The afternoon passed in a haze of smoke and fumes, from behind the safety of a mask and tinted goggles, heavy leather gloves and procedures I knew like a dance.
First, purifying the water I’d use as base solvent, remembering with a pang the goal of clean water that now, it seemed, I would have to abandon. Cleaning my tools well in pure alcohol. Stripping the delicate, almost dewlike globules of venin from daedric-spun silk. Separating the deadly root from the more diluted stalk of the Nightshade sprig. Grinding fennel seeds into a fine powder, then purifying them in the calcinator.
Comforting sounds, the scrape of pestle against mortar, crunching seeds. The hiss of the calcinator’s flame, the bubble of the distillery as it boiled just enough water for my few creations. But for once, I found no peace in them. None at all.
I had three formulas divided by several vials, by the time I was done. Two simply lethal, one pure paralyzation, leaving some poor soul helpless for whatever fate…
Whatever fate the poisoner had in mind.
Or would that be the contract maker?
So many hands, so many, all circling to close in a fist and extinguish a single life. I remembered the strange, many-times bloodied parchment, feeling the tiny grooves of hand upon hand upon bloody, forced hand beneath my own.
“Shit!” Muffled by the mask until I pulled it off, sliding my goggles up my brow and leaning back against the wall to drag a hand over my sweaty face. My other hand I held aloft, examining the singed little spot on the thumb of my glove where it had pressed on the still-burning belly of the calcinator. “Shit, shit, shit…”
“Unbecoming language, chérie.”
“Mum.” A lump in my throat that plummeted straight into my stomach. She smiled in the threshold, dressed now in day clothes. A small, but welcome relief. “… Ocheeva told me that soon, you’d be… be leaving.”
“That’s part of what I was taking care of today, yes. Finalizing the travel plans, as it were. But that’s not all.”
Two wrapped packages, in twine and paper. I frowned as she placed them on the table with a little smirk, waving at me. “Go on now, love, get all of that off.”
I began to strip off the alchemical equipment – gloves first, my goggles, pulling the apron off over my head as maman unwrapped the first package for me. I eyed it while I undressed. “Maman. What am I going to do here? Just – be trapped underground with them, making their poisons, for the rest of my life? I – “
“We’ll talk about that in a moment. Firstly – “ She lifted up one of the bundles. Robes – a new green set of robes, like the ones I’d worn as an apprentice at the University. “Lucien kept his end of your silly little bargain, you’ll be unhappy to hear.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Great.” The last thing I needed. “But, mum, I – “
“And secondly…” She offered me the second without unwrapping it, eyes crinkled. I eyed her with suspicion – she was hiding something. Happy about it, but hiding still, and dammit, did she even care that I was so scared? So angry about what little future lay before me? A huff and I began to unwrap it.
“Your birthday present.”
I stopped mid-tear, looking up. “My...?”
“I’m not surprised you’ve forgotten, with everything going on, trapped underground here.” She reached up to touch my cheek, smile soft. “We’re a few days late, but I wanted to wait a bit.”
Had it really been that long? The beginning of Hearthfire, when I’d been taken away, a week and some after the Emperor’s death in Last Seed. And then those weeks of waiting, first for maman, then the meeting of the Black Hand…
It really had been. And here I was, facing the first day of the rest of my life in this dank, dreary place, making poisons. I sucked in a breath to hold back bitter tears, thinking of the University. The grounds, the ivory spires, the tapestries and hum of students, of Tar-Meena’s smile and Bolor’s laugh. The smell of the Lustratorium as Julienne purified frost salts, the warmth of being held against him…
The package came undone as I blinked back tears, a sigh escaping me. A little tremor of guilt, of gratitude grew even through my anger.
A dress, firstly. A classic Cyrodiilic style, open-topped with a bodice and light skirt all in shades of cream and chocolate. And atop the folded outfit a pair of gloves, soft deerhide engraved with spiraling vines and leaves, little bursts of flowers. Too delicate for more volatile alchemical work, but for general purpose… “Oh, mum. They’re lovely.”
“The dress is because I am tired of seeing my beautiful daughter hidden and swimming in oversized robes.” That smirk again, what was she thinking about? “Try on the gloves.”
Carefully I put one on, and slipped my hand into the other. I frowned as something jingled, the palm of my hand finding something cold and hard inside the glove. "There's something inside it." With a furrowed brow I pulled it out, blinking at a small key. "What’s this?"
Her smirk grew wider, whiskered. "It's a key. Used for locks."
I rolled my eyes, but giggled. "I mean what is it for."
“You’ll find out. Get dressed, my dear. We’re going into town.”
I changed. It felt – strange, to be in something so normal. Not my usual University robes but something feminine and flowy and sitting in the right places, actually fitted for my form. Strange to actually feel cool air on my shoulders and bare arms, but not unpleasant. I pocketed the key and gloves before joining her, following in her wake and still trying to figure out her motives.
“Where exactly are we – “
“Ah, ah! I won’t ruin the surprise.”
A surprise in and of itself, really, to be going aboveground. And a relief. I hadn’t been out since the rainy night of Gogron’s death, too caught up in fear to really care about the possibilities. But to actually get to be in the city…
Wait. “Which city are we under, anyway? I didn’t recognize anything in the dark, that night.”
Mum glanced over her shoulder, smiling still. How was she so cheery? Was she really so pleased with this new life, becoming Speaker, leaving me alone here? But she’d just brought me such a lovely gift. I pursed my lips as she spoke. “Cheydinhal, near the Morrowind border. It’s a lovely town, mon chou. I think you’ll like it.”
I had to swallow my laughter, bitter enough to make my stomach turn. Yes, certainly, I would when I could go aboveground. Wander and pretend I belonged, then go back to the damned Sanctuary night after night as a prisoner…
We stopped in front of the Black Door. I drew back, hesitant. “We’re not going up through the well?”
“Not now, no. Too many people still around. We’ll take the back door – a little less noticeable than the front, not quite as guilty looking as clambering out a well if we are noticed. Although there’s not much to worry for, truthfully.” A shudder clambered through me as she put a hand on the surface of the engraved door. A moment, a heartbeat throbbing in the air, and it began to creak agape.
“What do you mean, not much to worry for?”
“The Count of the city is in our pocket. We’re still – discreet, of course. No need nor wish to attract unnecessary attention. But we’re able to operate a little more safely, because of it.”
So. Even if I had run to the guards that night, I likely would have been turned away, ignored or silenced.
We left through the house atop the Sanctuary. A surprisingly normal looking place – mum commented, when I asked, that normal is what keeps attention away. That the home was registered in the name of one Miles Gaurrus, a traveling merchant who came and went from the city often – Lucien. The ease with which she discussed it reminded me of growing up, hearing her talk about business matters with Toltette…
Business. What had I said all those years ago, fleeing my engagement? I wouldn’t be a part of it. So much for that wish.
But as we emerged from the back door and wound our way into the street, my anger, my resentment faded. The sun was only now beginning to dip, the sky turning a deeper blue, light tinted gold as it bled in beams through dappled trees and over tall timber homes. People – gods, it felt so good to hear real people again – laughing, talking, making their way home from the day’s work as others headed to taverns and inns for a meal and a drink. Distantly, I could hear some musician playing a lute on the street, hear the calls of mothers getting children inside for supper.
It was good, and it hurt, and I didn’t know if being up here was a gift or a curse for the thought of having to descend again. Just – enjoy it. I tilted up my head and inhaled deep the evening air, tasting of autumn. Enjoy it while you can.
Our walk took us over stone bridges and rambling brooks through the city, mum hushing me whenever I tried to ask questions. Eventually I fell silent, content to soak in the sights, the sunlight. Only in a plaza near the chapel did we stall, her giving me that knowing smirk again.
We approached one of the many homes – this one like the others, two-story and tall-roofed. A little weather vane creaked in the wind, an iron-wrought fence closing in a small backyard and ivy growing up the stone and siding. The windows looked a bit more faded and dirty, though, no lights flickering from within. I frowned, following behind as she walked up to the door and tried to open it, to no avail.
“Oh! Seems to be locked.” There was definitely something in her voice now, mischievous and teasing and pleased. “Why don’t you try that key of yours, hm?”
My suspicion only grew. I moved to the door myself, narrowing my eyes as the key slid in and clicked as it turned, smoothly proclaiming its match. Stepping into a quiet house – a few pieces of furniture with a thin film of dust, a long-cold hearth. Not so old as to be forgotten or falling apart but quiet, still. My shadow cast long with the light of the door behind me, joining with mum’s as she followed in. “Mum – what is this place?”
A shuffle of papers behind me. I turned, meeting her quiet smile, her dark eyes as she held them out to me.
“Whatever you make of it, mon chou.”
“What?” A tingle down my back. I took the papers, breath catching as I raced down the page. This document states that the bearer, one Gabriel Anne Dust Toltette, is now the sole owner and possessor of the identified property…
My breath shuddered out. Maman took my hands over the paper, and suddenly that knowing, pleased smile that curved her lips made sense. “Did you really think I would just leave you here, penniless, homeless? With nothing to your name?”
I flung my arms around her as she laughed, embracing me, squeezing and sighing beside my ear. I laughed and cried in the same breath, shaking, blinking away tears as she grazed her fingers through my curls. “It’s yours, chérie. Whatever you want to do with it. I’ve got a good chunk of gold set aside for essentials. Furnishings, clothes…”
“Mum, this is too much.” I rubbed at my eyes, sniffling, giggling. “It must have cost a fortune.”
“Consider it my attempt at paying my debts, as a mother.” She stroked my cheek, brushing away rolling tears before nodding her chin at the papers in my hand. “Look at the next one. It’s not so much part of the surprise, but I think it’s important for you to see.”
I shuffled through the sheaf to read the next, brow furrowing. By signing above, the owner of the property hereby identifies as both a domicile and business and will thusly pay the taxes of both...
It was without signature, without stamp, but full of meaning. Mum’s smile was as watery as mine, and still more fragile. “I know it isn’t what you’d planned, but… maybe it would suit you, hm? You could support yourself, work for yourself. You’d still be beholden to the Family, but it would give you something else, too. A purpose.”
“A shop.” My head raced. “I could run a shop, a, an alchemy – “
“That was my thinking, yes. My Family gave me my home and my purpose.” Not regret, but remorse in her eyes. She wouldn’t change what she’d done, wouldn’t change her choices, but still she wanted to save me from the pain of them. “It seems only fair your family does the same for you.”
A purpose. A life beyond what lay underground, beyond what had been demanded of me. In spite of everything that had been taken from me, ripped away, I could build a life here. I hugged her again as she chuckled, laying a kiss on my brow.
“It’s your decision, of course. I just thought you deserved the choice. I talked it over with Lucien – so long as you deliver what they ask by the week, help their injured, you can live here. Sell your potions, heal like your father did. Be… not quite free, but…”
But as free as I could hope for. For everything she’d done, for all she’d hurt me, I was alive because of her. I had a reason to live, because of her. I couldn’t hold her tight enough. She had to gently pry herself away, smiling and softly laughing all the while.
“I love you, mum.”
“And I you, darling. Never forget that. Maybe you’d like to stay here for the night, hm? There’s a bed, if not much else yet. But that just means more choices for you to make. You’ll make this empty little house a beautiful home, just by being you.”
Sleeping where I could hear the outside, smell fresh air, look out the window and see the moons and stars. Somewhere safe and quiet and mine. It sounded almost too good to be true, after everything. I wanted to pinch myself. I didn’t dare, because if this was a dream I didn’t want to wake up. “They’ll allow it?”
“I’ve taken care of it. I’ll drop by tomorrow, help you finalize a few plans before I leave on Tirdas. We should visit the carpenters’ guild and commission some furniture, the blacksmith to make you some new alchemical supplies – but all that can wait. I should get back, or they’ll be missing me.”
“Thank you. Thank you, maman.”
“I’m only doing what’s owed. I’ll see you in the morning, dear, bright and early. So if you find forgotten wine in the cellar, you leave it alone, you understand?” A playful scolding. “And make sure you use that new key of yours to lock up.” I grinned.
“I will. Tomorrow, then.”
I took it all in. Well, what little there was to see – mum hadn’t lied about it being sparsely decorated. An old chair here, some forgotten crates there in a cobwebbed corner. The hearth was sorely in need of a good scrubbing – hell, everything was –
But it was mine.
I slept that night in another strange bed, atop fresh sheets mum must have brought in, and with a window cracked to let in a stream of moonlight. For the first time in weeks, I fell asleep not surrounded by whispers and rumbling stone, but crickets and the creaks of my new home. For the first time in weeks, I slept not in fear of what the next day would bring…
But with a glimmer of hope.