Review responses: Again, thank you everyone for reviewing! And I'm very sorry this chapter took longer than expected, real life got in the way... I'm afraid updates probably won't be very frequent from now on, but I will not abandon this fic.
irishman91: Glad you're still reading and enjoying! To each their own, but I've never been that interested in the Dark Brotherhood myself - and with Adryn I also mean to explore a character that's less violent than novelisation characters frequently are and definitely less than Dark Brotherhood characters.
Noxae: Thank you, and here is the fourth chapter - hope it lives up to your expectations!
Shichimon: Thanks, I'm glad you like it!
Chapter summary: After being rescued from death-by-kagouti, Adryn attempts to return to Balmora. This proves more difficult than expected.
Warnings: Some nonexplicit sexual content.
When I came to, I quickly wished I hadn't. My body felt as if I had just run twenty miles without stopping. Up a mountain. With lead weights strapped to my limbs. While being chased by angry Imperial guards, who were possibly riding kagouti. (Could you ride kagouti? It might explain why I hadn't seen any horses here yet; either the native mounts all ate them or the native people connected 'riding' with 'being eaten', which would give even the most enthusiastic horsemer caution.)
Anyway, apparently I wasn't dead. I didn't think dead people were supposed to feel so tired.
I groaned and slowly, with a superhuman amount of effort, cracked open my eyelids.
Scratch that. Apparently I was dead.
Giant humanoid insects weren't part of life as I knew it, at any rate.
I was too tired to sit up let alone run for my - life? Unlife? Being dead was becoming metaphysically quite complicated - despite the fact that every instinct of self-preservation I had and a few I didn't were screaming at me to get out of there now! Instead, I just twitched feebly and tried to scream. It came out as more of a croak.
"Oh, you're awake!" the probable Daedra said. Bizarrely enough, it had a perfectly ordinary-sounding female voice in what I was coming to think of as a Morrowind accent.
"Don't kill me!" I wheezed, deciding to postpone further metaphysical ruminations until I was no longer in danger of being...
I stared at the Daedra and really wished I didn't have such a good imagination. Or vivid, for that matter.
"Kill you?" the Daedra repeated, sounding bemused.
"Or-" Really, really wished. "Or whatever it is giant man-shaped insect Daedra do."
"I- ah. Um." It sounded as if it was trying to suppress laughter. "I guess you've never seen chitin armour before?" It reached up to its head and pulled-
Apparently the native inhabitants thought armour made of giant insect shell complete with closed-face helmet that would not have been out of place on Mad Pelagius, or possibly in Oblivion, was an absolutely wonderful idea.
I took stock of my situation.
I wasn't dead after all. This was probably a good thing, but right at this moment I really didn't think so.
"Kill me now," I mumbled.
"Well, you've changed your tune, haven't you?" the Dunmer that had surfaced said with a grin. She looked slightly older than me and was quite pretty, with long black hair gathered in two braids. Or, to summarise: she did not look like a Daedra or a giant insect in any way, shape or form. "Don't worry, I'll blame it on the exhaustion. Speaking of which-"
A potion was held under my nose. "Here, drink this."
I sniffed at it.
"It's a fatigue restoring potion, completely harmless. Really, make up your mind, will you? Just a second ago you were begging me to kill you. Although if I'd wanted to kill you I had ample opportunity when you were asleep." She sounded affronted.
"I realised that." I hadn't, actually, and quickly drank the potion before she could question me about it. The rush of energy was very, very welcome.
"I didn't think you were going to poison me," I added once I'd regained my breath. "I'm an alchemist, and if I were to drink a potion without even trying to figure out what was in it I would have to turn in my mortar and pestle. It's a matter of professional pride."
"No need to explain. Most of my family are alchemists, I'm familiar with the mindset." She looked me up and down. "Are you feeling all right now? I can give you a second potion if you need it."
"No, I'm fine." My body still felt a little trembly and weak, but I knew from experience that that would have to pass on its own. (I briefly mourned the fact that I had had to use that often enough that I had experience in the stages of recovery.)
I sat up and looked around. The threat of immediate death by insect Daedra, and then mortification at having mistaken someone for an insect Daedra and told them so, had completely distracted me from my surroundings.
Dusk had fallen in the time I was out. I was sitting on the ground with a blanket wrapped around me. It looked as though I was still in the clearing where I had faced the kagouti, except that the clearing was minus a paralysed kagouti and plus a non-Daedra Dunmer and a campfire with several pieces of meat roasting over it.
...actually, I thought I could guess what had happened to the kagouti.
Which still didn't explain who the not-an-insect-at-all Dunmer was or why I wasn't dead.
"Who are you?" When in doubt, ask, has always been my motto in life. Certain unkind people would have you believe this should be followed by 'and ask as bluntly as possible. Tact is for other people'. They would of course be lying through their teeth. After all, I only very rarely have to run for my life after using this, which should tell you how well it works.
"My name is Ervesa Romandas, and I'm a Buoyant Armiger." By the proud and slightly self-important look on her face, I knew she thought that should mean something to me.
"You're a... weapon that floats?" I hazarded.
Ervesa stared at me, then threw back her head and started laughing.
"I take it that means no," I said as I waited for her laughter to subside. I had to admit, I felt rather injured. It was a perfectly logical conclusion to come to, given the meaning of those words.
"N-no, I'm not a- weapon that floats," she managed between giggles. "The Buoyant Armigers are the elite warriors of the lord Vivec. We try to emulate his virtues of chivalry, combat and poetic mastery. Most of us are stationed at Ghostgate these days, but we also have a hall in Molag Mar, primarily for training and guarding the pilgrims at Mount Kand."
Half of those words hadn't meant anything to me, but the other half made them sound as if they were a cross between Imperial Knights without the Imperial part, religious warriors and bards. Since all three were on my 'avoid at all costs, it might be contagious' list, the combination could not possibly mean anything good.
"Well, in that case you should call yourselves 'Elite Temple warriors who also compose poetry' or something. 'Buoyant' makes you sound like you're, I don't know, some sort of boats," I pointed out while trying to inch away unobtrusively.
This made her start laughing again. I bristled - I'd only been pointing out a fact, after all. "It isn't that funny!" Maybe this was one of the signs of the mental instability inherent in the religious bardic knight combination. Although considering I'd been expecting something more along the lines of attempted stabbing while singing hymns, I could live with uncontrollable laughter.
Ervesa grinned. "It is, actually. I'll have to tell the others when I get to Ghostgate. But just so you know, the name was given to us by the lord Vivec. He founded our order from a group who gave him unexpected aid in battle, one where he was impressed by their courage and cheer."
I considered saying that this Vivec couldn't be that good a poet if he thought 'Buoyant Armigers' was a good name for anything other than bathtub toys, let alone an elite force of warriors. A small voice in my head pointed out that insulting the god of a dedicated religious knight would probably not go over very well, easygoing though she'd been so far. For once, I listened to it - bluntness is all well and good, but it's best to avoid mortally offending people in possession of sharp objects and the knowledge of how to use them. My track record in this regard wasn't the best, admittedly, but this was a fresh start. I had resolutions.
Ervesa moved over to the fire and took out the chunks of meat. "I think these are about done. Are you-"
My stomach chose that moment to proclaim that actually, I'd neglected to take lunch with me and hadn't eaten since breakfast and that it did not hold with these sorts of shenanigans, thank you very much. Loudly. I glared at it. I'd had enough bodily rebellion for one day, thank you very much.
"Here, have two." Ervesa seemed to be suppressing a grin. I was tempted to scowl at her, but found my attention irresistably drawn to the sizzling haunches of meat she held out to me. My stomach's, as well. I silently thanked Dunmer heat resistance as I reached out to take them.
The meat tasted... not bad, I decided, except that it would taste much better if it were actually possible to chew it. The stuff had roughly the consistency of old boot. (And no, I don't care to explain how I know that.)
Ervesa must have read my thoughts - which were along the lines of of 'you call this food?' - off my face because she started chattering. "Roast kagouti isn't exactly the best food, I'm afraid. Too tough. Crab, guar or rat meat is what you usually get, or sometimes nix-hound - but since we happened to have dead kagouti lying around, well. Just be thankful it isn't alit. That's something you don't want to have to eat twice."
I noted with a sinking feeling that apparently this island had even more wildlife. Crabs, E.R.D.s and kagouti had seemed quite enough to put any travellers in fear of their lives. Once I got back to Balmora, I was not leaving that city again and I didn't care about anything Ajira said regarding wonderful fascinating untested flora... alchemy... experiments...
Where was I?
Oh, right, kagouti 'meat'. "Don't worry, this can be my revenge on it for trying to eat me," I said once I'd managed to choke down the first bite. "After all, revenge is so much sweeter when it's slow and painful. I mean, I take it this is the same kagouti as the one..." I tried to think of a way to say 'I fainted in front of' that didn't sound completely pathetic.
Ervesa nodded. "It's lucky for you I came along, really. A Bosmer had sent me this way, said he was looking for his friend and that he didn't think the girl he'd sent was quite up to the job." My cheeks flushed in humiliation. The fact that it was so undeniably accurate made it worse - after all, I quite enjoy deluding myself about my capabilities. "Then his friend ran past me screaming, so I thought I'd better see what was going on. Found a paralysed kagouti and you unconscious on the ground in front of it." She raised an eyebrow.
"Um. Well." I usually try not to talk about my birth-sign ability. Not that it's exactly a secret that the Lover-born can paralyse you (at the cost of any and all of your energy, but somehow that being a bad thing only really sinks in on your third day of bed-rest) but it's both something people tend to forget about and something that can be very handy in a tight spot.
And, of course, I try not to let on I'm Lover-born at all. You see, once people find out I'm Lover-born the lewd comments about dark elven promiscuity start, and then I have to tell them I'd rather kiss a dead kagouti (well, the Imperial equivalent) and although they did look very similar to one the kagouti smelled so much better I could never get them confused, and... well. It usually ends in tears, and sometimes in fireballs.
Whoever gives names to these things doesn't help, I should add - the paralysation ability is called the 'Lover's Kiss.' I ask you!
Of course, it was a bit difficult to pretend to be Lady-born after someone saw you in the aftermath. Even the fake birthdate I'd picked couldn't save me.
"Born under the Lover, I take it?" Ervesa asked. It was clearly meant to be rhetorical, but I nodded reluctantly anyway. "I thought I recognised the signs. One of my comrades in training was as well. She once used it on me in a practice duel."
I winced. "I take it you won, then."
"Actually, our instructor decided that we both lost. He wasn't very impressed. He said that before she woke up or I could move again we'd have both been killed by our surroundings."
Somehow, given what I'd experienced of the wildlife here so far, that really didn't surprise me.
"Anyway," Ervesa continued, "I killed the kagouti before the paralysis worse off, then its mate when it attacked as well." Wait, there had been a second one of those things out there? And it hadn't killed any of the people that I'd encountered earlier? Life really wasn't fair. "Nothing particularly unusual, really. I'm more curious as to how an outlander with no combat skills whatsoever ended up trying to fend off wild kagouti near Lake Amaya."
The words were cutting but the tone wasn't, and faced with the first sympathetic listener I'd encountered that whole cursed day I found myself blinking back tears. "All I wanted to do was pick flowers." My voice most emphatically did not sound like a wail, I told myself.
I nodded. "I'm a member of the Mages Guild in Balmora." I paused for a moment - it was the first time I'd said those words out loud. I liked the way it made me sound practically important, and decided not to add 'as of yesterday'. "One of the other guild members asked me to gather flowers near the lake for experimentation - alchemy, you know. And then..."
The whole story came pouring out, from the horrible tyrant old woman where I wouldn't have been in the slightest surprised to find out she was a giant insect Daedra in disguise, to the Bosmer and my taking temporary leave of my senses when agreeing to find his friend, to the kagouti stand-off in which I heroically gave everything I had to incapitate the kagouti only to have the person I was trying to save run away and leave me to certain death, the traitor.
Ervesa frowned. "Scholar or no scholar, anyone should be able to kill a kagouti if it's not going to be moving for a full minute. That was a very cowardly thing to do." She sounded coldly disapproving, and I suddenly remembered that my rescuer was actually a knight - well, vaguely knight-like being that possibly floated - and therefore probably put a lot of stock into the whole honour and chivalry and so on and so forth nonsense. Knights do that sort of thing. I'd always theorised that the steel in their helmets alchemically reacts with their hair to form an intelligence-reducing potion, but now that giant insect armour had entered the picture I would probably need to adjust that a little. Maybe the different material accounted for the songs and poetry?
I found this a fascinating train of thought and would have pursued it for a while, but I noticed Ervesa was still talking and resumed listening sheepishly.
"-better spells and weapons if you want to do any more exploring." Apparently I hadn't missed much, since by the words and scolding tone I guessed she was telling me off for wandering about totally defenseless and my brain had been doing more than enough of that already, thank you, random outsiders need not weigh in. Even if they had just saved my life.
"To be honest, I think I've done all the exploring I can handle. I'm looking forward to getting back to Balmora and never leaving again." Dreamily, I thought about what awaited me in Balmora. An alchemy apparatus... a bed... food that was actually edible... a distinct lack of wildlife...
"Really? But you haven't picked your flowers yet."
That brought me back to earth quite forcefully. "Oh no." I thought for a moment while licking the last of the roast kagouti off my fingers. It really wasn't that bad once you got used to the texture. "You know, I think these flowers really don't want me to pick them. I mean, look at what's happened every time I tried. The next time they'll probably send Imperial guards after me or something similarly dreadful."
I was talking more to myself than to Ervesa, trying to convince myself that alchemical properties or no the flowers were best left alone for now, and only belatedly realised that perhaps I should make sure she shared my thoughts about Imperial guards before making disparaging remarks. Luckily, she didn't take offence but just nodded sagely. "The way your luck is going, I'd expect a whole nest of cliff racers next. Or possibly dreugh who have mysteriously learned to walk on land."
"See? It's a matter of self-preservation. Ajira will have to do without." I imagined Ajira's sad face - in particular, I imagined Ajira's 'best impression of a kicked kitten' sad face - and winced.
"I'm sure she'll understand. At any rate, you can hardly pick them now, it's completely dark and you still look exhausted. You can always try again another day. And in the meantime, I have a suggestion."
I raised an inquiring eyebrow. (I was quite proud of this feat. It had taken me ages of practice in front of a mirror to manage properly.)
"I've only got one bed-roll with me, and although I saw a farmhouse further along the path I don't know how hospitable the owner will be. However, I do know a spell that will teleport you to the closest Temple. It's not that difficult, even if you don't have much knowledge of Mysticism you should be able to manage it after a few tries," Ervesa said, talking over my protestations that my knowledge of Mysticism was excellent, thank you very much. "That should get us to Balmora and let you get back to your Guild to rest. If you feel too tired to manage learning a new spell, I'll have to go take look at the farmhouse-"
"I'll do the spell," I said hastily. The idea of making it back to my bed in the Mages' Guild and waking up in the morning to Dulnea's spiced rolls and special tea was very appealing. And besides, even exhausted I was always willing to extend my magical repertoire - especially when it came to Mysticism, which had always sparked my interest.
"Wonderful!" Ervesa said. The enthusiasm in her voice made me suspect that she was also keen on the idea of a real bed in town. "The spell is called. 'Almsivi Intervention.' The way you form the magicka construct for it is..."
It wasn't a very complicated spell, which is why it was so embarrassing it took me such a long time to grasp it. By the time I actually felt sure enough of the structure to try casting it, the sun had sunk fully underneath the horizon, my cheeks were red and Ervesa was looking increasingly skeptical. It was humiliating - I was good at Mysticism, honestly (it made up for being completely inept at every combat-related skill bar running away). I'd been praised more than once about the ease and efficiency with which I cast my Detection spells. It must be the exhaustion, I told myself; not only had I had a long day, but I knew from experience that potions or no potions, the only magic that could rid me of the last, bone-deep weariness from using the Lover's gift was a good night's sleep. In short, not the best of situations to be studying in.
Thankfully, it really wasn't a very complicated spell. Apparently, every Temple in Morrowind had a... beacon, for lack of a better word, in the realm of Mysticism, and that did most of the work for you. The only part of the spell I had to do was throwing out a sort of mystic rope to connect to the nearest one, and even in my exhausted state I managed to figure that out eventually.
"So, are you sure you understand it?" Ervesa said for the third time. Really, there was being cautious and there was outright paranoia.
"Yes, I'm sure," I answered for the third time. I suspected it sounded three times as annoyed, as well. "Really, it's not that difficult a spell. What are you worried about happening?"
As always, my mouth was faster than my brain - the instant after I asked that, I realised I really didn't want to know the answer.
"Well, I've never reliably heard of anything going wrong myself but... there are stories."
"Stories," I said flatly. "These stories wouldn't entail, oh, accidentally teleporting yourself into solid rock, or vanishing into thin air and never being seen again, or appearing on the other side with your organs inside-out, or-"
"Well. Yes. But!" she hastened to add when she saw my expression, "it's always fourth hand or more. A friend will have heard it from a drunk he met at a tavern once whose second cousin's wife's aunt twice removed lost a friend this way. As I said, I've never reliably heard of anything going wrong myself, nor have I ever seen someone arrive injured due to a teleportation spell. And I've lived near or at Temples for years."
I had another worry. "And, er, the gods don't punish you if you cast this despite not worshipping them?"
Ervesa shook her head. "I know a lot of people use it to get around quickly, no matter what they believe. At the Temple in Vivec, there are always all sorts of people popping in from Ebonheart - the centre of Imperial government on Vvardenfell, there aren't too many faithful there," she explained at my confused look. "And since you say you have some skill at Mysticism, it really shouldn't be a problem."
"All right, all right, I'll do it!"
Now, anyone listening would probably have assumed I'd been convinced this was harmless - by her relieved smile, Ervesa certainly did. In fact, I still had my doubts... but as I'd realised earlier that day contemplating silt striders, if a method of travel was convenient I was perfectly willing to take advantage of it even if it might eat you, rearrange your insides, transport you into the middle of a mountain or just make you vanish forever.
I would like to point out at this stage that I'm an alchemist. I spend a great deal of my time tasting ingredients that might kill me, making potions that might kill me and using equipment that might explode and, you guessed it, kill me. I regularly poison myself and consider this completely normal and unavoidable. Recklessness comes with the territory.
I closed my eyes and envisioned the way I wanted the magicka to form in my mind. Hold the construct, don't think about what would happen to you if you screwed this up and switched your heart and your stomach around, channel it and cast it out...
The power swirled up around me, through me, and latched onto something-
For a brief moment I felt as if either the world or I had vanished except that I couldn't tell which one. Then the energy was gone and I was staggering, trying to adjust to standing on cobblestones when just a moment earlier I'd been standing on grass.
My eyes popped open. I was facing a door leading into a round, domed building made out of the same type of stone the other buildings in Balmora used. This must be the Temple.
"It worked!" I exclaimed.
I jumped in surprise as Ervesa suddenly popped into existence next to me. She seemed hardly fazed at all by the transition. "See, I told you it wasn't- um."
"What?" I asked, grinning broadly. The rush of successfully casting a new spell - a teleportation spell at that - hadn't worn off yet. Nothing could bring my spirits down now!
"What do you mean, oops?" Maybe 'nothing' was a bit too optimistic.
Ervesa had turned around and was staring behind me. I turned to see what she was looking at.
We were apparently in some sort of walled forecourt, with an open archway just behind us. Beyond, you could see the city lit with lanterns and torches, the light glimmering off the water of the river to my left. I could just make out trees and grass on its other bank.
I had the nagging feeling that there was something wrong with this sight, but I couldn't quite pin it down...
Wait a minute.
"The river in Balmora," I said slowly, "flows through the middle of the town, with buildings on both sides. Why are all the houses on one bank?"
"I'm really sorry about this." Even in the faint light, I could tell her cheeks had darkened. "We must have been further to the east than I thought."
"Further to the-" Pieces were falling into place in my mind. "You said that spell takes you to the nearest Temple."
Ervesa nodded sheepishly, and said, "We're in Suran." I felt all hope of waking up in the morning to Dulnea's rolls and tea die.
"Is there a Mages Guild here?" As a guild member I should at least be able to sleep there- but Ervesa was shaking her head.
"However," she continued before I could properly express my anger, "I will find us somewhere to stay for tonight and then tomorrow morning you can take the silt strider back to Balmora. I'll pay for the room and the fare, since this whole situation is, um, my fault." Ervesa looked at me as though she expected me to argue that. When I just stared at her silently, her blush deepened. "I'll try the Temple, they have beds and since I'm a member it oughtn't be a problem. Otherwise, there's a tradehouse in town."
"At this point anything is fine with me, provided I get to sleep somewhere," I said, fighting a yawn as Ervesa opened the door to the temple. I hadn't fully recovered from using That and exhaustion was settling in.
Exhaustion or no, after I entered I stared in surprise at the inside of the temple. Where was the altar? The stained-glass windows with emblems of the Nine, or at least the Aedra worshipped in that particular Temple? What kind of temple was this, anyway?
Then my mind decided to catch up to my circumstances and helpfully point out that being as this was a native Dunmer temple, and native Dunmer worshipped some sort of living gods, it would be rather odd to see the Nine represented. Although I still couldn't quite imagine how the actual worshipping would work without an altar...
See, this is what comes of being brought up in the Cult - narrow-mindedness.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and tried to bury all my prejudices and ideas of what a proper temple should look like, then opened them again.
Although it was fully dark outside, the temple was lit with many blue candles. In the flickering light, I could see it had a low, domed ceiling and was decorated with carpets and tapestries. The carpets were simple patterns, whereas the tapestries showed rich, detailed scenes - the one closest to me depicted what looked like some sort of grand battle, centred on three figures clustered around one lying on the ground - but all were muted and earthen in colour, a far cry from the extravagant and eye-catching decorations I was used to. I could see a sort of carved mural in the corner, lit by yet more blue candles; apart from that the temple was bare stone.
In the centre of the room, surrounded by candles and kneeling-cushions, was a large, shallow pit. A woman wearing simple robes who I guessed was the priest was standing next to it, engaged in intense discussion with Ervesa. Given that from the few words that drifted my way they seemed to be talking about statuary of some sort and interior decoration has never exactly been an interest of mine, I found myself more interested in the pit. It was filled with what looked like ashes although I could see... I blinked. Were those bones in there? And wasn't that a skull? ...a rather mer-like skull, at that.
I swallowed hard as I realised I had no idea about Dunmer funeral customs whatsoever. True, so far they were preferable to the Bosmer ones (understatement!), but putting remains on display seemed rather... distasteful.
Of course, maybe I had it all wrong and this was actually the site for animal sacrifices. When I was a child the priests had told me the more primitive religions, especially those that did not worship any aspect of the Nine, often made such things a centre of their-
Bury your prejudices, Adryn.
And after all-
Some words from the priest caught my attention. In particular, the words "so you can't stay tonight."
Strangely enough, I found myself suddenly disinterested in the differences between Dunmer religion and worship of the Nine.
"I'm very sorry," the priest was saying. "I would at least offer to let you sleep on the floor, but-"
"I understand completely," Ervesa said. Her face was grim. "I apologise; I would help you now but it has been a long day and I still have duties to attend to." From her side-long glance, I gathered that 'duties' was me. "If you lock up tonight, I can help you cleanse it tomorrow."
Tension went out of the priest's body so quickly she actually stumbled. "Thank you. I was going to contact the main Temple in Vivec for help, but I really didn't want to leave it that long. I'll stay with a friend tonight, if you..."
"We'll find something." Ervesa heaved a sigh. "I'll meet you here at first light."
And then I was following her back outside.
"What was that all about?" I asked. I'd been too distracted by the temple to catch the pertinent parts of the conversation, but judging by Ervesa's and the priest's attitude something was very wrong - and what was this 'cleansing' business, anyway? It sounded as if something potentially dangerous was going on, and when it comes to things like that I like to know exactly what they are so I can stay as far away as possible.
Of course, it might just be some sort of heathen superstitio-
I silently cursed all priests of Kynareth. Perhaps 'all' was a bit much, perhaps I should restrict myself to the ones who look at little orphan children and see them as empty vessels to be filled with religious propaganda, but I was tired and not inclined to be generous.
"Hmm? Oh," Ervesa looked as if she'd just realised I'd been with her the whole time. "I'm really sorry, it's Temple business. I shouldn't have let you listen to as much as you did." Well, luckily for her, I'd been too distracted by cultural wall-hanging practises and theology to eavesdrop on the apparently confidential and important conversation. I fought the urge to slap my forehead in frustration. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't repeat what you heard to anyone." Well, that wouldn't be hard, given that the only thing I could repeat was something about sculpture, of all things.
I was tempted to pretend I was about to run around telling everyone about this mysterious thing the Temple apparently wanted kept quiet just to annoy Ervesa, but she looked genuinely apologetic and at the moment I had bigger worries. "Sure," I said, shrugging, "I didn't hear much anyway. Only," I had bigger worries such as... "where are we going to sleep tonight, then?"
Ervesa beamed at me when I told her I'd keep quiet. She was surprisingly pretty when she smiled, I noticed. "Oh, there's a tradehouse with beds available in town. I was planning to stay at the Temple because it'd be free, but it's a good place. I've stayed there before, during pilgrimage season."
I heaved a sigh of relief that we apparently weren't going to end up sleeping on the street and followed Ervesa into Suran.
"What do you mean, you're full?"
"Exactly what I said, girl," the proprietress of the tradehouse grinned at me. Ordinarily, I'd be more curious about the intricate tattoo decorating her forehead - I'm only used to Nords deciding to get themselves stabbed with inked needles for fun, but I dimly remembered hearing that some Dunmer have tribal markings of some sort - but at the moment my attention was firmly caught by two things. First, that this was yet another person who thought "girl" was a suitable thing to call someone (what ever happened to basic politeness, I ask you) and second, that it looked as if we were going to be sleeping outside after all.
None of this made me any more inclined to be polite, so it was probably a good thing for our chances of not starting a brawl, getting into a fight with the owner or otherwise getting arrested that Ervesa intervened at that point. (Although then again, jails have beds. Maybe if it was just a little brawl?)
"I'm sorry," she said. "We're just tired and- full, really? I didn't think you'd be very busy this time of year."
The Dunmer shrugged. "Wouldn't usually be, but there are rumours about some sort of mad Orc berserker up in the hills that's made a lot of travellers stop here until they know it's safe to continue. I've got an entire trading group- all the beds are full, in fact, all the floors are full. Yesterday I actually had people sleeping in the hallway- I'm sorry, but there's just no way."
"Orc berserker? I should probably look into that tomorrow..." Ervesa's voice, which had taken on a speculative tone, trailed off and her shoulders slumped. "But do you know anywhere else where we might stay?"
"Well..." the owner trailed off. "Mine's the only inn in Suran, but there's one other place you could try. Although I don't think you'll like it."
"You are joking."
Ervesa shuffled her feet. My gaze drifted from her boots (also insectoid - seriously, I do not understand local fashion choices, insect is never 'in') to the door of the place we'd been told we might be able to stay for the night.
Now, I have to admit I was a stranger to this country, totally unfamiliar with their customs and norms to do with everything ranging from food to fashion to exterior decorating. But honestly?
Red lights mean only one thing.
And any attempt at convincing me that actually, in Morrowind those red lanterns meant free housing for people named 'Adryn' or anything like that was doomed to failure by the sign that hung over the front door. The sign saying 'Desele's House of Earthly Delights.'
Nobody is that enthusiastic about mattresses.
"You can't possibly be serious," I tried again.
"Er. Well." Ervesa was studying her feet. Maybe she was reconsidering her choice in footwear - hope springs eternal - but I suspected she was just trying to avoid looking me in the eye. "They'll have free beds?"
"Free? Try pre-occupied," I snapped.
"Look, I don't like this any more than you do," Ervesa said, lifting her eyes to look at me for the first time since I'd spotted the lights. "But we need somewhere to sleep, and unless we want to hike out of town and sleep on the bare ground... in the rain..." she lifted her head in the direction of the clouds gathering overhead. "We can just try to get rooms for the night without any... extras."
I looked at the clouds. Looked at the entrance. Pondered whether sleeping outside in freezing rain was really worse than this, then decided sadly that yes, my chances of dying out here were probably higher than dying in there (even if the death would be decidedly more dignified) and gave a grim nod. "All right. Lead on. But I'm not happy about this."
I tried very hard not to look around the inside of the brothel, tried to ignore the stares of the patrons and the curious looks of the women wearing...
Weren't they cold?
Ignore it, Adryn! I firmly fixed my attention on a picture hanging on the opposite wall. It was a nice picture! With pretty colours! Showing...
...I had no idea it was possible to fit a grape in there.
Thwarted in my attempts to pretend we were somewhere (anywhere) other than where we were, I looked over to where Ervesa was trying to explain the situation to the owner.
"...pretty unusual, is all I'm saying. Lost travellers are one thing, but Armigers generally stay at the temple unless they're looking for companionship. Are you sure you only want-" the owner was saying. She was a Breton, still quite good-looking but with faint wrinkles at the corner of her eyes showing that she wasn't as young as her... employees. Her dark brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders and down to her...
Seriously, wasn't she cold?
I stared at Ervesa's hair, which seemed to be the only safe thing in the room to look at. It was very nice hair - black, twisted together at the back near the top of her head and then plaited so that it hung free in two thin braids to about the middle of her back. Honestly, it looked like a hairstyle that should take hours, a professional and possibly alteration magic to obtain, but I couldn't imagine Ervesa going to that much effort. She was a warrior... bard... thing after all, and at least the first half of that was something that didn't usually go hand-in-hand with creative fashion choices.
Well, unless we count wearing the same clothes for two weeks, rips, patches, bloodstains, dented rusty armour, perfume in the "dead people" flavour or - here - pretending to be a giant insect as fashion choices. Which I for one don't.
Indeed, the only concession to her appearance Ervesa seemed to have made were two earrings of some sparkling amber gemstone which she must have slipped on at some point after we got into town because I couldn't remember seeing them earlier. They were pretty, but small and easy to overlook, swinging from the tips of her ears as she turned around to face me-
Wait a moment.
I started guiltily and pretended I had not just spent some time staring at Ervesa's ears. "Yes?"
There was a clinking sound as she shook a set of keys in front of my face.
"We've got a room."
I stared at the bed.
It was definitely a bed. Four posters, fluffy pillows, a pile of blankets high enough I started to suspect the owner had a hoarding problem, or maybe was preparing for a sudden glacier attack. (Sneaky things, glaciers are, you never know when they'll pop up.) Its aura of general bedness filled the whole room.
Moreover, its singularity filled the whole room, because there was definitely, emphatically only one of it. It was a bed on its own, a bed asserting its independence. It screamed, insofar as furniture can scream, "Look upon me, I am the greatest, softest, most comfortable, most bed-like bed that ever existed, and I tolerate no rivals!"
"I'll take the floor," Ervesa said.
I remembered with a guilty start that this person had saved my life only a few hours ago, and I probably ought to be more grateful. "No, no, I'll take the floor. You've had a long day. Fighting tusky things. Saving poor innocent travellers from them. That sort of thing."
Ervesa shook her head. "Taking the bed would be profoundly unchivalrous. Besides, you still need to recover from your shock. You take it."
Oh, right, almost getting gored by the aforementioned tusky thing. Funny how I'd almost managed to forget that in light of new, brothel-related trauma.
"No, no, I..." My voice trailed off as something dreadful occurred to me. "Wait a moment."
Ervesa tilted her head inquisitively.
"This is- this is- I have read these books, all right, I know how this goes. Any moment now one of us will say, well we could just share, the bed is big enough, and then later- in fact, this whole set-up is..." I closed my eyes in the futile hope that it would somehow diminish the horror of the upcoming sentence. "I am feeling more like the heroine of a romance novel every minute."
There was a noise that could, possibly, have been a suppressed giggle.
I cracked one eye open and looked at Ervesa with suspicion.
Her face was perfectly impassive, but her eyes were dancing in a highly questionable manner. "I have to say... and I do take your point about this being a very, ah, stereotypical situation... you'd make an unlikely romance novel heroine." While I was trying to work out whether I ought to be insulted, she continued, "So, what's your suggestion then?"
"Well." I presented my solution. "We could both take the floor."
Ervesa gave me a thoroughly unimpressed look. I was surprised; usually, the sorts of looks my suggestions are met with run along the lines of "please repeat that, because I think a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world caused passing turbulence which changed the sound of the words before they reached my ear - this being more likely than you actually saying what I just heard" or "Since I cannot convince myself some auditory illusion caused this I am led to the inescapable conclusion that you were raised by maladjusted wolves, possibly in the Shivering Isles". (Believe me, I am heartily familiar with both of these looks as well as their variations.)
In short, unimpressed was a much milder reaction than I was expecting. Still, I felt obliged to defend my suggestion. "Besides, we don't know- we don't want to know where that bed has been."
In the end, it was surprisingly comfortable. The Bed (it deserved the capital letters) was furnished with enough fluffy pillows to occupy an entire orphanage of children in a fight for hours, as well as more blankets that would have been necessary in Solitude during Morning Star. I had to wonder why they went to so much effort, given that what was meant to take place on the Bed was - and I am admittedly no expert - not something that particularly involved those things.
I just hoped they washed them afterwards, or else...
...you know, Adryn, let's not continue down that line of thought.
At any rate, there were enough accessories of various sorts to make each of us a comfortable nest, and in the dim candlelight the whole thing seemed almost like an adventure. Brave explorer Adryn - now complete with sidekick - venturing into the hidden depths of prostitution...
"Well, good night, I guess," Ervesa interrupted my daydreams.
"Good night and... I'm sorry for complaining so much about this," I said, pricked by my guilty conscience. "You did save my life earlier, after all. I don't mean to be ungrateful."
What? Even I can be polite sometimes!
"Don't worry about it. Saving people is part of the job description, and you'd done most of the work in paralysing the kagouti. Dragging people miles out of their way and forcing them to stay in..." she paused, "profoundly unsuitable, shall we say, circumstances isn't."
"Still. Sorry." I relaxed back into the purloined blankets, trying to ignore the stripped Bed looming above me. It was soft and warm and I was very tired...
It was at that point the noise started.
I won't describe it in detail, as I wish I didn't remember it in detail. Suffice it to say that it was completely impossible to ignore and left no doubts whatsoever about what sort of establishment this was.
I looked at Ervesa.
She looked at me.
"I'll see if Helviane has any playing cards," she said.
It said something about the way things were going that I was entirely unsurprised when the cards Ervesa came back with some minutes later had very... creative illustrations. By which I mean that I had certainly never seen the figures depicted in quite that way before; I didn't think some of those positions were even anatomically possible.
But I did my best to ignore that (something I was sadly getting a lot of practice in) and instead studied the cards themselves. They weren't quite the ones I was used to even apart from the... interesting... drawings. The suits were slightly different; "cups" seemed to have become "shields" in Morrowind (not that I could quite blame them given the wildlife), I didn't see any Emperors, Knights or Legionnaires but spotted a King and Queen of swords, and finally the trumps looked different as well. At least, I certainly didn't recall a Pilgrim in the decks I was used to, but then again I really wasn't inclined to study the cards too closely so I might be misreading them.
"Hmmm." Ervesa also seemed to be trying to ignore the illustrations. "Pity we don't have a third, we could have a round of sedrathi."
"We could always invite one of our neighbours over for a round, since they seem so... active," I responded. Ervesa choked. "I don't suppose you know any good two-player card games?" Most of the ones I knew were meant for groups. Besides, something I'd learned in my travels was that games can be completely different between different provinces, and it would probably behoove me to pick up the local ones (of which I assumed 'sedrathi' was one) sooner rather than later.
"I know a few, although I wouldn't necessarily call them good. But..." she shrugged. "I'm sure we'll make do somehow."
"Mmm." I nodded.
Honestly, even learning a new game as I was, I wasn't expecting the play to be all that interesting, or Ervesa to be much competition. I'd spent years playing cards with some of the greatest rogues in Skyrim, after all, and Ervesa was a knight (ish) which meant honesty, integrity and a natural disadvantage.
As a result, I was rather surprised when our game quickly turned into a friendly competition as to who could cheat most outrageously.
"I have the king of rings and the aces of staves, shields and swords," I said, laying down my hand triumphantly. Beat that.
"Hmm. Very good, very good indeed." Ervesa looked at her hand. "I have the ace of rings, ace of shields, and... two aces of staves."
"Quite miraculous," I said drily. "I don't think the rules work for this event, given that there's only meant to be one of each card in the game."
"Well." Her voice was mild. "It would help if you didn't use illusions."
I tried to jerk my hand away but she was faster. "Sheogorath take it," I muttered as the dispelling magicka washed over me - in particular, as it washed over the cards I was holding and shifted the aces of staves and shields into a seven and nine of swords respectively. It wasn't something you could use in a serious game where everyone was on the look-out for that sort of magic, but I'd managed to fool quite a few people who weren't expecting it with that little trick all the same.
"I think that means I win." Ervesa sounded satisfied.
"Wait just a moment. I know I saw you slip the aces of shields and staves up your sleeve when you dealt, but where did the other two come from?"
"Well, you're one to talk given that that was how you got the ace of swords," she'd spotted that? I thought for sure I'd got away with it, "and- wait!-"
This time I was faster and managed to grab the offending cards out of her hand. "Wait a moment, these aren't those cards at all! This is Masser and that's... I'm not actually sure, but definitely a trump card." I raised an eyebrow. "How exactly were you planning on sneaking those past me?"
"Well." Ervesa was coolly unrepentant. She'd have made an excellent thief with that attitude towards her crimes. "I thought that since those two superficially resemble the cards in question and if you looked closer you'd be distracted by the illustrations, seeing as they are among the ones where the artist took the most... creative license... don't look!"
Alas, my eyes were a little faster than either my ears or my brain in this case, something I had never regretted quite so much as in that moment.
"I- what- how-" I'd never been a drinker but suddenly, faced with the prospect of having that burned into my memory, strong liquor gained an entirely new appeal. "How is that even anatomically possible and why in the name of the Nine would anyone do it for fun?"
"As far as the first goes, I'm quite certain it's not. Years of combat training tell me that his legs would have broken long ago at that angle, and I don't think you could do that with a slaughterfish anyway. As for the second..." Ervesa shrugged philosophically. "There is a story of Saint Delyn that goes like this: once, when he was young, he came across two philosophers arguing next to a mudcrab colony. When he asked them what they were doing, one of them said: 'I am trying to explain to my imbecilic colleague that the movement of the mudcrabs symbolically expresses the movement of Nirn and the alignment of the stars!' The other retorted: 'No, you fool, the mudcrabs are demonstrating the creation of the world and the death of Lorkhan! See, if you take the one to the right there to be-'
"Saint Delyn shrugged and continued on his way. A few weeks later, he passed by the spot again. Both scholars had starved, having been so involved in their argument they forgot to eat, and the mudcrabs were making a meal of them. 'Sometimes,' thought Saint Delyn, 'it is best to let mudcrabs be mudcrabs.' In other words," Ervesa said, dropping out of her story-telling cadence, "it is best not to try too hard to understand some things, because doing so can only lead to madness, obsession, and having your corpse eaten by mudcrabs."
"That seems a little complicated." And a bit more grotesque than I was used to parables being, for that matter. "I prefer to say that everyone else has been brainwashed, or possibly possessed by Sheogorath, in order to find such an unhygienic, ridiculous activity appealing. Even if you take out the fruit. I mean, this entire place," I gestured around me. "An entire industry devoted to, to sticking body parts into other people's orifices or vice versa. I just don't understand how so many people would decide it's so important without Daedra and their sense of humour being involved somewhere."
I peered at Ervesa, curious about how she would react to this. Although I consider this very sound and logical reasoning, it gets me more "raised by maladjusted wolves" looks and even otherwise rare "I think you ought to be marooned on a deserted island on the off-chance that this is contagious" looks than anything else - something which I think goes to show how sadly widespread Daedric brainwashing is these days. Even Ingerte a-
Well, Ervesa had been surprisingly tolerant so far, so I wondered how the statement that usually made even otherwise tolerant people wonder out loud exactly how I'd survived to my current age without accidentally inciting someone to murder would work on her.
She was quiet for a long moment, staring into the candleflame. "Honestly, I don't understand it either. As I said: mudcrabs. You may not understand why they're doing what they're doing but it's best just to leave them to it. I do have to say that you're the first person I've ever met who shares that opinion." She met my eyes with a wry grin. "All of my fellow trainees thought I was crazy. It's good to know I'm not the only one."
"Brainwashing," I said sagely, but I felt my cheeks stretch into a smile in spite of myself. "Us paltry few who haven't fallen victim to it have to stick together."
We shared a moment of connection, a moment of being the only two people with sense in a world that considered the greatest possible pleasure to involve bodily fluids. It was broken by loud... noises coming from the next room, which goes to show that whichever Daedric Prince is at fault for this has a fine-tuned sense of irony.
I looked back down at the cards. "So... who won?"
Ervesa shrugged. "I think we can call it a tie."
"Fair enough." I wasn't going to argue. "Who taught you how to cheat, anyway? I mean, you're good. I barely noticed you slipping those aces up your sleeve."
"Not good enough, or else you wouldn't have." Ervesa grinned wryly. "As for who taught me - Tidros Indaram, one of my training masters at Molag Mar."
I blinked. This made two floating religious knight-bards that cheated at cards. "Look, I don't know much about your order, but... isn't that a bit unusual? After all," I continued when Ervesa just looked confused, "you were talking earlier about emulating your god..."
"Exactly," Ervesa interrupted, and it was my turn to look confused. "That's why we do it."
Wait, I couldn't possibly have heard that correctly.
"Your god cheats at cards?"
"Well, I suppose-"
"Your god cheats at cards?"
I tried to imagine any of the gods I'd grown up hearing about, the Nine or the Nordic pantheon, cheating at cards. This resulted in the mental image of Alduin the great dragon who destroyed the world before time, Kynareth the Goddess of Air, and Talos who was Tiber Septim who conquered all of Tamriel and ascended to godhood... sitting around a table in a tavern playing cards, with Alduin trying to hide an ace between his scales because he didn't have any sleeves (being a giant, world-eating dragon), Kynareth using her powers over wind to blow the cards into the order she wanted when dealing, and Talos simply telling the others that his seven of staves was actually an ace and daring them to object. This in turn resulted in me pondering whether I might have accidentally had any skooma at any point that day without realising, because I had no idea how to explain what was going through my head without drugs coming into the picture somewhere.
"Well, it's a little more complicated than that," Ervesa said. "Do you want to hear the story?"
"Wild kagouti couldn't keep me from finding out the story behind this," I responded.
"All right then. Once, Vivec encountered a group of Dwemer near Falasmaryon..."
What followed was a story involving Vivec, an annoying braggart of a Dwemer who claimed his machine could predict anything that would ever happen, and Vivec talking him into a card game with high stakes. "The other Dwemer told him to be careful, for they knew Vivec was filled with trickery and bore them no love," Ervesa said, showing more pride at the description of her god as 'filled with trickery' than I would have expected. If you closed your eyes and ignored the accent, you could almost imagine she was a Nord talking about Shor. "But Vivec said, 'why, do you not trust your machine? If it truly does what you say, you would be able to tell how the cards will fall even now, and there is no risk,' and he agreed to the game.
"Then as they were playing, Vivec changed the cards so they fell to his favour. The Dwemer realised this and became furious. Yet, Vivec said, if the machine were truly able to predict anything, he would have known this would happen. So the fact that Vivec was winning demonstrated his lie."
"And then what happened?" I asked when she paused.
"The other Dwemer, being a folk that did not prize loyalty, agreed with Vivec's assessment. Thus Vivec's opponent was cast out for his failure and his machine melted down as useless, and thus the land around Falasmaryon came to belong to the Dunmer. Some people say one can still hear the spirit of the bested Dwemer there on dark nights, railing against Vivec's cunning, but," Ervesa shrugged, "Falasmaryon lies deep in the Ashlands and the wind howling through the foyada can lead even the bravest of mer to imagine things."
"That was a good story," I said once it was clear Ervesa had finished. "Do you know any more?" It was a good distraction from our environment - and over the course of the day I'd found myself honestly curious. Ervesa had made a generally good impression on me so far, making me wonder about the god that she was so dedicated to.
"What, weren't you listening to me earlier?" She frowned at me until I wondered whether I ought to be apologising for forgetting something (but what?), then her face broke into a grin. "One of the things we Armigers are dedicated to is poetry and prose. In other words," she winked, "I know very many such stories! I can think of several which I think you might like. But first..."
"How much do you know about the Tribunal Temple?" Ervesa asked.
"Very little," I admitted. Then, struck by the intensity of her gaze, I added, "look, if this is some attempt at conversion..."
"No, no! Well..." Ervesa looked a little sheepish, "not really? It just seems to me as if you might be interested in learning more about us. We're not a very missionary sort of people!" she added hastily. "Not like the Cult. But a lot of outlanders, you know, they come to Morrowind and," she spread her hands, "they know nothing about us. Just rumours about savage rituals and heathen worship and," a dark look spread on her face and she almost spat the next word, "necromancy, of all the dreadful blasphemies. And they never bother to learn more. I hear outlanders who've lived in Morrowind decades repeating the same old lies about our beliefs and customs."
"So..." I asked warily, "you're just encouraging me to learn about your religion?" True, I'd been contemplating this myself, but I find it pays to be careful appearing too religiously interested when it comes to clergy and other zealots. You may think you're just passing the time while taking advantage of the healing services but then they get their claws in you and suddenly you find yourself swearing eternal loyalty to Mehrunes Dagon via human sacrifice - I've heard the stories, you know! A measure of reluctance and skepticism is essential when it comes to these things.
She nodded. "Exactly. If you decide to join the Temple afterwards, excellent, but even if you don't at least you'll know what we're about. And I don't mean you should go straight on a pilgrimage or anything. A good friend of mine is at the Balmora Temple - Llarara Omayn, is her name - and she sells books and tracts. I know there's one common one that's aimed at outsiders like you but I don't recall the name... other than that, Saryoni's Sermons is a very popular collection, Cantatas of Vivec is a favourite of mine, Doors of the Spirit is one I recommend to anyone who's heard those slanderous rumours that we engage in necromancy..."
My shoulders relaxed. Books, I could deal with books. I could deal with books very well indeed, considering that I'd been contemplating doing bedtime reading about kagouti mating habits earlier and as far as I was concerned, everything you needed to know about those could be summed up in two words: Stay. Away. "All right-" I paused to yawn, "I'll keep those in mind."
Ervesa smiled at me. My cheeks grew hot, which was definitely, absolutely, emphatically just because of the room being quite warm by now. "Wonderful! Now, I think I've remembered a story you'll enjoy."
"Go on," I said.
As she started talking, I let myself fall backwards into my mountain of pillows. The noise from next door was still audible, but my limbs felt like lead and I had to fight to keep my eyes open. Small wonder; I had used that today after all, and one rejuvenating potion was definitely not enough to get rid of the effects.
The last thing I remembered was Ervesa's face lit by flickering candlelight and her voice rising and falling rhythmically, lulling me to sleep.