Chapter 1: Chapter One
My first memory is of my own tiny hands swallowed in anothers, pounding on the taut hide of a drum as flickers of magicka danced around us. Warm arms around me, the roughness of my teacher's burlap collar tickling my neck, murmuring encouragement as the flickers of light grew stronger.
I remember my fists thrumming from the power of the drum's calls as his belly-laugh made bass, Nordic rhymes echoing with the scent of tobacco and mead. The wind whistled through straw-stuffed holes, delicious thrills of cold shocking me when they would find us, warmed quickly again by the blazing fire.
"Gabby," my teacher would chuckle, capturing my hands again as I would flail gleefully. "Not so fast 'er, cub. Remember words, too, eh?"
I would giggle and concentrate, teeth sinking into my lip as the spell blossomed and bloomed again. When I began to yawn and whine he would laugh again, raising a bristly brow and hoisting me over his shoulder. 'He wouldn't have crossed the room,' mum told me, 'before you'd be sound asleep in his arms.'
A light spell. The first spell I ever learned, with the guidance of my first teacher.
Falrung Spark-Eater, my family’s dearest friend in the hovels of old High Rock. A bear of a man, gold-maned with a wide grin and hair he would always let me braid. With a lap enough for both my sister and I, we would sit together, Anya rocking and cooing to her corn dollie while mum, papa and Falrung would talk into the night. On the coldest of nights we would stay together there until dawn, abandoning our hay beds for the warmth of the fire. Even without my bed or blanket mum's gentle whispers and papa's hand in my hair was enough to send me to sleep.
"Gabriel. Wake up, sweet."
"Mmmf." I grumbled, curling into a tight ball and shrugging away the hand on my shoulder. "’Still sleepy."
"Your father is here."
"Papa?" I blinked, untangling myself from the blanket. Anya yawned, mum sighed and smiled. I rubbed at my sleep-crusted eyes, soothing away the sting of a restless night. "Maman, ‘m tired."
"You had bad dreams again, Gabby?" Mum tutted, smoothing a cool hand over my brow. "Maybe papa can help next time. Come on, then. Anya?" Mum moved past me, giving my sister's ruffled hair a playful tug. "Up, girls, don't keep him waiting."
Our bare feet padded across the dirt floor, the door bursting open just as we met it. Anya jumped into papa's arms as I watched, blinking at the potions in his arms before moving to him and clawing at his tunic. "Up! Me too, papa!"
"You, too." Pa grinned, hair snow spotted and cheeks ruddy as he hoisted me up in his other arm. His smile was always bright, and I remember how smooth his cheeks were compared to Falrung's. He smelled of something dusty and chemical, like tombs and old flowers, his wiry hands capturing my sister's and mine to give a gentle squeeze. I went wide-eyed at the curl of rope over his shoulder, reaching for the basket and potions it held.
"Stop it, Gabby." My sister reproached, her lips in a pout as she leaned to my father's cheek for a kiss. We competed fiercely for our father's attention in the little time he was home - I still nursed a bruise on my arm from our last little fight. I leaned in, too, kissing his other cheek and reaching again for the dangling basket.
"My, such love I get." Papa chuckled, sliding us off and turning to mum, moving the tempting potions from my little hands again. "From the chapel – I made a few extra. Sell them in the market."
Mum only nodded, glancing up and down my father with a strange twist of a frown. "Of course. Get dressed, Anya." My sister raced off, grabbing her clogs for the trip into the busy cobble roads of town. I stepped forward, moving to my father's leg and pressing close, smiling to myself as he rubbed my hair.
Mum watched as Anya dressed then turned to us, her arms crossed, hair loose and dangling inky black around her shoulders. Her eyes cast onto me, then papa, chin raised. "Is Spark-Eater coming by tonight?"
"Yes. When we get back from the chapel."
My neck bristled, because something didn't feel right - there was no warmness between them, no laughter. Mum's laugh had become harder and crackly, like snow crunching underfoot, since Falrung taught me how to cast that flickering light spell. I tapped the same nervous beat with my fingers, shielding my fears in the rough warmth of papa's leg until his hand gently moved me away. "You get dressed too. I don't have long."
I obeyed, grabbing my own clothes and changing quickly, trying to ignore the niggling sense that something was wrong. Anya skipped ahead of me, moving to mum's side and taking the basket of spools and buttons by the door as mum shouldered the potions. She and Anya went to town to do odd jobs, helping the seamstress or laundress, finding coin where they could. I worked with papa.
To me she smiled, lowering her head to give me a gentle kiss on my brow. "Goodbye, chérie. Listen and learn well."
I waved goodbye as mum and Anya left, papa gazing after her with a snow-fall quiet sigh until he reached for my hand. I took his and frowned as I followed him down the street, a feeling worse than itchy clothes wriggling in my stomach. I fretted, whining quietly until papa glanced down at me, his warm hand tightening as the wind blew our footsteps away. "What is it?"
With a shock, I realized, and jumped with clenched fists . "You forgot. You, to kiss maman goodbye today, you forgot." I whimpered, gazing up at him and biting my lip at his strange, broken smile.
"It's alright, sweet." He murmured, leading me on to the stone steps of the chapel. "I'll give her an extra one tonight."
"Tonight." I frowned. "Is Falrung gonna be home?"
"Falrung? Yes, he'll be coming. With his stories." Papa grinned then, truly grinned, reaching down to gather me and pressing his shoulder against the great chapel door. "And you'll pour the mead, won't you?"
I giggled, wriggling until I could close my arms around him and play with the feathery wisps of hair at the back of his neck. "Yes!"
"And make it sweeter for us. Good girl." He kissed my brow, shadows falling around us as the chapel door fell shut. I never did find there comfort as papa did. The echoing halls, the imposing altar and cold, unfeeling glass eyes gazing down from the stained windows. The one place of wealth in our village of the poor and sick. Papa told me the chapel had come first, dedicated to Stendarr and his mercy, and the people had come here seeking him.
It bothered me, even then. If they came for mercy from Stendarr, why was it papa who worked so hard? Why couldn’t I have him to myself?
Papa led me downstairs. This place had once been the catacombs, but now many of the stone slabs had patients atop them. There was nowhere else for them to sleep, the other beds long filled.
Our footsteps seemed terribly loud in here, making me cling all the tighter to papa’s hand. There were more today, weren’t there? Maman was still teaching me how to count – I’d get excited and trip up over my numbers – but I could tell there were many more. Still papa only smiled down at me, giving me a ruffle of my hair. “Ready, Gabby?”
The sharp, musky smells of astringent and Jehenna’s sheep made me crinkle my nose by my father's side, watching as he took a skein of clean wool and poured a potion in. Papa sighed as he wrung the excess clean – contents back in the bottle, not a drop wasted - and smoothed away ratty blankets from a frail patient's back. The man's shoulders lay bare, sharp and liver-spotted, raw and blistered. He gave a cry when papa pressed the medicine against his back, hand down on the cloth and glowing with the pale white-gold of healing magic.
"Rest, friend. You’re safe here."
"Whe-where?" The old man croaked, trying to turn, but only managing to helplessly flop his head on the thin cloth.
"The Chapel of Stendarr. His mercy be upon you."
"Jacques." A smile bared his near toothless gums, the remaining teeth black. "Old friend. Always taking care of me." He coughed, chest heaving, eyes bulging out of his head as my father clapped him on the back. "Eugh. And your little girl." His eyes crinkled, the hand reaching for my cheek. I drew away, but father's hand on my back stilled me. "So good – so good to see."
"No more talking, George." Papa gently reprimanded. "You need to rest. Say goodbye, Gabby."
I swallowed, staring at the old man as he fell back, his breath drawn as though through grit. "Bye."
Many of papa's patients were the same – old or sickly, beggars and outcasts who came here seeking Stendarr’s healing mercy, unable to find it anywhere else. I stood solemnly by his side as he administered healing to them all, handing him linens and potions, trying not to show my impatience until we were done at last. Papa caught my fidgeting fingers in his warm hand, chuckling quietly as he led me from the catacombs to the hidden room he called his hideaway, hidden behind the paneling of an empty shelf.
‘Once,’ he told me, ‘This room was full of treasures. Gifts people gave in gratitude to Stendarr. The chapel used them to build that beautiful altar upstairs. Now it has our treasures instead.’ I loved that story, loved knowing now that papa kept his treasures in there, treasures I could touch and play with and learn. The panel creaked open to release air cool and musty, glasses shimmering eerily on teetering shelves and herbs hanging in braids from the ceiling to dry over a paper scattered desk.
"Here we are." Papa smiled, dragging over a tiny stool Falrung had made for me and patting it. "Come on."
I licked my lips, sliding my fingers over the cool curves of carved wood, bears roaring and deer dancing, before clambering on. Papa wound his arm around me, brandishing a pretty yellow-petaled plant and tickling my cheek with it. "Now, what's this one, and what's it for?"
I grinned, grabbing it in my little hands, caressing the dried buds and smelling it before squeaking. "Genet! It’s for, for making you pee!"
"That’s right." Papa smiled wryly as he wrapped the plant in parchment. "Genet, or broom, stimulates urine production. Or makes you go pee," he teased. Another flower branched beneath his fingers, bristled and near cracking from months of careful drying. Purple, slipper-shaped buds, leaves reaching to papa's lap. "And this?"
"Um." I bit my lip, fidgeting.
"What's your favorite drink?" He asked, petting the plant.
"Oh! Um. Milk - Milkwort." I nodded solemnly as papa reached for another stem, our game continuing.
This was the treasure papa shared with me – his craft, and his time. To me it was a game, precious time I could spend with my father not divided with mum or Anya or ailing patients. The echoing sounds of the catacombs followed us – the footsteps of the other healers or the chapel’s priest, moans and whimpers from the sick, but otherwise it felt like our own little world.
In between letting me guess, he’d work. Every part of it fascinated me – how he’d separate tiny slivers from slivers, seeds from pods. How he’d crush and powder and mix and make something completely new, every time. We stayed well into evening as papa worked on his potions and taught me names before washing his hands and scooping me up again.
"Come on, flower. Time to go home."
I yawned, nestling in the crook of his arm, listening to the sounds of him cleaning up. The wind outside had fallen to a gentle whisper, snowflakes drifting down and landing in papa's hair. I ran my fingers through his curls, snowflakes melting before I could catch them. Papa's hand played idly at the back of my neck as the winds lulled until a blast of warmth and woodsmoke greeted us.
"Jacques!" I snapped awake at the sound of Falrung's voice, giggling as I was trapped between them as they hugged. "And the 'lil cub. How's my bear-girl doing?"
I bared my teeth, growling. "I’m a bear! Bear-girl! Rgggrr!"
"By Ysmir, don't scare me like that!" He raised his hands, eyes wide in feigned shock. "Can the bear-girl use her big paws to pour our drinks while maman bear stokes the fire?"
"Yes!" I scampered down from papa's arms, grabbing the jug of mead and kneeling carefully over Falrung and papa's tankards. Both were the most precious things we owned, brought from Skyrim and cast polished brass with dragons twisting as a handle. I’d made the mistake of tasting it once – it didn’t taste nearly as good as it smelled – but I loved getting to pour it for them, my own little job. Falrung’s thick, hairy hands wrapped around the drinks, giving one to papa.
"Cheers, eh?" Falrung grinned, glancing at papa with a sweet warmth, one that made me tingle, made me think of happy maman. So now she would be happy, too – but she wasn’t. She stayed by the fire, didn’t even go over to give papa a hug.
Papa smiled back, shrugging off his coat and settling in his chair, taking a quiet Anya in his lap as their tankards clinked. "Cheers."
I remember little else of that night - settling into Falrung's lap, his hairy arms cradling me and his chest becoming my pillow. Hearing the raucous jokes - Falrung Skin-Beater, papa called him with a snicker - before maman scolded and hushed them. A hand playing with my hair, maman whispering something about me having problems sleeping and papa brushing it away. The smell of mead, the stark absence of maman’s laugh and then dark, warm silence.
I roused slowly, curling on myself and nuzzling against Falrung's chest in a vain search for warmth. The silence was strange to me - no snores, no sounds of maman cleaning up or Anya rousing. Only her whisper, her hand gentle on my back. "Gabriel, chérie, wake up.”
I grunted fitfully, twisting to try and share Falrung's warmth, but unable to find it. Blinking sleep sand from my eyes I moved my hands, pressing against him, listening for the comforting thump-thump of the drum in his chest I couldn't hear. Mum's hands wound around my waist, pulling me away.
"Falrung." I whined, twisting in mum's arms, confused and filled with belly-deep dread at the sudden, shocking silence and coldness of the world. "Wake up. Wake up."
"No, dear." Mum soothed, turning me away, nestling my head in the crook of her neck and petting my hair as I fretted. She held on tight, too tight even as I squirmed, as though more for her own comfort than mine. A tightness to her voice, making that dread go higher, hot and sick in my throat. "Shhh."
I caught Anya out of the corner of my eye, staring at papa, and grimaced in jealousy. A fierce wiggle and I was out of mum's arms and racing to her, my gaze moving from papa sleeping, to her, to papa again. I frowned, still childishly determined. "Papa. Papa, wake up, now, g'morning. Time t’wake up!"
Anya stared, eyes glassy at papa, her hand over his. I moved my hand, too, feeling a shiver at how cold his skin was. Her voice too felt strange, hollow and hurt. "He won’t wake up, Gabby. He’s dead."
"Dead?" I echoed before mum spoke, sharply reproaching her and gathering me up, taking Anya's hand. Everything was too quiet, our home strangely empty. Our pots, those tankards I’d filled, even our corn dollies all suddenly gone – only papa and Falrung on their chairs, slumped in a facsimile of sleep and so very, terribly quiet.
"No!" I wrestled her with all my tiny might, confused, suddenly terrified by all this change, all this wrong. "You forgot! Papa!" Papa didn't kiss her. Is she mad? I poured the mead all wrong, all wrong, it's all wrong. Mum hurried us outside where strange men in dark clothes waited.
I knew these men. They were from the chapel – papa made special potions just for them, to push away sickness that claimed the rest of us. When someone in the catacombs or out here in our cluster of hovels got too sick, too quiet, they came. Swept everything up and burned it all away.
"Dead this morning, ma'am?"
"Y-yes. I don't know how." Maman was crying. Why was she crying? She never cried, never let her pretty face scrunch up like this. "Jacques, my husband, he works – worked - with the ill."
"Then Stendarr will give him a warm blessing." One of the men looked at us, eyes sweeping over Anya and mum before settling on me, his lips pursed. "Do you have... somewhere to stay? To take the children? I'm sure the chapel - "
"Family,” Mum cut off, her arm almost unbearably tight around me. "I have family who will help us. But thank you."
Murmurs as they passed by - consolations, regrets, the only word I truly understood was sorry. I whimpered. Sorry. Sorry. I poured the mead. Bad mead. Bad me. The door blew open in a gust of wind and I caught a cruel, final glimpse of papa's face and shrieked for him, reaching out over her shoulder.
A final whisper from one of the men, carried on the wind – poor girl.
Not a girl. Bear. Bear-girl. I whimpered, cried, pounded my fists against maman’s shoulders until I exhausted myself to sniffles and whimpers. It was a long, silent walk to the town, to the stables where more strange people awaited us. Where in hushed whispers and secretive glances a man swept maman into a hug, a papa-hug, and ushered us all into a carriage.
My last memory of my father, my true childhood home, is this. The sparse pines high and proud against a grey sky through the window of the carriage, the wind-whistle and smell of horse hair and oil, the pounding of hooves and the strange shrinking of all I'd ever known into a pinpoint of snow white and sleep black.
"So this is your youngest."
I jerked awake at the feel of a hand on my cheek, smooth and cool – making me think of papa, at first, but the face was wrong, all wrong. The hand brushed down the curve of my jaw, features – a neat goatee, dark eyes, a small smile swimming into view.
"She looks like you, chérie Abelle." He leaned in close, eyes narrowed, frowning in thought. "I will take good care of you, ma petite."
Papa. I squirmed away and shuddered at the feel of mum's nails running through my hair. I want papa, papa takes care of me. Not you. It's wrong, all wrong. Papa forgot. I did it wrong. Fear and hysteria bubbled in me, clawing up my throat until I wailed. Maman cooed, Anya pinching my leg and telling me to hush. The strange man, with his clean beard and watery eyes, backed away.
"You all must be hungry and tired. Have a meal and rooms readied for them, Trudeau." Another man, the horse-man in green nodded as a wiry boy took the carriage away. I began to cry louder, wriggling in maman’s grasp because it was wrong, we had to take the horsie and go back and get papa and Falrung, get rid of what Anya had called dead.
"Shh, Gabby. Look. Look, mon chou." I quieted to a whimper at the sound of maman's voice, a soothing murmur as we followed the strange man who had hugged her. "Look how pretty your new home is."
I followed her finger and gaped, my eyes going wide. It was as though from a storybook, spires silhouetted against grey slate, green roofs snow-dusted and white-washed beams stretching wide. But home is home, home is... I whimpered again, nuzzling maman - the only steady, unchanged thing, it seemed - and whispered.
"I poured the mead. I did it wrong."
"No. No, sweet, no." Mum's face twisted, eyes dark and fogged in grief. "You did nothing. It's all better, now."
In my childish mind, the only connection I could make between my papa and Falrung's death was that I poured the mead that night. That it was all somehow my fault. Anya didn’t cry like I did - she was stone-faced, hated and aspired to in her seemingly mystical nine year old courage. When maman left us she stayed by me, quiet as we ate strange foods with richness that made my mouth water and tummy curdle. As women smelling of powders fussed over us, bathing us in hot water and dragging brushes through our tangled hair. As maman, ghostly and beautiful in a silk chemise, kissed us goodnight and left in the arms of the strange bearded man.
It was only when we were nestled in a new room, separated in twin beds on either side that she spoke. Murmuring, crossing the wide room to my bed and rubbing my back as I cried.
"It wasn't you."
I snorted, lifting my head from the warm dampness where I'd sobbed into my pillow. Anya hoisted herself over the side and up, her hair - soft, caramel brown like papa's - falling from its bindings.
She nuzzled beside me, pursing her lips and solemnly taking my hands in her own. She gazed at them, brow wrinkled in thought, before moving to kiss my cheek.
"Maman says everybody dies. Like flowers in winter. S'okay." She whispered. "Don't be scared. I'll protect you."
Though not moments ago I had hated her for being so quiet and strong when so much had changed, the sisterhood that made us by default despise each other also made us inextricably intertwined. I cuddled against her, crying softly until slumber overtook us both.
I dreamed of Falrung, and papa sinking under a suffocating winter coat of snow. I dreamed of the strange new man with his clean, waxed beard ripping up flowers. I dreamed of the mead turning green as I poured it, reeking of venom.
When my father and my dearest friend, my two teachers, died, I blamed myself for it. I did for many years after.
I was six years old.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
"No, no, it's the fork first. Work inwards, remember, dear?"
I rolled my eyes as the Imperial woman spoke again, guiding my hands back to fold primly in my lap and rearranging the silverware I so venomously despised. Soup spoon. Dessert spoon. Tea spoon. Who needs this many spoons!?
"Now, try again. Shoulders back, good posture. Napkin folded in your lap, elbows off the table - and don't muss your sleeves. Go on."
"I don't want to." I growled, crossing my arms and biting back a curse that had already gotten me in trouble once. My governess tutted behind me.
"Good young ladies do as they are told."
"I don't want to be a good lady!" I snapped, glaring at the center of the plate as though I could turn it to ashes if I stared hard enough. Madame Tucket hemmed behind me, clucking her tongue in the way only she could and leaning over the table, glaring down.
"So you want to be a bad lady? Lonely and unmarried, mm?" She moved her hands on her hips, brows raised. "End up a poor old spinster like me?"
Bad? I looked my nursemaid over - her plump, rouged cheeks, lips pursed, her hair whipped into a tight bun perched gingerly atop her head. Long nails that terrified me, a wrinkled brow, wide and stout and plain. Were you ever bad?
At the thought of becoming like her I grimaced, shifting back in my seat to return to my dreaded lesson on table etiquette. As she prompted and pushed for proper names and uses I felt a flicker of something inside – some memory yawning and perking up, making me smile a hidden smile. Flowers, instead of spoons.
With a reluctant sigh she dismissed me. I practically fled when the lesson ended, lifting up my skirts and racing down the echoing halls upstairs and towards the only place I now really thought of as home. The smells of leather and parchment and age welcomed me, books with fine bindings peering down upon the intruder as I moved past. I dragged my fingers over their spines, relishing their textures and feel, sliding two away and gathering them in my arms.
Sovngarde and Song of the Alchemists. I smiled, cradling them close before laying them out on the desk, moving aside another book that made me frown – The History of House Toltette.
Stepfather - Marquis over these lands. Toltette. I refused to call him anything else. My mother's marriage to him was a betrayal to me. I took what little comfort I could in solitude, in skipping lessons on poise and tucking myself into the worlds Falrung and Papa introduced me to so long ago. I spent hours there, whispering spells, memorizing ingredients, stumbling over words and tracing the greying sketches of Nordic gods.
Not exactly the appropriate activities of a young noble girl, even an upstart. But I’d have it no other way. I clung to those pieces of my past, the freedom they afforded me to be myself.
"Damn!" I leapt up, gathering my treasures and glancing wildly around the room. I could her the click of mum's feet in the hall, her summons for me that I scurried from. Under the desk? No, she caught me last time. I dashed to a shelf, slipping between it and the wall and wincing at the hollow thud as my back landed against it.
"Come along, Gabby, it’s time for afternoon lessons. Don't keep Madame Tucket waiting!"
I pursed my lips, slipping onto my knees and dragging my hands over the wall section. There - my finger slipped on the tiniest crack. A panel! I caught my breath, pulling back, a flush of excitement dancing through my chest.
"Gabriel, you do not want me to have to come find you."
Well, now or never. Grinning, I moved my books under my arm and pried the panel open. On hands and knees I clambered inside, closing the wall behind me just as the door outside opened.
Darkness. I crept inside, listening, shaking cobwebs that tangled in my hair. There wasn't much room - just enough to tuck myself in, my knees bent just so with my feet perched against the opposite wall. A perfect sanctuary. A haven, a -
I felt a sweet shiver as my father's words echoed in me, the smell of dried herbs and illness leaving me as soon as it came. A hideaway. Papa's had been a place of learning and healing, where he fostered my love for alchemy and the unknown, raised me amongst dried wormwood sprigs and glass bottles.
I tapped my fingers against my knee, the spell blooming in my mouth and flooding the nook with light. I squinted, drawing my book open with the other tucked at my side. Mum at last relented, the sound of her footsteps fading as I fingered the crisp pages of parchment.
Sneezing as dust swirled around me, I spread Song of the Alchemists on my lap and began.
"When King Maraneon's alchemist had yet to leave his station..."
“Gabby, where have you been? What did you get into this time?”
Mum fretted over me as I sat by her side at dinner, fluffing my hair and grimacing at the puff of dust that fell from it. "Did you go cobweb hunting? You missed your history lesson, too. Your father won't be pleased."
I bit back a scowl. He isn't my father.
"That's so gross, Gabby." My sister scolded, glaring at me from across the table. Anya – a perfect image of my mother, always poised, always dutiful. "We eat here. You're going to get dust everywhere."
I opened my mouth to protest but mum spoke first, a shiver sliding down my skin at her words, her soft and bittersweet laugh.
"Dusty. Just like your father's name."
My real father, Jacques Dust. I mouthed the name. Dust.
... I'll never take Toltette's name.
It was then, with my breath caught, that I knew.
"Good evening, Abelle." I glanced up as Toltette swept past, followed by the scent of ink and fine musk as he lay a chaste kiss on her brow. His gaze swept over us, eyes landing on me with a frown. "Children. Gabriel Toltette, you know better than to show up filthy to supper. Go and clean up immediately."
I bit my lip, digging my nails into my palms until the word burst hot and sickly from my throat.
"No isn't an option, young lady."
"Don't call me Toltette. I'm Dust."
I heard mum's sharp intake of breath behind me, Toltette's brow raised and lips pursed.
"Your father's filthy name?" He whispered, dangerously quiet before his voice rose. "You would call yourself after a backwards -" his face flushed. "The man who chose a filthy Nord over his own wife – “
"Davide," Mum hissed, putting her hands over my ears as I went slack jawed.
Over his wife?
"She needs to know, Abelle!" Toltette hissed, eyes piercing through me. "He was a filthy scoundrel, dragging your mother into poverty, letting you rot in filth so he could stay with that Nord."
I shuddered, turning wide-eyed to my mum who watched Toltette with tightly pursed lips. Finally she snapped, voice raised and sharp as a slap. "Enough!" A deep breath and her composure returned, head tilting, eyes slowly closing. “Please, Davide. No more.”
The room went silent. Anya stared, a forkful of mutton lowered back to the plate. Toltette's face turned a shade of sour milk.
"I apologize, dear. I lost my temper." He paused, gazing at mum with an a bow of his head before taking his place at the table. "I simply hoped the child I raised would respect me more than him."
"It's just a phase," mum murmured before we all went quiet again, our inner turmoil concealed in a family dinner. I excused myself as soon as I could and ran upstairs to my room, huddled on my bed with a book, hiding away from it all.
Dragged us into poverty, let us rot in filth.
…What did he mean?
I tightened my grip on the book as though I could hold my attention to it better. Trying and failing to ignore Anya’s soft voice, her footsteps behind me. “Go away.”
“I’m sorry about what happened at dinner. Papa just loses his temper, you know that.”
I bristled at that, at her calling him – him, papa. She circled around and closed in, then put a hand on my book and pushed down, forcing me to meet her gaze.
“You know they just want to give us the best life they can.”
“I don’t know that.” I tried to slam the book closed on her invading hand, but she was faster. Coolly she examined her nails, then looked pointedly back at me. A sigh.
“You’re too little too remember, Gabby. What it was like before.” She spoke softly, but firm – silk-clad steel, just like maman. Little wonder it had been so easy for her to accept this, over the years. “We were always hungry, always sick. It wasn’t even a real village, just desperate people looking for help from the chapel.”
“And papa did help them.” In contrast my voice was raw, cold and sharp in my throat. I put down the book and hugged myself tight. “He was a good man. They both were.”
“They were.” She smiled, took my hand. Damn you, I thought. Damn you for being so strong and so untouchable, even as she pulled me into a hug like she had when we were children. “It’s complicated, what happened. But we’ve got a better life here. That’s all maman ever wanted for us – and papa too, I bet.”
A part of me knew she was right. We lived in comfort and luxury now, never wanting, never scraping by, never huddling in fear as plague or harsh winters decimated our world. But I couldn’t accept it, not entirely. Anya sighed against my head, then laughed.
“You really wanna call yourself Dust?”
“Yeah.” She sat beside me as I spoke, the high bed creaking under our weight. “I think – I like it. It was his. From the old days, he said, back in Skyrim.” An inheritance of sorts, something tangible I could keep close to me even so long after his death.
“He said it was from his great grandfather Dustin, remember? From his ancestors in The Reach, when he was a boy. Because he was an alchemist like him, like his grandmaman. Like you probably will be.” Only in private did this side show – Anya’s crooked smirk, secret and mischievous. “All covered in dirt from picking flowers.”
I managed a grin of my own, even through tears. “I’d rather be covered in dirt than lace and perfume anyway.”
Prim and proper. “You certainly smell like it.”
“Ta gueule!” I grabbed a pillow and aimed for her head, and we spent the evening cleaning up the goose feather explosion that resulted. I was grateful for the distraction, grateful not to have to think on the hurt welling up inside until night fell and we separated, when my thoughts drifted back to papa again. An alchemist name – that settled it. I fell asleep on a deflated pillow with fists clenched and tears blinked back, the name held on my lips.
Mum thought it was a phase.
I named myself, and more than ever I ran from my governess, from my lessons. I read as though starved, snuck into the kitchens and gardens to mimic concoctions, threw off the new responsibilities of a noble childhood whenever I could. When I asked mum the truth, she relented - papa, my dear father and Falrung were lovers in hiding. I wasn't too young to understand love, that my papa had somehow betrayed mum. That my childhood heros were entwined with deceit.
Still, I held them close, even as I extracted myself from the life maman had made here.
A new name. Renewed rebellion against who I was told to be. Gabriel Toltette had never existed, and Gabby died when she woke in Falrung's cold lap.
Maman had told me once, what my name meant. A blessing, she said, chosen by my father. ‘Stendarr is my might.’ Even then it was an irony I couldn’t accept, knowing he had worked so hard and died anyway. That Stendarr had done nothing for him, and nothing for me.
No. Dust was my new name, my chosen name, one I kept close to my heart as I felt I could little else. It meant I belonged to no one but myself.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
"Dust, come on!"
Dewy grass slipped beneath me as I ran barefoot across the estate, past the manor and the servant’s housing, past the paddocks. Spring had finally, really sprung, everything vividly green and welcoming as I breathed deep the balmy air, let my toes feel that soft, lush growth under my feet. So good to be allowed properly outside again, and the return of spring meant the return of –
“Hurry up, princess!”
Sirius. I grinned and caught up, sliding around the stable and catching a glimpse of bright red hair before he slipped into darkness. I scoffed, stopping just before the mildew warmth of the stable, careful to keep my feet firmly on the grass as I poked my head in and wrinkled my nose.
"You come out here."
"I am not going in there barefoot. Mara knows what I could step on."
“Princesses.” A groan. I folded my arms over my chest in triumph as the boy emerged, then shrieked as he swept me up into his arms. “Sirius! Lemme down!”
“You said you didn’t wanna step on anything. Why’ve you got no shoes?”
“Because silk shoes in wet grass is – oof!” I tumbled onto a pile of straw, pushing my hair out of my face to give him a glare. I couldn’t hold it long. How could I in the face of that buck-toothed, freckled grin? He snickered, hands on his hips. He’d grown, in the past winter – it was like someone had taken each one of his limbs and pulled, stretching him out like taffy. I couldn’t help myself – I burst into giggles, throwing a fistful of straw his way. “I missed you.”
“Course y’did! I’m the only one who can get you free from lessons. I’ll put down some fresh straw ‘n we can go up to the loft.”
True to his word he cleaned the stable – part of his job as the stableboy, of course, but also for my sake. I waited with a lazy contentment. The smell of horses and straw carried its own charm, the dim glow of sunlight streaking through cracks and the gentle snuff from horses lulling. When he was done and threw down his pitchfork with a grin I stalled, moving to a new foal with wide eyes and stroking her velvety muzzle as she whickered. "What's this one named, Sirius?"
"Aye?" I glanced until I caught a flicker of movement, and watched him move close out of the corner of my eye. He shrugged, scratching his head and scuffing a filthy boot "Dunno. Pretty filly, though. Week old, I think. Careful, her mum doesn't like you."
"Oh." I frowned, drawing back reluctantly from the sweet foal to glance nervously at the mare beside her stall, lip raised and teeth bared. "Sorry."
"Me or the horse?" Sirius laughed, grinning wide before pulling me further inside. "C'mere."
We chatted as we walked, catching up on the lost season he’d spent doing odd jobs off the grounds with his father. Who’d done what, new friends made and lost, the tasks he did and the lessons I endured. We made a strange pair - he, a teenage stableboy, and I, a noble child, but we were steadfast friends. He was too old to consider me anything but a younger sister, and I was too young to care for him in any other way, but I still jealously hid him from Anya as she sought out men of her own. We were terribly different, at that age. Sirius once, in a romantic sort of mood and fancying himself a poet, said I was a foal. On shaky legs, wide-eyed, a head too big for my body. I certainly felt like it.
"Up here." With a little help I made it up into the loft, where scratchy piles of gold straw tempted and iron tools hung rusting from nails. I threw myself onto a mound with a sigh, making a face as the layers of my dress got caught up as I moved. "Why can't I wear what you wear?"
"Princesses don't wear mucking clothes."
"I'm not a princess," I grumbled, pulling myself closer to the edge the little ledge overlooking the barn. We nestled in there like hidden birds, safe and secret from the world. Straw crinkled and cracked pleasantly, releasing its loamy, dry scent as I settled. "Why’d you want me in here?”
"’Cos we needed some privacy.” He raised a brow, tapping me on the nose with a smile. "We're thinking of something. Something secret. A plan."
"To get you out of princess lessons tomorrow." He hummed to himself, leaning back and glancing over his interwining fingers. “And while Madame Toltette’s off fer business, we’ll sneak into her private study and - "
"I'm not a princess." I growled, my eyes going wide as his words sank in. "Mum's private...? Why?"
"Curiosity. Rumors." His smile dimmed, eyes narrowing into jade slits. "You with me?"
"You aren't telling me anything." I frowned, twisting my hands in my lap. "It's a bad idea, Sirius. If mum or Toltette catches you - "
"Well, hey." He shrugged. "Thass fine. Go to your lessons. I hear Tucket is talking to you about the birds and the bees tomorrow."
"Oh, ew, ew!" I wrinkled my nose, caught in a fit of giggles. Sirius and Anya had told me more than enough, and thinking about Madame Tucket lecturing me on that - I squirmed just to think of it. "So, let me guess. If I help you, you'll get me out of it?"
"You're learning, filly."
...Fine." I laughed nervously, tucking my legs and scrunching the folds of my skirts, trying to ignore the sense of apprehension building. It couldn’t go that wrong, could it? And what could Sirius be so curious about? Only one way to find out, I suspected. "How?"
"Two things.” He smirked, idly picking at his teeth with a dirty, ragged nail. "First, like they do in stage fights. You know those berries by the gardens, the red ones?"
"Yeah." I frowned. "Why?"
"Grab a bunch. How do ye... con... congale 'em? Make the juice thick?"
"Congeal. Wormwood should make it seize up. Why, Sirius?"
"Cos we're gonna fake you falling, filly." Sirius drawled, casting me a glance with a raised brow. "The juice'll seem like blood. Keep it in your mouth, aye? Pretend to fall down the stairs. Tucket sees you bleeding, you’ll say you’re heading off to the healer and we’ll meet in the hall, you free as a spring magpie.”
"What?" I scoffed, sliding down the hay and leaping onto my feet. "No. That's idiotic. Madame Tucket isn't stupid, she'd want to see a wound."
"Not if it just looks like you broke a few teeth. See?" He bared his lip like a horse, revealing two missing teeth. "You just lost one, right? So it'll look like you knocked it out."
"Why don't I just fake sick?"
"She caught you last time, filly."
I grumbled, grimacing as I remembered why I'd agreed to skip her lessons. "Her lecture alone could make me sick."
"Then come. It'll work, I swear. Cross my heart."
I knew it could. Papa had taught me wormwood could make liquids seize up, used it in salves on bandages to slow bleeding. In theory it could work on the berries, too. I was already planning the components in my head, even for my reluctance. I couldn’t resist a challenge. “What’s the second thing?”
“Something only you can do, princess.” I rolled my eyes at the name as he grinned. “We’ll need yer mam’s key.”
“Sirius!” I jerked straight, staring. “That’s crazy. You want me – what, to steal from her? That’s wrong.”
“Just the one. And we’re not stealing, we’re borrowing.” He tried to soothe even as he argued, giving me a pat on the shoulder. “She won’t even notice they’re gone. That’s why you gotta do it, filly. You can get close enough. I can’t.”
“I’ll tell you after. Gets you out’ve lessons either way, don’t it? C’mon, Dusty.”
We argued well into the afternoon until, at last, my curiosity and Sirius’s persistence won out. He wrapped an arm around me and squeezed me tight, cackling. “Atta girl! You’ll see. You grab the key tonight and I’ll meet you tomorrow, right ‘fore yer lessons in the usual spot.” A playful pinch on my arm as I swatted at him. “Better than the ‘if a boy ever touches you’ talk, right?”
I couldn't resist laughing - his high-pitched, frenzied mimic was uncanny. "Right. Au revoir, Sirius."
"Aye, princess." I caught only a final glimpse of vermillion hair before he was gone, racing down the field to the servant's hall. I sighed, blinking in sapphire sunlight as I made my way home, picking stray pieces of straw out of my hair.
"Gabriel Toltette, there you are!" I cringed at a familiar shriek, looking up to see Madame Tucket huffing down the path. "What have you -filthy, barefoot -"
"Yes, Madame Tucket. Sorry."
"Like a little piglet!" She continued, triumphantly grabbing my sleeve and dragging me back to the house as though I'd never meant to return in the first place. "Oh, your mother will be horrified. You'll be the death of me yet, missy."
With all the venom of an annoyed thirteen year old girl, I crossed my fingers and half-hoped I'd prove her right.
It wasn’t even especially hard.
Maman, mistress of the house, always wore her keys on her belt. Not just for her study but for almost every room that could lock in the manor - guest rooms, the library, the garden exits. I knew her well by their jingle and her quick steps, the brisk pace she kept in managing the household and in helping Toltette run his business. All too simple to feign a hug before bedtime, taking comfort in her kiss on my brow even as I undid the key from its loop and secreted it away in my palm.
Less simple, the guilt that came with the action. It’s okay, I tried to convince myself. We’ll have it back by tomorrow, easy. I couldn’t fathom why Sirius wanted in her study so badly, what he could be so curious about, but whatever it was I wanted to know, too.
After all, it wasn’t the first time maman had kept secrets from me, was it?
The time for my lessons came quick, almost too quickly. I held the key tight in one hand, the little ball of jellied berries in the pocket of my cheek. Sirius, true to his word, met me by the stairs and kept a watch over the balcony for my governess, glancing over when she came close.
I nodded, wincing as a screech broke the silence. I could almost picture her throwing her hands in the air.
"Do I have to get you a leash, child? Dust, come here now!" A smirk tugged at my lips when she called me Dust at last, but Sirius caught my attention, clearing his throat.
"Good luck, filly." He whispered and winked, careful now to keep behind the wall and out of sight. “Go on.”
I leapt to my feet, grimacing at the squeeze of berry juice in my cheek. I stopped at the top of the stairs, wincing at Miss Tucket's reproving glare.
At Sirius's urging I did. I waved, then raced down the long stairway. How to fake tripping, anyway? I did my best to act the part, running the steps halfway as I usually did, then feigning a foot raised just a hair too low
Then the world spinning, toppling, and I landed in an aching pile at the bottom of the stairs. Madame Tucket gasped, and I raised my hand - my mouth was warm and wet. I spat, tears stinging in my eyes, a sanguined tooth falling from my mouth. Definitely not just berry juice and that pinch of wormwood. Ow.
"Oh, sweet Mara!" Madame Tucket kneeled by me, helping me up and gasping at the mix of fake and real blood dribbling down my chin. "You poor child! Oh, mercy - well, it's alright, just a broken tooth..." I winced as she examined me, curling my tongue over the newly empty hole in my gums. That wasn't part of the plan.
“I’ll, um –“ I wrinkled my face at the taste of blood, trying to sound convincing. Too defiant and she’d be angry, too sweet and she’d get suspicious. A delicate line I’d learned to walk over the years. “I’ll go get cleaned up, Madame.”
“Yes, that’d be best. Looks like just a lost tooth, dear, nothing to fret about, but better safe than sorry. I’ll go find your mother and tell her what happened.” She dug up a handkerchief from her bodice and dabbed at the red on my face. “Go on, now. And be more careful!”
I nodded, limping off. I was silent until I made it back up around the corridor were Sirius had hid, clapping me on the back and cackling. "Brilliant! Best fake fall I e'er seen!”
"It wasn’t very fake,” I grumbled, clutching my throbbing head an smiling in spite of myself. The mingled berry juice and blood dried on my chin despite Tucket’s efforts, itching and flaking under my fingers. "I'm free, so it's worth it anyway."
"Aye. We've got work to do."
We moved through the shadowed hall, silent and still. I frowned under the eyes of portraits, moving close to Sirius and trying to keep my twitching hands from clutching his. He wasn’t even supposed to be inside the manor. It wasn’t the first time he’d smuggled in to meet me, but it had never felt this - foreboding, before.
"This way." He whispered. I vaguely recognized where we were - mum and Toltette's private wing. It felt forbidden - the stifling silence, the impeccably polished candlesticks, heavy velvet curtains allowing in only cracks of light. Secret and sinister.
I was jerked backwards, pulled to a stop in front of one of the towering doors. Mum's study. I gulped.
"Why are we doing this again?"
"Cos it got you out’ve lessons, and there's something I need to see."
"Tell you later."
I sighed, worrying at my lip and stepping back from the door. "We shouldn't."
Sirius glowered. "Don’t you give in on me now, princess. I’ll send ye right back t’the Madame, quick as you please.”
“Would. C’mon, now.”
I hesitated only a moment before giving him the key, swallowing guilt as it slid and turned with a mechanical click. He offered it back with a grim nod. Strange – I’d never seen him like this, so serious, so quiet.
What did he think mum was hiding?
"No turning back now, filly."
Slowly, neck prickling, I nodded. "No turning back."
The door creaked open, a croak of warning before Sirius gestured me inside. I slowed, looking around the forbidden room with a bitter taste at the back of my throat.
It was much like the library study - polished wood, books, a map spread upon the wall, yellowing and curling at the ages. And orb of light flickered in a lamp, a book open on the desk, a quill drying in forgotten ink on an unfinished page.
Boring. Normal. All this for nothing? "Sirius..."
"Shh!" He hissed. I glanced around, catching sight of him huddled in the corner by the wall. A shiver clambered up my spine as I watched him press against it, pushing back a panel - a nook, just like mine! At last it slid open - in the dim light I saw only letters, wax-sealed and mundane. I was both relieved and disappointed, but Sirius's breath caught, eyes going wide as he studied one of the envelopes.
"What is it?"
I crept to his side, looking over the piles of unaddressed scrolls and letters, yellowing parchment, red wax, a flash of silver -
I reached in, breath caught, shivering as my fingers slid across cool, carved metal. Ebony. I reached blindly further, cringing at the sudden sting on my finger and drawing my hand back, sucking away blood. A knife?
"Just ‘fer letters, probably." Sirius dismissed my thoughts with a curt glance. "Don't touch it."
"Why are these hidden?" In the back of mind something strange and secret clawed, but distantly, an itch. I pushed it aside, watching as Sirius slipped the unopened letter into his tunic. "You can't take that! That's stealing!"
"Shut up!" He clapped his hand over my mouth, prying me backwards and sliding the panel shut, fear glittering in his eyes. "Let's go. Now."
"You wanted to come in here!" I squirmed as he pulled me away, stubbornly gripping the doorframe when he moved into the dark corridor. Wrong, this was wrong. "What is it? Tell me!"
"Dusty, later! We have to - "
Sirius froze, let me go and backed away. Before I could move he whispered - sorry, filly - and ran. A beat. I stilled as the footsteps, the familiar jingle of keys turned the corner.
I watched helplessly as mum approached, eyes dark, lips in a tight line. Head bowed, wringing my hands.
I was sent to bed early, given no punishment - not even a reproach. I seethed at Sirius as I washed dried blood from my chin, the water blossoming red. The silence was somehow worse than a scolding. I slept little that night, cursing him, vowing to never take part in his harebrained schemes again until dawn broke, and I was hurried off restless and exhausted to breakfast.
Silverware clinked in the morning, the only sound amongst us as we ate together in the sunlit dining hall. Mum, as demure and unphased as always, lead pleasant conversation at the table. I avoided her gaze, gnawing my lip and murmuring in hopes of a quick exit. Even angry as I was, I wanted to know what he’d found.
"May I go riding with Sirius before lessons?"
"Sirius?" Toltette raised a brow.
Anya whispered, eyes fixed on her plate. "The stablehand she likes. The one who taught her to ride."
"Ah, the boy." His face softened, pity I despised in his gaze. "An unfortunate accident, I'm afraid. He's dead, cherie. Tripped. Caught on his pitchfork, early this morning. Truly tragic."
...Tragic. I felt nothing, only a stark and echoing hollow in my chest. An accident, a tragic accident.
I never did find what Sirius had been so curious about. Months after his death I stole her key again, looked in that little nook again only to find it emptied. His secret died with him, and over time it seemed not to matter. Our childish games, our little adventures were done, for good.
Things changed, after that. Mum no longer chastised me for missing lessons, Madame Tucket no longer hunted me down so zealously - for the most part, I was free to do as I wished. My nursemaid and the servants said I was delicate, let me have my way. I had what I'd always wanted.
Free as a magpie.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Bathwater rippled as I sprinkled dried lavender over it, peering through the rising steam to scry my own reflection. A girl peered back, her hair dark and twisted around her shoulders, cheeks flushed, eyes distant. Silent, pretty, unquestioning. A perfect bride for a wealthy toad.
"Dammit." I scowled at the water’s surface before slipping in, my reflection vanishing. I dipped my head back, sighing as my hair slicked to my neck and I took a precious moment of silence, listening to nothing but the water lapping at the edges of the tub. The scents – oil, soap, lavender wafted sweet, enveloping me in steam as I dragged my fingers through my hair. Trying to relax felt futile. My eyes opened and strayed again down to the water.
There she was again, in rippling reflection. A grumble and I splashed her away.
Whoever you are, you’re not who I want to be.
"Dusty? Are you in yet?"
"Oui, maman." I relaxed at the sound of mum's voice, listening as the door opened and closed behind her, as she pulled a stool to my side and perched herself there, smiling. I forced a stiff smile in turn, swallowing guilt as her face fell. I couldn’t hide it, not from her.
"Oh, dear. It won't be so bad."
"I know." I sighed, turning from her and rubbing hot water down my arms in a vain attempt to keep properly warm. "We need a bigger tub. If my front's hot, my back's cold, and if my back's warm, my front's cold."
"Don't nitpick, dear." Mum had a slight smile in her voice. "I bet Gaston's family will have a nice bathing room."
"A swamp, I imagine." I muttered before I could stop myself.
"Dust - "
"I know, mum. Sorry."
"We just want what's best, chérie." Mum murmured, pouring something cold and coy into her hand and working it into my hair, surrounding me with sweet suds. "Anya is happy, after all."
I let a rush of breath, watching my reflection ripple as I whispered. "I'm not Anya."
Mum and her handmaid took over my bath, scrubbing me until my skin was pink, dragging a comb through my unruly hair, murmuring about colours and matches as I sat in my chemise and tried not to think of the night ahead.
"The cinched waist, then. Come, dear." I bit back a groan as mum led me to the handmaid, the two working to lace a corset around my stomach. I sucked in a breath, releasing it in a curse that had the handmaid gasping and mum scolding. Delicate pink, puffed sleeves, my hair drawn back in a tight, coiled braid, my cheeks rouged with a powder that made me cough and sputter.
I stared in the mirror, trying to keep my hands still at my sides - fidgeting is unbecoming, chérie - and ignoring the bitter taste rising in my throat. Mum smiled softly.
"You look like a little doll. The porcelain ones? Lovely."
I do look like a doll. I frowned, wrinkling my nose as the girl in the mirror did the same. Fragile and empty-headed. I bit my lip, a nervous glance at mum keeping me from speaking my mind. She looked so hopeful, so oddly fragile herself in a way I’d never known her.
"Dusty, I have never seen you this quiet. It's an omen of a good marriage, I'm sure."
"Anya!" I gasped, racing - as much as I could in ridiculous, toe pinching shoes - to my sister's arms. She laughed aloud, eyes sparkling, her belly round and full and cheeks flushed from baby glow. Maman laughed too, embracing us both tight at once before running a hand down Anya's belly. I grinned, chittering like a sparrow as I hopped from foot to foot. "I didn't even think you were coming! I mean, with the baby? Is it safe to travel?"
"I'm not all that delicate." She smiled wryly, reaching to lay a kiss on my cheek before doing the same to mum. "Oh, I've missed you both."
"And you too, my dear." Mum tilted a hand under Anya's chin, a proud smile lighting her face. "Ahh, look at you both. A beautiful mother, and a beautiful bride-to-be. They grow up so fast."
I laughed, fumbling nervously with my hair and trying to keep my smile from going watery as hers. "Maman..."
"I know, dear. I won't say another thing." Mum shook her head, her smile growing wicked. "I fear Gaston will discover his secret proposal plans aren't quite so secret."
"He won't suspect a thing." I let it out at last, unable to bite back a scowl. "His head is filled with swampwater."
"Dust..." Mum paused, looking to Anya with a glance I didn't quite understand.
"Well, I'll get back to the table. We're all waiting, ma soeur chérie."
"We'll be out in a moment." Mum called out after her, waiting until the door closed before turning to me, gently laying her hands on my shoulders. She smiled bittersweetly. "Dusty, I know what Gaston is like."
I listened, silent, passive.
"He may be wealthy and titled, but he's - well. A brain full of swampwater." She smiled. " He may be - "
"A brutish lout?" I had suggestions on my lips before she could speak, finding myself grinning. "A squat, bloated toad with all the charm and manners of an ogre?"
"Yes." Mum shook her head, chuckling. "But he is also in the right family, dear. The right name, the right status. I believe it was his father who decided for him." Her smile turned, eyes darkening. "If he can't have an intelligent son to inherit the family business and name, a daughter-in-law is the next best thing. And it’ll be nice, won’t it? To be among other mages, other scholars like their family.”
I pursed my lips, casting away my gaze. "You know what I think. I don't care about marrying for love."
"And if it will make you happy..." I trailed off, reaching for mum's hands. "Then I'll do it. I'm only nineteen, after all." I gave a crooked grin. "Plenty of time to find myself something on the side. All the royals do it."
"My little minx of a daughter." Mum cackled, then went somber, clutching my hands tight. "It only makes me happy because it makes Davide happy, to know you will be cared for when we’re gone. And I know he wants what he sees as best. Make the best of it, love."
I watched, curious as mum pulled something from her bodice – a glint of metal, a blade that made me catch my breath. "You're brilliant, and passionate, and kind. The Roste family business will flourish because of you." She placed the blade in my gloved hand, folding her own over mine.
"My letter-opener. Take it. May it bring you the fortune it brought me."
"Maman..." I breathed, turning the blade over in my hand - ebony, etched with gold leaf in spirals and curls. I slid it away as she had, hidden as both protection and utility, a tool of any mistress of an estate as I would soon be.
Wife, mother, Marquess. All the titles I would inherit. All the things I never wanted, that I would have to live up to. A low inhale, blinking back tears, trying to bring myself back to the moment. “Thank you. It’s beautiful.”
"Like you." She smiled fondly, brushing a loose lock from my brow and kissing me there. Could I do what she did, really? I looked the part now, prim and pretty, but inside…
I swallowed hard, gazing at the door as she rubbed my back. "Time for your proposal, sweet. Go on."
My heart thumping against the ribs of my corset, my pretty gloves hiding white-knuckled fists, I inhaled deep and prepared to accept my fate.
If he kisses my hand one more time, I'll remove it.
I held my breath and counted far into the hundreds at my future fiancé’s side, picking away at the sumptuous meal provided and giving despairing glances to Anya at her husband’s side. She met my eyes, sympathetic and shaking her head, a hushed embarrassment shared between us. Perhaps even pity. With a little prompting, she’d been allowed to choose her husband from her suitors. Since I’d turned away every other possibility, I had no such luxury.
I tried discreetly to wipe off the flecks of food and saliva Gaston had left in his charming kisses. The slob. I sighed, folding my napkin again and again in my lap and fading in and out of the animated conversation between Toltette and Monsieur Roste.
"Quality, Roste - this is what makes my breeds sell so well, finest in High Rock." Toltette, for once, spoke with enthusiasm,
"But is it not all about salesmanship, my friend? The finest stallion will never sell if the seller does not represent his product, after all." Roste, my future father-in-law, was the very image of a Breton merchant-noble, wealth and class gained through shrewd business. Specifically, with a focus on alchemy and supplying local chapels with their supplies. Profit from the tragedy of others.
And Toltette had thought he was doing me a favour, pairing me with a family who so twisted and abused my passion.
"Ah, father l-loves his debates." I was pulled out of my thoughts by Gaston’s simper. “I wish he wouldn’t b-bring business to the table like this. Useless argument, hmm?”
Useless argument? Is that what you call discussing the fine points of what pays for those silk cuffs you use as a napkin? I smiled, hoping it looked less sickly than it felt before turning back to my plate and eyeing the quail with a queasy grimace.
"Delicious meal, ch-chérie, simply delicious. You, you like to help in the kitchens, yes?" He was really trying, wasn’t he? Gods, that made it worse. I struggled to keep a smile fixed on my face. “Like a peasant wife, it’s qu-quaint! Of course, a noble woman’s d-d-delicate hands ought to stay soft…” He caught mine again before I could pull away, dotting on a kiss wet enough that I could feel it through the glove.
And I thought I felt sick before.
"Gaston?" Roste clinked his glass, clearing his throat and raising a brow. "I believe you had something you wished to share?”
"Share? Oh, yes, of course." He muttered, rising from his chair with a groan, catching mum and Anya's attention as Toltette inclined his head, giving him permission to proceed. He glanced at me nervously – me, as though I could help, as though he were the one lost here.
"I have a most wondrous announcement. The, er, honourable Marquis de Toltette has given me the most great honour - " He paused, coughing before continuing in near gasps. "Of his p-permission, to court his most lovely daughter, Gabriel. These past weeks..." Past weeks? You mean the three times I've met you? "Have shown me that she is more than a worthy daughter of the Roste family, and so I have the most dubious - er, deviant..."
He flushed, great cheeks swelling red under his father's reproving stare. "Er, delightful! Yes, delightful honour of asking her to marry me." He turned his gaze on me, and I felt a flicker of pity - he really was far more nervous than I. Did he want this at all, or had it been forced on him as it had me? "My dear Gabriel, would you do me the honour of - "
"Bended knee." Roste hissed, just loud enough for Gaston and I to hear.
"Yes, yes!" Gaston gasped, falling on his knee and reaching into his pocket, clutching my hands in his. "Miss Gabriel, would you take the honour - I mean, give me the honour, of taking my - your hand in marriage?"
Honour, duty, family. I stifled a sigh, daring to meet Gaston's watery gaze before cracking a weak smile. "It would be my pleasure, Monsieur."
The night finished with cheers and clinking glasses, Mum and Anya kissing me on the cheek, whispering condolences in my ear as Toltette and Roste shook hands on a profitable business endeavor. Well into the night we – they, at least, celebrated, Gaston simpering and telling me all our shared future would bring. I faded in and out, only distantly aware of his words, of his sweaty hand grasping mine as we found a quiet corner and sat. At a glance, perhaps we even really looked like a couple.
"Children, of course. Lots of children." His voice lowered to a whisper, his laugh almost a snort. "We should get started on that as soon as possible, eh?"
I blinked. "Pardon me?"
"Well, you know." His snigger cut off as he realized I was unamused, blinking furiously and reaching to wipe beads of sweat from his brow. "Why wait until the w-wedding, yes? You’re so very beautiful, Gabriel, and it would, I, I would like to…”
Not a toad. I pulled away and stood, staring hard at him. A boy. A poor, foolish, lecherous little boy.
He stopped, swallowing visibly. "What?"
"No. I can't do this." I pulled back even as I felt eyes on me, wrapping my arms around myself like a shield. "I won't marry you, Gaston. Not now, not ever."
Maman and Anya exchanged worried glances as Toltette and Roste turned on us, Roste turning pale while Toltette faded sickly yellow. "Gabriel - "
"No." I spat, backing down the hall, shoulders trembling, fighting to keep my voice calm as a sickly heat grew in me. Anger at being used, pity and disgust at my fiancé, grief at the thought of all possibility ripped away. No, no, no. Even for maman’s sad stare, even facing Toltette’s anger, I couldn’t bring myself to give in.
"I will not. I'm not some empty-headed doll, or some puppet master- “I glared at Roste.”I won't marry your son. I won't marry a man who can't even speak for himself."
"You've had too much to drink, dear." Roste hemmed, lip curled and eyes narrowed as he looked me up and down. "Surely, this is just -”
"It is what it is. Business. And I won't be a part of it." I broke off from a slack-jawed, reaching Gaston once more. A final look between them all and I stood straight as I could, a new strength lifting me. "I wish you all the best, Messieurs, should it have nothing to do with me."
And I ran.
Through the garden doors into the night, a chaotic orchestra of coos and cricket song the only sounds. Through the trimmed hedges to the brambles, to the unkempt grasses and weeping trees beyond - I tripped, my dress ripping with a satisfying crack around my feet, my shoes abandoned and toes laced with dew, gloves following soon after. When my breath came in gasps, white breaths rising to the stars, I reached the edge of the lake and collapsed to my knees.
I didn't cry.
I watched, instead - my reflection as it rippled in the water, so close, but so far away to what I needed it to be.
"So." I paused, meeting my gaze, lip caught between my teeth. "Who are you?"
She never answered, but something did. I flinched as I moved, something prodding against my chest. I drew the forgotten blade from my bodice, warm from my breast, fingering the carvings and drawing it through the water in silver streaks. I lifted it, watching rivulets descend before sliding it along my braid, and holding my breath.
Between that moment and the next, everything changed. I felt the tickle of my hair falling, the ribbon intertwined pulled away and thrown in after. I watched, breath caught as the black braid floated downstream, somewhere distant, somewhere nobody would find it. Tufts of my hair followed, chopped haphazardly until I ran my fingers through it, short and free, curled to my head.
One more look to the water’s surface and, for once, the face there was smiling back.
I didn’t return, that night. I waited, slept in the stables I’d hidden away in so often as a girl, until morning came. Only then did I return, all mussed with straw, dress torn, my hair newly shorn and sticking out in uneven, curling tufts like down on a newborn chick.
Mum pursed her lips, pouring herself tea and shaking her head as I forced down the rising lump of guilt in my throat.
"Maman - "
"No, dear. I understand." She smiled, lashes downcast. "You would never have been happy. Too headstrong." She chuckled, rising to sweep a hand through my hair. "It suits you."
Toltette wasn't so pleased.
"You little idiot." He snarled, stalking in circles around me as I calmly sipped the tea mum made for me. "Do you have any idea what you've done?”
“Davide – “
“Ruined our connection with the Rostes, shamed me, made yourself into an ass - "
“Davide, please.” He could never stay angry around maman. “Please, darling. It’s been a difficult night for all of us. Come to your study with me, talk a while.”
I felt his glare on my shoulders until mum led him way, but this time, I felt invincible. Even uncertain what lay ahead, what they would do with me now, I felt – strong. Comfortable, finally, in my own skin.
I was told the news that night.
"Gabriel..." Mum murmured, with a careful glance over her shoulder at Toltette. "Dusty. Your father and I have decided that it would be best for you - "
"And for us."
"If we sent you somewhere, dear." Mum took my hands in hers, eyes dark and shining, a small smile on her lips. "To practice magick arts. We're sending you to Cyrodiil, to the Arcane University in the Imperial City."
Toltette cleared his throat, eyes narrowed. "As soon as possible."
My breath hitched. "Cyrodiil?" Mum had lived in Cyrodiil, long ago. Where she’d met papa, before they’d come back to their ancestral home.
"Yes. But if you don't want to go, darling - "
"No!" The word jumped from my throat, my skin tingling as excitement jolted my blood. "I want to go. Please, maman."
"I knew you would." Mum breathed, clutching me close as I caught my own breath. "Sundas, then. Are you certain? Cyrodiil is distant, my dear."
I was sure. And Sundas couldn't come fast enough.
Cyrodiil - I had read of it, traced the names of its lands on maps as a child. The home of the Septims, the holy bloodline. The distant Imperial City, where remnants of ancient Ayleids became a palace, the Imperial Simulacrum, legends of Jagar Tharn - it became almost a holy place, so close, yet so far away. I read hungrily, curled in my nook for the final time, surrounded by histories of a strange new world that would become my hime. With every new legend, everything I learned, my heart leapt higher in my chest until I was certain it would come out dancing between my lips.
In the days to come, we discussed the details of my journey. First a carriage to Jehenna, then by boat to the city of Solitude in Skyrim. From there we’d travel by carriage South, stopping in the cities to rest and resupply until we could cross the mountain pass into –
I frowned over my bag of luggage, turning on maman and Anya as they helped me manage the packing. So many little, tedious tasks to get through but then, then…
“What do you mean ‘we’, maman?”
She and Anya exchanged a glance I knew all too well. Oh, no. “Well, it’s a long journey, chérie.” Mum spoke gingerly, moving to sit on the bed strewn with my clothes, my books, what few pieces of my life I wanted to bring along. “And since Madame Tucket is from Cyrodiil herself – she spoke of wanting to go visit family there …”
Oh, no, no. I faltered, staring slack-jawed between them. As I hit teenagehood Tucket had turned from my governess into Anya’s handmaid, helping her around her own newly inherited estate and through her pregnancy. Still, the memories of her lingered. “Mum, I don’t need a nursemaid! I was old enough to marry off, for Mara’s sake – “
“I know, sweet, but you’ll be safer with someone who knows the route and can speak on your behalf. A young woman travelling alone – it’s too risky.”
“But – but, Anya needs her!” I scrambled for excuses, glancing at my sister in desperate hopes of support. She only smirked and shook her head, a hand over her belly.
“I’m not due until well into Sun’s Height. I’ll manage. Sorry, sister.”
“And this is not up for negotiation.” Mum’s brows arched high, only lowering as I pouted and turned back to the luggage. A soft laugh and she kissed my cheek. “It’s just for the trip, darling. Then you’ll be free, and you can get into as much trouble as you want.”
“You shouldn’t encourage her, maman. Who knows what schemes she’ll dream up, hm?”
All annoyance evaporated, replaced by warmth at their teasing and affection. Love for them, both of them – different as we were, they supported me. Wanted me to be happy. We joked back and forth as I prepared, and even knowing Tucket would be escorting me wasn’t enough to drag down my spirits again.
Sundas was cool and balmy, the skies a dismal grey and meadows turned into bleak moors. Anya, Toltette and Maman watched, a flicker of a smile on my sister's lips as I threw book after book into my luggage. The horses whinnied and pawed at the earth in impatience, the old carriage driver spitting tobacco and telling me with a silent glare to hurry up.
Madame Tucket hardly seemed to have changed at all – a few more grey hairs, perhaps, a few I was sure I gave her, but the same proud looks, the same nagging and disapproving clucks as I stowed up my luggage in the carriage. Too many books, not enough dresses, but it was much too late to change that now. She climbed inside, giving me time for my final goodbyes to my family.
"You were always too smart to be cooped up here." Anya smiled, pinching me on the shoulder as though we were children again before holding me tight. Did I catch a glint of tears in her eyes, too, or did I imagine it? "I'll miss you, you know." Her full belly pressed up against me. “Be happy.”
I would try, as she had tried and succeeded here. I hugged her hard for a long moment, as though through that I could somehow give her my unspoken gratitude. A kiss on my cheek and we parted, and I turned to my stepfather.
I had expected Toltette to only watch, and fidgeted when he approached. He cleared his throat, impossibly awkward as we pointedly avoided each other's gaze. He spoke stiffly, a formal farewell, before moving away without ever having touched me.
"My sweet Dusty." Mum whispered, laughing weakly as I squeezed her tight. "I'll miss you. Write to me."
I bit my lip to stop tears, muffling my words in the warm crook of her neck. "I'll miss you too, maman. I'll be okay."
"Damn right, you will." She chuckled, drawing a hand through my hair. "You're mine, after all. You'll be fine"
I slid into the carriage beside Tucket, clutching a leather-bound journal to my chest. Something to keep me occupied during the long journey, even as Tucket droned in my ear. The old man cracked his whip, and the wheels began to turn.
I never looked back.
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
I awoke to the kiss of a blinding sun and the rumble of wheels, slipping from a sweet, sleepy haze and lulled by the gentle rock of motion. I yawned, a smile curving my lip as I reached for the little awning, pulling away the curtain and staring out at what awaited me.
The Imperial City.
Tucket had spoken of it like most women speak of lovers, in gushing tones and long sighs. Of the busy markets, the grand gardens, the stunning chapels that well rivalled even those in High Rock. Luckily for me, she wasn’t accompanying me that far – instead she escorted me as far as Chorrol and from there departed to stay with her family. A strange goodbye – I’d expected some reproving lecture or dismissal, but it was with tears she’d kissed my cheeks and wished me good luck.
And then, from there, I was alone. No mother or Toltette, no Anya, no guardian to watch over me – every tie had been cut. The absence felt strange. Not unpleasant, but heady and dizzying like a deep sip of wine. I stared in quiet awe at the spires before us, the tower in the center that seemed to rise up impossibly high even from here.
"You awake back there?" I startled at the wagonman's gruff shout. "An hour's travel will take us to the city."
An hour. An hour until I'm really, truly free. It was exhilarating, and our slow, steady pace - over rolling hills and past sprawling farmlands, a grand bridge beyond glittering water, under a falling sun -
It was strange, agonizingly slow, and exquisitely beautiful.
I drifted off again, a month’s travel weighing heavily on my bones. Cyrodiil - the word prickled my tongue like an exotic fruit, and echoed in my mother's voice.
I miss Cyrodiil, sometimes. She'd stroke my hair and murmur, eyes distant like she was looking at something beyond what I could see. The cities, the people. She would write letters to old friends, and reading their replies, though she would never share them with us, always brought a tear to her eye.
Maman... I felt a pang of guilt and pulled from the window, snuggling into my cloak. Did you want to be free, too?
A shout. I jolted again at the man's call, at the jerk of movement, the whinny of horses, and sudden stop. A clatter, footsteps, the creak of the carriage door and he was there, lips drawn tight in a frown and silver brow high on his head. "Right, missy. I'm setting up and off. The Talos Plaza is just through the doors there. Best of luck to ye."
I stumbled down, blinking under the sun's glare and clutching my bags close. A shy thanks and he was off, leaving me to turn and stare.
The towers rose dizzyingly high above those great walls, white stone turning peach in sunset light. I gingerly walked the cobblestone trail, giving one last, nervous glance to the shrinking wagon before setting my gaze ahead. A majestic open door greeted me, metal and polished wood curved in draconic twists, flanked on either side by guards who gave quiet nods.
Breath caught I pushed myself onwards, into the crown of an emperor’s realm.
I gawked around me, slowly approaching a dragon statue rearing its head in the center of the plaza. The homes were strange, like fortresses with columns and small, gleaming windows. A world of ornate stone. I slipped my bag over my shoulder again, grimacing at its weight.
I'm exhausted. I sighed, smiling in spite of the weakness in my legs. The university, then.
I pushed back a panicked leap of fear in my throat. I should have asked for directions. Shit, where – there must be signs – but searching around me I saw only people, so many people, so many shades and shapes and kinds of clothing, all singularly focused on their tasks for the evening.
I gnawed my lip, trying to collect myself. I knew nothing of them, their customs. My few times in the cities of High Rock seemed now tame compared to this, this – wonderful, frightening chaos. Beggars on the same street as noblewomen carrying shopping, laborers hauling boxes as merchants debated prices. A group of children squealing and chasing each other until they were scolded by a guard. A fascinating mingle of people, both strange and exciting.
Just be polite. Be yourself. Ask.
"Excuse me - " I called to a man, blinking as he hurried by. "Um. Excuse me, miss?" A Dunmer, fiddling with a gold chain around her neck, kept walking. I swallowed, hoping I didn't look as pathetic as I felt. "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me -"
"Go bother a guard!" Came the curt reply, a tawny-skinned mer throwing me a frown before marching off.
Guard. Fine. I swallowed again, gaze landing on one of the soldiers clad in armor, hovering around a corner with a gleaming sword buckled to his waist.
I did not want to bother him.
"Pardon me, citizen."
I jumped, flushing pink as a hand pulled from my shoulder. "Oh!" I turned, wide-eyed at a warm smile and gaze of the Imperial man before me. Silver gold armor, penned with another dragon - a royal guard. "I'm sorry, you s-startled me. Sir."
"Quite alright." He chuckled, eyes crinkling pleasantly. "You seem a bit distressed. Can I help you, citizen?"
"Y-yes, if it's no trouble." I spoke meekly, darting my gaze up to his. "I need to find the Arcane University, please - sir."
"Certainly. Just follow me." He turned, gesturing me to take his lead. "Are you a new student?"
"Yes, sir. From High Rock." I relaxed at his tone, his easy stride. "I just arrived."
"High Rock, eh? You've come a long ways. Here, allow me." I flushed again as he took my bags. "I'm afraid some of the citizens are a bit gruff towards newcomers. Should you need help - " He gestured to another guard, nodding at his salute of 'captain' before continuing. "Ask one of us. It is our duty to make sure the civilians of the Imperial City feel safe here."
"I will. Thank you, sir." I smiled brightly. "’I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name."
"Captain Adamus Phillida. It is an honour to serve the Imperial City and her people.”
"Thank you," I blurted out, cheeks going hot. "I mean, you were just - it's nice to meet someone so friendly."
He laughed, a deep, resonating rumble that made me blush deeper. "Thank you, miss. We could use more kind folk like you in this city." As another great door closed behind us he gave me my bags again, casting his eyes to the tower before us. "Here you are. Good luck, miss..." He trailed off, brow wrinkling.
"Dust." I beamed. "Miss Dust."
"Miss Dust." He repeated, a slow smile on his lips. "Welcome to the Imperial City."
"Thank you," I breathed, watching him go with a final wave, striding up the stairs and admiring the sheen of mystic stonework below before going inside, my pulse thudding and my name on my lips. Dust. Not Gabriel, not Toltette. Dust.
"Ahh, there you are. How do you do." A Dunmer greeted me, giving me a mild look over before beckoning me to follow without waiting for an answer. "The new student from High Rock, yes? Tired after traveling, I’m sure. Come along, I'll show you the Apprentice's Quarters."
My room. Apprentice Dust's room. I could barely contain my excitement at the thought, relishing the little shivers of joy and still heady with the feeling of – well, freedom. I strode to keep up with the Dunmer's pace, grinning ear to ear and gawking like the near child I was. An alchemical garden! All these buildings – that one there, that must be a library, and one for spellmaking and… I chuckled to myself, following obediently as the Dark Elf escorted me inside one of the buildings, a sign for ‘Apprentice Quarters’ above.
It was a sort of dormitory, many beds – some already occupied – with only a little chest and nightstand for possessions and dividers for privacy. I was led well down the rows to an empty spot, a bed that was half the size of my one back in High Rock but still looked so very inviting.
"As much as I would like to give you a tour, it must wait. I'll expect you tomorrow, Miss Dust, in front of the main tower at seven strokes sharp." The Dunmer smiled, wry in spite of his official tone. "Rest well, Miss Dust."
I dressed in my nightshirt and tumbled into bed after he left, still buzzing with excitement. I was certain I'd never be able to settle, in awe of this past day, this past month all replaying through my mind but when my head settled on the pillow and I thought only to rest my eyes I drifted into warm, heavy sleep.
I awoke with a jolt, confused by the strange sounds and feel of the blankets twisted around me. A flickering candle stood at my bedside, dark shapes yawning and stretching in beds of their own.
The University. I'm at the University. I smiled, stretching with a languid yawn. I'm free. I watched through sleepy eyes as the other students awoke, contented to simply absorb the sights around me. Blue and green robes swishing up as people changed behind their dividers, stacks of book cradled with notes stuffed in the sheafs...
A retort, like mine - advanced, though. I watched a student carefully handle the alchemical piece, polished to a diamond shine. The whisper of ruffled paper and quiet murmurs surrounded me, books being carried as though they might crumble to nothing at a sneeze - I felt finally among my own kind.
A clock tolled seven bells, startling me from bed with a yelp. I winced as my feet hit cold stone, slipping my robe over my head, stuffing my feet into shoes. Dammit, dammit, I'm late! My first day and I'm bloody late! I dashed up the stairs, clutching my bag and cursing under my breath. The crowd around me jostled, and I bit back annoyance at being bumped back and forth before bursting away and breaking into a full run. Raindrops pitter-pattered from the sky, making me grimace and run all the faster for the main tower.
"Damn, damn, damn..."
Oh, damn. I stopped short, cracking a weak smile under the reproving frown of the Dunmer I’d met the night before.
"You are precisely seven minutes late, and wearing your shoes on the wrong feet." I gulped, flushing red as I glanced down and wiggled them, suddenly aware of my discomfort. He chuckled, a brassy tone, catching my attention. "Fashionably late and a creative use of footwear, apprentice. Come along."
"Yessir." I meekly followed, unsure of whether to laugh at his dry humour. He paused, motioning for me to join him and pulling something from his satchel.
"What is this, Miss Dust?"
I blinked. A rosy-skinned, dimpled fruit sat in his palm. "An apple?"
"Quite." He smirked, vermillion eyes fixed on me. "What else?"
"Ahh..." I gave him a nervous glance before taking the apple, gingerly turning it over in my palm. I brought it to my lips, not to bite but to feel its smooth skin, smell its tart sweetness. "It's quite fresh. They grow in the Heartlands, generally, and ripen in late autumn. Though this one has been treated to stay good," I added at catching a whiff of bitterness. "A member of the nightshade family, so on a more complex level it can be used for poison. Its fibrous properties are also helpful for magicka to draw upon." I paused, frowning in thought. "A mild aphrodisiac, as well."
"Well done." The Dark Elf quirked a brow, smirking. "An alchemist, I presume? To the Lustratorium. And - " He looked back, giving me a nod as we walked. "Feel free to consider that your breakfast."
I took a bite, chewing thoughtfully and smiling at the crunch of sweetness, the rumble in my belly. I dashed to his side again - his strides easily outrunning my own, even walking. "I'm interested in all schools, actually, but I do have a particular fondness for Alchemy."
"Oh? You seem apt. You'll advance quickly here, I'm sure." A gentle snicker. "You've already lost the need to call me sir."
"Ah..." I bit my lip, flushing. "Sorry, sir."
He paused, giving me a kind smile. "I jest, friend. Bolor Savel, rank of Wizard and teacher of the art of posthumous restoration." He grinned, pearly teeth contrasting prettily with grey skin, red eyes gleaming. "At your service."
"Charmed." I beamed, beguiled by his wit, then bit my lip in thought. "Posthumous - ?"
"Necromancy, yes." He tilted his head. "Legal in Cyrodiil, though I am one of the few who openly admit to practicing it."
"Oh." I tried to stop a grimace, uncertain of what to say. Though High Rock was one of the tolerant provinces to more dubious arcane arts, the thought was still - disconcerting.
"Some fear is quite normal, I assure you. But my advances in the field have proved most useful in saving the living, and the Arch Mage has approved my work." He briefly scowled, not at me but some face he must have pictured. "At least some of us are open-minded. But nevermind my ramblings, eh? We need to get you equipped proper." He took my hand, laughing in his throat at my gasp and examining it carefully as I blushed. What's he doing? His skin tingled slightly, remnants of magick workings - and what else? I worried my lip, wincing.
"I do wash my hands, you know." He murmured dryly, casting me a small smile before turning back to my hand. "Leather gauntlets, size four, then." He dropped my hand. "I apologize for startling you."
"No, it's alright. I've never touched a Dunmer before." I gasped as my own words set in, feeling my face go hot. Dammit, Dust, think before you open your bloody mouth! "I'm sorry! I meant, ah - "
For a dreadful moment I feared I'd offended him, then his laugh rang out. He slung an arm around my shoulder, walking me back towards the buildings and the Alchemy Garden as he chuckled. "I like you, Dust. May I abandon formalities?" He continued at my nod. "Wonderful. I am honoured to be the first Dunmer you've ever touched. I suppose it should be expected you've had little contact, from High Rock."
“I - yes, I was... fairly sheltered.” Only now was I beginning to realize just how much, filled with both relief that he’d forgiven my social blunder and - something else. Warmth, a shivery little thrill from my toes to the ends of my hair at his touch.
I wasn’t some coddled innocent, of course - well, as much as I could avoid being one under Tucket’s watchful eye. I’d flirted, stolen kisses, moments of necking with a servant boy more out of rebellion than real interest. Even while denying my suitors I’d fantasized on romance, bards with hearts of gold or exotic, powerful sorcerers whisking me away...
But this - being touched by a handsome stranger, even so innocently, was something else entirely.
Focus, Dust. One thing at a time.
“Prepare to have your eyes opened, my dear.” Another grin over his shoulder as he let me go to move past, holding open a door with a teasing little bow. He nodded me inside, the door neatly labeled with a brassy plate - Lustratorium. "Come along. We'll get you fitted for gloves, given alchemy tools, then we'll tour the rest."
All too happy to learn, I followed.
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
It was after my first week in the University that I explored the Mystic Archives.
Bolor had given me only a quick show of it, the lower floor where Cyrodiilic literature and more common books were held. I found myself smiling at the musty scent of books and dust, running my fingers along ridged spines, raised letters. Yesterday’s lecture still echoing fresh in my mind I slipped The Wild Elves beneath my arm, curling in one of the plush chairs. One of the few unclaimed, maybe because of the odd charred spot on the arm. Probably a destruction apprentice showing off got a bit too enthusiastic. The past few days so busy it was only too easy now to while away the hours, time on my hands with lectures ended for the week. Outside, heavy clouds hanging like wool blankets and a gentle lullaby of rain heralded a lazy day.
It was closer to, and somehow farther from my little nook than I'd ever imagined.
I glanced up at the rasp of a voice, blinking back my surprise as an Argonian gazed heavy-lidded at me. She smiled, baring sharp teeth, words hissing along her tongue as she spoke. "I need to fix up that chair, apprentice."
"Oh, of course!" I leapt to my feet, turning to watch as she bent over the charred cushioning and swept it clean in a brush of magicka. She hemmed, fingering the remaining scar and frowning as cotton hung on her claw.
"Foolish apprentices. No offense, of course. I'm just sick and tired of having to clean up after them, day after day." She grumbled, more to herself than me. "Is it so much to ask? No eating in the stacks. Neat. Quiet."
I thought of the biscuit I'd been munching while reading earlier and swallowed. "Ah. I suppose not."
"Exactly! I appreciate magicka just as much as the rest, but setting furniture on fire is just a touch ridiculous." I bit my lip, listening rather helplessly to her lecture as she fiddled with the burn, this time releasing a puff of white smoke and a hiss of a curse. "I am sorry, apprentice, I've just had a rough day. And..." She mumbled something I didn't quite catch, fixated on the stubborn soot mark.
"Bergamot seeds and a bit of vinegar might draw that out." I spoke before I'd realized I had, going dumb as she gave me a glance with a frown. "Uh. Sorry."
"No, I believe you may be right. Alchemy isn't my strong suit, but vinegar certainly has cleaning properties around the home." She smiled, relief washing warm over me. "What's your name, apprentice?"
"Dust. I, I just arrived here a few days ago." I hadn’t quite mastered my shyness around all these new faces, not yet, just hoping a smile would make up for it. “From Jehenna in High Rock.”
"Ah, yes. I remember Bolor giving you the tour." She chuckled, shaking her head while her headpiece rang delicately around her fins. "Rogue of a Dunmer. Don't let him lead you astray, mm?"
I joined in her laugh, relaxing. "I won't. He has quite the sense of humour."
"That he does. Quite personable, too. If it weren't for his Necromancy..."
"Then I'd be a spectacular example of a well-behaved, boring little puppet, now wouldn't I, Tar-Meena?"
"Savel!" Tar-Meena and I jumped in unison, she barking at him with a glare. "If you don't get rid of that damned charm, I will. That ring just makes it easier for you to cause trouble." She frowned as he pulled it off, slipping it in his pocket with a sly smirk. "And wipe that smile off your face."
"Yes, Master-Wizard." He snickered, a hand on my shoulder. I'd grown used to it, these past days - touch was one of his ways of speaking, and I'd become fond of that quickly. "A thousand apologies, each and every one without a hint of sincerity. This ring is an old gift, you know." He raised a brow. "A Telvanni friend of mine. I wouldn't want to offend him, that's for damn sure."
"Of course we wouldn't." She rolled her eyes, turning to me with a kind smile. "I'll leave the chair, then. Or maybe you'd like to help?"
"Of course!" I fiddled with my sleeve, her title echoing in mind. "Master-Wizard."
"Don't feel obliged," Bolor warned. "Tar-Meena frightens off enough apprentices as is."
"Oh, hush." Tar-Meena snickered.
Friends. It astonished me, how easily the two got along. Humans were common in High Rock, the other races not so much. A Dunmer and an Argonian - all I'd ever read had claimed them enemies. But they were obviously colleagues and friends with the jokes they shared, their grins. Only when I went to leave by Bolor’s side did Tar-Meena's smile slip away.
"Yes?" He turned, his hand on my back. Tar-Meena only raised a brow, face so different yet the expression somehow utterly like Madame Tucket. Disapproving , right down to the narrowed eyes and raised brow.
"Oh, don't make that face. I know perfectly well what I'm doing." Bolor scoffed, both of them ignoring my confusion. "She'll be by tomorrow to help." He shook his head, his smile slipping only for a moment before he met my eye. "There's a fascinating lecture on death rites and lore tomorrow morning, you know. Taught by a very handsome Dunmer.”
"Wonderful." I laughed, shrugging off the strange ending with Tar-Meena and hurrying beside him. "I'll be there."
I shouldn’t be in here. I know that immediately, even as innocuous as the room seems, sunlit and silent. A key heavy in my palm, the taste of wormwood vague but bitter in my mouth. I want to run but my feet move me forward instead, past the imposing desk and shelves that seem to rise up beyond sight to that panel in the wall. It creaks as I edge in my fingers, pull it aside, feeling the dread growing in my belly but unable to stop myself.
No. No. They tumble out one after another, grinning, sightless. I can’t make them stop coming. I try to push the panel closed again but there’s too many, rolling and clattering onto the floor, sickeningly crunching as I try to push them in. Skull after skull toppling in front of me and I know, I just know they won’t stop, I’ll suffocate in a sea of bone and I inhale deep to scream -
I awoke with a gasp, cold sweat in a sheen down my skin. Dragging my palm over my face I blinked away grit to meet Bolor's lidded gaze. He sighed, resting his long fingers on my shoulder with his voice kept to a whisper. "Just a dream, apprentice. There are potions you could brew that could help, you know."
"I know." I mumbled, groaning as I pulled myself from the blankets to sit up properly. Gentle snores came from all around us, Bolor's face shadowed and strange in candlelight. "Maman always said dreams are important, though. What are you doing here?"
"Came to talk," Bolor said simply, hoisting himself onto my bed. "I couldn't sleep, either. Bad dreams. Comes with the territory. For you, though." He smiled wryly, sweeping a lock of hair from my eyes. "Perhaps the wine just sat badly with you. Quite a celebration, eh?"
"Yes." I laughed, the details of the dream - dread, skulls, secrets - evaporating with the warmth I always felt when Bolor was near. "Twenty, now. I don't feel any different."
Twenty. A full year had passed since I left home, escaped to the Arcane University and found a new life, here. New friends – in Tar-Meena, always happy to work with me stocking the shelves or mourning the state of the Archives, quick to joke and tease with a drink in her hand. With Bolor, quicker still than she and always nudging me to ideas I never would have considered, new perspectives I embraced, always happy to walk the grounds and talk for hours about nothing at all.
There was homesickness, yes, but joy, too. Laughter and triumph and growth. I’d needed this - like taking a plant from a too-small pot so it could stretch its roots and flourish.
I don’t regret it. The thought rang true and I smiled to myself. Not for a second.
"Oh, it'll catch up with you." Bolor’s murmur brought me back to the moment, a secret amusement in his eyes. "But not yet. You said you were born under the Serpent, yes? And that would explain the dreams." He continued at my nod. "A certain fascination of mine, the firmament. The Serpent - most blessed, and most cursed."
"I suppose." It did seem to make sense, my life always seeming to be barreling between two extremes - joy in the poverty of High Rock, misery in my stepfather's mansion. Here, at least, I felt like I’d found balance. I sighed, curling my legs beneath me and smoothing my nightgown over my legs. "What about you, then? What were you born under?"
"The Lover, of course." Bolor smirked, a little twitch of a smile and a gleam in his eye that always made me laugh. "Charming and graceful, handsome, kind..."
"And humble," I cut him off with a grin. "Generous. The necklace was a fine gift." I fingered the thin silver chain around my neck, feeling its tingle of magicka. He had given it to me after our little celebration, after splitting a bottle of wine between my dearest friends while watching the autumn sun set. Tar-Meena seemed caught between amusement and exasperation at it all, and I mimicked her gaze now as I met Bolor's eye. "The Lover. How old are you, then?"
Bolor stiffened, indignant. "I'm afraid that is none of your concern, my dear Apprentice.” He chuckled, taking the simple silver chain between his fingers, his knuckle brushing across my throat. "You look lovely in this. It’s enchanted - the same effects of a protection spell."
I grinned. "Don't change the subject, old man."
"You little - " He cackled, gently pushing me onto the bed. I closed my eyes, trying to laugh quietly as the snores and rustles around us reminded me where we were. My breath caught as he moved over me, smiling down at me as he idly played with my necklace. He paused, eyes dark and intense. Gods, they were intense, somehow impossible to look away from as I felt my face turn red. His weight on mine was light and deliberate, blanketing me as he chuckled. “Maybe not as ornate as the jewels expected for a Marquess...”
"You ass!” Sputtering laughter in spite of myself. “ I never should have told you tha - " My teasing retort faltered as he dragged his finger along my throat, sending a sweet shiver through me. "I don't - I never really..." By the Nine. When did it get so hard to breathe? His free hand slid under the small of my back, his lips curling at my hitch of breath.
“Much too late now, my dear.” He flashed that smile again, that knee-weakening smile I’d secretly admired over the year I’d known him. “Forgive me, but I think you are a far better scholar than you would have been a Marquess. I’m glad you came here.” A soft chuckle. “Ah, but listen to me carry on. Happy birthday, Dust.”
"Thank you," I whispered, my voice trembling. I felt dizzy again, like that goblet of wine was still in my hand and warming my blood as he leaned closer still. "I. Um. I..."
"You are lovely when you blush." He grinned, moving his hand to cup my cheek, thumb brushing over my lip.
We were silent, for a moment that felt like an eternity. Caught in a strange web of honey-spun sweetness, something so new, so bright and intoxicating, and yet it felt utterly natural. I sighed as he relaxed gently on me, his smile crooked.
"You should thank me properly for the gift, you know."
I blinked, confused and aroused and by Talos his hand trailing down my stomach felt nice. "It was a birthday gift."
"Yes, I suppose it was." He raised a brow, laughing in his throat. "Then allow me to put it this way - I'll give you another."
He pulled me up to him, just slightly, and crushed his lips to mine. I panicked inside, because dammit I didn't know what I was supposed to do, but our noses fit perfectly together and his hands moved over my waist, leaving tingling trails in their wake. He tasted bitter burning sweet still from the wine, his smell simply soap and smoke, and heat, and hope, and...
I whimpered in my throat, closing my eyes tight at his laugh, as he deepened the kiss and urged my lips to part. His hand slid lower then stopped, his breath sweeping down my neck as he moved away with a sigh.
"Ah, Dust." He smiled wryly, laying a gentle kiss on my brow. I bit my lip. Why did he stop? "I should get to sleep, and so should you. This should remain between us. Mages and Apprentices are not encouraged to interact so - intimately.”
So that's it? I gulped, sitting up proper as he moved away. He must have caught the sadness and confusion in my gaze because he smiled, giving a kind laugh.
"We aren't finished, however. I expect we shall continue our lessons in the near future." His fingers swept beneath my jaw, brushing away as he stood. The work of a moment to put on his ring and vanish – how he’d slipped in so easily for our late chats, these past months. "Good night, Apprentice."
"...Good night." I whispered, stalk still and listening for the telltale creak of the door upstairs. I released my breath when it closed, collapsing onto my bed, gazing blankly above me. Wow.
Well, I certainly feel more mature now.
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
"I ask that you treat this as you would any researching endeavor or lesson; calmly and practically. As I have discussed in previous lectures, death is merely a part of life, and I expect you to examine this corpse as precisely you would a living man or mer."
My eyes were fixed upon the man laid before us on a cold stone slab, Bolor's voice distant and strange to my ears as he lectured. The basement was awkwardly still - usually during lectures or experiments there would be hushed whispers, the shuffling of parchment and scratch of quills. In the silence, I dared to think I could hear the dead man breathe.
"I will give you one final chance - if you find examining the effects of poison after death immoral or are squeamish to the subject, leave now. After this warning, I expect all who remain to work diligently and without hesitation." I glanced up as Bolor gazed over us, the few students curious or brave enough to work at his side. He hemmed at the silence, lip curling. "Very well. Come, then - gather round."
A bitter chemical scent rose as I approached, as my gaze moved over the corpse - the subject. Bolor insisted we call them subjects, to distance ourselves. A Dunmer, sickly green skinned with a sunken chest, lines of fatigue carved into his brow and dark bruises down his stomach. A woman beside me made a face as Bolor lifted the subject's head, tilting open its mouth and rolling it side to side as though it were a not-quite ripe fruit.
"Can anyone tell me a sign of how the subject was poisoned?"
I bit my lip hard enough to hurt as an Imperial man coughed. "Ah, the bruising. Much like in cases of hemophilia, it is a sign of internal bleeding. Likely it was a rat poison."
"Good." Bolor smiled - how can he smile? - and turned to me, carefully laying the subject's head down. "And what effects would rat poison have?"
"I, um." I blushed, knowing he was expecting me to answer – this was my field of study, after all, potions and poisons alike. "Rat poison would thin the blood to a lethal point, causing hemorrhaging that would eventually lead to death. It seems like he - I mean, the subject - " I stumbled, words caught in my throat. "Seems like he - it, ah..."
"It wasn't accidental unless he was an idiot." The woman at my side finished, glancing at me coolly. "No one eats rat poison. So the subject was murdered, obviously."
"Quite right. Had to pull strings to get the body here, I tell you. The Imperial Guard only let it go because the subject was a prisoner, and apparently not popular with his hosts." Bolor smirked, reaching into his robe to pull out a thin, curved knife with a flick of his wrist. He would cut open different sections, show us the effects of both poison and death before the body would be taken away…
Nausea hit, hard. I clutched my stomach to keep from doubling over, trying to hide my deep breaths from the others. Papa came to mind just for an instant, a distant memory of my first home shrinking in the distance, leaving him behind. The Dunmer would get a burial - he wasn’t even given that much, was he? Probably burned away in a pyre with our old hovel, taking with it in smoke and ashes any traces of the disease that took him.
Seeing the Dunmer’s head limply moved back in place, those sallow cheeks and shrinking lips, I realized I couldn’t hold onto papa’s face. Blurred and indistinct, features never able to quite group up together.
Concentrate. Concentrate. I breathed in through my teeth, hanging to the back of the clustered group around the slab. Don’t think about that right now.
"Now, then. Move aside, you." Bolor nudged a student out of his way, moving around the prisone - the subject's body, turning it onto its stomach and pointing to a sickly wound in its back. "As you can see, the poison was administered through a weapon - an arrow. The entry wound should still - ah, hah." Bolor moved his gloved finger around the wound, a cringe shuddering through the room as it gave puss. "It has thickened slightly over time, but some of the poison remains around the wound. And if I'm right..."
Bolor slid the curved blade under the subject's flesh in the wound, tugging gently and prodding around it. "Yes, the arrowhead is still lodged in there. Guards couldn't be bothered to get rid of it, I suppose. Surprised they even ripped off the shaft." The Imperial jerked back as Bolor stood, raising a brow. "Now, what could have saved this subject from his death? What restorative techniques should have been administered in this case?"
The class moved slowly, our answers hesitant but precise, Bolor treating the body as I had the apple he gave me on my first day at the university. As time passed, I began to slip into his mindset - seeing this as a lesson, a subject, a simple form of teaching so I could better learn the exact nuances of Alchemy and Restoration. I became absorbed in identifying the exact components of the poison we extracted, the scent that wrenched at my gut seeming to fade the world focused on my tools, my work.
It was then I began to understand what Bolor did - how he did it. And somehow, without the painful tug I'd felt before, I thought of papa. Of the times I sat by his side and watched him work, there-not-there and wanting him to myself as he eased the suffering of those around him, smiling. Bolor is the same way – he wants to help. Yet, they were so different. I paused, pursing my lips and staring into the dark vat of oil and poison, the elements separating, spiraling.
I caught my breath as Bolor's hand landed on my shoulder, relaxing as he gave me a gentle squeeze. He met my eye with a frown. "Are you alright?"
"Y-yes. Just thinking."
"About what?" Bolor slid beside me, watching my extraction boil and swirl. "You did well, by the way. Very diligent, my dear."
"...Thank you." I barely heard him, staring into the vat, trying to concentrate, trying to hold those near-tears from before at bay. With work quieted now, it was harder not to let my mind drift, not to…
"So. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." The word fled my lips before I could stop it, an instinctive response from the days when Toltette wanted to care for me - when he thought he could be a father to me. When maman or Anya would pry and I’d clam up, convinced they couldn’t understand. I didn't shift as Bolor sidled closer, brow raised.
"You are and always will be a terrible liar, Dust.” I could hear the gentle smirk in his voice. "Usually, when I call you 'dear' or compliment your work you flush red a tomato. You hardly flinched. Come, now." I sighed as his arm snaked around me, as he caught my eye at last with a frown. "Was it the subject? The bastard deserved what he got, I tell you. And you can look around – everything’s cleaned up." He chuckled, tickling under my chin like he did when we would tease.
"I did look." I snapped without meaning to, standing, turning on my heel. "Didn't you see my notes, my work? I'm not some goddamn delicate princ - "I stopped short, wrapping my arms around myself and squeezing tight. The word came out in a whisper “… Princess.”
"…My apologies, Apprentice.” He spoke coolly, inclining his head. “Shall I leave you alone?"
I’d hurt him. "No. I, I'm sorry." I sighed, collapsing back onto the chair, still unable to look on the now clean slab. "Bolor, please. I didn't - "
"I know." He murmured, squeezing my shoulder again, then sliding his palm across my cheek so our gazes would meet. "The first is always the hardest. And you did work well. The subject was a murderer, you know." Another pause, long and thoughtful. "You needn't worry yourself over him."
I pursed my lips, letting myself relax onto his shoulder, blinking away the sting of tears. "It - it wasn't..."
It wasn't the subject. But I didn't dare tell him. I left High Rock to leave it all behind. The thought of bringing it up – no. It still hurt too much. I worried at my lip, breath held. “It’s just – hard. To speak of. I…” A sigh. I felt, suddenly, very relaxed. Why was I so frightened of telling him in the first place? He would understand, he -
I gasped, pulling from Bolor as I felt the sweet, alluring whisper of a charm spell sinking into me. "What the hell are you doing!?"
"Eh. A spell?" Bolor grinned sheepishly, letting the spell fade from his hands. "I think you should talk about it, Dust. No sense in keeping it all bottled up."
"No sense in using a damn charm spell on me, either." I frowned, staring hard at him. The taste of the spell's energy lingered in my throat, sweet and beguiling and why, exactly, was I angry? Bolor has such lovely eyes. Why did - I cursed, squeezing my eyes shut to try and push off the charm, rounding on him again. "Damn, that was strong. I thought you were Necromancer, not an Illusionist."
"A bit of both." Bolor smirked, waggling his fingers at me. "And that's a posthumous restorer to you, Apprentice. Now, then." He stood, slipping an arm around my waist, charming me again with just his smile. "As your superior, I order you to tell me what is on your mind. Let's go for a walk."
The moons were shadowed, leaving trails of dim silver light across the silent grounds. I took a deep, slow breath of fresh air, cool and sweet and moist from spring night chill. Bolor glanced up, eyes bright in the dark as he took me by the hand and lead me to the alchemical gardens.
"Here. Sit." He grinned as I winced at the feel of cold stone, and I couldn't resist smiling back as I felt his gentle spell of warmth cloak my shoulders. "And tell me everything."
"What if..." I trailed away, stalling, but his smile was near as potent as his spell. Over the last few weeks since my birthday we’d stolen rare moments of touch and whispers, in the stacks of the archives or the privacy of his laboratory, but out here…"What if someone sees us?"
Bolor waved his hand, brushing off my concern. "At this time of night? All sleeping. Trust me. I always roam the grounds in the evening." A slow, soft chuckle. "No more dodging. Talk."
Slowly, I did. My story came out in shards, little, jumbled fractures of memory like the time I spent at papa’s side, healing the ill. Learning my first spell from Falrung, how tapping that beat and seeing that little warm light still brought me comfort. Like waking up in his lap, like leaving them both behind. The sheep's cries, the smell of hide and wool, the rattle of carriage wheels and that no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t grasp the picture of my father’s face, alive or dead…
I swore I wouldn't cry.
I did anyway.
He held me as I did, murmured, stroked my back and soothed away my guilt, my tears. Told me his own story – of the revulsion in Morrowind for his craft, of fleeing his family in his search for acceptance, for freedom, something I knew the need for all too well.
And together we went not to the apprentice’s quarters, where we would usually part, but to his own room. Laying together entangled in each other’s arms, murmuring until sound turned to feeling, into heat, then into a deep, gentle sleep.
It was the first time I awoke with him. Meeting his bleary-eyed smile with one of my own, I knew it wouldn’t be the last.
A year became two, two became three, and I knew I was truly home.
As a girl, I ran from lessons. Here I embraced them. Working on assigned projects and studies to master the understanding of base solvents, memorizing reagents and their properties. Eagerly I catalogued everything, from the obscure to something simple as apple seeds crushed and refined to a deadly powder. I ran errands for the higher ranking members and professors, boiling water, tidying up laboratories, scurrying from place to place while trying desperately to cram in some time to work on my own studies.
And my nights – well. My nights became a very different kind of pleasure, with Bolor. We stole moments together, whether in his room for long, languid nights intertwined or only a quick meeting in the stacks of the Archives. The girlish infatuation I’d had grew into something deeper between us, kept all the more thrilling for the need to keep it secret.
Of course, we couldn’t hide it entirely. Tar-Meena clearly suspected and under her gaze it was hard for me not to crumble. But, mercifully, she didn’t press. I was relieved. I valued her and our friendship dearly. On our days off we’d visit the city proper, poring over wares in the market or wandering the Arboretum, playing and laughing through the festivals as they came and went. Cheering each other in triumph, supporting each other in failure.
All in all, I was happy. Happier than I’d ever been.
But of course, even the happiest days had to come with a little frustration.
“… Had a difficult day, did we?”
It must have been easy to see, at a glance. My chin still itched. I still stank. And I was, undoubtedly, still drenched in blood. I groaned and slumped against the door to Bolor’s room when it shut behind me, opening one eye to deadpan.
“It could have been better.”
“So the exam…?”
“I was doing fine – “ I gratefully accepted a wet rag from his washing basin, scrubbing at my face so hard it hurt and walking to his desk to sit. “Until that sneaky, slimy little prat Marcus nudged me – nudged me! - and made me stab right into an artery. Of course it just spewed out blood, and the professor told me off and I know very well Daedric Hearts are expensive, and after that the fetching little snake just gloated and – “
“Alright, deep breaths.” I almost snapped at him but just a glance softened me. I couldn’t stay angry, not with that smile of his meeting mine and certainly not the way his deft fingers sunk into my shoulders to massage, leaving me purring. “You’re certain he did it by design?”
“I know he did. Stantus has had it out for me ever since the position for working with Julienne reopened. He knows we’re head to head for it, and he wants to push me out of the running.”
“Mm. Be hard to prove, unfortunately.”
“Everything he does is hard to prove. He’s behind half the stupid pranks on the professors and twice now he’s tried to pin them on me – “
“And I’m sure you were only responsible for a few.”
“Two entirely different ones!” I protested, dipping my head back now despite Bolor’s work on my shoulders. “And mine are good-natured. Gentle reminders to those lordly ones who get a bit too big for their robes.” I shot up a grin at his own, letting my eyes drift shut as he planted a kiss on my brow and his long fingers traced further down to my collarbone.
“Like the itching powder on that s’wit Giraud last month? I wondered if that was you. ”
“The same I used on my governess and my sister growing up. Samara from maple trees, rosehips and flour. Simple as it gets.” I let a vile smirk spill from me. “The same I’m going to make sure dear Marcus gets a little sample of, just to remind him I’m not to be pushed around.”
“I love that wicked little mind of yours.” His eyes lidded, teeth bared as he snickered. “If also relieved I teach a rather different set of students.”
“Illusion students are almost as bad as us in alchemy. They just have less variety of wonderful things at their disposal. Or did you mean your necromancy ones? Nudging around the dead with spells to spook the apprentices, are they?”
Suddenly his smile fled, face cold. I frowned at Bolor’s expression, the darkness behind his eyes as he gave a low chuckle and his hands slid away.
“Bolor? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Dust. Just a bit tired today, myself.”
I grabbed his hand before he could remove it entirely, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I want to help, if I can. Please?”
A pause, then a low grunt of affirmation. “Walk with me.”
I followed. We made our way onto the grounds, to my surprise – though they were beginning to thin as late afternoon turned to evening, Bolor didn’t much wander until night fell. For all his charm, he was a loner outside of his work. A little smile to myself. Outside of me. A certain pride in that, me being his, him being mine, even if only in secret.
He walked with purpose, past the thinning crowd to the University entrance, onto the high stone bridge that connected it to the rest of the city. We paused at one of the sides, leaning over the parapet to gaze at the landscape below. In the dimming light the rolling hills turned soft yellows, almost glowing as though the sun sunk into them. Trees cast long shadows, and the spire of White Gold Tower rose to one side of us as the University tower did the other.
“Beautiful night.” I jerked out of my thoughts when he spoke. Something’s really wrong. No humour, no real appreciation in his expression. He was moody at the best of times, but this – this was different. I sidled closer to him, sliding a hand up his back. Damned if anyone saw us, he needed me.
“Please, Bolor. Talk to me?”
A long, low sigh. His gaze rose, moving from tower to tower before returning to me. “I’ve heard rumours. The Arch-Mage is retiring soon, and there is one candidate in particular who will undoubtedly step up to take his place.”
I furrowed my brow, shifting as his arm ran over my shoulders. “Who?”
A grin then, but a cold one, eyes closed as he shook his head with a bitter, mirthless chuckle. “Hannibal gods-damned Traven.”
I bit my lip, trying to remember. Admittedly, guild politics were mostly above my head. Just my everyday routine kept me busy enough and as long as I was allowed to work in peace, I paid little attention to the true powers of the University and the Guild. “… I know that name, don’t I?”
“The head of the Anvil Chapter. A staunch opponent of Necromancy. I have friends in the upper echelons, fighting his election, but it looks grim. I can hear the Council splintering even now.” He dragged a hand over his face, his shoulders tight and pulled forward as though some great weight rested atop them. “If he gains the position, everything will change. He has these lofty, fool ideas about restricting access to the University, and more, he’d undoubtedly ban my craft from its walls.”
My stomach sank. Admittedly, a part of me still feared Bolor’s work. It touched on that which every mortal shied from, denied almost instinctively. But even in my own work, his reflected. His knowledge of anatomy and the body, the workings of it in life and death and beyond were invaluable knowledge for the healing craft. “He’s an idiot if he does. Your work does worlds of good for us healers, Bolor. Some might twist it, use it for their own ends, but…”
“No different than rogue conjurers with their scamps, or mage highwaymen who threaten with fireballs.” A scowl as he spat out his words. “Evils of necromancy, my blue arse.”
I stifled a laugh at that. He pulled me in against his side and we fell silent, staring out at the landscape as oranges and gold turned softer, darker, shadows swallowing the hills and making them indistinct as the moons hid their faces behind heavy clouds. A cold wind blew past us, making me snuggle closer to him for warmth as I lost myself in thought.
My exam, my petty little rivalry – it seemed so small in comparison now, and made me feel small in turn. I was still just an apprentice. I had no pull with the Council – they probably didn’t even know my name. What could I offer?
Footsteps. One of the University guards coming off shift, hood pulled down. Bolor moved instinctively to pull away, but I held him tight, stepping closer. He frowned down at me.
Damn the guild and their rules, their disapproval. Let them think what they want. With a confidence I wasn’t sure I had I reached for him, my hand on his cheek, the other snaking into his hair to meet him for a deep kiss. A tingle when he didn’t pull away, warm even in the cool night.
The guard awkwardly cleared his throat and kept walking. I grinned up at Bolor as he chuckled, giving me a dazed, but pleased little smile of his own.
“Whatever’s coming…” I let my fingers trace along his sharp jawline, down his narrow face. Let myself get lost in those eyes, even as I tried to keep my voice firm. “We’ll face it together. No matter what changes, alright?”
“My Dust.” My chest fluttered as he came in closer, a hand behind my back, smirk wide and eyes lidded. “You’ve blossomed since you’ve come here. From an anxious little apprentice…”
“Into an overworked, slightly less anxious one,” I quipped back, grinning as he snickered. I closed what little distance remained to rest my head against his chest, sighing. “That’s because of you, you know.”
“I can’t take all the credit.”
“Humble as ever.” I pulled back again just to meet his eyes, almost aglow in the dark. He brushed a thumb over my cheek and I leaned into his touch, putting my hand over his. “Bolor.”
“I love you.”
It was the first time I’d said it.
His lips parted, but no words came at first. A tilt of his head, a slow, softer smile. “I always thought you Bretons threw around that word more frivolously. But you’ve been taking your time, hm?”
“I was – I was afraid.” I felt suddenly bare in front of him now, not stripped without like I’d been so many times but inside, opening myself up. “That you might not want to hear it, might push me away. But if we’re in this together…”
“We are,” he assured me, pulling me in tight. Suddenly I was teary, giving a watery laugh muffled against him. “Whatever comes our way.”
“I’ll help you deal with whatever – whatever bullshit Traven throws at us, and you can loan me that ring so I can get Marcus back.” Giggling in his embrace, foolish and bright and sweet. Love. I loved him.
I wasn’t afraid anymore because I knew, whatever we faced, we wouldn’t do it alone.
He kissed me, and I gave in without hesitation. No care for who might see, no care for anything but this. For anything but the moment we parted and his lips moved to my cheek, for the low whisper of words that left him then.
“I love you, too.”
Author's Note: Things are going rather nicely for our Dusty, aren't they? Don't worry, folks - it won't last much longer. ;) For reference, I intend to post chapters by twos until the main plot thread kicks in, then return to once weekly on Wednesdays. Again, thank you all so, so much for reading and I hope you enjoy!
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine
Sorry for the late upload, folks! Got a bad cold and lost track of time. As always, thank you all so much for reading! <3
My sweet Dust,
How have you been, darling? Keeping busy, I’m sure, preparing your first lectures, working with all the apprentices to help them settle in for the year. They’ll be lucky to have a mentor in you. It doesn’t seem so long ago that you were one, yourself.
I smiled to myself as I read mum’s familiar script, tracing the elegant cursive. In the other hand I toyed with a dried sprig of mint, mum’s calling card in every letter she sent, smelling just like her perfume. It really did feel like just months ago I was one of them – nervous and awkward and stumbling, so in awe of the new world they’d found. Her voice echoed even now, sending a bittersweet pang of loneliness through me. It was only because of her I was here, because she’d convinced my stepfather. Even now I kept her letter opener, the blade that had cut my hair and freed me those years ago.
But you’ve grown and learned so much and, from what you wrote, the Alchemy head was impressed with your research - no ma tter how little you thought o f it. You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss your hard work, chérie. You’ve put years into this, and you’ll need confidence now more than ever to be a leader, a guide.
Five years. I had to remind myself that – five years now I’d been here, first as an apprentice, writing essays and theories, researching and running errands, reading and attending lectures. Now, I’d be helping write them.
No more sweeping up fallen herbs or scrubbing out used alembics, no more writing essays with a stack of books at my side, desperate to please my superiors. At least, less so. I chuckled to myself, rolling my eyes and nudging away a few heavy tomes to make room for maman’s letter. There’d still be some of that, surely. But I had more freedom, now – I could direct my own experiments, and Julienne had asked – asked! – for my help in the Lustratorium, not as an assistant but as an equal.
Where would I be now? The thought made me shiver in both fear of what could have been and gratitude it hadn’t come to pass. If I’d been married off that night. If I’d never come here, never really got the chance to follow my calling. If I’d never met…
“Bolor.” I realized it just a hair of a second too late as a hand landed on my shoulder, making me jump. An exasperated sigh but I couldn’t help myself, grinning anyway at where I knew he must have stood. “An hour of alone time, is that really so much to ask?”
A shimmer and the illusion faded, Bolor pocketing his ring with a smirk. I’d been getting better at catching him, by now – noticing the tell-tale glint of light in the wrong place, or the soft swish of his robes as he crept in. It’d become a game between us, one of many as we teased and flirted. “I simply can’t resist you that long, darling. You cut out of the celebration early.”
“Well, I did celebrate, I just didn’t stay. The courier came, and I’ve been expecting.”
“From your mother?”
“Mhm.” I fingered the parchment, inhaling the fresh, cool scent that so reminded me of her. “And I wanted to get back to work on my latest experiment.”
“A watery drink of ale with the other graduates. Not much of a celebration, if you ask me.” He muttered almost petulantly, grumble marred by the mischievous gleam in his eyes as he straightened and wound an arm around my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek. “I had something else in mind.”
“That’s all you have on your mind.” I swatted him away with a snicker, shaking my head. “Which means you can help me with this while I finish up reading. Go draw me some water, would you?”
He surveyed the list I’d scrawled on a note beside maman’s letter, brows raising high. “Redwort, monkshood root, strawberries –reworking the aphrodisiac, hm? How industrious of you.”
“It is industrious! Julienne is looking for potions we can sell to raise funds for a few projects this year, and there’s not much that sells better. If I can finally get it perfect, we’ll be set. Besides…” I had to smile, looking over mum’s letter. “I enjoy doing this.”
"Oh?" Subtle want in his voice sent a little shiver through me. "And what about tonight?"
"Well." I giggled helplessly as he kissed beneath my ear, tickling. A moment of shivery thrill before I reached up in turn, grinning. "That will be enjoyable, too."
A purr. “I don’t doubt it. I’ll get some water up for your cauldron and leave you to it, then.” I had to bite back a sigh as he pulled away, half wanting him to continue to tease and distract as he so often did. “You could try adding some imp gall, hm? Might help increase the, ah – interest it offers.”
Not a bad idea, with a little sugar, some sodium carbonate to balance out the acidity. The Elf Cup had stamina covered, but as for arousal… “I’ll do that.” He left me to my reading again, finally letting out a low, slow breath and – shaking away the blush that had risen – picking up where I’d left off.
How is that handsome Dunmer of yours? Now that you’ll have steadier work and you’re a bit closer in rank, perhaps it’s time to start considering the future a bit more, hm? I giggled to myself, imagining her little smirk, the low laugh she’d give in her throat. No arranged marriage this time, dear. Take it at your own pace. All that matters to me is that you are happy.
Anya sends her affection – at least, all she can spare with the boys. Another muffled laugh. Poor Anya – two pregnancies, three boys, all spoken of in her own letters with exasperation and adoration. I know things have been hectic with the new rank and the changes at the University, but I hope you find time again to write soon.
With all of my love and pride, chérie. I miss you.
“Oh, mum. I miss you, too.” It was impossible not to feel a flicker of homesickness reading her letters, even knowing I’d never leave if I had my way. I’d write her again soon – tomorrow morning. I folded it up, inhaling the scent of mint one more time before sliding it in my desk with the others.
For now, as always, there was work to be done. Things had been hectic – not just with work, but with university politics, something I’d always tried to strictly avoid. But with Bolor intwined, it had been impossible. The Council had fallen apart, old Arch Mage had left, and elected in his place was –
“That dull-witted, condescending, wrinkled sack of shit!”
“Bolor?” I slid around the corner into the alchemy laboratory, cradling sacks of ingredients in my arms. “Everything alright?”
“Yes – yes, of course. Come in, Dust.” His voice had lost its usual charm, gruff and low. I left my reagents aside and approached him where he leaned white-knuckled over the cauldron, face twisted in a scowl.
I’d seen him like this more and more, over the past two years. Ever since Arch-Mage Traven had been elected – ever since necromancy had been banned from the university’s halls. I pursed my lips tight, gingerly placing a hand on his shoulder. “What happened, Bolor?”
He shook his head, nares flaring, eyes alight with anger. Finally with a growl he pushed himself up and away, stalking across the stone floor.
“He wants me to turn it over – all of it. All my writings. Every ounce of my past work.”
I stiffened. The Arch-Mage had made sweeping changes since he’d been here, splitting and dividing us into sects. Only on swearing to give up his craft was Bolor able to stay, turning his work from necromancy instead wholly to teaching Restoration and Illusion. But this… “That isn’t fair. You’ve already given up the craft, just like they said – what more do they want?”
“To destroy it, us. To root out all we’ve done, even the good, and erase it from history.” I hated seeing him like this – so frustrated, so helpless to do anything to stop it. “I don’t even know how they realized I kept it.”
“We…” I swallowed hard, wringing my hands in helplessness. I wanted to help. Somehow. Over the years since the reform I’d supported him, listened to him, comforted him, but it never felt like enough. “We could explain, couldn’t we? Show them your work and tell them how much it’s done, how – “
A smile, but there was no humour in it. Only weariness and affection as he planted a kiss on my brow, pulling away with a sigh. “Ah, my Dust. If only it were that easy. I’m sorry, my dear – I shouldn’t worry you with my problems. Get a start on your potion, mm?” Relief, as the twinkle in his eyes returned. “I’m sure we could test it out tonight.”
Poor Bolor. Or was he lucky? Always willing to be the test subject for some of my more creative endeavours. I grinned up at him, coaxing him down to me.
“I look forward to it.” A slow, sweet kiss and he was gone, leaving me to my work and worries.
It’ll be alright. It was easy to convince myself that, so pleasantly exhausted between celebrating and the new workload and nights spent so often in Bolor’s bed without much sleeping. We’ll talk to them, convince them. He’s clever, and his work is so good, and imp gall was just what this needed…
Too easy then to stir in the prepared reagents, listen to the soothing hiss and burble of the cauldron, and relax. Too easy to lay my head down on the counter, just for a moment…
I startled from my desk with a gasp, blinking sleep out of my eyes. What had I been…? Everything had been so soft, so pleasantly warm and sweet from the smell of my brew…
“Shit!” I leapt up fast enough to knock back my chair, grabbing the handle of the cauldron as its contents hissed and pop. Dammit, this thing was heavy enough empty –
A moment and Tar-Meena was at my side. “You have the left handle?”
“Yes – gods, dammit, it’s been at such a low boil for so long – “
“Well, let’s get it off.”
A few grunts and groans and we were able to haul it away, off the firepit and onto a stone groove beside where it could cool. I took at a glance at my faded, indistinct reflection within it, pink and filmy. Dammit. Well – maybe it wouldn’t affect it all too badly. And at least it hadn’t boiled over.
“Thanks, Tar-Meena. Gods, if you hadn’t woken me up…”
“I’ve been telling you you’ve been working too hard.”
I had to laugh at her chiding. Dragging a hand over my face I could feel the imprint of a book corner that must’ve dug into my cheek, the grit clinging to my eyes as I rubbed them awake. I really was sound asleep. “Maybe you’re right. Did you need something?”
I finally caught her eye – or tried to. She looked away. A tingle of apprehension rose in me as I took a step closer, tilting my head to try and get a better look. “… Tar-Meena?”
She seemed to steel herself, a deep breath before turning and smiling again like nothing strange had happened. “The Arch-Mage wants to see you. Immediately.” At my stiffening she hurriedly spoke again, soothing. “I’m sure it’s nothing bad, Dusty. But you should go now, before you end up taking another nap, hm?”
“I –“ Panic, buzzing and chaotic like a fallen hive. A hard swallow and I turned to gather up my books, glancing out the window. Dusk had fallen in the time that I’d dozed, the dimming skies turning peach. What could he want with me? I’d seen him around time to time, and certainly heard enough from poor Bolor to know of him, but…
Well. This is your chance then, isn’t it? I tightened my grip on my satchel. To defend him. But why he’d want to speak to me himself, I couldn’t fathom.
“I’ll go now. Dammit, I hope no one comes along, wanting to use this, I don’t have time to clean up and bottle – “
“I’ll find Bolor and we’ll take care of it.” That kind smile that I’d come to depend on over the years, the jingle of her headdress soothing. “Don’t worry.”
“I owe you one, Tar-Meena.”
I ran – probably wouldn’t do to keep the Arch-Mage waiting, and wondered. Why me? He’d met with Bolor and other would-be necromancers many times, of course, convincing them to stay, warning them of new policies, but I was just – well, me. He had no reason to seek me out.
All was mostly quiet by now, the evening humming with crickets and murmurs as students and teachers alike returned to their quarters or went for walks to enjoy the last of the fading summer sunlight. My footfalls echoed in the tower hall, announcing my presence whether I was ready or not.
“Ah, Miss Dust.”
A stately greeting from a stately woman – Caranya of the guild council. Any peace of mind I’d managed to build collapsed immediately under her disdainful gaze. Robes mussed and dirty from work, hair half pressed in from sleeping on it, I must have looked a sight. Her lips pursed and she sighed, straightening to beckon me with a crooked finger. “Come along, then.”
My chest so tight it hurt I followed her upstairs, trying to keep my breathing calm, not to trip in my hurry to keep up with her long strides. The council - They aren’t all here, are they?
No, but the three was enough to make my insides plummet into my feet. Caranya took a seat, gesturing for me to do the same as the others – Raminus Polus and the Arch-Mage himself – gazed over me a little more kindly.
“Welcome, Journeyman.” Traven looked – harmless. There was no other word I could find for him, almost as short as me, hair white and feathery, watery blue eyes crinkled in a smile as he took my hand to shake it. “And congratulations on your recent rise in rank. I’m certain it was hard-earned.”
“Thank you, sir.” I bowed my head and sat, all my lessons on manners and poise flooding back in at once and yet somehow not doing me any good. I still caught myself fidgeting, glancing around the room. “Sir, may I ask…?”
“Yes, I suppose there’s no point in stalling, is there? You must realize this is unusual.” His smile faltered some as he sat himself upright, folding blue-veined hands in his lap. “Raminus, if you would…”
“Of course, Arch-Mage.” The younger man straightened, cleared his throat and pinned his gaze on me. I felt trapped, squirming. “Miss Dust, our Arch-Mage has, as I’m sure you well know, implemented many beneficial policies over the past two years. There has been conflict, but ultimately it will all be for the good of the guild.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, and – did Caranya scoff just there, or had I imagined it? Still, I held my tongue. “Yes, Master-Wizard.”
“But I’m also certain you realize that not everyone has been so – so pleased with these changes. Now, you spend much of your time in the company of Bolor Savel, do you not?”
Oh, gods. I felt myself flare red. It was an open secret – we’d kept things more discreet at my lower rank, but since the night I’d thrown away that fear, we’d simply shrugged off stares of disapproval. There was no rule against such relationships, after all; it was simply frowned on. “I – yes, sir. He’s been a mentor and a dear friend to me. I know…” This is your chance. I straightened, tried to smooth and steady my voice. “I know and understand your policies, and I know he hasn’t always been amenable, but the work he’s done, the betterment he’s given the restorative arts – “
A hand rose, silencing me. Traven sighed deeply, heavy lidded eyes falling shut before lowering his arm. “We know you think much of him, Miss Dust.”
“Yes, sir, I do.” I felt myself bolstered by the thought of him, by righteous anger at the unfairness of it all. “His old research, even the research you don’t approve of – it’s invaluable. He’s obeyed every other policy you’ve implemented, sir, but – “
“Has he, now?”
There was something cold in that voice, cold enough to stop me dead and send a shudder through me. Grandfatherly no more Traven stared me down, calm but testing, probing.
“I…” My voice came in a croak. I inhaled again, tried again as I felt my mouth go dry. “Yes, sir, always.”
Polus spoke again. “We have reason to believe that may not be the case.”
“Has he been acting strange, as of late?” Caranya now, as smooth and confident as I wasn’t. “Perhaps not speaking of his projects, spending more time in his private laboratory? Has he made any suggestions for your own work that seemed – off?”
“No. No.” And yet, as I searched my mind – he had been distant lately, hadn’t he? I’d been working so hard I’d barely had time for myself, nevermind both of us, but he’d been more frazzled, more nervous. Spending more and more time alone. I firmly pushed my doubts away. “He’s – he’s fine. The only suggestion he made recently was imp gall for a potion, and I’m sure it’s a good one.”
“Nevertheless.” Traven shook his head. “As a member of our guild and our University you have a duty to us, Journeyman.”
“And what’s that?” I snapped, more harshly than I’d meant to. At Polus’ stern glare and Caranya’s raised brow I softened my words. “Arch-Mage, sir.”
“To protect yourself and all of us from the insidious dark arts. You are in a unique position, my dear.” A tilt of his head, his voice taking a kinder tone in the face of my anger. Soothing, trying to assuage me. “You being what you are to Mister Savel makes you of course inherently biased, but…”
“You are also the person closest to him,” Caranya’s smiled all teeth, coy and condescending, making me bristle. “And thus in the unique position of being able to watch him without suspicion.”
My blood ran cold. “You want me to spy on him.”
Polus shrugged. “If you want to call it that, yes.”
“He’s done nothing to warrant this.” I couldn’t keep the tremor out of my voice. “He’s a good man, one of the few who stayed on despite all these new regulations. He’s been nothing but loyal to the guild, to you – “
“And if that is the case,” Traven cut me off again, a strength I couldn’t have imagined steeling his voice. A pause and he softened. “Then there will be no cause for alarm, and we’ll all be better for it. But if you find that he is doing anything, even for a moment, that sets foot outside the University’s policies…”
“I trust him.” I realized my eyes were wet and blinked furiously. They’re wrong, they’re wrong and as idiotic and paranoid as he says, and I’ll prove it. “I trust him.”
“More than the Arch-Mage?” Polus pressed me. “More than the Council?”
“Yes. No, I – I don’t know.”
“I realize we are placing a great burden on your shoulders, Journeyman.” He almost whispered now, the old Breton, great brows lowering over old, old eyes. “But this is for the good of the University, and for yourself. I wouldn’t see you risk your entire career because of him. You have so much promise, Dust.” His eyes crinkled into half-moons as he smiled. “I’m an alchemist, myself. Our field is so often dismissed and ridiculed – it would be a great shame to see talent such as yours go to waste.”
Such praise from the Arch-Mage himself once would have had me almost shrieking with glee. Now I only bit my tongue, fighting to keep my voice steady. “Thank you. Will that be all, sirs? Madame?”
“Yes.” Polus stood as I did, following me to the top of the stairwell. “You will, of course, keep our meeting tonight between us. If Bolor is up to anything dubious, he must not be given the chance to flee.”
“He isn’t,” I bit back. This time, even at the Master-Wizard’s glare, I didn’t falter. I drew myself up instead, breathing deep. “And I will. Goodnight, Master-Wizards. Arch-Mage.”
I don’t know how I managed it – perhaps Tucket’s lessons on poise had come in handy, after all. But it wasn’t until I was well out of the tower, alone near the gardens that I finally let myself crumple, let the tears come.
A spy. They wanted me to spy on him, on Bolor – my friend, my mentor, my lover. Asking me – no, forcing me to betray him on pain of expulsion or worse.
“Fine.” I hissed to myself with venom as I strode across the grounds. Fine. I’d act as their little spy, and I’d deliver nothing but the truth – the truth that Bolor was upstanding and trustworthy. Frustrated by the ban, yes, by the hatred for what had been his craft, but adaptable and dedicated to the guild.
I moved with purpose now, first to the archives – gathering up what little information was left behind on necromancy. If I was going to prove his innocence, I’d need to understand what could lead him to be seen as guilty. Once I’d taken as much as I dared I slipped out, the glow of swollen summer moons giving me light to read by through the windows of my quarters.
My aphrodisiac would have to wait. My new responsibilities, my planned research – they could all wait. This took precedence. It’s going to be fine. A deep breath and I flipped open the first book, grimacing at gruesome illustrations of the undead.
I’ll prove them wrong. I’ll show them. I can change their minds – I can change this. A hard swallow. My eyes stung, but I knew I’d be here until I dozed off on my desk. I can fix this.
The emperor died the next day.
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten
“Have you heard yet? Can you believe it?”
I crept past crowds of students speaking in hushed tones, their eyes wide, rumours flying. No one had missed the news, and everyone had their own theory as to exactly what had happened.
"He was assassinated, wasn’t he? By the Dark Brotherhood!”
“Oh, don’t be stupid, they probably aren’t even real. I hear it’s all being faked – “
“Why would he fake his own death? The death of his sons!?”
I swept through the bedlam, somehow still trapped in my own little world as all of Cyrodiil panicked. I felt only a twinge of worry at the emperor’s death – it all seemed too big, too politically charged to truly involve me. No, it was Traven’s ultimatum from last night that still sat sickly in my thoughts.
That, and the lump in my throat knowing Bolor had been in neither his own bed nor mine, when I awoke.
“Tar-Meena – “The near hysteria caused by the news made us all jumpy, quick to fear for each other. I met her with a tight hug as she did me, parting to meet her wide-eyed golden gaze. “What in Stendarr’s name really happened?”
“No one knows, yet. The Blades are keeping all mum.” She spoke low, glancing behind us at the students crowding the grounds, still discussing the aftermath of Traven’s announcement. We walked side-by-side, making for the laboratory. “But I do fear that it is true.”
Still, the implications escaped me. I shook my head. “Have you seen Bolor? With all the hubbub, I haven’t been able to find him.”
Her scaled brow arched high. “He wasn’t with you? After he bottled and labelled the potions last night, I thought for certain you’d never let him go again.”
“He – but I didn’t even name them yet.” I frowned. Why would he…?
“Ah, but I think you’ll approve of the name he chose.” Warmth and amusement in her eyes, giving me a grin I returned. What had she once called him? A rogue? I could only imagine what he’d gotten up to, now. Back in the laboratory she knelt over a crate.
True to her word they’d poured and bottled every dose, and each had a little label smoothed on. I had to laugh. I don’t even know how well the formula works, yet. “You did all this with him?”
“I just helped bottle. Told him you might want to refine it more, not to waste the vials and parchment, but he insisted they were perfect.” She picked one up delicately between claws, offering it. “Look.”
A rush, a tingle down my back as I read the script and the name sunk in. Tears rose to my eyes, sweet this time, a little watery laugh escaping me. “J’adore. He makes fun of Bretony for how nasally it sounds every time I use it, and he called it – “ Love.
That sweet, clever, wonderful man. How could anyone not see what I saw?
“Perhaps he’s in his own laboratory, hm?” Tar-Meena grinned, giving me a little nudge on the arm. “Go find him. With everything going on I doubt we’ll be getting much work done today, anyway. If Julienne asks, I’ll cover for you.”
My best friend. I beamed back and rose up to peck her scaled cheek as she chortled. “Thank you, Tar-Meena. So much.”
“Just remember you owe me one. Again. Now, go on.”
I ran. The halls were mostly empty, everyone still in shock discussing the news, but I could hardly bring myself to care more than I would the death of any stranger.
I’d prove it.
Shuffling – movement in his laboratory. I swung the door open without knocking, panting, grateful, racing to him as he turned. “Bolor – “
Turned with an armful of scrolls, sheafs of paper, his own face nearly as white.
“Bolor.” I froze in place, staring as he shoved everything into a bag. Not the only one – satchels for his work, another stuffed with clothes, a fallen sleeve sticking haphazardly out. “What’s going on?”
“Dust. You’re here – good, good. I was just going to finish up and find you.” He dragged a hand through lank hair, brow slick with sweat, his pupils shrunken to pinpricks. I reached for him and he pulled away, only relaxing at the last moment and leaning back towards me. “You’ve – heard the news, I trust.”
“Yes, the emperor.” His hand felt clammy in mine. For once it was me squeezing his, trying to offer him comfort. “Bolor, what’s going on?”
“I know what Traven asked you to do, Dust.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “How…?”
A hoarse sigh. “I have friends in the University, even now.”
“Bolor –“ I shook my head and stammered, pleading. “You know I trust you, more than anyone, you know – I wasn’t going to, I wanted to prove them wrong, prove that you’re innocent – “
“I know, my love. I know.” My knees melted at that and I remembered the little vial in my hand. I relaxed my grip, showing it to him in my palm as he gave a weary smile. “You like the name?”
My heart swelled. “It’s perfect.”
“I’m glad.” So quiet, so somber. I’d expected – not this. His humour, his usual eyebrow wiggling and innuendo or even a declaration of love, but not this. “Then come with me.”
The bags, suddenly, made sense. “You’re – you’re leaving?”
His expression grew grave. “It’s not going to be safe here for someone like me, Dust. And in time they’ll come for you, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dust.” He took both my hands now, squeezing them in his tight enough to make me want to squirm away. “They will blame us. Mages, magic-users. First the outliers, but then it will spread to the rest. In times of crisis, they will always blame us.” I’d never heard him speak so gravely before, enough to make fear creep in.
The worst part was I knew he was right. We’d seen it time and time again in history – anti-magic sentiment rising up in times of upheaval for fear of the unknown, fear of power. I blinked back tears as he continued, voice a hoarse whisper.
“With the emperor dead, the city – hell, the province will go into chaos, more than you can know. But we don’t have to stay here, Dust.” His eyes softened and I in turn, leaning into his touch as he cradled my cheek. “We don’t need the school. Just our work, and each other.”
“Bolor…” I didn’t want to have to choose. As much as I hated being used like the Council wanted, this was still my home. “We can make them see sense. We can weather this, together, you know?”
“I want to believe that. Truly, I do.” His brow came to rest on mine for a long moment before he pulled away. “Come on. I have one last thing to do, here.”
I followed him to a closet in the wall, watching as he unlocked and pulled open thick wooden doors and reached out of my sight into the darkness of –
Oh. Oh, whatever was in that closet, it wasn’t robes. I recoiled at the smell, coughing quietly and edging towards him. Chemical and rotting and – and –
“My poor creation. I’m so, so sorry. It seems we won’t be able to finish our work, after all.”
Creation. He didn’t. He – I covered my mouth, stifling a gag as it took one stiff step, then another out of the closet, towards me. Bolor turned with the pride of a new father, only faltering at the look on my face. “Dust?”
The thing was embalmed, stitched together and moving and I shuddered as it lay its gaze on me. Its eyes – her eyes – were glassy bright, untouched by years of decay, her jaw trembling like my own.
“Undead.” I stared, unmoving. “You – you raised the dead. Here.”
“Pah! Simple necromancy. There is more to her. My dear,” I jerked, for a moment, thinking he spoke to me, but the – the thing turned instead, its head creaking and long hair clinging to her bare back. “Show Dust what you are. Show what you can do.”
I muffled a shriek at the hiss of fire, the sudden blast of heat and scorch mark left upon the wall. Not just an undead – a living corpse that could work magic.
“Do you see the eyes? I restored them myself before resurrecting her, teaching her.” Bolor whispered as though telling me a childhood secret, smile so sincere it ached to see. “She can see, Dust, she can think. Zombies are creatures of automatic response, hardly more than shuffling innards, but she is nearing sentience. She is the next step to resurrecting mortals from the dead whole.”
No. No. No. Bolor sighed and smoothed back the thing’s hair, caressed it the same way he would me. I shuddered, watching as it – she stumbled in place and gave a low, piteous moan. Her eyes – gods, her eyes were so alive, so pleading.
“She’s in pain.” I whispered. My tears broke at last as I shuddered, stepping away from it, her, who was she? Just a corpse he had found, or had he –
No, no, this was too much, all too much at once.
“I’m afraid she is, yes. But sacrifices are necessary. I couldn’t wait any longer to see what she could do. For this, a little pain is a fine price to pay. She’s incredible, isn’t she? The old eyes had to be replaced, of course, but – “
“Yes, with another’s. Fresher. They remain so, now – I enchanted them.” Bolor moved towards me, closing the distance between us in a stride. “Can’t you see? I am working on immortality, Dust, on the ultimate magick.”
“No.” Everything the books I’d read had warned me about, the mad, horrific ambitions Traven wanted so dearly to keep out of this school. Everything I’d denied he could be. “No. This is wrong.”
“Yes. Please, Dust, you must understand. You have such a brilliant mind, such an open mind – “ A pause, eyes sweeping over me. “Such an open heart. We don’t need them, their petty laws. We can run away and be free, together. Leave with me.”
This couldn’t be real. It couldn’t. The thing, the corpse croaked again, giving a full-body shudder that visibly rippled on loose, leathery skin.
Freedom. I’d fought and fled for it once before. Would I do it again? But this is wrong. I wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that there was a worthwhile sacrifice here but looking in her eyes, seeing her agony, gods –
“I – “
“Bolor, Dust!” Tar-Meena, outside the door. I wheeled around, frozen in place, looking back to see Bolor’s eyes narrow. He whispered, tilting his head.
“Don’t answer her.”
“Bolor –“ I kept my voice low, too, a croak as tears overflowed. “Bolor, please, think about this. If you run, they’ll hunt you down like all the rogue necromancers, they’ll kill you. We can convince them, we can – if you just stop this, here, now – “
His eyes darkened. I bit back a shuddering sob, begging, thrusting that little vial at him. “Bolor – what you named them, the potions, it’s true, isn’t it?”
He didn’t answer. I pressed him, desperate. “Isn’t it?”
For a moment, I saw a flicker of hope. Of affection, of regret in those deep red eyes.
Then I was crumpling, boneless. The clink of broken glass, and in a hiss all went black.
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven
My head – my head aches. A slow throbbing, swelling. Corpses often develop a buildup of gas in the intestines and belly. Am I dead? Bolor could fix me, couldn’t he? I try to speak, to say something, but my words crawl through my throat like shards of glass. My tongue is thick and stupid against my teeth.
Just hold still. Bolor’s soothing voice, his cool hands on my bare body. But something’s wrong – his touch isn’t gentle or teasing but sharp, painful in pinch after squeeze after pinch. And the taste in my mouth, chemical and dead –
You can be free with me, Dust. No rules, no fears. Just hold still. Flashes of sensation. A needle slipping in and out of torn flesh, burning, astringent liquid poured down my throat, glassy, feverish orbs of eyes dangling above me. No, no, I won’t drink it, I won’t, I want to live –
You didn’t let them live, another voice, my mother’s in a cold, low hiss like I’d never known it. Your father and his little secret. You poured their drink, after all. You should have known –
But now you’ll never need to die, not like they did –
Like you deserve –
I jerked awake screaming, cringing and panting for breath as everything swam into view. The world seemed bright, far too bright and loud compared to the deadly silence and cruel hisses of my dreams. Another voice reached through the fog, wavering.
“It’s alright, Dust. You’re safe.”
“Tar-Meena?” Blankets. I’m in a bed. I groaned, gingerly reaching up and cringing at the throb of protest from my head. “Where am I?”
“The infirmary. Thank Mara you’re awake.” I whimpered as Tar-Meena caught me in a sudden hug, smiling half-heartedly at her mumbled apology. She pulled away to meet my gaze, eyes clouded, cupping my hands in her own. “I was so worried.”
“I don’t…” I blinked grit from my eyes, the remnants of a bitter dream still tainting my throat. Bolor. Mum. But that was a dream. I shook my head slowly, trying to drive the memory back as long as I could. A nightmare.
“Jolga said you might have problems remembering.” Tar-Meena seemed to speak softly for my benefit. Why does everything hurt? My head felt as though it might roll off my neck at any moment, and I would have been grateful for the relief. ‘What can you remember? From yesterday?”
“I remember…” I pursed my lips, squeezing my eyes tight and grimacing at the resounding ache. Traven. Traven’s orders. The announcement, the emperor… “The emperor, I remember – the emperor is dead.”
A rasping sigh. “What else?”
“I think…” Bolor. His name stuck to my tongue like a burr, and I couldn’t shake the sickly dread from my gut. The memory crept slowly from inside me, swelling until it tumbled from my lips in a gasp. “Bolor. He – and that, that thing -”
“He used an illusion spell to knock you unconscious, we think. You fell and hit your head, bleeding when I found you.” Tar-Meena gave a shuddering breath. “I was looking for you downstairs when Bolor pushed past. He didn’t even look at me, kept walking when I asked where you were.” She clenched her fists, eyes flashing with sudden ferocity. "I saw you on the floor, and the undead - " A shake of her head, as though trying to throw off the memory. "The undead thing looking over you. By the Nine, Dust, I had hardly blasted it to ash before I ran to you. I thought you were dead."
Bolor. Bolor is gone.
He hates me.
"Oh." A simple murmur of understanding, calm and emotionless. "What happened to him, then?"
"He left. No one stopped him, they didn't know. I sent word to the Arch-Mage, but by the time I was able to find him after getting you help..." She sighed, eyes drifting shut. "He’ll be… long gone, by now."
"I see." Why can't I feel this? My own mind raged at me, trapped under a blank, stiff mask. Cry, laugh, scream, something!
"Dust?" Tar-Meena nudged gently, voice soft and sweet. "You shouldn't bottle this up. I know you're being strong, but I'm your friend. You can talk to me."
No sense in keeping it all bottled up.
"I should have known better." The pain in my head blossomed, throbbing with each syllable. I squeezed my eyes shut. "It was too good to be true."
"Dust." Tar-Meena frowned, brow furrowed.
"I think - I think I need to be alone."
One final, sad whisper. "Dust."
I listened to her footsteps, soft whispers against stone until the creak of a door and click of a lock left me alone, in silence. I gazed at the ceiling, watching as the colours of sunset bled through the window, staining it gold. I raised my hand, curling my fingers in a dim beam and playing with the floating specks like I did when I was small. Only half-awake, until at last sleep took me again.
I don't remember much, from those days. Tar-Meena by my side when I was awake, the bitter taste of potions forced down my throat. I’d managed a concussion from the fall and my thoughts were strange, spotty. I remember thinking in a daze of how to make those foul remedies taste better.
When I recovered I learned that my aphrodisiac was already selling well. Julienne had found them and taken the initiative, and soon had me brewing up more. I worked in a daze, never daring to look at the label, the smell of strawberries still laughably bitter. Cruel irony, but even through that I walked in a fog.
It was only after – a week? Two? That I finally really awoke, rubbing grit from my eyes and wincing at the sudden sharpness and clarity of the world.
Much has happened since I last wrote. Bolor is gone.
The quiet scratch of my quill and the sputter of my candle whispered together, tracing secrets in the shadows along the walls. I sighed, gazing dumbly at my curled parchment before dragging a scar of ink across it in disgust. I crumpled it, tossing it aside with the rest of the letters I couldn't seem to complete.
"No, I can't start it like that..." I muttered, reaching for an apple on my desk. I don't want to scare her, worry her. Shaking my head I tossed the fruit hand to hand, biting my lip in thought. Bolor always scolded me, when I did that. Laughing, purring. It’s my job to be tasting your lips, dear.
My potions, my room, my memories – I was surrounded by him. And yet as much as I just wanted to give up, go back to sleep, I was too awake now to go back. I could only keep going forward. Even the apple reminded me of the day I first really met him. Still, no sense in wasting it. I went to take a bite and -
I froze, pulling away and gazing at the harmless little fruit in my hand. It came with my evening meal, as one often did this time of year. Bright red, firm, sweet and tart - all for the world the same as the ones I'd enjoyed all season. But this...
An alchemist’s work centers around her mouth, her nose and her gut. Julienne had told me that once, wrapping a blindfold around my head for her test on wortcraft. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t delicate like the other crafts, but it’s true. You need keen senses to do well in this field, and we’re going to find out if you have them.
According to her, I did. A sensitive nose and the sense to trust my instinct in my work. And something here felt wrong.
I frowned, sinking my nails into its flesh and carefully watching. Normal. Utterly normal. But beneath the sweetness that made its way to me another scent lingered, bitter and faint and deadly.
Who would want me dead?
I knew immediately, and the thought lingered in my heart more bitter than any poison. Bolor. He – it must be. Who else would want this?
He hates me. Enough to want me gone. But he left, how could he have…?
I caught my breath, the hairs on my neck prickling. Movement. I knew I heard movement, however slight, however indistinct. I let my held breath tremble out.
No answer. Was that a shimmer by the door, or just a trick of the light?
I dared a glance over my shoulder, watching my candlelit, flickering shadow -
And that of the man behind me.
Bolor’s invisibility – it wouldn’t have cast a shadow. But a lesser spell…
It happened in an instant, in the flick of my wrist and crash of my chair to the floor. I snatched my letter-opener, twisting towards the door and lurching forward. My heart pounded, my throat squeezed out a scream and some part of me void of pride prayed for help from gods I'd never cared about.
Oh gods oh gods let me out please don't let me die -
"A pity. I wasn’t certain you’d take the bait, but it was worth a try, was it not? A cleaner death for you, at least." Not Bolor. Who - I yelped as a hand clenched me by the hair, shoving me back from the door. Footsteps. I crawled backwards, trapped between cold stone and the faint silhouette of my killer.
A slow, creeping smirk materialized from the shadows.
"Not that I mind."
He approached without hurry, closing in with the confidence of a wolf on a wounded fawn. I shrunk low to the wall, unable to think, my fingers white-knuckled around the little blade that was my only protection. I kept it behind my back as he approached, drawing out his sword in a single fluid motion.
I’m going to die here. Right here and now. No – I clutched the hilt even as I cringed away from his approach.
"I’m not a monster, pet. I’ll be quick. Now, be still - "
I didn’t. I leapt at him like a wildcat, not knowing what to do except to try to strike, try to fight. A grunt as he collided, then low laughter – it was the work of a moment for him to grapple me against the wall, to cinch my wrist in a spot that made all my fingers scream in pain then go numb, my own blade now in his hand, instead.
In his hand, up against my neck. Sharp, almost too sharp just for parchment, kissing the flesh of my quivering throat. I closed my eyes.
"...Where did you get this?"
"W-what?" I stared, watching him as he examined the blade he had pushed against my throat, his sword lengthwise against my stomach to keep me firmly in place.
"Where did you get this." I caught my breath as he tickled beneath my jaw with the very tip of the blade. "I will not ask again, pet."
Maman? No, it couldn’t have been hers before. Toltette. "My stepfather. Please." I hated myself for begging. "Don't kill me."
"What is his name?"
"H-his..." I dared to meet his gaze and flinched. "Davide. Davide Toltette. He lives in High Rock, home, I…"
I don’t want to die I don’t want to die, not like this, please, gods – his distraction with the letter opener and my own terror gave me new strength for a moment. I wrestled and squirmed under him, ducking under his grasp to race for the door again –
And stopped, dead in my tracks. It wasn’t a sudden drop, not like with Bolor’s spell. Instead, one by one starting with my legs, I went numb. Stiff, unable to scream, to fight, to raise even a finger in my own defense. Above me the man chuckled, darkly amused.
“No experience with paralyzation, my dear?” He knelt over me as I lay prone, the expression of shock I’d held still glued onto my face. “You having that blade makes things a little – complicated, but never fear. We’ll have all of this sorted out, soon enough.” Without missing a beat he picked me up and slung me into his arms. I felt the shimmer of Illusion pass over us both - no one would see us leave.
No, no - I am not going to die, not going to be dragged away!
Instinct, fuelled by anger and terror, took over. Fighting the spell I sank my teeth into his shoulder, smiling inwardly at his grunt of pain. A curse became a snicker, sending a shudder through me as I knew I’d regret what I’d done.
It didn’t take long. He pulled me back and I caught a glimpse of his features, thin lips pressed into a crooked smile, before the heel of his palm came at my temple. A ragged tear of pain split through my skull before the world crumpled in on itself and fell still.
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve
I had been dreaming again, surely. The thought came slow, irritated as I roused and groaned at the throb of my skull. I’d dreamt of a black horse with red eyes. A man with a dagger-sharp smile. Travelling, thrown over a saddle like a sack of potatoes or apples…
Apple. Poisoned. Had that been…? No. I...
My head hurt, hurt worse than even after Bolor left, but I wasn’t in the infirmary. I wasn’t somewhere soft and warm, the smell around me old and musty instead of astringent. And gods, my mouth tasted awful…
But not unfamiliar. Alkanet, water hyacinth. A heavy sedative. Little wonder my limbs felt filled with lead, my head impossibly heavy on my neck.
Through what felt like massive effort, I managed to drag open my eyes.
Stone walls, old stone, unkempt and crumbling. Flickering candlelight, a strange, low rumble all around me. Footsteps, murmurs, creaking. I went automatically to stretch and stiffened as I found my arms firmly bound to the chair I sat in, behind my back.
The man. The apple, the man, taking me away, it was real, all real, and someone was coming close. I held my breath, shut my eyes and tried to pretend I was still out but it was too little, too late.
“Ah, good. You’re awake.”
Panic swelled. A new voice, a new stranger regarding me coolly. No point in hiding it now – I opened my eyes, shrinking under his gaze. Not a tall man but foreboding, face carved deep and gaunt with lines, eyes a crimson that didn’t match his deathly pallor and between parted lips, the tips of fangs.
Vampire. I’m tied up with a vampire.
“No – “ The ropes creaked as I struggled, but didn’t give. I knew they wouldn’t but I had to try, didn’t I, I’d die here if I didn’t at least try to fight –
“Ah, now.” I gasped as his hand fell to my shoulder, craning uselessly away until I felt magicka seep in sweet, lulling. A part of me was protesting – I’d read about vampires, their ability to entrap and seduce their prey but I was so, so tired, so sore and really, I wasn’t going to get out of these ropes anyway…
“Better.” He took a seat before me, inclining his head in a way almost gentlemanly. I slumped in the chair even as I grit my teeth, part of me spitting against the spell, part of me already docile. “Now that you’re awake, I have a few questions for you.”
“I…” I squeezed my eyes shut. It couldn’t hurt, could it? Better to play along anyway, to protect myself – but was that truly my belief, or was it the spell talking? “… Alright.”
“Good. The ebony blade you held – tell me how you came to possess it.”
“My mother gave it to me.” The explanation left automatically, without struggle. “As an engagement gift. I was supposed to get married. It was hers, her letter opener.” But it couldn’t have been hers to begin with, could it have? Gods, my head hurt. “My stepfather must have given it to her. She couldn’t have afforded it before him.”
“Mm. Interesting. When was this?”
“Five…” Stop talking, stop! But why should I stop? Easier just to give in, and he was being polite enough, wasn’t he? “Five years ago, how, how long have I been here? Where am I? Why am I here?” The letter opener, the dagger. It all seemed to revolve around that, somehow.
A little smile curled the vampire’s lips, a chuckle too soft to be mocking and too sharp to be polite. “That’s not what we’re speaking of.”
“They’ll – they’ll notice I’m missing. The university. They’ll come for me.”
“We would not be so sloppy, I’m afraid. No, it would rather appear instead you left of your own will.” The smile turned sharper still. “Now, what is your name?”
An arched brow, the same I often got upon introducing myself. “Is that a given name, or a surname?”
I grit my teeth, dredging up the energy to fight the spell. It wouldn’t allow me to directly disobey, to lie, but this wasn’t exactly a lie – it was both a surname, my own and more. “Just Dust.”
“Well, that’s a stupid name.”
The vampire’s patient, tranquil expression withered. A little sigh. I craned my neck to see who had spoken as she sashayed in – a girl who could hardly have been older than me, all golden curls, big blue eyes and pouting rouged lips.
Slayer? This girl, looking over me with a giggle as she beamed, he called slayer?
“Well, it is. She doesn’t look so good, does she?” A mocking little cluck of her tongue as I glared back. “I don’t know why you bothered tying her up. I could slit her throat before she could even beg for her precious Divines.”
Oh. Alright. I shrunk back in the chair, in my binds. Yes. Slayer does fit.
“Did you need something, Sister?”
“Oh, I just wanted to poke my head in, see if she’d woken up yet.”
“So she has.” The vampire stood, hands folded behind his back as he addressed the blonde Breton. “And I’ve heard all I need to, so your timing is fortuitous. I believe it is your turn to watch over our prisoner, yes? I have other duties I need to attend to.”
“But – “
“But, Vicente - “
“Antoinetta.” A hint, just a hint of warning in that cordial tone.
“Well, fine.” She sat with a huff, pouting after the vampire Vicente as he left before turning her gaze on me. "You'd better be entertaining."
The spell that had made me docile before left with him. I glared daggers, curling my lip to retort before managing to stop myself. Calm down. Don’t antagonize her, don’t give them a reason to hurt you. I bit my tongue, bristling, digging my feet into the stone floor. There was nothing identifying about this room – a few pieces of old furniture, stone walls – no windows, no paintings, just eerie black and red tapestries and, dammit, where am I?!
Well – one thing was familiar, almost uncomfortably so. The little squabble between the vampire and the girl was all too close to my own with Anya, growing up. “… He called you sister.”
"I don't look like him, do I?" The girl - Antoinetta wrinkled her nose in distaste. "That'd be awful. No, we're not related. It's something better than that." She smiled, a dimple at the corner of her cheek. "Now, don't ask any more stupid questions or I'll cut your tongue out. The Speaker will deal with you soon, anyway."
"The Speaker?" I flinched at her glare, remembering her threat.
"Speaker. The man who was going to kill you." She enunciated as though talking to a child, rolling her eyes. "There must be a reason he kept you alive. Though he hasn’t said yet, and you don't look too valuable." A wicked grin. “Especially with a name like dirt.”
“Dust. Dust.” I squeezed my eyes shut against the throb of pain in my head, snarling. "Why am I here? What the hell do you people want from me?"
"Don't be rude!" The girl pouted. "I'm not really sure. I just know it’s because you had - Wait..." I watched as she fumbled with her belt, brandishing a blade and turning it over before me. "Like this one."
Silver and ebony, tendrils of gold whispering over its surface. This dagger had seen blood - it was worn and dulled in the designs around the hilt, years of hard use behind it. Not mine, but... I bit my lip, following the golden design with my eyes, my breath caught in my throat.
Identical. Identical to mine.
"It looks like yours, right?" Antoinetta smirked, sheathing it. "Only we can possess one. It means we're family, you know. A family of murderers!" She giggled, eyes shining. "But you're not one of us, are you?"
Dread rose from my gut. "...No."
"So, who gave it to you?"
Maman could never have afforded it. I shifted my gaze, gluing my eyes to the ground. Not while Papa was alive. So Toltette. It was Toltette's, and he gave it to her.
Papa died, and Toltette took us away.
"My stepfather," I whispered, my skin prickling chilled as his face, cold and disdainful, came to mind. Suddenly, everything made a terrible kind of sense. Papa’s sudden death, our family being whisked away to join him, my mother’s remarriage - He killed them. He killed them both. I shuddered, something deep inside me twisting into a painful coil. He's one of them, got what he wanted through blood. Papa, Falrung – he killed them, killed them so he could wed and bed my mother -
"You're all pale." Antoinetta gave me a curious glance. "What's wrong?"
All this time. All this time, and I never knew. "Family," I spat, bracing my feet against the floor. "Family. That's what's wrong."
"Oh!" She rose, clutching her hands and smiling at the familiar voice. "Speaker, what an honour. How may I serve?"
"You may attend to your duties, Antoinetta." Unable to see behind I could only imagine the face, made from snatches of memory. Dark eyes, a proud nose, lips thin and harsh and twisted in a smirk. "I would like to speak with our guest."
The girl scurried away. I tensed, flinching at the creak of the door, watching as the man seemed to simply form from the shadows.
Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen
Seems fitting this is chapter thirteen. Didn't intend it that way, but hey! First big twist!
The man moved towards me in robes liquid black, gloved hands intertwined and a dark smile on his lips. I watched him carefully, eyes narrowing as he moved past me. He placed something on the table before him, a coy scent rising. Wine? I could only catch moments of his movement from behind his back until he turned.
"My apologies for the wait, Miss Dust." A small smile, cultured and cool. I shuddered, and the barest sign of a smirk tugged his lip as he offered me a silver goblet. "Might I offer you a drink?"
"My hands are tied, you fetcher," I snarled, my head throbbing from our earlier encounter. How long ago had that been? A day, two, more? "Unless you want to bottlefeed me, I don't think I'll be having a drink." I grimaced. "And you've poisoned it, no doubt."
"Suit yourself." He gave a lazy shrug, sipping from his own and holding my gaze as I glowered. Cold and cruel and refined. His smile remained polite, but his eyes were black ice. Even as I hated myself for it, I couldn't quite stop a shiver from clambering up my spine.
"Who are you?"
"Ah, of course. I am Lucien Lachance." He bowed his head as he spoke, a mockery of courtesy. His voice both harsh like smoke and dulcet in the same breath. "Speaker for the Dark Brotherhood, and Master of this Sanctuary." He - Lucien raised a brow as I watched the wine, shrinking as though it might bite. “I assure you, it’s not poisoned. I have no wish to kill you." A dark laugh. "For the moment. And I do apologize for the binding. Just a precaution." He placed his goblet down, still maintaining that infuriating façade of a gentleman. “You understand.”
The Dark Brotherhood. So they were real, after all. I’d heard of them, of course – everyone had, but only some believed they existed. Pulling and plucking strings from the shadows, bringing down empires…
Tearing families apart.
"So what are you keeping me for, then, if you're not going to kill me?" I hissed with surprising venom, able to taste the acidity of my own words. "If you’re going to - " I was cut short quite literally by the snick of his dagger from its sheath, my throat tightening. I held perfectly still as he swept around me, poising his blade at the arch of my back.
He said he wouldn't - oh, gods -
My bindings fell loose. Puzzled I rubbed my wrists, burned and raw from rope. I spoke hesitantly, hardly daring to break the sudden silence. "...Are you freeing me?"
"Freeing you? No." That smirk again, the simple gesture enough to boil my blood as his words set in with finality. "Not yet. I simply see no point in keeping you bound for the remainder of your stay. And I have no intention of bottle-feeding you." I flushed at my own words as he offered me the goblet again. "High Rock's finest. Your home, was it not?"
"Years ago. Not anymore." Some part of me, the part that drove me to alchemy, drove me to magick, perked in curiosity as I examined the wine. He drank it. I ran my finger around its rim, raising my finger to the light to catch the faintest glimmer of potion. “What’s the serum on it, then? Something to loosen my tongue?" I laughed bitterly. "Your vampire questioned me already and besides, wine alone could do that."
"I suppose it could, if not as effectively. You're quite the alchemist, pet." I grimaced at the endearment, hand white-knuckled around the silver stem. "A shame we met in such poor circumstances. Your services could do much for our organization. Perhaps, if your stepfather is indeed one of our own -”
"I want to hire you." The words tumbled from my lips, curt and cold. He paused, frowning. I relished a moment of triumph at having caught him off-guard.
"Hire me?" Lucien spoke slowly, as though tasting his words. A slow smile curved his lip. "I'm afraid you are in no position to do so, but you've piqued my interest." He leaned back, smirking. "Whatever could you need me for, my dear?"
"My stepfather. I want him dead." Dead, like Papa. Like Falrung and Sirius and anyone else he's ever killed. There was no thought behind my words, only a cold, bitter thirst for justice. "I'll pay well. Whatever you ask."
A sharp laugh, wry and twisted. "But your stepfather is the reason we cannot kill you, Miss Dust. The dagger you held on the night we met, you claim it belongs to him. That makes him one of us, one of the Family." The way he spoke it seemed heavy, more than just a word but a title, weighted with meaning.
"You see, even for assassins there are laws to be obeyed. And the blood of family, if you are indeed the child of one of our brothers – that is never to be lightly spilt. To break such laws is heresy and will invoke the wrath of our Dread Father." He stood, beginning to pace around me. "So, we cannot safely kill you until we are certain he somehow came into possession of the blade without us."
"You don't understand what he's done." I shut my eyes, whispering to myself as a coldness crept over me. "He murdered my father. I want him dead. Whatever you ask, I'll pay it."
"No amount of gold could force my hand to break the tenets." His voice hardened, eyes gleaming as the politeness was replaced with a cruel, sharp edge. "Murder isn't so uncommon, Miss Dust. Every night, in shadows across Tamriel, man, mer and beast alike beg the Night Mother to kill. She speaks, and we obey." He laughed in his throat. "You weren't even a proper contract, or else your death would have been sanctified by our dark matron. The ending of your life would have been as simple as snuffing out a candle, a favour for a friend."
Not a proper contract? A favour? I pushed confusion aside, instead snapping back. "And if he isn't one of yours, what then? You would be able to kill him, wouldn't you?"
"In that case, I would simply kill you and be done with this mess." He raised a brow. "Why are the pretty ones always daft?"
The backhanded compliment hit me with a slap, sending a rush of heat to my cheeks. Two can play at that game. I spoke with a rictus grin through gritted teeth. "For the same reason handsome Imperials are always lacking where it counts."
Lucien snickered. My breath hitched as his dagger – another twin of the one they’d taken from me – slid up to graze under my chin, forcing me to meet his gaze. "And shall I cut that wicked tongue out of your pretty little mouth? It shouldn't be much longer, in any case. The moment I had your stepfather’s name, his location, I informed our contacts in High Rock. They’ve been watching your old family home, my dear. And soon enough, we’ll know the truth of all this.”
The manor - I froze. Maman. Maman is there. If they hurt her -
The vampire. I lowered my goblet to the table as the ‘Speaker’ had and stood, watching cautiously while he raised a brow at Vicente. There was something – yes, an envelope in his hands.
“It was sent through our own avenues a few days ago, not by courier. And it appears to be enchanted.” A nod in my direction, leaving me wishing I could vanish into the shadows myself. “I suspect, Speaker, that only our guest can open it.”
A moment’s pause. I squirmed under the combined weight of their gaze, finally drawing a deep breath. “Well, then – you’d better have me open it, hadn’t you?”
Wordlessly the vampire handed me the letter, giving a little nod as the man called Lucien hung back and regarded me coolly. I fingered the parchment, only able to guess at what was within. Toltette, telling them of his past? Telling them they were free to do away with me as they pleased? I could picture that. But why direct it to me and not them?
A faint hiss of enchantment fled at my fingertips, recognizing me, letting me break the seal – the Toltette family crest, impressed on wax – with no trouble at all. Folded parchment inside, and –
Mint. Cold realization trickled in like ice water. A sprig of mint.
“Read it aloud.”
I gave Lucien a bitter scowl, then inhaled.
My dear Dust,
I know you must be confused, must be terrified, but rest assured I am coming to get you as quickly as I can. Tell your hosts that I demand you be treated with every courtesy, and in particular…” I laughed, half in desperation, half in disbelief. “Tell Lucien that if he touches a hair on your head, I’ll hang him by his unkempt toes and flay him alive.
I will be there soon, chérie, I promise you. And I will explain everything then.
Abelle Maria Dust Toltette.”
A silence hung heavy in the air as I finished, bundling the letter close to my chest.
No sense. This made no sense, none at all. Unless…
No. It simply couldn’t be.
“Well. The hag lives.” Lucien enunciated with a wolfish smile, more a show of teeth. “Will wonders never cease.”
“Surely that is no way to speak of your old mentor, Lucien. I had known she had a daughter in Cyrodiil, but I never thought…” Vicente in contrast smiled, looking at me now with new eyes even as I shrank. “I see the resemblance now, yes.”
“I don’t.” Lucien stood and cornered me, examining me as I gripped the letter tight. A tilt of his head, that wicked smirk returning. “It seems you’ve been given a reprieve, Miss Dust, however brief. We will keep you here until your mother arrives, and this can all finally be dealt with. But make no mistake…”
His voice lowered as he took my chin in hand. The smirk was gone now, eyes dark as chips of flint. I held back a shudder, not wanting to give him that satisfaction. “You are our prisoner, and at our mercy. I suggest you stay on your best behavior, pet.”
He turned and left me with the vampire, slumped against the wall for support. The scent that had once given me so much comfort, fond thoughts of home and family now made my head spin.
It can’t be. It just – can’t.
Vicente watched me for a long moment, red gaze flickering up and down before he bowed his head again. “I will show you a place you may rest, for a time. Follow me.”
I moved after him in a fog, still clutching the letter, still reeling at what it could all mean. A part of me feared I already knew but I didn’t dare look too closely at it, not now. Like prying my gaze from an open wound, trying to pretend it didn’t exist as though that could make it go away.
Prisoner. A prisoner while I waited – and all the way from High Rock, it would take weeks. Trapped in here, this – this dungeon, this tomb. I caught only glimpses of the place I was condemned to as I followed him, noting thick wooden doors, strange plaques on the walls, the eyes of strangers gluing to my back until we were alone again. Some kind of dormitory room reminding me, in a strange way, of my apprenticeship – little spaces separated by dividers, each with their own storage.
“Lucien is correct.” The Breton man spoke slowly, as though considering each word. I didn’t dare meet his gaze. The resemblance. It can’t be true. “You are our prisoner here, and thus at our disposal. But you won’t be mistreated.”
“Because of my mother.” I’d spoken without realizing it, a whisper.
“Yes. I imagine Lucien told you why.” A pause, the faint smile on his lips reflected in his voice. “Gabriel.”
I stiffened. It had been years, since I’d heard that name. “How do you...”
“Abelle wrote to me, after she left Cyrodiil with your father.” There was a gentleness in in how he spoke now, not the soothing illusion of before but something genuine. “She told me of her daughters. Of Anya becoming one of our brokers, of sending you to the University. I might have recognized you sooner, had you given your true name.”
“She never told us – “ His words fully sunk in. “… Anya. Anya works for you?” My sister. My noble, demure, dutiful sister, no, no, no, how could everything be falling apart so fast?
“After a fashion. She is skilled in the more subtle arts of our work in High Rock – discrete communication, transferring funds, turning politics among the nobles to our advantage. Making things run smoothly.” And gods, I could picture it, too. Unflappable, logical, silver-tongued Anya. It was always Anya and mum who paired together, selling what we could scavenge and make when papa was alive, going to dinners and balls and socials when she remarried…
I sank onto the nearest empty bed, breathless.
“You knew her, then.” My voice rung empty, hollow as I felt. “My mother.”
“I did. It was here she became a member of our Family. We worked closely, and I think fondly of her still."
Laughter but not laughter, the sound I made then. Crackling and sharp like the parchment crumpling in my hand. Fondly. Well, so had I.
“You should rest. I imagine Lucien kept you mostly sedated during your travel here. Some real sleep would serve you well.”
Don’t patronize me. I bit back the remark and let it sour and die on my tongue, avoiding his gaze. “Thank you.”
Finally, I was alone with my thoughts. There were two other beds filled, but neither shape under the covers stirred as I lay back atop them, staring at a stone ceiling.
Why papa? Why Falrung?
How could she betray him, like that? Betray us? And Anya. How could she pretend she didn’t know? How many people –
… Sirius. Sirius, too. I had to inhale to catch the hitch of a sob, not wanting to wake the sleeping forms around me. That must have been what he was so curious about. Rumours. He found evidence, got too close to the truth and…
I couldn’t hold it back anymore. Instead I turned, burying my head in the pillow to muffle ragged breath, whimpers. It had all happened so fast. A stack of cards come tumbling down with a nudge of just one. Bolor, that ‘Speaker’ taking me away, learning that… I bit my tongue hard enough to taste copper, both to stifle sobs and try to control myself. Think. Think. There has to be something you can do. Some way out, some…
But what would be the point? They would hunt me down again, surely. And one way or another, I would have to live with what I’d learned here, without answers.
I needed to see her. Needed to look her in the eyes and confront her, one way or the other. And no one else would be coming for me – the vampire had said as much himself.
I was trapped, and I was alone.
And it was only when I rolled over that I realized I still held the letter, the cool scent clinging like a film. Part of me wanted to throw it away, into the nearest fire. Part of me wanted to read again, draw out something I’d missed before, some explanation, something to bring some sense into my suddenly chaotic word.
As it was, exhausted, I fell asleep with it clutched to my chest.
Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen
I would have thought the worst part of being a prisoner would be the chains. Being unable to leave and see sunlight, inhaling stale air day after day. Thinking of the blue skies and emerald grass of the university grounds, wondering if I’d ever walk them again. Or the scorn of my captors - the disdainful stares from the residents of my new dungeon annoyed me, but I they were as much as I got. None of them spoke to me, bothered with me.
No. After a week, it was boredom. Because boredom left me alone with my thoughts. Without answers I was lost in a whirlpool of questions, and all I could do was flounder.
I snapped the book shut with a thud, growling through my teeth. Truthfully, it could have been so much worse. True to Vicente’s word, no one raised a finger to me again. More – he seemed to go out of his way to peer in on me from time to time, offering me access to his personal library which I quickly gave in to. I had clean clothes – it seemed their method of ensuring I’d simply ‘disappeared’ was packing some of my things and leaving a little note, like I’d run away after the betrayal I’d endured. I was fed, sheltered and largely ignored.
It would almost be better if they beat me.
I regretted my thought immediately, jumping in my chair at the shrill sing-song call, Antoinetta strode in, stopping to give me a pout at my stare. “Oh, for Sithis’ sake. Nobody’s going to hurt you, remember? Stop jumping every time I look at you funny.”
Snotty, vapid little – “Then stop looking funny,” I shot back. Oh, yes. Very clever, Dust.
But she grinned and tittered, a glint in her eyes. “See? That’s what I like to hear! There’s no fun in a coward. Now, come on. I’m making you useful.”
Useful? I blinked and, after a moment’s hesitation, stood. As an afterthought I put the book down on the chair before moving to her, skeptical. “What do you mean?”
“Follow me!” And with only that she pranced her way through the place they called their ‘Sanctuary.’
In the week I’d been here I’d learned only a little of my hosts. A few books in Vicente’s collection detailed local rumours and history, but it was nothing I couldn’t have found back in the Mystic Archives. When things were quiet I sometimes wandered, finding reminders of what this place really was. The Guardian construct, creaking its way back and forth with a heavy blade strapped to its bones. The ‘Tenets’, those plaques on the walls I’d noticed before that detailed the laws of their organization.
And the Black Door. It was the Speaker who’d taken me in the first place that found me examining it.
“Looking for a way out, are we, pet?”
I’d ignored him at first, trying to dodge answering his nudge. Yes, I had been. Even knowing it would only mean my death I at least had to look, had to know. But this place was, as promised, sealed tight. There was a well to the surface but the hatch had a padlock. I’d picked up a few alteration spells in the University for practical use, including one for locks, but next to the hall where so many passed through it would take too long to use it before I’d be spotted. A dead end.
And this door…
Sealed, of course, but there was something disturbing about it too. It felt like it could sense me, like it could breathe. Like it could hear my heart beat, making it echo in my ears.
“What – is this thing?”
And, to my surprise, he told me. The history it held. I could see it even now in my mind’s eye, the eerie, foreboding carving and the story he told – of a mother sacrificing her children so ruthlessly…
Well. It wasn’t something I wanted to think about too closely.
“Here we go!” Antoinetta pulled me from the memory with a grin. The kitchen and dining hall. For a place seemingly of death and decay they were surprisingly well stocked. Counters and cupboards of dark wood scrubbed clean, a large hearth, strings of dried herbs hung alongside pots and pans. It makes sense, I suppose. They have a whole Family to feed.
I made a lot of those little jokes to myself, in those weeks. They didn’t do much to help. I shook my head and followed behind the girl half-dancing to the cupboards, humming as she picked out this and that.
“What do you want, then?”
“You’re an alchemist, right?” She was pulling out food seemingly at random. “And alchemist is basically a fancy mage word for a chef, right?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Well, not exactly. Alchemy is a much more precise art…” But, well. It did involve combining ingredients in the right amounts, doing the right things with them to achieve the desired effect to be consumed. And I did enjoy cooking almost the same way I did my craft.
Perhaps she had a point after all. “… Anyway. I can cook, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Perfect. I’m making a big meal for tonight and I need the help. Well?” She blinked at me as though stunned by my stupidity, standing there waiting for instruction. “Come on! Let’s do this!”
“Are you going to tell me – “ I barely caught the head of cabbage she tossed my way, glaring over it. “Tell me what we’re cooking?”
“Ugh.” A roll of her eyes. “I have to do everything, don’t I? That’s the reason you’re here. I’ve run out of ideas. I know I don’t have to cook, everyone can make their own meals, but I like to, you know?” Without waiting for my answer she charged forward. “But everybody’s got such different tastes and you never know exactly who’s going to be at the table and who’s going to run out on contract, so half the time I have to end up doing bread and stew, over and over and over.”
I blinked. “There’s nothing wrong with stew.”
She gave me a withering glare. I had to purse my lips to keep them from twitching into a grin. It was just – just so absurd. Amidst all this heartache and fear for what lay next, this? A toss of her hair. “There is when it’s all you eat. Now, come here and help me think.”
To my own surprise, I did and I did without complaint. Even if it meant chatting a maniacal, giggling murderer, at least it made me concentrate. At least, even for a little while, it drove all other thought away.
Besides, through her chattermouth I could learn a bit more about this place, the ‘Family’ and its members I’d only glimpsed from afar as she regaled me with their preferences. Gogron and Telaendril, an unusual couple and a play in opposites as brash Orc and shadowy Bosmer, but both apparently with a taste for red meat. M’raaj-Dar, the Khajiit whom I’d learned quickly to avoid after I’d felt more than a few of his scathing glares at my back, and who liked his food sweeter. The Argonian twins Ocheeva and Teinaava, who liked strange spices and preferred fish, Vicente who rarely ate here, and certainly not at a table…
It didn’t help me much in my current situation, but anything could be valuable. I had to try not to chuckle to myself as she finished carrying on, giving another dramatic sigh. “You see? It’s impossible.”
“Nothing’s that impossible, just difficult. Why don’t we make pies, but with a few different fillings?”
It was her turn to dumbly blink. “What?”
“Well, the hard part is making the pie crust. Then you just chop up the meat, or vegetable, or fish, or whatever they’d prefer and throw it in with some kind of stock. It’s not fancy, but it’s individual and – “
Her eyes narrowed, making me falter. I worried for a moment I’d somehow angered her and as impulsive as she was that could be dangerous, even for her earlier reassurance. I hadn’t forgotten how casually she’d mentioned slitting my throat.
But instead she grinned, giving me a little flick on the nose. I wrinkled it, frowning as she giggled. “I guess you got into the University for a reason, huh? I never thought of that. Good job, prisoner.”
“Thank yo – “ I cut off as the last bit clicked in, biting down on a sigh.
“I think I like you. But Dust is still a stupid name. Here, take a cutting board. You can do the salmon. I hate filleting fish.”
For the first time in days, I felt my shoulders relax. Felt my mind go quiet, focused on the tasks at hand as I extracted delicate bones, chopped fruit, decided on spices. It was stupid and cowardly and ridiculous that I was obeying, cooking for my captors, that I was enjoying it, but at least it was something.
I could worry about regret later. For now, there were pies to be made.
I was filling the last as Antoinetta criss-crossed the top of hers with strips of pastry – ‘to make it look pretty!’ – when we were interrupted. Soft footsteps behind us, a gentle clearing of the throat.
“Forgive me, ladies.” Faint amusement in Vicente’s voice. “I see you are both hard at work. Sister, your skills are needed. Come with me.”
“Ooh!” She perked up at my side, laying down her work and dusting flour off her hands in clouds. “Yes, Executioner. Dusty, can you fix these up for me, pretty please with berries and cream?”
In a matter of hours I’d gone from ‘prisoner’ to ‘Dusty.’ I smiled, even feeling a sinking in the pit of my stomach. ‘Her skills.’ I could well guess what that meant. “… Of course.”
“Thank you! I’ll just have to try one for myself next time. Let me know if the others like them!” She grinned and left with Vicente, leaving me alone to finish and tidy up. Alone with my thoughts.
I kept my hands busy, putting the pies in to cook and scrubbing them red and raw cleaning, but that couldn’t distract my head. I hummed to myself instead to drown out the noise, the unanswered questions growing in volume to a scream, and humming turned into song. A childhood song, lost innocence and regret, one I’d practiced in lessons alongside dance, harp and lute, known now by heart.
“Sous les feuilles d'un chêne, je me suis fait sécher.
Sur la plus haute branche un rossignol chantait…”
“I haven’t heard that song in nearly a century. It was your mother who taught you, wasn’t it?”
I stiffened. It was true – she’d sung it often among many lullabies when I was a girl. Vicente stepped up beside me, nodding to the oven. “Thank you for helping Antoinetta. I’m certain she appreciated it.”
I swallowed hard. I never knew that to do around him, this man I should hate, yet was so unfailingly polite I almost felt guilty for my anger. I shrugged. “It was something to do.”
Wordlessly he began to help me finish cleaning. We worked in silence, me trying to ignore his presence, finding it impossible. Her Family. He’d been – was – a part of her Family.
What did that make me?
I dredged up the courage to speak, throat hoarse. “What was she like, back then?”
He didn’t need to ask who I meant. A quiet moment of watching me before he began. “Driven. Clever. Ambitious, but loyal.”
“To you.” My voice shook. “To murderers.”
He didn’t try to argue with me. Only let me stew in my anger until we had finished our work, regarding me once more. “I suppose you must be bored to tears, waiting for her.” A small smile. “You’ve well raced through my collection.”
“Thank you for letting me use it.” It seemed the best thing I could say. Keep it cool, keep it detached.
“I believe I can offer something more. Please, accompany me.”
Wondering, I obeyed. We wound through the ‘Sanctuary’ again, this time to the lower level, stopping beside a set of heavy doors where Vicente knocked. One of the Argonian’s room; Ocheeva. I kept quiet in my confusion. She hadn’t glared at me with venom, not like some of the others, but I didn’t want to test my luck. What’s he doing?
“Assassin.” He bowed as she leaned out. I was beginning to learn their titles, ranks. It was odd, how the vampire spoke so deferentially to even those below him. “I apologize for disturbing you.”
“Not at all.” The golden eyes were the same but beyond that, I saw no reminder of Tar-Meena in her. Tar-Meena, for all her hard work in the stacks, was witty and warm and sweet. I could almost feel the cloud of frost emanating off Ocheeva in contrast, especially as her gaze moved to me. “I trust our guest is keeping on her best behavior?”
“She is, in fact. I believe you’ll enjoy what she prepared with Antoinetta for supper.” That little smile again, gone as soon as it came. “She is also an alchemist. I believe we may have some use for her in the duration of her stay, if you would agree.”
Ocheeva’s eyes narrowed. I kept my gaze firmly glued now to my feet, feeling my face flare hot. What is he doing? “And if she attempted to poison us, with such tools at her disposal?”
“Then I’m sure she would know not only she, but her family would suffer for her actions.” It came out so mildly that it hardly seemed a threat at all, even as my blood ran cold. Veiled, yes, but a warning nonetheless. Ocheeva watched me a moment longer, then gave a curt nod of agreement.
“Remove the more dangerous ingredients. She is to be searched after every session in there and before cooking, if Antoinetta insists on recruiting her into the kitchen again. Have her make healing potions – it’s safer, and we are running low. We can at least make her earn her keep but, Vicente - are you certain this is wise?”
“I will take full responsibility for any mishaps. Thank you, Ocheeva.”
“Very well, Executioner. I trust your judgment.” A bow of her own and she left us, the heavy door falling shut. I remained silent until we were well away again.
“How do you know I wouldn’t do it anyway?” I didn’t like this. This confidence, even so mannerly, this assumption that I was a docile lamb who’d do as I was told. “My mother, my sister betrayed me.”
“And yet, you love them still.”
The retort caught me like a slap. I blinked, open-mouthed but unable to formulate a reply as he bowed his head.
“And furthermore, I am told you are quite a talented alchemist. The kitchens are well-stocked, not with ingredients so lethal as the laboratory, of course, but nonetheless. You know how to draw poisons out of the most innocuous foodstuffs. Do you not?”
He – he wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t an easy thing, of course, and I couldn’t have done it with Antoinetta anyway, but I knew some foods could be used for dangerous ends. Even enough to cause sickness rather than death – that might have been enough for my purposes, had I wished to weaken them and make my escape.
But. I finally spoke, a murmur. “It never – I never thought of it.”
“You are as capable as any one of us at ending lives, in theory. In practice, it wouldn’t come to mind unless you were in immediate danger. There is reason why your mother never told you of us, of her past.” His parchment-pale, gaunt cheeks, the corners of his eyes wrinkled in a smile. “And I have become a good judge of character, over the centuries. Please – follow me.”
We entered a room that had been locked to me before. Bitter-smelling and musty, dimly lit by a torch on a wall sconce. A table for work, surrounded by jars and bags, with apparatus scattered over it and cauldron pulled to the side. Tools I knew better than my own hands. Not as extensive as my laboratory at the university – at home, I thought with a pang – but…
I felt the tears come to my eyes and knew I couldn’t hide them, wiping them away, instead. It came out weaker than I’d wanted, hoarse and tired. “Why are you doing this for me?”
“Because you are your mother’s daughter.”
I startled but Vicente only smoothly turned, inclining his head to the Speaker as he approached. Unlike the other members, he didn’t seem to reside here permanently – slipping in and out as it suited him. The vampire told me he preferred the solitude of a Fort, to the East of the city. I’d seen him only a few times each stay, and each time I watched him with a mixture of caution and venom. Slippery, skulking bastard…
He only smiled in return, first to Vicente, then to me with a hint of amusement. I glowered harder. “Rude, to eavesdrop.”
“I can hardly eavesdrop in my Sanctuary, pet.” I rankled at the name again, crossing my arms over my chest as he turned his gaze, sharper now, back to Vicente. “I understand you have asked Ocheeva to allow our guest in the laboratory. I know it better than anyone. Why don’t I introduce her to it?”
No, no – as much as I knew I should hate Vicente, at least he was more familiar by now. The Speaker – I’d spoken to him only a few times since the night we met, and that night was still fresh in memory. But Vicente only nodded in agreement, apparently ignoring my dismay as he left me alone with him.
“Shall we, pet?”
“I am not,” I hissed back, caustic, “Your pet. And I know my way around a laboratory well enough alone.”
“But it would be impolite of me not to show you it, you a guest and as an alchemist myself.” When he smiled now, I noticed a little white fleck of a scar on his grizzled cheek. I knew that mark well – I had a similar one on my chin from an exploding vial. I narrowed my eyes nonetheless, keeping my arms crossed, my shoulders tight, letting disdain creep into my tone.
“A poisoner, you mean.”
“Is the difference so vast? And I hardly make poisons alone. You should well remember, after our little journey from the Imperial City.”
I remembered not remembering. Fuzziness and pain. Up and down motions from the back of a saddle, blearily catching the world passing by in glimpses. How long had we travelled? It couldn’t have been that far, a day or two at most. Any more and the frequent sedation that must have kept me docile would have been dangerous. But I still had no idea where we were, though I’d heard references to family members going ‘into the city’, heard noises of civilization from the shuttered well. Underneath a town, then? But which one?
“Figuring out where you are will do you little good.” He chuckled at my look of shock, then dismay, lip turning in a scowl. “I could practically see the wheels turning behind your eyes.”
I inhaled deep, steadying myself before putting on a show of a smile. “Show me, then.”
“With pleasure. We had very little in the way of alchemical supplies before I became Speaker of this Sanctuary. Now, as you can see, we keep it well stocked. You should have little trouble brewing what we need.”
I examined the supplies, the equipment, having to give grudging approval over what was here. Kept in good shape even after use, the essentials well-stocked – though over my shoulder I noted Lucien taking a few of the smaller satchels. Lethal reagents, undoubtedly.
Speaking of lethal - my gaze strayed to a burlap sack of apples. “More of your poisoned ones?”
He near purred in response, challenging. “You are the alchemist, are you not? You tell me.”
I plucked an apple from the bag, bringing it close to my lips, dragging my thumb across its skin. No trace of powder, no film of venom. And it didn't smell of it. I pressed a nail into it, catching the sweet scent I well knew. "It's harmless."
“Oh?” A throaty chuckle. “And how certain are you of that, my pet?”
I held back the twitch of a scowl, considering him for a long moment. Fine. He wants to play? To taunt me? Fine. Without hesitation I took a hearty bite of the fruit, meeting his questioning brow with a wide smile. “Quite certain.”
Gods, the look on his face was sweet. Not quite shock but certainly surprise, slithering into a pleased grin. “You really knew, didn’t you? I must admit, I stand corrected.”
“I’m always happy to educate.” I may be your prisoner, but I can go toe to toe with you, you egotistical git.
“And I am, I assure you, your humble student.” His voice was loaded, dripping with false humility as he bowed his head low, glancing up beneath dark brows. “Although I would offer you some advice of my own.”
“And what would that be?”
“Firstly, not to get too comfortable. Vicente treats you well because you are Abelle’s daughter, and he remembers her fondly. But you are still an outsider. Your fate is still uncertain, pet, and regardless of what privileges Vicente affords you, you are still our prisoner.”
I shook my head with a humourless laugh. “Believe me, I’m well aware of all that.” I’d been trying so hard to not think of my situation, after all, only to be slapped with it time and time again. How could I ever get too comfortable? “And secondly?”
“Simply that it is unwise to leave one’s hard work alone too long to cook.”
“Well, student, sometimes overbrewing is just the secret – it certainly worked for my aphro…” It trickled in. My face turned almost as red as the apple in my hand. “You’re taking about the pies.”
“Quite.” Oh, gods dammit, he was feeling the same way I had not a moment ago, undoubtedly taking great pleasure in knocking me down. “So before you settle in with pestle in hand, why don’t you run along and take care of that, hm?”
I had no retort for that. I could only huff and bristle and scamper off, feeling his gaze burning into my back, his words echoing through my head. Too comfortable. It sickened me to admit even to myself that he had a point.
I was trying to distract myself because every waking moment otherwise was spent thinking of her. Of what she’d done. Trying to wade through it, make sense of it – it was still raw and confusing and starkly painful, and knowing that soon enough I’d have to face her, face the truth of…
Be strong. Part chiding, part comfort. Be strong or you’ll never make it out of here alive, anyway.
Who could say what would happen, when she arrived? Everything I thought of her had changed. Perhaps she’d turn on me, let them kill me like they wanted in the first place…
At least that conceited Imperial bastard was wrong about one thing.
The pies were only slightly overcooked.
Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen
Hello again, folks! I wanted to thank all you readers for following me in Dust's story, both those new to her and those who know her from older versions on another site. Thank you guys so much, from the bottom of my heart. I'm really enjoying getting to expand on Dust's story and share it with an audiance both old and new. I also want to give thanks to my best friend Paula who has been helping me by proofreading, encouraging and generally just being awesome. Thanks, guys. I couldn't do this without you.
“Hard at work, are we?”
By now I knew the Sanctuary’s laboratory almost as well as my own. I spent as much time in there as I could – sometimes just to sequester myself while I read, others to lose myself in the familiar craft so close to my heart. Though Antoinetta occasionally recruited me as her assistant in the kitchen, I was mostly left alone.
I glanced up from my work with a sigh, shooting a little glare. The Speaker. At first he’d largely ignored me, but ever since our last encounter he seemed to make a point of greeting me, being smoothly, infuriatingly polite.
“I’ve prepared a half-dozen poison antidotes in the past two days. Considering I’m your prisoner, I think I’ve been working plenty hard.” I glowered, turning away to scoff when he met it with a smirk.
“I’m certain, pet.”
“And I’m certain I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
“You have.” An agreement as amiable as I could ask for and it left me seething, leaning against the back wall to watch as he looked over my work. The second batch of three was still slowly bubbling, vapours of steam curling as the heavier liquid settled. “Done with healing potions?”
“You must be better stocked now than you have been in months. I’m running out of ideas to work on.”
“Is that so?” He seemed almost indifferent for a moment, lost in thought if not for the subtle edge on his voice, the slight twitch of a smile. “A pity you couldn’t make some of that Hunter’s Poison, for us. Or perhaps – what is it you call it? Butterfly Bait?”
I felt my face go red hot. Those weren’t generic potion names – those were my recipes, my creations from the University. “Wh – how do you – “
“I’d be a fool not to have looked into the reputation of our guest.” Came the reply, cutting me off as I bristled. “Your situation is unprecedented.”
“So you, what, pried into my life to make sure I’d behave?”
“More or less.” Godsdammit. I grit my teeth and glared, unable to come up with a good retort as he chuckled. “If it’s any consolation, there was very little of interest.”
“Oh, that makes it much better.”
“Although hearing of your past projects from our contact at the University…” He tilted his head. I swallowed hard, trying not to let that thought creep in too deep. One of them had lived in my home. “You’ve a knack for unusual creations. How does the Hunter’s Poison work, mn? Humour me, as one alchemist to another.”
I’ll tell you where you can shove some poison came the thought, but I didn’t dare voice it. Polite as he was over the mocking, beneath even that was the subtle, but constant threat. I was still a prisoner. I was still expected to behave.
A deep breath. “… Moldy cattle fodder. Livestock were dying in birthing season from hemorrhaging, and some of us were tasked to find out why. When we discovered the mold on their clover and hay was a potent anti-coagulant…” I shrugged, not wanting to seem overly interested. Not with him, at least, even if we were talking about my favourite subject. “It seemed the natural use. It’s not hard to reproduce and after the meat is cleaned and cooked, it’s safe to ingest. Less long chases for the hunters, less suffering for the deer.”
“Fascinating.” A drawl. I shot another glower.
“If you’re just going to stand there and mock me – “
“And the Butterfly Bait?”
I threw up my hands. “Parchment. Berries. Isinglass. It makes it easier to catch them.”
I could feel my face glow red, suffusing heat creeping up my back even as I was frozen in place by that slow curl of a smile. Swallowing hard, trying, trying to come up with some blistering insult that would sear that damned smirk right off his face. “… Is an aphrodisiac, in case you lack experience in such matters.”
“I must confess I do. I’ve never seen the need for them.”
“Oh, I’m sure your charming personality takes care of that.” I pushed myself off the wall to stand taller, though it didn’t have much effect. Still, sneering and stepping closer, giving a laugh of my own. “Women do love assassins.”
A wolfish grin. “You’d be surprised.”
“Ugh.” I shook my head, looking away and hoping my cheeks didn’t burn as bright as they felt. Admittedly, I could see it. He was handsome – lean, a strong jaw, sharp eyes, a silvery voice. A ladykiller, in the most literal of senses. A shudder down my back and I turned away, confidence fleeing.
From the corner of my eye I saw his brow raise. “Something the matter, pet?”
“Did you have any more questions?” I cut to the heart of it, uncomfortable now. Not that I’d ever truly be comfortable around them, but I was reminded again what he was. What he would have done to me. That my life, even now, hung by a precarious thread of chance. Still, thinking of maman was even worse. At least this was some distraction.
“You said overbrewing was key?”
“Simpler ingredients, a longer time to concentrate them.” I remembered what I’d said when I’d first began experimenting with it, presenting it as my project to sniggering professors. “An alarming amount of alchemists use minotaur horn and boar testes as the age-old remedies. Mine is Elf Cap and Monkshood for stamina, with Redwort drawing out the best properties of both. Imp Gall for - interest, and Strawberries for flavour.”
The more I explained, the more suspicious I grew. What did he want from me? Was there something he wanted to hear, to confirm? Or was he just doing this to mock me? I pursed my lips, daring a glance back in his direction again. “… Why are you asking me all of this?”
The smirk didn’t fade, but something in his eyes changed. More focused, perhaps. “Call it professional curiosity.”
“Like your prying into my history?”
I bit back a growl, moving to lower the blue-gold flame under the retort to a gentler flicker. A little longer and it would be the right viscosity, enough of the solvent boiled off to keep it from being watered down…
Gods, I missed this. I was here doing it now, but I missed my work, I missed my home. My throat went tight, eyes stinging before I blinked back tears. I was not going to get all weepy in front of this bastard.
“And did you have any other projects?” He phrased the question more airily now, politely as though he were simply an acquaintance doing his duty in asking after me. Other projects. Other goals cut short, left behind to maybe never be finished –
No. No, I’ll get out of here.
Maman will come, and –
Even if I go back, Bolor –
I had to take a moment, gripping the table white-knuckled and inhaling deep before replying. “… One.”
I shot him a look. “Don’t laugh.”
A catlike smile, the purr to match it. “Whyever would I laugh, pet?”
“Because everyone else does.” I rolled my eyes, crossing my arms over my chest and glancing away again. “… Clean water.”
Both brows rose, prompting further explanation. I sighed and tried to explain, as I had so many times before. Scoffing professors, giggling colleagues. Even Bolor had told me to focus on more ‘realistic’ pursuits. “As a fellow alchemist – “ I glared for a moment as he smirked – “I’m sure you know how important it is to use pure, clean water for potions.”
“Which is why one distils it to clean it. Does that require further study?”
“Yes.” I turned the flame lower still, watching the bubbles turn to no more than ripples at the liquid’s surface. A little oil was enough to heat something this small, already concentrated. If only it could work scaled. “Distillation takes work. In large amounts – the amount you’d need to fill a cauldron, for example – you can’t use oil like a lamp, and you’d need to chain a flame atronach to the distillery to keep it hot with magicka. You need to chop and lug firewood, set it all up properly, and it takes hours to boil as sterile as possible…”
“Not very patient, are we?”
“I can wait. But many alchemists don’t, especially shopkeepers. They have to produce enough to keep up with demand, and that means cutting corners.” I inhaled again, remembering the presentation and thesis I’d given years ago, only to have it shut down. I’d never entirely given up on it. “They don’t boil as long as they should, or think wellwater is clean enough on its own, or gods, just take it straight from the river. Potions get contaminated, don’t work as well as they should...”
“There are standards for bakers, winemakers and butchers. Why would alchemists go unchecked?”
“Because alchemy is fickle as is – even wellwater good for drinking could have contaminants that might ruin a potion. And gods know in wartime or sickness there’s no time for questions. You make what you have to, quickly, to keep up with demand. A simple method of cleaning water quickly, in larger amounts, would make all those issues moot.”
The laugh was softer than I’d expected, not the usual bark of derision. A chuckle as he slowly shook his head, brow cocked. “That is - a lofty goal, pet.”
“That’s what I’ve been told.” I shrugged, not sure how to take his reaction. It wasn’t outright support – not that I would have trusted that in the least – but neither was it the mockery I’d braced for. “But I’d rather go for something lofty and fail. It could change everything. For shopkeepers, healers, chapels.” Thinking of papa, of how an entire cauldron might only fill a dozen bottles when all was said and done. How many sick, waiting for treatment while another load of firewood was hauled up. “It could save lives.”
“Mmn.” The polite smile was back, just tinged with enough of an edge to keep me suspicious. He moved past me, uncomfortably close in the small room, to take two of the healing potions I’d made days before off the shelf. “I believe I have what I came for.”
I frowned. “You could have just asked.”
“I did.” A bow of his head before I could retort. “Good evening.”
I watched him go, biting back another sigh. Was it evening already? I couldn’t tell the passage of time, down here. One day bled into the next. And what did he mean, he did? You never asked, you git, you just pestered me with questions and pushed me aside to grab them –
A tingle down my back. He did ask. Not about the potions. That wasn’t what he came for, after all. No, it was me. Me and my blabbering mouth. He’d looked into my history at the University, he’d asked me all these questions because he wanted to know how I ticked.
Because you’re a prisoner. He can’t kill you off and he can’t let you go, so he wants to make sure he can predict you. I scowled, remembering how accurate Vicente had been, knowing I wouldn’t even think to try and poison them all.
… I could try. I had thought before, after the vampire had mentioned it, that I could at least have made them ill. Made my escape, run back to the old life I missed so much –
But to what?
Bolor, gone. A target on my back. And her, arriving to find me already fled…
It had been three weeks. Not much longer, now.
I tried to push her face from my mind, tried to bury myself back in my work. But now even that made me think of papa, of working at his side. Made me remember in fuzzy glimpses that cold morning, and how it was all because of her…
She’d killed family before.
Would she again?
I realized too late I was crying, a tear creeping down into the tray where I’d poured the brew to cool. Just a drop, a single impurity, possibly enough to ruin my hard work.
Gods dammit all.
Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen
“Good morning, Dusty!”
In the four weeks I’d been prisoner here, I still never became used to a padfoot’s footfalls. Every damned time, Antoinetta managed to creep up on me while I was busy. I bit back a sigh and put down my washing, flicking soap bubbles off my hands. I had only a few robes, and I was doing my best to keep them clean down here, washing them in the kitchens where I could stay out of the way.
“Good morning, Antoinetta.”
“You’re in a mood. Is it because of your mother coming soon? Any day now, right?”
It should have been days ago, came the thought, but I didn’t share that. A strange mingle of feelings – the raw anger driving me to near tears every time I thought of her, but even still I was worried about her. What if something had happened on the way? The thought ached, anxious and uncertain. If she was hurt…
Not only that, I worried for myself. What would happen to me, if she never arrived at all?
I could guess.
“Hello? You awake in there?” Antoinetta snapped her fingers in front of my face, pulling me from my thoughts again. “I need a favour.” I was beginning to think the younger Breton liked having me around. She seemed to be one of the lowest on the rung, here. Must have been nice, having someone else to boss around.
“Well…” She dragged the word on her tongue, glancing up coyly while digging something out of her pocket. A little vial, filled with – I recognized it immediately, eyes going wide as she snickered.
“I knew you’d make that face! You made this, didn’t you? You! Little miss pestle-humper in her frumpy robes! I wouldn’t have thought you the type. Have you used it much? Got a handsome someone back at the university you used to test it?”
Heat climbed up from my collar to the edges of my hair. Mara, mother of mercy, get me out of here.
“Well, it works like a charm. I used it in a contract down in the Imperial City once, help make him more – more happy to be alone with me, you know? Poor bastard still had his ‘sword drawn’ even after I slit his throat!”
Mara, if you have any goddamn mercy, you will strike me dead now.
"Could you make some more? We have all the supplies here, I bet, and Vicente said you could use the laboratory. Please? Pretty please?"
...If I ever get back to a chapel, I'm throwing dead slaughterfish through the windows.
Suddenly, Antoinetta went still and wide-eyed. I turned to see – Vicente, The Speaker, and Ocheeva, none of them looking particularly pleased.
“Out. Both of you.”
She bowed her head low and, with a quiet acknowledgement, scurried out. I stalled a moment longer, but the cold look from Lucien was enough to send me out on her tail. She stopped just down the hall, biting her lower lip at my raised brow.
“What was that about?” I worried that I already knew.
“Not my business. You learn quick when to get out of the way down here. I’m going to have a bath.” A toss of her hair.
Not her business, perhaps. But it was mine. I nodded slowly, giving her a little nod and encouragement on her way. “I’ll – I’ll go to the laboratory.”
“Perfect. Make a big batch, I’m sure I’ll use it!” A little wave and she was off. Only when she was out of sight did I inhale deep and try to mimic those near-silent steps she had, moving slowly up against the stone wall to just outside the entrance to the kitchens.
“…been decades, and we are to welcome her back with open arms?” Lucien speaking, sounding disdainful. “She near abandoned her duties in High Rock. And for her to come now, when rumours of a traitor abound…”
“With the blessing of Jehenna’s Speaker, Lucien, in the interest of raising her family. Not such a terrible goal.” I felt my chest hitch at Vicente’s words, tempered as always. “And from what she wrote, she did care for contracts from time to time there, when commanded, training her elder daughter.”
Even then. I bit my tongue hard, hands balling into fists. Even then, with Anya.
“And yet she went to have whelps of her own. We were to receive an assassin from her, not an alchemist. She has shown us little loyalty these past years.”
“This Sanctuary, perhaps, but not the Brotherhood. Her loyalty to Sithis has never wavered. I have no doubt of that.” A hint of amusement in the vampire’s voice. “You never quite forgave her, for leaving us.”
“For a fool healer spreading the word of the Nine. An outsider.” Venom in the Speaker’s voice, enough to startle me. He was – bitter. “And you were never quite able to forget her, were you, Vicente?”
A long silence between them as I listened. Forget her? Did he…
It explained a bit. Why he was so kind to me. Why he was the most welcoming to her, why it was him she’d stayed in contact with even when she left for High Rock with papa. My stomach flopped. I pushed my fist down to steady it, trying to keep my breath steady, low as they spoke again.
“Executioner, honoured Speaker.” It was Ocheeva who broke the pause, voice deferential. “I would, if I may be so bold, say we have our orders regardless of our personal feelings towards Madame Abelle. The Listener shall surely give us the Night Mother’s guidance in this matter when he arrives. Until then, we need only host her and wait.”
So much to absorb. A traitor in the Brotherhood? Who was the Listener? And if Vicente had – affections for my mother, once, did that mean –
A cleared throat behind me.
I had to clap my hands over my mouth to muffle a squeak, turning wide-eyed to meet the Bosmer woman. An unamused glare. She gave only a jerk of her chin down the hall to dismiss me before entering the room in long strides. My heart thudded in my chest as I began to walk away, only to freeze stalk still.
“Brother and Sister, Speaker, forgive my interruption. Madame Abelle has arrived.”
She’s here. She’s here.
“Shall I escort her here?”
“No. We will meet her in the common room.” Lucien, curt and cold. Footsteps. I stayed in place, hugging myself tight as they left one by one in a trail, the Speaker lingering to glance over his shoulder at me. A cold, cold smile.
“Rude to eavesdrop, pet. Are you coming?”
I walked like I was being lead to execution. Perhaps I was. Was it all a lie, over the years? Every kindness, every act of love she’d shown me – was it all about to be undone?
Let it be someone else. Some desperate part of me clung to hope even as I felt numbness trickle through me, fear welling sickly in my chest. Let this be a mistake. All of this. I don’t care if I die, just let this be…
They parted for me, after we entered the common room. Let me walk first towards the woman who was suddenly a stranger and yet so very, very familiar, so unchanged.
Her hair spun tight in a bun, ink black, now traced through with grey and silver. Dressed elegantly, head held high even as a hand rose to her lips. The hands that rocked me to sleep and choked the life out of innocents, the hands that stroked my hair and killed my father. Something clambered up my throat, a single word bitter-sweet and ragged sharp tumbling from my lips.
“My Dust.” She gave a watery smile – gods, I’d missed her smile and gods, it hurt to see it now, stung deep and caustic. I stared hard at her, this woman I'd trusted, I'd loved, as she smoothed her skirt down and approached. Slowly, gently as though toward a frightened animal, or a coiled snake. Bitter bile rose in my throat as she met my gaze.
"I came as quickly as I could. I am so sorry for making you wait, chérie, for – for tangling you in all of this. It was never my intent.”
When she stepped forward, I stepped back. A flicker of pain on her features.
"Dust - "
"Why." Cold and tempered like steel, the simplest thing I could say, the simplest thing I could ask without breaking into tears.
"I..." She trailed away, pursing her lips tight. "I can explain, sweet."
"Why," I persisted, holding the word on my tongue and narrowing my eyes, unmoved as she winced. "He loved you, and you killed him. Why? No." I clutched my brow, shaking my head and backing away, my voice breaking. "I don't want to know, do I? How many have you killed? Papa, Falrung. Sirius, too? How many others, Abelle? "
“Dust, please, let me – “
I ran from her then. Ran like I had from the manor, from the truth about Bolor, like I’d tried to run from the truth that had surrounded me here. I heard her call my name but didn’t slow. The halls echoed eerily with my footfalls, my shadow stretched and fleeing beside me on the wall. I ran as far as I could from her, until I reached the other end of the Sanctuary where Vicente’s room lay, slamming the door behind me and collapsing on it with a strangled curse. I gave a shuddering sigh, hating myself for crying, pressing my brow against the cool mahogany of the door for little comfort.
No more running. No more hiding from it. It was real. She was here.
A knock on the door, the movement of it startled me away. I stood shaking, arms crossed protectively over my chest as Vicente entered, giving a sigh on seeing me.
“I – I’m sorry. I just – I just had to get away.” I squeezed myself tight, voice a croak. I could find somewhere else to hide. Somewhere I wouldn’t have to face this truth, so burning-painful-bright that I wasn’t sure I could see it without being blinded. “I’ll go.”
Infuriatingly, unfailingly mild. “You are angry with her.”
“Of course I’m fucking angry with her!” My own snarl surprised me, the raw coarseness to my voice as I then collapsed into a sob. “She killed my father, the man who taught me magick, a boy too young to shave. She betrayed me. All my life, she lied.”
“Mn.” Just a little sound of affirmation. He gestured to his desk. “Sit down, Dust.”
Still flaring with anger I scoffed. “Why should I take orders from you?”
His gaze hardened, voice gaining a subtle, honed edge. “Sit.”
I sat. He sidled in to rummage through his desk, pulling out an old box, shuffling papers before raising a yellowed envelope. The wax seal was long since broken, the edges bent and wrinkled. Hesitantly I took it from his grasp, shivering as I caught the mingled smell of age and mint.
With the touch of a scholar used to handling ancient texts I smoothed the letter out. Her voice echoed in my head clear and true as I began, holding my breath.
The deed is done. My husband lies dead, and I am to marry Marquis Toltette within the month. I write to you now from my new home in his manor, where the girls and I will begin anew.
I did what I had to. I know this, even as I blame myself. I should have foreseen the depth of Toltette’s feelings for me, known the habits of nobles well enough from my work. Known he would think he was defending me, saving me. But I didn’t. Not until I received the contract, and the order.
I wonder still if it was all a terrible coincidence, or some orchestration. Perhaps a test from our dearest Mother, in my crime of loving an outsider. And I did love him still, even as hurt as I was for his betrayal. Jacques wanted only to help the needy, the unfortunate, but he sacrificed us – our health and wealth – to do it, and learning he loved Falrung over me…
I gave up everything for him, Vicente, as you well know. I followed him to High Rock, gave him his daughters, and he drove me into the arms of a stranger out of loneliness and anger. I should have hated him. I could not, even as I poisoned him that night.
It is done, and I do not regret obeying the order. I am and always will be loyal to our Mother, our Dread Father. Our Family. I only hope I have done the right thing for my own.
Anya will heal, I know. She’s so strong, and she understands death – has always understood, a part of me thinks. She grieves for her father but understands he will not return, and her little lessons have been going well even for one so young. She moves with the grace of a moonlit shadow, already well knows the tale and history of our kind. Someday, she will make our Mother proud.
But little Gabby – Vicente, I cannot feign to think she will follow in her sister’s footsteps or my own. Not now.
She thinks it’s her fault, that her father and Falrung are gone. He had her pour the mead every night they were together, and she believes she somehow did it wrong. It breaks my heart that she blames herself when it is me alone who should carry that burden. Even if it was necessary, even if it means a better life for her, I and I alone should carry that guilt.
She is her father’s daughter. She is utterly a creature of love and laughter, and I would not change this for the world. I found her playing in the kitchen with a mortar and pestle, and when I asked what she was doing she said she was going to get papa back, heal him like he healed others at the chapel. She’s so stubborn, I wonder if she just might do it.
I know these wounds will heal, in time. And as much as I regret the pain I have inflicted on my daughters, I hope as they grow they will embrace their lives here. As you have told me, patience is an assassin's greatest virtue - and perhaps that of a mother, too. Give my warmest regards to the family, even those who will not accept them.
With all of my love,
I hadn’t realized I was crying, not until my tears fell and stained the page. I wiped my face onto my sleeve, taking a deep, shaky breath as Vicente placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“She wanted to protect you. To give you a chance at a better life.”
I had a better life, came the bitter thought, and yet – what Anya had said when we were children so long ago was true. What maman had written, true. I loved my father dearly, held him in my memories as pure and untouchable, but he didn’t do what was best for us. He could have found work in a town, kept us comfortable, safe and healthy. He kept us in the village so he could help others, at the sacrifice of ourselves. He’d hurt us, turning to Falrung in secret. And maman…
I hated her. I loved her. She was the woman who murdered my father, and the woman who’d rubbed my back and sung me through the nightmares that followed. And as she stepped into the threshold of the room, eyes wet, I couldn’t push her away.
I flew to her, buried my tears in the crook of her neck and cried like a child as she soothed me. "My Dusty. My little girl. I’ve missed you, so much.”
I choked on a sob. “I missed you too, maman.”
“I have made mistakes, my sweet. Terrible mistakes. It is a difficult thing, to be both a daughter of Sithis and a mother of a child. Forgive me."
What else could I do? I loved her, terribly and deeply and painfully. As angry and betrayed as I was, I couldn't hate her, could never hate her. “I need answers, maman. There’s so much I don’t understand.”
“I know, chérie. I promised you I’d explain, and I will.” She glanced over my shoulder, bright eyes crinkling as she laughed. "Ah, Vicente. My first time here in decades, and already I need to ask a favour. Please, put on some tea." Her gaze turned back to me, stroking cool fingers down my cheek. "I have much to discuss with my daughter."
Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen
Sorry about the late upload, everyone! As usual, I hope you enjoy!
"The Dark Brotherhood found me when I was sixteen."
My tears had dried by now, pain eased somewhat, nerves soothed by the warmth of a cup of tea in my hands as I sipped. Mum stirred her mug, for which I was grateful. I didn't have to meet her gaze. "I grew up on the streets, my dear. Stealing and scraping by, orphaned and alone.”
I went still, the mug settling on the table. Maman spoke rarely of her childhood to us. Only that she had lived in Cyrodiil until she met my father. “Why?”
An amused, but bitter smile. “I was told at the temple that raised me I was the daughter of a High Rock noble, sent to Cyrodiil to birth her bastard daughter and abandon me there out of the public eye. But that – that doesn’t matter.” A shake of her head. “It’s all a blur in truth, up until that day. I killed a boy for stealing from me - not as self-defense, but as revenge, and threw his corpse in the Lake Rumare.
Lake Rumare. How many times did I dip my bare feet in its waters, under a gem-blue sky with a book on my lap?
"A Speaker came to me, shortly afterwards." She gave a small smile, and a shiver clambered down my spine as I saw Vicente return it.
"Yes." Vicente folded his hands, gazing at me calmly. "Many years ago, before I retired as Speaker to serve here.”
"You do well with fledglings, as you did with me. I think it was your calling all along.” There was a warmth, a fondness in her eyes I hadn’t seen in many years. A private woman, a quiet woman, suddenly forced to spill out all her secrets.
“After I finished my initiation, I came here. I found a home, a purpose. A family. Lucien was like a little brother to me." She laughed gently, sipping. "He arrived six, perhaps years after I, still a lanky, angry young man with so much raw talent and so little of it honed.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, imagining it. Lucien a young man, perhaps as young as mum had been when they found her. It was difficult to picture him like that. I knew him only as smooth, insufferably confident. The idea that he was young and angry and lost once, like I had been at that age…
That these assassins, this Family of my mother’s that was somehow not mine, were people. With a past, stories of their own. I bit my tongue and pushed the image away.
“In time the twins came to us, then Telaendril when Lucien recruited her, and so many more. Many brothers and Sisters, loved and lost over the years. It was a hard life, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Or so I had thought.” She sighed, lashes cast downward. "I was well on my way through the ranks, perhaps even to become Speaker someday and we - we were family. It was better than I'd ever imagined. Then, I met Jacques Dust. Your father."
Papa. After he left the Reach, wandering around the borders of the provinces, a travelling healer who went where he was needed – all I’d pieced together from the tattered remnants of stories he told, what little I could remember before his death.
“He was… so very different from me. So very different from everything I knew, everything I believed. Living in the shadows, I suppose I wanted a taste of the light. Even then, I had no intention of leaving – but then I fell pregnant, with Anya.
For the first time, I had another family, one purely my own. I knew Jacques would go to High Rock with or without me then, following his work, his passion. I loved him, and I couldn’t bear then the thought of Anya living without a father. I made contact with the Sanctuary in Jehenna, and was allowed to serve there – leaving my Family here behind. Some felt I was fleeing my duty.” Another gentle smile to Vicente. “Others supported me.”
“You were not the first to have a family beyond our own, Abelle. I would not have robbed you of that.”
“We left. I had never intended for us to stay in that – that disease-ridden hole.” I’d never heard mum speak well of the place I was born. My own memories were faint – some good, Falrung and papa, but others were harsher. An aching stomach, lice picked from my hair, hearing cries and moans all around us as we would wait out a passing plague. “But Anya was born, and I could manage little else but her care. I was a new mother – I stumbled through, as best I could, while Jacques became more and more entrenched in the belief that he had to save that place. He threw our every coin into his work.”
Papa, papa, papa. Every memory of him, golden and smiling and loving, gods, and he had been, I knew, but he’d hurt us too, even if he never meant to. The more I heard the more I realized that they – papa and maman both – were more complex than I ever could have known. More than mother, more than father. More than simply mine. My grip on the now cold mug was white-knuckled.
“I stayed because of Anya. Perhaps because a part of me thought I could change him.” A smile, crinkling at the corners of her mouth. “Then I had you. I did love him, Dust. Truly.”
A cold flicker in my chest and I let it peek through, a glimpse in my icy voice. “So did I.”
I regretted it almost immediately. Maman was never an emotional speaker – everything was said through subtle little movements. The slight draw of her brow, the quiet inhale. I swallowed hard. “… When did you learn about – about him and Falrung?”
“You were – four, perhaps. I had suspected before, but only found out for certain then. I didn’t tell him I knew.” Her jaw was set hard, elegantly folded hands tensing without her seeming to realize it. “But I did begin looking for a way out for us. I found it in Davide.”
“Toltette.” The one who placed the contract in the first place. And yet, I couldn’t feel anger. Just a stark emptiness inside, thudding away.
“One of his horses in the market went wild while Anya and I were there, nearly trampled us. He was quite the gentleman in his apology, and I could tell quickly he was – taken with me, though he never knew my true nature.” Maman was very beautiful, after all. Her fine features, her ink-black hair, the way she carried herself. “In him I found – something more of a kindred spirit. After a few months I was building up the courage to leave Jacques, and then…”
“And then he placed the contract.” My voice cracked. I had to push the mug in my hands away, afraid if I kept squeezing it would shatter in my hands. “You were selected to carry it out. So you did.”
“Yes.” No hesitation. Guilt, but no shame. “I had no choice. I served Sithis, will always serve Sithis, until the day I die and I am returned to his void. And if I had refused, I would have been killed. Perhaps you with me. I thought it wouldn't matter, thought I wouldn't care. Jacques had hurt me, and I knew Davide could care for us. Could give you girls the life you deserved, in comfort. But in truth, it – it was harder than I had ever imagined.”
“And Sirius. He got too close to the truth, didn’t he?” I was blinking back tears now, suddenly exhausted. “So you killed him, too.”
“I never meant to hurt you, my dear.” I tried not to flinch when she stood from the table, circling around to come to my side and place a hand over mine. “I want only for you to be safe and happy.”
She placed a hand on my head and held me to her chest for a long few moments. No tears now – I felt wrung out of them, drained dry.
I had my answers. Finally, the swirling inside my head had come to a cold, numb stillness. As her nails grazed a tingling trail through my curls I found one last question. “Maman.”
“Now…” A long sigh above my head where she rested her chin. “We will – sort out the complications of all of this. I will – I will speak to the Listener personally, and plead your case.
My case, and – Listener? I’d heard that word, hadn’t I?
“You will not need to wait long, Abelle. He will be arriving here, soon enough.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen mum startled. She straightened, brow furrowed, dark eyes narrowed. “A gathering of the Black Hand, over – over this? I wouldn’t have thought…”
Vicente shook his head. “No. I’m afraid the reason for the gathering is more dire and, perhaps, best not discussed in mixed company.”
Me. I felt my face flush, pushed myself away from the table and stood. Mum stepped back to make room, giving me a fond little smile that I knew meant she was worried about me.
“Soon, my dear, we’ll have this sorted. I know you must be – tired. Eager to get back to your life, to your Bolor.”
She didn’t know. Of course – I’d never finished the letter I’d been writing, certainly never had the opportunity to send it. I laughed harshly. “Bolor is the whole reason I’m here, mum. He – I found out he was a necromancer, the University wanted me to spy and, he, he must have sent…” I faltered. Not even a proper contract, a favour for a friend. That phrase stuck with me. Did Bolor have a friend in the Brotherhood, all this time? Did he know then that I was alive?
She caught my hands again, squeezing them tight. “Then perhaps, as awful as this all must be for you – perhaps there’s for a reason for it. You’re safe here, darling, I promise you that.” She moved to lay a kiss on my brow. I didn’t pull away. “Why don’t you go take a nice, hot bath, hm? You could use the chance to relax.”
Relax. Here. Almost funny to consider and yet the idea was tempting, not just to soothe myself but to feel clean. I felt – not dirty, not exactly, but used and tired and too full of mixed emotions to think clearly. “That – that would be nice.”
“I’ll come check on you soon, chérie. Go on.” At last she let my hands go, gave me a gentle smile before turning her gaze back on Vicente. I caught a snatch of conversation on my way out, wishing I hadn’t.
“For a reason, indeed. Your return now may be fortuitous for us all, Abelle.”
Already my mind was scrambling to think of possibilities, but – no. I slapped a lid on them, trying to force my mind to clear. I’d find out soon enough, whether I wanted to or not. For now…
I could manage that.
Soon enough there was steam billowing around the bathing room, the effort of lugging in wellwater and setting the fire to heat stones finally about to pay off. At least the task had kept me occupied until now, when I stripped off and, hissing at the heat, stepped into the tub.
Ohh, that’s better. A moment to adjust and it was heavenly, leaving me tilting my head back, eyes drifting shut. Only now as the hot water worked did on my muscles did I realize how tensed they’d been. How weeks of doing nothing but thinking and fearing and questioning had left me so drained.
Don’t. I spoke aloud to myself, partially from habit, partially to push my worries away as I frowned. “Right now, this very moment, I am taking a bath. And that’s all I’m going to think of.”
When can I go home? What do they want with maman here?
“Dammit.” I tried to sink in further, letting one of my legs hook on the wooden rim so I could sink in up to my chin. It did feel good, soothing and yet…
Can I really forgive her? Can we really move past this? Even if it wasn’t out of hate, even if there was no other choice…
I splashed at the water, muttering another curse. “Relax. Out of anything she could have asked me to do…” I had to laugh. Helplessly, shaking my head as I dipped my curls back so they came up slicked to my brow. “I can’t even manage that.”
“Do you make a habit of talking to yourself, pet?”
A flurry of movement from me, more splashing. I didn’t so much scream as squeak, covering myself even with much of me under the water, giving him the most vicious glare I could muster. “Get out! You slimy – “
“Now, now. Simply came to talk.” Black gloved fingers intertwined, that crooked smirk returning as I sunk in deep as I could. . "Not that I expected to interrupt a conversation."
I shrunk, suspicion crawling in tendrils around the corners of my mind. "...About what?"
“Your living arrangements. Abelle is adamant about your safety, of course.”
“Well…” I avoided his gaze even as I felt it on my bare shoulders. The bathwater was still warm, but I had to suppress a shiver. “You’ll be rid of me soon enough, won’t you? Mum will speak to the – the Listener, and then – “
“You don’t even know what that means.”
I shot him a glare, regretting it immediately as that smile made me flush red. “I know it means I’ll be done with you, all of you, soon.”
“Unlikely. Your mother may trust you, but she does not speak for the Black Hand.” Another word I’d heard before, another I didn’t understand. “It is we who will undoubtedly decide your fate, and considering how much you’ve seen…”
In the warmth of the tub, a chill prickled through me. What if they wouldn’t listen to her? I wasn’t safe yet. Even now, my life hung in the balance. “What do you want?”
“Careful, pet. I’m doing you a favour. If you will earn your keep, I could be persuaded to take Abelle’s side when she pleads your case. If you make yourself of use to me.”
I scoffed, keeping my arms tightly crossed over my body in the safety of the water. Pity I couldn’t sink in and drown, save me from the mortification of being naked in front of this bastard. What did he mean, earn my keep? Of use –
His eyes suddenly felt not piercing, but probing, a tug at the corner of his lips as he eyed me with a quiet chuckle. The hairs on my neck rose. He doesn’t mean –
“I would, if the Listener allows it, take you on as our permanent alchemist. I must admit, your potions have been – useful, these past few weeks. Your talent may be enough to save your life.”
Oh. Relief rushed in, my cheeks prickling and red hot as I stammered. “I – yes. Potions. I can do potions. Of course.” Idiot. What did you think he meant?
"Of course," He repeated as I seethed at his smirk, the liquid velvet of his voice. "Relax, pet. If I wanted you in my bed, you would be there already."
A twist of his robes and he was gone, leaving me flushed, tingling and cursing. Slimy Imperial snake. I sank back into the water with a groan, submerging up to my ears so I could hear only the soft beat of my heart under the surface.
The last bloody thing on my mind.
Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen
“Things are not what they used to be, Abelle.”
Hushed voices woke me, stirring my mind from the deep, warm darkness of slumber into rousing. I opened my bleary eyes to see the shadows cast on the far wall, flickering silhouettes – maman, sitting up at the table, and a hooded man at her side. Lucien, his voice taut.
“I can see that.” Mum spoke softly, so not to wake me. We roomed together now, separate from the sleeping quarters of the others. Exhausted I’d turned in early after my bath, but I could see in the blueish shadows that her bed was still untouched. “Time was a man would lower his hood, speaking to a lady.”
Lucien snorted, but I heard the rustle of cloth, saw him shift. He'd removed his hood. "You haven’t changed, Abelle, but much has here. Rumours of treachery fly unchecked through the Sanctuaries, Brothers and Sisters disappearing. First only a young slayer in Anvil, then Speaker Blanchard. Next Speaker Ulvani, and his silencer. All vanished, without a trace.”
“The Black Hand is maimed, then.” I’d never heard maman’s voice like that. So cold, so sharp in contrast to how I knew her, like the very edge of a blade against a warm throat. “Do the rumours hold truth? Is it one of us?”
“I fail to see how it could be anyone else. Every single member of the Brotherhood is suspect.” There was a humourless smirk in the lilt of his voice, the scorn. “Except, of course, you – with your recent arrival, knowing you were in High Rock before the disappearances began…”
“I am above suspicion.” Mum finished. I heard a gentle thump, her tea hitting the table. “Vicente told me as much. He suspects, given that and my history, I will be asked to become Speaker in Ulvani’s place, to stay on in Cyrodiil permanently.”
“And will you?”
I wanted to shut my ears. Close my eyes, go back to the ignorance of sleep, but I could only listen.
“There is little enough left for me in High Rock. Anya is happy and settled with her family, her work for us there, and Davide…” A low, mirthless chuckle. “I told him what I am, now. I know he would never dare act against me, not having placed the contract himself, but I doubt he can look at me again with the same eyes.”
Though I couldn’t see their features in the dark, I could feel Lucien’s gaze turn on me. “And her?”
“... All I can do is hope she will forgive me. That she can build a new life here.”
I lay stalk still, breath held, eyes closed.
“Here?” A sneer in his tone. “You want me to take this innocent little alchemist and turn her into a murderer?”
“No. Not like that.” Relief flooded in, but apprehension reigned. “Not unless she chooses that path as I did. But if she can serve the Brotherhood as Anya does, not as a killer but as a tool – perhaps I can earn her some mercy. You did as I asked?”
“I told her, though she seemed a tad distracted.” It was maman’s idea, to have me work for them? For Lucien to take her side?
Amused disapproval. “I would have been, too, had you snuck in on me while I bathed.”
His tone was as mannerly as his words weren’t. “You wish, crone.”
The laughter between them – it made me want to curl in on myself, disbelieving. They really had known each other, long ago. They’d been friends, allies.
The Black Hand, Sithis, the Night Mother – so many words I didn’t understand, crashing and colliding hard enough to make my head throb. And mum, tangled with it all. She’d told me her story but still, I couldn’t understand. Why had she chosen this life?
Why did she choose her Family, over her family?
Their laughter fell, a scrape of wood against the stone floor. Mum stood.
“You aren’t returning to bed?”
“Telaendril and Ocheeva wanted to meet me for a late night drink.” She chuckled. “She was so young, last I saw her. I must admit, you trained the twins well.”
A nod in acknowledgement, from his shadow. He only stood when she left and, as I flinched, turned towards me until his shadow spilled over the bed.
“Again, pet, eavesdropping. A dangerous habit to keep, in a place like this.”
No point in pretending, though I wondered how he knew. I threw down the sheets with a grumble in my throat, swinging my legs off the bed to sit up. “I wouldn’t have to if someone would just – explain things to me. Tell me what’s going to happen next.”
“Your mother spoke to you, did she not?”
I inhaled deep through my nares, looking past him to the doors. “… She explained what she could. But I don’t know anything about – about this. You, your Family. You said it yourself, that I didn’t know what Listener meant.”
The shadows cast stark against his features, lax in consideration as he paused. “And you wish to?”
“Yes. Anything that would – help. Make sense of this.”
“Then I will elucidate.” My heart jumped in my throat, then sank. “But not tonight.”
“Oh for Talos’ sake,” I spat, moving to stand. It was becoming easier to be bold with him but as he looked down, entertained, I remembered how easily he’d taken me here in the first place. My tone softened. “Why not?”
“You aren’t ready.”
A growl of frustration under my breath. “What would make me ready?”
“An act you’re simply too - too naive to perform.” he drawled, tilting his head and looking over me - standing there glaring up, fists clenched - with a smirk. “But perhaps the time will come, as it did for your mother, your sister.”
He turned, only stilling again as I spoke on impulse, barely a thought. “I could hire you.”
A chuckle as he looked over his shoulder. “This again, pet?”
“That’s what you mean, isn’t it? Murder.” I challenged him as he turned around to face me again. “And if I did, if I...”
“If you did, you would simply be making a contract, asking for death’s hand to fall. There is a distinction.” His eyes, dark like maman’s, glinted in the candlelight. “And is there anyone you so despise, truly? So much so that you would wish not only their death, but that their soul is sent screaming into the Void of our Dread Father?”
Father. I thought of Toltette. The gold he paid to have my family torn apart. I thought of papa, slumped over, of Falrung’s cold chest against me. I thought of my stepfather, cowering, begging for his life.
There should have been something, some grim satisfaction at the thought of him paying for what he had done, but...
“I thought not.” His satisfaction would have made me bristle if I wasn’t so focused on my own thoughts. He was right. Vicente and my mother, too. The thought made me nauseous, sick with guilt, with the wrongness of it. It simply wasn’t in my nature.
But could that change, if it needed to? If I wanted it to?
A crash against the door startled us both, it swinging open with a screech as Teinaava leaned into it panting and wide-eyed.
“Speaker, come quickly, I beg of you.” His eyes narrowed at me. “And you - fetch those healing potions you made. To the dormitory, now.”
A glance at Lucien, seeing the disturbance in his eyes was enough to send me on my way. I flew down the hall as they moved in the other direction, catching a snatch of their words.
“What has happened?”
“It’s Gogron, Speaker. He was attacked -“
It was all I heard. To the laboratory, gathering some of the salves and potions I’d made these past weeks. Dammit, how was he attacked? Different wounds would need different potions, but there was no time. These would do. Off again, following their footsteps and the din of conversation into the dormitory.
They were circled around his massive form on the bed. My stomach lurched at the sight of blood-streaked armour, stripped and cast aside.
“Gogron,”Antoinetta fretting, hands over her mouth, “Gogron, oh, Telaendril is going to be so upset - “
“Enough, Slayer. Panicking won’t help him.” Relief to see Vicente already tending to the Orc, pressing a reddened cloth against his side. Behind him M’raaj-Dar, the Khajiit handing him fresh linens, and to the side Teinaava and the Speaker.
I raced over, breathless. “What happened? Tell me what you need me to do.”
Vicente met my gaze, his own grim and dark like dried blood as fresh streaked his hands. Again my stomach churned but lessons, practice from learning healing at the university took over as I closed in.
“He stumbled in minutes ago, saying something about Fort Farragut, and collapsed. The damage is extensive. Dust, I manage minor injuries here but I am not a healer. If you could look...”
I needed no further prompting. Gently, holding my breath, I moved away the linen and winced. Difficult to see under the dark mess of blood, but I could count - four, no, five punctures, from just under his arm down in almost a line where the unprotected seam of his armour must have sat, open and vulnerable. I began cataloguing in my head. The bowels were perforated, without doubt. Perhaps the liver, too...
“Vicente.” I tried to keep my voice from trembling. This close the smells – the hot iron tang of blood, the scent of waste from punctured bowels, everything seemed to hang in a fog. “The greenish salve in the jar there, on the bandages, can you – “
A nod and he wordlessly began to work as the Khajiit handed me more rags, a pitcher of water to wipe the wound site clean again. The blood came in a heavy, but slow trickle, not spurts. How much had he already lost? The smell, the amount of punctures, gods - another two as I cleared away the red…
He wouldn’t live. It was a miracle he’d made it this far.
Lucien above me, hissing. “Well?”
My hands shook. I tried to find the words, tried to offer some comfort, but even as I smoothed on the bandages I knew it was in vain. I shook my head.
Antoinetta whimpered. Teinaava inhaled sharply, M’raaj-Dar covering his face with a hand. Vicente sighed deeply, the sound of someone who had lost too many like this before. And from Lucien, a low growl.
“I – I can make him comfortable. And I can try my best – there’s a chance, however slim…”
“We need him conscious. To tell us what happened, and with whom.” Cold and smooth as new ice, the Speaker’s voice. “If he was attacked near Farragut, if he saw anything…”
He didn’t need to finish. The traitor. If Gogron had seen anything, we needed to know. But…
“He’s – he’s lost a lot of blood, he’s probably already septic. If he stays unconscious like this, if I can keep working on him then there’s a chance I can save him. At the very least, he can die without pain. But if I put my focus on waking him, I… I can’t… he won’t…”
That chance, however slim, would be ripped away. As it was, all my magick was channeling through one hand while with the other I smoothed on the bandages, praying the numbing effect of the poultice might offer some relief. Even unconscious his brow was furrowed in pain, breath coming out in ragged shudders.
“But you can do it.”
“I – I can force blood to his brain with one of my potions and a spell, redistribute it temporarily to force him awake but, Lucien – “
“If he dies before he can speak, we lose all chance of discovering who attacked him.” His voice was steady even as a shiver, cold as winter mist, settled over the room. All of them, his family, his subordinates, waiting for his command. Tensing for it, knowing what was coming.
But I’m not one of them. I glared up, jaw set. “And if I refuse? If I keep going, there’s a chance. I don’t obey you, Lucien, and it is my duty as a healer to do whatever it takes to – “
“Your duty now is to the Brotherhood.” Icewater down my back, his command. “If the traitor is involved, is allowed to escape, we are all in danger – including your mother.”
Maman. She was still gone, with Ocheeva and Telaendril. Fort Farragut wasn’t far. What if…?
I turned. With one hand I supported his head, limp and heavy against my palm. In the other I took a potion, a little vial tilted against his lips, and poured. Some trickled out, but most, mercifully, slipped down as he swallowed. Vicente took it away, freeing my hands to rest on his chest, feeling the feather-light beat of his heart beneath.
To say restoration is a benevolent art would be false. The teaching of it, the way it is usually used, is for good. For healing. But ultimately it is nothing but manipulation of the body, biological workings taken over with concentration and magicka, changed at will. I was still only learning to heal, my skill crude. It would hurt.
I inhaled deep, grit my teeth, and let my magicka go.
It took only a few minutes. My brow screwed in effort as I ran my hands up his chest, quickly down again then slowly tracing up, guiding blood and energy towards his upper half. The oozing wounds slowed, stopped entirely. His breathing became more rapid, more shallow.
Antoinetta, uncharacteristically meek. “… Is he…?”
The wet inhale, the lurch sent us all jerking back. He coughed wetly, almost retching, a sheen of sweat coating his colour-drained face as he stared around with wide, unseeing eyes.
“Gogron! It’s alright.” Vicente was the first to stand again, a hand on the Orc’s back and chest as he hacked and violently shook. “We are here. What happened, Gogron? Who attacked you by Fort Farragut?”
“Was, was, puh-passing by, the Fort c-coming back from Arrius…” I held my magicka on him as he spoke, the thudding in my head as it drained becoming a throb. “Didn’t – fast, Sithis, I didn’t see ‘em, left me for dead, why…” An agonized sound, almost a roar from the massive Orc as he curled over and tried to clutch at his gut. Swirling black robes as Lucien rounded me to come in close, staring Gogron down.
“Who, Gogron? Did you see their face?”
The Orc looked up, pale, jaw sinking open as his eyes fluttered. He was holding on only by nature of my spell. A long look at Lucien, his face contorting.
His eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped back against the bed, still. Empty. The blood drained from my face.
“… You? You did this?”
“No. You well know I have been here speaking with you.” No anger in his voice, nor grief. Only a cool grey flatness, thick and shrouding like a fog.
“He must have taken ages to crawl here. Time enough for you to attack him and come back – “
“I will not.” I caught a glimpse of it then, of the rage contained in that steely voice. “Be questioned in my own Sanctuary by an outsider. In the dark, it would have been easy to mistake an attacker, and being near my home…”
“There is no use in throwing accusations.” Vicente’s eyes settled on me, warning me gently. Behind him the others – family to this man, their Brother – held their breath, watched in silence. Expectant, almost.
Lucien stepped forward, making me move aside, placing a gloved black hand over the still-cooling body. I hugged myself tight as I watched, stepping back, almost wanting to leave. This was something – intimate. Something I wasn’t meant to witness.
“Gogron, for his faults in stealth and subtlety, was a loyal Brother and a valued child of our Night Mother. Sithis grant him easy passage and peace in the endless depths of the void.”
Nods all around. Antoinetta stifled a sob. The laughter, high and delighted and affectionate, felt like a blow to the gut in comparison.
“I never would have believed that – “ The doors to the sleeping quarters swung open, and all three women stopped in their tracks. Maman’s jaw fell, covered delicately by her hand, the Bosmer freezing wide-eyed. Ocheeva stepped forward, voice taut.
“What in Sithis’ name happened?”
“Gogron?” Telaendril’s whisper rippled through the room, trembling. From a woman so cold, so sleek, a whimper. “Is he…?”
Our silence spoke volumes. Her breath hitched. She raced over to his side, small hands atop him, whispering in a ragged, wretched voice over and over. Ocheeva stood there in disbelief as mum shook her head.
Vicente was next to move, standing. A gentle hand moved over the Bosmer’s shoulder before his gaze turned to all of us. “Come, all of you.”
In clusters and alone we drifted out, Family comforting Family. The lower ranked members vanished down the hall, whispering, as the others gathered outside the now closed door. Lucien, exhaling hard. “I am going to Farragut. If it was indeed the traitor who attacked him, they may still linger.”
“I’ll go, too. We can’t take any chances, if they’ve killed as many as we fear.” Mum. I stiffened, staring at her.
“Maman – “
“Just wait here, darling. I don’t want you with me, not with the risk. I’ll be back soon.” A flash of a smile and she was gone, trailing after Lucien and leaving me with a tight lump in my throat.
“I will go and keep an eye on the others.” Ocheeva, somehow both businesslike and motherly. “Vicente, if you could tend to Telaendril, and our Brother’s body…”
“Of course.” He turned to me as she walked away, just a nod of his head. “… You did well, Dust. You should go and wash yourself, then retire. I understand how much energy healing can take.” He slipped through the doors to the dormitory. I caught for a moment Telaendril’s quiet sobs, then as the door thudded shut I was alone.
Maman doesn’t know.
Perhaps Lucien told the truth. It was true that he could have been mistaken in the dark, true that Gogron might assume with rumours of traitors and being so close to the fort that it was him. Perhaps.
Perhaps isn’t good enough.
I didn’t go wash. The poor Orc’s blood was still drying on my hands as I made instead for the well, moving quick. I couldn’t let them get too far.
You’re a prisoner. If you try to leave, what will they do with you?
I don’t care. If there’s risk, any risk at all for mum, I’m going.
I had failed to prevent one death, tonight. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen
For once, the opportunity presented itself. There was no one keeping an eye on me, no one to notice as I crept away to the well exit and hauled myself up the ladder. The hatch was locked – I cursed my luck, hoping they’d have left it open in their hurry. But it wasn’t all lost.
Alone, I could take the time to concentrate. To let what little magicka I had left flow again without catching attention, surrounding the lock, finding the nooks and crannies. Every minute that passed was infuriating - I had to force myself not to panic, to slow down and concentrate on the sounds. Clicking, clockwork tap-tap-tapping…
A moment of triumph, flickering out like a snuffed candle as I caught sight of my blood-streaked hands again and shuddered. For the first time in weeks, I pushed up and into the open air, into night.
Rain. I sputtered as I clambered out, staring up at the thick, black sky, then around me. A shiver passed through, not just from the cold. I was right. The well was hidden in a backyard behind a house, white-washed with dark timber beams. A high wall behind me, covered with clambering ivy, wrought iron fencing all around. As I crept out, careful to try and move silently, I could see in torchlight the cobblestone road and a single guard making his way down past other tall homes, the shadows of spires and towers behind.
A city. Tingling spread through me. It had been so long since I’d seen – well, anything. Anything that wasn’t smoke-blackened walls, breathed anything but stale air. Still, there wasn’t time to stop and admire. I kept to the yards behind the houses, praying I wouldn’t run into anyone like this. What would I say? At least in the pouring rain my hands were washed clean.
But I was no padfoot, especially not now with my boots soaked and squelching with every step – and the gateway out of the city was guarded. Dammit all.
A flicker of thought. I was free. It seemed so surreal after everything as to be absurd, but it was true. I was outside. There were people here, not like below but like me, everyday citizens, armoured guards. I could run to them. Tell them – everything. How I’d been kidnapped, taken in by murderers, how all I wanted was to go home. They’d protect me, wouldn’t they? That was their duty, their work. Protect me from…
From people like my mother. The thought vanished, a puff of smoke.
Instead I steeled myself and approached, half-hoping they’d simply ignore me, but no such luck. One of them straightened, torch held higher at my approach. “Halt!”
I stopped. The other, a Dunmer woman, furrowed her brow as she examined me. “Vehk’s sake, you’re soaked, girl. What are you doing out here at this time of night?”
Alright. I can do this. I can do this. I scrunched up my face and let my voice peter into a whine, hands – again, I mentally thanked the rain – fretting in front of me. “My – my cat! I just opened the door for a moment and off he went, and it’s so late, and he must be so cold and so scared – “ A few fake sniffles, for good measure.
A sigh between them. She seemed to resist the urge to roll her eyes, but he didn’t. “And you want to go look in the pouring rain. Fine. But stick close to the walls – you’ll have to wait until morning if you want to check the woods. Gods only know what’s roaming around there this time of night.”
Murderers, I can tell you that much, but I bit my tongue and with overeager thanks I scurried through, keeping up the act and staying close to the city wall until I was well out of sight. Then, boots sliding slick up the muddy hill, I made my way to the silhouetted fort in the distance.
Dread welled hot and heavy in my stomach like I’d swallowed lead. My chest hurt, making me pant as I ascended, head splitting with the emptiness of my magicka and with fear for my mother.
It’s been too long already. What if they’re already inside? What if he is the traitor, and he’s already…
Don’t think like that. I swallowed tight and picked up speed as the hill leveled, making way for the outer circle of ancient, fallen stone. Just hurry.
The fort towered over me now as I stepped into the courtyard, ominous in the dark. A circular wall, crumbling into piles of rubble at the foot of it, surrounded the fort itself. Ceilings of stone that seemed to be barely supported by ancient pillars stood overhead. Rain pitter-pattered on stone in an almost comforting rhythm.
And in the mud – tracks. Already beginning to wash and slide away, filled with brown rainwater, but fresh. Some large, some smaller but neither, oddly, going to the foreboding entrance of the fort. Instead they seemed to circle around the dirt-turned-muck path, leading me to the dotting trees that heralded the beginning of the woods.
Another entrance. The Sanctuary had one – it stood to reason Lucien would, too. I followed the tracks, wrinkling my nose as they seemed to wind tight to a massive tree and around. What on Nirn…?
A hand on my collar. A growl in my ear. Magick, seeping into my skin. And me weaponless, the dagger I’d held now returned to its rightful owner. I’m dead. I’m dead. My limbs stiffened and I teetered away from the tree, sinking into the grass and mud with a wet thump.
“You little idiot.”
Lucien. Relief that it wasn’t a stranger, then fear flooded in even as mud soaked into my hair, the back of my robe. He bent down to pick me up again by the collar and haul me to my feet. It could be him, it has to be, he killed the Orc oh, gods, mum, where’s mum –
“Lucien? What’s going on up there?”
Oh, thank all gods. I would have slumped in relief if I’d been able, instead hanging there in his grip as I took in what I saw. The tree itself was completely hollowed out from this side – beneath I could hear the swing of a ladder, mum grunting as she pulled herself up. She’s safe. She’s safe –
She’s livid. A familiar trickling sensation from childhood, the one that began in my throat and down whenever I saw that look from her. And she certainly gave it now, smoothing down her dress and tilting her head as she regarded me.
“Lucien.” Crisp and cool. “Be a dear and let that spell go, will you?”
A shrug from him. His grip on my collar released, letting me sink properly back onto my feet in the mud. It took a few moments but with his concentration gone I could twitch my fingers, crack my jaw. “Mum – “
“You directly disobeyed me.”
“Not directly – “
“I told you to stay behind. You are still under the Brotherhood’s watch and who knows who could be out here – “
“Him!” I jerked away from them both, wishing, cursing myself that I hadn’t thought to try and find some weapon before coming here. And yet – he didn’t move to silence me, to attack us. He didn’t look like a threat. No moreso than usual, anyway. “Maman, you left, you didn’t hear, the Orc, Gogron, he thought – “
“He thought it was the Speaker who attacked him.” I stopped short, blinking as mum finished with a sigh. “I know, sweet, he told me.”
“He – he told you?” I turned as Lucien watched me, giving a grim smile at my bewilderment.
“I did. And while I would love to stand here and watch you receive the scolding you so richly deserve, I must tend to my horse. Abelle?”
She handed him something – wrappings, a jar of salve. He turned, heading back to the fort’s courtyard. “His horse?”
“The traitor – they must have attacked her when they were here.” A sigh from mum as she flicked a clod of mud from my shoulder. “Lucien is no traitor, I promise you. I grew up alongside him, Dusty. He wouldn’t have told me what Gogron said if he was.” A little smile. “Besides, he adores that horse. He’d sooner cut off his hand than hurt her.”
So – so he’d been telling us the truth. Solace knowing mum was never really in danger, guilt sour in the back of my mouth and mum – mum read it all in a sweep of her eyes.
“Do you have any magicka left?”
“A bit. It came back coming up the hill, after…” After I’d used the last of it to escape the Sanctuary. Mum shook her head and gestured for me to follow.
Why the hell should I feel guilty for accusing him? Traitor or not, he’s a murderer. A sadist, a monster.
And so is your mother. My stomach lurched.
We followed Lucien’s trail back into the courtyard and to a sheltered alcove, what once must have been storage for the soldiers who once held this fort. She paused in front of the ragged curtain dividing it. “Go in.”
She was thinking what I was thinking, saw the guilt in my eyes and what I wanted to do, but she wasn’t going to tell me to do it. I had to take the initiative. A low inhale. I lifted the dripping, torn tarp to duck underneath, eyes adjusting to the new torchlight on…
Beside Lucien where he knelt as he worked stood the horse. Pure black with crimson eyes, a smooth and well-kept mane and coat. Beautifully fearsome. She gazed at me with intelligent eyes and snorted, pawing at the ground and tossing her head. And all around her, the tingle of – something. Something dark and absent and whispering, something not of this plane.
A black mare with red eyes. I hadn’t dreamt that, either.
“What is it.”
I startled, blinking and shaking off my dripping sleeves. Dammit, this robe would take days to dry out. A retort died on my lips, swallowed back down as instead I moved in close.
“I – I can try to heal her, if you like. Speed along the salve.”
Only then did he turn, rising, looming over me in that small room for a moment. His face stern, jaw set, then twisting to one side like he was tasting the moment. Then, a nod. He moved to the mare’s front, letting me to the now bandaged wound as he began to stroke her muzzle, murmuring comfort I couldn’t hear.
Memories. Sirius letting me watch as one of the mares gave birth, as the foal took its first wobbly steps. Healing the black eye he'd gotten from trying to set the broken ankle of a fierce stallion. Riding for the first time. Real gentle and quiet-like, princess, or you’ll scare ‘em. Come in from the side where they can see.
I moved in slowly, taking the spot Lucien had held before, moving my hands over her flank as she softly whickered. Over velvety black hide, then bandages, letting what remained of my magicka leave me in warm, ivory wisps. Closing my eyes, concentrating, letting flesh reach for flesh and knit anew. Only when I was emptied again did I step away, head splitting, but content.
“She’ll be fine. Just a few days rest so it doesn’t open again.”
A soft, low rumble from the mare. Lucien’s hands slid from her as he stepped back, eyeing my work before apparently approving and glancing back to me.
I followed. Tired, gods, I was tired, my mind replaying the night so far - Gogron’s limp head in my hand, Telaendril’s soft sobs. Lucien’s voice startled me out of my thoughts as he hovered before the tree entrance.
“You did the right thing.” A glance over his shoulder, eyes dark, the gentleness of his tone surprising me. “You may not believe it. But you did.”
I began to descend only well after he had. Happy at least to get out of the rain, though I was so soaking wet that it hardly seemed to matter, anyway. It made it difficult to find footing on the wooden rungs and as I glanced down…
Oh. Oh. That was a drop. Only ten, perhaps twelve more feet to the stone where Lucien and mum looked up at me. But still. Still. I turned back and clung to the rope harder, biting back a whimper as the ladder swayed.
“…Are you coming?”
“Mmn. No.” I heard my voice pitch up but couldn’t stop it, white-knuckled on the rung, trying to make my boots keep their tenuous, waterlogged place. Staring at the wall, rather than down. “No, I’m fine here, thank you.”
“Oh, Dusty, don’t tell me…” Mum, with a mixture of amusement and despair. “Still?”
“Gravity hasn’t stopped, maman.”
“What is this nonsense?” Lucien, impatient as mum gave a laugh she at least tried to stifle.
“She’s afraid of heights.”
“Heights.” Flat, his voice, the resulting sigh. I head him step closer and tightened my grip.
“I am not afraid of heights. I am afraid of the splat at the end, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to be afraid of.”
“You’re being absurd. Step down.”
He was right. I knew that, and I cursed my childish fear, but still. Eyes squeezed shut I inched my foot downwards, feeling carefully for the next rung. Only when I was completely, utterly certain I had it did my next step follow.
“Has this always been the case?”
“Oh, no.” I could almost hear mum’s little smirk.
“Mum, don’t you dare – “
“She used to love climbing trees. Got her away from the governess, you see.” She ploughed on through my protests. “Until she got just a little too ambitious…”
“Climbed up too high in the middle of the night and fell, got stuck in the branches, which I’m sure, thank Sithis, saved her life. Broke her nose – you see that cute little bump she has on it? And hung upside-down – “
“All tangled in my dress and hair and dripping blood until one of the guards saw me, yes, maman, I remember, can you please – “
“And still stuck until we could get in a mage from the city to levitate up and bring her back down to us.” I groaned, then caught my breath as hands reached firmly around my waist support my weight. When had I gotten low enough to…?
Oh. Mum had been distracting me. Admittedly, it was easier to focus on my humiliation than my fear while she spoke, edging my way down. Lucien’s chuckle behind me, words dripping with disdain.
“There are Altmer who stand at this height regularly. Let go.”
A moment’s hesitation. Breathing deep, I obeyed, swallowing a little whimper as the hands tightened and my feet hit the ground, only then releasing my breath in a gust of relief. Without a word he turned, letting me survey the place he called his home.
Cold stone walls, high and powerful, decorated with tapestries bearing the same hand as I saw on the door in the Sanctuary. The flickering shadows of candles, torches, a fire on the far wall that gave the room welcome light and warmth. A bed and dresser, a table and chairs, a workspace littered with papers, an alchemical table where a jar of ectoplasm glowed eerily. A bench near the fire where mum sat, gesturing for me to join her as I rubbed my numb arms.
“You’re soaked through, chérie. Come and dry off for a bit.”
I joined her. Lucien seemed to busy himself looking through cupboards near the alchemy table – for what I didn’t know, and was too tired to care. I let out a sigh, bone-deep, maman reaching to stroke my back.
“Lucien told me everything, dear.” I didn’t want to meet her eyes, see the sympathy in them, and kept my gaze on the fire. “I know it must have been hard. But this is a dangerous life, and Gogron knew that. And if it meant helping protect his Brothers and Sisters, I’m sure he would have given his life gladly.”
“But it didn’t help.” Harder I rubbed my arms in vain, scrubbing the wet cloth against chafed skin. The fire was almost too hot, seeming to make my robes steam, my cheeks roast. “He died for nothing.”
“Not for nothing. We know the traitor may be close now, and we will be better guarded for it. That, however small, is something.”
We fell silent. I closed my eyes and listened to the pop and crackle of the hearth, how the sounds seemed to emanate through the vast halls of this fort turned tomb, turned home. Soon it became too much and I broke it again.
“… Why aren’t you wet?”
“Lucien has a little spell for it. Was kind enough to cast it on me, too.” She raised her chin as he approached again from behind us. “Perhaps he’d teach you. You could ask.”
“Ask me what?” A raised brow. I shook my head, frowning as he offered a vial.
“Nothing – what is this?”
“To restore your magick. Drink.”
He wasn’t lying. I could feel the magicka practically emanating from within the bottle, my head throbbing harder in response. The work of a moment to pop off the cork and drink, but getting it down was a little bit harder. I felt my face contort, eye twitching shut as I fought the urge to gag and forced it down in a sickly swallow.
“Oh. Oh, that is – truly foul.”
“Nevertheless, it does the job.”
I inhaled, pushing off another little shiver at the aftertaste. Stinkhorn Cap, ground flax seeds, hyacinth nectar. Still, the resulting warmth, the rush of feeling my magicka begin to return was worth it. I rubbed at my head. “… Might try adding some blackberry juice. Trade out some of the nectar, add some – eugh – lard to balance out the stinkhorn…”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” That false humility, again dripping from his voice before he settled at his desk. My breath shivered out.
“… I know you followed me to protect me, chérie. And I appreciate that, truly.” Mum moved a slick curl off my brow, clucking her tongue in distaste as the mud in my hair. “But I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t trust Lucien, with my life. And darling – I say this with nothing but respect – I am far more capable of protecting myself than you are.”
It stung. Even knowing it was true, it stung, worse for knowing there was a reason she was more capable. She’d taken lives before. Perhaps many lives, many times. She’d lived in this world since childhood, and I was only beginning to skim the surface.
“It just isn’t your way, Dust, and I wouldn’t change that about you for the world.” A soft smile. Only now did I notice there were new lines around her lips, since I’d last seen her. “You’re as dry as you’re going to get without stripping off, I’m afraid. Let’s get you back, so we can get you some fresh robes.”
I mulled for a moment, glancing over to the desk, the skritch of a quill. “… I want to talk to him, first.”
Surprise furrowed her brow. A nod and she stood, smoothing down her skirts again with a sigh. “I’ll wait outside, check on Shadowmere. Though I’m sure you did a fine job, I do remember her fondly.”
She knew her then, all those years ago? “Mum – what is she?”
“… A gift. A blessing.” She folded her delicate hands, her rings catching glimmering light from the fire. “No one is entirely certain but – there are theories.” At my raised brows, she continued.
“I believe she, and the few other beings like her, are – manifestations of the void itself. As tools, as guardians, given when one of us who has passed on wishes to give tribute to another who still lives. It is a rare honour. Lucien received Shadowmere shortly after his Speaker passed on, and their bond was – instant. Someday, he may pass her on to another, or she may return to the void until her time will come again.”
A shiver passed through me, even with the cold long gone. What was it these people – no, that my mother, believed? The Void, Sithis, the Night Mother – so many pieces, but though ominous, they were still just words.
So are the Divines, came the thought. Raised under their glass eyes in the chapel, paying occasional visits during important holy days – though I would use their names, though they meant so much to papa, they meant little to me. But I didn’t kill for them.
“Come up, when you’re ready. I’ll wait.”
A candle flickered strong on a lone desk, the scratch of a quill and sputter of flame the only sounds. I pursed my lips, daring to edge closer. Lucien pored over his work, his hand moving with flourishes as he wrote. He doesn't look like a murderer, now. He looked like a scholar, any I’d known in the University lost to their work. The memory of home brought a little smile.
"Either speak, or leave. Standing there looking pretty does little for my impression of you.”
The memory fled. I inhaled, steeling myself. “… I…” It made me prickle in annoyance to admit it, but. “I owe you an apology.”
“Oh?” He hadn’t stopped writing.
“I – I assumed. I was worried about maman.” I hugged myself for a moment. “… But I still don’t think we did right by Gogron.”
“And that,” he spoke smoothly even as he redipped his quill. “Is why you are not ready.”
“But – “
“Your mother is waiting for you, and I have work to attend to.”
I wanted to argue. Protest and stand there glaring until he would tell me, make me understand, but there was no room in his voice for argument. I let my shoulders slump and returned to the dangling rope ladder, glancing up, taking a deep breath. Difficult to get up there with robes on, clinging to my skin, but going up was easier than trying to go down, keeping my eyes on the hatch. Still, I stalled on the last few rungs, growling under my breath.
“You know, you really ought to think of your more vertically challenged guests…”
A low chuckle. “I’ll keep that in mind. You’re very close. Just a little further, pet.”
He had moved, back under me now to watch me climb. I shot him a glare and regretted it, turning back to face the hatch and reaching up, pressing it open. I know I’m close, you condescending…
Or did he mean something else, entirely?
I pushed myself, clambering up until I was close enough to slide out. “… Goodnight, Lucien.”
A cold smile.
Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty
A new hush had fallen even over a place so quiet. And yet, in the silence, there was a sense of frenzy.
I didn’t fully understand what it meant, but I knew enough to feel the apprehension in the air. The dread. To understand the rituals of cleaning up, preparing the Sanctuary to receive their most honoured guests.
The Black Hand is coming. The Listener is coming.
I, for my part, did whatever I was told. Scrubbed off the mud from the night before, helped sweep and clean even the smallest corners of cobwebs. The sticky film clung to the end of my broom, and I was trying to shake it off when footsteps came up from behind.
Antoinetta. Mostly back to her normal self, despite the events of that night. She beamed, giving me a little poke in the shoulder. “The Speaker wants us to make something for our – our guests tonight.” It sounded recited, not her usual excitement or more casual words.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, simpering. “Does ‘the Speaker’ know I’m an alchemist, not his personal gods damned chef?”
A gasp left her. She took the broom and went to swat me with it, making me step a little faster to keep away as she trotted after me. “Look, I know you’re an outsider, but you’re still stuck here, aren’t you? You need to show proper respect or keep your mouth shut.” Sudden anger in her voice, then it lowered to a murmur. “…And you don’t know what he’s done for me.”
Now that – that, grave as it was, was all her. I stopped in my tracks to glance back, frowning. “What did he – “
“We’ve got work to do. March, prisoner!”
A sigh. I marched. Within the hour she’d forgiven my transgression, happily giving me food to chop, plates to scrub and re-scrub when they weren’t up to her satisfaction. Humming and chattering between tasks, only occasionally falling into silence with a distant look in her eyes. Thinking of her Brother, perhaps, now gone. A sacrifice in the name of their safety, all in vain, and yet she seemed to hold no anger, no sense of injustice as I did.
What about these people earned this kind of devotion? Was it all simply out of fear?
They arrived one by one. I didn’t realize it, at first. One by one a family member would come by, taking what we cooked with them - I had thought, at first, for themselves. It took seeing a new face for me to realize the truth.
He walked in whisper silent. Neither of us realized he was there until Antoinetta turned, her little gasp nearly making me drop my work to the floor. “Oh – Bellamont!”
“That will be Speaker now, Antoinetta.” Gods, his voice was empty. She dipped her head, golden curls bobbing. “Since the death of Speaker Blanchard, at the traitor’s hands.”
“We – we all mourn his passing, and wish him peace in the Night Mother’s embrace.” Another recited answer, even if the feeling behind it was genuine. When I put my work down and approached she made a point of glaring over her shoulder, dipping her head down again.
I’m not one of them. But neither did I want to take any chances. Politely, I dipped my head just a little bit higher than she.
“It is good to see you well, Sister.” I looked up as he said it, and shivered to find his eyes not on Antoinetta, but – but on me. Hazel eyes, drawn beneath with bags of exhaustion. Piercing, searching. He doesn’t know who I am. That’s all. I let my gaze dart away.
“And you, Speaker. Thank you for gracing us with your…”
He didn’t wait for her to finish. A turn on his heel and he was out, leaving us both boneless, needing a moment to steady ourselves. Only when he was well gone and we returned to our work did I whisper to her. “What was that about?”
“Be – Speaker Bellamont used to be Blanchard’s Silencer,” Antoinetta explained patiently as though she expected me to understand what it meant. “When Blanchard was killed, Bellamont took his place. I haven’t seen him in a long time, not since I was last in Anvil. Before Maria disappeared.”
“Maria?” I’d heard that name before, hadn’t I? Yes, eavesdropping just before mum had arrived.
“His – I don’t know. They were fond of each other, anyway.” She slid a line of chopped onions off her blade, sighing. “She was the first one to disappear.” Then, a little smile up at me. “You look a lot like her, actually. Probably why he was looking at you funny.”
I shivered. “I hope not. Antoinetta, what’s a Silencer?”
A sigh. She shook her head – maybe tired of explaining, maybe like Lucien thinking I simply wasn’t ready to understand. We returned to our work in silence.
Perhaps what frightened me most is that the people who entered that day, one alone, two side by side, could have been anyone. I could have passed them on the streets – maybe had done, in the past – and I never would have known it. They were dressed for travel, coming from distant ends of Cyrodiil hungry and tired, needing rest.
It was only late that night that things changed. That they donned those deep black robes, and became something somehow both inhuman and more than human.
They gathered in a meeting chamber, circled around the table. Lucien, the Speaker I now knew as Bellamont, a Khajiit with hands folded, a Bosmer…
And my mother. Dressed not in robes like them but her usual elegant clothes, sitting calm and poised and beautiful as I’d always known her. I dared only a moment of eye contact as Antoinetta and I made our way around the table with pitchers in hand, her enlisting me to help in the task before leaving them to speak.
“Good wine as always. Who would have known a vampire would have such good tastes.” It was the Khajiit who spoke as I poured for another, raising his goblet and casting a lidded gaze in my direction. “And a serving wench? Pretty thing, for a human.”
I had to bite my tongue hard to keep a scowl off my face, prickling hot with embarrassment. Mum, composed as ever, murmured. “I’ll thank you not to talk about my daughter that way, J’Ghasta.” She gave quiet thanks when I filled her wine and I felt – lost. There was no affection in it.
I was losing her. Already, I was losing her, and soon I’d lose her completely.
"You are dismissed." The Bosmer spoke. Antoinetta bowed, face flushed, before grabbing my arm and pulling me outside, shutting the heavy door behind her. Outside she gave a long sigh, a full-body shiver shook off.
“I’ve – I’ve never seen them all gathered like that.” She kept her voice low even now, dragging a hand through her hair so it fell back in clumped strands. “Scary, isn’t it?”
“I still don’t understand who they are.”
Another infuriating little shake of her head. “I like you, Dusty, but you’re still an outsider. There’s still a lot you don’t get to know. Not now, at least – maybe not ever. But maybe, if they let you stay – or if you become one of us…”
At the shake of my head she sighed. “You just don’t understand.”
A growl. I turned back in the direction of the meeting room and Antoinetta grabbed my arm with a hiss. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to understand.”
“Are you insane? You can’t just – just eavesdrop on the Black Hand! They’ve slit throats for so much less, Dusty. And with a traitor around – “
“And how are you going to stop me?” I turned on her, and it almost hurt to see the shock in her eyes. Even in this short time, she’d come to like me. Perhaps even trust me, a little. “You going to be the one to go in there and rat me out, interrupt their little parley?”
My own cruelty surprised me. But the thought – mum was in there. Joining – or had she ever really left? - some, some group of murderous cultists with a faith I couldn’t begin to understand, becoming someone I didn’t know and gods, I couldn’t bear it.
Her little nose wrinkled. A humph and, her gloved fists tight, she fled in the other direction. I’d hurt her. But I could deal with that later.
For now I edged back to the doorway. Closed, making it difficult to hear through, but then that meant they wouldn’t hear me outside. Lucien had caught me twice – I couldn’t afford a third.
“…The unusual circumstances… Abelle suitable…”
No. I dug my fingers into the wood of the door. No. Let it be in the past. She was a murderer. She was an assassin, I could almost accept that. But not now. Let it be not now.
The Orc’s bloodless face flashed in memory. For a minute their voices went low, too low for me to catch anything but wordless murmurs, then…
“And the girl?”
Me. My heart skipped a beat.
And another, as a strong hand closed over my mouth.
My fighting did no good. I was dragged just down the hall, far away enough from the door not to be heard, before I was release and pushed up against the wall.
I’d never seen Vicente angry. The weeks I’d known him, it had become impossible to imagine. But all at once, I was reminded he was one of them, too. A murderer, and more – a vampire, those blood-red eyes flashing down on me. But somehow my anger overpowered my fear, and I moved to jerk away.
“Vicente, let go of me – “
“Enough.” A deadly low whisper, leaving me shrinking. It was worse than if he’d roared. “It is only by virtue of your ignorance of our ways and Antoinetta’s quick thinking that you will live through that mistake.” She had ratted me out, after all. I caught my breath as he let me go to regain my footing, hissing through gritted teeth and blinking back tears.
“Vicente, that is my mother in there. I have a right to know what’s happening.”
“She has a right to make her decisions as she sees fit.”
More than mine. That hurt. I inhaled sharply, rubbing my arm where he’d grabbed me. Already, I could feel that it would bruise, but it was my heart that felt like it was gripped tight.
“You must understand, Dust.” His gaze, his voice softened. “If you are kept ignorant, it is for your own good. To fight it is folly. You will bring danger not only to yourself, but those you hold dear. If it had been the traitor at Fort Farragut that night, do you think you could have fought them off, truly? Or do you think your mother would have died protecting you?”
Realization. I shuddered, wiping at my eyes and gulping hard. “I – I didn’t think…”
“You are young, and you do not know our ways. It is understandable. But you are in danger you cannot begin to fathom.”
My death might lay in that room. It took all my will not to shake now, to force my fingers to uncurl as they went bloodless. If they – the Black Hand, the Listener decide I’m not worth the trouble, if maman can’t convince them…
The door swung open, jolting me. Already, I could feel sweat beading on my brow. One by one they filtered out, all but one with maman the last. Her gaze came to rest on me, smile – fragile. I knew that smile. The same she’d worn preparing me for my engagement. The same when she told me what she’d done to my father, our family.
“Darling.” She came in close, took my hands in her own with a squeeze. A glance to Vicente, silent communication I couldn’t understand before her focus was back on me. “The Listener wishes to speak with you, personally.”
“With…” I felt all colour drain from me, plummeting with my stomach. “Why?”
“It is not my place to question him. Mind the lace, chérie.” A kiss on my brow as I frowned, mulling over the words, a spark of memory flashing.
The manor. Often Toltette had guests of stature, and as I grew older, possible suitors for myself and Anya. And with my tendencies for rebellion, mum needed a way to remind me to behave, to watch my manners, without making the social faux pas of a public scolding. A little code phrase, just between us. So many whispered little warnings, over the years.
Mind the lace.
“I’ll wait for you out here. It’ll be alright, Dust.” Did she believe that, herself? I couldn’t tell. She was my stepfather’s wife still, the mistress of House Toltette, in charge of perfect social poise in the face of the rudest guests. If she wanted to hide her feelings, her fear, she could.
A squeeze of my hand. A little pat on my back. Silence, to send me off.
He wasn’t a remarkable man, at a glance. I hadn’t been able to pick him out from the Speakers before – a Bosmer, standing and overlooking one of the plaques of the Tenets on the wall as I entered, the door creaking shut again behind me.
I stood silent. Didn’t dare come closer, clear my throat, do anything to catch his attention. I didn’t want it on me, as it was. In time he turned, raising a brow and regarding me as I dipped low in a bow more out of instinct than any understanding of protocol.
“Miss Dust.” A clipped voice. Neat, smooth. I would never have thought it to belong to someone like him.
“Listener,” he interrupted, gaze fixed on me, tilting his head just slightly. Like a bird of prey, eyeing me. “Do you know what that word means, Dust? The weight it carries?”
“I…” I tried to bite down on the tremble in my voice, taking a breath to speak smoother. “No, sir. I don’t.”
"Do not feign to use words you do not understand. You are not one of us."
I hung my head, stiffening. "… I'm sorry, sir."
A new shiver down my back as he pulled free a dagger from his belt – another twin to the one my mother held, to the one that had tangled me in all of this. He toyed with it idly, turning from me again as he spoke.
“Are you aware of the plans your mother and Speaker Lucien have for you?”
“I believe so, sir. They wish me to – to stay on, here, as an alchemist to the Sanctuary.” Permanently. That was beginning to sink in.
Even if I wasn’t killed now where I stood, I’d never be able to return to the Arcane University – they’d never let me so far out of their sight. I could never go home.
“Perhaps such a thing would be acceptable.” He spoke lightly, circling the blade in his hand, throwing it and catching it easily in deft motions. Such a casual way of telling me it could be buried in my heart before I’d even feel it break the skin. “The Dark Brotherhood is not simply a collective of assassins. We need many talents to operate, as any business does. Healers. Spies and brokers, such as your sister.” A small, tight smile in my direction, those eyes impaling me to the spot. “And alchemists, Miss Dust.”
I nodded, but he spoke on without acknowledging me. Slowly drawing in closer as he toyed with the knife one-handed, not quite circling but shrinking in on me, making me shrink myself. “I could allow it. You could live on here in the Sanctuary, or in the city itself, so long as you served us and remained under our watch, our law. But then Abelle, if she is as loyal as she claims, will do as I command regardless of what I do with you. And you know more than many of us are comfortable with.”
My jaw shook. I couldn’t help it. “I – I wouldn’t betray the Family my mother holds dear, sir. But…”
I realized I’d spoken the last syllable too late to pull it back. Terror as the Listener turned on me again, regarded me with those eyes that seemed to see past me, through me. “But?”
“I – I don’t…” A shuddering exhale. “I don’t want to murder, sir.”
“No?” Amused, like the circle of a smile a knife draws across a throat. “That wouldn’t be your duty. At least, it would not be your hand that would deal the killing blow. But you will make more than your salves and tonics, Miss Dust. We would expect poisons, poisons we will use in our craft, use to please our Dread Father. Can you accept that, I wonder?”
I felt limbless, helpless, unable to catch my breath.
If I refused, they’d kill me.
What choice did I have?
I must have nodded, even if I didn’t realize it. He unrolled a parchment, strangely dark and thick, on the table before approaching me, closing in with a slowness that made it all the worse. I held my ground, frozen in place.
“Give me your hand.”
I did, wanting more than anything to pull away. His grip was gentle, but the kiss of the blade across my palm was anything but. I hissed through my teeth, flinching as he pulled the dagger back and forced my palm closed, squeezing it in his own.
“Normally, it would be a Speaker’s duty to handle this task. The assignations of servants are, of course, underneath my notice. But given your unusual status, it is better to be clear.” He guided me to the table, the parchment. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he wanted.
Only this close did I see why the parchment was so black, so oddly textured. Handprints. Bloody handprints, one atop the other, in spots all over the page. Some new enough to be clear in their details, the lines of the palms. Others indistinct and, perhaps, ancient.
Others, like me? Not Family, not free?
“A tithe, and a tying.”
I placed my hand down. Holding it for a long moment, letting the red of my palm sink instead into the page, permanently dyeing it with a part of me. Only when I pulled away did the Listener give a nod, that same clean, polite smile.
“It is done. You belong to us, now, Miss Dust.” Did I whimper? Did I catch my breath, and did he hear? “You may go.”
I left. Trembling like a leaf, stumbling out of the room, down the hall, into maman’s arms as she caught me tight.
“He - he agreed.”
“Thank Sithis.” Relief in her sigh, then confusion as she took my face in her hands. “Dust?”
She’s wearing their robes. Only now did I realize it, pulling back. Seeing her, my beautiful, pale mother, not in her silk and spilling-heavy satin but sheer black crisply buttoned to her throat.
“I need…” I pulled away from her. “I need to be alone.”
Mercifully, I saw no more of them that night. Again the Speakers and Listener – the Black Hand – filed out, as subtly as they’d entered. I didn’t go to the room I shared with maman, didn’t dare. I couldn’t face her. Not tonight.
Instead I retreated to the kitchen. This late, it would be likely empty as I’d found it many times before. I could find something to do, maybe tidying up after the last of our cooking…
Instead, I found Antoinetta waiting for me. Arms crossed, pouting as she leaned against one of the tables. “I thought I’d find you trying to sneak away and hide in here.”
Well. She’d picked up on my habits. I sucked in a breath. “Antoinetta – I’m sorry. I – “
“I’m still mad at you, you know.” A haughty toss of her hair. “But you can make it up to me.”
“I can?” A blink.
“You can!” She picked up something behind her – a bottle. A large one, filled nearly to the cork with richly red wine. “Vicente said I’m supposed to give this to you and your mum. Now, I could do that, and you could take it, and I could go on hating you for being so mean. Or…”
I didn’t have enough of my head for this game. “Or…?”
“Or, since it belongs to you, you offer to share, and that way I’m not stealing Vicente’s good wine and breaking a tenet, but I still get to have my fair share.” A sloshing as she shook the bottle, grin spreading ear to ear. “Well?”
I laughed. I was all I could do, wiping tears from my eyes, breath hitching in little giggles that threatened to turn into sobs.
“You know what, Antoinetta? I could use a drink. I really, really could.”
Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty-One
It is startlingly easy how simply a drink can become two, can become three, can become a third of a bottle. How simple it is to throw away all your cares – a murderer for a mother, a life of servitude awaiting you, your new best friend is a bubbly, homicidal maniac – when all you taste is good, sweet wine.
“You’re drunk, Dusty.”
“You’re drunk.” I threw the accusation back even knowing it was true, brow furrowing. “Antoinetta. Why are you so nice t’me?”
One of her exasperated sighs – I’d once again asked the obvious. “I’ll be blunt with you, Dusty. You’re a scholar.” She said the word like an insult. “A pestle-humper, nose in a book. But do you see any other ladies our age around here, hm?”
I examined my goblet as I listened, surprised to find I was ready for a top off. “Um – no?”
“No.” Antoinetta happily obliged, reaching over to pour the ever-shrinking wine into my drink as I raised it in a cheer and drank deep. “It’s either the boys talking nonsense, or the older ladies all trying to mother us. But us girls, we need to stick together, Dusty. We’re in the prime of our youth. We need a chance to stretch, be silly, have some fun.” A wicked, painted grin. “And to gossip.”
I covered a hiccup. “I’m not… not much of a gossiper, r’ly.”
“I know, but you’re the best I’ve got.” A drawn out lament. She sipped from her own goblet – for all her talk of having fun, I was guzzling far quicker than she. “So. What’s with you and the Speaker, hm?”
A groan. “I keep trying to chase him down, get some, some, some damned answers out’ve him. But he won’t. Soon, he says! ‘Be patient’, they say! ‘S for my own good, in’t it?!” I scoffed under my breath, curing my annoyance with another swig. This was good wine, and only tasting better the more I drank.
“That’s not what I mean.” She crossed her arms on the table, leaning closer to give a conspiratorial whisper. “I mean you’re spending an awful lot of time around him. And considering you’re an outsider, he’s been fairly nice to you, don’t you think? Not as good as he was to me when he found me…”
It wasn’t quite the last subject I wanted to discuss. That was my mother, what future I could build trapped underground. A hiccup, and I took the bait. “What’re you trying t’ask me, ‘Netta?”
“Well.” Primly she batted her lashes. “What do you think of him?”
“Lucien?” I scoffed, leaning back in my chair. “He’s an arrogant, slimy Imperial bastard – “
“He’s not arrogant, he’s confident and he’s not slimy, he’s charming. He’s handsome, too.”
“Well, isn’t he?” A little wiggle of her shoulders, eyes catlike as she rested her face in her hands, elbows on the table. “You don’t deny it, do you?”
Well. Gods, it was hard to think straight through the haze of wine. I could picture his face and – no. No, it wasn’t unpleasant. Those dark eyes, that muzzle, the way lines creased around his crooked smirk and those strong, high cheekbones. Like I’d reluctantly admitted to myself in the laboratory, he was handsome. “I s’pose not, no.”
“And his voice.” A dreamy sigh from her. “They couldn’t have chosen a better man to be a Speaker. It’s just, it’s so…” The wine was clearly beginning to affect her, too. I glared my disapproval over the table behind my goblet, wiping what remained off my lips.
“It’s attractive, Antoinetta, I’ve noticed.” I rolled my eyes. “It doesn’t change the fact that he’s – “
“I knew it!” She stood. The table shook with the motion, giving my goblet a precarious wobble as I tried to hold it steady. A smug smirk. “You like him.”
“Have y’not heard a word I’ve said? He’s an egotistical – “
“I mean you fancy him, Dusty. Like those little potions you made, whattertheycalled, the, the…” She twirled a hand in thought, brow furrowing, then her eyes lit up. “Apher-oh-dizzy-acs! That sort of like.” A giggle behind her hand. “It’s okay. I like him, too. How could I not?”
“I do not – “
“You just said yourself he’s attractive.” Antoinetta had her arms crossed, smiling like a cat who’d managed to knock the lid off a jar of cream and was just about to enjoy the spoils when it all vanished at once. A sloshing as I spilled my drink over my lap in a jerk, as Antoinetta froze in place. A low chuckle behind us.
“I am – flattered, ladies, to be the topic of your gossip.” Poor Antoinetta turned bright red, a hand clapped over her mouth before she hid her face in a bow. “If disappointed by the lack of respect in the act. Antoinetta, you know better.”
“Why don’t you report to Ocheeva for a little reminder of what respect means, hm?”
Not another word from her as she scurried off. I eyed him as he watched her, scoffing when he turned his attention to me. “She’s scared of you. Why’s she scared of you?”
A drawl of a sigh. “Because, for all her faults and her unfortunate little – infatuation, Antoinetta knows her place.” A smirk. That stupid, stupid smirk that Antoinetta had gushed on about so much. Hadn’t she? She must have. Else, why was it stuck in my head? “Why, pet?” A tilt of his head. “Are you not?”
I glared, shoving aside a newly empty goblet again. “Not in the least. The Listener, now, he was scary, like piss-your-robes scary, ‘makin me, the parchment and…” I squeezed my eyes shut, finding that somehow my mouth wasn’t able to translate my much more coherent thoughts. “But you’re just an, an, overstuffed, self-important Imperial pig.”
“Albeit, an attractive one.”
“I already said that!” I waved him off with one hand, glaring up. “And besides, the, the black robes…” Some faint, sober part of me was already begging me to stop. I plowed on. “Not so attractive, that. You look terrible in them. They wash you right out. ‘S awful.”
“You are a font of wisdom.” I was – fairly certain he was being sarcastic but really, it was hard to tell with the wine, so I nodded anyway. “Not frightened of a man who holds your life in his hand. But of heights.”
“The splat at the end. The splat. And you owe me a new set of robes.”
“You spilled the wine, pet.” I snatched an offered rag out of his grip, trying to mop up the new reddish spot that was turning from a puddle to a dripping stain, already soaking through the material. Shit. “Not I.”
“If you weren’t such a sneaky, pop-up-from-nowhere – sneak I wouldn’t have.”
He snickered, shaking his head. “I’ll tell you what, pet.” A shiver raced through me as he placed a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll buy you the robes, if you’ll do me a little favour.”
I narrowed my eyes, shifting uncomfortably to avoid the cooling puddle adhering to my knees. “Okay. What’s that, then?”
A cat’s whiskered smirk. “I haven’t decided yet. In due time, my dear. Simply know that you’ll owe me one.” At my suspicious glower, his grin turned wolfish. “Nothing that would offend your delicate sensibilities, I assure you.”
“Delicate sensi – “ I stood and whirled on him. “Lissen, espèce de salopard, I am not some virginal, naive little princess - ”
“You have done very little to demonstrate to me otherwise – “
I don’t remember grabbing his collar. I don’t remember if he was as surprised by the act as I was or if I’d just walked into a baited trap. I remember thin, harsh lips, the scent of witch hazel and pine. The touch of grizzled chin to my own. I remember a fiery, all too brief meeting of lips before I pulled back and stared in drunken shock, more at what I’d done than at him.
He stroked his chin for a moment. Thoughtful, amused, intense. I squirmed under his gaze for a moment, feeling my face flare red hot as he murmured.
“My, my. There might be something more to you than I’d guessed, pet. “
I needed a moment to catch my breath, to think through the heat enveloping me. Still, it hadn’t been a lie. I wasn’t some innocent little ingénue. A hand on my hip, the sort of breathy voice I’d use with Bolor leaving me in a hiss. “I’ll be sure to keep you guessing.”
“Is everything alright in here?”
We both jerked to see mum in the threshold now, tilting her head as she approached, eyes narrowed. Still in those black robes, giving the slender frame I’d inherited a strange strength and structure, a new power behind it. Lucien stepped back and dipped his head.
“Just checking in with our new alchemist. I was going to give her this, in fact.” From within his robe he pulled out a sheet of folded parchment. My vision swam and bobbed, but I knew those names by heart. Wisp stalk, daedra venin, nightshade…
The lovely bubbly feeling, the warmth that had come from – whatever had just happened, it all turned to ashes at once. “Poisons.”
“Naturally. Speaker Abelle.” Mum closed in as he left, picking up the bottle – only a goblet or two left in it, now – and shaking her head.
“Chérie, I know this must be difficult, but this is hardly the appropriate way to –“
“Oh, and murder is appropriate, is it? Throwing away th’life you had to, to – “ I stalked away from her, across the room and towards the hearth instead. The fire had died long ago for the night, leaving only a peek of faint yellow under the coal. “To come here and, and, be one of them, like you never really wanted t’leave, like everything else was juss, just a lie.”
You’re drunk. Stop and think, a voice scolded, before you make an ass of yourself again. I dragged my fist over my lips to rub off the sensation that remained.
You belong to us, now. My hands shook holding the parchment. I balled it up in my palm.
“…Mum. Do you think you would have been happier, if you’d stayed here?” I grabbed ahold of the hearth’s mantel and leaned there, closing my eyes against the swaying, roiling ground beneath me. “If you’d never met papa? If you’d become a Suh-Speaker before like you were s’possed to? If you’d never had us as your family?”
I heard her inhale through her nares, her steps sharp and quick over to me. Vague surprise through the fog as she took my head, cool, gloved hands resting on my cheeks.
“Gabriel Anne Dust Toltette, you listen well.”
“It’s just Du – “ A look, just a look, was enough to silence me. I bit my tongue as she spoke.
“I have many regrets, my dear. And while perhaps this life would have suited me better – perhaps, I would have been more content here – having you and your sister has never been one of them.”
She pulled me in tight. I couldn’t fight her, any more than I could have when she first came, first told me everything, but still… “I don’t know who you are, maman. The true you.”
“It doesn’t have to be one or the other, my sweet. I have my Family, and my family. I am a mother, and I am a Daughter of Sithis, and I am both with pride. None of us are as simple as we seem. You, too, mon chou.”
“I was – worried about you. I followed you, been keeping an ear. Thought to let you have your fun with Antoinetta. I heard what she called you. A scholar. And you are – my bright, talented, book-loving alchemist, you are, and you should be proud.” Her eyes crinkled, a knowing smile curving her lips and pressing her cheeks high. “But you are also my little minx of a daughter, as much as you ever were.”
She – oh.
I must have turned red again for how she laughed, hugging me, smoothing hair off my brow. Her hands felt cool, so cool against my flushed skin, her body so steadying and solid against mine. “You’re drunk, darling, I know you weren’t thinking straight, but still. He is a bastard, have no doubt in that. I think you took him by surprise.”
I pursed my lips. There was so much I wanted to say to her, but through the haze only one thing left me then.
“Should I be proud of that, too?”
She cackled, all the way through taking my arm and shepherding me as I stumbled out to the hall, still chuckling and wiping tears from her eyes by the time we got to our room. Another kiss on my brow as she persuaded me down on my bed, pushing an earthenware cup of water in my hands.
“Drink this so you won’t hate yourself quite so much and go to sleep, chérie.”
“Whadaboudamorrow?” It all came out in a single drawl before I glugged the water.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Only a crack of light remained as she blew out the candle and closed the door, leaving me atop the covers, letting my head sink into the pillow. I could feel just flickers of the night's events, ready to replay in my head…
But I was tired. I should change, came the thought, change out’ve these wine-soaked robes, that bastard, owe him a favour…
Tomorrow. I could deal with it all tomorrow.
I guessed it to be well after noon when I finally awoke, though it was impossible to tell in the Sanctuary. Still, it felt like I’d slept a long time, and hard. I awoke bleary-eyed, sore-headed and groggy, still in those wine-soaked robes until I stiffly changed and tried to remember the night before.
The Listener. The parchment, my bloodied hand, the deal. That, I remembered. And I’d found a crumpled slip of paper in my pocket before changing, detailing the reagents on hand, the – the creations I was meant to make. I remembered maman holding my head, telling me with such conviction that she loved me. A good memory. A warm one.
But I’d embarrassed myself, too. I was sure of it. Dammit, how? New robes. Simply know that you’ll owe me one. Delicate sensi –
I remembered now.
Stupid. I cursed myself all through the morning, splashing my face with icy water, half-heartedly munching on a slice of too-dry bread. Stupid, stupid, stupid! What were you thinking? Never be able to look that smug bastard in the eye again –
Alright. Alright. Calm down. I forced myself to breathe deep, tidying up after myself, leaving the robe I’d washed – dammit, that stain will never come out – to dry. You’ve been stuck down here for weeks. You were tired, and drunk, and…
I thought of Antoinetta, giggling and taunting me over my aphrodisiac. Bored, I decided on. Bored, and not thinking after everything. Missing Bolor. The thought of him gave a little wave of grief but I bit it down. He’s gone. There’s no point thinking on that, on what you had. You have to deal with what you have now.
What do I have now?
One thing at a time. I should find mum first, apologize for last night…
“There you are.”
I straightened up. Ocheeva, eyeing me sharply as I swallowed hard and hoped I looked less a mess than I felt. “Ocheeva.”
A show of teeth. It might have been a smile, but it didn’t feel like one. “Is that how you usually address your superiors, hm? By first name?”
A trembling in my chest, a mixture of annoyance and apprehension. Mind the lace. “… Ma’am.”
“Better. I have been tolerant up until now, Dust. Being first our prisoner, then our guest. But now it seems you may become a permanent addition to our little brood.” She stepped closer and I had to force myself not to move away in turn, clenching and releasing clammy palms. “In which case, there are certain behaviors you will adhere to.”
The urge to retort was caustic on my tongue, bitten back. Equally caustic the urge to play sickly sweet, piss her off by giving her exactly the submission she wanted in spades. I did neither.
“Behaviors that include respect,” the last word came down like the strike of a whip, “And keeping any messy behaviors well out of my Sanctuary.” She must have heard of last night, Antoinetta and I’s little wine tasting. “Am I clear?”
“As crystal, ma’am.” An edge entered my voice in spite of myself. I inhaled through my nares, tried to let all my tension bleed out my fingertips. The lace, mind the lace, don’t piss them off. They’re the last people on Nirn you want to piss off. “May I ask if you’ve seen my mother this morning?”
“She’s likely off making preparations for her departure.”
Ocheeva inclined her head, golden eyes lidding. “You could not have expected she would remain here, did you? This is Speaker Lucien’s Sanctuary. It is Kvatch that needed a new leader, and there she will be assigned.”
My mouth went dry. “And what about me? Would I accompany her?”
“As I understand it, the Kvatch Sanctuary already has a talented alchemist in one of their Family members. Speaking of which, it’s about time you served your purpose, isn’t it?” A scaly brow arched and she dismissed me with the wave of a hand. Like how Tucket or Toltette had spoken to the household staff.
I stumbled away without argument to the laboratory, smoothing out the parchment Lucien gave me, seeing but not reading.
I began to pull out those dangerous reagents, many in darkened or protective jars both to seal them from light and to keep their lethal spores from entering the air I breathed.
What if she’s left already? No, she wouldn’t have. Not after last night, not without saying goodbye. Would she?
Laying them out one by one and even then, as part of my mind was on formulas, possibilities, I was thinking of her.
No. No, she wouldn’t. But she will.
And then what?
I have nothing in this city. Not a coin to my name. All I have is my life, and only that because of my service. A smile, rigid and mirthless, carved its way onto my face as I surveyed the ingredients displayed before me.
Because of my talent.
I have my life, because I can make others die with my talent. That’s the trade I’ve made with them.
It finally clicked, and I knew what Lucien had meant. I wasn’t ready. I’d been naive. But now - people would die because of me. They would have regardless, I was sure. With or without me, the Brotherhood would operate. But I would only help.
And now that I was finally ready? I didn’t want to be. Bitter irony.
I grit my teeth, slid on my gloves and set myself to my purpose.
Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-Two
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.
Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Three
“New curtains, dammit, I should have thought of that today. White lace, I think, then with sort of a nice, soft brown overlay for when I actually want to keep out the light…”
I hadn’t stopped moving, not from the time I awoke until now, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. True to her word mum met me early and we spent the day taking care of everything, first meeting with the head carpenter and negotiating the price of good furniture, a counter for the entry room. I debated with the blacksmith over just how much work a cauldron deserved, and, thanks to maman, I had gold enough to make the deal go my way, earning the promise of a smooth, balanced piece.
I went from store to store, buying kitchen supplies, tools for gardening, food and drink and tableware and anything I could think of to make this house a home. For now, I was up on tip-toe, mimicking the work I’d done in the Sanctuary not long ago, using my broom to twist around and pull down those pale cobwebs in the high corners as mum busied herself listening to my chatter, making a list.
“Did I remember to buy seeds? Suppose it doesn’t matter, with winter on the way it’s not the time for – “
The door creaked open. I stiffened instinctively, finding myself oddly relieved to recognize the face in the threshold as Antoinetta, bearing a basket and a sunshine grin.
“Good morning! I heard the good news and wanted to come see.” She sashayed in, placing the basket on my little kitchen table. “And to bring a housewarming present, of course. Breton tradition, right?”
“I’m not sure we can claim that one exclusively, dear, but it’s a good tradition nonetheless.” Mum examined the basket as I craned over my shoulder to look, the smell of fresh rolls filling the house with a new sense of warmth. “These look delicious. You’re ready for tomorrow, I trust?”
“Mhm! I mean – “ Antoinetta seemed to remember her place then, going pink and giving a dip of her head. “Yes, Speaker Abelle.”
Ignore it. Ignore it. Don’t let that taint this, all of this good, all this hope. I bit my tongue and turned back to my work, dragging the bristles along the ceiling and holding back sneezes at what fell. “You’re – epth!” I sputtered and rubbed away the itch that had drifted down on my nose. “You’re leaving together, then?”
“Antoinetta has work down in the Imperial City. My carriage will need to stop there, anyway. And I’m sure she’ll be lovely company on the trip.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Another dip of the head as mom held back a smirk. Did she like being addressed like that? Did she tolerate only as a matter of respect between ranks? I lowered my broom, scrutinizing the corners with a nod.
“When are you both…”
“Early tomorrow morning.”
Don’t think about it. Kvatch isn’t that far, and you’ll have your own home soon. She can come see you. You lived five years without her, before. You’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.
She’ll be happy, there. And that – maybe that was what still hurt most. Knowing why she was going there and what she was going to become, and that she’d take joy in it.
“But what about you, hm, Dusty?” Antoinetta swept in from behind, prying the broom from my hand and grinning. “Take a break for a second, will you? I heard you’re opening a shop!”
“That’s the plan.” Her smile was infectious. I grinned back, relinquishing it as she threw it to a corner.
“Sounds like fun! Got a name yet?”
“I do, actually.” Mum glanced over in surprise. “I was thinking about it all day.”
“Well, dear.” She arched a brow. “Don’t keep us in suspense!”
“I’m calling it The Dusty Cauldron.” They exchanged a look as I glanced at them. “What do you think?”
Antoinetta’s nose wrinkled. Mum took a breath, the exact sort of sound I’d heard before when she was being delicate with me. “… Darling, wouldn’t – wouldn’t ‘dusty’ make one think the cauldron wasn’t used much?”
“It’s not like about the cauldron being actually dusty, it’s just a silly little play on words!” I tried not to pout. “I like it, I think it’s clever. Netta?”
She shrugged. “S’not going to be my shop.”
“You both have no sense of humour.” I took my broom back up, not to sweep but to thwack it against the ground with one hand, down like a staff as I made my point. “It’s a good name, and it’s my shop, and that’s what I’m going to call it.”
“You call it whatever you like, darling, as long as it makes you happy.” It was mum’s turn to take the broom from me again, this time without struggle before glancing over at Antoinetta. I’d never get my sweeping done, at this rate. “If you wouldn’t mind, dear – I’d like a few moments alone with Dust.”
“Of course – of course, Speaker.” Another bow.
“Thank you for the rolls, Antoinetta. I’ll – I’ll see you when you come back, yes?” A wave and she was gone, the door creaking to a slow close behind her. “What is it?”
“I just thought we should – say our goodbyes now. I don’t know that I’ll have time in the morning, and given how early we’re leaving…”
I’d known it was coming, of course, and braced myself for it. Tried to keep from letting the sinking feeling sink too low, from letting my feelings show. “I’m so grateful, mum. For everything.”
“Just make the best of it, my love. Be happy. I wish you the very best of luck, even knowing you won’t need it.”
I wanted to wish her well in return. I wanted to. But knowing where she was going, what she was going to do, to be when she got there – I hid it all in a hug instead, kissing her brow as she often did mine. “I will, I promise. You’ll come visit, won’t you?”
“Whenever I have time. If you need anything at all, pass a letter to the Sanctuary and they’ll get it to me. You’ll be fine, chérie.”
I’d felt this before. This sense of bittersweetness, this raw love and hope so delicate it felt like glass. Fear and hope. ‘Make the best of it. You’ll be fine.’ Not the first time she’d said that to me.
Hopefully this time, it would stick.
“I know I will, mum.” Another echo. I grinned at her, swallowing to keep tears at bay. “I’m yours, remember?”
“Damn right. And before I forget…” She pulled something from her belt, and I froze. Her dagger. Offering it forth with a small smile I couldn’t read. “It tangled you in this, but perhaps it also saved your life. If you hadn’t held it when Lucien had come…”
I’d be dead. She didn’t need to say it. For all my mixed feelings, the blade still meant something to me. It had saved me then, and it had cut my ties with my old life when I was a girl. I accepted it, wrapping my fingers around the cool metal.
“I love you.”
“And I you, Dust. Always.”
I was alone when twilight fell. Alone, but not lonely. I would miss her, dearly. I missed my life at the Arcane University, everything I’d had to leave behind. I missed the certainty of the future I’d once held in mind.
But I let my mind wander to better things. What potions I could make and sell, what services I could offer the people here. I put on the fire and dragged a chair close, sat close enough to hear sparks pop and feel the delicious heat as the chill of evening settled.
I can do this. I can be happy, here. Or at least I can try.
I was half-asleep when a knock on the door startled me. This time of night? Was it mum again?
I almost didn’t recognize him. Not like this, dressed smartly in everyday clothes and a mannerly smile on his lips. It was only the glint in his eyes, the way he inclined his head that made it all rush back. “May I come in?”
The trade. The argument. My protests, and my proving him wrong –
I felt my face flare red and turned, scoffing. “You say that like I have a choice. Come on, then.”
“Not a very gracious hostess, pet.”
“Forgive me, I hadn’t had the chance to offer you tea yet. Give me a moment to keep up, won’t you?” I was already bristling, covering up my annoyance and my embarrassment with a mocking sweetness. “Can I help you with something?”
“Just thought I’d come by to see how you’re settling in.” He surveyed the main room, shrugging off a short cloak misted with the fog settling in. “Abelle chose well enough. Pity it’s near the chapel.”
“I like where it’s at. The bells sound lovely.”
“You’ll tire of them soon enough.” More out of a need to keep busy I indeed poured us tea, offering a mug as he continued. “Your poisons were adequate, for our purposes.”
A chill down my back. “They haven’t been – already – “
“No. But I did make a point of looking them over, and the formula is pure. I had – concerns that you might try to undermine us, make something less than lethal with the fool idea of saving a life at the cost of your own.”
I’d thought of it, but the idea hadn’t lasted long. It would have been pointless rebellion. With or without my potions, the targets would die. And I wanted to live.
Even if it was as a coward.
I turned away from him again, letting my mug hit the table with a thump. A bitter, sour taste grew at the back of my mouth, making me grimace. I didn’t need this. I didn’t want my fresh start, my chance at freedom and making a life out of this, to be tainted by the reminder that…
That it wasn’t really freedom at all. Accept it. I screwed up my brow and inhaled deep, fists uncurling. This is the way it’s going to be, and all you can do is make the best of it.
“Something the matter?”
I softened my tone now. “… What is a Speaker, Lucien? What do you do?”
He tilted his head. “What makes you ask this now, hm?”
“If I’m going to be – a part of this, even unwillingly, I need to know. Even if I don’t want to know, and believe me I do not,” A harsh syllable, withering into a sigh. “… I need to. I need to know everything, and when you told me before that I wasn’t ready…” I made a face at his smile, even as polite as it was. “Don’t look so smug. Yes, you were right.”
“But now you are. You’ve given your blood and service, your word to the Brotherhood. Your work will lead to the deaths of innocents, in exchange for your own life.”
I wanted to argue, the same reasoning I’d been trying to ply on myself. They’d die, anyway. At least sometimes, I can make it painless. I can make it quick.
I didn’t. I picked up my mug again, wrapping my hands around it and holding tight. “… So you’ll tell me, now?”
The strangest thing, to have this man sitting in my new home, sipping my tea and telling me, in that low, silky rumble, everything I didn’t want to know. Hands folded, features shadowed and flickering in the firelight as he explained.
Sithis. The Dread Father. Not some horrific daedra or lord over death as I’d pictured, but the ruler of emptiness. Vast, endless expanse, yearning, hungry, blank and yet filled with the potential of endless chaos. A being beyond understanding.
And yet, he had a bride. Lucien spoke of the Night Mother in such gentle tones, expression distant, but loving. When he spoke of her embrace it wasn’t with the grand, booming voice of a priest spouting glory of the Nines, but something quiet and deep and intimate.
More businesslike then, his explanation of the Dark Brotherhood’s structure, and indeed, the apt metaphor of the Black Hand. Four fingers, and a thumb. Four Speakers, and a Listener.
I kept silent, only moving to refill our tea when it grew cold. I let out a sigh when he’d finished, letting my shoulders slump.
“I understand how – how someone could find some sort of sense of purpose, in this. All of this. The business end and the – the side of belief. How someone could find family in it.” And for people like my mother, orphaned and alone and angry…
How sweet, the Night Mother’s accepting embrace must have seemed.
“Someone. But not you.”
I laughed without humour. “No. Not for me.”
“No? And this is?” A line of amusement, contempt grew between his mouth and cheek. “A pretty little house with a copper kettle and tea on the hearth, a husband and children? And here I'd hoped perhaps you might be interesting."
I scowled. “You don’t know a damn thing about what I want.”
“I think you made what you want quite clear the other night, pet.”
My face turned red again. I made a point of not meeting his gaze as I took his empty mug, primly putting it with mine back on the table. “Will that be all, Lucien?”
“For now. You will receive your orders for new potions and poisons by Fredas.” He stood, shrugging his cloak back on as I walked him to the door. “Ah, and one more thing.”
He turned on me, so quick I nearly lost my balance in recoiling. Not angry, not attacking, but all my memories of the night we met flooded in and I hated myself for the whimper I gave as he caught my chin, as he stared intently into my eyes for a long moment.
“You are free of the Sanctuary, but not of us. We are watching. Should any secrets reach unwanted ears, it will be likely not only you but your mother who suffers the consequences, and everything you are beginning to build will come crumbling down. But if you are obedient, and discreet…”
“Believe me, I am painfully aware of my servitude.” Did he feel the tremble of my jaw in his hand? How much I wanted to spit and snarl? But it wasn’t with anger or disdain he spoke, not the way Ocheeva had.
“It’s for your own good to keep that in mind, pet.” I pulled back the moment he released me, running my hand over the tingling spots the contact left. Then the smirk returned. “I’ll be sure to come and see your little shop, once you’ve set to business.”
“Don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
I slammed the door behind him and fell against it, swallowing a deep breath and digging my fingers into the wood. No. No, don’t let them ruin this. You’re going to be fine.
I’ll make the best of this. I can do that – I know I can.
Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Four
It was almost achingly sweet, the contrast.
After weeks spent underground, locked in, I could finally go where I pleased. I could finally be out and feel the sun on my skin, hear people laughing, arguing, bartering again. I could talk to people whenever I wanted and not be shooed away, not be given looks of confusion or contempt. I wouldn’t struggle in vain to keep busy.
And I wasn’t waiting anymore. There was nothing left to wait for, not when my tools finally arrived and my form to the Census Office was stamped. As soon as I was ready, they told me, I could open shop.
I wasted no time. Potions first, of course – what was an alchemist without potions to sell? For healing colds, ataxia, pox, all the common illnesses around this time of year. For combating poison, for strengthening the body and keeping fatigue at bay, yes, those would sell well to the Fighters’ Guild. And for the local farmers, a special formula to keep rats out of the silos, night-eye potions for the late shift guards…
And my aphrodisiac, of course. It was hard working through that, the sweet, heady fumes bringing with them Bolor’s voice, his whispers, memories of his touch. And with him, thoughts of Tar-Meena. Of the University.
I couldn’t go back to that. Didn’t even dare risk writing to Tar-Meena, telling her I was alive, I was safe. How could I explain my supposed ‘running away?’ She was smart. She would suspect, and that could only lead to disaster. Better to keep it separate, no matter how it hurt. Better to keep her uninvolved. Better to start over, and keep busy.
It wasn’t a difficult task anymore. The idea of having time to waste quickly became foreign, and I delighted in that. And as the weeks passed, little additions – a wreath here, a painting there, lacy curtains blowing in the open breeze – my little house became a home.
It was on Sundas I decided to go to the chapel.
It was almost an unconscious decision. By tradition, all shops closed business on Sundas, giving me a welcome day of rest after the busy weeks I’d dived headfirst into, a day of quiet. I was wandering around the plaza, thinking of visiting the book shop as I had on lazy days in the Imperial City, when the bells rang out and people spilled from the great doors into the streets.
I twined my way through the crowd, skirting along the edges when I could as I caught whispers, murmurs of affirmation, the hush from the chapel following them out into the day until they all began to part. And then, alone, I stepped inside.
For a moment it felt like stepping back into my childhood. Just for a moment. The echo of my feet against stone in the grand hall, the dust motes floating over me in faint, beautiful spectrum from the tall stained glass windows. The scent, especially. Old books, older stonework, candles and something I couldn’t quite place.
I looked up, quite a ways, to meet a smile. A Nordic man, giving a little bow and smiling kindly. “Can I help you? Y’look a bit lost, is all. Service is over, but you’re welcome t’talk to the Primate?”
“Oh – oh, no, that’s alright. I just…” The air tasted of time past as I inhaled. “I saw the doors were open and things would be quiet, and it – it’s been a long time since I was in a chapel.”
“Well, it’s never too late to come back into the fold. Welcome to the Chapel of Arkay.”
Arkay. God of funerary rites, of the mourning, of the dead and the wheel of life, always spinning. Was it irony that had led me here, or had I wanted to see the other face of death? Not the hungry, strange being Lucien spoke of, but something so many in Tamriel sent their prayers to?
“Thank you. Is it alright if I…?”
“By all means.” He gestured with a tree-trunk arm towards the end of the hall past the pews, where the altar sat.
Hands on hewn stone, the subtle scent and hum of magic raising hairs on my neck. I didn’t reach into the basin to bless myself. Hadn’t, not since papa had passed, and even now the thought made me smile in a twist. Me, who’d loved a necromancer. Me, who was the daughter of a murderer that would steal souls from this god’s designs.
I shouldn’t have come here. I pushed myself up and away, shaking off a shiver. I don’t belong, now more than ever.
“I’ve done everything I can.”
My ears perked, drawn to the low murmur in the shadows. Two women, beside one of the smaller altars beneath the stained glass. The taller, an Altmer woman, gave a soft sigh and continued. “He’s resting now.”
“May I see him?”
“I’m sorry, but I think it’s for the best we wait. He’s very confused, very angry.”
Rude to eavesdrop came the echo, but I did anyway. I sidled closer to one of the pillars to rest against it, tilting my head to catch the conversation behind.
“I’ve never seen him like this. He’s an artist, he’s always been moody, but not like this.” The other woman’s voice broke. A diminutive Dunmer, hugging herself tight. I felt a pang of sympathy. “Ever since…”
“Since what?” The Altmer was gentle, but probing. I’d heard that tone before, well-meant concern. “Please, anything you can tell us…”
But she only shook her head. “Just that he’s – dived into his work, more than before. I – I’ll come by in the evening, then. Please, if anything changes…”
“You’ll be the first to know, Tivela, I promise.”
She left then, the little hitches of stifled sobs making me wince. A family member? They had to be ill indeed, to be kept here. Then the Altmer woman stepped out, and I’d spoken before I’d realized it.
She turned, surprised by me as I was at myself. What are you doing?
What papa would have done.
“Yes?” A blink. Her face was soft and delicate, golden hair piled high. A moment and she seemed to gather herself, smiling sweetly. “I am Ohtesse, the Healer of this chapel. Blessings of Arkay upon you, child. Did you need assistance?”
I tried not to grimace at her blessing, half-thinking it might somehow reverse on someone like me. But then, I’d touched the altar and hadn’t heard any thunder. Yet. “Actually, I – I’m sorry, I overheard you talking. About the man here? And I thought – I’m only an apprenticed healer, but I’m an alchemist. Maybe I could help? Somehow?”
You’re an idiot. You’re just wishing you were papa, trying to fill his shoes because you feel guilty. She’ll probably just say –
“We can use any help we can get, if you’re a healer.” Her whole face – the dark bags under her eyes, the lines of exhaustion – lifted up with relief.
She led me down towards the chapel stairs beneath the main hall. A familiar stance, a familiar face. Happy with her work, relentless in her determination, but tired and overwhelmed by the sheer endlessness of it.
And this was a healthy, wealthy city. I could only imagine how papa must have felt. He believed he had to save that place, maman said.
I can’t save anything, not like he did. But maybe I can make a little difference. Make up for what I have to do to survive.
Silent down here, in the halls beneath. She guided me down a dim, candle-lit hall towards one of many smaller rooms, separated by others with a small curtain. Again, I could think only of home, of my father. So many sick that we used the tomb slabs as beds.
Not here. The patient’s room as small, yes, but pleasant enough – except for the man residing in it. The Altmer woman let out a gasp as feathers flew, as he dug his teeth into his pillow and tore it apart with animal snarls.
“Rythe! Oh, Mister Lythandas, please – “
Ohh, this was a mistake.
I held back as she flew to his side, a spell on her hands – something to calm him, subdue him. He groaned and slumped some, and only then did I dare approach. “What’s – wrong with him?”
“We don’t know, I’m afraid. That’s just the problem. Shh, shhh.” Soothing murmurs as the Dunmer man grumbled, shaking his head. Gods, he looked tired, drawn in like he hadn’t slept in days. “I’ve been keeping him calm when I can, searching his body for – anything, but we’ve found no sign. No pustules of Blood or Brown Rot, no infected wound or Greenspore…”
“How long has he been like this?” For Talos’ sake, Dust, make yourself useful. I began to gather up the fallen feathers as she laid Rythe back on the bed where he rolled his head, listless.
“Three days, since his wife brought him here. He’s been sleepless, and acting more and more confused and aggressive. Ranting, and he stumbles and staggers as he walks. Tivela insists he’s done nothing strange, taken no blows to the head, eaten no strange herb…”
“Gedoff!” Weakly he fought the healer, trying to push her away with uncoordinated movements. “My wife, where – gods, I’m so tired, let me sleep, let me sleep…”
“Maybe a sleeping draught?”
“They help him for a while, but he just wakes like this again.” Ohtesse stood when Rythe finally seemed to settle some, stretching out her shoulders. She wouldn’t show her frustration, her exhaustion, but still it hung palpable in the air. “Truly, I… I don’t know what to do.”
“Shouldn’t’ve done it, is all!” He was rambling again, giggling, then cringing as though it hurt to do so. “Didn’t mean to, but no, had to dive in head-first, head-first into my painting like a true artist, I couldn’t let my work be ruined, couldn’t let them steal my gift nono, no…”
“He keeps saying that. Tivela said he’d been deeply involved in his art, more than usual with the Autumn Festival coming. They’re planning to open a stall and sell more of his work, little paintings for the children.” A sad flicker of a smile. “I fear that won’t be happening, now.”
Something niggled, an itch at the back of my mind. I frowned as he began again, lolling back and forth like he’d gone mad. What was wrong with him? “Right in! I got out, I got rescued but, but, I don’t know, it came with me, trapped, trapped, in my own painting…”
An artist. Painting.
Like clockwork the gears in my head began to turn, one clicking the other and the other the next until everything came into understanding like a candle coming alight. “He’s not ranting. He’s right.”
A frown from Ohtesse, gathering up the feathers I’d missed. “I don’t understand.”
“I mean – yes, he is ranting, but he’s still right. He’s a painter, yes? And his wife said he’s been more involved, working more than usual?”
“They told us about this, in my alchemy classes.” I knelt beside him now, pushing past all shyness and propriety as I took his face in my hand, looked at his eyes. Yes – yes, those strangely shrunken pupils, the sheen of sweat… “It’s common, in alchemists, though we’ve mostly learned to avoid it. Solvent poisoning. If he’s been locked in a room with his paints more than usual, inhaling the fumes…” A tingle, the triumphant, sweet reward of a puzzle solved. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“I never would have even thought.” A little laugh from Ohtesse, eyes wide, a hand over her mouth as she too began to beam. “I – my work is in typical diseases, injuries. I wouldn’t have recognized… is there a cure?”
“There is, and better still, I have it at my house.” Still strange to say that phrase, ‘my house’, but I was too excited to care as I sprung up to my feet again. “Every good alchemist does, just in case. I’ll run, I – I can be back in just a few minutes. Can you keep him calm, keep him from hurting himself?”
“Of course. Please, if you truly believe this is the cure for his illness – please, go.”
I ran, my feet all the faster for pride. I was right, I knew I was and I could actually truly help. Mum was right. I could do this. I could make a life here, be happy here, and even for my ties I could –
There was someone in my shop.
I skidded to a stop. My door was ajar. Why – I hadn’t left it, had I? No, I wouldn’t have, surely. I’d been so careful. And shops were closed for the day. Why would anyone…?
I well knew the answer. I drew a breath, steeled myself and walked in.
“There you are.” Telaendril. I closed the door behind me as I entered, narrowing my eyes. Strange to see her outside of her usual armour, like the rest of her family. But then, I hadn’t seen her since –
Since the night Gogron died.
“Did you have a nice time, visiting the Chapel?”
I shivered under the ice of her gaze, forcing myself to walk up to the counter beside her. Despite her stare, her voice was soft. Unpredictable, and just seeing her, remembering those little, wracking sobs she’d made…
“It would be polite to answer.”
“Oh! I – yes. I just, I wanted to look around.”
“You seemed in a hurry. Is everything alright?” Her head tilted as she spoke, like she was nothing more than a concerned neighbor dropping in. I frowned back.
“How on Nirn did you manage to see me and still get back here – “
“I know this city, its alleys and hidden paths, like the back of my hand. I was told to keep an eye on you on my daily rounds, and I will do so. Now, tell me the truth.” Her arms crossed, her voice never raising a hair above polite. “What’s going on?”
Fine. “… I went to the chapel just – just to look, that is the truth. But there was a sick man there, and I think I can help him. I can try.”
Something flashed in her eyes, unsaid. I knew we were both thinking the same thing. Remembering that night, the massive Orc bloodless and limp atop that little bed.
“Very well.” And it was gone as though it had never been there at all, blank and cool again. “Though if you continue to operate on charity, I doubt you’ll end up any different than your father.”
I stiffened. Part of me, angry. Part… “You knew him?”
“Very briefly, when he first met Abelle. He, too, had a sense of duty to others. To the weak. It was very sweet, and very foolish, and it led him to his death.” Sharp, sharp as the end of an arrow her words became as she leaned in close. “Your mother is far more sensible. You would be wise to try and take more after her.”
Mother. Sweet and loyal and generous to her family, to her own. But anyone outside that, she was cold. No qualms in taking advantage of the foolish or ignorant in her business, and even for all her guilt over what I’d gone through in the echo of her life, I knew she felt pride in what she was, what she did.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. “I’m not my father, or my mother. I need to get the potion and go. Please, leave.”
A bow of her head and she made for the door. Anger and guilt battled for dominance in me, and as she reached the threshold…
“I’m sorry. About Gogron.”
Was there a tremor at his name? A little intake of breath, a hitch of her shoulders? I couldn’t tell. She stood still for a long moment, then turned and left, taking my breath with her as I let out a long sigh.
Did she hate me? Or did she, as the others had, accept his death as an inevitability in a life so filled with it?
Death. Arkay. I couldn’t save Gogron, but there was someone waiting for me, now, that maybe I could help. I could serve the Brotherhood as my mother had. I could help those in need, like papa.
I didn’t have to be either.
“I can’t even begin to thank you enough.”
In the end, it had been a long day. My cure for the solvent poisoning took hours to really finish its work, leaving the poor man exhausted, confused, but at least no longer ranting. Ohtesse and I took turns keeping him calm when he became agitated again, took turns soothing the dizziness and nausea that had him curling up in a ball and clutching at his stomach, Dunmeri curses leaving him in strings.
But it was worth it. A laugh squeezed out of me as Tivela hugged me tighter still, Ohtesse watching with a wide smile, her husband sitting on the bed looking sheepish.
“It really was nothing, just – “
“You don’t understand. I almost lost my husband recently, and when the sickness started – I’d just gotten him back. I was so scared I was going to lose him again…”
“There now, dear.” He shakily stood as she parted from me, sniffling, grinning. I mirrored it, unable to hide my pleasure, my pride. “My work caught me up again, but now I know better than ever to be cautious.”
“Frequent breaks for fresh air, a cracked window and perhaps an alchemist’s mask should be enough to keep you safe.” It felt – strange, to be dispensing healing advice like this. Strange, but good. Like I was finally reaching where I would have been at the University, educating. “And if you begin to feel ill again, please, drop by my shop.”
"Gladly, muthsera. Thank you, again.”
“We’re so grateful.” Tivela’s voice cracked, watery as her eyes glimmered. I had to wipe at my own eyes as they embraced, resisting the urge to sniffle.
“You’ll be coming to the Autumn Festival, won’t you? A free painting! Any one you like, my dear. They’re small, but – “
“That would be lovely. Please, be well.”
A tangible sense of relief as they left, as the room fell quiet again between the healer and I. She met my gaze with a gentle smile, a murmur.
“What are the chances? That you were in the chapel, that you heard me. That you knew. You were sent by Arkay, my child, I’m sure of it.”
“I…” A little laugh. “I don’t know about that, but… thank you.”
“Hil said you looked lost, when you came into the chapel. Was it your first time in a while?”
I faltered. I liked this woman, already. We’d known each other briefly, but she was kind and good-hearted, and reminded me so much of… “My father was a healer, for Stendarr. He died when I was small, and after that my family never really…” Dammit. I blinked back tears, feeling a blush creep on my cheeks.
“Then perhaps it was him that guided you now, from beyond Aetherius. In this place of all places, perhaps those gone can reach out to us who yet live.” A tingle down my back as she reached out to touch me, a hand on my shoulder.
“Walk in faith, child.”
Papa had faith. A sense of duty, of charity, and it was as Telaendril had said – it landed him in a shallow grave if he was given even that, poor and forgotten. No answer from his beloved god of mercy. Maman had her Family, her work, her purpose through her faith, but others suffered for it.
I smiled to myself, warming my toes by the low-burning fire, sipping a tea before bed. I did good. A small, but steady warmth like a little hearth in my chest all aglow. I did the right thing.
If nothing else, maybe I could have some faith in myself.
Chapter 25: Chapter Twenty-Five
Green grounds. Dewy petals. The heavy, perfumed scent of the alchemy garden, almost embracing me in spring’s arms. No, it wasn’t the arms of spring – warmer still and firm around me, lips trailing past my ear, down my neck as I bit back my giggles of delight.
“Thesis presentation tomorrow, mm? Could be what sends you to apprentice for Julienne. Are you nervous?”
“No.” I kept my voice low, trying not to sigh too loud at the graze of his fingertips or the tickle of grass. Just outside the hedges were footsteps, passing so close. Oh, if we were found out…
But he kissed me anyway, and it was hard to worry about anything here in this little hiding spot we’d made, so secret and perfect. Especially hard to worry when he kissed my neck like that. “I’ll worry later, anyway. Not – mn – not right now...”
“Should focus on celebrating, hm? You’ll impress them. You’re creative. You certainly did me, with this torrid little idea…”
“Shhh! Not so loud!”
“Lay back down. I want to see if you can keep as quiet as you think…”
Any night before I’d have woken from a dream like that grinning, flushed and pleasantly dazed. Rolling over to nestle in closer to Bolor, drifting back off contented…
But not tonight.
I blinked away tears, catching my breath and hugging myself tight when I sat up in the dark. Just a dream. Except it wasn’t, was it? It was so much more than a dream, or even a memory…
It was loss.
Make the best of it. I’d felt so warm, when maman gave me the papers to my home. So happy setting up shop, and helping the painter had practically made me glow. Trying, gods, trying to cling to that warmth and relief and gratitude, that things weren’t as bad as they could have been. I had my life. I had my shop, a purpose. I had a chance.
But I’d lost so much, too. So much I could never get back. Bolor – even knowing what he’d done thinking of him hurt, made me remember not his crimes, but his kindness. His patience with my rambling ideas, his guidance when I struggled. His grin, amused and proud when I gained the courage not to be courted but to tease and flirt right back. The time Tar-Meena had helped me surprise him with wine and a picnic and left me to try and fail to seduce him with the lute, him snickering at being ‘wooed like a Breton maiden…’
And Tar-Meena herself. Gods, we’d spend hours talking about books when we could, laughing over our differences in opinion. She stuck by me, celebrated my victories, mourned with me in failure and disappointment. She was always so supportive, and never failed to go to festivals with me when I begged, even though she hated crowds.
The university itself, my studies. My home and my purpose. All stolen from me so quickly, I’d hardly had time to grieve.
Okay. Breathe – get up. I forced myself out of bed, wincing as my toes hit cold wood. This is your life now. I was lucky not to be starting from nothing, imprisoned in the Sanctuary and trying to make a living. Lucky to be living at all. I just need a drink. A cold drink, and I’ll sleep fine again, and I can…
I couldn’t always delight in this. It hurt. It couldn’t not hurt. But I had to at least try.
I tip-toed down the stairs, swallowing a yawn. It truly could be so much worse. Here I had a place to call my own, a life to live even if it was bound by the Brotherhood. I could help people, work on my studies in my own way. I’d already started a new notebook on water purification, another with scribbled ideas to try…
I bit back a bitter pang, wrestled the resentment down. This was it. There was no point fighting it. And at least – though it ached to think it – at least they made it look like I’d run. There’d be no one looking, and Tar-Meena…
She might hate me. But at least she wouldn’t grieve me.
Maybe that was enough. I got my water and stumbled back to bed.
I hadn’t been asleep half an hour when I was woken again. Not from my old life, but to my new reality.
I nearly screamed, nearly. Jolting out of my new bed at the shake of a cold hand on my arm, gripping tight, at glowing yellow eyes in the dark. M’raaj Dar, the Khajiit mage from the Sanctuary. I sucked in a breath, heart fluttering, untangling myself from the bed. “What? What’s happened?”
“It’s Teinaava, he’s wounded. Hurry, idiot.”
No time to change, barely enough time to throw a cloak over my nightdress and stick my bare feet in shoes. I was still groggy, thinking myself half-dreaming until we made way into the depths of the Sanctuary. The scent of blood woke me properly.
“There you are.” Vicente, sitting by Teinaava’s side as Ocheeva stood. A flicker of relief at his calm nod, reaching for a cloth to wipe his hands. It was bad, but not deadly. “Thank you for coming.”
“Of – of course.” I hardly had a choice in the matter, did I? But any irritation vanished at the Argonian’s pained hiss, laying belly down on the bed with claws digging into the sheets. From his lower back jutted the shaft of an arrow, embedded deep. I winced in sympathy. “What happened?”
“He was on contract when an unknown assailant attacked. When he turned to fight, the coward ran.” It was Ocheeva who answered, brisk and tight. “He traveled back here on foot.”
“… The traitor?”
Vicente shook his head. “I do not believe so. The traitor has always attacked with a blade, never by bow. Likely a highwayman who realized he had bitten off more than he could chew, as it were.” Teinaava groaned and his sister stiffened, nares flaring.
“Sithis’ sake, whatever you’re going to do, do it quickly.”
I managed not to flinch. The wound wasn’t lethal, thank gods – if I did this right, he would heal. But already, I felt my hands shake.
These were assassins. Murderers, who would kill with hardly a thought. The night with the Orc, still and bloodless, flickered in memory. I’d had no choice, then, no chance to save him even though I’d wanted to. But now - if I made a mistake, if I did this wrong…
Focus. Breathe and focus, Dust. Just another patient, that’s all.
Raw flesh had swollen around the embedded shaft. It was almost certainly infected, then. I glanced at Vicente as I sat, all grogginess dissolving. My thoughts felt clearer, crystallizing, systematic. An exam at the University, practicing on injured guards to learn the Healing arts. That’s it, focus. “Any breathing troubles?”
“No. Thankfully, it appears to have fallen short of the lung.”
Thank gods. Or should I thank his god? “…I’ll need a wire and forceps. And my potions, from the laboratory – one for pain, one for stemming infection. Linens, water. Vicente, could you - ”
A polite nod and he was gone, leaving me alone with the siblings. The air felt tight, tense and suffocating with Teinaava’s pained hisses and Ocheeva’s looming presence. Twins – not just by Brotherhood but by birth, Antoinetta had told me. A realization steadied my hands with a flicker of sympathy. She was scared, too. Scared for him.
“You both joined quite young, yes?” I began cleaning the site of the wound, trying to keep my voice as light as I could under the weight of the room. An incredulous silence. Ocheeva answered, eyes narrowed.
“From Black Marsh, then? You came a long way.”
“… My eggmate lays here wounded and you make inane conversation?” I could almost hear the venom in her voice, seething and bubbling. “Are you mad?”
“Conversation will help distract him from the pain, and help keep him awake until I’m certain it’s safe for him to take something.” It was the truth. It would keep me from panicking, too. As stupid as it always felt, it was something my mentor had taught me in the University, and…
And something papa had always done. Asking his patients about their day, their week. About their families and their pasts. Anything to keep them talking and focused on something other than the pain.
As gently as I could I fingered the nock of the arrow, feeling the tension push back. Yes, it had hit bone – glanced off into a rib, maybe. Even as carefully as I moved it, he hissed. I wanted to soothe him sooner, but I’d need every ounce of my magicka to get the arrow out and the wound healed. That took precedence.
“Please. It’ll help, I swear.”
A beat. Ocheeva sucked in a breath through jagged teeth. “… We were offered to the Brotherhood as hatchlings.”
“Shadowscales.” Teinaava spoke next, giving a rasping laugh, then a grunt. “Ngh – not that you would know what that means…”
Vicente returned soundlessly, offering me the tools I asked for with a quiet nod before sitting down nearby. First the analgesic, encouraging him to drink and empty the bottle. Then a deep breath and I began my work in earnest, sliding the forceps into the wound. “Tell me about them – you. Shadowscales. It’ll keep your mind busy.”
He did. Explaining as I worked how he and Ocheeva had been born for this life, in their heritage and the stars that presided over their hatching. How they’d trained under Lucien so young, and saw him as a father figure – I had to bite back a scoff at that. And as he spoke, I worked. Carefully pulling back torn flesh to free the barbed arrowhead, lacing the wire tight around the shaft to finally pull it free. Washing the wound with clean water and my disinfectant, coaxing flesh to flesh as best I could to shrink the gaping hole where the arrow had buried.
In truth I only half heard them, but it was more what I felt from them that changed. The air grew lighter, tension dissipating as they shared laughter at old memories of their childhood, their training.
It was an assassin I was healing, an assassin watching my every move. But it was also a sister, watching over her injured brother.
I smoothed down the last of the bandages. Teinaava’s breathing had grown slower, steadier as my last potion took him, lulling him into the deep sleep his body dearly needed. I took a deep breath of my own and stood.
Ocheeva met my eyes, expressionless. I mustered a smile. “He’ll be fine. He’ll need rest and his bandages changed in a day or two, but he’ll be fine. Just send for me if the bandages start to yellow or anything seems off.”
A moment, two. Finally Ocheeva seemed satisfied, nodding and raising her chin. “Very well. You may go.”
I smiled, gathered myself, slung on my cloak. I was nearly at the well ladder, nearly out, when it all collided into me. The emotion of the night, the fear, the relief, the exhaustion crashing hard enough to make me clutch the stone wall for support.
I’m healing assassins. I’m working for assassins. I’m okay, it’s okay, I did what I had to, they’re twins, they’re family, they’re murderers – A jumble of thoughts, only interrupted by a gentle hand on my shoulder making me gasp.
My heart leapt into my throat. I turned slowly to meet Ocheeva’s golden eyes, narrowed into slits as she examined me like prey. What happened? Had I done something wrong? “Oche – ma’am?”
A slow blink. She pulled back and inhaled, proud and quiet, a leader. Thinking on it – from what Teinaava had said, she couldn’t have been much older than me. But she held herself straight and strong, seeming older than her years. “Thank you.”
My mouth went dry. I pursed my lips, swallowed hard before dredging up an answer. “I… of course. You’re welcome.”
A nod of dismissal. She turned on her heel, tail swinging behind her, leaving me staring after until I came back to my senses. Enough to ascend the well and make my way home through the dark.
There was none of the confidence I’d felt after helping the painter. Only doubt and confusion, knowing I could have done nothing else and yet…
Papa took all comers, when I was a girl. Many in the village stole to get by. Assaulted others. Drunken fights, desperate squabbles over food. He never picked sides. He never hesitated. Everyone deserved his help.
What would he have thought of this?
Let it go. It doesn’t matter, the why. I stripped off my nightdress, soiled now with blood, and changed to crawl into bed. You did what you had to, to survive. You did what you thought was right.
It was easy to trust in myself when there was no question, wasn’t it? Easy to push away doubt and fear then, ignore everything I’d lost. But now…
Chapter 26: Chapter Twenty-Six
My favourite season had always been autumn. Such a dazzling time back at the University – back home, though more and more that word had changed for me. Instead of images of the Arboretum turning crisp and gold came those of the towering firs, thick and green, thrusting up from the orange-red forest blanketing the base of the mountains. Instead of stone walls and tiny, ornate glass windows, I thought of timber and white-washed planks, releasing that delicious piney smell in the afternoon’s warmth.
And instead of green hills and sparkling lakes, there was this. The brush outside Cheydinhal, thinning the higher the mountains climbed North, but, down here, dark and thick enough to hide plenty of little treasures. A basket slung around my shoulder I knelt, letting my fingers sink into loamy earth. Cool, wet and enveloping, encouraging as I carefully angled them to slide under the tendrils of the mushroom, coaxing it out clean.
It was – nice. As much as I’d craved to keep busy during my imprisonment, as much as I enjoyed the city and my new work, it was nice to be doing something so simple, so natural to me.
Though this was less for work and more for pleasure. I’d found a few good reagents to play with, but mostly I scavenged now for edible mushrooms. With the truly cold weather closing in, the thought of a hearty beef and mushroom stew sounded perfect.
Besides, I’d needed to get out of town, away from my thoughts for a while. I’d dreamed of Bolor and the University again, the night before. It hurt less and less as time went on, but with the hurt clearing came room for questions I’d never dared broach before.
He’d sent the Brotherhood after me. He must have – who else? Whether out of hate or hurt or just to clean up loose ends, he would have had me dead. I would be dead, if not for maman’s dagger. Confusion muddled the sense of betrayal as I stood, dusting off my skirts.
Lucien had mentioned a contact of theirs at the University, passing on information about me as their unexpected ‘guest.’ And what he had said – ‘a favour for a friend’. My death hadn’t been sanctified by the Night Mother. What did that mean?
I’d asked Antoinetta to tell me when Lucien was next by, as much as I’d rather have avoided him after our last encounter. If anyone would have answers, it would be him. But until he came back I had only questions and, just for a while, I needed to get away from them.
Just for a while.
It wasn’t long before my basket was almost full, certainly enough for a hearty stew, with leftovers besides. I knelt beside another fir, searching the base. They had a synergy, these fungi with these trees, always close together. Reaching at a glimpse of velvety brown –
Except it wasn’t a mushroom curled up there. A hare, terrified and stalk still, staring up at me with bright eyes. I caught my breath, lowered myself slowly.
It shrank. Poor thing – I must have snuck up on its hiding spot without even realizing. Not that it could hide like this much longer. Already I could see spots of white on the rusty brown fur, heralding the coming winter. But what a little delight. I cooed, tilting my head and daring a single finger over its shivering back.
“It’s okay, I’m not here to hurt you.”
“I should certainly hope not.”
A voice behind me. I jerked up and in a flash the hare was gone, bolting off to some burrow under the fallen leaves. I shot a glare over my shoulder and turned with a sigh.
“You scared it off.”
“My apologies.” He appraised me for a moment, gaze moving to the basket I held. “But you’ve been asking after me, I hear. I thought I could use the walk. Reagents?”
“Some. Mostly just Pig’s Ear, for supper.”
“Mmn.” A stiff, polite smile, crooked at the side. “What did you want?”
At least he was right to business. I sighed, shrugging my shawl a little closer before walking at his side, back through the wood. “…What can you tell me about – about the night you came for me?”
An arched brow. “You don’t remember?”
“I’d be hard-pressed to forget. I mean the why. You said I wasn’t a proper contract. What did you mean?”
An incline of his head. “Contracts come from two sources. The most rewarding, directly from the Night Mother herself. She whispers to our Listener, who passes tasks amongst us. Of course, we are a business. We will take other contracts, make other deals, so long as blood is spilt. Yours was one such.”
I swallowed hard, trying not to let his businesslike tone unnerve me. “… With a Dunmer, named Bolor.”
“Truthfully, I don’t know the details.” A shrug. “A colleague asked me to deal with you while I was on my own business in the Imperial City. The contractee wanted you dead, and your body returned to him.”
My body. Gods. My throat closed tight, a hand moving to my chest. I wrung the clasp of my shawl, a clammy shudder creeping through me. He – gods, he would have, what he’d done to that poor woman, would I have been next –
I spoke, barely audible above the crunching leaves under our boots. “… He was a necromancer. My mentor.” My lover, my friend.
“I must assume your necromancer was a friend of my colleague, and he asked me to take care of it since I was nearby.” A flash of a smirk. “Nothing personal, pet.”
I scoffed, but my attention was elsewhere. Still reeling from it all, squeezing my eyes shut to push back my tears. It just confirmed what I’d already suspected, of course. I had my answers. Still, it hurt. And the thought of leaving the comfort of my task out here, going back home where all I could do was think on it alone…
I kept stride beside him, trying to fill the silence. “… How is Teinaava healing?”
“Very well. Thank you for that.” A more somber look now, brief but genuine. A mixture of feelings in me as I shrugged, glancing away.
“… I’m your prisoner, remember? A servant. It’s expected of me.”
“If you wish.” That lopsided smirk again, here and gone. “Antoinetta was asking after you. Wondering when you would be by again to cook. She’s quite taken with you.”
“Only because I’m better at chopping vegetables than her.” I smiled to myself as he snorted. “… Thank you. I’ll have to drop by.” Oddly the thought was – nice. Nice to drop by the place I’d been kept prisoner in for weeks –
No, not really. That wasn’t it. Nice to see her, nice to have company at all. And nice to have some distraction from my own circling thoughts.
Dry as dead leaves. “Your basket.”
“Oh!” I slid it properly back on my shoulder, glancing behind and picking up the few fallen mushrooms with a sigh. I’d overfilled it. Have to keep a careful eye to not spill again and risk them bruising in the fall. Really, I’d picked too many. Even for a big stew, some would go to waste. I could always dry them, or…
“Is she there now?”
“For now. I expect she’ll depart again soon.” An arched brow, questioning. I glanced at him, to the basket and back.
“… How would your family feel about stew for supper?”
What are you doing here, you idiot?
The scents of sage and beef fat and earthy mushrooms now carried through the Sanctuary, accompanied by that ever-beautiful presence of fresh baked bread. From any home, it would have been a call to herald supper, gathering the family.
Here was, I supposed, their home.
But as the rest of the family that was there gathered, I wondered what exactly I’d been thinking, coming here. Spending time with Antoinetta was just fun, that much was true. In the short weeks we’d known each other she’d become like a little sister to me. She chatted my ear off, told stories, giggled at my own little anecdotes. But the others…
I don’t belong here. I was imprisoned here for a month, then I run right back? What’s wrong with me?
And yet, maybe it was a good thing I was here. I was an outsider, but these people were my mother’s family whether I liked it or not. And besides, at least it was some distraction from other thoughts, tonight. If I left, I’d be thinking again of the Dark Brotherhood as the nebulous tool Bolor would have used to kill me.
But here and now, as much as it left me uncertain how to feel – here and now, they were just people. My mother’s people.
Teinaava came first, still resigned to healing at home until he regained full mobility. A glance told me he was indeed healing well, but sore – he winced coming to the table, Ocheeva placing a gentle hand on his back. M’raaj-Dar skulked in alone, taking his bread and bowl and sitting at the very edge of the large table. Lucien then, almost too polite as he accepted the meal, leaving Antoinetta tittering and me glaring. Even Vicente joined us – I poured him a bowl without thinking, offering it as he approached.
Only seeing those red eyes reminded me. I faltered, feeling my own face redden. “Oh – you wouldn’t – of course, I’m sorry.”
Antoinetta elbowed by, flashing me a grin and handing Vicente a steaming bowl as I frowned. “Vee just likes a little broth to try.”
“Indeed. I may not need the sustenance I used to, but I do enjoy different flavours and can still partake of different broths and beverages.” A raised brow to Antoinetta. “And I believe I have told you how I feel about that nickname, Antoinetta.”
“I only do it out’ve love!”
“Shall I assume there is no garlic in this, also out of love?”
“Cross my heart.”
Then he sat too, and our little get-together was complete. Telaendril off now on contract and with their recent loss, they seemed too large for a family and yet it still felt almost uncomfortably intimate. And even with all of them, there were several empty spots at the table.
At last I joined them, beside Antoinetta at the end and across from Lucien. “Is the Sanctuary usually this…” I tried and failed to think of a better word. “… Quiet?”
Shared looks between them all. Of course it was Vicente who spoke, polite as ever. “It has been a hard year, and given current circumstances it is perhaps for the best we are not entertaining new recruits as of yet.”
The circumstances. No one said it, but a chill fell over the room. We all knew what he meant. No one wanted strangers here when there was a traitor about. No one knew who to trust.
But Antoinetta grinned, bright and cheery as ever. “Teinaava, I put extra beef in yours.”
A small smile bared the Argonian’s teeth, humouring, affectionate. “Thank you, sister. Another few days of your stews and I’ll be ready for work again.”
“Another few days of her stews and I will be ready to eat anywhere else,” grumbled M’raaj-Dar.
The girl pouted, wagging her spoon at him. “You’re just sulky because you thought I meant we were having real pig’s ears for supper. Ew, by the way.”
“Pig’s ears are a delicacy, in some more Southern provinces.” Vicente, sipping delicately at the broth. “This is excellent, ladies. The herbs are lovely.”
Ever the gentleman. I managed a smile. “Thank you…”
“Go South our way and you will find no pigs. Save any invaders.” A shared little smirk between the twins, Vicente chuckling. Abruptly M’raaj-Dar stood, turning to the kitchen. An exasperated sigh from Antoinetta.
“I already put your spice blend on the table, cat.”
“Hairless little monkey.”
“I am not hairless!”
“Mind yourselves.” The warning came from Ocheeva, sharp and cracking down on the table hard enough for them both to look down in shame. “You will remember your manners, particularly when we are honoured by the Speaker’s presence.” Lucien, for his part, only raised a brow at the two as they bowed their heads, speaking in unison.
I swallowed a bite of broth-soaked bread and frowned, trying to dispel the tension. “… May I smell that blend, M’raaj-Dar?”
A frown from the Khajiit, but he complied. I accepted the little ceramic pot, wafting the scent up and having to wrinkle my nose. Not a bad smell, of course, but strong. Exotic herbs I recognized as coming all the way from the sands and above all, sweetness. I handed it back. “You must get the baharat shipped in. It smells delicious.”
He only rumbled under his breath. Antoinetta watched the pot pass in front of her eyes and pouted, poking at her meal. “I just don’t understand why you can’t just like what I make.”
“It does not suit my palate.”
“Oh, it’s actually fascinating!” I perked up, sitting straighter as I explained. “I had a Khajiiti colleague at the University, another alchemist. But when we did our wortcraft exam blindfolded, he was given a different procedure because, you see, Khajiits can’t taste sweet as strongly as we can – that’s why they have to use so much of it – and…”
And I was an idiot. Feeling my face go bright red and hot as I realized they were staring, slinking down in my seat as Antoinetta and M’raaj-Dar had done but moments ago. Even Lucien, so far stoic, quirked a brow and smirked. “… Sorry.”
Silence reigned for a long few moments, my chest tight and face prickling. Then, chiming laughter. Antoinetta slung an arm around me and squeezed, giggling in my ear.
“Oh, can we please keep her?”
“You’re already keeping me,” came the sulky reply, but I couldn’t help smiling under her wake of tittering. Still, though, I’d made a fool of myself. I made fleeting eye contact with M’raaj-Dar in particular, mouthing an apology. He gazed back with tawny, lidded eyes for a long moment.
“I am surprised you recognize baharat.”
“One of my mentor’s favourite tests was making us pick out the different plants and herbs in a spice.” I remembered Julienne’s approval as I would pick out the different components from an amalgamation of flavours and grains of texture. A pang of longing to hear her voice again, knowing I might never do so.
Antoinetta rescued me from my thoughts. “Anyone going to the festival on Fredas?”
A murmur of dissent. Another pout, but she pushed bravely on. “I’m going to the one in the Imperial City, leaving tomorrow. It’s so much bigger and I have work there, anyway.”
“Which must come first, Antoinetta.” Vicente, having finished his brief tasting and now sitting back, fingers intertwined.
“Always, Executioner. It won’t take long, just some fatcat merchant that pissed off the wrong guildmates. You know how they are.” She rolled her eyes with a grin, then caught sight of my expression, her own freezing, faltering. “… Oh. Right. Sorry! Um, it’s – it’s probably not anyone you know! Unless you had a lot of friends in the Merchant’s Guild…”
It was good I’d almost finished my meal. My throat so tight now, I didn’t think I could manage feigning another bite. “… It’s alright.” I wouldn’t know them. I knew few outside my colleagues at the University. But an innocent, any innocent…
I should have hated her, been disgusted by her. I should have been. But she clung to my arm another moment grinning, and I couldn’t manage it. Only guilt and confusion, spinning in circles.
She was an assassin and a person, as they all were. As maman was.
The meal slowly finished, everyone returning their dishes to be cleaned up and drifting off. Antoinetta dismissed me with a cheery swat and, drained, uncertain what I’d accomplished if anything at all, I made way for the exit.
Lucien met me there, walking with me up through the basement and out the back door, first in silence. Only when we stepped out into the backyard and made way back to the road did he speak, breath tinged with plumes of white as the chill of night fell.
“What were you trying to do, exactly?”
It was like he’d read my thoughts. I gaped a moment then shrugged, gaze flitting away. “… No sense in letting the mushrooms go to waste.”
I glared, but he only tilted his head expectant. A scoff, gusting out. “… I don’t know. I wanted – a distraction, I suppose, and…”
“You wanted to see your mother’s family. The sort of people she called her own, long before you.”
I bristled at that, glare venomous. But he was right, wasn’t he? They’d been her family before I was even born. “Well, I’m at least pleased they’re not all as insufferable as you. Even the twins are polite, despite your influence.” I held a mouthful of crisp autumn air before expelling it in a sigh, remembering that night. “… They said you raised them.”
“Very nearly. They were young, when they came to us.” The city was quiet this late, but I couldn’t help noticing how he spoke, carefully avoiding any real mention of his Family, their roles. No words that would incriminate. “I was entrusted with their tutelage and care. They’ve grown well. I am exceedingly proud of them.”
I found myself blinking, watching him with surprise as we walked. Surprised and even a little touched how genuine he was about them, how gentle. Like the night he’d told me about the Night Mother, explained their history. He truly gave his life to this cause, his family, his faith a passion as much as alchemy was mine.
“… What…” I searched for words, both how to phrase it and how to avoid tipping off any unseen ears. “… How did you come to…?”
“Another night.” Abruptly he stopped. We’d come outside my house and I’d hardly realized it, shifting my empty basket so I could get to my satchel, fumble for keys. My eyes flickered up to his, torchlight from the city lamps shadowing his features, the slow smile that curled.
“Keep trying, pet. Eventually, you may learn what you want to know. When you ask the right questions.”
“And if you could be arsed to answer a few.”
A low chuckle in his throat. “Another time. It’s late. I have work to do, and you’ll undoubtedly want to rise early like a good, Divines-fearing little merchant.” A dip of his head. “Thank you for the meal.”
Gods dammit, the moment I thought I was finally starting to understand this bastard, he had me lost again. Swallowing hard, gaze darting over him before flickering away to avoid it. “You’re welcome.”
At least I’d accomplished something, tonight. My thoughts no longer spiraled around Bolor or the University, instead lingering on these people. And, admittedly, on him.
I should write mum. Ask what she knows, ask her why she ever even joined. There must be more to it. But oh, full and tired my bed seemed so inviting, and as much as it galled me Lucien was right that I tended to be an early riser these days, so much to do…
For now I let sleep take me, and this time slept without dreams.
Chapter 27: Chapter Twenty-Seven
Colour. Vivid swathes of red, gold, orange blanketing the world, first in the forests, then reflected in the city itself as the plaza was transformed. I watched in awe as it happened, outside the plaza on the front steps of the chapel.
I hadn’t been to a festival since – gods, when? Even in the Imperial City, Bolor had never enjoyed them. Too noisy, too crowded, too public, he’d said. Tar-Meena felt the same but I’d begged and begged, and at last she’d relented as she always did, just to make me happy. We went to the Merchants’ Festival, shopped and laughed and fought our way through the crowd...
Hammering, clattering wheels, calls and cheers. Streamers and banners were hung, stalls set up for little wares from local craftsmen like the painter. Little hand-carved toys, games like apple bobbing and sandbag tossing, sweets – and what sort of festival would it be without alcohol? Tamika’s from Skingrad, Sujamma and Greef from Morrowind in answer to the many Dunmer who lived here and more still, mead and beer and ale. No one would go thirsty tonight, no matter their tastes.
Twilight fell in a hurry, like it too was eager for an excuse to blaze the bonfires and start the festivities. Instead of children being called inside as the sky mirrored the red in the trees, they were shepherded out. Pointing, whooping. Someone was shaking a tambourine, someone beating a drum and suddenly, the party had begun.
After the week I’d had – with the painter, with the Argonian twins, the strange dinner, this was exactly what I needed. It felt so good to stretch, to play, be silly and laugh and grin like a fool. I didn’t bob for apples, tempting as it was – apples now made me think of him – but I watched and cheered, I tried little tastes of pies and rolls and the autumn harvest’s final offerings. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, things that made my nose tingle and my mouth water.
I can do this. I can stay here, run my shop and be really – happy. Brotherhood be damned, I can be happy. I had to grin at the drinks, gladly accepting a honey-sweet cup of mead. Especially if all their festivals are like this.
“Oh!” I beamed at seeing Tivela again, all aglow in a pretty dress and a smile of her own. “Good to see you again.”
“I’d hoped I’d spot you. Rythe says if you want to come pick out your favourite piece, we’ll bring it to you on the morrow. Best not to be carrying it around tonight, hm? Need a hand for a drink.” She winked at the cup I held as I blushed, following her stride. All around us people were beginning to move to the music.
“I do have two hands…”
“Ah, but you’ll want the other for dancing!”
I had to giggle at that. She took me over to her husband’s stall where little examples of his work lay on canvas, themselves explosions of colour both lifelike and brighter than life. “I don’t know if I’ll dance, honestly. It’s been a while…”
“Nonsense! You’re a lovely young lady, ought to get some boy on your arm quickly enough, hm? Now, what do you think of this one? It’s one of Rythe’s favourite pieces…”
By the time I’d picked one out the Dunmer woman was smirking again. She wrote down my choice with a little chuckle, looking over my shoulder.
“Now, see? What did I tell you?”
I turned to see a Dunmer smiling at me – a handsome Dunmer in finery, his hair long and dark, face narrow and catlike with lidded eyes and a grin. A little flush of heat crept into me. He looks a bit like Bolor. Same pretty eyes…
“I should say it aggrieves me, miss, to see a lovely damsel such as yourself unaccompanied by a partner!” He offered a hand with a dip of his head. “May I be the one to escort you to the dancing area?”
“That,” Tivela whispered behind me, “Is Lord Farwil, son of Count Andel Indarys.”
Why not. I laughed aloud and took his hand, flashing a grin to Tivela as she waved me off. Why not? “I can hardly refuse the son of a Count, can I, sir? I’d be honoured.”
Let’s have a little fun.
Before long I wasn’t just in the crowd, I was a part of it – one of many laughing and humming along, tapping my feet and moving in little swirls and matched steps with my sudden new friend, and it was wonderful.
“You dance like a lady.” He seemed surprised by this, though perhaps that was aided by clearly being a little in his cups. “Where’d you learn this, hm?”
“No one dances like the Bretons, Lord Indarys.” Now, to be fair, I wasn’t that far behind. Not drunk – I’d learned my lesson that night at the Sanctuary. But I was pleasantly lost, warm and bubbly and just happy. “I took lessons, growing up.”
“Not exactly something the peasantry does, is it?”
I had to cackle at that, leaning in for a moment as his hand shifted to lower my voice to a mischievous whisper. “I wasn’t always a peasant. I was daughter of a Marquis, but I ran away.” Well, sort of.
“Ah, ha! How exciting!” A flash of teeth was all I caught as he raised his hand and I twirled, throwing back my head and laughing at the feel of my skirt billowing out. “I have so wondered what it would be like to leave this life of, of predestined glory.” I laughed aloud as he gave me a little spin. “Titles and court intrigue and arranged marriage, the tedium that awaits me...”
“I ran from my engagement, too.” I grinned, feeling more and more mischievous by the moment. He was handsome, after all, and it felt so good to tease. Almost like before, with Bolor.
“And that is to my fortune, milady.” A chuckle, almost lost to the music. “Ah, but it looks about time to change hands. It’s been a pleasure, would-be Marquess.”
So it had been. We changed partners, changed hands, but still I shot him a wink as he grinned back. “The pleasure was all mine, my Lord.”
My new partner was quieter but no less quick to laugh, to let me twirl and pull away and back and just to move. So different from some of the dances I’d learned for suitors and balls, even paced and slow. This was fast, foot-stomping and fun. As I changed hands again and the music gained tempo, the night falling dark and sparks shooting from bonfires into a black sky, I gave into it all. I didn’t even look at my next partner before practically colliding with him, muffling laughter briefly against the poor man’s chest –
“Having fun, pet?”
“Oh!” At that familiar voice, silvery and rough, I moved to pull away. “Oh, gods dammit – “
“Now, now. You’ll only draw attention if you run off.” Lucien. Dressed in his day clothes, once again ‘Miles Gaurrus’ as his hand took mine and the other found purchase on my waist.
“The hell are you doing here?” I scowled, hissing as we moved. “Talking about drawing attention – “
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t attend at least a few of this fine city’s festivities. A recluse draws more interest than you might think.” Dammit. Dammit, I should have known I’d run into one of them here, but why him, and dammit, worse that he’s actually good at this –
“And where does someone in your – profession learn to dance?”
“You’d be surprised.” That smirk, that stupid smirk, slithering across his features as he guided me into a turn and back to him, leaving me dizzy, breathless. Suddenly the dance felt immensely complicated, leaving me following him close, stumbling in the rhythm. “My work takes a variety of talents. You seem to be losing your footing. Something wrong?”
“No,” I bit back quicker than I meant to, flustered as I tried to match his steps again. A bard was going rabbit-fast on his fiddle now, almost a voice in itself, high and clear, the piper and drummer picking up in turn. Was I moving this quick before? A whirlwind around us, vivid swathes of colour where the light of the bonfire hit. Woodsmoke and the burn of alcohol, the sweet mingle of perfumes and candies almost lost in the scent of the laughing, perspiring crowd and on top of it all, him. Musk and his aftershave close enough still to make me turn red like I hadn’t with any of the strangers –
And then in a twirl, it was over. People laughed louder, the music winding down for a moment as some changed hands for a new partner, others finding their way out for some quick respite. I needed to catch my breath, feeling sweat beading at my brow, the lightness in my head, my chest.
He smiled, eyes lidded, dipping his head as I gave an automatic curtsy in return. “A pleasure, pet.”
And in the crowd, he was gone.
It was well past dusk by the time I stumbled home. I felt – more than happy. Contented, delighted and just glad to have been there, to have the taste of mead and cinnamon lingering on my tongue and the soreness of my feet to bring home with me. In spite of that unexpected little meeting – did it really bother you as much as it should have? I scolded myself, but really, I couldn’t be annoyed at all.
So it was with a smile on my face that I turned in for the night, let my head hit the pillow and slept hard.
Hard enough I almost didn’t hear the door.
It took a moment for the sound to sink into my groggy head, almost an echo. A crash, swinging. A thump. Only then did I jump up, blood chilled.
As quietly as I could, I slid open my bedside drawer, feeling in the dark for mum’s dagger and wrapping my fingers tight around the hilt. Creeping into the hall and down the stairs with breath held, blade at the ready. Could I use it, if I had to? Do I even know how?
A weak, faint whisper. “Dust?”
“ Mum! ”
The blade clattered down the stairs. I ran and fell to my knees where she lay, reaching and – no, gods, no, red, her hands and her blouse red, red, red – “What happened!?”
“The traitor – please, sweet, we hu-have no time…”
“Just hold still.” I placed my hand over her side, wincing at the feel of slick heat, at her hiss of breath. Just the one wound, thank all gods, and I let my magicka flow. Knitting together torn muscle and flesh, letting blood quest for blood to coagulate and scar. “Were you followed? Maman – “
The door fell open again. A long shadow cast over us both, looming, and I scrambled back – the dagger, snatching it and flying to my feet like a cat, hissing, shrieking, “GET AWAY – “
A moment and, I don’t know how, but I was pushed back, briefly twisted and held by the arm. A hiss in kind. “Be silent.”
“It’s alright, chérie, it’s alright.” I stumbled back and stared at mum as she spoke, beginning to pull herself up from the floor. A flicker of fear when Lucien moved to her but he only helped her to her feet. “Lucien…”
“I saw you in the street when I was leaving the Sanctuary. What happened?”
“The traitor. It must have been.” A tight swallow and she stood upright, giving a shuddering breath and favouring her wounded side. “You weren’t at Farragut. I was going to the Sanctuary when I was cut off, and they gave chase, but when I turned to fight they ran – I didn’t get a good look - “
“But they didn’t kill you.” Lucien growled, his arm giving her something to hold as she found her balance. “It’s a message. Why are you here, Abelle?”
I’d never seen maman’s face so pale. “The Black Hand thinks it’s you, Lucien. They say they have evidence of your betrayal.”
Deathly stillness. I caught my breath, then grabbed Lucien’s arm and swung to face him, snarling. “If you did this to my mother, I swear – “
“If I wanted to hurt her, there would be nothing you could do to stop me.” I shrunk back at the gravity, the cold truth in his words before he turned back to mum. “Did you come to kill me then, Abelle? You are welcome to try.”
“Hah.” She shook her head, a grimace of a smile twisting on her lips. “No, Lucien. You’re no traitor. I came to warn you.”
“Mum – “
“There will be a hunt for you, and now for me as well. They’ll come for us. If we barricade Fort Farragut – “
“No. They would find a way in. The traitor attacked you to make us panic, send us fleeing there. We’d be trapped.” I could see his jaw set, eyes burning like chips of flint caught with sparks. “There is a farm far North of here, abandoned since a recent contract. Only my Silencer and I know of it – our rendezvous point, should anything go wrong with Farragut. She’s been seeking evidence…”
Lost. I was lost and helpless to understand any of this, to do anything at all to fix it.
“They won’t suspect. Chérie…” Finally mum turned to me, taking my face in her hands. “You must come with us.”
Lucien and I spoke in unison. “What?”
Her stare turned on him, hardened. “Once they realize I fled here to warn you, they will come for her. And if the traitor wishes to draw us out, they’ll think of her first. Darling, I’m sorry, but we have to go.”
“It could be a trap, maman.” I narrowed my eyes at the other Speaker, hissing. “Leading us off to some remote little farm…”
“I trust him. I need you,” she pleaded, “To trust me.”
“I value your trust, Abelle. Sister.” Lucien returned my stare, then barked. “Go and prepare. Pack only the essentials – rations, healing supplies, little else. We have no time to waste.”
I changed from my nightshirt and stuffed my bag with herbs, bandages, rations of food as quickly as I could, racing back to them with my cloak around my shoulders. “Mum, are you sure you can travel? Your wound – “
“We have no choice, mon chou. Follow me. Stay quick, and stay silent.”
We left then, me locking my home – my home, already having to leave it behind – and moving out into the silent streets. Signs of the earlier festival still littered the ground. Banners and apple cores, litter and tracks in the dirt trails. Impossible to believe that had happened, that I’d been so perfectly happy hardly hours ago. Our breath shivered out in white clouds behind us as mum led the way to the stables.
Lucien stood by his mare, saddling her and stroking her side as she whinnied softly. Mum readied a little milky filly, pulling herself on and glancing at me, nodding her approval. Lucien looked up as well, cold. Had I really been in his arms, quipping and twirling? It seemed like a dream, now. "You're with me, on Shadowmere. I doubt that little beast Abelle calls a horse could handle you both for long."
"Fine." I grit my teeth and slipped my foot in a stirrup, cursing my height. A quiet laugh, so strange in all of this, sounded from mum behind us as Lucien grabbed my waist and hoisted me up so I could sit before mounting as well, taking the reins with either of his arms encircling me. I shivered, not from the cold but from warmth in contrast - his warmth, being so close to him again in such a different way…
"Let's go." Mum nodded at us and urged her horse onward, moving swiftly ahead of us into the darkness. I shivered still, giving a gasp as Lucien's horse abruptly took off and the world suddenly began to bleed past. We caught up to mum, and I snuck a glance, hoping my healing had done enough. Whatever pain she felt, she didn't show it - her expression was one of utter concentration, only her lips moving. Speaking - praying.
I almost wanted to join her. To plead to some great entity, to beg for mercy, for our lives and safety…
But I didn't know whom to pray to.
Days passed. Though the farm wasn't far, it was far enough, and the days seemed to only grow longer. The chill of Cheydinhal became bitterly cold mountain winds as we moved further North. Keep moving - that was our mantra, what little we said to each other when we spoke. We must keep moving.
We stopped only to let the horses rest and hide our tracks, a task becoming more difficult in the pristine powder that coated the trails. One of us would steer Shadowmere as the other slept, and the final followed on mum's horse. Lucien only grudgingly rested, and only for short periods - at even the snap of a twig underfoot his eyes would flash open, his hand would fly to his sword. Mum slept soundly for longer than either of us could - I worried my lip, glancing at her slumped against Lucien. The wound had taken more out of her than she was willing to admit.
Despite the bitter cold, the constant fear, there was a certain intimacy to it all. To sleep in the arms of someone you hardly know - or perhaps worse, know all too well. To trust them with your life. Knowing we had only each other as we travelled through the mountains towards what Lucien had called 'Applewatch.'
I braced myself, gripping the reins of mum's filly with numb hands as the wind bit at my cheeks. I rode alone, then - mum was resting once again as Lucien held Shadowmere’s rein, face hidden in the shadow of his hood. The storm swirling around us pushed us ever forward, ever faster, and yet I felt as though we only moved in dizzying circles. I pressed the horse onward, gazing at mum once again before jerking at a sudden flash of silver - Lucien, drawing his sword.
"What is it?" I could barely hear my own voice above the cry of the storm, but Lucien looked up, grim. As he parted his lips, I received my answer. A long, almost mournful howl echoed.
"Wolves." He grimaced, voice low and harsh. "Be on guard."
"…Oh." He hadn't heard - had already turned and was pressing forward. I stroked the filly, more for my own comfort than hers, following the trail Shadowmere had left. It won't last long in this storm, anyway. The wind had created dunes, leaving some areas bare rock, some swept with high, arched curves of deep snow, sweeping our trail away. But Lucien seemed to know his way.
I trust him. I need you to trust me.
Another howl - close. Too close. Suddenly the world, already dizzy with whipping spots of white, was moving faster – up first as the filly bucked and screamed, then suddenly flying by. I couldn't keep up, numb fingers desperately grappling for the reins, trying to shout over the storm. "Stop - stop!" I tried to pull back, cringing as she bucked and almost threw me off, as I heard mum's frantic voice call to me.
And behind us, snapping, howling, hungry, I heard them. A glance behind and yellow eyes met mine, a flash of red, a cry of pain from the horse beneath me as she stumbled and raced on.
It happened very quickly. Hearing the patter and scrape of the snarling beasts behind, forced forward into the blistering winds and blinding snow, gripping the reins so tightly it seemed my hands had frozen onto them. The pounding of Shadowmere, coming after us. I gasped for breath, filling my lungs with gusts of chill air that crept into my very marrow. Chased, yet no clue where to go.
I can’t see, I can’t stop her, they’ll tear us apart -
A sharp, screaming sound, like thousands of glasses shattering. Following us, it seemed, below us, and suddenly there was no more below us, only blackness and bitter cold, dragging me down. I could do nothing but sink as the frigid waters seeped through my cloak, my skin, as the shock stole my breath away.
For a moment I only floated there, disbelieving. It was like I’d slipped into that void Lucien had so eloquently described. Bitter, bitter, bone-biting cold, enough to make my breath catch before it all left me in a shudder, lungs burning as I struggled back to the pale, glowing blue of the surface, my only light in the dark.
Air, I need to breathe, water breathing, I need - Desperate sounds. The wails of the horse, the snapping of the wolves and whimpers as one scrambled above me to try and get back on the ice. The filly in front of me, trying to get up herself, hooves thrashing and cracking, smashing the ice all around me making it impossible to get a grip. A spell on my lips, until the steel and bone of her foot hit me. In blackness flashed spots of white, until they were consumed.
I heard my name, felt something grip me. Then felt nothing at all.
Chapter 28: Chapter Twenty-Eight
I awoke to warmth, and pain. Coursing from my skull along my jaw, tingling down my spine to the tips of my toes in a dull ache. Familiar scents - smoke, tea, burnt bread. The sensations were muddled, and I tried to make sense of them as I wrenched open my fever glued eyes.
Where…? Oh. Ohh, gods. I raised a hand to my head, stopping at the feel of bandages wrapped around my brow. For a moment I almost believed myself back at the University, in the infirmary after Bolor left. With great effort I squinted hard, blurred shapes sharpening. Wood - logs, a ceiling. A blazing fire at my side. Heavy, warm wool and fur layered over my body. I groaned, testing out my voice, wondering for a moment if it had really been me making that inhuman sound.
"Dusty?" The scrape of a chair and a face came into view, eyes dark, face drawn with worry. "Darling, can you hear me?"
I nodded weakly, parting my lips, unable to force more than a croak from my throat. Mum sighed and dragged a hand over her face. "Thank the Night Mother." I watched dumbly as she poured a mug of tea by the fire, the sound and smell comfortingly familiar. "Here, drink. It’s your willowbark brew, should help with the pain.”
I nodded again before taking the mug, holding it tight. My fingers felt so sore still, pinkish and drawn with frostbite. I’d been so sure I’d never be warm again… "What h-happened?"
"The wolves." Mum glanced at me, pursing her lips. "Careful, it's hot. You were chased by wolves, and from what we saw you were chased onto a lake. The ice must have been too thin to hold the weight…"
"Oh - shit!" I cursed trying to take a sip, shrinking slightly at mum's raised brow before blowing on the tea to cool it off, lips still smarting. "Sorry."
"I've heard far worse from you." Mum smiled softly, a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes as I tried another tentative swig. This time it went down easy, deliciously hot and soothing, bringing me back into myself. "Not too quickly, or you'll make yourself ill. Are you hungry?"
Hungry. Another ache joined the ones I had and mum chuckled, returning with a piece –of still-warm, if slightly overdark bread, heated by the hearth. I took it gratefully and began to chew, remembering. Travelling to Applewatch, to hide. Being chased, the bitter cold and blackness. I shivered, moving my gaze to the mug. "How long was I out?"
"A few hours. You woke up before, but you didn't seem to recognize Lucien or I." She sighed, laying the back of her cool hand on my brow. "Good. The fever's gone down, too.”
“We weren’t…” I tore off another hunk of the bread, making a face through the crunch of the crust on my teeth. Still, I was grateful to eat at least something, even as my stomach clenched in anxiety. “We weren’t followed?”
“Not that we saw. It’s difficult to say – any one of us is skilled in shadow. But we did all we could to be careful, and we made it here. We’ll sleep in shifts and keep close watch. I think that's enough for now." Mum took the mug and what little I hadn't devoured of the bread. "You should rest, sweet. We made it." Another of those small, sad smiles. "We're safe here, for a time."
"Okay." I hadn't realized how tense I'd been until I relaxed again, sinking into the bed, feeling the heavy warmth of the blankets settle on me. I turned my head, frowning. Applewatch. Quaint, warm, a simple cottage. A table nearby, tin pitcher and cups set out with a kettle hissing over the hearth, two empty chairs, one occupied. Lucien - sleeping, it seemed. He sat slumped, a hand on his cheek, the other dangling just above his sword. Mum followed my gaze, then smiled, warmth at last in her eyes.
"He’s hardly left that spot since I arrived." A gentle laugh, creases deepening around her eyes and curved lips. "Ever vigilant, I suppose. He rode ahead with you, on Shadowmere, while I covered our tracks until he came back. You were already by the fire and in bed. Put the bread on the hearth for you when you started to rouse, too. I think he left it a little too close." Mum chuckled. "Try not to tease him about that."
"He…" I blinked, her words sinking in. "…So he was the one who got me out of the water?"
"And got you here, yes, and I owe him everything for that." Mum approached again, brushing a curl of hair from my face, smile falling. "… If I'd lost you…"
Lucien saved my life. I tried to understand this, to imagine it. I remembered - hearing my name, strong arms pulling me, but after that, nothing. I shook my head, searching for something else to bring up. "What happened to your horse?"
"Ah. Poor thing." Mum bit her lip. "She got out of the ice and ran, the wolves after her. I suspect - I suspect she's long dead now."
I winced. "I'm sorry, maman."
"Don't be. You're safe, and we made it. That's all that matters." I closed my eyes as mum kissed my forehead and pressed a fresh mug in my hands again. "I'm going to check on Shadowmere, see that she's warm enough. Drink a bit more, then rest."
I listened, only opening my eyes once again when I heard the sound of the door creaking shut. The room was still, then, the only sounds the rustle of blankets and the rise and fall of his breath as Lucien slept. I gazed at him under a furrowed brow. It seemed so strange, to see him like that. At rest, not quite at peace but limp and silent in slumber. I felt as though I was witnessing something terribly intimate, terribly raw. I shook my head, struggling to keep myself sitting upright as I sipped. He's only a man, I reminded myself.
But he saved me.
I groaned at a throb of pain in my skull, a wave of dizziness making my body go weak, the mug seeming to jump out of my hands. I swore as it fell to the floor with a crash. "Dammit!" Just as quickly as the mug broke Lucien was upright, sword half-drawn, looking ready to pounce. I shrunk back, voice meek. "…Sorry."
"Hhm.” A sound somewhere between a laugh and a grunt. “You're forgiven." Lucien snorted, sheathing his sword casually and striding over to the bedside. I shivered as the bed creaked beneath his weight when he sat on the edge, gazing at me. "Where's Abelle?"
"She's with Shadowmere. Making sure the stable's warm." Beneath the idle conversation something lingered, something deeper. I took a breath, stroking my hands down the fur of the blanket. "…Thank you."
A wolfish smile, eyes lidded. "For saving your life, or for my forgiveness? Do tell."
I scowled half-heartedly, almost pouting as he pulled off his hood. "You're never going to let me forget this, are you?" A smirk was my only answer, and I shook my head, murmuring. "Of course not." I couldn't quite move my gaze from his face - though pale, his jaw dark with stubble and eyes bagged from exhaustion, the smirk remained. He raised a brow, tilting his head in question.
"Just…" I tried to think of something to say before trailing off, moving my gaze as my cheeks burned. "You burnt the bread."
"And you broke a mug. With any luck, we'll have this place destroyed before Abelle returns." I couldn't quite stop a giggle bubbling up at the ridiculousness of it. Joking, even now, and somehow what normally would have made me only roll my eyes left me sniggering. I caught my breath, gazing up at him as both brows raised.
“I… I suppose I owe you an apology. Again.”
“And the very thought galls you, doesn’t it?”
I rolled my eyes, wishing I still had the mug for something to do with my hands. As it was I bundled up the heavy blankets, staring down at them as I spoke. “… Not as much as you’d think.”
The humour had left his expression when I met his gaze again as he spoke. Somber, slow. “I have done many things that some would call monstrous, without regret. I will do them again, without hesitation.” A harshness in his murmur, conviction. “But I have never spilled the blood of Family. There is very little that could describe me as redeemable –“ A sneer. “But I am loyal.”
By now my hands were a tangle, fingers digging into the thick fur of the blanket, into each other. I extracted and cracked my stiff fingers, feeling a shiver along my shoulders even for the warmth enveloping me. “… Is that why you saved me?”
“You may be bound to us, pet, but you are not Family.”
Not his, at any rate. “Then why?”
He fell silent, and yet I felt like I heard his voice in an echo. Because you are your mother’s daughter. On an uncertain whim I reached out, took his hand as he glanced back with an arched brow.
“You worked closely with mum, didn’t you? In – in the old days.”
“I did.” Surprisingly warm, his hand, rough and covering mine so easily, sending a little tingle through me. Why did I do that? More, why did I keep doing that, didn’t want to pull away as he spoke? Why didn’t he? “She was assigned as my mentor, in my youth. We were close enough in age that the gap in experience wasn’t overly vast, and our skillset was similar.”
Skillset. Even now, I didn’t like to think about what maman really was. “I asked Vicente what she was like back then, once…”
“Condescending, overly confident and determined to outmatch me at every turn.” His smile a show of teeth. I had to laugh at that, shaking my head.
“Is that where you got it from? From the older Sister you never wanted?”
“Precisely. But she did teach me well, I will give her that much.”
“Lucien…” Still I kept my hand curled in his. I could make the excuse that I’d taken it to get his attention, but… “… Why did you save me?”
He regarded me with hooded eyes, then gave a low sigh, turning to stare into the fire. “Abelle risked her life to warn me. Even still, she does. I would be remiss if I did not pay that loyalty in kind, and help defend that which she values.” A shiver as his gaze moved back to me.
I couldn’t place what I felt. Gratitude, certainly. But something else, too, something I couldn’t name just yet. “… Well. Thank you.”
“You should rest.” He pulled away abruptly, and only then with the movement of his sleeve did I see it – the tear there, the flash of ugly red and brown. I sat up straighter and reached out for his arm, frowning.
"What?" A sudden frown and Lucien grunted, shifting the rip away. "It’s nothing."
"Doesn't look like nothing." The healer in me perked in curiosity. I pursed my lips, taking his arm. "Let me see."
"It's nothing," he repeated, but let me look with a withering glare. I only glanced back before examining the wound - a bite, an attempt to take the flesh of his arm that had almost succeeded. The tooth marks sank deep, tendons ripped. I winced, giving a sound of sympathy that only made him scowl.
"This needs to be healed. Let me…"
"I’ve endured far worse.” A rumble from his throat. "Fine. Do it quickly, then. It's your own damned fault if you faint from the exertion."
"I'm not that delicate," I retorted, ignoring the ache of my body that said otherwise. I traced around the wound, eyes half-closed, the hiss of a spell moving warm and sweet through me. The fading throb from my head panged in protest but I continued, watching as his wound began to heal - muscle knitting, tendon sewing, flesh joining as one again until all that was left was a painful scar. Not quite healed, but close. I closed my eyes for a moment, weak and empty, a wave of dizziness moving through me before I could speak. "Is that better?"
Critically Lucien watched, flexing his arm as though to test my work. "…It's good enough." He frowned as I lay back, closing my eyes. "Go to sleep. Abelle will have your hide for exerting yourself." A snort. "And no doubt she'll try to take mine." I nodded, already feeling myself sink into a soothing, warm darkness. "And, pet?"
I gave a contented sound. "Mm?"
A snicker. I could imagine his face, smirking, eyes gleaming in satisfaction. As I fell to sleep, his words rang clear.
Chapter 29: Chapter Twenty-Nine
I awoke without startling, hardly realizing I’d been asleep at all. Warm and lost in the dark, blue shadows cast over the inside of the cottage from frost-laced windows. A vivid contrast the red-gold hearth, casting a long, wavering shadow from where Lucien sat.
I didn’t stir but listened. Maman, walking over. Her boots sounded wet. She must have gone out, circled the cottage at some disturbance to make sure we were still safe. They took turns in their vigil, always prepared.
“Just a hunter.”
“Too close for my liking. I assume you took care of it.”
“Naturally. Sithis’ sake, Lucien, do you honestly think I’ve gotten so soft?”
I curled up tighter in the bed, swallowed at the wrenching knot in my stomach. Maman’s voice was – strange. Amused and elegant in a whisper but cold, cold and sharp. Lucien’s chuckle, the same.
“First tied to a healer, then some pampered noble in his manor, throwing parties and raising children – yes, Abelle, I rather think you have.”
“If we get out of this alive, I’ll make you eat those words.”
Go back to sleep. You don’t want to hear this. I squeezed my eyes shut, held my breath in my chest. Not this side of her. I knew it was there, I knew it was why we were here in the first place but I didn’t want to have to –
“Do we have a corpse on our doorstep, then?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s a lake North aways. Weighed him down with stones and tossed him in – he won’t be found until Spring, at the earliest.”
I gaped there in the dark like I’d taken a blow to the gut. Too close for his liking. Gotten soft, stones -
Lucien’s whisper in turn, darkly amused. “Still with your garrote wire?”
“I have my bootknife, but I thought it better to leave no trace.”
It was like I was watching myself, but not in myself. Seeing the blankets pushed away, seeing the floor in front of me as I lurched out of the bed. The blast of wind, the slam as I launched out the door into the night. The blanket of snow, the shadowed pines. Maman calling after me, barely heard over the roar in my ears.
The snow was cold, so cold it burned on my bare feet but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. It seemed to cut as I ran, from the front of that quaint little cottage barreling into the woods, stumbling, catching myself on all fours until my hands were scraped red, crystals of ice clinging to my clothes.
Some innocent man at the silt bottom of a half-frozen lake. Did he have a family? Loved ones, who would wait and wait and never see him again. Maybe he had a daughter, a girl who’d wake up dreaming of him, never able to totally understand why he’d gone.
I sank into the snow, my teeth chattering between sobs.
I can’t do this I can’t, that’s not her, that’s not my mum in there. Flashes of images, new and old. In her study, composing a letter to that distant friend in Cyrodiil I now knew to have been Vicente. That drunken night she was made Speaker, cradling my hot face with cool hands and telling me she loved me, that she didn’t regret leaving her old life for us even if she’d come back…
The time I used her good perfume, wore her jewels and pretended I was her, leaving her teary-eyed with laughter. The night after my engagement, convincing my stepfather to give me the freedom I so dearly craved. The secret smiles, the quiet scoldings. A key from her hands into mine, giving me my home and my purpose again. An anchor as I was set adrift in the echo of the life she’d lived.
Her, but not her. Not that woman who spoke so coldly of such horrible things. It couldn’t be, could it?
Yes. Yes, it could. I inhaled raggedly through my teeth in a mirthless grin, raking my hands through my hair. And that made it so much worse. Knowing she could be both in the same skin, and I had no choice but to accept it. My breath came out as mist, each lungful freezing me inside out.
I can’t do this.
I can’t not do this.
I could run. Run for Bruma, run away from all of this. I could abandon them to the fate that had cast its shadow on me. Except, even as I sat there hating her, I knew I couldn’t.
Because I loved her just as much.
Be sensible. For once in your godsdamned life. I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing the last tears free to freeze on my cheeks. You can’t run. You wouldn’t even if you could. Go back inside and ignore what you heard and do what you have to do.
“Okay.” I whispered to myself, rubbing my arms up and down and looking behind me, back to the faint glow of the cottage through the brush. I hadn’t gone far, thankfully. Who knew what could be out in the woods this time of night -
A sound, sharp, crunching like teeth. The cracking of boots through the frozen crust of the snow.
I stiffened. Like a hare crouched in the woods, suddenly remembering the danger of it all. A traitor was looking for us, the Black Hand out for our blood and I’d just run off into the woods alone. It could just be maman, following. Or…
I acted on instinct from there. Barefoot, weaponless, grabbing the first thing I could think of and whipping it hard, scrambling to my feet as the shadow moved in from the trees -
“Your aim is off.”
The tension, the adrenaline left me all at once. Lucien. I dropped the second handful of snow I’d scooped up, watching as with a dry look he wiped the bits of ice off his chest.
“Is that your idea of a defensive maneuver, pet? Throwing a snowball?”
I gaped a long moment, searching for words. My voice came out a croak. “… I wasn’t thinking.”
“Clearly.” Dry as tinder the look he gave, that drawl. “I assume that is why you’ve run out here with the clear intent of losing toes.”
I glanced down at my bare feet, my reddened hands, felt the burn on my cheeks. Alright, yes. This has been a remarkably stupid way to handle this. Something between laughter and a sob burbled up. I sank through the jagged frozen crust into the powder beneath as I staggered and oh, every step was painful now with the adrenaline sapping.
I didn’t want to go back there. Not back to that little room knowing she was waiting, knowing what she was and having no choice but to see it. But neither could I walk away.
No, it wasn’t my fault I was here. It wasn’t my fault she was what she was, and that her past had swept me up in it.
But I couldn’t let her face it alone. Even for what she was, she wouldn’t do that to me. I wouldn’t abandon her.
Besides, as I stumbled through the snow hissing with every footfall I realized I very likely wouldn’t be able to walk away if I wanted to. Lucien rolled his eyes, barely visible in the moonlight. I gasped when in an easy motion he scooped me up off my feet, almost slinging me over his shoulder like the night we’d met.
“I can – “
“The last thing we need is to be weighed down by a self-made invalid,” came the curt reply.
He had a point. It was too much of a relief for me to be up off the snow to fight it much, anyway. I let him walk us the short distance back to the cottage, breath held cold in my chest.
My mother, mine. Jade earrings, mint perfume. A boot knife, garrote wire. But she held neither as Lucien shouldered past the door, putting me unceremoniously back on my feet. I hugged myself tight and dared a glance up.
Somehow, it was still her. Not a nightmare twin or a dark mirror, just her. My maman, her hair high and tight in a bun even now and her face so graceful, her voice so tempered as she pressed the hot mug in my hands.
“Here, darling. Go sit by the fire.”
I was helpless to do anything but obey. My toes stretched almost instinctively to the hearth, the tea a welcome burst of heat spreading through me in shivery warmth. Relief, exhaustion thawed me. I didn’t turn away as she sat beside me, sliding a cool hand to my cheek.
I met her gaze, mine flickering over her expression. Lips pursed, brow furrowed. A soft-as-snow sigh leaving her as she thumbed the stain of tears from my cheek. I felt my jaw shake, my breath shiver as I whispered.
“Who are you?”
A tautness came over her, tightening even still as she drew herself up. “I am – many things. But to you, mon chou? I will always be your mother.” A fragile smile. “I can’t ask you to accept me, darling, but I need you to know that. I may be what I am, and you may hate me for it. I can live with that.”
She shifted in her chair, moving closer to take my face in both hands as I choked back silent tears. “But because of what I am, I can protect you. And I always will, Dusty.” A strange fierceness in her voice, a strength behind her eyes. “I am not a gentle woman. I am not like you. But I would drench my hands in blood to keep you safe and happy. She pulled me closer, held me tighter still. “That is all I can offer, but I offer it gladly.”
A horrible reassurance and more horrible still that it meant something to me. That while a quiet part of me recoiled in disgust, I couldn’t pull away.
“What if he had a family, maman? What if someone will miss him?”
“Then they will mourn.” So cold, a cold not even the fire roasting me now could thaw. “He was a threat to our safety. To your safety. I didn’t do it out of malice, or hate. I did it because I place greater value in my Family and in you than anything else. I kill for Sithis, and I kill because it means we will live. And we will.”
“Even if it makes me hate you?”
The subtlest of winces in her furrowing brow, that soft breath. But she stayed focused on me, gaze never leaving mine. “Even then.”
Silence reigned. The fire crackled, Lucien sat in a dark corner watching us with hooded eyes. There was a moment I pictured myself rising. Slapping her hands away, spitting rejection at her. Rejecting all the wrongness in everything she said.
But I didn’t.
I tilted my brow to the crook of her neck and nestled in as she stroked my hair, whispering. “I don’t hate you.” Some part of me spat with it, yes, spat and screamed at the unfairness of it all. But I didn’t hate her. How could I? “I just don’t understand you.”
“You don’t have to, chérie. I don’t need your acceptance or your love. All I need…” That steel behind her voice again. “All I need you to know is that I love you. And no matter who you see me as, who I was or who I become, that will never change.”
We sat there together, in the dark and quiet, for a long few moments. Then sudden light bled in, almost blinding in gold and peach as it spilled across the grooved wooden floor.
“Dawn.” It was Lucien who broke it, glancing over to us, to mum. “Time to change watch.”
“… Alright.” She stood, laying a kiss on my brow before turning away. I wanted – I didn’t know. To grab at her and pull her back, to demand words that would make all of this better. For her to explain…
But how could she?
I watched her until she had settled in the bed herself and even after that, as morning flooded in. Only when I saw the motion of her breathing go even and steady, her small form rising and falling, did I dare look away.
Who are you?
And who am I, that I can accept you? That I don’t want to lose you even now?
I hugged myself tight, hunching over and pulling in my now thankfully thawed feet. “I’m still tired.”
“And whose fault is that, I wonder?”
I shot him a glare, but there was no venom behind it. A deep breath, filling me, trembling out. “… Thank you for carrying me back.”
A low sound of acknowledgement, but nothing more. I sank into the chair and closed my eyes, even knowing I needed to keep watch. But gods, I was tired. Tired and tired of being tired, tired of trying to find answers where none existed, tired of trying to understand it all…
Later. All that can come later. I squeezed my eyes shut now, gripped the arms of the chair white-knuckled. Just focus on getting through this, right now. We were out here until Lucien’s Silencer came with proof of our innocence. Until then…
What could I do but accept it?
“You might as well sleep.”
I cracked open an eye, frowning at Lucien as he moved to put on a kettle. “It’s maman’s turn. Mine just finished.”
“Should we be found, you’ll be no more use awake than you would asleep.” I bristled, but it was true. Compared to him and maman, I stood no chance against the looming threat. “If you can manage…”
“Mmn. I dunno. Hard t’sleep, sitting up…” And yet my eyes were so heavy. All I wanted was to let what would happen, happen. I was powerless, or at least I felt it. Against the traitor and the danger we faced, against the truth of my mother, against everything that had swept me up and away from the life I knew. I was powerless, but I wouldn’t leave her anymore than she would me.
Maybe another time I’d want to fight, want to find my freedom again, own my life again but for now…
For now, finally warm again, it was all too easy to drift back into the embrace of sleep.
Chapter 30: Chapter Thirty
After the chill of our days on horseback and the feverish heat when I arrived, the days of content warmth and peace were more than welcome. I put the incident with the hunter aside as best I could, even if it made me sick with guilt to think of it. There was no taking it back. And what’s more, I knew maman would never regret what she’d done, would never change. Not for me.
The most she could offer was her love and protection, both from bloodstained hands.
So I tried not to think of it. I kept occupied as best I could, reading the scant selection of books in the cottage, talking quietly, playing cards. We took shifts in our sleep, two always awake while the third slept, divided our rations and drank melted snow. In the crystallizing winter that had well and truly fallen this far North, time seemed to stand still.
All we could do was wait for it to move again.
I threw down my cards in disgust. “You’re a cheat.”
“You wound me, pet.”
“Do you deny it?”
A catlike smirk. He lifted his sleeve just enough to show the brim of white cards peeking out beneath.
“Bastard, you did cheat!”
“And you didn’t notice. Who is at fault here, truly?”
“Whu – you are!”
“And yet I won regardless.”
“It doesn’t count if – “
A soft sigh. I froze and fell silent, glancing over my shoulder to watch mum in the bed as she shifted. A turn, the blankets rising and falling, then she was still again. At last I could breathe again, sighing, turning back to our cards.
Only three days we’d been here. Somehow it felt longer, long, unbroken days and nights melding into a stream of boredom, nothing to do but wait. Wait, and worry.
I whispered now, lowering my hand back to the table. “… She’s sleeping more than she wants to, I think.” There were periods that all three of us would be awake to eat together. This would be the second time she’d nearly slept through it. “I’m worried.”
Even after that night, I couldn’t hate her. Couldn’t stop myself from worrying for her, wanting to mother her myself. I’d done all I could do for healing. Now it was just a matter of time and her own body taking over. But maman, while beautiful as ever, wasn’t as young as she used to be.
“The wound took more out of her than she would admit.” I blinked at him. A slow, mirthless smile curved his lip. “She did the same thing in the old days. Play the martyr, refuse to be slowed down. At least these days, she has the sense to rest when she needs it.” He looked past me, glancing over to her. “You should wake her. She’ll want to eat.”
Part of me bristled that Lucien seemed to know her so well. The camaraderie between them invasive, envied, and yet it was also comforting to know he cared for her like I did. I rose from the table, this time letting the sigh go as I clambered up on the bed and gave her a gentle shake.
“Maman. Maman, wake up.”
“Mmn.” So strange to see her – disheveled. Gods, I hadn’t seen her hair down since I was a child. But she smiled as she rose, stretching, lacing a warm arm around me and pulling me in for a hug I couldn’t bring myself to reject. She still smelled like her, too. Not like blood or death but mint and bergamot, tinged with sweat after our days of travel.
“Hello, mon chou.” Her fingers carded through my hair, comforting as her gaze landed on Lucien. Chin raising, brows arching as she saw the remnants of our card game. “How are you corrupting my daughter now, you Imperial git?”
Lucien snickered. I bit back a laugh, grinning as I slid from the bed and she did the same on the other side. “Maman, I know how to play cards. I’ve known for years.”
“And playing is all well and good, but he’s a cheat and makes unfair bets, besides. You will make no more ‘deals’ with my daughter, you understand me, Lachance?”
I flared red, remembering that drunken night with a tumbling stomach. From across the room I could see his eyes gleam. “Haven’t forgotten that day in Anvil, have you?”
Envy and amusement, somehow intertwined. Amused by their smiles, their teasing, and yet in the same breath jealous of the history they shared. Mercifully, maman dismissed it. She shook off sleep easily, marching to the cupboards of the little home we’d taken over. “Let’s eat, then.”
In short order we were all at the table, rations divided, earthenware cups filled with hot water. Not the most appetizing fare, and I lacked much appetite, anyway. Still, I picked away to avoid a scolding. Maman frowned.
“At this rate, we’ll need to catch our dinner. Difficult, this time of year.”
“My Silencer will be crossing the province seeking evidence of our innocence. She will move as quickly as she can, but there’s nothing we can do to hurry her.”
“I know how to make traps.” A look of surprise from both of them. I shrugged, pursing my lips. “… One of my professors insisted on teaching basic survival skills. ‘Always wandering off and getting lost, you dirt-sniffing alchemists.’ He had a point.”
“I’m proud, darling. You’ve learned more than I could have imagined, the years we’ve been apart. That reminds me – “ She stood for a moment, a hand over mine going automatically to the rations. “Don’t force yourself to eat. If you aren’t hungry now you will be later, and you’ll be glad for it then.”
“Yes ma’am.” I pulled my hands back, frowning. “Reminds you of what?”
“Did a little snooping. Not much left of the previous owner, but…” She moved to a little storage room. A few extra sets of blankets, barrels, not much else that I’d seen, but she pulled something free and –
“Oh!” I beamed at what she put into my arms – a lute, weathered but only in a way that meant it was once well-loved. I pushed my chair back from the table with a scrape as mum sat down, making room to stroke it, feel it properly. “I haven’t played in ages. Not since…”
Not since last year, when I’d played for Bolor on a borrowed piece out in the twilight on the green university fields. A sinking feeling in my chest, not quite grief like it had once been, but sore nonetheless. Mum put a hand on my shoulder, smiling gently.
“Why don’t you play for us?”
I gently strummed, just to get a feel for the strings, tuning. “You know, Toltette told me once I should consider the Bards’ College. I think it was the only real compliment he ever paid me.” A distant memory once so reviled, now making me smirk. “If only because he hated the idea of me grubbing about in the dirt after marriage.”
“And knew you’d never abide being kept at home.” Maman chuckled, eyes bright. Lucien for his part watched in relative silence, only breaking it then.
“You were to be wed?”
“A long time ago.” It seemed so, at least, like it was somehow decades in the yawning past. Things had changed so much. It felt like I’d lived lifetimes, fingering the strings. “I refused him.”
“Afraid of commitment, are we?”
“Afraid of being bound to some – some toad who didn’t even have the wits to know he was being used, too. Or the spine to do anything about it.”
Mum’s lips twitched. “You need a man who can keep up with you, hm?”
“Exactly.” Bolor could. Our back-and-forths were half of what made our relationship work, especially as I grew out of my shyness. My gaze caught Lucien’s idly and, for a moment, I felt my face flare. He smirked, and that did nothing to help matters.
I cleared my throat and turned my attention back to the lute. “… I am not playing The Peaks and the Valleys, you understand?”
“Because Tucket had me sing that to death and if I ever have to think about how ‘my land is like a maiden fair’ again I am going to scream.”
Mum’s laughter, chiming and delighted, warmed me. Her eyes crinkled at the corners. “Play whatever your heart desires, mon chou.”
What my heart desired. Well, I was certainly not going to play anything about star-crossed lovers, or uncertain feelings, or anything quite so painfully obvious. No, what came to my fingers and memory was something more grim, something Tucket would have never let me play. A little tuning needed, a little stiff with my hands out of practice but it made mum smile, made all tension evaporate from her face. I kept on, finishing as they finished their meals and sat back to listen.
“And so I’d sooner sheath my blade
Walk the moors, bathe in the glades
Remember what my land has given me,
But should she call and should war turn
I would all peace and comfort spurn,
And to the bitter end defend it all.
I’d lose it all that she may ne’er fall.”
As the last chord faded mum sighed, giving a soft smile. “I remember that one. High Rock has seen so many battles… not exactly the sort of song a pretty bardess sings, is it?”
“I like it. It’s about defending what you love.” My hand found hers, squeezing for a moment. A pang of fierce, protective love, so intense it echoed. “What matters most.”
“Mmn.” A squeeze back and she leaned forward, her brow meeting mine. Shared teary laughter before she glanced over to Lucien, still silent. “And what did you think, Lachance?”
A shrug. “A bit clumsily done, but passable.”
Maman grinned, snickering under her breath and giving me a wink. “That means he liked it, chérie.”
“I can speak for myself, Abelle.”
“Certainly, except half of that is lies. You’d never do something so soft-hearted or human as admit to enjoying a tune. Or, indeed, to enjoying much of anything at all.” A cluck of her tongue. “Dour and brooding as you were back then.”
“Why don’t I enjoy thoroughly thrashing you in a game, mn?” He thumbed the deck put aside, smirking.
“You’re on. But first, while we’re all awake, I’m going to get some more firewood.”
“Maman, I can – “
“No, darling.” At my frown, she softened, explaining. “… If you were caught alone, you’d be helpless. You’re safer here with Lucien, if anything should happen.”
“Then why doesn’t he…“ There was something strange in her gaze, concern and determination side by side. I faltered and she took the chance to kiss my brow, rising.
“I’ll be back soon.”
I stared at the door after her for a long few moments, finally sighing and putting the lute away. “I don’t understand.”
I met his gaze, a cold trickle running down my back. “Her…”
“She is not certain she can defend you alone. It’s slowing her down.”
“She’ll be alright.” I spoke too quickly, wanting it to be true. It had to be. “I’ve been checking – it’s healed well, there’s no sign of infection or deeper trauma. Bad scarring, but…”
“She isn’t as young as she was.” I looked away, feeling my stomach clench. “She needs time.”
“Then she shouldn’t be out there alone.” I rose, moving to pick up my cloak. “I’ll go sit with her. Tell her I’m keeping her company. I’ll convince her.”
His lips parted but no words came, not at first. Eyes narrowing, head tilting as he watched me. “… You really would, wouldn’t you?”
I shut the clasp and looked up, brow furrowed. “I would what?”
“Defend her, to the death. ‘Lose it all.’ Take up that dagger and fight for her, knowing it would be futile.” His gaze was intense now, enough to keep me pinned in place as he spoke. Low and soft, deliberate. I shivered but straightened my shoulders, met his eyes.
“It was her actions that put you here, put your life in danger. Her past that has torn away what you knew.” A brow cocked, the question probing, testing. Like fingering a bruise and seeing if I would flinch. “You don’t resent her?”
An ache inside, prickling and hollow. My gaze strayed to the door after her. “… I do. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love her, too.”
“Mmn.” A sound of assent, a crooked smile. “I wasn’t lying. Your voice is decent enough, your lute skills clumsy at best.” He cut me off before I could retort. “But you are loyal. And I admire loyalty, wherever it is found.”
I softened, at that. Felt my cheeks warm, pursed my lips and let my gaze drift away. “… Careful.” I chose humour to handle it, this strange flutter in my stomach, the warmth in my chest. “If maman hears you talk like that she’ll never let you live it down.”
“Hah.” A grin then and why did his make me grin, in turn? “Go, then.”
I stepped to the door, hesitated in the threshold. For a moment, I thought to thank him. A brief, bright moment, then my courage dissolved. I stepped out into the snow, ready for a scolding, and left those thoughts in the cottage.
Chapter 31: Chapter Thirty-One
"They say Dark Elven women are pro-- pro-- something. Prostitutes?" she said, although she was dubious."
As the days continued to pass, we found ways to amuse ourselves as best we could. All three of us were awake again, maman unable to settle – I didn’t ask why, though I knew, from how she held her breath as she moved, she was sore, today. Anything to keep her mind off it.
So I read The Real Barenziah aloud - we'd found a copy beneath an old bookshelf, as though it was meant to be hidden out of sight by its owner. Mum laughed, giving a crinkled smile as I grinned at her and Lucien lounged at the table.
"I’d almost forgotten this book. Vicente lent me a copy when I first came to the sanctuary - uncensored, no less." Mum chuckled at the memory, gazing at the book in my lap. "You know, sometimes I swear you have a bit of Dunmer blood. The way you flirted with all those poor servant boys growing up…" Lucien snorted as I flushed red, as mum gave a catlike smirk. "Oh, it's true. Shameless thing. Except, of course, when she was busy reading, or dabbling with some new potion idea, or fighting with her sister…" Mum tapped her chin in thought. "What was it Anya said you were? Part Argonian?"
"Argonian?" Lucien raised a disbelieving brow.
Mum only smirked. "Why, Lucien, haven't you seen her feet?"
"Mother - " I sputtered, instinctively drawing my feet closer to my body as I felt my cheeks blaze. Mum snickered, feigning a snatch at my leg.
“Webbed toes. We never did know why. Oh, dear, do stop with that glare, it’s unbecoming. They aren’t even very noticeable...”
“Maman, I love you, but I will not hesitate to poison your share of the rations.”
“Argonian, Dunmer…” Lucien sounded almost like he was musing to himself, voice light. It was strangely pleasant to hear him like that – the past days he’d become more and more withdrawn. “Why am I so unsurprised to hear the uncertainty of her parentage?”
Mum cackled as I gave a sharp gasp, staring with jaw dropped at Lucien before tossing a pillow in his direction. He only tilted his head as it flew wide. “Uncertain - you – you’re the one with uncertain parentage, you bastard, Imperial face with a Breton name – “
“Then I suppose we are of a kind after all, pet.”
“You’re both awful.” The other pillow I swung at mum, taken back by how quickly she grabbed it, the unexpected speed with which she turned my weapon on me as I shrieked and covered my head. “Maman!”
“Attacking your helpless mother as she rests. Shameful. I would never have thought my own daughter would treat me so poorly.”
“I am without shame, mother, and I got that from you.” I grinned, then felt it fade as my gaze drifted back to Lucien. Lost in thought again, face grave as he stared at the fireplace. A sigh. I shook my head and stood, returning the book atop the shelf nearby. “You should try to sleep, maman.”
"Mm. And I'm going to check on Shadowmere." A sudden clatter of the wooden chair over the floorboards as Lucien stood behind us, already making his way to the door. I frowned.
"Again? That's the fourth time today. You're - " I scoffed as he let the door fall heavily shut behind him. "Hmph."
“Go with him.” I raised a brow as mum spoke, settling back into the pillows with a sigh. “I need my rest, and he needs something to keep his mind off of all this. Company, even if he’d never admit it.”
I scoffed, playing at disdain. “Doubt he wants my company.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure.” There was something entirely too prim in how mum spoke, making me narrow my eyes at her smirk. “Being cooped up with you both, these past few days…”
I crossed my arms, shooting a telling glare in her direction, but she ignored it. Reaching for her mug on the bedside table, taking a slow sip of lukewarm tea before continuing. “Well. I simply think an alchemist, of all people, would recognize chemistry when she sees it.”
“Just telling it how it is, chérie. Ever since that night you kissed him, it’s clear there’s something there. You may as well follow it and see what happens, mmn? And Sithis knows, you both could clearly use – “
I lunged to try and snatch the pillow she’d stolen, glowering as she moved it out of my reach with a satisfied little tilt of her head, keeping hold somehow without spilling a drop of her tea. My elegant, poised mother, with that coy tone implying things a mother really ought not to imply at all. “I hate you.”
Maman’s laugh rang out clear like a bell as she grinned, taking my hand and now pulling me in close for a one-armed embrace. “Hate me all you need to, mon chou. So long as you love me, too. Go on. Let this poor old woman get some beauty sleep.”
“Beauty hibernation, you old she-bear.” I grinned and just managed to dodge a pillow that flew past me, blowing a little kiss before stepping out into the snow.
The blinding bright gleam from the snow had turned dim now as the sun began to set over our temporary hideaway. Our tracks were painfully apparent around the cottage - it had been a few days since it had snowed. The air was crisp and sweet. I took a breath and walked in the footsteps Lucien had made, following them into the stable and opening the door, poking my head inside. "Lucien?" A gruff rumble was the reply. I stepped into the mildew warmth of the stable, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dimness.
"What did you need." Lucien stood by Shadowmere, gently stroking down her flank as she ate from a bag of hay. I shrugged, making my way to his side and idly looking where her old injury had been. Not even a scar. Less testament to my work, I suspected, than to her strange nature.
The stable was small, but cozy, fit for two horses with supplies. Apparently the previous tenant had been ready for a harsh winter. I gazed at the ceiling, blinking as a cold droplet hit me - snow, melting through the cracks of a trapdoor meant to open in the spring for sunlight.
"Mum kicked me out." It was - familiar. This strange warmth, the smell, the gentle whuff of breath from Shadowmere. A vague flicker of memory - being perched in a hayloft, barefoot, dress covered in straw. I shook the thought away, watching Lucien as he groomed the mare. Though his motions stayed fluid, he held unspoken strain in his shoulders, in the lines of his face. “… Are you alright?”
A crook of a mirthless smirk. “I’m surprised you care, pet. I will be fine when my Silencer returns with evidence of the traitor’s identity. Beyond that…” A line between his nostril and lip, face tight as he surveyed Shadowmere’s smooth hide. “Little else matters.”
"We don’t know when that’ll be, Lucien. You can’t spend the entire time grooming your horse, or she won’t have a coat left.” He relinquished the brush when I made to take it, scoffing under his breath.
“Why did you come in?”
Why did I? What mum had said rung true, but I didn’t know what to say to him as I found a spot in the hay, sitting down to avoid his gaze. “I…”
“You wanted to comfort me. That’s not my way, pet. I will not be satisfied until the traitor hangs bloodied for their crimes, and my name is cleared.”
I nodded as he spoke, a lump growing in my throat. I hadn't wanted to comfort him, had I? Maybe, a little. We’d gotten closer these past days, and…
I scowled inwardly. It was just strange to see him so on edge, and I found it disconcerting. Did mum feel that way, as well? It was something they shared between them, then, in those quiet whispers while I slept. Fear.
I felt little fear. This was all too strange, too distant for me to understand, unable to grasp the face of an enemy I’d never seen. All I felt was worry for mum. And - as much as it made me grimace to realize it - for Lucien. I sat straighter as he joined me, the straw crinkling under us. A questioning look, etched into his face. "You look puzzled."
"I - I have a lot on my mind." I shook my head, glancing at his arm. The rip in his sleeve showed a mark of the wolf bite, an ugly mark. "How's that healing?"
"Fine." He rolled his eyes as I took his arm, pushing away the folds of cloth to examine the scar. It healed well - a faded wound, as though it had happened weeks ago rather than days. "Your father taught you, I take it. Abelle said he was a healer."
"…Yes." Another flicker of memory, of papa's hands and the smell of dried herbs.
"Odd." A wolfish grin. "I didn't think Argonians had the knack for it."
"Bastard!" I gasped aloud, slapping him half-heartedly on the arm as he snickered, even as a laugh of my own escaped my throat. "You can hardly even see them, and besides, at least I'm not a smug, half-blooded Imperial son of a - "
"Shut up, pet."
And he kissed me.
Sinking into the straw, his warmth on me, a hand on the small of the back and lips rough against mine. I was stunned for a moment before I responded, body yielding, mind panicking.
So this is happening. This is, I - my hand snaked its way up to his back, pulling him closer, sinking further into the straw as he half-laid over me, taut. A palm ran down my shoulder, to my waist, toying with the laces of my bodice as with smirking eyes he pulled away to gaze down at me. Purring laughter, my stomach doing tumbles.
I blinked, warmth coursing through me, making my knees weak. "Um." Godsdammitsaysomethinganything! "Isn't - isn't it your shift? To sleep? I think it is, since mum stayed awake for a bit for hers and you haven't taken yours and I could watch for, for both of you, and…" I trailed off at the realization that I was rambling, clearing my throat.
"And shall I take you to bed with me, pet?" He smirked at my indignant squeak. "Abelle would hang me, which would make it all the sweeter." Dammit, I could feel the heat burning my cheeks, and worse still I knew, I knew it wasn’t just from embarrassment. "Perhaps another time. But you are correct, for once." He stood, hands slipping from my body to brush straw off his robes. "I'll see you inside."
My fistful of straw hit the door uselessly behind him.
I cursed, laying back on the straw again, glaring at the ceiling before moving my gaze to Shadowmere, who gave me a reproving look. "Your master is a bastard, you know that? And a fetcher, and a git." She only snorted. "Yes, precisely."
What am I doing? A full-body shiver in the wake of the cold hitting me now that he was gone. I raised a hand to my lips. Gods. This is stupid, so stupid. This…
What was this, exactly?
I sighed, closing my eyes and losing myself in thought before wincing as another droplet hit me, harder this time, frigid water dripping down my nose. I blinked, looking up to see a crack of sunlight.
I didn’t have time to scream.
Everything happened at once. The trapdoor flew open, the shape above landing atop me, pinning me down, one hand wrapping around my throat as the other took my wrists. Shadowmere snorting, bucking up and then in the corner of my eye I could see her shriek, stiffen, sink. Cold, cold, cold dripping from above, cold laying over me, cold hands digging into my throat before they relaxed as colder eyes met mine, and he smiled.
“Maria.” A croon, an icy hand tracing a line along my cheek as I shuddered, whimpered. Eyes a shade of gravedirt, breath reeking like meat and that face, that…
“You.” A name came with the face. Bellamont. The Speaker.
“He touched you, impure mother-killer-dog, make him pay, make him – “ I couldn’t hold back a keen of terror as he leaned in closer, like a hound sniffing its prey. A hoarse sigh left him, his one hand still latched on my throat even as with the other he caressed my cheek. “Hush, my sweet Maria, hush, or I’ll have to silence you again.”
“I’m not Maria.” Whisper soft my croak, trembling under his fever-bright eyes. Mad, gods, he was well and truly mad. “You’ve got the wrong person, please – “
I tasted blood and only then did the sting of the blow follow, jerking my head to the side. “Shut up, that’s her, that’s the girl talking but soon, my Maria, soon she’ll be gone and you’ll be back and Lachance will lay dead – “
“No!” With all my small fury I fought back, uselessly, choking as his grip tightened hard around my throat again. One hand pulled free and I reached for my dagger, grazing it before it clattered away when he took my wrist with a snarl, wrestling me down. My stomach wrenched at the scent of meat and copper, lips quivering above mine.
“Be still, I don’t want to hurt you, Maria, not again, not again – just lay still and be good and we’ll be together, you and me and mother, a family, a true family – “
“You’re ranting again, Bellamont.”
The door creaked open behind us, and his - Bellamont's head perked. I craned my neck to peer past him, trying to make out who had spoken as my breath rushed from me in panic. I could see no one until the door closed and the shape materialized, idly gazing at a ring before walking towards us and tossing over a length of rope.
"There you are.” Another strangled whimper left me as he began to bind me tight, wrapping the ropes around to keep my wrists together. I fought like a wildcat, screaming, hissing, kicking, anything to get away. “Keep her here, necromancer. Lachance must pay before my work can be complete.”
"Naturally.” A little sound of surprise left me as my fighting stopped. I felt it sink in – paralyzation, digging creeping claws into my muscles. No, no. “I’ve muffled the room, but I'd prefer not to be there for your revenge exacting and all that nonsense. I shall wait out here, and prepare the ritual."
That voice, I knew that voice. A distant memory that wasn't so distant at all. My skin crawled, eyes open wide and seeing, not comprehending. Robes, dark skin, red eyes cool and careless, attention turned to Bellamont. "Do try not to die, I'm rather interested in finishing this little experiment."
Experiment, I thought wildly. Experiment…
Footsteps, and he moved towards me, kneeling slightly, head tilted. Dark bangs over his face, eyes slitted.
He spoke, though kept his gaze on me before inclining his head. Impartial and cool. "Good evening, Dust."
This. I sat petrified, breath frozen in my lungs. This is unreal, this can't be real, Bolor here and…
“Good. Wait for me, my sweet.” Another whisper, another hitch of my breath and shudder moving through me as at last he clambered off. “Be patient. Lachance must suffer, know nothing but pain, his whore must know what it is to lose her mother too but then, then – “
An animal howl squeezed out of my throat, barely audible for the paralyzation giving my muscles such unyielding rigidity. No, no, they’d die, I couldn’t let him hurt them, I couldn’t do anything to stop it…
He glanced over his shoulder at me then, face soft, so soft and loving and sick. “I’ll end you slow this time, my love. Slow and gentle to bring you back to me.”
He left the stable, left me helpless and bound. The paralyzation hissed away and I sunk back into the straw as Bolor took my bound hand. I flinched in pain as he slid a dagger – my dagger, picked up from where it fell - through my palm in almost the same spot the Listener had, squeezing my hand around it to coat it well as I sobbed through my teeth.
“Bolor – what are you doing? Why?”
A favour. Those words rung familiar again. The snuffing of a candle, a favour for a friend…
“Bolor, please, I don’t understand – “
“I made my way South. I knew of a small clan of my fellows there.” Impossible, so surreal to hear his voice again so crisp and businesslike. He took the sanguine dagger to the floorboards, using my blood to draw a small, faint circle around me. “I knew I couldn’t leave you as a loose end but truthfully, I didn’t know how to deal with you. Pure luck our mutual friend found me.”
A scream, from the cottage. Maman. No.
“Bellamont came to us. He’d killed and burned the body of his lover and captured her soul in a gem. He begged us to restore her, but the corpse was beyond all repair.” Finally, his gaze settled on mine. Like seeing him for the first time, kissing him for the hundredth, seeing the hurt and anger before he’d left me behind…
“Together, we came up with an interesting experiment.”
Bellamont’s lover. Maria. It came flooding back now, what Antoinetta had said. That poor girl.
“And for it, we needed a young woman who resembled her. Dark hair, blue eyes.” A little shrug as he stood, the circle complete, and pulled out a pouch. The crackle-sting of ozone from void salts filled the air as he sprinkled them around me, following the same pattern. “Two birds, one stone. He would have what he wanted, and you would no longer be a concern.”
“I loved you,” A haggard whisper. Crashing, more screams and a roar from one of them, if I could just get free, if I could –
He spoke on as though he hadn’t heard me. “And the very possibility intrigued me, I must admit. I will attempt to guide and transfer the dead girl’s soul to your emptied corpse, and restore her.”
No, no, nonononono –
You must not panic, child. An icewater chill dripped down my spine at a voice in my head. Not my own. Cool, gentle, soothing. Your Family needs you.
“As I understand it, that Speaker he’s always babbling about was to kill you and deliver your body to us. But you complicated things.” And if the cold of his voice had hurt, his crooked smile, so familiar, hurt worse. “As you always seem to do.”
You were my first love, I whispered inside. My first dear friend, my teacher. How could this – this can’t be real, it can’t - I tried to speak, but couldn't muster the energy. All that seemed so long ago, now.
What matters now. The voice spoke again, strangely different from mine. Focus on now, granddaughter. You must get free.
“Did you want this, all this time?” Tears welled up and over as I spoke, pushing against the force of the ropes. They didn’t give. “Did you hate me so much, because I didn’t go with you?”
"…No. No, Dust." His eyes softened, and for a moment I thought I saw the man I'd known before it vanished. "Because I feared you might follow, endangering me and mine. Because I value knowledge above all else, and because my art is my first love. I would have liked you by my side, once." He stood upright, a hand against the door. "But that was some time ago."
More screams, one cut suddenly short. Think, think. “I have to help them. Bolor, please. My mother is in there, please…”
He turned away. Another sob bubbled up in me before I swallowed it back, remembering what the voice had said. A tight swallow, a whisper.
From behind I could see his shoulders rise and stiffen, hear him inhaling through his nostrils. After a long, still moment, he spoke. "It was Bretony. To love, to adore someone deeply. I thought it was suitable."
I gazed at him, searching, begging. "…But not hate, either."
"My mother," I whispered. "My - " My friend? My rival? My infuriating Speaker? "…I can't let them die. I have to help. Please, Bolor. If you felt for me like I did for you, if you ever cared, please…"
A breath, through his teeth. "Your compassion always was your folly, you know. You could have been brilliant. But it infected all of your work - in my classes, in your progression. With my creation at the university, because it was in pain."
I blinked away tears, the ropes creaking. “Please.”
He turned. Eyeing me for a long, slow moment, lips parted. Whatever he had to say then died on his lips with a hiss of – remorse? Disgust?
He turned back to Shadowmere now, hands coming to rest on her flank. With a start and a whinny she jerked conscious, moving to attack before his magicka flickered lighter, higher, and she went docile.
“I have no desire to be associated with a madman, no wish to anger the Dark Brotherhood. It will be simple enough to perform this ritual under my own power.”
A tingle down my spine, my eyes going wide. “Bolor?”
He turned back to me, moving so fast I recoiled, and then a snap – the cut and pull of the ropes binding me falling away, freed with my dagger still stained with my blood. I stood shakily as he pressed the hilt into my hand, catching my breath, still not entirely understanding.
“And with this dry straw, all it would take is a spark…” He spoke now like he had in his lectures, what felt like so long ago. A surge of hurt, love, gratitude. Teacher. “To burn this and any evidence to ashes, long before he realizes I am gone. I will borrow this fine mare for the journey, though I’ll send her back.” A raised brow at me now, critical and reproving.
“Bolor – “ I could almost have laughed, disbelieving. “Thank you.”
“Goodbye, Dust. We will not see each other again.”
Sparks fell from his hand into the pile of straw I’d abandoned. He mounted Shadowmere and with a shout they were gone, galloping into the night. Like hungry little insects the sparks multiplied and spread, jumping along the straw, clambering up the wall.
I ran. Out into the snow as smoke began to rise, black ash on white, towards the cottage. Worse now for the silence until I came closer hearing a mad shrieking, laughter.
I burst through the door, into a nightmare.