouring from her eyes as she turns to it.
Surely the cat is dead. It can not have followed her here besides.
They are caught offguard when she tackles them, arms wrapped tightly around their own as she presses her head against theirs.
“Deceit, you’re alright!” she exclaims.
They are very confused.
“You are the one who was injured, I believe that is supposed to be what I say. Why have we switched roles?”
She laughs like a weight has been lifted from her, and it is reassuring but they are still confused.
“You were torn to shreds, Deceit. What was I supposed to think?”
Ah. They understand now.
“No, that was merely an illusion to distract the creature. I was unharmed.”
Selene pulls back slightly, looking them in the eyes, but her arms are still around them.
“You…Oh. Of course.” she sighs, and her arms fall back to her own sides.
“I thought you were-You scared me. I’m sorry for panicking like that.”
“Is that all you are sorry for?”
“I have told you before not to go through unfamiliar doors. You could have been killed! There are worse things hidden here than hungry beasts. Things we would not be able to save you from.”
Selene frowns and takes a step back, bowing deeply. “You’re right. I am sorry I disobeyed you.”
She is obfuscating again and it is more infuriating than they cares to admit.
She looks up in shock and they are dismayed at their reaction as well. The Great Aspects desires may be affecting them more than they had anticipated.
“We do not want your obedience. We just want you safe,” they explain.
She straightens, slowly, keeping eye contact. “I..Alright. I will try to avoid worrying you in the future. I am sorry. Truly.” she offers them a sheepish smile, but it is honest.
They let out what feels like a sigh, and the feathers of their clothing ruffle until they return to their smaller form, perched atop her shoulder.
“We will need to work on your defensive magics, when there is time.”
She chuckles and agrees, and they feel something settle beneath their hollow bones.
Perhaps friendship will be more difficult than they had anticipated.
Deceit is with Selene, and she seems to have calmed.
Dirthamen begins looking into the matter of who could have caused this catastrophe in the first place. He summons Sanehn, and then Turmoil, and has the work roster brought up of everyone who had been assigned to that chamber, and everyone who could potentially have opened it. Fear withdraws back to his side, and helps with is assessments from the Dreaming; interrogating various spirits and rifling through memories.
It does not take long to narrow the search down to its ultimate culprit. In the small hours of the morning, the servant is dragged from her bed, and brought to Dirthamen in the hall of his throne chamber. The room is full of dark and twisting shadows, as he settled upon his thrown.
The servant is young. He does not know her name by memory, but the records have it as Suvallas. She is Waking-born, and late into her fiftieth decade, and newly given to her duties. A promotion from her position in one of his smaller townships, granted mostly by dint of her parents’ dedication to seeing her established in the palace.
Dirthamen cannot divine much motive for her to have deliberately attempted to kill someone. But that does not mean it is not there. He knows from experience that people often do incomprehensible things.
She is very frightened, as his guards bring her to the throne room.
“Do you know what the penalty is for attempting to murder one of my subjects?” he asks.
The young woman shakes, and does not meet his face. He cannot tell if she is nodding; her physical tremours are too severe.
“You will have to speak,” he tells her.
“Y… y-yes,” she gets out.
She is still dressed in her nightclothes. The chamber is cold. Dirthamen does not usually commit to judgements so swiftly; but he thinks of Selene dying in the jaws of that beast, and he finds he feels somewhat cold inside himself.
“Why do you leave the doorway unsealed?” he asks.
The servant does not answer right away. She seems to be having difficulties with speech. Dirthamen waits, and after a few minutes she drops to her knees, and cries. This takes some time, as the air suffuses with her fear and dread.
“I, I did not mean to,” she finally gets out. “Please, my lord, I did not mean to. I was assisting with the animal’s feeding, nothing more, and I thought I sealed it. I sealed it every day. But today I was running late in my duties and I had so many more things to do and I closed the door… and… and I forgot. I forgot to do it.”
Dirthamen ponders her for a moment. Fear examines her thoughts from the Dreaming.
“You knew,” he says. “When you finished your duties for the day, you recalled the door. But you did not return to re-seal it.”
The servant looks down at the floor, and shakes her head.
“I did not-“
“You did!” he snaps. “Why did you not return, when you recalled?”
“I was frightened!” she blurts. “If my supervisor discovered my negligence, she might send me home, and I thought she might catch me. I thought I could do, could do it in the morning. Before she woke. I n-never… I never thought someone would go in there, Lord Dirthamen, please, if I ever did even for a moment I would have rushed back, I do not value my job above another’s life, I did not mean to… please, please my lord, have mercy…”
Dirthamen considers her for a long moment.
“A woman was injured, and nearly killed,” he declares. “It seems you must learn the true dangers of negligence. The true weight of responsibility. Since this was not a malicious act, you will not be executed. But you will stripped of your current duties, and in two months’ time, you will run the course of my latest labyrinth.”
The young woman sobs.
“…Th-thank you… for, for your wisdom… and mercy…” she gets out, though her fear and dread have not abated, and she does not seem relieved to be offered such.
Dirthamen supposes the situation is not one to be proud or pleased with on any front, however, and so he only lets it stand as he gestures for the guards to come and take the servant away.
He still feels cold.
An accident. A careless accident, had caused this. He finds that he is frustrated with himself, as well as with Selene and the servant. Perhaps he has not improved so much as he had imagined, if things like this are still happening.
With a sigh, he withdraws, and after a moment of contemplation, heads for Selene’s chambers. She is still asleep. But he wishes to verify her wellness with his own eyes, so after a moment, he bids Deceit wake her.
Then he knocks upon her door.
There is a long pause, before it finally opens a crack. Dirthamen can perceive Deceit rustling on her shoulder.
“I am sorry for what happened,” he says. “We may postpone the beginning of your new duties until you are fully recovered.”
The door opens a bit wider, and Selene shakes her head.
“No,” she tells him. “Please. I want to begin. I am sorry for not… being more cautious. I should have been.”
Dirthamen accepts her own apology with a nod.
Lord Dirthamen is standing at her door.
Does she…is she supposed to invite him in? It seems like too much, too soon, though she wonders why she thinks of the word soon rather than something closer to never ever in this lifetime.
Still, he’s accepted her apology, which is a relief. Deceits’ anger was enough to rattle her, she can’t imagine handling Lord Dirthamens well at all.
There is a certain sort of coldness radiating off of him that hadn’t been there the night before, but she chalks it up to his loss of a creature he had no doubt had plans for.
She leaves the door open to allow him to enter or not at his discretion, and pulls her hair into a high ponytail before closing it behind her. She gives him a polite nod before speaking again.
“Thank you for your patience, My Lord. Where are we off to? Well, where am I off to, I suppose. Unless you’re escorting me, which is fine, if you are! I mean, I could get there on my own if you simply told me where-”
“I believe you have already proven that is a bad idea,” he replies as he continues leading her down the hall. She feels a chill go down her spine.
Right. Shutting up then.
It feels as though there is a new barrier up between them, and her mind drifts to wondering what his face looks like behind his mask today. Perhaps it is elven-like? Or maybe it is made of ice today, which might account for his change in demeanor.
They travel in silence, Deceit having flown off when they departed her room for his own duties.
Eventually, they arrive at the doors of a workshop and several workers trip over themselves to open the doors for him, keeping their eyes towards the ground.
Inside the shop is busy, machines whirring and sparking, people yelling orders over each other and magic swirling over head in an endless back and forth. Selene idly wonders if it’s perhaps a perpetual motion machine carrying the energy, and wonders yet more what sort of sacrifices were necessary for such a thing.
“Selene,” she hears him call, and quickly catches up with him, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
There is a woman with short golden hair barking orders at a few younger looking elves bent sheepishly over some sort of contraption dealing with levers. Dirthamen waits for the woman to take a breath before speaking again “Innovation,” he says and the woman looks over at him, sends a glare to the two workers and walks towards the pair.
“My Lord Dirthamen,” she bows, and then peeks a glance at Selene with a grimace “My lord, I rarely doubt your judgment, but I do not have the time to take on a new worker.”
“She is not a worker. She is a student, and you will be her teacher.”
Innovations shoulder slump, and she gingerly rubs the bridge of her nose “Yes, my Lord.”
And with simply that, Dirthamen turns and takes his leave.
Innovation looks Selene up and down and waves for her to follow as she leads them into a quieter office.
“So. What brings you here?” she asks
Selene debates her answer before responding “The will of our Lord Dirthamen,”
it is not technically a lie.
Innovation scoffs “Sure, alright. How much experience do you have?”
Selene winces “In…this field?”
Innovation nods, gesturing for Selene to continue.
“I have read many books on the subjects involved.”
“And your actual experience amounts to…”
“I have lots of theories and questions and Lord Dirthamen showed me one of the earlier labyrinths and I found it quite fascinating.”
“And the amount of time you have actually worked in the field is…?”
“W-well, hands on experience I hear can be vastly over rated really, a solid grasp of the concepts is the foundations of all great-”
“How much of your life have you spent working on anything even marginally related to this duty with your own hands?”
“…none?” Selene winces.
Innovation stares at Selene for a few moments.
“If it would not be high treason I would have a few very awful, very detailed things to say about our Great Lord right now.”
Selene gives her an uneasy grin and shrugs “I’m a fast study, if it helps.”
“They always say that, it is never true,” Innovation sighs, and opens a box, taking out a work apron, a writing utensil and (thankfully) a journal.
“I hope you are good at taking notes because I do not enjoy repeating myself and I will not waste what little time we have to push our projects forward babysitting someone who does not know the difference between her interstage differentials and an isothermal expansion.”
“Technically if one occurs it would be impossible for the other to, they’re literally opposite events. One occurs during the absence of the change of the other,” Selene frowns.
Innovation smiles and opens the door to the workshop.
“Good. Perhaps you won’t be put into the Grinder after all.”
Dirthamen gets his first progress report on Selene’s interactions with Innovation at the end of the day.
It is very simple, and reads as thus:
Coming from Innovation, this is glowing praise. Dirthamen blinks, and feels almost startled. Deceit is preening. Proud of Selene as if by proxy; it has often felt that Innovation had drifted too far from its initial purpose, though on the whole, Dirthamen is not certain whether that is good, bad, or simply an inevitable part of the transition from spirit to elf.
He waits to see if Selene will approach him at the end of the day. But the hours since her duties ended drag on, and she does not. He sends Deceit to check, and finds that she is in the Dreaming; radiating a certain degree of exhaustion even there, and turning over maps and minefields, prisons and labyrinths in her mind with disjointed complexity. Deceit watches as she throws open the doors of a cage, and lets loose a flurry of beasts.
Creatures and spirits which rush off into the nebulous ether of her dream.
Dirthamen thinks she is grasping his labyrinths better and better. They are trials. But their ultimate aim is not to cage, even if they must punish. It is to free one from their own limitations, by making them work past such things.
He dwells on this himself, as the night drags on, before drawing his mind towards more pressing matters.
In the morning, Selene is summoned to him. Given her good progress with Innovation, he decides she may work with the former spirit for a month, before Dirthamen will assign her to another field. She does not seem to find the prospect objectionable, which is good.
“The first runner for the labyrinth has been found,” he declares. “It is scheduled to be finished within the next two months. After that, you will have an opportunity to see a project from its beginning.”
Selene looks interested.
“Are you already planning the next one?” she wonders.
“No,” he admits. “I welcome outside perspectives on such matters. There will probably be a period of some months while I am in conceptual planning stages, but if you like, you may inquire after any of those stages.”
She blinks, and then raises an eyebrow.
“I am permitted to pick your brain?” she asks.
She seems at once pleased and bemused by this notion. Dirthamen considers the turn of phrase.
“Yes,” he allows.
He does not expect her to begin immediately. Nor does he anticipate her producing a list of questions, but it seems he has underestimated her interest in this regard. Which is almost impressive. She begins going down the list, which, after a few moments, he gathers to be comprised of questions which Innovation did not know the answer to.
He provides his own answers, within allowances for his own ability to convey certain concepts, and a few security and safety restrictions. He does not feel inclined, he finds, to leave Selene without responses. Even where he thinks one question should easily denote the answers to others, still, he does answer them. He explains patterns in the Fade and how he chooses the locations for his labyrinths, and where excess energy from them can be stored, and even permits her to veer into a discussion of the construction of his Arlathan estate and its access points to the Sunken Library.
Which, he confirms, is not actually under water.
“The name is metaphorical,” he says. “But there are a lot of fountains.”
There are also literal pools of knowledge, but that is restricted to evanuris-level access, and it would put her in some danger to learn of them.
Eventually Selene comes to a point on her list which makes her hesitate.
“I noticed the number of labyrinth participants who are retrieved - either successfully or unsuccessfully - is very low,” she says.
“Yes,” Dirthamen agrees.
“Why?” she asks. “They are all recorded as having died in the trials, but some of the labyrinths did not contain fatal elements.”
“Those cases likely starved,” Dirthamen explains.
Selene stares at him.
“Starved?” she asks.
“Yes.” He lets out a breath. “I am the only person authorized to end a subject’s run of the labyrinth. But my duties are varied and complex, and my attention to time is…. not always good. My subjects, for some reason, are reluctant to inform me when an individual’s time in the labyrinth has begun to exceed their supply of food. When my daughter lived here, she would often personally retrieve runners who were in risk of such negligence. But since she has gone, things have… lapsed, again.”
Selene does not look impressed.
Dirthamen supposes that it is not, in fact, a very impressive thing to admit to.
He hangs his head.
Work goes fairly steadily for Selene over the course of the month,
The most difficult adjustment she has had to make seems to be biting down on her reflex whenever someone injures themselves around her.
There are a lot of accidents.
Thankfully, there are also plenty of healers, which she realizes when they shoo her off of another elf who has an unfortunately large piece of equipment fall on top of their leg.
Innovation doesn’t even pause in her lecture.
She goes to bed exhausted every night, after quiet meals in the dining hall and a wash, and wakes up early each morning to review the previous days notes before restarting the cycle.
She absolutely loves it.
She takes as many notes as she is able, filling the journal Innovation had given her quickly, and even manages to procure a small box full of them to keep in the space under her bed.
The doodles probably don’t conserve as much space as she’d like them to, but the diagrams are legitimately helpful, so it’s a trade off, really.
She keeps one particularly well-bound notebook on her nightstand, filled with questions Innovation was not able to answer, for her meetings with Dirthamen.
It is definitely not the same as a diary.
One morning, she manages to arrive in the workshop before Innovation, and takes the time to look around at the various projects being worked on by the others.
She’s inspecting what looks like an orb of darkness being suspended inside of a barrier when someone speaks up behind her.
“It can’t be that interesting to look at, can it?”
She jumps slightly and spins around on her heel, back straightening reflexively as she faces the speaker.
He is a younger looking elf, marked with Dirthamen’s vallaslin in a deep bronze over dark skin, swirling and ever-changing tattoos of the same color moving over his shaved head.
“Sorry, I was just-I’m new, ish. Sorry. Is it yours?”
He chuckles and nods, holding his hand out for her “I know. You’re the little duck that’s been trailing after Innovation. And yes, it is. Have you worked with chaos energy before?”
Selene hesitantly shakes his hand, dropping it quickly afterwards. “I suppose it’s not the worst thing I’ve been called. No, I haven’t. What is it?”
“Dangerous, mostly,” he smiles “I’m working on making sturdier containers for it. Our Lord is interested in adding it as a possible trap, from what I understand. That means it can’t get out unless it’s triggered though, and keeping chaos contained is proving to be, well, about as difficult as it sounds I suppose.”
Selene nods, turning back to the orb “It looks pretty stable. What’s the issue?”
He moves to stand next to her, and she tenses slightly before he spins it and points out a small crack she had missed on the back side “It’s got a time limit. This one’s gonna break in the next few days, so we need to move it into a stronger container before then, or find someplace to let it loose.”
“Like bleeding out a wound?”
“Something like that. Not easy to find someplace that’s comfortable having chaos set loose on it though. It’s also expensive to procure, so I’d prefer not to waste it if it’s not absolutely necessary.”
Selene hums thoughtfully as she reaches out and carefully spins the orb herself “What are you making the containers out of?”
“It’s a secret,” he says with a playful eyebrow wiggle.
Selene gives him a deadpan look in response, prompting him to laugh loudly.
“You ask a lot of questions for someone serving the Lord of Secrets. The answers aren’t always freely given you know. Knowledge is its own type of currency.”
“So I’ve heard. It must drive Innovation absolutely mad.”
The elven man turns to face Selene more fully “What makes you say that?”
Selene is still idly spinning the orb as she speaks “Knowledge is meant to be freely given and shared. What good is it if you keep it hidden away somewhere that no one will ever see? You’ll never be able to move past a certain point because you’re too busy looking for answers someone else has already found. So if that same answer is being hoarded by someone for whatever false sense of power it gives them, it’s wasted. If that same knowledge were shared, someone else could pick it up and carry it even farther. Everyone has their limits, and whatever you learn will always be limited by your own experiences and capabilities.
Like, say one person grabbed an apple and went ‘The apple is red, I can say that with absolute clarity because I have the knowledge afforded to me by my sense of sight,’ but then they never tell anyone that the apple is red. Someone else comes along, and they say 'The apple is juicy, because I have the ability to bite into it and so that is the knowledge afforded to me,’. On their own, each of these people have one piece of the bigger picture of what an apple is, but neither are capable of fully understanding the apple itself. Now, if they get together, and one with sight sees the other take a bite, they will see that the inside of the apple is not actually red, and their own knowledge grows.
Imagine now if they encourage the other person to continue with their biting. Eventually, they reach the seeds in the center, and only now are they both capable of seeing the entirety of the apple, from the red skin on the outside, to the juices waiting inside, and if they keep going and plant those seeds elsewhere, they can see that the apple comes from the tree and its blossoms, and now they can clearly see the full picture of what an apple actually is. But neither of them would be able to get to that point if either of them had chosen to keep that initial scrap of knowledge to themselves,”
Selene blinks, and straightens up, letting go of the orb “Sorry. I tend to ramble.”
The elven man is staring at her, and she’s not entirely sure what to make of it.
“You…really aren’t from around here, are you?” He finally asks.
Selene laughs nervously “I’m from the outskirts of the territory,”
He shakes his head “Must be like a whole other world.”
“Is it really that different outside of the palace?”
He squints his eyes slightly at her “Have you gone outside since your promotion? Come to think of it, you’re in here every day. When is your day off?”
“I uh…I’m not sure, actually.”
He sighs, placing his head in his hand “Alright, well, ask Innovation when she comes in, she’ll find out what your schedule is. Let me know when you find it out.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because if you let me take you into town, I’ll consider it ample payment.”
Selene frowns “ 'Payment’?”
“Sure,” he gestures to the orb “You wanna know how this works, and what life is like in the main part of town. I wanna know more about you. Knowledge shared, right?”
Selene shakes her head “I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Melanadahl. Pleasure to meet you, miss…?”
Selene looks back at the orb, and not for the first time curses her curiosity “Selene. Nice to meet you, Melanadahl.”
Dirthamen is concerned.
Melanadahl is not a poor worker. Nor does he have a reputation for infractions. He is not certain why, then, he is concerned, as Selene tells Deceit of her plans to spend some of her rest day with him. It sounds a reasonable idea, in fact. An exchange of knowledge and experience, and Melanadahl knows better than to permit harm to come to one of his coworkers.
Dirthamen sends Deceit with them.
Melanadahl witnesses the raven’s presence, and immediately ducks into a low bow, and averts his gaze from it slightly.
“My lord,” he greets. “I apologize again for the oversight that saw last month’s project spoiled. Have you rescinded your forgiveness?”
Last month’s project? Ah. The explosion. Yes, Dirthamen recalls now. That had not been an oversight so much as insufficient research leading to equally insufficient safeguards. The matter has been settled to his satisfaction, with the responsible parties appropriately disciplined.
Deceit tells Melanadahl so, and the man lets out a brief rush of relief, before schooling his features and ambiance better once again. Selene looks slightly sheepish, as she begins to explain her friendship with Deceit.
Dirthamen watches as his research and containment field expert glances towards Deceit, and then Selene again, and then begins apologizing for withholding information on the grounds of an exchange. Selene has to stop him. Deceit, for some reason, feels disinclined to; perhaps keying into the strange concern which Dirthamen is also still feeling.
Melanadahl is very sociable.
Fear is amused.
The outing proceeds as planned, and Dirthamen keeps one eye on things as he spares most of his attention for other tasks. Elgar’nan has been pressing him to set up more security outposts in his territory. It is not a matter he cares to concede to his father, and Elgar’nan has responded by pressing more peacekeepers into a small pocket settlement which he controls amidst Dirthamen’s western expanse.
Technically, this is in violation of nothing, so long as the peacekeepers remain in Elgar’nan’s settlement.
But Dirthamen suspects they will not.
Several scouts bring back reports from the region, and Fear consults with some benign spirits who are willing to exchange such information, and he is distracted enough by these matters that it takes him a while to realize there is a nagging sense of guilt permeating his consciousness.
The pauses, in the midst of reading one report, and tracks the sense down to…
What are we guilty of?
Dirthamen reviews a rush of memories that seem primarily benign, as Selene and Melanadahl traverse the city, and perform a number of tasks. They venture to one of the smaller libraries, and use Selene’s pass to access several archives, and…
…Deceit tricks Melanadahl into attempting to access a tome beyond Selene’s access level. One of only a few, a library of spells pre-dating the construction of Arlathan, and restricted due to some very unstable properties contained within both the text itself, and the contents of its instructions. The archivists are demanded by duty to intercept, and throw Melanadahl out, and report his infraction.
Selene is upset.
Deceit is conflicted. Trickery is in its nature, but it does not like having upset Selene. She is angry with it; she is clever enough to have surmised its participation in the event.
That was poorly done, Dirthamen decides. It does not do for him to torment his own subjects, and normally Deceit is not taken by such overt malice.
He lets out a breath.
This will have to be repaired.
He bids Melanadahl be summoned to his office, and has Fear take over safeguarding Selene, as Deceit is withdrawn to ply its own contacts for information regarding Elgar’nan’s movements. Then Dirthamen sighs, and takes in a deep breath; and he is still breathing deeply, when his subject is permitted entrance to his offices.
Melanadahl is nervous, as he makes his way inside. Head bowed, arms stiff, aura tightly clasped to himself. Dirthamen regards him for a moment. Feels the whisper of wanting in him. Melanadahl has many longings, as most people do. Some are stronger than others. He wishes to succeed; he wishes to not be harmed. Some of him is obfuscated, with the deftness that is customary to those raised in his lands. With the knowledge of their secrets’ value, and vulnerability.
“Forgive me, my lord,” Melanadahl says, at last, and falls to his knees. “I did not mean to transgress.”
Dirthamen tilts his head.
“You did not,” he decides. “I apologize. Deceit’s actions were unbefitting, and uncalled for.”
“That is gracious of you, my lord,” he says.
Then he waits. Anticipating the resolution to this encounter; the reason for his summons. Dirthamen supposes it is not enough, in the end, to simply apologize. Once he would have thought it should be. But he has learned better, with time. He has seen more of his own wounds, and he knows that words - even strong words - can only carry so far.
Actions can speak louder.
“Subsequent to the completion of your project, you may have a month of rest time,” he decides. “Do with it as you see fit.”
“Subsequent?” Melanadahl checks, glancing upwards. “I am not being taken off of the project?”
“No, you are not,” Dirthamen confirms. “Though I suppose, if you wish your leave to start earlier…”
“No!” the man blurts, hastily.
“Then it will begin after,” he concludes. “And you will be granted clearance to access the tome which you showed an interest in. You have proven yourself a capable researcher. I trust you to observe proper safety precautions in handling an unstable text.”
Melanadahl is still fearful. But marginally less so, as he nods, and at Dirthamen’s dismissal, bows his way from the room.
Silence falls, in the wake of his absence.
Dirthamen wonders how long Selene will be annoyed with them.
Selene is eating while reviewing her notes on how terrain is simulated in the labyrinths in the dining hall when Melanadahl sits himself down across from her and stares.
She spares him a brief glance before returning to her notes, chewing on a sweet roll.
“So,” he muses out loud after a few minutes “How precisely did you manage your promotion?”
She closes her journal and looks back at him, debating how to respond before settling on “It’s a secret. You were the one who advised me to guard them so closely, I believe.”
He sighs and steals a roll off of Selene’s plate before leaning back in his chair and looking at her more intently “Ok, fine. Why do you have such high ranking…babysitters would be a rude thing to say. Guards, perhaps?”
“You’re asking about Fear and Deceit?”
“I don’t actually know.”
Melanadahl frowns, and takes a large bite from the roll “What does that mean?”
“Precisely what I said. I’m not really sure why Lord Dirthamen is having them keep such a close watch on me. I’d assume it’s because he doesn’t trust me, but they’ve saved me from death on more than one occasion so perhaps it’s simply because I am more accident prone than his more competent followers,” she shrugs.
“No, I don’t think that’s it… He apologized, to me. He gave me a month off, and didn’t even remove me from the project. For making atransgression.”
“Good. Deceit was being an ass when they tricked you, at least Lord Dirthamen can recognize that,” she responds, popping a piece of fruit into her mouth.
“They were just doing what is true to their nature, you can’t really fault them for it.”
“Of course I can. It is possible to deceive people without being an ass, and they are clever enough to know how. Therefore, Deceit was being an ass, so of course I will fault them for it.”
Melanadahl waves a hand at Selene while swallowing the rest of the roll “See, this is what I’m talking about. Nobody else would be able to get away with so much as thinking something so discourteous to them, but here you are spouting it aloud and you are considered a friend. I don’t understand. The pieces I have aren’t adding up.”
Selene shrugs “I wish I could say I was being clever, but I genuinely don’t know the answer myself. If you figure it out, please let me know.”
Melanadahl hums thoughtfully to himself “Perhaps it is less complicated than I am making it…”
“What does that mean?”
He snatches the last of the rolls off of the plate and shakes his head “Just a far fetched theory. We will have to wait and see if I am correct.”
Selene is not sure what to make of the conversation she had with Melanadahl at dinner, and is still contemplating it when she drifts into the dreaming, continuing her wanderings and manipulations of her own labyrinth.
Deceit perches itself on a wall near her before long, shifting awkwardly on its legs.
She ignores them for what she believes is a few minutes before approaching.
“Do you understand why I was upset?”
Deceit pauses before responding “The man did not deserve to be thrown out. Reparations have been paid. He was satisfied with them.”
“Why did you need to do that to him in the first place?” Selene asks.
“It is my nature.”
“No. We both know you are more clever than that. Try again.”
Deceit shifts again, its wings ruffling as it moves a few inches to the left on the wall “I am…unsure. There was a strange sense of concern I was attempting to address.”
Selene ponders this for a minute, then sighs and dismisses the labyrinth, holding her arm out for Deceit to land on. “Alright, I might have an idea. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.”
Deceit nods, landing comfortably on her offered arm.
“Melanadahl and I were becoming friends. You and I are friends. Up until this point, you and I were each others only friends, from what I understand. You should know that I am hoping to make several friends, since I will be staying here, however. I quite like the company of people, once I am sure they have no ill intentions towards me. I would be incredibly upset if you did something cruel to people that do not deserve it. I would, however, also be incredibly upset to lose you as a friend.”
Deceit nods once more, still listening while Selene adjusts her arm to make eye contact with him
“Whether or not I form friendships with other people will not change the friendship you and I have. It does not lessen it in any way, and I still care for you just as I had before meeting Melanadahl. There is no need to be cruel, you are better than that. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I am sorry for any grief I may have cause you.”
Selene sighs and places a soft kiss to the top of Deceits head. “I forgive you. Please do not do it again.”
Selene wakes up then, leaving Deceit alone in the dreaming to contemplate their discussion.
Deceit ponders the matter of friendship, at some length, even after Selene has woken.
The Great Aspect joins in these ponderings, somewhat. But mostly, they are Deceits own prerogative. It knows full well that there is no limit to the potential of emotion in the world. Sentiments of attachment, fondness, connection… these things can be as unending as a lifetime.
But, it thinks, there is also a limitation to how much time can be divided between one person and others. How much attention. The Great Aspect can be both Fear and Deceit, but the bulk of his mind can only be with one of them. Likewise, Fear and Deceit are connected, but when their connection is strongest with one another, it tends to drift away from the Great Aspect.
Deceit ponders this, and reaches, unthinkingly, for Fear as it does.
Priorities, they think. That is what they were concerned of. Concerned for. To no longer be of priority; though Selene has assured Deceit that it would not lose its valued position, she cannot know that. What if she should meet someone she likes better than them? What if she should spend less time, less thought, less attention upon Deceit, or the Great Aspect, or Fear?
Fear opines that Selene does not care very much for it to begin with.
It prefers this state of being, however. That which is never had cannot be lost. Fear is more comfortable with the distance between them, and would be more comfortable once over again if it had been maintained between the Great Aspect and Selene, too. But it knows that it is too late, know. They have made a connection, and it is dependant upon another person; and as always, that is a vulnerability.
Mother would not be pleased.
Our daughter is, though.
Fear had taken its time in connecting with Mana’Din, too. They wonder if it will grow closer to Selene, or manage to keep its lofty perch where she is concerned. Selene has plenty of fear in her, they know. Merited; as their daughter’s has been merited. As Dirthamen’s own has been.
Many of Fear’s cousin spirits have grown fat off of them over the years.
Selene goes back to the workshop, and seems pleased with the resolution of events. She speaks with Melanadahl, and with Innovation, and is permitted to handle the containment field for the sliver of chaos energy that they had obtained. It is empty, but still.
Deceit wings back into the Waking world, and lingers amidst the workshop rafters, quiet as they watch Selene interact so closely with someone so dangerous. She asks a question about the containment field, low and curious and thoughtful.
“You have been trying to solve the matter of the radiant energy waves by using them to help power the field, correct?” she asks Melanadahl, who nods in confirmation; he is busy examining the current structure’s cracks, attempting to anticipate when and why the fields keep breaking, and discover the root of the weakness.
“But the energy fluctuations are not consistent. How have you been compensating?” Selene wonders.
“Simple. We mapped the irregularities in the radiant patterns, and when one is liable to happen, the field draws energy from the Dreaming instead,” Melanadahl explains.
“Can I see your equations for that?” Selene asks, eyes narrowing.
Melanadahl procures them for her, as one of the project assistants arrives, and a busy rush of bodies begin preparing for the necessary energy transference. Deceit stares at the chaos energy sliver, and suspects it has seen what Selene has. Chaos is, by its very nature, unpredictable. If the containment experts believe they have found a sufficient means of anticipating the lulls and spikes in its radiant energy, then they have fooled themselves.
Or, most likely, the energy itself has done the fooling.
Deceit stares at it, and ruffles its feathers a bit.
Selene was correct, it decides. It is not an unruly deception. It is not malicious. Not like little slivers of energy that want to break cracks in all the casings; though sometimes Deceit does not think the world appreciates quite how many masks are worn within it. Sometimes there is the temptation, it supposes, to slide them back; to demonstrate the truth.
But that is an easy temptation to resist.
It listens and Melanadahl begins to swear, and chortles a bit, before staying through the transference. Which is very interesting to watch.
Selene ends up remaining in the workshop well past her duty hours, afterwards. Deceit watches from the rafters as she and Melanadahl and Innovation go over her discovery. It is quickly apparent that the entire concept of utilizing the energy from the chaos sliver is unviable. It is volatile, impossible to actually predict, and storing it does not seem feasible. No containment device so far can sufficiently contain the radiant energy, however, which tends to simply build up and up unless given an outlet, until reaches the point where everything bursts like and over-filled bladder.
“We need a vent,” Innovation determines.
“We cannot just vent radiant chaos into the Dreaming,” Melanadahl protests.
“Who says the vent has to let out into the Dreaming?” Selene counters. “It is the Dreaming, not an inherent dumping ground for excess energy.”
“Most places in the Waking do not seem like better alternatives,” Innovation allows. But she is excited. This is a discovery, and so it holds new prospects for her. The air around her fairly cracks, a bit, with tiny motes of energy, as the discussion carries on until it is the small hours of the morning.
Deceit wings down from the rafters, then. It aims straight for Selene’s shoulder, and is pleased when it manages to surprise her somewhat. She jumps; though she barely does for half a second, before glancing over and absently patting its skull instead.
“No spirits in this work shop!” Innovation snaps, until she recognizes it, and then blinks. “Oh. Uh. My lord.”
“It is very late,” Deceit declares. “Your duties are done for the day, and may begin again after breakfast. Regular sleep is a requirement for all research workers since the amendments to the workers’ regulations were made eight-hundred and ninety-six years ago.”
“What time is it?” Selene wonders, stifling a yawn as she stretches a hand up into the air. Melanadahl shifts on his feet, and shares a glance with the project manager.
“It is morning,” Deceit replies. Which may be misleading; but it is some minutes past midnight, and thus not a lie.
Innovation does not require further prompting to dismiss the discussion over equations and chaos, then. She obligingly withdraws, as does Melanadahl, and Deceit escorts Selene back to her rooms.
Mostly by remaining on her shoulder as she heads for them.
Her head is loose, having come free of its bindings in a messy whirl. Deceit ponders it for a moment, before taking a few strands up in its beak and carefully threading them behind her ear.
“You were very clever,” it commends.
Selene blinks, as they reach the door to her chambers.
“Hmm?” she asks.
“You discovered the problem. You were very clever; it is a compliment,” Deceit explains, and obligingly moves onto her arm when she gestures for them to. She looks tired, now that the energy of conversation and debate is no longer crackling through the air around her.
“Thank you,” she replies, with a genuine smile. “I hope we can find a solution before Lord Dirthamen reassigns me to a different set of project workers.”
“Perhaps you will. You have unveiled the problem, though. Sometimes that is as invaluable as finding a solution,” Deceit opines. “Do you think you will find the construction aspects as interesting as the trap development?”
“Maybe?” she decides.
Deceit settles onto the back of a nearby chair, and she brushes a finger over its beak.
“I am going to change now,” she informs it, pointedly. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Deceit replies, and wings into the Dreaming once more.
The next day is spent much like the night before had been, Innovation, Selene and Melanadahl bouncing ideas and theories off of each other to find a viable solution to the ventilation concern.
Melanadahl looks over at Selene, holding his chin in his hand as he bends over the table “I asked a few spirits for places the energy could be transferred to last night.”
She spares him a quick glance before returning her attention to the various equations on the papers in front of her“Did they tell you anything useful?”
“They might have,” he responds.
Selene gives a quiet ‘hm?’ before he continues “Falon'dins old lands have a lot of already worn down areas. Some extra energy might actually be useful there.”
Innovation scoffs “Or it could make things exponentially worse.”
“It would also be a nightmare to get permissions for,” Melanadahl agrees, before looking pointedly at Selene “Normally, anyways.”
Innovation follows Melanadahls gaze, before raising an eyebrow with a soft “oh,”. Selene looks up at the unusual noise, and her gaze flits between the two of them staring at her with matching grins.
“Wait, what did you just volunteer me for?” she panics.
Melanadahl places his hand on her shoulder in a matter she supposes is supposed to be supportive but mostly just makes her flinch out of habit before he speaks “You could convince him, I bet. He certainly seems to fancy you, if your spirit friends are any indication.”
Innovation smacks the back of his head lightly “Do not go sticking your nose into matters that do not concern you, Melanadahl,” she scolds, before her voice and demeanor lighten considerably and she addresses Selene “Do you think you could possibly convince Our Lord to permit us a small section of his daughters land?”
“No, I don’t,” Selene answers.
“Sure you could,” Melanadahl smiles before wiggling his eyebrows again, the tattoos on his head swirling like snakes as his aura cloud takes on a strong tint of mischief “I’ll help you get all dolled up for him, his tongue will fall out of his skull and he’ll agree to anything you ask him for, that’s how it works.”
“What?!” Selene chokes out, her aura sparking wildly for a moment before she pulls it back in “You are insane, that is not how anythingworks, what is wrong with you?”
Melanadahl laughs “I think you would be the least likely to be turned down, and certain…enhancements could increase your probability of success even more, that’s all. Statistics, and all that, I’m still at work afterall.”
Selene tenses her shoulders up and prepares to lecture Melanadahl about proper and improper use of mathematics in relation to people, but Innovation speaks up before she has the chance.
“You do seem to be favored. If we could get permissions for this, it would expedite the process significantly.”
Selene groans “I am not going to go in there and ask for permission to dump excess energy into his dead brothers, and now living daughters land, especially when we don’t even have a system to get it there. What would we even do, just use a piece of a broken eluvian in the casing and create a small network just big enough for the energy to get through and eek out in small increments into some wasteland where the other piece of the network would be waiting and warded?” She pauses “Oh, wait, actually…”
They end up discussing the details and Selene manages to sketch out a rough diagram of how it would potentially work over the next few hours, and when Deceit wings through to check in on Selene before dinner, she asks it if it would be possible for her to meet with Dirthamen later that evening.
Melanadahl winks at Selene after Deceit takes its leave and she puffs out her cheeks and sticks her tongue out at him in response.
“Want me to do your hair?” he asks playfully while they eat together in the dining hall and he steals yet another piece of food off of her plate
“I hate you so much,” she responds in a deadpan before trying to slap her food out of his hand“You have access to the same things as I do, if you are hungry get your own!”
“Nah, yours tastes better,” he laughs, and takes a bite.
She is standing in front of Lord Dirthamen’s study, waiting for a signal to be allowed in now, her hair falling loose around her shoulders with just a small feathered hair pin in the back to keep it from getting out of control, and a fresh outfit worn at Melanadahls insistance.
One of the doors opens, and Selene feels a bit ridiculous as she walks in, heart pounding in her chest (for no good reason, she reminds herself), and the proposal in her hands.
Dirthamen is very pleased.
Selene wishes to see him.
This is a good thing, he thinks. There is no obvious problem that he can see motivating her request, and so perhaps she has come to him for conversation. To ask further questions about the labyrinth design process, or possibly to dine with him, as they had before.
She is only somewhat uneasy, as she moves into his office.
“My lord,” she greets. “Please forgive my interruption. But I was wondering if I could discuss a proposal with you.”
Dirthamen’s head tilts.
“Do you have a request?” he wonders. She is wearing a gown, at the moment. One of the more expensive he had given her, made of woven sapphire strands that can only be produced via a technique that is closely guarded by a handful of expert tailors. The end result is very subtle, and meant more for moonlight than normal indoor lighting, but the colour suits her imminently.
Selene clears her throat, and then passes what appears to be a very carefully written requisition and trade request towards him. It is done largely in Innovation’s hand.
“The research team has been endeavouring to find a means of containing the raw chaos element awarded to them,” she says, which he is, of course, aware of. She then proceeds to explain the situation and her proposal, along with the theoretical technique and restrictions that would need to be applied.
Dirthamen listens, and after a moment, gets up and beckons her over to the workshop side of his room. It takes him some time to retrieve the latest maps his daughter has granted him of her territory.
“You are proposing to introduce an unstable element to unstable lands,” he says, and Selene ducks her head.
“Chaos energy has many lingering unknowns. But, sometimes the unexpected can be of aid in places where it might otherwise only cause trouble…” she hesitates, and then lets out a long breath. “As Innovation explained it, the chaos energy comes form those lands to begin with.”
“Yes. I removed it myself,” Dirthamen confirms. “Falon’Din sowed much of it, inadvertently. Like a rare cultivar, unexpectedly cropping up in place of the intended stock of root vegetation. The effort to find a suitable containment method is not only meant to serve the labyrinth. Ultimately, I have hopes that such research could aid in the restoration of that territory as well.”
Selene is quiet, as Dirthamen spreads the map he has out before her. Much of the territory is still unmarked, and he knows segments of it to still be in need of updating, but the relevant areas have been denoted with large swaths of black ink.
“These are… wounds, in the Dreaming,” he explains. “Places where large amounts of death and violence occurred all at once, concurrently within the Dreaming and Waking alike. My brother’s final stand increased their number exponentially. Where the worst damage has been done, chaos energy has begun to manifest. My daughter has remained predominantly unconcerned with it, for the moment. It is too unstable for insurgent elements to make use of it, and she is not convinced that the radiant energies are inherently detrimental. But the decision of the last council was that the unknown variables are too high. Given the relative inexperience and general untrustworthiness of my daughter’s subjects, it was agreed that my own researchers would look into a solution.”
He glances at Selene, who is frowning slightly. Her eyes are fixed to the various dark points on the map.
“I had heard that Falon’Din killed many, but…” she glances towards him, and then away again. “Forgive me.”
“Apologies are not needed. It was an acknowledged atrocity,” Dirthamen tells her. Traitor.
After a moment, she lets out a breath.
“So I do not suppose venting the excess into her territory would be suitable, then,” she determines.
“Well,” Dirthamen says. “For the purposes of the labyrinth, it would not be unsuitable. And I promised my kin research; not necessarily results. We may ask my daughter herself, if you would like. She is set to be in the city of Elrevasan, in her territory, for this month. It would not be an arduous trip to make, to visit her.”
Selene looks anxious at this prospect, and somewhat disquieted.
“That - that should not be necessary,” she insists. “I would not presume upon her time. It is probably bad enough that I have taken up so much of yours with this. I can simply tell Innovation and Melanadahl that we need to figure something else out.”
“It is no trouble. She is not terribly busy at the moment,” Dirthamen says. Fear has been checking up on her.
Selene still offers some protests, but cannot seem to articulate her apprehension very well. In the end, after only a few moments more of debate, Dirthamen sweeps up her proposal, and the two of them make their way down to one of the palace eluvians. He is somewhat disappointed when they do not manage to make conversation successfully.
Mana’Din will help, he decides, as they step through the gate.
She is good with people.
This is not what she was expecting.
She had only wanted a yes or no that she could report back to Melanadahl and Innovation, and perhaps a bit of friendly conversation after, if he had had the time.
She was not expecting to be taking a trip into the remnants of Falon’dins lands herself.
Selene follows Dirthamen closely through the crossroads, nodding politely at drifting spirits who seem to take a brief interest in the pair.
If she had known this would happen, she never would have agreed to Melanadahl’s choice of clothing. Gowns were not made to be worn on trips like this, but at least she is unlikely to offend any of Mana'dins sensibilities.
Perhaps she should have done something more impressive with her hair.
Selene is thinking of how best to broach the subject of her proposal to a Leader of the People she has never met when she stumbles slightly over a loose pebble. Her hand reaches out instinctively to grab onto Dirthamens robe in an effort to keep her balance. It works, but once she straightens up she is still holding it, and he has stopped to look back at her.
Their eyes meet, and she feels for a moment she can actually see them behind his mask, wide and bright and sad. She drops the cloth immediately and apologizes profusely.
“It is no hardship,” he answers simply.
Her heart is thundering in her ears as she clutches her aura tightly to herself.
This is going to be a disaster, she thinks.
After another minute of silence, Selene decides that it is much less tense when they are speaking.
“So, Mana'din is your daughter, correct?”
Selene is…not really sure what else to ask on the subject that would not make things even more awkward (does she have a mother? is she nice? is she going to kill me on sight? does she know that I was not always one of your followers?), so she simply gives a quiet “ah,” as thanks.
They do eventually arrive at the entrance to Elrevasan, and Dirthamen takes her hand again as he leads her through the Eluvian and into the city.
It is…nice, she thinks.
Not quite so busy or built up as Dirthamen’s city had been when she had gone out, or as she remembers Sylaise’s cities being. There are no elaborate decorations or monuments, no murals depicting the great conquests of their leader, and she can’t see a single sacrificial altar. It reminds her more of the areas where her own home had been, after she was sent off on her own.
The people don’t appear to have vastly differing appearances in their clothing quality either, and most accessories she sees them wearing are simple; she feels their eyes on her as she passes at Lord Dirthamens side; he is still holding her hand.
“She should be around here somewhere,” Dirthamen tells her quietly, and Selene nods, trying her best to stay close and focus on their surroundings.
Fear drifts over their heads, and as she feels it look down at her, she offers it a cautious smile. It flies off soon after, and she sees it land near to a woman who looks…well, a bit like Dirthamen, she supposes.
She is wearing a similar style of mask and clothing, done in white rather than Dirthamen’s blacks and deep purples.
She is staring at their hands, and despite not being able to see her face Selene has the distinct feeling she may be smiling.
“Sire,” Mana’Din greets Dirthamen, before turning her full attention towards Selene.
So. This is the woman who has captured her father’s interests, then. She is very beautiful, which is no surprise. But fittingly, Mana’Din notes, and perhaps more importantly, she is striking. There is a quality of hardness, but not harshness to her. She is tall, and long-limbed, and looks like she has probably never worn a gown so fine as the one she is now wearing, and is hoping she won’t stumble unwittingly into some transgression that will and her in hot water.
And she’s holding Dirthamen’s hand.
“You must be Selene,” Mana’Din greets, and offers a nod. Anything more would probably make her own people talk, and while they would be interesting, it probably wouldn’t do Selene herself any favours. Elrevasan is a relatively quiet city, but it doesn’t lack for gossips.
“My lady,” Selene greets, and drops into the full bow.
She glances at Dirthamen, who just sort of stares back in that inscrutable way of his.
“Welcome to Elrevasan,” she offers, once Selene comes back up again. “What brings you here?”
Selene glances at Dirthamen, who makes a little ‘go ahead’ motion with his hand, and Mana’Din has to fight the urge to laugh, because as cute as that is, she’s starting to think that this entire situation has probably just been a confusing, overwhelming mess for both of these two. Not that she can blame them. Dirthamen has his troubles, and Selene is bound to have her own expectations, and confusion is bound to happen with something like this.
“Forgive me, my lady. I petitioned Lord Dirthamen with an idea that was deemed unsuitable, for one of the projects currently underway in his lands. It involved the disposal of excess energies, and it was proposed that these energies would be a good match for your territory by certain spirits. But I would not presume to suggest adding any unwanted toxicity to the terrain. Only, he felt it would be a good idea to speak to you on the topic, just the same.”
Mana’Din’s eyebrows go up.
Well… whatever reason she was expecting, it wasn’t that.
“You want to dump toxic waste into my territory?” she asks.
Selene shakes her head.
“No, my lady. It would be radiant chaos energy, but…”
“Oh, that,” Mana’Din interjects, cutting her off before she can worry that she’s caused some great offence or other. She waves a hand. “We have plenty of that. If you want to get rid of some, feel free to add to our stores. It is not doing anyone any harm.”
“The council disagrees,” Dirthamen mentions.
“And I, of course, concede to their inestimable wisdom, but since there is already so much of it anyway, we might at least keep it in one place,” she counters. Really, it’s not a problem. She half suspects Mythal’s only so worked up over it because it’s energy, and when she’s not busy using it to rip people apart and gnaw on their tasty insides, like her esteemed uncle, then who knows what she could be using it for?
Mostly it’s just been making the forests grow back at pretty decent rates, though.
She’ll call it ‘sinister’ when it does something worse.
“Tyrant!” a familiar voice calls, at that point. Mana’Din turns expectantly, as Dirthamen frowns and Selene looks slightly alarmed.
Elalas comes striding down the street, then, looking irate about something.
“You had better not be heading back to Daran yet! The protest was set to…” she trails off, as she realizes the company that Mana’Din is keeping.
“I am not going back to Daran yet, no,” she says, simply. “My father has come for a visit, and to deliver a proposal. I am sure word has reached the estate by now, but if you could, Elalas, send a runner to tell them to prepare a meeting room? I would like to hear this proposal in full, I believe.”
She turns back towards her father.
“Are you staying the night, or is this a day trip?”
Dirthamen tilts his head.
“A day trip, I believe. Selene is still undergoing training for her new duties. What is this ‘protest’?”
“A new form of civic communication,” she replies, with a shrug. “If people object strenuously to something, I want to hear about it. So I have been making sanctions to permit anonymous protests in certain regions. The first test run is set for the end of the month, but there has been some debate on whether it would be more or less helpful if I was actually present to witness it, or just received reports on it afterwards.”
“It sounds dangerous,” Dirthamen tells her. “People who oppose you would likely congregate at such a gathering.”
“I doubt it, actually,” she replies. “Not for the first one, anyway. The ones who really hate me will all think it is a trap. Mostly, so far, the interest has been in younger elves who feel as if they like other recourse for getting their voices heard.”
Elalas bows swiftly out of the conversation - Dirthamen always makes her uncomfortable, and much as she loves him, Mana’Din can’t blame her for that - and after a few minutes, she gestures for his father and Selene to follow her. A few of her usual attendants also shadow them. Just keeping watch, making sure no one does anything particularly unruly within sight of a visiting evanuris.
Selene keeps ahold of him the entire way to the estate.
They arrive at Mana'dins estate before too much time passes.
It is rather empty, Selene thinks.
Not that that’s a bad thing. The high ceilings and tall windows offer plenty of natural lighting, which is nice.
Does Mana'din have spirits that can read her mind like Dirthamen does? Selene tries to think of only positive things anyways, just in case, while they approach the readied meeting room.
It is only when Dirthamen releases her hand to sit that she realizes she must have been holding it this entire time.
She reigns in the mortification before it can escape, and attempts to focus instead on the task at hand.
She’d almost swear she hears Mana'din chuckle from underneath her mask, though.
The woman from earlier, Elalas, Selene thinks, enters the room soon after and takes a seat beside Mana'din. Selene glances briefly at Dirthamen, who nods reassuringly to her. She takes a deep breath and stands, her fists clenching and unclenching nervously at her side as she speaks, explaining the full details of their plans for the ventilation system so far and only occasionally tripping over her words.
“…and so, it would not be a constant stream into your lands, my Lady, but only the excess that our own designs are unable to feasibly contain in its bursts, my Lady. Thank you, my Lady.” she finishes, all but collapsing from nerves back into her seat.
‘This isn’t even my project. Melanadahl can wear the gown next time’ Selene thinks bitterly.
Mana'din nods, while Elalas drums her fingers slowly on the table in front of her.
“Thank you, Selene,” Mana'din comments “Elalas, would you please take her to the dining hall? She must be hungry after everything that’s happened today,”
Elalas sighs and stands, heading out of the room and clearly expecting Selene to follow “Of course, Mana'din,”
Selene looks nervously over at Dirthamen who gives her a small wave towards Elalas in a 'yes its fine’ manner, and she stands to follow Elalas out of the room, closing it carefully behind her.
Once the two have left, Mana'din removes her mask, leaning back in her chair and staring at her father “She managed to call me 'my lady’ no less than 50 times in the span of 20 minutes. Is everything all right?”
Dirthamen sighs “I believed so. She approached me herself, and was significantly less nervous when she did so,” he tilts his head “Do people find you so intimidating?”
Mana'din shrugs “So I’m told. The proposal is interesting though. I’ll want to take a look at the finalized containment wards before giving it a full approval, but otherwise it seems fine to me.”
“You are concerned the energies will run loose?”
“No, I am concerned some of my people will attempt to steal or sneak their way through the path, which could potentially cause them harm.”
Dirthamen nods; his daughter is much more competent at predicting her peoples actions than he is.
He spares a glance towards the door anyways, and Mana'din smiles “She will be fine. Elalas will keep an eye on her,”
“She has a talent for getting into trouble unexpectedly, and as I recall Elalas once tried to kill you herself,”
She waves her hand dismissively “That was a long time ago, stop focusing on the past. Elalas is a trusted member of my council, and my lead Advisor. I’m very interested in hearing about Selene getting into trouble, however.”
Dirthamen recounts the story of Selene’s encounter with the Magic Resistant cat, and Mana'din listens attentively, even as Dirthamen informs her of the fate of the woman who had left the door unlocked.
“Does Selene know that the first runner is being punished for harming her?”
“That is not why she is being punished,”
Mana'din sighs “So that’s a no. It is good that you have found someone to care for, father, but be careful not to let it cloud your judgments.”
Dirthamen considers his daughters advice carefully “Thank you.”
She smiles at him, and stands, refitting her mask “You are welcome. Shall we go make sure they’re getting along?”
Dirthamen nods “Yes,”.
Perhaps they will even be able to share a meal all together. He thinks that would be pleasant.
Elalas is having dinner. With Mana’Din. And Mana’Din’s corrupt despotic father who once branded her as his own property. And Mana’Din’s corrupt despotic father’s…
Actually, she has no idea.
The meal is rife with awkward silences, as Mana’Din attempts to make conversation, and Dirthamen stares off into space, and Seluna - Silene? - occasionally blurts ‘my lady’ whilst being addressed, and looks even more uncomfortable than Elalas feels.
Which is impressive.
The private dining chamber is not all that large, but somehow it feels massive with just for people in it. Even when two of them are heretical overlords. And there seems to be an uncommon rustling coming from the general vicinity of the ceiling at regular intervals.
A black feather drifts slowly down to the floor.
Dirthamen stares at his fork.
“So. Elalas. What do you think of Selene’s proposition for an energy redistribution system that would connect between our territories?” Mana’Din asks.
“People will try and climb up it,” she says, almost immediately.
“I was thinking we could put most of it or at least some of it in the Dreaming,” Selene says, shifting in her seat. “My lady.”
Wait, did she just called ‘my lady’?
That is… vaguely nauseating.
“Do not address me with a title. I only have this job because it is better than the alternatives, and someone needs to keep the current regime from turning into a complete shithouse,” she says.
Selene blinks, and glances at Mana’Din, and then at Dirthamen. Who is still staring at his fork. Elalas looks at it for a minute, too. There is some fancy design work on it, she can concede. Very intricate. Their premier silversmith is getting pretty good. Though, that probably means he’ll be shipped off to Arlathen soon, to go and help sell the idea that they’re territory is producing more than just dissidents and blue dye.
Elalas cannot see why they should not be proud of their chief exports, though.
Mana’Din just shrugs.
“I suppose you two are peers, anyway. My father has given you a high rank, has he not?” she asks Selene, who looks a little green around the gills about that whole concept, in particular.
Elalas might just end up liking this one.
She would not have called that, based on the dress.
“If we put some of it in the Dreaming, that will make it more dangerous. That will cut back on the smart people but the smart people have started to figure out that there is not much impediment to leaving anyway. Except for the fact that their options are going to the Nameless, taking their chances in Ghilan’nain’s wilds, or trying their luck in your neck of the woods,” she reasons. “It is the idiots we have to worry about. Especially the young ones. They will only see something like that as an extra challenge, not a deterrent.”
Selene blinks at her.
“How many young people do you have?” she wonders.
“Plenty,” Elalas tells her. “And plenty newly-embodied, though that is not always much better than freshly-grown. Can we put the whole thing in the Dreaming?”
Selene seems to ponder this, but after a few moments, shakes her head.
As the discussion carries on, the power woman finally seems to unclench a little. Elalas can appreciate being terrified of Mana’Din, though it’s been a while since she has been.
Interestingly, as Selene seems to unclench, Dirthamen decides to spend less time staring at his spoon, and more time carefully handing her dinner rolls and little pieces of paper to write notes down on, and even pens. Elalas blinks at the surreal quality of watching the woman run out of available table space, and then start to use the back of Dirthamen’s chair to illustrate how she thinks they could disguise the tunnel opening; and then realize that she’s almost writing on the Despotic Evil Overlord, and stutter a bit, and use her knee instead.
She glances at Mana’Din, as Dirthamen just blinks and somehow produces another piece of paper.
This is… starting to illuminate some things, she supposes.
Mana’Din, for her part, just seems to be very interested in what Selene is talking about.
“I have no idea what half of this means,” her illustrious leader finally concludes, gathering up all the new bits of paper. “But I know someone who will.”
“I. Um. I could put that in a… neater report,” she offers.
“No need,” Mana’Din says with a wave. She stands up, then, and Elalas lets out a breath, as whatever’s in the ceiling finally takes a hike, and Dirthamen follows suit.
As the tyrant family members start saying their goodbyes, she edges her way over towards Selene.
“Nice to meet you,” she offers.
“Oh. It was very nice to meet you, too!” the other woman offers, and actually manages a smile. The air around her is appreciably quiet and contained, though.
Elalas sighs, and nods her out.
She supposes that if it comes to it, she can keep an eye on this one, too, from time to time.
Never know who might need an escape route one day.
The journey back to Dirthamen’s castle feels shorter than the trip to his daughters lands.
Selene is grateful.
They end up back in his study before long, discussing the changes made so far to the initial plans and what it may mean for adjusting the time frame of completion.
Dirthamen nods and closes the doors to the study behind them
“I will discuss the matter with Innovation,”
Selene frowns slightly “Oh? I could do that instead, if you wanted.”
“You may if you wish, but your training in construction begins tomorrow,”
She reigns in her disappointment before it can escape; she had entirely forgotten that her month was over.
Dirthamens head tilts as he steps towards her “Are you unhappy?”
Selene bunches the fabric of the gown at her side briefly before releasing it, afraid of causing any damage to it “No, my Lord. I am very grateful for the opportunities you have been presenting me with, of course.”
Dirthamen is quiet then, for a time, and Selene waits until Deceit and Fear have both flown off before politely excusing herself as well.
“How was your date?” She hears someone chuckle from a dark corner in the hallway. Melanadahl steps out from behind a pillar, smiling broadly “Was it a wild success? Did he take you someplace romantic and ravish you until you forgot your own name?”
Selene rolls her eyes at his antics but continues her walk back to her room “Is everyone here a spy?”
Melandahl shrugs and catches up to her, matching her pace “Depends on how loosely you define the term I suppose. I also notice that that wasn’t a no.”
“No, then,” Selene answers definitively. “We went to speak with Mana'din about the project, that’s all.”
Melanadahls eyebrows shoot up and his tattoos swirl happily around the crown of his head “Really? Did she approve it?”
Selene gestures loosely with her hand “Eeehhh….Maybe? She’s having someone take a look at a few things before she agrees to the methods, but she doesn’t seem to actually mind you dumping the energy back into her lands. She’s mostly concerned people will try to travel through it and get injured,”
Melanadahl shrugs “They’d just end up in the labyrinth if they did, who cares?”
Selene frowns at him and bumps her shoulder into his “I care. You should care. They could be killed if they did,”
“Well yeah, but that’s the point, right?”
Selene pauses, and Melanadahl keeps going for a few steps before he stops and turns to face her, his hands casually resting atop his head. “Look, I don’t know how things worked wherever you came from-which wasn’t the outskirts because I checked you little liar-but here, people running away from those they pledged themselves to is supposed to be punishable by death. So if a few traitors die because they were stupid enough to run into a labyrinth, who cares? The energy it’ll gather from them will help keep it running and make it less of a strain on our own resources. It’s a good thing.”
“It’s not a good thing, those are people,”
“People whose energy would be worth more than they are,” he rebutts “Look, I know you’ve got this whole bleeding heart thing going on, and that’s fine, endearing even, but the truth of the matter is, all this stuff you’ve been working on with us? It’s just more and more creative ways to kill people. And as long as we’re on this side of things, we’re safe. The people who get sent inside aren’t worth us even bothering to make sure they can eat. If they manage to survive, great, they’ve proven themselves and then they can reap their rewards. But most of the time, it’s just a matter of waiting for them to die at the whim of our Great and Illustrious Leader. That’s just how things work here.”
Selenes eyes narrow and her fists clench angrily at her sides “Is this why you made me present the proposal, even though it’s yourproject?”
“You were never in any danger. He’s sweet on you, even if he doesn’t know it yet. If he disapproved, or got angry, he wouldn’t take it out on you. If I upset him, there’s a high probability I’d be sent into a labyrinth again myself. I saw a high-reward opportunity with a low-risk path, and I took it. You can’t tell me it really ended so badly for you?”
Selene steps towards Melanadahl and pokes at his chest, yelling angrily “People are not fuel, they are not playthings, and they are not tools to be used to further your projects!”
“You are incredibly naive if you really believe that,” he laughs, and surprises her, pulling her into a tight hug “How adorable,”
Selene panics at the sudden contact and squirms violently in an attempt to get out of his grip “It is not adorable, it is called having common decency now put me down!” she is practically screaming by the end of it as he promptly releases her with a hearty laugh.
“Sure, whatever you say, sweetheart.” He smiles and pats her shoulder gently “Well, I’ll miss your optimism in the workshop. Feel free to drop by anytime you’d like, and I’ll be more than happy to catch you up on whatever you miss, if you’re interested. Or we could meet outside of the workshop. My rooms are fairly large, and I have a private bath.”
“No, I don’t think so.” Selene answers, her hand still in a tight fist at her side.
Melanadahl shrugs “Alright.” he steps off down a split in the hallway, and waves at her “See you at lunch tomorrow then,”
Selene nods in response, not trusting her tongue right now and makes her way to her own room as quickly as she is able. She lets out a tense sigh and her shoulders slump once she is safely inside. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and scowls, practically tearing off the gown and drawing herself a warm bath of her own. She slips in, closing her eyes and considers Melanadahls words carefully.
Well, tomorrows a new day, at least.
The first few weeks after Selene switches over the construction side of labyrinth design, she begins spending more time with Deceit.
Deceit likes this.
She does not spend as much time with Melanadahl, though her duties prove immensely distracting at first anyway. Her overseer and tutor in the practical end of design is Renafas; an elf who is notoriously one of Dirthamen’s most beautiful subjects, and a repeated source of lamentation for those who feel she should have gone into attendant or pleasure work rather than requesting her current position in the menial labour branch. She is, however, very good at her tasks; though Selene does not seem to find her as easy to converse with as the research team she was first partnered with.
Deceit is glad for this, as well. Many elves, upon first meeting Renafas, make some attempt at courtship or commit to an overture, or abandon their current friendships in hopes of devoting more time and energy to winning the chief labourer into their beds. Selene does not seem inclined towards this, however. For the first week, she primarily just works, and then sleeps, and her mind goes dark with exhaustion, until finally Renafas reduces her workload to something approaching the more typical standards, and things begin to improve.
And Deceit has Selene’s near-exclusive attention once more, beyond the province of necessary duties. She checks in with the Great Aspect, and offers new thoughts and questions, and takes well to the learning process of this situation. And she eats her lunch alone, as her hours change, going back to a state much like the one she was in when she first arrived.
Sometimes, Deceit swoops down from the rafters, and takes on elven form, and sits with her. She seems to welcome that; so after a few days, it makes a habit of it. It does not require food – and indeed, can only pretend to eat it – but sometimes it tries things, if she suggests them. It is all very well and good.
But when schedules shift, once more, as a different part of the labyrinth requires work that draws later hours, Deceit fully expects her to accept Melanadahl’s offer to have lunch with him.
It is surprised when Selene turns the man down.
It flutters towards her, afterwards, and settles into the lone bench across from her.
“Are you no longer friends with Melanadahl?” it wonders.
Selene blinks at the question, obviously a little surprised. After a moment, she frowns, and looks down at her plate. Then she glances towards the elf in question, before shrugging her shoulders.
“It is… complicated,” she decides. “I think we still can be. But, I am… not happy with him. And he keeps reminding me why I’m not happy with him.”
Deceit considers this.
After a few moments, Selene draws in a breath.
“But! At least that means I can spend more time with you,” she muses.
“I like spending time with you,” it affirms, and this answer seems to please her.
But the matter preys upon it.
Reasonably, it should not. It is purely advantageous, it thinks, to have Selene’s near-exclusive attention. And yet, Deceit is distracted by this matter; and the Great Aspect is distracted in turn; and Fear opines that Melanadahl has frightened Selene, which is not good. They wonder if they should punish him for that. But they do not know what he has done to frighten her, and it might not actually be a punishable offense. And they have erred enough – Deceit especially – by behaving in impetuous fashions over the matter of her attention.
Besides which, Deceit recalls Selene explaining to it that she likes having many friends. Many people to interact with. It recalls, also, how much she would often risk in trying to interact with others before. Back when she kept her little healer’s hut, in Sylaise’s service.
The next day, at lunch, Deceit wings down and takes its seat with Selene.
“You know,” it says. “If you are nervous of spending time with others, I will be here. Or Fear will. We would not let anything unwelcome happen to you.”
Selene hesitates, a piece of flaky pie halfway up to her mouth.
“What brought that on?” she wonders.
“It simply seems worth mentioning. We do not watch you purely for voyeuristic purposes. I am here because you are my friend. If you would like to sit with others, I can sit with you, still. I need not even be recognizable as Deceit to them. There are forms I can take that they will recognize as various mid-ranking elves and servants. Not that I impersonate others – though I can – but I have several such forms. Like this one.”
As Selene watches, Deceit dissuades the rest of the elves in the room from taking not of them by way of a subtle spell, and then transforms from its usual elven form to a different shape entirely. An elf slightly shorter than Selene herself, plain and unremarkable-looking, with eyes like dull ditchwater and mouse brown hair, middle-tone skin and unquestionably neutral features. Blood writing scrawled upon its face, and a servant’s plain clothes upon its frame.
Selene takes in the change.
“I am Sairal. A pleasure to meet you,” Deceit says, in a voice higher than its usual one, and bows slightly.
“Sairal?” Selene asks.
“One of many aliases. I do not use them often, these days. But once, my duties included examining our subjects for Falon’Din’s infiltrators, or those who might be selling secrets to the Nameless,” Deceit explains. “Sairal is not known for friendliness, and is often being re-stationed. However, perhaps you might charm him into dining with you on occasion.”
Deceit wonders if this is the right kind of offer to make.
After a few more moments of examining them, Selene promises to consider it.
She does indeed consider Deceit, or rather Sairal’s, offer.
She decides to try it, for a day. Lunch goes rather the same as it had been when they were Deceit, although there is much less side-eyeing done by the others that are dining in the hall.
Except for one.
Melanadahl is waiting for her when she emerges from her room the next morning, with a wrapped box in his hand.
Selene raises her eyebrows at him skeptically, and attempts to side step him, but he glides smoothly into her path.
“Ah, my fair maiden. I was hoping you would grace me with your presence once more, on your day of rest.”
“No thank you,” Selene says dismissively.
“I got you a present,”
“As an apology, of course,”
“And a bribe?”
“That’s a much uglier term for it don’t you think?”
Selene rolls her eyes and attempts to move past him again, but he grabs her wrist and twirls her around until she is pressed against the wall. She works very hard to tamp down on her rising panic before it can spill out, and Melanadahl begins to speak in low, hushed tones.
“Why are you eating with Sairal?”
Selene blinks. “…what?”
“Sairal. You were sharing lunch yesterday. It’s a bad sign, for you. We can go someplace private to have this conversation, if you need,”
She blinks again, definitely not following Melanadahls train of thought and just sort of numbly nods. He wraps his arm comfortably around her waist and leads her through a series of passages, rambling on casually until they reach a warded room behind a hidden wall, where he releases her.
“Did they approach you?”
Melanadahl sighs “Sairal. Did they approach you, or did you suck them in with your bleeding heart thing?”
“Does…it matter?” She asks hesitantly
“It does if you’re Nameless, or from the Forgottens,”
Selene blinks. Blinks again. “Are you worried about me?”
“Sairal is not a threat to me, I promise.” Selene says, trying not to laugh at the situation.
“Your backstory doesn’t clear, you’re new, and you’re going through some high-level projects. Your given rank won’t actually matter if you’re revealed,” he frowns.
Selene does laugh at that “You think I’m actually from one of those territories?”
“It makes the most sense,”
“It really doesn’t.”
Melanadahl sighs. “Whatever. Look, just wear the necklace, ok?” he says, tossing the box at her.
She catches it, untying the box and lifting the pendant out. It is simple looking, a small circular crystal on the end of a leather cord. She holds it up, watching the colors change in the light and realizing the patterns actually look a bit familiar… “Did you enchant this with some of the chaos energy?”
He shrugs “Just a bit. Enough to give you a kick in an emergency, not enough to hurt you if it gets loose. The casing should hold though, but if it doesn’t, let me know and I’ll make you a new one.”
“What kind of emergency do you think I would need this for?”
He runs his hand over his scalp nervously, “It’s not common knowledge, or something we talk about, but sometimes people are infiltrators for Our Lord, looking for troublemakers and the like. They are one of them. If Sairal decides you are a traitor, and Our Lord decides to send you into the labyrinth, you can channel it when you get near one of the chaos traps. The energies should seek each other out, and you can use the vent to escape to Mana'dins, and catch a boat or something back to your lands from there.”
“I am not from outside the territories,” Selene sighs.
“Fine, whatever, keep your secret then. But wear the necklace, just in case. I know Sairal seems harmless enough, but the people they show an interest in tend to disappear. Be careful.”
Selene eyes the necklace, and does eventually slip it over her head. It’s actually rather comfortable.
Melanadahl grins when she puts it on. “Well, now that you’ve accepted my courting gift,and we’re all alone…”
Selene immediately moves to take off the necklace and he puts his hands up in mock surrender “Kidding! Kidding. I mean, if you change your mind let me know, but there’s no…stigma, around the gift. Consider it a thank you, for helping with the project.”
Selene slowly releases the cord again, and nods “Well. Thank you for the necklace then.”
“Friends?” he asks, holding out his hand and wiggling his fingers playfully.
Selene eyes him cautiously, before holding her own out for him “Friends. When you’re not being an ass.”
He shrugs “Yeah, that’s fair.”
Work on the labyrinth is progressing well, Dirthamen thinks.
He is not certain how much of this he can attribute directly to Selene. It seems to him that things have improved, thanks to her involvement, but perhaps that is also because he finds himself sparing more attention for the particulars of the project. As he tends to spare more attention for her, in general.
Construction does not seem to suit her as well as research and development had, but she agrees with him that understanding the fundamentals of the situation is vital. This is all well and good, and perfectly within acceptable norms.
Deceit is… concerning.
Dirthamen ponders the matter one evening as he sits in his study. For the past few weeks, Deceit has been accompanying Selene to various meals and locations in its guise as Sairal. This is not unusual, but it feels… different, somehow. Deceit’s assessments are changing, Dirthamen suspects. It is not corruption, which is good; the last time they erred too close to that mark was shortly before he found Mana’Din, and their countenance was very disjointed before they found the motivation to regain their focus. That issue had been Fear’s, though.
Perhaps it is different with Deceit. More and more Dirthamen finds their thoughts… not conflicting, but coming in independent intervals.Conferring seems to require more conscious effort.
It could simply be the extra focus required for Deceit to maintain it’s form, and hold conversations, and digest the information it is receiving, however.
Dirthamen happens upon no clear solution before morning, anyway, when Selene arrives to offer her report for the week. She is dressed in her working clothes, which are very sturdy and warm, and water repellent. The blue fabric suits her. It is not common for her to wear adornments with this outfit, however, given that its purpose is to resist indelicate conditions.
He frowns at her necklace.
“I was wondering about the chain of command when it comes to the application of runes. I know there is an allocation team for it but I did not think to ask anyone who they answered to before work yesterday ended, and I was wondering if supplies come from the usual…”
She trials off as Dirthamen moves closer, staring at the chain around her neck. He tilts his head, and reaches for the containment sphere, before he recalls his manners. His hand hovers just shy of it.
“What is this?” he asks.
Selene glances down, and then looks moderately abashed.
“Oh. That. Well. It was a present,” she admits.
A friend gave it to her. It is shielded, whatever it is. Very well shielded, he thinks, and he does not like what they must imply about the interior contents.
“May I see it?” he asks.
“Why?” she wonders.
“There is a potent containment field upon it,” he says. “If it is unstable, that could prove dangerous.”
After a few moments, Selene removes the necklace, and hands it to him. Dirthamen examines it carefully. The containment work has been done well, and there has been some effort at artistry to disguise the distinctive energy within. But it does not take him long to deduce that it is chaos magic. He has known many elves to make finery from unlikely sources; still, this is somewhat exemplary specimen in that regard.
“It is chaos magic,” he notes.
“Just a little bit,” Selene replies.
There are few people who could have managed this. Selene herself might have, he thinks, but he cannot parse her motivations for doing so. She does not seem the type to enjoy dangerous adornments, and her schedule has been very full. Which leaves the likeliest other candidates as individuals working on the project. Melanadahl or Innovation, perhaps. Her socializations with both seems to have waned since her reassignment.
Dirthamen makes an educated guess.
“Melanadahl has been appropriating raw materials without obtaining necessary permissions,” he surmises.
Selene’s face falls.
“He did not mean any harm by it, I am certain. It was excess energy that would have gone into Mana’Din’s territory otherwise,” she insists.
Dirthamen considers this. It is a breach of rules, but his judgement where Melanadahl has been concerned has been… questionable, of late. He has overlooked minor infractions of this nature before. Yet he finds himself compelled to investigate further. To call the elf in question into his study, and demand he dismantle his creation, and apologise for risking Selene’s safety with such frivolity. But is that because it would be the responsible thing to do, or because he is upset that Selene has been given what would almost certainly amount to a courting gift?
He does not know.
Perhaps it would be unwise to act rashly, in that case.
He examines the container once more, before handing the necklace back to Selene.
“I would advise against wearing it at work sites. A magical explosion could compromise the containment and lead to injury,” he tells her.
“I was going to take it off after breakfast, but I forgot,” she admits. “Is… is Melanadahl in trouble for this?”
“I have not decided,” Dirthamen admits.
“What kind of permits would be necessary? Would getting the appropriate permissions retroactively help?” she suggests.
Fear is closer, now. Winging into the room, drawn by the strange situation.
“Perhaps,” Dirthamen allows, instead. “I will consider the matter. In the meantime, the runner for the labyrinth has committed another infraction, and has been confined to her chambers for the moment. Some adjustments to the layout will need to be made; she was caught attempting to steal a map of the design.”
“Oh?” Selene asks. “Is she a thief?”
“Not by reputation, prior to this incident,” Dirthamen replies. He hands the map of one of the labyrinth’s floors that was found in the servant’s possession, along with several corrections he wishes to have made, over to Selene. This will be good practice, he thinks, for her communication and coordination skills; and a fine way to assess how good she will be at her ultimate assignment.
Selene takes the papers, readily, and discusses some of his notes with him, before turning to leave. Then she hesitates.
“What rank is the runner?” she asks. “Dreaming-born or Waking-born?”
“A servant. Waking-born,” Dirthamen replies.
“So she probably knows how to read fairly well, then,” Selene muses. “But she is not likely to know the ciphers used by the labryinth’s workers. Is she a volunteer?”
“Ah. No,” he admits.
Selene purses her lips.
“So this is a punishment.”
“Yes. And an opportunity,” he reasons. Though, that last point seems somewhat more hollow as a concept than usual. He thinks of Selene, walking into that room. Injured. Nearly killed.
Displeasure leaks into his aura before he can properly subdue it. Selene blinks at him, and he turns, and heads back towards his desk.
“Please do not forget to divest yourself of the necklace,” he reminds her.
After another moment, she nods, and then takes her leave.
Convincing the construction team to adjust their plans based on Dirthamen’s newest design goes very smoothly. There are only a few questions posed to Selene, and she is actually able to answer them easily based on her previous discussions with him on the matter.
It is rather nice, and even the crew seems happy to have a clear translation of what needs to be changed and how.
Renafas and Selene are overseeing a few of the runes being placed into their slabs, Selene eagerly scribbling notes about the process into her journal, when there is a loud rumbling at the site. Renafas freezes, as Selene turns to wonder at the source.
One of the finished traps seems to have been triggered.
There is a loud, blood-curdling scream, and Selene instinctively drops everything she is holding to run towards it, Renafas calling after her as she turns first one corner, then another.
Selene tsks at herself before taking a running jump to get on top of a wall and get a better chance to locate the source of the scream. It only takes a few moments for her to spot it, and she jumps down, mentally mapping the course in her head as she runs towards it.
There is an elf with most of their right side caught in one of the more normal clamps embedded in the wall, and Selene recognizes it, thankfully, from the workshop.
“Alright, just calm down and we’re going to get you out of here, okay?” She says as she approaches them, speaking in soothing tones.
The elf is still panicking, but he seems to focus on her slightly, and nods, still shaking and attempting to yank their arm out. Selene carefully holds her hands out towards them “There you go, just focus on me,” she offers them a smile while she reaches for them.
“See? Everything is alright. Breathe for me, ok? In and out, in and out…yeah, there you go. You’re doing great, it’s going to be fine.”
Selene continues speaking to them in calm tones, placing one hand on the wall and pushing her magic into it to search for the levers and switches she knows are hidden inside of it. She asks them about their hobbies, how long they’ve been holding their current position, whatever topic she thinks might reasonably distract them. The panic in the air does dissipate, and Selene manages to release the necessary gears to ease the pressure on the elfs body enough that they are able to pull it out, slowly, while Selene holds the gears taught and keep the trap from slamming shut on them once more.
The elf laughs in relief, bending and flexing their arm to test it, and Selene focuses on resetting the pieces to their correct positions. It takes only a few minutes, and she turns to check on the elf once more, frowning at the deep bruising the clamps had caused. She offers to ease the pain until he is able to get to the proper healers, and he accepts, allowing her to hover her hands carefully over the marks as she casts a simple cooling spell to ease any additional inflammation or swelling. Once finished, she stands and leads him back down the path towards the rest of the crew.
Renafas is still watching the Rune being cast, but some tension eases out of the air when the two of them enter into her field of vision. She dismisses the other elf to go see the healers, and levels a stare at Selene.
“You ran off.”
“Ah. Yes. Sorry, I didn’t mean to dismiss the lesson or anything, I really am interested. I hope I didn’t offend you in any way,” Selene apologizes with a bow.
Renafas just shakes her head with a sigh “In any case, I am glad you are both alright. Do you know how to fill out the appropriate forms for this?”
“Ah…no, I don’t think so.”
Renafas directs Selene towards the appropriate department to help her, and she hands back the dropped journal. The paperwork is almost needlessly extensive, and ends up taking the rest of her workday to fill out correctly.
Selene yawns after she hands over the report to the appropriate channels, and opts to skip the dining hall that night in favor of revising her notes and getting some additional sleep instead.
She is working on her revisions and writing down a few questions in the journal she uses for Dirthamen when there is a knock on her door.
She stares at it for a moment before standing and cracking the door open.
Sairal is standing there with a frown.
Selene quickly opens the door fully and smiles at them “Oh, hello. You don’t normally knock. Is everything alright?”
They peek over her shoulder, as if looking for something before returning their gaze to her “You were not at dinner.”
Selene considers this for a moment, before stepping back and gesturing for them to come inside. Once she has closed the door, they shift back into their original elven form and cross their arms. “I thought I saw something claiming you went running into a labyrinth towards a triggered trap today.”
Well, so much for an early night.
Deceit does not like Selene’s latest rounds of distractions. Nor does any aspect of them know quite how to feel about Melanadahl’s actions, and their own reactions to his actions, for that matter.
But. Deceit likes this trend of visiting. And the persona of Sairal affords a somewhat easier means of expressing this approval, really, because the idea of an elf that Deceit is pretending to be holds much more context for expression than trying to ferret out their own responses from the Great Aspect and the various branches that exist between Dirthamen, Deceit, and Fear.
Sairal lounges on Selene’s couch, and through a surprisingly little amount of coaxing, manages to get her lounging with them. Resting at their shoulder, explaining about how she was not really doing anything dangerous by running towards a screaming disaster with no knowledge of the actual context… though Deceit does forward the thought to the Great Aspect that perhaps assigning some elves the official task of hauling their fellows out of misfired traps would deter Selene from taking the job on herself.
Gradually, though, Selene’s energy levels begin to wane, and she slumps downwards. Sairal brushes a hand through her hair, and then runs their touch across the back of her neck. The muscles there are tensed and strained, and when they press their thumb at the base of Selene’s neck, she groans just a little.
Sairal repeats the motion, to similar results. Then they gently rearrange things so that Selene is lying on the couch, and they are kneeling beside it. Their hands moving just carefully over the muscles in her shoulders. It is pleasantly and uncommonly tactile, and Selene is calm, as they find the places on her back that make her suck in sharp breaths, and let out long sighs, and press more firmly into their touch.
“May I lift your shirt?” they ask, after a moment.
Selene blinks at them, and then gestures to a small seam that they had failed to notice before.
“It undoes up the back,” she says.
Taking that as permission, they carefully undo the fastenings, and resume their task. Warm skin. Warm hands. Selene has some scars, they note. Tiny marks here and there. Sairal wonders how she got them, and why they remained. Too many people have hurt her, they decide. It is so easy, to hurt and be hurt. And yet it seems much more appealing to gently roll her skin beneath their hands, and know that their touch is welcome, and hear her sigh in appreciation. After a few moments, Sairal asks permission to take out her hair tie, and runs their fingers through her hair in turn. Pressing against the sensitive spots on her scalp, before drawing their touch back down towards her neck.
By the time they are finished, Selene is fast asleep. They could join her in the Dreaming, they think. But it is oddly pleasant, to know that she can fall asleep around them. That she does not feel too afraid. And the couch, despite being in her private chambers, seems oddly exposed. So after a moment, they lift Selene up, and carry her into her bedroom instead. Rolling her into the blankets and stacking cushions around her, until she seems both sufficiently covered and hidden from danger.
What danger, they do not know. They cannot name. But the thought of what might have scarred her lingers with them, as they finally leave her chambers.
And nearly walk straight into Melanadahl.
Sairal blinks, and Melanadahl stalls. They are filled with a sudden rush of distaste. What is he doing here, so late? Selene could not have invited him. She would have said as much, if she had. Perhaps he is being presumptuous. Perhaps that he thinks that because she accepted his courting gift, that now he has a right to invade her space as he pleases.
“What are you doing here?” Sairal asks, sharply.
Melanadahl’s eyes narrow.
“I could ask you the same thing. These are the chambers of a friend of mine,” he says. “What brought you to them, so late?”
There is an implication to his tone. But it is careful. Casual.
“I was enjoying Selene’s company,” Sairal says.
“And here I had the impression that Selene was skittish about that kind of thing,” Melanadahl replies, folding his arms.
Sairal is no stranger to implication, of course. Nor to subtlety. They tilt their head, and give Melanadahl a careful look over. Assessing. Drawing it out for long enough that a rare spark of unease comes into his countenance. They are good at that. At making people feel easy and uneasy, as needed.
Do we need to make him uneasy?
He is here. In the dead of night. Outside of Selene’s door.
“Fortunately, I am not interested in your impressions, Melanadahl,” Sairal decides, before leaning back against the door behind them. “What are you doing here?”
The other elf hesitates.
“Just… passing through,” he finally decides.
“Then I will not keep you from carrying on,” they decide.
After another long, quiet moment, Melanadahl moves off. Heading down the corridor. Sairal waits until he is gone, before they check the wards on Selene’s quarters, and submit the door frame to careful scrutiny. The protections are standard and should be sufficient, but…
Mana’Din’s old rooms are still unoccupied, and are among the best protected in the palace. Along with Dirthamen’s own. They had been keeping them empty in case their daughter should ever need to return to them. However, matters have kept her from visiting for overlong, and seem likely to keep her away for another few decades still. At the very least.
They confer with themselves, and decide.
They will talk to Selene about moving her in the morning.
Selene’s muscles feel spectacular when she wakes.
The smothering sensation she feel when she attempts to roll out of bed, is less so.
Hazily, she rubs her eyes, lifting one of the cushions to get a better look at it, as though it will somehow tell her why it was outside of its usual spot.
She thinks back to the previous night, and deduces that Sairal must have placed them around her as some sort of…barrier? Moat? She’s not really certain what their train of thought must have been, but it was surprisingly comfortable to sleep on.
She dresses quickly for the day, and her stomach loudly reminds her that she had skipped dinner the night before. With a sigh, she tucks a pen behind her ear and snags a journal before dashing towards the dining hall.
Melanadahl is sitting alone at a table with several boxes sitting before him. He smiles and waves her over when their eyes connect, and she drops her notebook on the table and takes a step away before he stops her.
“Where are you going?”
“To get some food. That is usually what happens here. Should I grab extra for you to steal from me?” she teases.
He smiles and points at two of the boxes before him “I already got us food. Better than what they’re serving here. I dropped into town this morning and brought some things back.”
Selene raises an eyebrow at him, but slowly takes a seat. “Oh. Thank you?”
He opens one, passing her a plate he covers with a slice of strawberry cake, a stuffed sweet roll, and a still warm croissant.
She takes a bite of the roll, and when she finds the chocolate hazelnut blend inside, she has to muffle down a sinful sounding ‘yum’, but the pleasure shows in her aura anyways, she’s sure.
Melanadahls grin grows. “Selene, we’re friends, right?”
She pauses mid-chew, but nods apprehensively after she swallows “Yes. Should I get a sign for people maybe?” she muses.
“So you would answer my questions if I asked you, yes?”
“…Theoretically, yes,” she responds, taking another bite.
“Was Sairal in your room last night?”
She visibly eases, which is…not the reaction Melanadahl had been expecting.
His grin diminishes, slightly “And you were enjoying each others company, then?”
“Well yeah, I like Sairal.” she replies casually as she licks the last of the filling off of her fingers.
She pauses then, as he levels a stare at her.
“Wait, when you say 'enjoying each others company’, you don’t mean what I mean, I think,” she amends.
“Are you having sex with the person most likely to get you killed? And if so, are you doing so willingly?” he asks bluntly.
Selene nearly chokes on her croissant.
“That. That is a very loaded question. I am not having sex with anyone, no. Neither willingly, nor unwillingly, which is a nice change of pace.”
Melanadahl looks unconvinced as he leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “So why were they leaving your room in the middle of the night?”
“Because we were hanging out together. Platonically.” she pauses for a moment as she recalls their hands on her back while she finishes the croissant “Mostly platonically, I think.”
He raises an eyebrow questioningly, but she just waves it away. “Why would you know, or care, who was leaving my room in the middle of the night anyways?” she counters.
“I was in the area and ran into them,” he shrugs. “You’re sure they weren’t doing anything untoward to you?”
“I am positive, in fact.”
“You’re unattached, then?”
“Mm-hm.” she responds, half in bliss with her mouth full of strawberries.
He smiles at her then, and pushes another stack of colorful boxes towards her. “Good to know.”
She eyes him skeptically, then looks to the boxes, and back to him. “How much food do you think I eat?”
Melanadahl laughs “Not quite that much, I’ll admit. Those aren’t food, though some parts are edible,” he winks.
She puts down her fork and places her chin in her hand “Uh-huh. What is all this, then?”
“Courting gifts. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely confident what your preferences are for things that aren’t food, so I bought an assortment of items for you that I thought you’d enjoy. Baubles, mostly, in the red ones. I think I’ve gotten a feel for your tastes, but I hope you won’t be offended if I missed the mark with something. Keep as much as you’d like, it’s all paid for already.”
“No, thank you.” Selene says promptly, moving to stand.
“You haven’t even looked at anything yet,” he frowns.
“I’m not interested. Give it to one of your partners.”
“I don’t think they’d be interested in this sort of thing. It’s a fairly specific bundle of items.”
Selene stares him down until he puts his hands up in surrender “I’m just saying. I don’t think you’d want some of these items falling into someone elses hands.” he picks up one of the smaller brown boxes and hands it to her “Please. Open them. Keep them. You don’t have to give me an answer, I don’t even really expect one anytime soon. I know you’ve had a rough time. I’m just trying to help you.”
Selene sighs before relenting, sitting down in the chair next to him and slowly opening the package.
Her breath catches in her throat.
“Is this…” she continues in as hushed a tone as she can manage with her voice cracking “Is this a threat?”
Melanadahl shakes his head “No, these are yours. Or, rather, technically they were your mothers. When you 'died’ your things were sent back to them. It was quite a pain to track, but she seemed glad to be rid of them. Painful memories of a lost child, I suppose.”
Selene swallows around the lump in her throat as she runs her fingers over the cover of her old notebook, from back when she was in Sylaise’s service.
“How long have you known?”
“Just since yesterday. It clicked when I heard about your actions in the labyrinth and remembered a recent ceremony my family assisted with for someone who matched your description. The timelines matched. I was going to speak with you about it, but your doorway was more crowded than I had been expecting.”
Selene just nods, gazing at the extensive pile of still unopened boxes on the table. “So all of this is…?”
“Yours. To keep, or destroy as you see fit. I won’t tell anyone. The brown boxes are the more personal items. The red ones are things I picked out.”
Selene sighs “How was this supposed to convince me to agree to a courting?”
“I had hoped it would prove you could trust me,” Melanadahl answers, leaning against the table to hold eye contact “But I get that that’ll take a bit more time. I can wait.” he glances back over the pile “I could help you carry these back to your room, if you’d like.”
Selene flips idly through the notebook, her stomach flipping giddily at the familiar scents that pour out of it as the pages turn. “Yeah, alright.”
She stands then, and he gives her a stack of the smaller boxes to carry while he takes the larger one “I’ll follow you,” he smiles.
When Selene arrives in Dirthamen’s offices in the morning, after the early meal has passed, she seems somewhat distracted.
But his proposition that her rooms be rearranged does manage to catch and hold her attention, where other topics appear to be failing.
“Why would I need to be moved?” she wonders. The faintest note of apprehension joins her genuine confusion.
“There is a set of chambers that have been empty for some time, and are situated more conveniently to various elves whom you will be working with,” Dirthamen replies, somewhat misleadingly. “It is in a wing of the palace that houses many project managers and distributors, when they are not overseeing various sites. It will be easier for you to gain access to them with such proximity. And there are plans to renovate the part of the palace which you are currently living in.”
He does not mention how recent these plans are.
Selene is still distracted enough that he does not, it seems, need to worry that her usual shrewdness will unravel some portion of this explanation. Perhaps it is unbefitting of him to be evasive, but though he is uncertain as to why, he feels confident that she would experience a stressful reaction to the prospect of being given Mana’Din’s old chambers. Especially considering her somewhat baffling apprehension towards his daughter.
“If it is more convenient,” she agrees.
Dirthamen inclines his head.
“I will have the chambers made suitable for your inhabitation, then,” he decides. His daughter’s things can be moved, and she will be informed of the change. He suspects she will not be displeased. “They should be ready by tomorrow. Some servants can relocate your things while you are attending your duties, and either Fear or Deceit will show you to them in the evening.”
Selene shifts, slightly, on her feet.
“I would like to move my belongings myself, if possible,” she requests, instead.
“Why?” he wonders.
She clears her throat, and makes an odd, aborted gesture. Then she shrugs.
“I just… would prefer it.”
He supposes there is no reason to deny the request, even if he does not understand it. He inclines his head. There should not be anything perilously heavy among her possessions, at least.
“You may use your leisure time for it, then.”
“Thank you,” Selene replies, and lets out a breath. She also smiles, which is quite pleasant.
The conversation turns back towards matters of the labyrinth, then, and her increasing education and familiarity with the systems in place seems to be having a substantial impact. Their debriefing stretches overlong into lunch, at which Deceit returns from their investigations of a new spirit birth in the Dreaming, and joins them as Sairal.
A form that aspect has been taking more and more, to interesting effects. Fear is wary of the possible consequences, but it is Fear’s province to be wary. Dirthamen finds he is more intrigued. He has often contemplated investigating avenues of life that were closed to him thanks to the circumstances of his origins, and the particulars of his nature. Moreso when it was only himself and Falon’Din, and some part of him had wondered if it would be possible to… distance himself from the inevitability of his brother. But then Mana’Din had come, and the prospect had seemed less important than attending to his responsibilities.
Now, though. Deceit seems set upon an unexpected deviation. They communicate with one another as they also discuss things with Selene, who seems somewhat flustered. She glances at Dirthamen, and he realizes that these glances seem to correlate with Deceit’s increasing physical familiarity with her. When they take her hand, or brush their fingers across her cheek, until she catches their wrists and lowers it in a dissuading fashion.
Even acceptable public displays of affection are not suiting her, in that case. They should, perhaps, reserve them for private areas.
Sairal has chambers, of course, to aid in the deception of their existence. But perhaps those should be moved closer to the wing where Selene will now be housed. Or… cohabitation could be considered.
Dirthamen and Sairal lock glances.
No. Selene values her privacy, and would likely not appreciate such a suggestion. Not at this point, anyway. Deceit is unwilling to risk her displeasure; they are nervous over Melanadahl. It is Selene’s discretion to choose who she will spend time with, of course, but they do not wish to infuriate or upset her into favouring him, either. They are still deliberating over the true ramifications of his motives and actions, and they are jealous of her time and attention. Deceit thinks they should offer her gifts. Not necessary things, as they have been doing, but frivolities. They are mentally compiling a list, based on what they had observed of her tastes when she lived in Sylaise’s territory.
Some minutes are spent debating the appropriateness of a solid gold alchemy set.
At length, though, Selene must leave to tend to her duties. Sairal goes with her, and Dirthamen turns his attention back to other, pressing matters of administration.
He is locked in the midst of this when Fear catches a thread of interest, and begins to follow it. Dirthamen only spares a modest amount of attention for the pursuit. Such things are common, and his attention is divided among his thoughts enough as it is anyway. But at length, Fear makes it known that something of interest has been uncovered.
A Spirit of Mourning has been intimidated into revealing that Selene’s mother gave away her possessions. Or at least some of them. And not the usual method of practical re-distribution of resources, but through an illicit black market dealer who had been contracted to obtain such things. This is worry. Dirthamen still in his actions, and narrows his eyes.
Find the dealer, he commands.
If someone is expressing an interest in the Selene known to have died in Sylaise’s territory, he wants to know why.
The work day goes by uneventfully, although it seems as though an entire floor has now been completed on the labyrinth. It’s impressive to see, and despite her curiosity, Selene resists the urge to go wandering through it.
On the way to the dining hall, Sairal falls into step with Selene, taking her hand in theirs. She sighs, but allows it as they continue. Melanadahl is waiting at a table, and waves to Selene with a smile, another small box sitting before him. His smile temporarily drops when he catches sight of their joined hands, but he recovers quickly, kicking out two chairs before him and refitting his grin.
“Good to see you, Selene,” he nods “Sairal.”
Sairals hand tightens briefly on Selenes and she releases her grip in response, dropping her journals at her seat. “Good to see you too, Melanadahl. I’m just going to get some food. I’ll be right back,” she announces, and takes her leave.
Sairal stands next to the empty chair, and stares down Melanadahl.
“What is in the box?” they ask.
Melanadahl just offers a shrug “None of your business, really.”
They tense, but remain in the guise of Sairal. No need to make a scene in such a public area over something that may be harmless.
Selene returns quickly and takes her seat, and only then does Sairal sit beside her. She eats quickly, as the tension at the table is uncomfortable and practically visible in the air around them.
“So, how was your day?” Melanadahl asks. Selene answers, listing off a few of the non-specifics that she’s permitted to mention outside of the work sites, and her opinions of them. Melanadahl engages with her about them, while Sairal sits beside her, his thumb rubbing the back of her hand in her lap idly.
Once that particular topic seems to have run dry, Melanadahl offers the box to Selene.
She glances at Sairal first, and then quickly back to the box.
Concerning, they think.
Melanadahl just nods and she takes the box with a sigh.
Sairal is rather upset they did not think of it first, when they see what is inside, and hear Selene’s quiet gasp.
It is a particularly ornate pen. Nothing overtly flashy, but there are many complex runes embedded in the shaft, done in a gold script over the obsidian stone used for the pen itself. There is a pearl placed at the top, and they recognize the design as one from June’s territories, where it does not need to be dipped, and running your fingers over the runes in a particular order can even change the color of the ink.
It is upsettingly perfect for her, they think.
“Do you like it, then?” Melanadahl asks, breaking the silence.
Selene nods, experimenting with the pen on (what had been) a blank page in her journal. “Yes, thank you.”
Melanadahl raises an eyebrow “Is that the yes?”
Sairal frowns “ ’The’ yes?”
Selene looks up from her work as though she’s just remembered who all is present and looks between the two “No, no it’s not ’the’ yes. That’s not-I’m not-”
“You are attempting to court her?” Sairal asks Melanadahl.
Melanadahl nods, leaning back in his chair “Yes. Some of us believe you should work towards people actually enjoying your company before forcing their way into their rooms.”
Sairal scowls “And what would you possibly know of such things?”
“More than you, I’m sure,” Melanadahl shoots back.
Selene stands abruptly, slapping her journal on the table. “No. Nope. We’re not doing this. Absolutely not.”
The two elves stare up at her questioningly, and Sairal wonders if they have upset her in some way.
“Melanadahl, thank you for the pen, but you have no idea what my relationship is with Sairal.”
Sairal gives Melanadahl an all-too-smug look before Selene continues “And Sairal, Melanadahl has told me he is trying to court me, and I have told him I was not interested, but he has the right to continue wasting his time as he sees fit. He has not forced himself upon me, or presumed upon me in any way. So the both of you need to stop,” she gestures vaguely in the air “Whatever this is. It’s awful. When you’ve remembered how to be respectful to each other, feel free to find me again,” and with that, she walks out of the dining hall.
Sairal feels a bit nauseous in the pit of their stomach.
Melanadahl does not seem to be in a much better state himself.
Melanadahl sighs, and sits up straight in his chair “Alright. What isyour relationship with her?”
“We are friends.”
“Are you? Most friends around here don’t wander around holding hands, or spend evenings enjoying each others company.”
“I understand you enjoy many of your friends company in the evenings,” Sairal shoots back.
"Yes, but always with their explicit permission and freely given consent. If whatever you two are doing together is consensual, and it makes her happy, then fine. I’ll back off. But if I find out you’re harming her, or doing anything against her wishes, I will ensure it comes to an end, by whatever means necessary.”
There are several minutes of silence then, as the two stare each other down, but Sairal begrudgingly respects that he would stick his neck out like that for Selene, and that he does not seem to be lying about it.
They nod, then, and stand. “Understood,”
Melanadahl grins at them “Glad to see we have an understanding. Go get her tiger.”
Sairal looks at him curiously “I am not a tiger.”
“No, it’s a…you know what, never mind. My mistake,” Melanadahl sighs.
Sairal nods again, and takes their leave.
It does not take long for them to walk to Selene’s rooms. They knock respectfully, and before long she cracks open the door.
Her eyes are red, and there are tear streaks down her face, her aura clouded with sorrow that she is hastily trying to hide.
Their stomach twists again with the fear that they have caused her this sort of distress.
“Are you alright?” they ask.
“Yes, sorry. Do you need something?”
“I..Melanadahl and I spoke, and sorted things out. I am sorry for causing you to feel this way.”
Selene blinks then, before wiping at her eyes and chuckling “Oh, no, this isn’t-this isn’t because of you, don’t worry.” She steps out then, closing the door behind her. “You were going to show me the new room, correct?”
Sairal frowns, but nods, holding their hand out for her to take. She takes it with a smile, but they can’t seem to shake her uneasiness from around them.
It feels rather too much like a lie.
Over the course of their walk to Selene’s new chambers, it becomes clear that she is attempting to adjust her mood by way of willpower. The results are mixed. Deceit would like to know the true source of her distress, but when they get through the doorway to the rooms, her distraction, at least, seems genuine.
Mana’Din never wished for particularly opulent chambers. This always made sense, as she was easily overwhelmed; particularly in her youth. But her quarters were still adequate to her – somewhat unique – rank and station. They are well protected, first and foremost. Falon’Din may have only had made a single confirmed attempt on her life, but the Great Aspect was well aware of the risk he posed. Thus, also, there are no real balconies or gardens adjacent to the chambers.
But there are windowsills, and deep planters for greenery, which Mana’Din had preferred. Though they are empty now. Light filters through green glass at the tops of tall windows, and the scent of a forest runs through the main parlour of the chambers. There is comfortable seating already in place, and a small, unstocked workshop next to the bedchamber, and a study full of emptied shelves. Servants had taken out the last of Mana’Din’s books, and the Great Aspect had seen them sent to her.
She had approved of the decision to situate Selene somewhere safe.
By all means. If she is important to you, that puts her at risk.
The bath chamber is, perhaps, the most luxurious part of the room. The bathing pool is wide and deep, with patterned tiles on the bottom, and windows that look out over a changing roster of illusionary landscapes. Deceit follows Selene as she moves through the rooms; eyeing the bookshelves, and the wide desk, and the carved bedposts, and most especially the empty planters. She presses her hand against the rich soil, recently replaced for them, and then looks out through the window. The view is a genuine one; a long drop down the side of the mountain which the palace is situated in, overlooking vast plains, like a sea of rolling grass. The horizon is broken by the distant image of one of the territory’s largest cities. It gleams, faintly, as the late sun catches on some of the more reflective surfaces of its buildings.
“This… cannot be mine,” she says, softly.
Deceit hesitates. Technically, nothing in the territory truly belongs to anyone, save for the Great Aspect. But he is also beholden to those within his lands. And he has been trying to become a better servant to them; to understand, more, how that might be accomplished. Why the rules of the empire are not only baffling; but why, sometimes, their cruelty does not simply possess a reasoning he does not understand.
“They are yours,” Deceit asserts, firmly. “This is your home, if you would have it. Your space. You may allow anyone into it, and banish anyone from it. And it is yours for as long as you wish to have it. Forever, if that is what you want.” They will have to make a new chamber for their daughter.
Mana’Din will not mind, they think.
Selene is very quiet. Her hand rests atop the fresh soil a moment longer, and then she turns, and Deceit does not know what to make of her expression. She seems to struggle with something. A question, perhaps. Or a complaint? They do not know. Perhaps the rooms are inadequate.
“You may change anything you wish to.”
Selene manages a nod of acknowledgement; twisting her fingers together for a moment, and then brushing the bits of soil off her hands. Deceit thinks, and suspects that they know of a gift for her. They recall the plants she had tended in her home, before. Healing herbs and uncommon things meant for remedies. But there had been others, as well. What could only be frivolities. Personal preferences. It would not be hard, they think, to find seeds and bulbs. There are gardeners in both the palace and the city, and traders specializing in such things. Merchants from Sylaise’s lands.
They take Selene’s hand, again.
“Shall I help you carry your things here?” they wonder.
After a few moments, she shakes her head.
“No, thank you. I can manage that myself,” she says. Then she looks around the rooms again. “I doubt I have enough to fill even a tenth of this space.”
“You will acquire more,” Deceit assures her.
But her strange mood persists, and so, when she implies that they must surely have better things to do with their time, now, they take their leave. They do have duties they can attend to. They take wing and pass into the halls, and out through the walls of the building. Through the Dreaming, where the Great Aspect’s voice is clearer, and Fear’s concerns run like fluid rivers through their own thoughts again. They are still investigating the matter of who has shown an interest in Selene. Spirits are notoriously fickle sources, and the elf they have been directed to is difficult to pin down.
It may take a few days, they think.
But they will get there.
Bit by bit, they will make Selene safe.
The new rooms are very grand. Not in the way things had been when she was small, and lived near the capital of Sylaise’s cities, the décor and embellishments changing almost daily, and often into designs that she found less than appealing. Even now she remembers her mother fretting each morning over the flower arrangements. Selene never quite grasped the point; father never permitted company of any kind, so why bother ensuring the flowers would be inoffensive to people who would never see them?
Then again, her inability to understand the importance of such things had gotten her labeled a pariah and moved to the outskirts of Their Lady’s territories in the first place. Practically erased from her families lines to ensure she didn’t drag all of their reputations down with her.
And now, even in her death, it seems as though they are all too pleased to have her gone.
’..she seemed glad to be rid of them’ echoes through her head once more as she tries to shake away the thought, dropping the last of the boxes of old journals into her new rooms.
They were among the first items she brought in, eager to get them out of her old room before anyone could stumble across them, and she debates for a moment if she could simply procure a nice trunk with a solid lock to keep them hidden away in.
With a sigh, she accepts that no, there are too many risks if a wandering spirit were to discover it; even more if Deceit did. She eyes the fireplace with a heavy heart, and begins sifting through the old notebooks. Any pages containing irreplaceable or difficult to find information or notes are torn out, as she tosses the rest into the hearth.
There is a moment of hesitation before she waves her hand and lights the emptied journals ablaze. She sits on the ground near to them, using the light to assist her in copying the kept pages contents into her newer journals. She tosses each of the old pages into the fire as soon as she completes its transcription, and feels her heart tighten a little more each time she sees the edges curl and turn to ash. Her handwriting, her parents handwriting, her grandmothers sketches she used to teach Selene when she was little; all gone, now.
It has been several centuries since she had any contact with those people; she berates herself mentally for overreacting like this when she accidentally smudges the fresh ink with a tear drop, and hastily continues her work.
‘Naive,’ She hears, echoing in her head in her fathers voice.
‘Plain,’ she remembers in the dismissive tone of her first tutor.
‘Ungrateful,’ lecture the peacekeepers.
‘Bleeding heart,’ whispers Melanadahl.
She is shaking with the effort to contain her tears now, and she hastily pushes the journal and pages away from her in an effort to keep them from getting damaged.
The tears won’t stop, and she is overcome with the feeling of loss as they continue to pour out of her. Thoughts of being happy as a child, with her mother, assisting in her gardens when permitted. Helping her father correctly measure and distribute his tonics and customers. How quickly she had been shunned for such a small thing. Even her mothers letters had dried up after a mere century. Now she is, for all intents and purposes, dead, and it has made no impact on any of their lives.
She thinks to other things instead, in an effort to contain herself and avoid peaking the interest of any unwanted witnesses. Her mind drifts to dancing, and music, both in Sylaise’s palace, and the dreaming. Of shared meals and conversations, warm hands on her neck and back and disguises that she knows are meant for her comfort more than their safety. Of fluttering sensations in her stomach, and giddiness at thoughts of being given time alone with-
Stupid, she thinks of herself.
Selene straightens her back, and wipes at her eyes, pacing back and forth across the room to calm down and potentially exhaust her mind enough that she will be able to manage to complete her task without any more breakdowns.
Or drifting, inappropriate thoughts.
She scrubs her hand down her face and groans at the wet tracks; Sairal or Deceit will likely be by soon, as they normally are. Perhaps one days worth of crying she could get past them without questions, but two would surely lead to a conversation she does not wish to have.
She eyes the fire, and mentally deems that the papers inside have been burnt enough to make the contents unreadable, and allows it to continue to burn unsupervised. The remaining pages are carefully folded, and placed into the bottom of the box containing the journals from Innovation, which are then pushed into the closet in an effort to keep from drawing any attention to them.
She walks quickly back towards her old room for clothing, and she has to pause at the closests contents.
None of them are actually…hers. They just came with the room.
Well, the work uniforms are mine, she thinks as she tosses them over one arm. She eyes the remaining items, and takes the three that she wore most often, leaving the rest. They are all clean, and should be suitable for whoever has this room after the renovations are finished.
Selene makes a mental note to spend her next day off in town, and use a bit of her credits on clothes that will actually belong to her.
She rushes back to her new rooms, mentally yelling at herself for spending too long getting her things together and carrying what should be the last of her belongings, and drops all but one outfit next to the doorway before dashing towards the baths with it in hand.
She sheds her clothing as she watches the basin fill. Once the steam is at an appropriate level, she slips in with a contented sigh. This bath is definitely a perk she wasn’t expecting, but she plans to take full advantage of it. She dunks her head underneath briefly, pulling her hair back and out of her face, and reaches for a bottle that isn’t there. She frowns as she realizes that she left all of her products and potions in the old room.
Well. She’s not going to run back for them now, she supposes. Instead, she lowers herself until her mouth is just below water level and blows a few bubbles in frustration. The sight makes her giggle, before she gags slightly on the water. She scrubs herself down as best she can instead, and runs her fingers through her hair with an old spell to help the tangles resolve themselves.
She steps out and dries off quickly, dressing into the loose robed outfit she had brought in with her.
There is a knock at her door, then, and she shakes her head slightly before striding towards it; right on schedule, she sighs.
Fear does a very good job, as it happens, in tracking down leads.
Selene is still settling into her new quarters - though Deceit reports that her somber mood seems persistent through the past few days - when Dirthamen at last finishes rifling through his contacts and leads, and comes to the inevitable conclusion of the search.
That is… tragic. Selene is fond of him.
Dirthamen puts out the order to his guards, and is glad, at least, that she is no longer working in the same areas as the elf. It means she is not there when he is pulled from his work station, and taken to a holding cell in the lower reaches of the palace. Dirthamen attends a few more pressing matters, before making his way down to the interrogation room.
Fear goes with him. Its essence is thick in the air, though Melanadahl attempts to reign in his impulse when Dirthamen enters the wide, dark chamber. There is a sacrificial altar one room over. It has not seen use in decades; but it is still there. A word, and this elf will be gone, and all the troubles he has brought will be gone with him.
And this is how a good leader treats their people? his daughter had once asked. The day she had heard of the last sacrifice made in that room, she had come to him. She had looked at him as he hoped never to be looked at again; as if…
He is trying to do better.
“How many people did you inform?” Dirthamen asks.
Melanadahl bows his head.
“None, my lord,” he says. Dirthamen is not entirely certain, however, that he even knows the topic they are speaking on. Fear wings its way up into the rafters of the room, and thence into the Dreaming. From there, it sifts through Melanadahl’s terror.
Goingtodiegoingtodiegoingtodie, does not matter what I say, either he will kill me or he will leave me here until I starve or he will put me in that maze until he forgets about me, nononono, I cannot, please, not that…
The man begins thinking of possible ways of surviving the labyrinth, should he be chosen for it. He has some interesting notions; but then, Dirthamen knew he was inventive. It is how he attained his position to begin with. Fear rifles through him a bit more, and the room grows colder. The shadows deeper, and longer, until Dirthamen can all but feel Melanadahl’s terror thrumming inside his own skull. It is fraught with his longing. His desire to avoid the worst of his fears; to avoid being forgotten.
“Why would you have gone digging through the past of one of my high-ranking servants? Such secrets are not for you,” Dirthamen asks, at last. There is an odd echo to his voice, and he knows his aura is unnerving. Melandahl swallows, and the bindings on his wrists clank as he tries to move his arms in front of himself. His gaze still downcast.
“I did not realize the depths of such secrets, my lord. I was only curious; I only wished to help her,” he says. “I only thought - I worried, my lord, that she came from such unknown places.”
“Worry?” Dirthamen asks. “Did you worry that I would accept a subject, appoint them to a position of authority, and not know of their secrets myself?”
He sounds like his mother. But he doubts he would look like her, were he to reach up and take off his mask.
And then he looks up at him, and sneers.
“I was never worried for you, oh great lord,” he says. He is going to kill me anyway. He is going to kill me. I may as well, I may as well… “You can rot, for all I care. I was worried for my friend, and for her catching your fancy. Everyone knows your brother’s reputation. What was I supposed to think, with you taking on some pretty, fair-haired, stolen elf? What are you doing with her? Is it some twisted game of yours?”
Dirthamen stills, and feels a twist. Of what, he is not quite certain. Anger? Guilt?
The accusation hits a mark, at least.
“Her fate is not your concern. Your own is,” he says, his voice low. And then he reaches up, and takes off his mask.
All the colour drains from his face, as Dirthamen steps closer.
“I am sorry,” he says, at once. Babbling, now. “I am sorry, my lord. I did not mean it. Mercy. Please, please have mercy. I did no harm with it, I swear. You may take the knowledge. I shared it with no one else, save Selene herself. I only wanted to help her. Forgive me, forgive my disloyalty, it will never happen again. Please. Please.”
“Selene is aware?” he asks. “Of your knowledge?”
He had not thought it possible; but Melanadahl pales further.
“She wasn’t the one who told you?” he asks.
“No,” Dirthamen replies, and after a moment, puts his mask back on.
The rush of fear and misery in his servant intensifies, then. He hangs his head, and nearly drowns in the thought that he has damned his friend with a passing comment; one which Dirthamen did not even request. But that does not matter. He will not punish Selene.
He feels… unaccountably betrayed. Among other things. And he does not know what to make of such emotions. So he puts them aside, for now. Emotions unchecked are not wisely acted upon. He considers the trembling elf before him, and is surprised to find Deceit insisting some degree of leniency. A mystery is meant to be solved; Melanadahl went too far, and found knowledge that was not for him.
Take his offer, Deceit suggests.
Dirthamen raises his hand, and snatches up the information from Melanadahl’s mind. The delicate threads snag on a few other bits of knowledge. Nothing substantial; some memories of the past day and a half, some place names, and the taste of his favourite morning meal. Along with it comes the relevant knowledge of Selene’s past; though Dirthamen cannot remove the notion that something has been taken.
The threat is done with, then.
Barring the threat which Selene poses to herself.
Dirthamen contemplates that for a moment, as he leaves the lower cells. Selene cannot be permitted to speak with Melanadahl until he has determined how he will act on this information. He is still undecided. Melanadahl will have to remain imprisoned until he has a better grasp on the situation. He does not think it would be wise for him to speak to Selene right now himself; but Deceit seems to have more equilibrium.
She was probably worried he would get in trouble.
It was dangerous, and foolish.
They are her secrets to keep; it is her discretion to share them, too.
Her secrets could make trouble with Sylaise.
We already made the choice to risk that for her sake. We made it ourselves.
The debate lasts him all the way back to his offices, as Fear whirls and mulls and turns the mess over in its sharp talons. But no easy answers come; though Deceit garners enough leeway to inform Selene that her friend has been taken to the dungeons. Though they do not tell her why, yet.
Dirthamen snuffs what was taken from Melanadahl out like a light, and sits in his chambers, and thinks.
The labyrinth will be finished soon.
“How could you?” Selene accuses as Sairal enters her chambers.
They pause in the doorway, one hand still resting on the frame and debate for a moment coming back at another time.
They do not think that would improve things with Selene, however.
“Who told you?” they inquire instead.
“Oh, so I can toss another innocent onto his altar? Fuck that. You had him publicly dragged from his workshop. People talk, Deceit. I wonder, will he slaughter all of his people for the sake of some imagined slight?” She spits. “Is Melanadahl even still alive?”
Sairal gives a nod and internally notes that she is wearing his necklace, rather than speaking aloud.
“Where is he?”
“In the dungeons,”
Selene scowls and throws her hands up in the air “Why was he even taken?”
Deceit pauses then, mentally conferring with Fear and The Great Aspect
“He acquired knowledge he should not have.”
“The entire set up of power in his territory is that knowledge and secrets are the most valuable things someone can have, and instead he is punishing Melanadahl for following those rules? What on Earth could he have found that would-” Selene pauses then, her hands frozen in their gestures as she slowly turns to look Sairal in the eye.
“…Is this because of me?”
Sairal does not answer, and Selene balls her hands into fists at her sides as the room begins to fill with dread and self-flagellation. “You found out about the journals.”
“Yes,” is the only answer they give.
“He did not mean any harm by it. They were a gift. He thought I would enjoy them.”
They shuffle slightly on their feet, and wish for a moment that they were better at handling truths. “Do you still have them?”
“No. They have all been burnt to ash, to ensure no one else found out,” she replies bitterly.
Sairal nods approvingly at her answer “That is likely for the best.”
Selene scoffs then, and heads for the door. Sairal moves to follow, but she holds up a hand to stop them “No. I need…I need to go out.”
“It is dangerous to go alone at night,” they point out.
“It is more dangerous for me to remain here,” she rebuts as she imagines storming into His office and telling him off and demanding Melanadahls release. Even she would be killed for such open treason, she’s sure. Sairal merely nods quietly in response after a few more tense moments, and allows her to leave.
Selene wanders aimlessly outside of the castle for about an hour. She debates entering the crossroads and following the path she had taken before into Mana'dins lands, just to put enough space between them to adequately cool off. But she worries that Melanadahl might think she has abandoned him, or that it would offend Dirthamen into actually killing him. That He might feel as though she is abandoning him and everything he has poured into creating her current existence and that she is, as ever, Ungrateful.
Perhaps things are less different here than she had come to believe.
Naive, she thinks with a heavy sigh.
Selene continues her walk until she falls into town, wisps of lights drifting through the streets for illumination, couples wandering hand in hand, stalls open with merchants trying to sell their goods. A spirit of contemplation drifts close to her at one point, but she shakes them off around a tight, crowded corner.
She spies a stall filled with fresh herbs, various potted plants scattered around them that all seem healthy. She inquires with the merchant about a few breeds and varieties she is unfamiliar with, and leaves with several bags worth of various flora, oils, materials, and a few decorated bottles.
Selene recalls those who had wandered into her hut in the past after their interrogations, denied assistance by the cities healers for fear of retribution. She had never turned them away then, and she is not going to change her stance on the matter now.
Her wandering continues, as she glances into closed shop windows, making mental maps of tailors she enjoys the displays of, and a bookstore she hadn’t noticed on her last trip.
Eventually, the stalls stop popping up, and Selene finds herself in a forest. She debates turning back, her temper having cooled off enough to not be dangerous by now, before she hears the sound of running water. She journeys towards it, until the sound is loud enough she feels surrounded by it, and spots the rushing river ahead. Sitting down in a small clearing near the edge, she opens the bags and beginning to manipulate them into a salve meant to ease muscle pains. She knows it will not be enough, and thinks on what other things she could do to assist him, to apologize for getting Melanadahl involved in such events so unfairly, and ultimately decides that it may simply be best to give him an assortment of lotions and things as a farewell present. It may be safer not to have friends that have not been approved, here. She has caused him nothing but grief, and despite the uneasiness he caused in her early on, she cares for him and would not like to see him in a similar situation in the future.
Her chest aches a bit at the thought of losing one of her only friends, especially now that she could have spoken with him about her past without fear of seeming ungrateful for her opportunities. But if it keeps him safe, she will go back into her isolation, instead.
Selenes mind wanders towards her relationship with Deceit, as she melts the beeswax and oil together in one of the wider containers she purchased. She has become too relaxed around them, she realizes. She forgot that they are above her in station, and let her guard down too often. She has been allowing them regular access into her chambers, and her bed, and she is not even sure when precisely that became acceptable to her.
Not that she would actually be able to keep them out, if she chose to remit their permissions there now, she supposes. The new room is large, and wonderful, and meant for someone greater than she. The more she thinks on it, the harder it is to deny that Melanadahl was likely right; she has caught their fancy. If she were wise, she would not have allowed things to escalate the way they had, and if she were honest, she would be able to admit that she wanted things to improve between them, that she had allowed her thoughts to drift often of dancing, and shifting faces, and eventually being more than a potential lay, or prize.
Perhaps that is what this has always been, she thinks. Maybe he simply had an argument, or game going with his sister. Perhaps Sylaise has taken one of his own servants into her lands, and they are every bit as confused as she is. Perhaps that is why he has kept her alive this long.
Perhaps he is getting bored of the game.
Stupid, she berates, as she pours the melted wax and oils into one of the taller jars, placing a warming enchantment on it, for additional benefits should Melanadahl choose to use it.
She moves to begin cleaning her materials and packing them up once more, when she hears something fluttering in the trees above her. She sighs as she spots Deceit in his raven form.
“I am never going to be allowed true privacy again, am I?” she calls out to them.
They flutter down to rest on her shoulder and tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear “I was merely trying to ensure your safety.”
She just shakes her head at them and stands, beginning her trek back towards the palace. They shift into Sairal, and attempt to take her hand but she jerks it away. Looking at her questioningly, she mumbles an apology and slowly holds her hand back out for them.
They do not take it this time, and instead stop and stare at her.
“You are still upset,” they announce.
Selene responds by offering an over flourished bow “I am merely whatever you permit me to be, my lord,”
“That is not true,” Sairal says.
Patently, because it is not. Selene is many more things than what they want. Or what all aspects of them would want. She is even some things which it make matters actively difficult for them - such has her behaviour with Melanadahl.
The Great Aspect does not understand. Endangering her own safety for Melanadahl’s sake is… it is difficult, for all of them to grasp in its implications.
She loves him, Sairal offers. But this, too, does not make much sense to all their perceptions. Selene has not known Melanadahl for long. Not for as long as she has known them, and she does not love them. And perhaps that is part of it, Sairal thinks. They even took time to learn to properly love their daughter; they have only ever instantly loved their brother.
But they are difficult to love.
And they think this may be part of why, although they do not full understand, as Selene walks with them in silence. Trudging back towards the city, holding the salve which she made.
They are halfway through the streets again, before she pauses.
“I would like to see him,” she says.
“It is not…” they begin. But they trail off. Debates with themselves, and confer with the Great Aspect, and with Fear. She knows what has happened, now. She knows why. She must be told, sooner or later, of the details. She will want to know. She will not be content to let this go, and they feel as if this is a fragile moment. One which could make or unmake all they have managed to build with her so far.
Deceit’s natural inclination is towards evasion.
Sarial crushes it.
There is no reason to keep them apart.
She may tell Melanadahl the very information we took from him.
Her secrets are her own. They must be. Or else we have given her nothing at all, in the end.
“I will take you to him,” they say, at last.
Selene blinks, as if she was not truly expecting that response.
They sigh, and wish they could reach for her hand. They want to hold it. Want her to welcome the gesture again, or at least, not think to deny it. Instead they run their hand through their own hair, and begin slowly walking down the streets once more. It is enough prompting that Selene resumes her trek, as well. Keeping pace with them.
“I am sorry,” they say. “We were trying to protect you.”
“Protect me? From what? Actually having a friend who is not you?” Selene snaps, and Sairal flinches. Because that draws perilously close to their actual antagonism with Melanadahl.
But it is not, wholly, the truth.
“It is because you are his friend that worse was not done to him,” they counter.
Which is… not the right thing to say.
Selene goes rigid, and her lips thin, and the tension around her increases.
“It is because he is my friend that he is even suffering to begin with!” she says. “Whatever your interest in me, it seems it is set upon chasing all others away.” Her tone twists. Wry, and bitter, and resigned. She cannot escape them, that tone says. She is subject to their whims.
And, in many ways, she is correct. Dirthamen rules these territories.
Sairal does not know what to say. Falon’Din had never been subject to their whims, and Mana’Din had never doubted that they held her in unique esteem; had only protested the uniqueness of it, in the end.
They remember… so many elves. Traitors to the empire. Servants of the Nameless. Infiltrators, those loyal to his brother who would have sold any weakness to him without a second thought.
“If Melanadahl is worthy of trust, then it is at your discretion to trust him,” they say. “It should have been from the beginning. We are sorry. We forgot that your secrets were not solely to our discretion. We are accustomed to having all those we care about live in constant danger, and we care about you. We wish to know you, to see you, to be seen by you. It is… we are not good, at making friends. We were not good at it before we became a Leader, and it has not helped much, since. But you may see Melanadahl. He will be released, and suffer no further punishment.”
Selene is quiet.
She seems unnerved.
Sairal does not take her hand, as they head through the eluvian, and back to the palace. He guides her quietly through twisting halls, and down to the holding cells. Past the altar room, and the empty chambers. By the time they arrive. Fear has already dismissed the guards.
Melanadahl is in a simple room, with a cot and narrow windows, and a few small distractions provided for his stay. He blinks at them, hesitant and suspicious, and worried.
“You are being released,” Sairal tells him.
Up go his eyebrows, and he moves - hesitantly - closer to the cell door.
“What, just like that?” he wonders.
“Did the guards not tell you your punishment had already been seen to?” Sairal counters.
The engineer shrugs.
“Well, yes. But when a man is kept walled off next to a sacrificial altar, I think he can be forgiven for having some doubts on that front,” he counters. There is a strange nervous energy to him now. As if he wishes to be relieved but is not quite certain he can manage it.
Selene seems to be barely holding on to her waves of misery and guilt.
Sairal opens the cell wide, to emphasize that this all quite deliberate; and after a few moments, Melanadahl ventures out. Walking like someone who is wary of a trap.
“Are you hurt?” Selene asks him.
He rotates his arms a bit, but then shakes his head.
“No. Just a little sore. I will be glad to get up where I can breathe again, though. So if I am being released, I hope you will not mind if we save the conversation for somewhere… else?” he asks.
“Of course,” Selene agrees.
Sairal debates going with them, as they finally exits the cells.
But in the end, he supposes, it is wiser not to presume he is still welcome.
He shuts the cell doors closed, and looks at the altar; and wonders if they should offer to let Selene go to Mana’Din again.
They end up together in one of the gardens, and Melanadahl takes a deep, full breath of air.
“Never thought I’d miss this view,” he says.
Selene just nods, and sits down on one of the benches. She fumbles the bottle of salve slightly, as she takes it out to hand to Melanadahl. He eyes it skeptically, but accepts it, popping off the lid and sniffing it curiously.
“It’s for sore muscles. I wasn’t sure what had…what was done to you, so I thought this would be a good start. I’m glad you seem relatively uninjured.” She manages.
Melanadahl scoops up a small amount and rubs it onto his wrists. “Did you make this? It’s very good. I didn’t know you could do this sort of thing,” he comments.
Selenes eyebrows crease together “What?”
He grins at her “You’re one hell of a mystery you know. Is this your way of saying you’d like to court me? I accept, of course.”
Selene frowns at him, and stands, taking his jaw in her hand. She turns his head from side to side, tilts it up and down, scrutinizing every angle. “Are you sure you’re alright? Nothing feels….strange, to you?”
Melanadahl pauses then, and goes quiet for a few minutes. He ultimately shrugs “You know that nagging feeling you get when you think you’ve forgotten something?”
She nods, slowly.
“I’ve got that, a bit. But otherwise, I’m not really sure what I was even doing down there. Did you tell Our Lord about the chaos energy?”
Selene contemplates the implications of this, and ultimately strings together the answers. Her stomach twists, and she thinks she may become ill.
“…Yes,” she lies “I apologize for getting you in trouble. I didn’t realize it was a punishable offense. I…filled out the proper forms, and it’s all sorted now. I’m sorry,” she whispers “I’m so sorry, Melanadahl.”
“Hey, it’s fine, really,” he responds, taking one of her hands off of his face and into his own. “I should have gone through the permits myself. Don’t beat yourself up over it,” he says with a grin.
Selene tamps down as hard as she can on the guilt she feels, and pulls both of her hands back.
“I don’t think we should spend time together anymore.”
Her hands grip into tight fists at her sides “I appreciate your interest, but,” she steels herself “I am not interested in a courtship, or friendship with you. There are too many complications and I just don’t think it…you, are worth it.” she manages, and she can taste the bile in the back of her throat as she does.
Melanadahl just stares at her for a few moments, and the emotions around him roil through several stages quickly before his eyes soften and he shakes his head “You’re an awful liar, you know. You’re not this needlessly cruel, and I’m not sure what exactly is going on in that lovely head of yours, but I’m sure you have your reasons. If you need space for a while, that’s fine. So long as I’m not imprisoned again, I’ll still be around, if you change your mind.” he takes one of her fists from her side, and carefully rubs it until her grip loosens and she is looking at him again. He places a kiss on the back of her hand, maintaining their eye contact, before releasing it. “Try to stay out of trouble, ok?”
Selene nods in response, and Melanadahl takes his leave.
She wants to sit back on the bench and cry, and scream, and yell. It is unfair. Melanadahl did not deserve that. How many other things did He take? How many others has He changed in that sort of way?
Has He taken memories from her, as well?
She is ill then, as she bends over a line of bushes and empties the contents of her stomach.
When she is finished, and her body has nothing left to expel, she straightens, thankful that her hair had already been pulled back.
Straightening her shoulders, Selene makes her way back to her rooms. She slips into the bath, not bothering to wait for it to warm, and eagerly scrubs away the dirt and debris of the day. She submerges her entire self under the water and opens her eyes, staring at the ceiling through the film. She considers the events of the last day. Melanadahls treatment.
She rises from the water when her lungs begin to burn, and steps out of the bath.
She cares for them as well, she knows. Whether they are Deceit the bird, Deceit the elf, or Sairal. Even Fear does not upset her when she spots them anymore. She would be heartbroken to lose them. Perhaps she was a bit too cruel to them today. She will have to think on ways she can apologize.
She eyes the two remaining outfits, and elects the nicer of the two; She will see if He will grant her an audience, tonight. Thinking the worst has not helped her yet, and she knows she will feel better if she could simply ask him directly for answers.
She combs through her hair carefully, and sorts through her things for a pin. It has been a long time since she actively tried to arrange herself, and while it would likely not pass at a party in Sylaise’s lands, she is satisfied with the results as she stares at her reflection in the mirror.
She stands and smooths out the small wrinkles on the sides of the dress, slipping carefully into the matching heels. Her hand hesitates on the knob, before she swallows and strides towards Dirthamen’s office.
She has to get through this, she tells herself. It probably won’t kill her.
Dirthamen does not intend to grant Selene’s wish to speak with him.
Not at first.
He is not certain of himself, still, and he does not think it would be wise for them to interact. But Fear whispers that turning her away now might mean she never again initiates such contact. It is a frightening prospect, and he finds himself relinquishing his other concerns to it.
She looks like she has dressed for a dance, when she comes into his study. But her countenance is in no way inviting.
“If you would, my lord, I have a few questions for you,” she says.
Dirthamen straightens somewhat, and inclines his head in acquiescence.
“Did you take Melanadahl’s memories from him?” she asks. Her hands settle in front of her dress. The aura of severity feels very strong in the room; as does her determination.
She is steeling herself.
“Yes,” he confirms.
She lets out a breath. But then, she must have already surmised as much. It is the standard punishment for Melanadahl’s crime; not even truly meant as a punishment, so much as a necessary measure against those who endanger others through the acquisition of restricted information.
“How many memories did you take?” she asks.
“It would be difficult to quantify numerically,” he says.
“Do not be facetious,” Selene snaps, and then halts, and swallows back further criticism.
“I did not intend to be,” he assures her. “I took his memories of the knowledge he had acquired, of your past. Memories of the past few days went with it; it is difficult to be so precise in such acts. He has also forgotten some tastes, but those will be regained the next time he eats certain foods.”
Selene’s hands clench.
“Have you ever taken memories from me?” she asks.
“No,” Dirthamen replies.
“Would you?” she wonders, and then seems a little startled at the question.
But he gives it due consideration.
“If it was necessary,” he allows.
“And what would make it necessary?” Selene demands, tightening a fist. “Your whims? Your convenience? What gives you the right to take such things from people? I doubt Melanadahl gave you permission to go rooting around in his head!”
“He did,” Dirthamen replies.
That brings her up short, for a moment. She frowns.
“He asked me to take the knowledge,” he explains. “That is the usual recourse for when someone obtains forbidden information. It is removed, and any subsequent memories that are lost with it are considered the price of hubris. It is not considered a pleasantry, but it is preferable to imprisonment, or death.”
“So those were his choices? Have you violate his mind, imprison him, or kill him?” she demands.
“So far as he knew them,” Dirthamen confirms. “I was not wholly decided upon a course of action, at first. I was very angry with him. It was clouding my judgement. It may still be. But he made a good argument for remaining within the regulations that normally govern such infractions.”
Selene does not seem to know what to make of that information. She considers it for a moment, and seems to debate her further questions. Staring at Dirthamen, as he waits. His hands folded, his heart beating harder than he expected it would
He is terrible at this, he knows.
“Knowledge is currency in your lands,” Selene says, at last. Now she sounds tired. “How is anyone supposed to get anywhere without seeking it out?”
“There is always a risk that comes to seeking some knowledge,” Dirthamen replies. “My secrets are not typically shared at anyone’s discretion save my own. Deceit spoke to you of this, did it not?”
Selene hesitates, once more.
“I suppose so…” she allows. “Deceit said they were my secrets in the end, though. That I was free to share them now. Is that true, or were they presuming too much?”
“Deceit cannot misconstrue my thoughts on a matter,” he asserts. “It has full access to them.”
Selene’s unease grows, and she shifts slightly. Glancing up towards the empty roosts in the study.
“And - and you have full access to Deceit’s thoughts?” she wonders. She looks somewhat pale, now.
“Of course,” Dirthamen replies. “We are composite parts of one entity.”
“Ah,” Selene says.
He waits, wondering if she has more questions.
“So - when I am speaking to Sairal… to Deceit. I am speaking to you?” she wonders.
This is a good question, and not one which Dirthamen has often been asked. He takes a moment to contemplate the best way of explaining the matter. It is difficult to articulate. He thinks he could convey it better by feeling, but he is nearly certain that this would be considered unsettling.
“I am not always conscious of Deceit’s thoughts and activities,” he finally declares. “It is like performing multiple tasks at once. I can divide or redirect my attention more fully onto one, and I can ignore some others if they do not require much input from me. Deceit and Fear are spirits that were born from me, and rejoined with me subsequent to that. We became different, after that point. But it was the only way to avoid absolute destruction. The divisions between us are… complex. Sairal has become more distinctive, as they spend time with you. I am unsure what direction this is leading towards, but I do not object.”
Selene is silent, for several moments.
Then she raises a hand to her face, and covers it. Dismayed and awash with other, conflicting emotions. Dirthamen does not know what, precisely, has triggered them, or how they might be helped. He is not certain if he could mend things, or if he will only make them worse.
And that is before his desk catches on fire.
He looks at the burning wood, and blinks. That was not his doing, and he does not think any of the wards in the room could malfunction in such a way as to permit that. So, likely it is Selene, then. He wonders if he should put it out, or if she would consider that impolite.
He is Elgar’nan’s son.
He errs on the side of caution, and lets it burn.
‘Well,’ Selene thinks 'Setting his desk on fire is certainly preferable to setting him on fire.’
Accidentally setting things ablaze is not a new thing, so much as something she has not had to deal with since her youth, when she developed a small crush on the girl in the market and almost burnt her stand to the ground when she returned her flirtations.
They had stopped speaking after that.
Still, she thinks it would be best if she put it out before her mortification spread to more, irreplaceable objects. Selene waves her hand to dispel it, and it grows exponentially instead. Dirthamen stands and slowly walks away from his desk.
Her panic grows, and her efforts continue to fan the flames as she hears the wood begin to crackle and spark.
He is just standing there, watching.
“Please help me,” she pleads, as one of the legs snaps under the stress. She jumps at the sound of the desk hitting the floor, and Dirthamen blinks at her before he calmly douses the flames.
“Are you alright?” he asks, while she slumps to the floor and buries her face in her hands.
’No,’ she thinks. She had known they were close, that they reported directly to Dirthamen and did not keep secrets from him. But to think that they were-she emits a quiet whimper when she thinks back to her time with Deceit and Sairal; the hand holding, the cuddling, the massages.
Apparently, she may as well have had her hands directly on Lord Dirthamen.
Or he could have had his hands on her, and she can feel the bottom of her dress catch fire with that one, as she quickly moves to pat it out. Thankfully, it stays out that time, as she reigns in her emotions by bottling them up and privately swearing to stay far, far away from such inappropriate thoughts.
He said he did not object, a voice reminds her. It sounds suspiciously like the Desire demon she had encountered a few months ago in the mess hall, and she mentally tells it to hush.
“I am sorry for the damage,” she says sincerely as she stands. She stares at the now ruined desk, and sighs “You can take that out of my pay. I’m sorry, my Lord.”
“It is no great trouble,”
Selene shuffles awkwardly, the wind pretty well blown out of her sails now. She had come here to tell him off, get her answers, and somehow managed to feel like a fool by the end of it.
Stupid, she thinks.
Then she remembers her conversation in the garden, and her lie to Melanadahl.
“Oh. Um, My Lord?”
“I..Melanadahl did not remember why he had been imprisoned. I…I told him that it was because of the chaos energy he had utilized for my necklace without the proper permits. I thought perhaps, you would wish to know, in case it comes up.”
Dirthamen stares at her then, silent for several minutes and she wonders if she should leave before he speaks again. “You did not tell him the truth?”
Selene hesitates, wondering if perhaps she misstepped in her choices, but it is too late now to change them.
“No, my lord. I thought…I was not sure why you had removed his memories in the first place, and did not wish to place him in further danger.”
“You chose to keep your secret, then?”
She bites her bottom lip; she supposes that she had, after all. Everything is a mess now, and she just keeps making things worse. “I suppose I did. It should not be an issue anymore either way, and I hope you will allow Melanadahl to continue his duties without any further punishments.”
Dirthamens head tilts “So long as he does not do anything to merit further punishments, I see no reason to interfere,” he pauses then, and his eyes drift to the orb still around her neck “Are you planning to accept his courtship?” he asks, and it sounds almost nervous to her ears.
“No, my lord. Melanadahl and I will no longer be associating outside of a professional environment,” she answers, and pushes down on the guilt trying to force its way out again.
His surprise is palpable “We believed you were fond of Melanadahl. Did something happen?”
“No, my Lord. I simply thought it would be more beneficial to devote my time to my work instead. I know Deceit was upset when I had split my time in the past, so I thought this news would…please them.” she swallows down her nerves, even as it occurs to her that she is essentially speaking to them now, as well.
It will certainly take an adjustment period, she thinks.
He is silent again for a long time once again, so Selene bows to him and takes her leave, heading back towards her room.
Well. Minus the fire, that wasn’t a total disaster, she thinks.