Chapter Sixty-Eight: 'Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax, of Cabbages and Kings'
"I have a present for you," Lahallia-Sheogorath declared, once the Mazken and Aureal garrisons returned to fill the empty wings of House Mania and House Dementia.
"Oh yes?" Orphael asked, cocking his head, birdlike, to eye her beadily. He could not say how much time had passed between the battle with Jyggalag and now, but the fight seemed like a lifetime ago.
Lahallia-Sheogorath's twisted intentions for some unfortunate subject in her realm showed in her smile, her eyes glittering with Dementia's light. "I do." She strode up to him, still barefooted, still wearing the frothy lavender gown—and carrying her Staff nonchalantly in one hand. She reached up with the other and hooked her elbow around his neck, pulling herself as close to him as she could get. "I want you," she breathed against his mouth, "to get rid of Relmyna Verenim. "Any…way…you…want…" she kissed him teasingly. "However you want. I just want her gone."
Quite apart from liking Lahallia-Sheogorath, he liked the idea of getting rid of that evil woman just as well. "Shall I take notes on the process, my lord?" But the title was half mocking, half teasing, and not at all serious.
Lahallia chuckled. "If you have time. Leave her apprentice alone…but I want that woman gone. I have something to see to as well…so we shall meet back here. Haskill is sure Lord Azura will be paying us a visit…and I want to be here for it." Lahallia was not sure if she would like Azura—that particular Prince always seemed to get what she wanted—but she would like to meet her.
Orphael kissed Lahallia's brow, and she let him go.
"Go quickly, and return so," Lahallia called with a smile, though rather disappointed with such a chaste departing gesture. Well, that was Orphael's nature, mildly contrary, teasing, and occasionally mischievous. He kept life from getting boring.
Orphael waved nonchalantly as he left, the green-stone ring of Dementia glittering on one finger. For the time being, Lahallia found it easier to appoint an Aureal and a Mazken to watch over House Mania and House Dementia respectively. And it pleased her to appoint Orphael, and Mirel. At least this way her conscience was eased, in the matter of using Mirel's brilliant plan to lead his company to slaughter.
He, of course, did not remember this, and when she presented him the Ducal Seat, she thought he might die of shock. He did not, although he was not adjusting as well to his position as Orphael. Well, he did not have all the privileges the Duke of Dementia had. Not by a long shot.
Lahallia waved her hand, drawing from nowhere a long cloak of vivid magenta, with coppery embroidery around the hood and hem. "Haskill?"
Haskill appeared promptly, dressed in his usually clothes, with the exception that instead of black and red, they were lurid green with otherworldly purple splotches. He bore this patiently, though the irony was not lost to him. Payback always contained compound interest, doubly so with Daedric Princes, who seemed to specialize in various forms of payback.
"I'm going out. I shall be back soon. If Lord Azura calls, try to entertain her until I return."
Haskill bowed. "I think I have read enough books of jokes to find at least one which will humor her."
He could read the books, but unless he learned inflection and timing, he was a lost cause. Oh well, she did not need him as a jester.
Duke Orphael of Dementia did not knock when he entered Xaselm. In fact, he moved as though he owned the ruin. By the time he encountered Relmyna herself, self-satisfaction was stamped all over his face. Relmyna did not remember the first Sheogorath. All her memories of him referred to some greater Daedra, but not to a Daedric Prince. And she understood he was dead—which put her in an incredibly foul temper.
"You!" She spat. "Does her lordship not require you in New Sheoth?" Relmyna snapped, red-eyed, and pale.
Orphael said nothing, but looked around the hated dungeon. He still did not remember his tenure here and did not want to. "This is possibly the most grotesque building I have ever had the misfortune to venture into. Has anyone brought this to your attention?"
"If you don't remove yourself from here immediately, you won't leave it a third time," Relmyna growled, her eyes glittering with malice and sadism.
Orphael drew himself up. "You forget your place. I'm here on Lord Sheogorath's business."
Relmyna stopped, closing her mouth as though Orphael had slapped her. "Oh?" She sweetened her tone, but her face grimaced as though she tasted something foul. Fouler than the air in this ruin.
"Yes. Lord Sheogorath feels she no longer requires your services." Orphael enjoyed stringing this out with all the pleasure of the truly Demented. Ah, but Lahallia-Sheogorath had sense: put one in charge of Dementia who knew it best. And who knew better than a Mazken?
Relmyna flayed her lip. "Of course, it must be," she answered ingratiatingly, "as Lord Sheogorath wishes. I shall gather my things—and my child—and leave. If you'll excuse me."
"I'm, not finished." Orphael's eyes glittered as he advanced on Relmyna. "I'm afraid it's a little more complicated than that." Remlyna's smile faded to a look of resentment and determination. "Lord Sheogorath has no further need…of you."
If Orphael had not come with Lahallia-Sheogorath's blessing, Relmyna would have killed him on the spot, powerful sorceress that she was. However, he was here with all the protection the lord of the realm could bestow, rendering Relmyna as harmless as a kitten without claws.
And for the first time in her life, as Relmyna watched him draw a long and lethal looking knife, she knew fear. The shallow nick he put in her arm barely hurt, just deep enough to draw blood. Thinking this some sort of sick joke, Relmyna laughed.
By the time the poison on the knife began to work, causing pain, hallucinations, violent nausea, she knew what suffering really was.
Orphael stood, in the entryway to one of the halls, restraining Nanette Don from going to her mistress' aid, impassive as he watched Relmyna writhe and shriek, tormented by the pain in her body, as well as by the visions in her head. "It's better this way, Nanette," he declared quietly once Relmyna fell silent, stretched full-length on the floor, still with death. It took an interminable time—but a long span of it—for the Dunmer to give up and die.
Nanette trembled, still restrained by Orphael's arm. "Is it?" she asked bitterly.
"The Isles are free of her. And so are you."
Nanette freed herself from his restraining arm, gave him one look of utter loathing and fled.
Orphael calmly walked back to the entrance of Xaselm. An ignoble death for the very lowest of dregs in the Isles. Dementia would seem a much better place, without the pall of Relmyna Verenim to befoul it.
Far away from Xaselm, Lahallia felt another mind in the Isles shatter completely. She paused only long enough to ascertain who it was: Nanette Don. Well, when one was so cowed, dominated by someone like Relmyna, one could hardly expect her to react well to that dominating force's death. Perhaps she would piece herself back together enough to function. Or she would not. It was sad, but not as sad as the wrong Lahallia-Sheogorath intended to set right.
Dyus of Mytheria—the Nameless Facet—still sat silent in Knifepoint Hollow, mulling over the impossible turn things had taken since the Altmer first walked into his prison. Her very existence, her possession of the Staff of Sheogorath, of the name and role of Sheogorath staggered him, leaving his mind further shattered than before she ever came before his eyes.
Lahallia found him as pitiable as ever, though she felt detached from the pity, as if it were only a sad memory, half-forgotten. He was certainly as shattered as anyone else in this realm, and more than some. Her new role in life left her acutely aware of other people's mental conditions.
Dyus raised his silver eyes to look at her, the lines of exhaustion and care etched deeper into his face. "Lord Sheogorath. As I expected. I will hear you and then ask for peace from your prattle."
"You may have peace now." Lahallia strode forward, reaching out, through the haze of Vision triggers to touch his brow with one pale finger.
For a moment, Lahallia Saw.
A tiny woman with red eyes and redder hair, cuddled contentedly against a kind-faced man with sightless eyes. In her arms lay two children, infants obviously only a few hours old, and beside his parents on the bed, a boy-child with a halo of golden hair and a wooden sword stuck through his belt.
Lahallia could feel the love in the room as acutely as if she was actually there, warm as the sunshine falling through the curtained windows of the Vision-room.
"Have your peace, Dyus of Mytheria." Lahallia let the spell pass through her finger into Dyus' brow as the Vision faded into a haze of golden mist.
He took a deep breath as though startled, then the lines of exhaustion vanished, pale lids closing over his strange eyes. He slumped where he was, his chest rising and falling peacefully. Placing her hand on his hair, almost downy and so pale, she spoke again. "Sleep long, dream deep, and let no unpleasant thing trouble you. You have suffered enough. Be at rest."
Dyus would have tumbled forward on the floor had the chains not prevented him from doing so. Lahallia touched the chains, and they vanished. Heaving Dyus onto her shoulder as easily as if he were a bag of meal she turned and walked out of Knifepoint Hollow with the shattered Daedra.
Crossing the threshold of Knifepoint Hollow she stepped forward into her throne room, at the base of the tree which still dominated the area behind the throne. The door opened obligingly for her as she carried her burden into the warm earthy caverns below. The aura here would make sure her orders stayed firm until the Font of Madness and its feeding fonts failed.
At the place where the three tunnels met, a small antechamber formed, holding only a bed. Lahallia unloaded Dyus onto it. He rolled onto his side, a look of peaceful dreaming and glorious relief on his features.
"Good night." Lahallia stepped out of the room, the door of which closed with a tiny click. She locked it with her staff, and left the Fountainhead. If Dyus was really so dangerous—and she could appreciate how he was dangerous—then he should be protected. And she would keep him close. Close, but without requiring him to suffer. He had not wrong her, or failed her. She need not carry out previous sentences.
She conveniently forgot about Dyus slumbering beneath the palace, so near the waters that connected him to the information moving in this land, information he was doomed to carry. But he need not shuffle through it in sleep, need not ponder it, extrapolate from it, be troubled by it. She would remember later, if she needed him, but as long as she did not, she would not.
And if she did not remember at greatest need, Haskill would. As boring as he often proved, he was a good man to look after tiny niggling details.
Azura put in her appearance shortly after Orphael returned.
His late arrival resulted from a systematic search of Xaselm, destroying all the poor, ruined creatures within, before removing Nanette forcibly, and warning her Lord Sheogorath intended to give Xaselm to the Dementia Swamps. So if she was smart at all she would go somewhere else. As a result of this logic, had come to New Sheoth with him. Sickly Bernice had not survived, to Orphael's sadness, but it left her taphouse in need of a proprietress. And Nanette jumped at the chance.
Lahallia-Sheogorath sat comfortably on her throne, watching Azura step into the room as Haskill announced her. Orphael stood beside Lahallia-Sheogorath's chair, as he often did. "Lord Azura," Lahallia-Sheogorath began the pleasantries, standing up to greet the Prince properly.
Azura was as lovely as reports indicated, but none of those reports ever indicated how proud she looked, almost haughty. Someone used to having her own way and none to scrupulous about how she did it—so long as no one else realized how unscrupulous. Her white hair tumbled forward in a cascade of feathery curls as she bowed politely, her black gown—even more flimsy than the one Lahallia-Sheogorath favored—rippling with the slightest movement. But the black suited her tanned skin and lavender eyes.
"Lord Sheogorath, it is a pleasure to greet you. May I speak to you, in private?" Azura's voice remained soft, but it was a voice used to giving order, and having those orders obeyed. But as she had asked, Lahallia-Sheogorath decided to humor the other Prince.
"Leave us, please," she gave Orphael a meaningful look. He bowed his head and exited. He would find out the contents of the meeting later, if Lahallia felt like discussing it. The Duke of Dementia remained privy to many affairs of state that the Duke of Mania did not.
Lahallia-Sheogorath stepped down to stand a polite distance from Azura. "May I offer you a chair?" she asked civilly.
"Please," Azura sat down, the chair materializing exactly where desired, in shape not unlike her own rose-adorned throne back in Moonshadow.
Lahallia-Sheogorath sat down as well in a chair of similar make. This was cozy.
"I am afraid I've come here to ask a favor of you, your lordship." Azura shifted, settling comfortably in the chair, as queenly as she ever looked. She never expected the Altmer to succeed—trust Mephala to run her own schemes as well as influencing everyone else's.
Well, what could one expect from the Webspinner? That slinking little minx.
"A favor?" Lahallia-Sheogorath cocked her head, waiting for the blow to fall. "What could you ask of me?"
Azura considered then stated the request bluntly. "I want you to leave the door between your realm and Nirn open…and I would like permission, possibly, to use your realm's connection with Nirn at a later date. I may…need to return something they lost."
"Is that all?" Lahallia-Sheogorath expected something much more difficult. She meant to leave the door open, certainly. Azura's interest, however, was curious.
"Well, I ask you because it will upset Mehrunes…you may not know him well, yet, but I can assure you he has all the tact of a rampaging Orc—though Malacath will resent me saying so. Of course, Malacath resents all of us, come to think of it, but it hardly matters. Such an antisocial creature." Azura shuddered, like a bird fluffing her feathers.
"And you think Lord Mehrunes Dagon will pay me a visit if I agree to leave the door open?" He would certainly have paid her one without Azura's request, then.
"Oh yes, he's quite determined to stop me…" he could be determined all he wanted. He had never stopped her doing exactly as she liked before, and he would not do so now. The new Sheogorath did not come across as unreasonable. "…but with Jyggalag on the loose…" Azura did not feel comfortable with this, and blamed Mephala exclusively for letting it happen, though she had not yet been able to tell the wretch what a foolish thing setting Jyggalag loose really was.
After all the fuss of locking him up in the first place. And little Sheogorath was such a doll when he had good days.
"…and so few people want the bother of being on Mehrunes' bad side—he's quite tenacious about holding grudges. He absolutely detests me, you know." Azura examined her nails. She was not afraid of Mehrunes Dagon. He had already disgraced her beautiful halls with his uncouth presence—months ago, to use the count of men and mer—and would eventually find out about Sheogorath's Gate. He had, so far, overlooked it, in his haste and arrogance.
He would consider Jyggalag a threat, judging the other Daedra as he would judge all things: as an enemy. And with Jyggalag's record for encroachment…perhaps Mephala's meddling was not entirely foolish.
Lahallia-Sheogorath shifted in her seat. Was she afraid of Mehrunes Dagon? No, definitely not. This was her realm. What could he do except make a great deal of fuss? She ruled here. Her realm, her rules. She would like to annoy him. It would be interesting, amusing…insane. "Of course," Lahallia-Sheogorath beamed. "I'd be happy to oblige you in this. I won't even ask what you're up to."
Azura's smile became fixed, pleasantly triumphant but with a streak of cruel humor at the discomfiting of another Prince. "Thank you indeed. "
"Of course. But, if I should expect Lord Mehrunes Dagon, perhaps it would be best if I were to receive him without an audience." Well, without Azura, who would likely incense the temperamental Daedric Prince even further.
Azura laughed, a silvery sound, as she got to her feet. "Which means you're bored with this conversation. Don't deny it, I knew you predecessor well enough hazard a guess with you. I hope to see you again, little librarian."
"Speaking of libraries…perhaps you'll do me a good turn for this so-called favor of yous?" Lahallia-Sheogorath also rose to her feet, the chairs vanishing.
Azura's smile remained fixed. This Sheogorath was sneaky. She must learn it from her Mazken. "Such as?"
"I should like you, please, to take this to Lord Hermaeus Mora." Lahallia-Sheogorath produced a small book.
Azura took it, and flipped it open. It was an Attendant's catalogue, but painfully incomplete. On the last page was a note: put this in the place you reserved for me, Lahallia Kiranni. Azura's smile became genuine. "I shall do so. Thank you, Lord Sheogorath."
"Lord Azura." Lahallia-Sheogorath bowed. When she looked up Azura was gone. She had little concept of what was going on outside her realm, and did not much care. Now, she could look forward to seeing Mehrunes Dagon in his unbounded annoyance.
Lahallia-Sheogorath had changed the sky outside twice before Mehrunes Dagon appeared without any sort of warning in the middle of her throne room. Orphael and Haskill flanked her chair, the former of which moved his hand to his sword as he loomed protectively at Lahallia's shoulder.
"Obviously, your lordship, Lord Mehrunes Dagon is here to see you," Haskill noted, disapproving the rudeness, but more because he knew he should, as Lahallia-Sheogorath's chamberlain. It was rude to simply kick in another Daedric Prince's household door and walk in.
Orphael curled his lip in distaste, while Lahallia-Sheogorath got to her feet. Mehrunes Dagon constrained his size so as to fit in the room—which would not change to accommodate his usual appearance. She did not want to conduct this meeting sitting down—it made her feel vulnerable.
"Close the Gate," Mehrunes Dagon snarled, without so much as a glance around the room. His angry eyes burned as they rested on the Altmer. Another mortal with Daedric eyes…how he detested the lot of them…and Azura's pet and pawn as well…and they had set Jyggalag loose! Always mortals, touched by Oblivion, so much so you could see it in their inhuman eyes. Always Azura giggling in the shadows…always the same players…the same games.
And after all the trouble of containing Jyggalag in the first place, all the inconveniences of it…it made him want to smash many expensive, delicate things.
Lahallia-Sheogorath got to her feet, frowning. Was it normal for him to be so rude? It must be, Azura hinted it was so. "No."
The Daedric Prince snarled softly. "Close the Gate, mortal, or I shall flay the skin from your bones and use your spine as the whip to drive my war machine," he ended in a bellow, which shook the room.
Orphael, eyes flashing, stepped off the dais, drawing his sword with a ring even Mehrunes Dagon heard.
True to her word, Lahallia-Sheogorath allowed Orphael to interpret 'protection' however he liked. And this certainly fell under moments where he was appreciated in that capacity.
Lahallia-Sheogorath, despite her fear, shook her head, raising a hand to stop Orphael. She had to do this. He could stand there and look menacing, she was even grateful for his reassuring presence, but she was the Daedric Prince now. Mehrunes Dagon had to realize it. "No," her voice remained steady.
Mehrunes Dagon took two steps forward before Lahallia reacted. As her guards immediately drew their swords—copying Orphael, now Mehrunes Dagon was actively menacing their lord—moving from the edges of the room to protect Lahallia-Sheogorath.
Lahallia-Sheogorath set her Staff to lean against her chair. She reached into thin air, feeling as though she was groping through water, clutching the wooden object she found there. With a swift spring forward, she brought the new staff down squarely on Mehrunes Dagon's head.
A blast of Daedric magicka and silence filled the throne room.
Lahallia-Sheogorath reached down with her free hand and pulled up by its ears a fluffy, red-furred bunny rabbit. "Now, Mr. Mehrunes Bunny Rabbit. We'll discuss manners. You don't shout at me here, or I'll have you put in a pie." She shookt he rabbit. "I like pie." She shook him again. "But you won't like it much if you're in one…if you even like pie. Moot point, moving on," she declared idly, waving Wabbajack and the rabbit both vaguely.
The on-looking Aureals and Mazken would have felt a strong stab of sympathy for any mortal-made-rabbit treated so cavalierly.
The door stays open. It's my door to my realm and I want it."
Never mind Azura asking very nicely the door be left open. For a little while, at least.
Lahallia-Sheogorath flung the rabbit bodily across the room, where it turned back into Mehrunes Dagon, who sputtered in indignation at having been seen fluffy and cute, with long ears and a wiggly nose. "I'll raze this patch of madness to the foundations," Mehrunes Dagon snarled.
Lahallia-Sheogorath beamed at him. "I'm shivering." Her tone held a note of warning. "You know, I like you better as a bunny rabbit. Fluffy-cute bun-bun…skipity-hop…" Lahallia-Sheogorath abandoned the inane babble as Mehrunes Dagon snarled something highly uncouth.
Her face hardened, eyes blazing in her face. "Now, don't go saying that rubbish to me," she snarled, her diction and accent changing abruptly as it sometimes did these days, "or I'll tip you headfirst into a pit of clowns. And not the nice clowns either, my Daedra can tell you."
No one remembered to whom the tone and accent belonged, except Haskill, Mehrunes Dagon, and Lahallia-Sheogorath herself.
For a moment it looked like she might actually have to follow through on her threat, then Mehrunes Dagon—with another several obscenities lashed creatively together—vanished into a seemingly solid wall.
Lahallia snorted, her speech regaining its usual characteristics. "No sense of humor. You've got competition, Haskill," she announced, wandering back to her throne, which was more comfortable than it looked.
"I shall endeavor to work harder on that count, your lordship," Haskill agreed tonelessly from where he stood, off to one side, thoroughly unperturbed by the interruption.
"I should have made him a rabbit permanently. It'd be a nice change, don't you think?" Lahallia asked, smirking wickedly.
"Undoubtedly, your lordship," Haskill answered dutifully. His honest opinion was Mehrunes Dagon would make an excellent rabbit. If only he could get put in a stew by his own Dremora…he would take awhile to recover from an experience like that.
"I still say feed him to the clowns," Orphael declared, sheathing his sword as Lahallia dismissed Wabbajack and reclaimed her proper Staff.
"If he comes back in a temper, we will. I'll get the clowns, and you can kick him in." Lahallia giggled wickedly. Sometimes it was good to wander in a haze of madness. No one else could have so much fun, plotting the torment of a Daedric Prince.
But sending him back to the Deadlands as a cute little rabbit still had merits. How could he live that down in the eyes of his Dremora? They would laugh at him. Forever. If he really annoyed her, maybe she could heap insult on injury…feed him to the clowns first, then use Wabbajack and send him back home…
Orphael watched Lahallia's devious smile. Her loss of consistent lucidity had done nothing so much as enhance her personality. The last vestiges of the Apocrypha Attendant were gone, and in place of those gray rags…madness in the best sense of the word. It was like living with a tornado, never knowing which way it would go, or what it would do, except that it would leave chaos in its wake.
And chaos was madness' close cousin.
The darkness pressed in on Mephala, for once taking time out of a semi-human form to simply be darkness of a comfortable, but indeterminate shape, cradled by a hammock of spidersilk, suspended between two walls of nothing. She—Mephala rather liked being 'she'—rocked gently pleased with her recent works. Oh, manipulating Azura into using Sheogorath's Gate for her pet project was genius.
She would have smiled if darkness had a mouth to do it with. The first time she heard whispers of a plan by Mehrunes Dagon to take over Tamriel, her blood boiled. As soon as she had word his precious Mysterium Xarxes had re-manifested in Oblivion, she sent her best agent to steal it—and contrived for it to fall into Azura's hands.
Azura still prided herself that it was her cleverness that gained the book. Azura had also accepted the suggestion that if she really wanted to get back at Dagon, getting Sheogorath's cooperation was most important. The former Sheogorath would probably have left the Gate open…so would his successor. But Azura had no way of knowing that.
But all had worked out according to plan—Mephala's plan—and Jyggalag would pose enough threat to Dagon that the Daedric Prince of Change and Destruction would know no rest, bracing for a war which would never come. Jyggalag's stint as Sheogorath would have educated Jyggalag as to the essence of insanity. He would carve out a new realm…but leave everyone else's well enough alone.
Using an Apocrypha Seer to serve Jyggalag in taking over the role of Sheogorath was too brilliant. For course, Azura expected the Altmer to die before such a 'catastrophe' as Jyggalag getting loose could occur. An agent uniquely fitted for the tasks ahead—the Visions so often served as a blind for a Seer's other strengths. No one wanted to risk an agent having a Vision in a bad spot.
Dagon was justly served for stepping on her sphere of influence's toes. Wars had begun like that, as he should well know.
And quite apart from anything else, this whole affair was…fun. It broke up the monotony of mundane plots nicely. Daedra were so fun to get riled up, so hard to manipulate. It left her with a feeling of great satisfaction. And no one really realized her involvement's full extent until all was said and done.
Mephala mentally smiled, a lazy gesture. Azura would take ages to get over being used, even though she got what she wanted out of the plot. Dagon would never forgive Azura, or Mephala herself once he eventually worked things out—but that was hardly troublesome.
Many people swore they would never forgive her—strange how so many of the mortals ended up dead. And the Daedra ended up licking the wounds of disgrace.
She loved being behind the scenes. Pulling the strings. Tweaking the web here and there. Watching carefully laid plots unravel…and watching others get tangled in those unraveling plots. Even better was the answer when asked why?
Because she could. Because she wanted to. Anything further than that was nobody's business but her own.
Mephala settled back again, entering a state of rest she felt she richly deserved.
Okay! First of all, Oblivion belongs to Bethesda. Last time I'll be saying that for a while.
Secondly, the title of this chapter is quoted from "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll who, of course, wrote 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass'.
Thirdly, for those of you who enjoy sci-fi, keep an eye open for my next work, MASS EFFECT: Cause and Effect.
Once again, I'd like to thank my original beta Pheonicia for her time and effort, to my reviewers, and to my readers. I appreciate you all.