Chapter 1: i: violet, before the dawn
At a cross of gloomy caverns a many-eyed seer weaves a tapestry out of tattered wings. Hir handiwork, while not always even or neat, catches the light and glints like a web of pearls in the ‘neath. For now, ze is content to do nothing but weave, for a seer sent to watch a lonely crossroads in a cavern without candle or lamp is a seer without sight. Ze weaves alone, except for the little scuttler who slips pockets of news into hir pouch each week and the rare traveller who crosses from the ‘neath to the land of a thousand lights above.
Today is one such rare day where a traveller has crossed hir path. However, it is clearly travelling in the wrong direction.
"Where are you wandering, little spirit?" ze asks softly, from behind hir loom.
It simply walks on, without a glance.
"I only ask out of concern," the many-eyed seer adds. "It is easy to get lost in the gloom. Many walk paths they cannot return from in the dark."
At that, the spirit turns to hir and looks directly into hir many-eyes. On closer inspection, the spirit is a small thing indeed, dressed in moth-eaten scraps and weathered boots. It has no wings to speak of, nor feathers, nor a set of horns. But it holds the many-eyed seer's gaze as if it is a creature thrice its size.
"I am looking for the court of the Great Scarab," it says, firmly.
"Are you, now?" says the many-eyed seer, leaning down from hir perch. "Perhaps I can assist. What is your name, little spirit?"
"It is no business of yours."
"On the contrary, it is my business indeed. I am the watcher, the regarder, the seer of this place. I look for all kinds of things. I see what goes forward and what leads back. I know which path before you leads right and which leads to ruin, which goes to where light breaks and water sings and which falls deep, under the ‘neath, into the silent places from which few return. And I would like to know your name."
The spirit listens intently, without a word nested inbetween. Then it says:
"I have none. I tore it from my tongue when I left my last master."
The many-eyed seer blinks slowly.
"Then you are very, very lost indeed." Ze lowers herself from her perch with her loom and her tapestry of torn wings and lost horns and scuttles towards the spirits. "The spirits of the depths. All claws and mouths and saliva, dripping. They hunger for ones like you, nameless one. Your wills are the easiest to bend. In the dark where you the light cannot reach, it would be simple," and ze lifts a long, distended weaving-finger, and taps it on its shoulder. "As this."
The spirit is silent for a moment. Its eyes glow faintly in the gloom, and the many-eyed seer wonders if it has ever blinked at all.
"Do you seek to frighten me, seer?" it asks.
"No. I seek to warn you of how foolish your task is, because clearly you cannot see yourself. You will be devoured. Turn back."
"I will have to take the risk," it says, with finality.
It motions to move forward.
It moves one pace. Two. Four paces. Then six.
The many-eyed seer shrieks: "Wait!"
"Little spirit. Please. If you cannot tell me your name, tell me that of your old master. In exchange, I can tell you a whisper of a way I have heard. I can trade you what you need."
The spirit considers this. And then it walks back to the many-eyed seer, and whispers a rich name, thick and coarse with old power, on hir ear.
"Ah," says the many-eyed seer. "He is a harsh task-master, or so I have heard. I am sorry."
"I do not need your pity," it says.
Sniffing at this, the many-eyed seer tears off a corner of silk to spin a route that spirals around the dark edges of the ‘neath, full of twists and turns. "It is longer," ze explains, "And more treacherous. Because you cannot fly or swim or climb, I take it? No claws or wings from what I can see." And the many-eyed seer could see much, when it was this close. "No matter. It will take you where you need to be. Follow this," and the many-eyed seer presents the map to the spirit, who snatches it into their hands quickly. It peers at the instructions with narrowed eyes, and then folds them into its pocket without a question. It says nothing as it departs.
It walks. It walks down into the ‘neath, where glowlights dim to almost nothing. It walks through old paths in fungal forests without a lick of light, where strange whispers fester. It walks along crimson falls in the deep reaches where cracks of light begin to sizzle. It walks through narrowing tunnels and thinning paths that appear to disappear and curl out of sight, through which it has to pull, stone by stone, hand by hand, the path out into the open. It is then, and only then, it sees the light for the first time since it left.
She has forgotten how splendid it feels.
I am a she, I am she, that is me , the spirit thinks in that moment, and it is like a little spark leaps inside of her.
With that spark dancing through her, she begins to walk through breezy leaves and shrouds of rain, up towards a forest clearing next to the clouds. She passes spirits with bright eyes and spiralling horns and strange feathers, spirits five times as tall as she. Along the stone-carved steps, there are clusters of chattering silk-spinners pulling alliances together on strange looms. The hum of busy work can begin to be heard, of gentle sighs, after the drum of hammers and stone, that sound almost like a home, and it makes her own spark want to dance with each thrum.
When she approaches the Great Scarab, whose horns seem to pierce the skies and whose head is alight in a brilliant flame of a hundred scarlets and ambers, she does not bow. She does not offer splendid gifts. She only brings a voice of her own, quiet as it may be.
The Great Scarab, whose voice is so strong that it could carry all the stars-yet-to-be, says this to her:
“With what purpose do you approach our court, little one?”
“We seek to join you, Great Scarab.”
A smile breaks on his lips. “We?” he asks, with interest.
“I represent many others who could not make the journey to your court. We broke away from our old master, and wish to serve you directly.”
“Serve me?” He looks amused at this. “For what purpose would you do that?”
A murmur spreads throughout the crowd, which Lorkhan silences them with a wave of his hand.
“That is rather bold,” he says. “To leave and come here, with no guarantee of sanctuary, on the back of whispers and hearsay. Others might say foolish, even. But I would not dismiss you that easily, not after you have travelled all this way by yourself.” The Great Scarab pauses for a moment, his brow crinkling. “Tell me, little one. What could you bring to our court?”
“We were tool-carriers, Great Scarab.”
Around him, a cascade of laughter falls from the other courtiers, from all the winged spirits with bright eyes and heavy voices.
“And,” she adds, louder, trying to cut across the noise, “We are resourceful and we know how to make, and make-do, with so little. And we want to build. We want to use the tools we have carried for others, for ourselves, for once.”
At this, the Great Scarab motions for the laughter to stop.
“And I may have been but a tool-carrier before,” she adds, “But even I know you are constructing something here, something big, something grand indeed. It might even be spectacular . But what use is a grand spectacle when a spirit my size could fall down the cracks? Your sense of scale is lacking perspective.”
The Great Scarab does not laugh at her.
“You would question the plans of my Architect?” he asks.
“Has he ever made anything using his own hands? If not, then yes. We would.”
The spirit does not flinch from his gaze. She has not looked away, not even once.
“Hm. Come closer, little one.”
At this, excited chittering breaks out amongst the crowd around him. The Great Scarab looks on, eyes unreadable, expression still.
“You may call me Lorkhan,” he says to her. His voice is now without an echo, without noise, and now she can almost hear a gentle, teasing smile behind each word. “What is your name, little one?”
“I have none.”
His features crease into the slightest frown. “No matter. Come,” and he beckons her to approach closer still, to climb upon his shoulder.
“What can you see from up here?”
She is perched higher than she has ever been, and looks at all the strange lights and new colours sewn from the grey, she watches the leaves and wings flutter in new winds, and listens to the faint sense of music, drifting in and out like a tide.
“I can see the foundations of… a magnificent palace, perhaps?” She pauses. “No. Not as grandiose. Bigger, but…” She shakes her head suddenly, glancing back at him, a touch of disgust on her features. “It needs more rhythm to it. It needs a tool rack.”
Lorkhan laughs now, and it is a big, bellowing thing that sends her insides aflutter.
“I believe, then, that we could make something work,” he says, with a gentle smile. “Yes. We definitely could. Welcome, tool-carrier.”
… Kagrenac wakes suddenly. It is dark. She is alone.
She pulls blindly at the surrounds, her fingers grasping at her arms, her hair, at the warm sheets, at a bed that is missing the shape of another person.
She lights a lantern with a crackle of sparks and begins to stumble around their home under the flicker of that little bulb. It was once such a bare place, now stuffed with all kinds of trinkets and ornaments and books - a natural accumulation of stuff over two hundred plus years of cohabitation, she supposes.
There is another lamp still shining, and her lover - her co-conspirator - her partner in all things - is still stood at her desk, poring over plans, making adjustments, making alterations, to the preliminary designs of Anumidium.
Kagrenac, half-awake, wraps her arms around her waist and buried her head into her neck, and says softly, “Come to bed, darling. Please. I miss you.”
Her shoulders tense up. There is a sharp intake of breath.
Kagrennac lets go – immediately – concern bleeding into her voice when she asks:
Chapter 2: ii: brass, before she walked
It hadn’t been the first argument they had ever had. It wasn’t even the thousandth.
They argued all the time, in fact. They were both, of course, Dwemer, who resided in Vvardenfell, and a Grand Debate was the closest one could get to a national sport. And despite Kagrenac’s air of... severity, perhaps it should be called, a gravitas that appeared immaculate and awe-inspiring and absolutely wonderful and made novices quake in their boots in a way that was so very funny, even though it was really simply a very practised posture - Bthemetz should know, she had seen what a dishevelled nightmare Kagrenac was in the mornings; or, despite her own air of ... whatever - either way, the point was, despite appearances they both could be extraordinarily stubborn and extraordinarily petty as much as any irritable dwemer. Perhaps more so. Whether it would be the latest fashionable philosophical conundrum of the day, or whether abstract brass sculpture was a garish eyesore (it was, Bthemetz had absolutely insisted , not only ugly, antithetical to their values to create such useless art), or whether organic silk spiders were better than artificial ones (after three weeks, Kagrenac would refuse to hear another word of this particular argument, considering it a pointless time-filler which they were above arguing about), or whether mushroom infusion “tea” was actually palatable, or a waste of perfectly good fungi (Kagrenac, to Bthemetz’s eternal disappointment, had actually came to its defence), they were partial to an argument.
It hadn’t been the first serious argument they had ever had, either.
During that first year of her brass-clad existence, when Bthemetz was still half a work in progress comprised of awkward angles, she and Kagrenac would go from city to city, clan to clan, to present themselves and their discoveries. After all, it is not every day you simply "find" a three thousand year old philosopher and slap them into an automaton's old shell.
First, a clarification: Bthemetz was not from that same world of brass and steam and mathematics that one usually dreamt of when they heard the word ‘Dwemer’. Bthemetz was an old legend was from before the first engines, a lost scholar from the Merethic Era who could hear the earth thrum from beneath the deep, and wrote the first discordance, down in the neath, the first clash of tones, the first lantern in the dark, the first spark, that would result in fire and fury and eruption of debates and a whole new people: the Dwemer.
She did not live to witness their rise, but was instead - for her insolence, for her heretical proclamations, for the highest treason, so the legend goes - bound to a realm beyond the reach of most mortals. Never to be found.
Except of course, she had. Not by some magnificent feat of Dwemer engineering, mind. It was simply pure chance.
So they travelled together - one an architect who had disappeared off the edge of Tamriel, another a half-dead legend summoned into a suit of brass - proclaiming: here was the wisdom of an ancient scholar, thought lost, brought into being and into Nirn, using a sophisticated architecture of subtle tonal manipulations across realms thought impossible to traverse before. Here was a discovery that could lead to instant communication across nations, across worlds, across realms; here was a discovery that could utterly transform Dwemer society. They had anticipated that the weight of their achievements would lead to arguments - fractures - new rivalries and sudden tensions emerging in the cracks - and that with the enormity of the claims they were presenting, competitors would leap to tear them to pieces.
What neither of them had anticipated is that scholars would be deeply skeptical of whether the soul Kagrenac found wandering the abyss was the ancient scholar, the daring revolutionary, the first of the Dwemer who had called herself simply “Bthemetz”. They called into question her accent, her mode of speech, her mannerisms, her frankly appalling grasp of formal logic - saying that she spoke too colloquially, she must have been born on the other side of the continent, that she was more likely an Ayleid with a severe case of misplaced identity. In vaulted halls where even whispers held echoes, they had claimed, dispassionately, that she clung to the name for want of another - to be anyone else but herself.
Hearing that for the first time was a bit like being slapped with a tonal modulator the size of Resdayn. Hearing that for the first time, she left the brass cathedral without as much as a word.
She had, of course, chased after her.
When a rather dazed, lost, and weary-looking thirty-seven year old tonal architecture student named Kagrenac wandered into her pocket dimension by accident after what felt like six months but was actually about two thousand years, Bthemetz’s jaw could have hit the floor and began spinning off into the depths of Oblivion, never to be seen again. Partially because as soon as tonal theory and metaphysics were mentioned, both of them could ramble on until the next kalpa, but also because the person who found Bthemetz could have been lots of things. They could have been an axe-murderer, or a self-aggrandizing opportunist, or a daedric cultist desperate to prove they were capable of violence. The young scholar that she casually referred to as "Rena" was none of those things - and was, by chance, someone who was a keen and attentive listener.
It was the first time in her life she hadn’t battled and struggled simply to be heard; rather, Rena looked at her with fascination, with wonder, and said: tell me more . And then suggest five or ten or sixteen of her own impossible ideas, with a slight smile, as if she had a lush garden of creativity growing at the back of her mind and she thought nothing particularly of it.
“I wonder if we could break linear time,” Bthemetz would suggest idly, and Rena would respond with seven or eight different hypothetical ways they could do so, off the top of her head, and the two of them would spend the next two weeks discussing this hypothesis, or that prospect, and Rena would begin sketching an initial design and talk Bthemetz through the basics of modern tone theory, before Bthemetz would then suggest, oh, what if you put this tone with that, has that combination been done before, what about if you re-work this, hang on, and then suddenly Bthemetz had found she and Rena had not stopped talking for six months.
“Don’t you ever want to leave?” Bthemetz had asked her, sat on a grassy little hill watching the rest of existence twirl around them on a velvet night sky.
Rena looked at her thoughtfully. “I like it here,” she said.
"I can't say I'm not a little envious of you. You come from this marvellous world of brass and steam and yet you choose to stay here."
Kagrenac paused, and gave her a rather elusive look.
“It’s rather different to what you might expect.”
“I suppose,” said Bthemetz. “I don’t distrust what you’re saying, I just… well, I want to know for sure. I want to see it all again some day.”
Rena did not say ‘no’ to that. Rena had looked her in the eye and said:
Bthemetz didn’t understand - couldn’t understand, not until they left - the slight hesitation, the half-note of reluctance, as Bthemetz began to propose plans and ideas and projects to her in feverish tones, with a hunger she had not known since long before she had been cast to the void. She did not understand as they pieced together their metal monstrosity, their gold-bronze casket, engraved with dedication and love, why Rena did not really want to leave. It was almost impossible to understand as Rena had led it - had led her - through the swirling negations of the void to misty mountaintop. There, she led her into a vibrant city of brass and steam, for which machines were instruments and philosophy was a song.
The first time, it was exhilarating.
The smell of oil, of brass – and all the lavender people wore to drown it out – the sight of rich colours, dazzling gems, bright flags – the sense of getting wonderfully lost in tangle of towers and walkways with garlands of steam, of all things new – all of it was exhilarating – but the sounds, most of all. You would not know it from their carcasses, from their picked up ruins, but when alive, a Dwemer city was always singing – choirs were always performing – chimes were always ringing – they were cities of bold melodies, strange harmonies, constant rhythm, and Bthemetz had wanted nothing, nothing more than her life to learn how to sing at that moment.
How could you not miss this? Bthemetz had almost asked, but she thought better of it.
It was exhilarating.
Even if they spoke a language she could barely get a handle on, whose syntax always seemed to slip out of her grasp.
Even if their eyes glanced at her, the woman made-of-brass, as a simple curiosity, a strange object, as something bizarre, and Kagrenac was the brilliant mind behind it all. Even if Rena was trying not to buckle under the weight of so many new eyes and expectations and refutations and rebuttals.
Even if Bthemetz spent every night restlessly pacing the citadel trying and failing to memorise conjugations of tenses as suspicious eyes watched her struggle with a new tongue.
Even if Rena was up until two in the morning with trying to document the entire process in a formal written argument that would withstand the pressures of a Grand Debate at the brass fortress in the heart of Vvardenfell.
Even if Bthemetz was not Bthemetz at all and instead some half-dead miscreant hopelessly projecting onto an impossible mythical figure.
It was exhausting.
A hand touched her angular, metal shoulder.
And Bthemetz thought to tell her everything, right then.
How she was, contrary to expectation, not born a scholar, not born mumbling silent hymns in those haunted cathedrals carved from the earth's bones. How she was born in a hovel in the dark and was expected to carry a pickaxe until her back buried under the weight of it. This wasn’t hyperbole by any means. The scholar-priests clung to Auri-el’s hierarchies in lieu of his ashes: there were those who spoke, those who watched, and those carried tools and carved stone. Bthemetz’s father carried his masters’ tools until he died in a pit at the age of thirty-seven; his body was almost too mangled to recognise. Bthemetz was not a priest, or a scholar, not by birth. Bthemetz was born a tool-carrier, but her first profession was a thief .
She thought to tell her how as well as being a self-aggrandizing liar, really, she was just bored when she began stealing books when she was twelve, blagged her way through the clerical examinations when she was eighteen, snuck into debates above her rank when she was twenty-two. And when she started teaching people to read when she was twenty-five, crafted her own philosophy of the profane and the divine and the beat beneath the earth, that was published in a definitely-not-legal journal under the pseudonym Bthemetz, dispersed in secret meetings in dark corners, it was really just a coincidence that she found a passion, in a world that sought to deprive her of one. The scholar-priests did not like this of course. Not her theories - which had they been produced by a member of their own caste, might have been somewhat palatable, if controversial. No, they didn’t like the fact that she was doing it. This objection had lead to an inevitable course of persecution, exile, daedric visitations, revelations, rioting and revolt, revolutionary fervour, occupation of the cathedrals, before finally, her capture - while the city was under siege by every other revolutionary beneath their notice that the priesthood had neglected to antagonise. She was thirty-seven. She was executed on a Morndas, the same day of the week her father died.
Of course, death was considered too good for Bthemetz - the woman who wanted to read - the woman who wrote reams and reams about everything and nothing and could not simply shut up - the woman who dared to want for more than die in a pit, unnoticed, leaving her mother with nothing but grief. Instead, as part of some desperate pact with an et'ada, they had sealed her in the smallest pocket of the void, away from her beloved nirn, alone.
She thought to tell her all of this. She needed to tell her all of this.
But she was exhausted.
"I can't do this," she said.
"They want you to do this. They want you to give in. You have to prove them wrong."
"No. I don't."
Her voice was so breaking.
In five minutes they had erupted into a fountain of accusations – you promised me this – we promised we would do this together – each more jagged and cutting -- that culminated in:
"Do you have any idea how awful it is to watch others look at me like a curious puppet and to you like the mastermind behind it? To defer to you constantly while I am expected to stay silent, like a good work of craftsmanship? I--"
"--can barely stand it – let me finish, please , for once – it is humiliating – being like this! It is humiliating! but you draw the line at excessive paperwork ? You fret over stray words in great – no, luxurious chambers of polished brass while every scholar on Vvardenfell wants your ear - your grand discovery! - the beginnings of an illustrious career - and that is too much for you? Have you ever truly wanted for anything in your life?"
There is a long silence.
Envy is an awful thing, really. It makes one neglect the most obvious facts, like how half the country is under occupation and there is still a war raging outside the stronghold walls. It makes one overlook all the ugly things unseen. And in the same way well-adjusted individuals with loving families do not set off to become adventurers, so too do well-adjusted dwarves with ample opportunity and connections choose to wander the darkest reaches of the void alone for months and years, on a so-called 'extended research project'.
Bthemetz already knew this. Even if there had been a grain of truth to everything else she had just said. Even if Rena had not objected enough on her behalf, had not done enough to help her feel welcome. Bthemetz knew it was an awful thing to say the moment it left her mouth.
“I am going back to the debate hall," said Kagrenac.
" --sorry ."
After her first visit at court, she was assigned to the haughty towers of the Architect, the Great Magus. So the little spirit traces the footsteps of the Architect with a mechanical precision, peering over his shoulder and pulling holes in his webbed handiwork in a manner that could be accurately described as annoying until he slams the door of his workshop in her face. Fine. She will bring things to place without his structures and finds another way.
So, the spirit begins to draw her own plans. She pulls a stony branch from the grey and chisels it into a hanging perch from where the court’s melodies fade into a quiet thrum, from which she can observe and take fervent notes of the colour of every tone from which she can grow her own seeds. She takes pains to paint every sound, every squeak, every snap – and she is one-hundred and thirty-two semitones when a cool breeze begins to brush past her, rushing through a flutter of leaves. The air runs from a whisper to a shout and declares:
“You are the one without a name,” says the wind, cold as winter, bold and bracing.
“I am a tool-maker and stone-shaper,” she corrects, quietly, placing her instruments down beside her.
The winds scatter her words so they are less than a breath.
“You have not made any tools yet.”
The spirit frowns, and turns from the wind.
“You hesitate. Why?”
“I am not free like you,” she says to the wind, without giving it so much as a glance. “You could not understand.”
The wind curls around her with a shrill whistle and a snap.
“You spoke boldly before,” the wind declares. “And now you question. You doubt.”
“That is who I am, ” the spirit says, her voice growing firmer, her nails digging into her skin. “I am doubt.”
The wind sings her words again, I am doubt, I am doubt, a shallow echo that breaks and shatters with its first breath.
“No, you are something else,” says the wind, with finality. “Tell me spirit, if I blew you far from this little perch of yours you use to listen to the world, would you grow wings? Or would you plummet?”
“You ask such cruel questions. You know I could never fly.”
“Answer me spirit.”
The spirit turned to the wind then, and as loud as she could muster:
“I would cling on to this branch and refuse to be pushed by the likes of you. If I jump, then it will be my own doing. And yes, perhaps I will have my own wings in time, but they will be of my own making, and they will never be yours.”
The wind swept up into a roar like thunder, like laughter.
“You are firmer than doubt, stronger than a question mark. Spirit, I am Kyne.”
The spirit looks at the wind with an expression that would be described by others as impenetrable, beyond reading, with stony eyes that could piece something as formless as the wind.
“I am Koht,” the spirit says, after a pause.
It is only a letter, hard-edged and sharp. But it has a weight to it, and it is shaped into something harsh not by bracing winds, but her own tongue. It is hers, and hers alone to carry.
Koht, of course, is the letter 'K' in the daedric alphabet. Fun fact: the conosonant /k/ is one of the most common in human language, and it's made with back of the tongue and the soft palate, so you can still make a /k/ sound even if you put something in between your teeth.
She left as the morning choir announced the waking of the day with a triumphant melody. Kagrenac had apologised – and it had been a sincere apology, for everything that she had neglected and forgotten since their return to Nirn. Bthemetz forgave her, as much as she could, anyway, but had already set her heart on travelling for an indefinite time away from Vvardenfell. Alone.
Which had been fantastic for a while, actually. She spent five years walking from coast to coast, through thick swamps, strange sun-speckled forests, frost-bitten mountaintops, and open, empty steppes where the sea seemed as distant as a dream. And it was lovely, and often quite breathtaking, and not without pleasure, when she remembered to forget that she no longer had a home to return to, and all the profound sadness that came with that realisation. It was pleasing to see skies untouched by cloud blush pink in the night as the earth cooled; it was pleasing to see the moons wink in a sky scattered with stars and know it was real, and that other people’s hearts quickened watching the night sky glitter and beam.
But Bthemetz was not one to sit still for longer than five seconds and her mind began ticking like a machine as soon as she had caught her breath and began to ponder about when and where and how of those stars. She launched into a thousand possible explanations, hypotheses danced around her brain and suddenly she was reminded of how she spent an entire year in exile wandering around the desert in bloom, rose and gold, with her nose stuck firmly in her journal as she wondered about the inner workings of the world. All she had ever really wanted was to prove those damn scholars wrong. In the midst of all those stolen books and secret meetings where people kept knives at their belts, she had realised, with her fingers lost in the pages of a conundrum, Oh. This is what it feels like. And she was overwhelmed then – and now – with the desire to slam open those doors that were closed to her and just scream.
And so she began to write. Essays, journal entries, five-page applications, letters to dead ends.
What she had not expected a response. She had not expected an optimistic note of acceptance, a receipt of application, a harmony that felt like a welcome, packaged together with a letter addressed to her directly – how antiquated, really, a handwritten note in dwemeris, the language of clandestine secrecy, of words sealed behind lips – in ink, so much more definite than an echo in brass and steam.
She had not expected, penned in careful letters, the words: “I am, if I am to be frank with you, more than anything, I am overjoyed to hear from you.”
She had not expected to read in the next handwritten letter, as she sat at dockside, watching fishermen cross the tides on painted boats: “I have no right to say this, but I miss you sorely.”
She had not expected to unfold the words as she stood at the mast on a ship with its sails bright and open: “If we are to meet again, I would have you tell me every single detail, I would want you to tell me every impossible idea you have dreamt up on your travels.”
(Every single detail!)
And so she returned to a world of steam and ash, with sweet words read on salt winds inked into paper that she would stash in a little hidden compartment in her chassis.
To be clear: Bthemetz did not come back for her. They were stationed on opposite sides of the island – and frankly, as much as it pained her heart to know that, it could only be a good thing. No, Bthemetz came back because the world had set a fire alight in her heart and it could not be doused until she was fully qualified to yell to her heart’s desire in a cathedral. Bthemetz came back because she wanted to be heard again. The fact that Rena and her were also spending their rare spare evenings writing letters brimming with… well, far too much of something, at least, to each other – all that was simply an additional benefit. Even if the prospect of hearing her voice again made her heart want to sing, just a little bit.
Bthemetz almost told her that much the first time they met again, at the jewelled gardens that hung above the newly-composed stellarium near the brass spires of the Grand Cathedral, where rare glimpses of sun found a thousand reflections in colour. Kagrenac was leading her by hand, offering a careful explanation of every shade of gold, every shade of red, that had been sung into being. When she next turned to Bthemetz, who herself was questioning whether an automated steam-circulation system could burst much like her heart currently wanted to, she asked, with a quizzical expression:
“Is everything alright?”
In her first year of study, Bthemetz had composed many, many arguments that she had gotten far too overinvested in, and typically, spent weeks swamped in research. She had been waist-deep in the reaches of sheet music and transcriptions of transmutations when she found a peculiar artefact, one that if you turned it half-anticlockwise at the seventh beat of the earth drum, it unfolded like a musical box into a crisp, delicate recording. And inside, Kagrenac was speaking, in that same measured tone, with that same practised delicacy, in front of an expectant choir. Her soft voice was a haunting melody in a quiet hall that echoed like rumbling thunder.
Bthemetz watched it endlessly with a quiet fascination. That, she presumed, was what the feeling was called when you repeatedly watch someone formally refute the orthodox sequence of temporal dynamics with your stomach turning over like a somersaulting Summerset carnival performer. There was a certain gravity to how Kagrenac spoke there, one where, no matter how quiet and clean her words were, the rest of the world would wait a beat to listen.
Fascination. Oh, the feeling was definitely fascination.
Bthemetz had been imagining this meeting and all the wonderful and clever and fascinating things she would say in response that would fascinate her as equally – she had already written essays on what she would say in response, reams of passionate argumentation – and yet here she was in the flesh, the low, soft melody of her voice that could brush her hair behind her ears if it got any closer, and suddenly her throat shut and all Bthemetz could muster in response was:
“I… I am fine.”
Kagrenac did not say anything but only looked at her, with those serious, inquisitive eyes, dark and endless and infinite, and before that precise moment, Bthemetz could have been swallowed and eaten up whole by those eyes and she wouldn’t have complained, she would have been pleased simply to be worthy of such rapt attention – but – suddenly she did not want to be looked at – she did not want to be an object of enquiry – she didn’t want to an object –
“Really! I am just fine. Fine!”
“You're just… quiet. It's odd,” said Kagrenac, displaying a typical lack of tact. “Are you sure you're alright?”
“Maybe I want to learn something for once instead of starting fifteen arguments in fifteen seconds.”
“An argument is the best way to learn,” said Kagrenac.
“Oh of course. Sorry. I forgot. You do always have such a clever answer for everything.”
Gods curse her. She wasn't trying to be confrontational – it's just the words you are here, showing me this fountain of colour and light you breathed into being, in dashing velvet and handsome gold, being far too magnificent for my presence and that is not fair were about a wire’s width from lashing out from behind her loose tongue and causing yet another relationship-destroying argument and that was the last thing she wanted.
“Just forget I said anything,” said Bthemetz.
“I will not do that.”
“Well, I don't want to ruin your quite splendid and wonderful afternoon that you have doubtless rehearsed a thousand times in private by being… me about it.”
Kagrenac looked rather taken aback. Perhaps she didn’t expect that Bthemetz had remembered how she would spend all those evenings rewriting, rephrasing, repeating drafts of her speeches aloud while Bthemetz looked at up with her with rapt attention.
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” said Kagrenac. “You think the problem is you being… you?”
“Yes me. You know I say an extraordinary amount of stupid and careless things, I'm surprised you haven't noticed that yet, actually.”
“No, Bthemetz, I… you are being far too unfair on yourself, are you sure you’re–”
“Just forget it! Forget it, Kagrenac!”
She almost barked the words.
Kagrenac… Bthemetz could almost see the… concern? the hurt? The slight thing she did with her eyebrows, all knitted together in a worry? She saw all of it drain from her face as she resumed her original tone and posture and continued her prior explanation as if nothing had been said.
It was awkward, really. All of it – not just Bthemetz’s rather unorthodox way of messing it everything up. Of course it was awkward. They were operating in completely different spaces, at different tiers – not that the Dwemer ever used a formalised system of hierarchy – how Aldmeri, how archaic – and yet there were untold realms of difference between an esteemed architect whose debut at the Grand Debate was like a bracing storm, for whose applause was the cascades of rain that followed, whose timbre brought an electricity, a theatre, that the plodding debates had not yet discovered, and someone still trying to memorise the fundamentals over and over again, through frantic days and sleepless nights.
And so once the furore was over, Bthemetz thanked her for everything, expressing an uncharacteristically polite desire to see her soon, privately grateful that she could not see what a terrible trembling mess she was underneath the brass exterior. Of course, they did not see each other soon. They did not see each other more than twice a year.
(They kept sending letters, though)
By the time – and it was an extraordinarily long amount of time, several years in fact – that Bthemetz had formally memorised all the fundamentals and begun constructing sequences of her own, and was preparing for her final project much in the same way Kagrenac was herself when they first met what felt like lifetimes ago, Kagrenac had established herself as the darling of the Grand Debate, the boldest voice the choir, composing sequences that could construct towers and cathedrals and palaces. As Bthemetz struggled with the theoreticals of a temporal paradox, Kagrenac had announced a tonal sequence that could warp space to allow instantaneous travel from any location on Mundus to any point in the Aubris, with a .005% margin of error. Because of course she had. Which meant as Bthemetz had begun to ritualistically entomb herself in preparations for her final project, had begun to drench herself in academic argumentation, Kagrenac had requested – multiple times, actually – to visit her in person, back in the pocket realm that Kagrenac had found her in all those years ago.
And, well. It wasn't as if Bthemetz didn't want to see her – it was more, Bthemetz didn't want Kagrenac to know that she felt anything asides than unwavering enthusiasm at the prospect of seeing her again when Bthemetz was still trying – and struggling – to put the last decade and a half’s work into one succinct, jaw-dropping, earth-shattering argument that would shake the foundations of Dwemer society.
She couldn’t think of any good excuses, however.
This is how Kagrenac came to be there – in the void, right beside her – gently stroking her hair after Bthemetz had collapsed at her desk trying to reconfigure the same sequence temporal tones for the 39th time, wanting to scream quietly into her notes as Kagrenac said to her:
“I think you might risk burning yourself out.”
Bthemetz blinked. And she sat up from her nest of crumpled notes and ink-stained papers to sit upright and look her in the eye. To look at those inscrutable, watchful eyes of hers, that somehow always managed to pierce Bthemetz like an arrow.
That day, they had cut right through Bthemetz's patience.
“You? You think to lecture me, about this?”
“Of course! Why not! I mean, it is really quite something that the person who literally has never stopped working is telling me I am working too hard, what else could you possibly be doing?”
Kagrenac's features sharpen into a frown.
“If it makes me a hypocrite then so be it. I cannot continue to watch you struggle like this.”
“Don’t you understand how unfair that is? How patronising, how pitying, how enfeebling that is? I want to stand on my own two feet – why can’t you just let me struggle?”
“What in Oblivion are you even talking about?”
“Gods you're just too…. you really don't understand, do you?”
“I really don’t, actually.”
“Kagrenac, I have to do this. I have to prove myself worthy of this. I was not born into this world like you – I do not belong here, and if I have to bury myself in equations to prove that I should, then I will. You cannot stop me. You cannot help me.”
"You won’t be able to do much of anything for much longer if you continue like this. When was the last time you slept, Bthemetz? When was the last time you actually looked after yourself?”
Bthemetz opened her mouth, with a finger raised – then slowly closed it again, but not without a scathing glare.
“Bthemetz, I don’t want to stop you.”
She shook her head.
“No, no – they would think that we are conspiring, or that I am using the shadow of your success in the debate chambers to propel my own theories, or that… that I cannot think for myself, somehow. I… I just want to be a person, in their eyes. You never had to question whether you were a person, did you?”
Kagrenac reached out to touch her.
And Bthemetz let her, and pulled her into her arms and tried to bury her head into her shoulder.
“Bthemetz. They will always think we are conspiring. Let them do so. They are nothing compared to you.”
Her voice was soft, softer than she has heard before, and it was gentle on her ear.
“And they will always seek to discredit you. To tear you down. And the only way you can stop them is by beating them, by outshining them, by showing them exactly how brilliant you are. And you are brilliant. And anyone who says otherwise is a fool who is not worth speaking of, do you understand?”
Her words must have been practised, polished, cut into neat sentences. But her voice was beginning to shake.
“Let me help you, please. It is harder to outshine them with your brilliance when you have not slept in three days and your study is a catastrophe of paper. So let me help you. Let me take care of you. Please.”
Her voice was shaking and her hands were trembling.
“Rena… I…. don’t know if I can...”
She shook her head. Her name, whispered, under a breath.
“It’s… it’s just… it’s all so complicated. I’m so complicated. You don’t want me back in your life.”
“You don’t know that,” she said. “You don’t know what I want.”
And at this point, Bthemetz looked up, to a face that was crumpling with emotion.
“Please stay with me. Please.”
In six months time, Bthemetz, the Brass Architect, as she would be known thereafter, would present her first of many incendiary proposals beneath the glittering spires of the Grand Cathedral. Those cold, stony faces of the choir would twist aghast with horror as she decried half the fundamental mathematics, calling the latest wave of revolutionary discoveries – Kagrenac's being no exception – as operating on a base of noise and nonsense, that would collapse with half a breath. As those solemn halls rose with furore, between the brass walls erupted a cacophony of counter-arguments and rebuttals and rebukes and hostile barbs that fell flat off blunt tongues, and Bthemetz kept her eyes fixed on exactly one figure – looking wonderfully handsome in her dark silks, Bthemetz might add – whose eyes had not left hers for the entirety of the sermon, even as Bthemetz put a hatchet in the back of half her work. The nords could have come marching at their door right then, ready to blow their constructs to ashes, and neither of them would have noticed.
This was six months after Kagrenac looked at her with trembling lips as Bthemetz tried to explain, of course she wasn’t going to leave, she had committed to stay this time, she was just endlessly complicated, she just needs time. She had led her past the paper-strewn, ink-splattered mess into the nest of blankets and books that she called “a living room” and sat her down, holding her in her arms, saying softly I am here, and I am not leaving and I missed you too as Kagrenac cried softly into her shoulder.
“I told you I ruin things,” Bthemetz had said, at one point.
“You’re impossible you know, when you get like that.”
“You like impossible,” said Bthemetz. “You always said so.”
Kagrenac mumbled something like clever one with the smart answer
Bthemetz chuckled. “I thought I told you to forget I said that.”
“I can do what I want, Bthemetz,” she said. She looked up, doing her best to look dignified and defiant. “I could even leave, if I wanted to.”
Her hands pulled her in more tightly.
“No. Not even a little.”
Bthemetz gently brushed her cheek.
“If… we are alone. If it is just us… you don’t need to wear any masks, you know? If I am to be honest with you, I want you to be honest with me.”
There was a pause.
“That’s not an easy thing you ask of me.”
“I know. You can take your time.”
After a moment, Kagrenac's hand, with a slight tremble, reached up to pull her closer.
And then she kissed her.
This is an edited and a reworked version of a preview I put up on my blog at https://kagrena.tumblr.com/post/187619347070/preview. As a self-confessed "hungry notes gremlin" I would love to know your thoughts on this version and how it compares. I think this is about as fluffy as this fic gets - be prepared for heartbreak from now on.
Chapter 5: v: amber, as held in another’s palm
The first time her name is called her insides shake with a quickness that she had not known before:
They are small, bedraggled things, with quiet voices like hers that do not carry so easily in places that are not marble halls or empty caverns. But they find their lungs nonetheless, in this windswept place where every echo carries a tune.
She rushes out to greet them, to ask for their names too, which they speak, quiet and quick, each syllable electric, exciting, a spark of its own. She nods, her eyes brimming with an emotion she assumes must be understanding – for there is no joy quite like finding yourself in another, no warmth quite like embracing a kindred spirit.
They arrive over the course of many days in dribs and drabs: clusters of little spirits with chipped shells and clipped wings that appear with increasing frequency. She puts down her tools and hurries out to meet them, collecting their names and helping them plant seeds that will grow into bold, triumphant memories. From her stony reach where she sows her first sounds, she watches them rest their weary hands and learn how to sigh, with a twisting feeling growing inside of her. They will be tool-makers and stone-shapers now, and will busy themselves with growing their own harmonies. Some of them might even learn to sing. Yet there was something uncertain, though, pricking inside of her. As it began to feel like a weight, she hears her name on the wind like a warm, gentle breeze.
There is a woman outside whose hands hold fires that burn slow and soft.
There is a woman outside whose hands are as many as words for tenderness and who appears in rings of candle lights and whose eyes under a veil of comfort look as keenly as the wind does, with a slight flicker, a shimmer in the distant breeze.
“May I approach?” asks a woman who is made of otherworldly flames that cannot burn.
Koht’s eyes widen, and her mouth hangs open, and her whole body is quaking, but she nods, stiffly, nonetheless. The woman floats upwards, as if she weighs nothing at all, and places herself next to Koht, fingertips away.
“I am Mara, the hearth’s fire,” she says. “You do not need to be frightened. I mean you no harm.”
Koht looks at her with wide eyes before slowly inclining her head.
“Was it you that brought them here?”
Koht nods, still uncertain.
“It is wonderful that they have a sanctuary. Although… do I detect a note of doubt?”
Koht shuffles her fingers together. “Doubt is what I was made to do.”
“You need not doubt. They are safe here now,” Mara says. “I promise you this.”
And she moves to her side, and shows her two palms, weathered, well-worn, that hold the tiniest spark of fire, a little quivering thing, dancing beneath her breath.
“That is what you feel, isn’t it?”
She nods wordlessly.
“Touch it, if you’d like.”
And so she reaches for the flame, which leaps to her hands without warning.
A little Oh! leaves her mouth involuntarily at its touch. It itches. And it is a familiar itch, the one that catches in her throat, in her stomach, that trembles down her spine, that this twitching flame seems to contain. Yet it does no more than that – it is only an itch.
“How come it does not burn?” asks Koht.
“It is not meant to burn.”
“The fires that I have held before burned hot.”
“They are not the same fires.” A slight breeze seems to pass Mara, and her flames shake, gently. "Koht, you really would have touched a fire that would have burned you?”
Koht watches the flame dance in her palm wordlessly for several moments. She says nothing.
“It is alright. He cannot reach you here,” Mara says.
Her eyes snap back to Mara, glaring. “You can’t know that.”
A moment passes. Mara motions - perhaps to interject, to challenge - but she does not do either of those things. Instead, Mara takes a hand and rests it gently on her cheek.
She looks at her with an earnestness that makes her feel like someone has cut her open with gentle words. The touch of her fingertips fill her with warmth, and fill her with the fire of the hearth, and Koht begins to feel her eyes leak for she cannot recall the last time she was simply held, with only love.
She does not know what to do with such softness. She is used to feelings that cut like a knife.
… when Kagrenac wakes, she is crying.
Chapter 6: vi: crimson, left on the edge of a glass
So they moved in together. Okay, okay – there was more to it than that. There were stumbling hesitations and there were frank confessions and there were wonderful discoveries – to discover what someone tastes like, to drink in the scent of bare skin… if you were to ask what secrets Bthemetz would take to the grave, it would be those, with certainty, more so than any compromising political detail (and if that spoke ill of her character she would take it). They made announcements to perplexed friends and colleagues who were more than used to how the two of them had been dancing around each other for over a decade (“Weren't you already dating?” was a question posed to Bthemetz more than once. Or occasionally: “You’re finally getting back with her?” from more in-the-know, but not-really-in-the-know colleagues, ‘her’ being the way other young architects would vaguely refer to Kagrenac, as if her name weighed too heavily on their tongues).
The two of them began to piece together redevelopment plans of Bthemetz’s rather simple abode (well, hut, honestly - 'simple abode' wasn’t too far off), which makes the whole endeavour sound far more complicated than it was, because one of the few advantages of being permanently tethered to a stray pocket realm in the depths of the void is that Bthemetz could simply will things into existence if she wanted them enough. So of course, they had to make it complicated. They argued endlessly over the particulars, because lover or not Bthemetz wasn’t about to let her call those beautifully crafted brass-bronze dining chairs she had summoned from the ether distasteful. They argued over the placement of the coffee table, the size of the bed, the number of bookshelves, whether or whether not to install a steam bath (what was so wrong with a steam bath? Bthemetz had never actually had a steam bath, who was Kagrenac to deny her a steam bath in her own home?), and so on and so forth. They spoke in excited whispers of planting an underground garden, that would blossom with glowing fungi lighting up the gloom, and which devolved quickly into a heated spat about the exact dimensions of the cavern entryway, because despite everything else, they were still Dwemer, who believed wholeheartedly in unity through discord and passion through pedantry.
Oh, and they had a party.
(A little known fact is that Dwemer – as much as anyone else – love a good excuse for a bit of debauchery. Most likely it wasn't known because they would never invite anyone but themselves.)
It is no small task to transport over fifty people instantaneously across the stars to a house beyond the marble jaws of oblivion, but with Kagrenac, all things were possible. A common misconception about her, crafted largely by to Chimeri accounts of her character – for they loved to cast her as most disagreeable – was that she was aggressively elusive, a brooding dogmatist who spoke with an unknowable frankness, a mysterious clarity. It is difficult to imagine someone wrapped in those unpleasant contradictions, beyond knowing or seeing, a hundred years younger, holding a brandy glass on a pleasant evening and watching from a distance as her partner, her lover, recounts a lively anecdote from her travels about a near-fatal experience with a bear, with a warm smile on her face.
"And what did the Nedes do when they realised exactly who you were?"
"Oh, they screamed. I have never heard such fearsome yelling – had they screamed any louder they would have woken up I think they would have woken up every bird in Valenwood, for sure. It was very amusing."
And as Bthemetz flits between chatter and laughter and outrageous stories with perhaps too many glasses of wine, Kagrenac catches her elbow and mumbles something scandalous into her ear that makes her gasp and grin, almost deviously.
Of course this is a memory wrapped in the warmth of a feeling that forgets the weeks of nail-biting planning and repeated anxiety-fueled disputes about what was obviously going to be a logistical nightmare but you see, Bthemetz had idly said 'what if we could' after two or three glasses of wine. Kagrenac, being, well, Kagrenac about it, had decided to take that as 'so we shall', which as thrilling and wonderful and arguably romantic as that was, she did not jest. She was going to make it happen, even if it involved wrestling a problem the size of a small mountain range, which made it everyone else's problem of course, because there are hard limits on how much a tired and frustrated mortal already juggling six other projects can do without snapping. Even one such as Kagrenac, who was quietly convinced that she had to do everything – not simply that she could, mind, but that she had to.
“You really don’t have to do this,” Bthemetz had said, the first time.
The look she had gotten in response had been scathing.
It was easy, Bthemetz had realised, easy to forget exactly how many times they had fought. Partially because, Bthemetz believed, a large number of these fights did not matter – just habitual bickering – although that had not stopped them breaking up and making up and getting back together again twice before in the first decade, which was actually, all things considered, not that bad for two women who did not like to acknowledge the word ‘impossible’.
“Don’t do this,” Bthemetz had said, the second time.
The look she had gotten.
Perhaps Bthemetz had forgotten how many fights and spats and disputes they’d had because she didn’t want to remember. Perhaps she had wanted those memories of warmth – a gentle touch as she passed by, of a ripple of laughter of hers that reached your stomach, of an elated kiss she’d given you after a brilliant discovery – to wash over all those many aches, and dull wounds that should have bled far more. Perhaps that was the problem.
Bthemetz didn’t want to believe that. In her heart – she didn’t want to believe too much love could ever be a problem. She didn’t want to believe that as they had endlessly entangled themselves in each other, as they braced the coming storms as anchors for each other, as beacons in the dark, they had simply forgotten each others’ thorns.
“No,” Bthemetz had said, the third time.
Kagrenac looked up. She had grown older, and her eyes were not only underlined with weariness, but with the years that had passed.
“I have to do this.”
Bthemetz moved closer. The rest of the world could not see her face – a face that, in contrast, had not aged at all, tied to this place of complete stillness, of tranquillity. Joy would dance unafraid and plain as day across her features, where concern dwelt like dark storm clouds on her brow, and at the moment, her face creased with concern – contorted with something like pain – with a single question:
Would you ever kill someone? Bthemetz had asked her once, years before, a whisper in the dark.
I… why do you ask?
Because I sit up and think about what I did. I sit up and think and can’t stop thinking.
The Chimer arrived with banners and soft drum beats. They arrived along the foyada with the ringing of wooden chimes, in painted carapaces and heavy masks with long, sharpened spears at their backs. They brought wagons drawn by guar that carried gifts of rich incense and pearls plucked from azure shores and delicate silks spun by whispering spiders. And the Dwemer, who for all their otherworldly study of profane magics and abstract mathematics, left their workshops and forges and towers of brass to watch them ascend Red Mountain, for they too were not immune to the draw of the unknown. Even the most lauded architect in the city had left her heretical rhythms to witness their approach, high above the procession on the balcony to her workshop.
What did it feel like, when you did it?
It… you need to know, if I didn’t do it, if I hadn’t done it, she would have reported all of us, and we would have all been killed. It was necessary to protect the movement. So I told myself I was doing a task-
But what did it feel like?
This was the beginning of a season of celebration. Today’s gift-giving ceremony was technically a prelude to the “grander” event of Nerevar and Almalexia’s wedding, one that would take the would-be couple and their entourage, along with esteemed guests from every house, on a grand tour of Resdayn, ending with seven days of feasting and music and celebration in the capital of Mournhold. Bthemetz knew this precisely because one of those esteemed guests was a lauded architect named Kagrenac, known for the magnificence of her compositions and the intensity of her glare. Who was currently gripping the railing of her balcony firmly.
Like a weight. It felt like a weight. I watched this person, this whole person, turn into a bag of bones and flesh in front of my eyes. I almost laughed at the time, it was so absurd. Because I didn’t know what else to feel, I suppose. Now, though? It’s just a weight, knowing that. It was a person. I was the ending to a person.
A person who was going to kill you, and get everyone else killed.
No it’s… I know. I don’t regret that choice. I would do it again. I would kill again. But it was a person and that hurts. It will always weigh on me, I think. I don’t know if that will stop hurting, really.
Bthemetz approached Kagrenac, placing one brass hand on her back, and the lauded architect turned towards her with a softening expression as her lips twitched with an almost-smile. With a nod, Bthemetz presented the hilt of a dagger, swallowed up by a sheath that was swimming in square, angular patterns. The blade itself was elegant piece of craftsmanship that she was rather proud of, that seemed to shift between blue-green and gold as the light caught the brass.
Sometimes we are pushed into corners where there are no good choices.
They are still choices.
"Hope you need not sing us steel’s melody.”
They were old ceremonial words, for giving a blade from one to another, whispered so quietly that they could only be between lovers.
The question you asked.
You should know. It wasn’t hypothetical. I have also killed someone before.
“Hope you need not write us a lament.” Kagrenac replied, as she took the blade and attached it to her belt, as the chimes all but swallowed up the traditional reply that was spoken in the softest, most reverent tone.
Would you do it again?
Before they realised they could manipulate the bones of the earth, the Dwemer believed that they could chart history precisely until its end through the movement of the stars and the rumbling of the earth. The verb 'hope', in Dwemeris, still carries a certain folly, (for really, who believes they can defy such a fate?) as much as a bittersweet melancholy for those foolhardy enough to try.
And how do you feel about that?
It wasn’t an ornamental blade. The Dwemer didn’t believe in decorative weapons.
One hundred, two hundred, three hundred years pass with passionate discoveries and brilliant innovations inside brass cathedrals, and a world on the brink of war and catastrophe outside of it. It was long enough for the name of the fearsome Brass Architect, whose quarrelsome sermons caused the Grand Debate to erupt in outrage, whose passionate lectures set her students hearts alight in eager eyed excitement, to eclipse the myth of the martyr-priest whose hands dripped with blood as they beckoned for revolution. Long enough, apparently, for Bthemetz to forget all the frustrating logistics of instantaneously transporting fifty people across the swirling, ever-changing reaches of Oblivion for another party. It was a celebration – perhaps an anniversary of some sort – where the exact cause, Bthemetz had herself already forgotten, for she had already been caught up in a fierce row about whether magic was actually real or simply some simple-minded delusion of the Chimer. Her living room was awash with feverish chatter and raucous debate, and that she was running around with a pitcher of something almost-definitely-toxic (but only Oblivion knows what), looking for her lover, her partner, (her wife, she might have been, if they were anyone but Dwemer), who she had missed sorely since the twenty minutes they had been apart.
When she found her in a thin corridor where lights and laughter faded into a mumble, Kagrenac drew away from her touch.
“Where are you going?” Bthemetz had asked her, a worry creasing on her face.
It would have been too easy to say the First Council was the beginning of the end. Not that the repeated meetings and absences had no effect. The Council’s quarrels began to bleed into arguments of their own as Kagrenac would respond to any attempt at challenge with a withering look – before she realised who she was talking to, whose hands would hold her, and she remembered she could soften, for a moment, in this place full of brass clutter and battered books and unwashed tea cups.
But it wasn’t the First Council who had let the underground garden, tucked behind a curtain of water in the gloom, grow barren and cold. It wasn’t the First Council who had meant sleepless nights, restless days, and a world of work – ingenious, brilliant, show-stopping work – but work, and only work, and only the chime of the choir to let you know when days end and begin. It wasn’t the First Council that had littered their floor with unfinished papers and broken automatons that they had promised each other that they’d deal with, months, years, decades ago.
Bthemetz had known what she was signing up for – she chose to come back, after all, and train specifically to be an architect, when she could have chosen to sail to another corner of the map and have never looked back (and she was almost half-way on the boat quite a few times, but the prospect of not knowing was so infuriating, and the prospect of knowing was so tantalising). They could not want – not for food, or shelter, or education, or the knowledge of having a place, of belonging – but if you had said their lives were easy, they would have both laughed with an edge of bitterness. To be an architect was to subject yourself to rigour of a meaningful argument. To be an architect was to be critical, and to be criticised, with a passion that had teeth, that had claws, that would not be dulled, not even when the world was on a knife edge. They worked like the machines they designed – while most others in their wake had ground to a halt.
Not them, though. They had each other. They would help each other. “Let me help you,” Kagrenac had told her once, whispered into her ear like a spell, when she was drowning in equations. They would be each other’s anchors in this sea of strange music, throughout this storm of a war that they had found each other in. That was enough. It was enough.
“I need to leave,” Kagrenac had replied, trying to pull away, too hasty.
“Wait. Tell me, at least.”
“We should talk about this later.”
“No. We should talk about this now.”
“Bthemetz.” People were beginning to look.
“If not now, then when? I can scarcely catch a moment with you alone these days.”
And Kagrenac took in a sharp breath.
“It’s…” She looked away, for a moment. “Council business. An unfortunate, last-minute emergency where my presence is needed.”
Bthemetz closed her eyes for a second.
“We had been planning this for months.”
“And I am genuinely sorry, but you knew this would always be a possibility.”
“I am not interested in your half-hearted apologies. Your time means something. Our time means something. We had decided - together - that we would put aside the time for this and you can’t just throw that away because some idiot diplomat has shit the bed again.”
“I can and I will.”
“You know where I would rather be.”
“Rena, don’t you dare say it, don't you dare.”
“This is just too important, Bthem.”
And Bthemetz took a moment to breathe. It was sometimes too easy to forget Kagrenac, who could conjure brilliance into being, was still subject to the whims and workings of others as much as anyone else.
But they had planned this. And that still hurt.
“Why?” she had asked, again.
People were definitely looking.
“Kagrena, why you?” asked Bthemetz.
She knew it was the most impossibly selfish question she could have asked. And she already knew the answer.
There were at least a hundred answers Kagrenac could have given her off the top of her head. Because she spoke Aldmeris. Because the presence of a noted architect strengthened their arguments and cause in the eyes of other Dwemer clans. Because Dumac had asked her personally, because they have a history together, and because she owed him a favour. Because if she didn’t do this, they would endanger the alliance, and all be in peril.
Kagrenac did not scold her. Kagrenac instead, took her hand, almost kissing it, before moving close to ear, and said, softly: “Because who else can I trust, truly?”
And she turned to leave.
It… it was complicated. I was younger then, barely more than a child, although at the time I was convinced I was able to handle anything.
I was born on the wrong side of the Velothi mountains, the year the nords first came for us. Hoag came to our clan first, swallowing the earth beneath our home until it buckled under. So we ran to the next city, where Barfok had arrived, and she shattered our armoured automatons into spinning paradoxes and twisted our doors open with a song. So we ran to the next city, and then arrived Ysmir, and our walls turned to dust with just a whisper of his voice. So we ran to the next city. I wonder, now, whether it was a game to them, to see how easily they could break our strongholds, how easily they reduce them to nothing. Were we simply dolls, playthings to them? I cannot make much sense of it, otherwise.
Eventually, we tired of running from clan to clan, stronghold to stronghold. Eventually, we stopped running.
We were not warriors, not born with swords or spears in our hands. We were scholars who prided ourselves on having surpassed the need for instruments of violence. And yet, when whispers of a plot spread through the stronghold, there was no shortage of those willing to wield them. I volunteered. I was… I thought I was prepared for the consequences.
I don’t think he expected it, if I am honest with you. I was a girl carrying a knife behind her back, barely larger than what you would find in a kitchen. I remember… thinking back, it was absurd. The look of shock in his eyes. How he fell like a sack of meat. In moments, it all happened in moments. It was absurd.
I was so angry that I barely remember anything more than that.
In moments the walls and floors and ceilings were soaked in more blood than brass and we were scholars, not warriors, and they would kill all of us, if we did not submit. Some of us did. Some of us knelt. But I had nothing left in the world but my pride, and I would not abandon that.
We left our clan. We ran across the sea and we did not stop until we reached the heart of Vvardenfell, where we thought the nords could not reach.
I felt… I felt angry, for a very long time, I think. And I tried - repeatedly, I tried - to tell them that we needed to take action now, drastic action, that we needed to do something now , urgently. Or else it would all collapse. Nobody seemed to listen at the time - except Dumac, but I would not realise that until years later. Really, why would they listen? I was barely more than a girl, with nothing to her name.
I realised then I could not rely on others. I realised I had to make those choices, the ones no one else would face.
I… if you ask me now, how I feel… all I can think, as those demons charged our halls with Shor's name on their lips… What gods can there be but monsters, when a girl has to learn how to wield a blade? What gods can there be but monsters, when taking another’s life is a choice she has to make?
Chapter 7: vii: verdant, a wayward garden
Before time – as much as it could be said to exist then – had been hammered and beaten into one place, the moments passed – whether they were mere breaths or long hours or months stretched across a calendar – in a blissful haze. Koht teaches her fellow tool-makers how to cultivate a melody until it blooms, how to temper stone until it sings, how to create something from nothing in the may-be may-not-be of the grey reaches. As the moments – let us call them days, for ease's sake – begin to fade, she puts down her tools, and takes the shifting steps up to the halls where the Great Scarab resides.
(She is allowed to call him Lorkhan, she reminds herself, as she pinches her wrist.)
Through a passage of forest leaves, he sits on his throne of stone wearing a smile broader than the sky, beckons her to come, and he says softly:
“Tell me, little one, what sweet music have you brought for me this time?”
And so she climbs onto his shoulder and cups her hands around his ear and tells him how their melodies have grown – here are our notes, ripening, here is the beginnings of a tune about to flourish. And he nods, attentively, until she tells him the most daring thing they have thought to grow – a whole song - and he laughs - and it is not a warm, soft laughter like Mara's hearth, nor a sharp, fearless thing like Kyne's wind, but bold and bright and almost – almost, on the cusp of something.
“I think,” he says, his voice rumbling. “You should make twice as many of those songs you speak of,” he says, with a chuckle. "I want to hear your voice when it sings.”
Those words alone are enough to make her want to grow wings of her own. It is fine and it is well and from within that well beneath her quick-beating heart she feels something twist again and she wonders whether – she, a spirit, unchanging, unbending – could learn to grow like a melody one day.
(Before, she daren't have hoped. She daren't have dreamed.)
It is fine and it is well until the Architect emerges from his haughty tower – looking harried, pale, half-terrified – to notify Lorkhan that Kyne's wind has brought message of a new arrival.
So it begins with a roar. It covers half the sky.
The dragon comes.
Attendant spirits with stained-glass wings and opulent voices flock to the court. They call for his reverence. They call to behold him, to look up in awe, astonishment, when his great scaled wings shroud the above like a ceiling of diamonds. He who is the arbiter of order.
Glory is he, they proclaim.
The dragon comes, and he brings the tempo to which all beats now march, the turn of hours and minutes and seconds, regimented, that punctuate every quiver and every sigh and every breath.
Glory is he, in a sky choked with wings so vast that no other can fly. So glorious is he , while frantic tool-makers try to squeeze every stray note, every wayward chord, every loose tune to his exacting rhythms, so much so that she and the other tool-makers must work thrice as hard. Glory is he, monotony, a familiarity that ferments into repetition, an awareness of the same thing stretched over time (and time again), the same beats, the same notes, the same beats, the same notes. So glorious is he , he who could crush their windpipes with half a talon.
So glorious is he that Koht does not want to want to look up at the sky again.
“I do not like him. He should go,” she tells Lorkhan.
A look, half-defeated, half-amused, meets her gaze.
“Little one, I wish it were so simple.”
“Why is it not?”
He half-smiles at this, and ushers her into his hand, so that he could whisper.
“In his eyes, you and I, we are both the same. To him, I am just a puffed-up provincial meddler with a little bit too much stray imagination – impossibly small, impossibly insignificant. I am his subject. He thinks this is his dominion, his court, his song. He will take what is his without hesitation.”
“Then we leave, and go somewhere else.”
“And where can we go that his wings cannot reach? To the ‘neath, where the ground caves beneath our feet, where being is less than nothing?”
“Scarab, I cannot knowingly lead people here, calling it a sanctuary, when the he circles above us like the terror that they have just fled. That I have fled.”
He is silent at this, for a while.
“There is no safer place,” he says. “Not in the skies, nor in the ‘neath.”
She blinks. In him, for the first time, she thinks she sees sadness.
“May I show you something?” she asks.
He inclines his head. And Koht takes off her forge gloves to show her hands, which were bare before, but now are now thick with callouses, covered in scrapes and scratches, worn, wearing out, with work.
“This is from the past month. Will I still be able to use these in ten years? A hundred years? A thousand?”
His mouth twitches. He closes his eyes, taking several moments before he finally speaks.
“Little one,” he says. “You know that growth cannot come without loss.”
“If the cost is that great, is it worth it?”
Lorkhan beckons her to edge closer, to put her ear to his lips, which she does. And as softly as a summer breeze, he says:
“Please trust me. Creation will be a wonderful thing.”
She wants to. She sorely wants to, to take every pretty word and store it some-place in her heart like a treasured keepsake she can glance upon with fondness. Yet there is another doubt growing inside of her, as she tends to the same stone garden, watches the same tunes blossom in verdant tones. This is what she wanted, was it not? A place for her and the others to grow.
And yet, there is an itch inside of her, a restlessness, where her hands wish to dance rhythms outside of the dragon’s claws and she cannot shake them from her fingertips, which could thin and snap if she’s not careful. And she’s lost in a thought where she thinks of how they could grow, and change, in a different way – and how that would astonish him – and her feet take her wandering, away from the sounds of chisels and hammers, away from spinning wheels and soft fires and gentle chatter, where only the most distant of echoes can be heard. She leaves the garden, she leaves the court, and reaches the edge of the forest. Through a forest of deep colour she reaches a still lake.
There, she sits. She begins to drum her hands on her lap. She is trying to find a sense of calm, and it is not working.
“You’re a rather hungry spirit, aren’t you?”
Koht turns her head sharply. A large serpent has curled up onto her shoulder, his fangs at ear, dark scales swallowing her arm.
“Who are you? I have not seen you at court,” says Koht.
“Doesn’t that sounds like a lovely waste of time? Dallying at court.” He scoffs. “I don’t waste my time on dalliances.”
“I am not a dalliance.”
“Perhaps. I wanted to see with my own two eyes. I wondered what could possibly have caught his attention, so. Why you, not even a set of broken wings, have entranced him, and whisper honey into his ear every night. How did you, insect, end up on his shoulder?”
“He asked me to come closer.”
The serpent snorts with laughter. “Drawn to a roaring flame.”
“I work hard,” she insists. “I have good ideas.”
“You and twelve hundred others. That hardly makes you unique, insect.”
“Not like them. I want to make something real.”
She has spoken too quickly. She shakes her head.
“No. I cannot tell you.”
“Cannot? I don’t believe that for a second. There is nothing stopping you, actually.”
“I have walked ten thousand steps to get this far. I will not be deterred by a bothersome serpent.”
A smirk slithers across his face. “You seem rather deterred, if you ask me, bickering by the lakeside with my fangs at your ear. Don’t tell me you’re satisfied with all this, are you?”
Koht’s fingers clench tightly.
“I… I am grateful to be here.”
The serpent hisses with annoyance. “That’s the most disappointing answer I’ve heard all week. Try again.”
“I… do not know what you speak of.”
“I think you do. I think you’re bored. I think you wouldn’t come out to this lake, alone, when you should be as busy as a honey-bee, if you were perfectly content. You want. You want more.”
Koht stands up, and begins to walk.
"You cannot think that they would simply give you what you want! Those great spirits think nothing of ones like you.”
“He clearly thinks something of me. He listens to me.”
“And you think he won’t get bored? You think he won’t find another pretty bauble, another passing curiosity? Do you even know what he’s building?"
“I am leaving,” she says, trying to pull the serpent off her arm. But the serpent tightens his grip further.
“You’re naïve,” he continues. “How pitiful, how disgusting, to think you would so easily accept your measly lot. The likes of you will be the first to fall, kicked by the wayside, all the while kneeling and kissing his feet for giving you the opportunity.”
Koht stops, pulls a hidden knife from her belt, and presses it close into the serpent’s throat.
“Leave me,” she says.
“He's building an arena, you worm! It'll be the end of all of you.”
Koht tilts her head. And then she slices at his neck without so much as a second warning. The serpent shrieks in pain, leaping off her arm, the blood coming thick and fast, rolling down its scales.
“You are nothing to him,” he screams, hoarse. “You’ll rot in that arena of his.”
“I am leaving.”
She walks back to her garden, and she does not look back, not even once.
“Boethiah,” says Kagrenac, suddenly.
“What?” says Bthemetz, spinning around, her expression somewhat alarmed. “She’s not here, is she?”
“No – no. Sorry. I’m just… thinking.”
“About Boethiah? What an awful heretic you've turned out to be,” she says, with a bark of a nervous laugh, a gentle touch of her shoulder, a kiss on her cheek.
“I... I simply forgot, for a moment.”
Bthemetz looks at her quizzically, and as if she has just noticed something significant, her eyes widen and she moves – to reach up on her toes and kiss her softly on the forehead.
“Rena, whatever it is, I will be here to keep you safe. I promise.”
She softens at those words, but can’t help feel that at her spine there is a hole where something is missing.
… Koht does not see Lorkhan at all after her encounter by the lake. She returns to their garden of stone melodies, and looks at her hands, worn, marked, now taken blood, and realises she cannot see him until she can make something worthy of the title Great.
She locks herself in. She works for months, barely seeing or hearing from anyone, except a handful of trusted stone-carvers. By the time she emerges from her workshop, the winter has been put in place, and the first snow has kissed the earth cold. The long climb to his court is a bitter, bracing journey, where the wind whips around her most fiercely, and she clings to what coverings she has in face of it.
When she reaches his court, it has changed, and where there was green now there was stone. In the carved halls spirits watch her approach with a breath held in.
“Scarab,” she says, without any excess titles. She does not bow.
“I had thought you lost to me, Koht.”
The words are solemn – a strange sound, from a mouth that was always felt brimming with a smile, an easy laugh, a soft chuckle.
“I am not so easily lost,” Koht replies.
"Still, it pleases me greatly to see you again, after all this time. Come, tell me, what new melodies have you brought?"
“I come with a different purpose. I mean to show.”
"You, mostly you, but also the whole court. It is a gift, of sorts."
His eyes widen.
She has not brought him a gift before, not even when she was a little gangly thing whose wings had been fresh torn-off, who had spent many days trekking through the ‘neath to find him. She stands now as someone who has as much height and purpose as the entire court, as someone who has not heard of the word ‘undignified’.
The Great Scarab, with his brightest smile, beckons for all of the forest to come witness this. Spirits great and small, spirits with feathered cloaks and branching horns and colourful tresses and silver wings, spirits with dull eyes and strange feelers and bright claws, to come to the sky-touched halls, and quieten the din for a moment.
“Very well, Koht. When you are ready.”
And her hands, now worn, and now battered from work, reach for her instrument, and begin to play –
something that is not only soft
It begins with a slow, single beat. But it is not a single melody. And as her voice begins to be heard – as they begin to sing – it is many, at once, a harmony of sounds that rise together. A cluster of tones bright and bold and sweet and trembling build at a pace like a forest fire – fiercer than Mara’s hearth, hot enough to forge something sharp – as the air in front of them sparks alight.
A flash, and from her back, break out two brilliant flames that form the shape of wings five times her size.
something burning, from all the words unspoken, half-lingering in the air
The song pushes on, faster, frantic even, but the harmonies shift into something more melancholy now, haunting, with traces of things unseen, unknown, hidden in the depths of its chords, beneath the gentle hum of the tune, and something wonderful – and something broken, something lost – tries to call out – as the speed continues to push forward–
A flash, and the flames break from their binds and dance around her, leaping towards him.
something that you can’t help but be drawn to
Her fingers slow. The music softens, lingering in the corners the hall.
As the smoke begins to drift, as the last beat is struck, there is now a blade in Koht’s left hand, that still ripples in light, in colour, in flame, blue like the distant stars that have yet to be scattered in the skies, green like the canopy of leaves that has yet to fall. Not a word has been spoken. Not a whisper can be heard.
something that leaves you wanting
She offers the blade to Lorkhan. She has not taken her eyes, dark as the night skies to come, off him. Nor has he looked away from her, not for a moment.
“You must be gentle with this,” she says as she approaches, a quiet murmur meant for him. “Or else it will burn you too.”
It is said – or was said, perhaps it has been forgotten now – that the mer of Tamriel each carry a splinter of old Aldmeris, pricking the back of their memory. A world of shifting mirrors and painted glass, of swords as sharp as the wind, the colour of a bruise forming the first time as bodies learned to grow and change, cracked shells, new wings, gardens that gild the morning.
The Dwemer would remember this song.
… Kagrenac wakes suddenly. It is dark. She is alone. She is not on Nirn.
She pulls blindly at the surrounds, her fingers grasping at her arms, her hair, at the warm sheets, at a bed that is missing the shape of another person. Just a bad dream. She had taught herself to say this. It happens, sometimes.
She lights a lantern with a crackle of sparks. You are safe.
Under the flicker of that little bulb, she begins to stumble around their home. It was once such a bare place, now stuffed with all kinds of trinkets and ornaments and books – a natural accumulation of stuff over two hundred plus years of cohabitation, she supposes. You’re far away now.
There is another lamp still shining, and Bthemetz is stood at her desk, poring over plans, making adjustments, making alterations, to the preliminary designs of Anumidium. You are loved.
Kagrenac, half-awake, but also half-asleep, and still half-dreaming, wraps her arms around her waist and buried her head into her neck, and says softly, “Come to bed, darling. Please. I miss you.”
Her shoulders tense up. There is a sharp intake of breath.
Kagrenac lets go – immediately – but some distances can’t be breached – concern bleeding into her voice when she asks:
She turns to face her.
“I… fell asleep at my desk. And then I had an awful dream. Her heart… he pulled out her heart. Tore our heart from us. My heart... Kagrena… there is a hole – or maybe there isn’t a hole – and it hurts… Kagrena… what are we doing? What are we doing?”
There is a song, and it is still echoing through her head, about little moths being drawn to flames that devour them whole, as she desperately seeks to console her love.
Chapter 8: viii: rose-gold, touched by the desert sun
When Kagrenac first showed Bthemetz the Heart, she took her by the hand through a dance of tunnels, deep under the reaches of the earth where light couldn’t creep, where they could only hear each other’s own restless heartbeats. She took her to a cavern where it shone like a guiding star, glowing with each gentle pulse, and Kagrenac held her in her arms as she explained, in the softest tones, what this discovery could mean.
“Here is our new beginning,” she had said.
Here was the new dawn. Here was the solution, the salvation, the key they’d been grasping for in the dark, one that could unlock every door, one that could shake the world to its foundations. If they could utilise this… if they could utilise this, they could overcome all the limitations placed on them – death, mortality, time, all of it. All of it! If they could make this theirs, Bthemetz would no longer need to be confined to a brass skeleton. If they could make this theirs, they could make new worlds with a single breath, where their dreams were theirs to explore.
The heart hung above them as she sung this melody, sweeter than any words she had heard before, shifting between slivers of colours, at home in the arms of the person she loved most. “I love you,” she might as well have said, “I love you more than the stars and the skies and the moon,” with every possibility, every promise, every brilliant prospect on the cusp of being real.
It probably the most wonderful thing Bthemetz had ever seen. And she was dreading every moment of it.
Not that she really could even indicate that it was even dread she felt, at first, that sudden pit in her stomach, that twisty-turny feeling that seemed to escape a name. Nor could she really indicate why she felt it. It was just there. Being frustrating.
Ta-tum. Ta-tum, the heart had said to her, then.
Ta-tum, ta-tum, it echoes in her head, the rhythm she could not shed from the wild forest of reverie that grew in her mind. And it bothered her. Disquieting, actually, how it would strike her thoughts flat, all those wonderful ideas, but it wasn’t simply that. She couldn’t shake the idea that she had heard that rhythm before somewhere – and not simply in that abstract, melancholic dejá-vu sense of something she’d dreamt, either.
It was a memory.
She had wondered whether it was some religious sentiment that she’d clung onto, ashes of her mother she had yet to scatter, old lines of scripture lost in her head.
“Stop. Stop talking.”
“I… I’m sorry? Did I say something wrong?”
Two weeks since this most unusual mer had wandered into her gilded prison, draped in wine-red and strange brass, mumbling forbidden mathematical formulas like they were sacrosanct rituals, asking her the most intriguing questions and listening with the most acute attention. Two weeks, and this was the first time she had ever asked her to stop.
“No. I… no.” Her eyes widened – as if the emotional impact of her words had only just registered. “Not at all. You said nothing wrong. It’s… you’re a priest?”
The way she had said that word. Priest.
The same tone of voice, in fact, that the High Priesthood had used every time that Bthemetz had deigned to even open your mouth. So Bthemetz chose her next words carefully.
“I was a...type of priest, who tried to ascend the ranks of the temple hierarchy, but was barred from entry for... some rather unorthodox ideas on my part. And eventually I was exiled for heresy so it barely even seems to matter any more, I was not an important priest and was never going to be an important priest. Was. Past tense. Very past tense.”
Bthemetz was bracing herself internally for what kind of probing question she was going to throw her way next, something daring that would most likely twirl off into a discussion of the complex politics of the temple structure that she had been dreading quite honestly–
“There were priests?”
It was so difficult not to laugh at that.
Rena, even at that tender age, was not known for asking something that could be logically inferred, let alone repeating the same question twice, or even wording something so inelegantly. In fact, within the two weeks – in which they had been speaking without barely a breath of silence between them – Bthemetz had not seen her look so flustered before.
Her eyes were just so wide. So big. And so very… gold. Dark and gold.
The fact that she was even asking what was clearly a stupid question was remarkable and somehow managed to make her and her extremely wide big dark speckled possibly luminescent (question mark? she’d need to ask about that, but tactfully) gold eyes seem more alluring rather than less.
Of course, Bthemetz, being Bthemetz, was not going to let her completely get away with asking a blatantly stupid question, so she watched her look absolutely flabbergasted in a moment of stunned silence, before she simply asked, her tone as neutral as she could manage:
“Do you not know what a priest is?”
“I know what a priest is,” she replied, a little sorely. “I… who did you worship?”
“You, as in me, an individual, or...?”
“The... what? ”
“Us. The Dwemer.”
“Oh. Oh. It’s just... it sounds like the sort of thing the Aldmer would say as an insult, given… you know, it would take too long to explain the injustices inherent in the caste system and various derogatory terms derived from it, so, uh, I won’t right now.”
Rena looked at her expectantly.
Why was she so nervous?
“Well. Anyway. The pantheon was a rag-tag mix of et’ada from different traditions. Some typically Aldmeri – Auri-El, of course, Trinimac, Magnus, Oghma and her husband… I forget his name. There were a lot. Ten? Or was it Twelve, I think? More than eight, which was, uh, controversial, to say the least. Anyway, there were others that were markedly not Aldmeri. There was Mara, of course. But there was also Kyne. Jhunal. Lorkhan.”
A sceptical look.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive. I served in Her temple.”
It was actually fairly easy to forget. Not that she had given much of a damn for it at the time. She’d been assigned the thankless task of transcribing short-hand lecture notes onto scrolls that would gather dust at the back of some temple library while she was barred from listening to the sermons proper. She had been a cleric then – not a priest, really – and had spent far more of her energy – as far as her temple duties were concerned, at least – with her ear at the doors of the cathedral, listening in to the high priests' debates, trying to catch a whisper, a morsel of controversy, a modicum of something inflammatory.
I can't ever imagine you worshipping anyone, Rena had told her years later, lips at her ear, years later, in a mess of bedsheets and hair. I can't imagine you kneeling for anyone. Not even if they offered you all the secrets of the world.
I kneel, but only when I want to, Bthemetz had told her, fingers idly tracing along skin. Only when I fancy it. And only if it pleases you, too.
Would that be worship? Rena had asked her.
Of a particular, rather Dwemeri sort.
But it wasn't worship, really, not at first. She had managed to weasel her way into the Temple of the Scarab as an adolescent because it had a back window where it was very easy to sneak out unnoticed, as well as a library ripe with books. Even then, as she began to pay the slightest piece of attention to those dross sermons, it wasn't exactly exaltation that was going on.
Lorkhan was, after all, not revered by the ancient Dwemer. 'Revere' was entirely the wrong word; mourn was much closer to it, as sermons were the closer to funeral rites, solemn, quiet, than the frantic debates they had become.
‘We were the anointed ones,’ so said one account, that she had transcribed by her own hand, ‘… the caretakers, the ones that had been ousted from Aldmeris’ gilded gardens, tossed across the seas for daring to mourn. We took ourselves to the dark beneath where not even the sun’s rays could reach, to watch over the earthly remains without being witnessed.’
But of course, being neither interested in orthodoxy or funerals, Bthemetz’s attention had wandered elsewhere, and really, after every thing the priesthood had done to her, she was more than happy to let it gather dust. So when Kagrenac asked her, centuries later, would you like to help me eclipse our mortal coil with the last living remains of Lorkhan on this world, the answer had immediately been, well, yes, of course, how could I say no?
Even as that pulse punctuated every word, that ta-tum ta-tum, even if it was thunder in her ears. Even if she would spend months, years, decades, even measuring and monitoring and manipulating that rhythm to her own beat, to her own language, even as its true course rumbled in her ears, over and over. How could she say no?
And how could she not love her? How could she not love her, ambitious and bold, who saw the reality in every possibility, the rhythm in every desire, who would move mountains because she could, and that was exciting, it was exhausting, but still exciting. How could she not love her when she promised to bring an entire new world into being?
Hands around her waist. A gentle nibble at her shoulder, a slight kiss.
This was comfortable. This was familiar. This was good.
“May I tell you something?”
Bthemetz turned to face her, her lover, her partner, her much beloved bedsheets-thief, among other things.
“I don’t want to… trivialise this. It is simple to think, with the Council in place, that we are safe. It has not. We are not. But…”
She paused, as her fingers curled.
“This project of ours... is also a personal thing. Ours.”
“I want to spend more time with you. I want to make something with meaning with you. And if we cannot… well. What could have more meaning than this?”
“Rena, you don’t have to compensate–”
“No, it’s not that. I’ve made peace with that. What I am trying to say… this project of ours, I want it to be made from love, as well.”
It was not until months later that she realised. She had been swallowed by plans and theorems, had posed the question to swarms of students – Let’s go off-track for a second. How could we feasibly break time in this scenario? – who were bubbling with all kinds of exciting and implausible answers, it was always interesting to see how they thought around what they’d assumed impossible, and head swimming with mathematics, she had fallen into bed exhausted, all aches, trying to piece together the exact tones–
It was a memory. And she remembered when.
It was from before her. It was from a long time ago. The sun was younger then. As was she.
She had been ousted from those marble spires, exiled for daring to consider herself as an equal to those snotty high priests. So she snuck her half-scribbled notes out the back door and she followed the hum of her theories to the surface, a thread that stretched across wide canyons and deserts.
A world of orange and red and blue. The largest canvas one could imagine.
She carried battered journals, covered with her own ink, madcap sermons about the divine that could be found in the profane, can be made in the profane, that we could all be gods someday, as the wind whistled past her, as the sun began to sink into the horizon, as the stars began to shine.
And then she began to hear the sound of Her drum. Faintly. From across the horizon.
And so she began to follow it throughout the night. She followed the rhythm across the desert, beginning to hum her own melody, beginning to piece together the notes of her own song.
She had not worshipped Lorkhan, who might as well have been dead in a pit somewhere, as much as she had followed the world that She had left behind.
Every colour. Every sound. It made her heart want to burst and to sing. To collapse in on itself, and to expand outwards, to become red, rich earth, and to become blue, broad skies, become yellow, desert rose, all in one instant. To not simply be but to become. To spiral, contradiction upon contradiction, until it had revealed a pattern of a thousand spirals within spirals that seemed to swallow infinity itself in less than eyelash’s width, a wonder that she could not have foreseen had she sat in a temple all day.
To follow a god, for Bthemetz, was not a quiet lament, but a song of passion that took her to unknown places and possibilities. It was exciting, it was exhausting, and then it was exciting again: it posed challenges and difficulties, not knowing the way ahead, but she clung to the faith that she could find a way. She clung to the faith she could make anything of what She had left to all of them. To follow a god was about making something greater than what they’d been made to be. To follow a god was seeing whether she could outshine the sun and sing a world into being better than The Great Scarab Herself.
She would have never called it worship, back then. Perhaps a journey, perhaps even a calling – even if that made it seem something more grandiose than it was. That pursuit – that journey – that was all she had ever done, it was everything she had ever made right up until Anumidium. What she had believed in, all those years ago, had never been antithetical to how she now lived among the Dwemer. It was what she believed she was still doing, as she began to turn the heart of the world into a set of scientific sequences.
Which is perhaps, really, why it took her so long to realise. It should have been months. It took her instead, years.
“We can't work on the heart,” Bthemetz had said. They were having breakfast. Toast. Kwama eggs. Black tea.
“It's part of a living being.”
“What? Don't tell me I'm the only one who hears it. It's not dead.”
“Lorkhan has been dead since the beginning of time,” Kagrenac stated, flatly.
“So it was widely believed – given what little evidence was available – but since we've uncovered evidence to the contrary, we should re-examine those previously held assumptions.”
“Are we really having this conversation over breakfast?”
Bthemetz put down her fork.
“Kagrena, open your eyes and ears. It's not simply a convenient source of unimaginable divine possibility – there is something in there . I can hear it.”
“Has it talked to you? Has it shown you a vision?”
“Not directly yet, no.”
“Then I find it hard to believe your claim, as much as I'd like to simply take your word for it.”
“Rena, don't be obstinate.”
“They were no more flawed than us. Whatever their powers, they still bled like us and died like us. There is almost no way someone could still be living after they had their heart ripped out of their chest and flung across the other side of Nirn.”
“You said almost. You concede there is a slight possibility that it might not be dead.”
“Oh, for the love of—”
They did, indeed, have this argument at breakfast. They had this argument over many breakfasts, which segued into a six-month long argument about ontology, about what life was, what death was, about the experience of being, of living, of dreaming and staying awake, about whether the heart of a “dead” god still living meant that the god herself was not dead.
This was hardly uncharacteristic for either of them. They had spent nine months arguing over the value of utility in modern sculpture over lunch. They had spent twelve months arguing over the value of the most appropriate scale for a lament over dinner. They would pretend they were above such petty nonsense but really they both loved a good excuse for a bit of back-and-forth. And when a passionate discussion is a common escapade, a casual hobby, it becomes so habitual as to forget just how weighty the subject matter at hand is.
“Fine,” said Kagrenac, one day, as if they'd just been quibbling about a simple equation. “Fine. I concede by your definition that Lorkhan is not exactly ‘dead’, even though I still question really what quality of life it truly has remaining, for it is hardly sapient.”
“Excellent,” said Bthemetz, who did not even look up from her tea.
“I will, however, not stop working on the project.”
Had Bthemetz more of an instinct for dramatic timing, this would have been the moment where her tea cup would have slipped her grasp, fallen to the floor, and shattered. There would have been fragments of porcelain, dripping with black tea, a look of shock, a look of disgust.
Instead, she put down her cup.
“Did I hear you correctly?”
“I said I would not stop working on the Anumidium project, regardless.”
And Bthemetz let her explain her reasons – that realistically, there was not enough time to find an alternative source of power, even if she were able to develop tools to temporarily suspend the process of ageing, for the alliance they had with the Chimer was too fragile to give them enough opportunity to develop their own means of attaining divinity. Bthemetz listened, nodding periodically. It was the sort of gesture one makes when you recognise that words have been spoken without recognising their weight, without acknowledging how they could crush you beneath them. When she had finished, Bthemetz was still eating the last few scraps of breakfast. She took her time swallowing them. Then Bthemetz took a sharp breath. She leant forward.
“What you are proposing is unethical, Kagrenac.”
Kagrenac stared at her.
“I should explain,” Bthemetz added quickly.
“Yes you should.”
“Well, you have said,” she continued, trying to ignore the curtness of that remark, “That they, the et'ada, were not so different to us. And I agree, they were certainly no less flawed, and whatever splendid or terrible powers they had, these are things we can now accomplish with our own hands, or learn to, in the future. If we argue that they are not significantly different to us mortals, and are in the same category of being, it follows that they are worthy of the same respect we grant each other, as mortals. I could not enslave the heart of Lorkhan as much as I could not enslave yours, or any of our siblings in Dwemereth, or anyone, for that matter, regardless of origin. It would be wrong.”
Kagrenac tilted her head.
She let a cold silence descend upon the room before she spoke.
“Have you lapsed back into an infantile theism, playing the dissident priest in a moment of senility in your old age, or do you simply wish to insult me, Bthemetz?”
It cut her, how she said it.
The incredulity – the repulsion —
It cut her.
“I… Kagrenac, how could you say such a thing?”
“How could you say such things? Worthy of respect? What has Lorkhan ever done to be worthy of our respect?”
“Whatever your misgivings, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it weren’t for Lorkhan.”
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if our strongholds hadn’t been raided by savages from the north carrying his name on their lips.”
Bthemetz stood up with a clatter. She put her hands on the table.
“You can't possibly believe that justifies what you're about to do.”
“No, on the contrary, it necessitates it. Our enemies will stop at nothing to raze everything we've held dear to the ground. We must use the heart or we will perish.”
“You would truly do something so heinous?”
“Heinous? I think it fitting actually. I think it justice, actually, for the insult, for the humiliation, we have suffered as mortals. They, after all, thought they were above death while we had to endure it.”
“You think this is just? You would think to enslave another’s heart is right and just?”
“Some things must be accomplished by force. Or did you forget? What happened to the martyr-priest, the rebel, the revolutionary, the firebrand? Or was she just a flight of fantasy after all?”
It was in this moment, had Bthemetz actually been holding any crockery, she would have dropped it. It was easy to forget that she knew how to wield words like a knife until that pointed edge was at your throat.
“Is... that really how you see me, after all this time? Is that all this comes to?”
“I—” Kagrenac began, before closing her mouth, and looking firmly down at the table, which was now shaking. Bthemetz realised that because her hands had begun to shake, and so the whole table was shaking, and all its cutlery and scraped plates and teacups spilling over, those were shaking, trembling, on edge.
(“No,” she said, quietly, later, under her breath, an airy whisper. “No. That was too much. I’m sorry for saying such a hurtful thing.”)
Bthemetz sat down, with a slump. Kagrenac is not looking at her. Kagrenac is gripping the side of the table like it will break unless she clings on with every part of her strength.
“What happened is that she died,” Bthemetz said, eventually. “And a lot of good people died with her, the martyr-priest, the rebel, the revolutionary, people who didn't have to die as well as her, because who bled she was reckless, because she was desperate, because she would push and push and push without thinking.”
She watched her knuckles tighten. She watched her jaw clench.
“Tell me, Kagrena, how long has it been since you realised the heart was alive?”
She says nothing.
“I did not know what it was until it was loud enough that I could not shut it out. I don’t know when.”
Bthemetz sighed, like the whole weight of the world rested on her back.
“You know, for a while, I honestly thought I was going insane. I was – I am still – hearing things. Whispers. Tunes. Do you know how lonely that feels? You seriously let me think it was all in my head, let me believe…” she stopped. She was going to start weeping if she wasn’t careful, and she could not do that, not here, not now. This was going so very wrong. “You lied to me.”
“It was not my original intention.”
“This was our project, you said. This was something we shared, something we held dear. You lied.”
“And you were intending to stop it all.”
“You lied to me. For six months you lied to me, you cradled me in your arms so sweetly and told me that surreal vision of watching my heart get torn from my own body, of walking around with a giant cavity in my chest, all of that was just a simple bad dream, nothing more, and I believed you.”
At this, Kagrenac stood up, and walked over to her side and pulled her hands into her own.
“Bthemetz,” she began, with a tone softer, more gentler, than she had heard all morning. “I want to make this perfectly clear. I love you dearly. However, I will not let anyone or anything stop me completing this project. Even if it's you.”
Bthemetz pulled away.
“Please. Just leave. I don't want you here any more.”
Kagrenac shakes her head wordlessly.
She did not say a word when she left. Not one. And then Bthemetz was alone with the gaping silence she had left behind.
updated the fic rating to M after this chapter.
personal highlights of this chapter include "The Dwemer?" (the fuck are those??), "Oghma and her husband", "I kneel, but only when I want to,", Bthemetz constantly referring to Lorkhan with capital She/Her, "How could she not love her?", and "You concede there is a slight possibility that it might not be dead."
(I enjoy writing Bthemetz's dialogue immensely).
it should be said this is the beginning of the end, and also we are past the half-way point of this. Chapter 12 is a half-written skeleton and needs revisions but everything else is done.
when the first one died
at the hands of the Nords, who had left her limp and bleeding in at the brass gates they’d beaten down. // it was an accident
and she hadn’t deserved it
She was an inconvenient person, in an inconvenient place, at an inconvenient time, and that was all. // the stone she had shaped crushed her body into pulp
there was no funeral
There was no time. They were leaving. They could not even give her the dignity of tossing her into a ditch to rot. // and what could one say, if one had never lost anything before? how could you console them?
and when I saw her,
She was still quivering, grasping for breath, and had I a moment longer… had I a moment longer, perhaps it would have been different // she had become perfectly hollow. she was nothing. unchanging. stasis.
and others had not even looked at her
Trying to cling to what little resolve they had to survive // because they did not know better. because they did not know what an ending meant.
I realised then that only we could protect ourselves
I realised brass walls and locked doors could not protect us // I realised that he had lied to me .
I carried so much on my shoulders, when the first one died
pride, expectation, ambition, desire
all were shaken with a gust of wind // all crumbled to dust
like it was nothing at all
Shor // Lorkhan
that was when I felt fury for the first time.
… Kagrenac wakes suddenly. It is dark. She is alone. She is on Nirn.
She pulls at her surrounds, her fingers grasping at her skin, her hair, the clutter of papers and books she has fallen asleep on. Desk. Lamp. Chair. Ring. Knife.
She frantically searches around her, looking for the shape of another to fill her arms, realising slowly that there is none.
Some habits are difficult to break.
It hadn't ended with a single cutting conversation. Nothing about her relationship with Bthemetz had ever been that simple. It is not an easy thing, to cut apart someone who had been part of your life for that long, that deeply, it would be much like cauterising a fatal wound, and perhaps they were both guilty in letting it fester. They had both wanted it to work - and it had worked, they had overcome every obstacle, they had found a solution, a compromise, a fix. She had bared every messy, tangled facet of herself to her and she likewise; they knew each others dark corners intimately. So she returned, and it was wonderful
candles in the dark
“I belong in your arms.”
calloused hands, almost worn out
“I have a temper. I can say thoughtless things and well… I don't want to say I don't mean them because words aren't meaningless. I don’t want to pretend I’m anything but imperfect. Not to you.”
a song; sweet and stark
“Here. Shhh. Not so tight, not so tight. I’m here, you know? You’ll leave a bruise, if you’re not careful.”
a blade; a doubt
“I love you. I don't know if I can stop loving you. I don't know if I can live without you.”
And it was like a gentle wound.
They knew each other like old scars. They clung to each other as the world seemed to rage around them, even as their words turned pointed, their tongues sharp, enough to leave marks. They could not say they hadn’t tried. They could not say they hadn’t done the work. They had spent months afterwards on and off, between arguments and kisses, on the edge of brilliance, on the edge of tears, because that is what they had done, that is what they had always done, until they could find a solution, until they could find a compromise, until they could find a fix.
But sometimes it doesn’t matter how much love you can give. She had learned that, now, it does not matter what you do, what you can offer, “I find the totality of your life’s work ethically monstrous, actually,” is not something you can work past.
Kagrenac had thought it had ended with that realisation.
Of course, it hadn’t been that simple. Nothing with Bthemetz had ever been that simple. Bthemetz wasn’t simply content with a clean separation – a mutually agreement to mind each other’s business and move on - oh no, that would simply not do for her. No, Bthemetz wanted a furore. Not that she actually told Kagrenac this, of course. They were currently at the “stubbornly ignoring any shimmer of each others’ existence” stage of not-talking. She only found out through overhearing a fourth- or fifth-hand account, of course, behind a half-closed curtain of an ash-coated tent on the foothills of Red Mountain, catching her breath between exhausting diplomatic meet about lines and borders and boundaries of territory.
Scandalous, she heard. The Brass Architect, she heard. Turned against her, she heard.
“What is it?” she asked sharply, pulling the curtain open.
Bthemetz, it turned out, had taken to the task of burning bridges with spectacular aplomb, with fireworks and festivities. It was not simply enough to break all contact – no, Bthemetz had taken the liberty of spearheading the official public opposition against the Anumidium project, finding every disgruntled colleague or sceptical apprentice or would-be rabble-rouser who’d previously spoken in secretive huddles or hidden corners, and had gathered them en mass, under a single banner. The Brass Disciples, they had proclaimed themselves, to an uproar in the Grand Chamber, to discord in the choir, and they had staged debates and demonstrations and public speeches on every street corner as much as every cathedral and chapel and hall, they had pulled in the public with a simple question: Why?
“How droll,” Kagrenac had said, half-irritated, half-bored, with a short eye roll for flavour. And she pulled the curtain half-closed.
She was a practised diplomat. How bitter, how embarrassing, how pathetic – she would say, with a snort of derision. It was simply tragic that Bthemetz – a once respected maverick, our own beloved rebellious firebrand, she called her – had lowered herself to this farce. What had caused it? colleagues, disciples, acolytes had asked her, with a tentative concern. And perhaps had Kagrenac been more cruel, more eager to forget the earnestness of Bthemetz's arguments, the quiet desperation in her tone, the note of genuine concern – this is not just, she had said – had she been able to brush that aside, perhaps she would have been able to spin a tale about jealousy and desire and wanting what she was not able to reach. Perhaps half of it would have even been true.
“I do not know what has overcome her,” Kagrenac had actually said, with a tone that was as grave as it was soft.
Perhaps that was as worse a lie that she could have told.
She knew every messy corner of her lover, her partner, ( your wife) , she knew every wayward curl and every hot-tempered breath and every bruise that she’d doggedly pretend wasn’t there, every soft sound she felt a need to sharpen, the clumsy movements of fingers that were afraid of breaking another. She also knew how she held principles that could slice you in half. How she would break every contradiction that could not be reconciled. How she would shatter every rulebook.
Kagrenac held her tongue and said nothing of that. She kept her curtain half-closed.
And so with the march of months came a frenzy of sermons where the Brass Architect would challenge every would-be ally and sympathiser to a debate, they would watch her fire flicker and devour them like a spectacle, like an extravaganza of wonders, while the spectators would mock and bicker and grumble – the entire arena of Dwemeri politics is being dictated by a lover's spat – and to those Kagrenac would give a restrained sigh and tell them, with a note of regret, she did not resent her, not truly, but what could she do, really, what could she do but ignore their mewling complaints, refuse to give weight and credibility to their arguments, until the last embers of their half-baked fervour had faded? And yet with every dismissive scoff and regretful glance Kagrenac knew that the woman she had once considered her partner for life would not stop until she had not only burnt every millimetre of bridge but the entire town, the entire community, the entire province, because Bthemetz possessed an unholy level of focus. Bthemetz would gather every rebel, seize every debate, take every opportunity to decry her – never personally, of course, but that did not stop her allies from such comments – and had soon mobilised half of Vvardenfell into a passion.
She kept her curtain half-closed.
It was during a rather tedious diplomatic meet. They had invited the Chimer on board one of their magnificent new airships to continue terse discussions of lines and borders, of where ‘I’ becomes ‘we’, amongst the company of clouds. Of course, the issue of lines between sovereigns had been sidestepped by a tiresome debate about the price of imported spider silk – the subsidised price of which, the Chimer had demanded no less than shared access to two ebony mines . Predictably, it had progressed nothing except bruised egos and sore throats; they had called a break in which Kagrenac intended to spend alone with a glass of brandy, staring blankly into a mirror, trying not to contemplate how they could possibly wrangle the smaller Vvardenfell clans into agreeing to this nonsense without breaking into eight months of arguments.
She takes one sip.
When The Brass Architect storms past the curtain, no longer mistaken for a clunky automaton or a simple instrument, but a bold design of striking angles and elegant lines, opalescent and brass-gold, eyes alight with white light, with a mane of shimmering star-fire where tangled curls should be, and practically spits the words –
“You are a coward.”
-laced with vitriol, with fury and fire, Kagrenac does not move. Kagrenac does not flinch. She does not even deign to look in her direction. Instead, she glances at the steward cowing behind the curtain – the curtain might as well have erupted in brilliant white-gold flames for all it was worth, because the steward – and now, the half dozen or so diplomats or so – are all whispering furiously amongst themselves.
“How did she get in?" Kagrenac asks sharply, cutting across the noise.
The steward opens their mouth, beginning to make a flustered attempt at an apology when Bthemetz moves right in front of her.
“You coward. Are you just going to ignore me? Not even bother to face me? Not even offer me the most basic dignity?”
Kagrenac exhales sharply. She puts down her drink. She makes a dismissive hand gesture at the steward, who pulls the curtain shut, and then turns in Bthemetz’s direction as if it was the most arduous, frustrating chore.
“It would be rather difficult to ignore you, given how you’ve called me a coward twice to my face now.”
“You have refused all means of contact. I have tried sending you countless messages, to countless people and places, through couriers, ash-stained letters, through the tones themselves, auburn, amaranth, rust… and still, nothing! I have summoned for you through the choir, I have offered countless public challenges – the sort of argument I know you would usually relish – I have exhausted every single method of communication, and still you refuse to even acknowledge me, you refused to even look at me now, what other conclusion was I supposed to draw?”
Kagrenac stands up. She takes a step closer, so that there was no confusion - not about who she was looking at, not about who she was talking to – not with inches between, not with the distance so close that her hand could glide up the side of her jaw and softly take it within her fingers.
“Have you considered the possibility, Bthemetz,” said Kagrenac, with a hand lingering near her face, but not quite touching. “That I simply don’t believe your cause worthy of my time?”
Bthemetz takes a step backwards.
“You don’t seriously expect me to believe that, do you?”
“You haven’t bothered to listen to anything I have said for the past six months, so why bother?” Kagrenac says, stifling a yawn. “Since you've rather abruptly invited yourself in, why don't you take a seat? Pour yourself a brandy, while you're at it. Enjoy the ambience.”
“I could not care less about your diplomatic airs and graces! I am here to discuss the terms for our debate – requests for which you have repeatedly refused to even contemplate.”
“Oh, I had forgotten we were being positively uncivil to each other. My mistake.”
“Don’t dance around the subject! Do you seriously have that little respect for me? Do you seriously have no respect for what we spent hours and days and weeks and months yelling until we were hoarse about? Do you simply not care for even a half-second of what I have to say?”
“It would perhaps be best,” she said, “if you did not ask questions to which there are no pleasant answers, for diplomacy’s sake, if not your own.”
Bthemetz shakes her head. “I don’t believe you, Kagrena. I don’t... perhaps you can pretend nothing happened, perhaps you can keep up this childish facade, feign boredom, but I don’t believe for a second that you simply are disinterested, not when your support base is crumbling beneath you, not when your workshop is fraught with questions, not when your closest allies are beginning to doubt you. Not when the Grand Cathedral has been whispering our names.”
“Your name? Is this really about some new earth-shattering theory, Bthemetz, or is it simply about proving that you’re better than me?”
“Gods confound it, this is about what is right! It always has been. You can spin whatever tale you’d like about me being a spiteful little wretch – I could not care less, I could not care less if you announce a sermon calling me traitor, I could not care less if I get denounced by the choir, I could not care less if I am cast out of the brass walls that I've called a home, if it means doing the right thing.”
“Bthemetz, don't test my patience. That’s most egregious pile of shit I’ve heard all day.”
“This isn’t about me! This isn’t about us. You’ll hate me, loathe me for saying this – but this truly isn’t personal, Kagrena.”
“This isn’t personal? Personal? How could it not be personal, when you consciously seek to destroy everything that we have held dear, the culmination of our entire life’s work? How in all the stars and heavens could it not?”
“And it would lead us onto a path that I cannot bear to see us follow –”
“Give that self-righteous tirade a rest. You would squander the entire future of our people for an egotistical quarrel! For a simple debate!”
“If you think it's so simple, face me, then! Face me, unless you would prefer to cower in your workshop–”
“You dare call me a coward one more time –”
“And what? What would you do? Tell me what you can do that hasn't already been done worse by them? What can you do that I haven't already suffered before? I fought and died for this before and gods have mercy if you think you can stop me again–”
“Bthemetz, I will not hesitate –”
A voice calls out in Aldmeris:
“The meet has already begun.”
Kagrenac and Bthemetz spin around. The steward is nowhere in sight, nor any of the hunched diplomats, nor any of their whispering, save one, lone figure. At the doorway, there stands a Chimeri man, chin raised, back straight, as if the weight of his highly ornate pauldrons is not slowly crushing his shoulders. Strands of his bright gold hair have fallen from the heavens to embellish them, although Kagrenac expects they have wilted under the glare of the sun. He is all ornate, embellishment incarnate, here: at his belt is a blade of flame and on his finger is a crest she crafted herself, a moon and a star that catches the sunset in the softest shade of rose.
It is all Kagrenac can do to stop her own shoulders deflating with tiredness. Of course he would turn up.
'Where is Dumac?" she demands.
“I apologise for the interruption,” the man says, almost completely ignoring her, with the tone of a sweet pleasantry and not an apology at all. “In truth, we're all waiting for you to return, and ancestors bless Dumac but I have heard enough of his old war stories to know when he is playing for time. He is currently occupied negotiating with the Head of House Dagoth without us, I believe, if you are interested. Time is, of course, precious.”
A frown falls on her face. “Then we will conclude shortly. Come, Bthemetz.”
Bthemetz does not look at her. Instead, she looks at him sceptically.
“I'm sorry, but who are you exactly?” she asks.
The man's warm, easy smile almost slips off his face. Kagrenac wishes she could capture it, that look, that surprise that crosses his face and slip it into her pocket to laugh at later.
He turns to Kagrenac, a slight worry creasing his forehead. “Is he part of the diplomatic entourage?”
“No. She is not.”
His eyebrows raise slightly.
“Ah, well, regardless, in any case, it's my pleasure to make your acquaintance…?”
“Bthemetz,” she provides.
"Bthemetz. Bthemetz. Bthemetz.” He tries out her name on her tongue like it is a particular kind of sweet delicacy, a chocolate pastry or whatever sweet and fanciful thing they might eat in Mourning-hold. “Hm. Am I saying it correctly?”
"Clip the Bth a little more."
“Still some ways off. How long have you been learning Dwemeris?”
He chuckles at this, a little too fluidly. "To say that I am learning Dwemeris is a bit much. In truth, I understand enough to get by, but it can be a challenge at the best of times.”
“Oh, but there's no real joy in doing anything that is so easy, is there not? Challenge is one of life’s least appreciated pleasures.”
“Hmm. On that, you and I can agree, at least.”
He sends a pointed look in Kagrenac’s direction. Kagrenac, who is about a fraction away from throwing herself off the airship at this whole predicament, merely sighs, deeply, profoundly, and equally pointedly as Nerevar's questioning look.
“Bthemetz, this is Indoril Nerevar of Mourning-Hold, Hortator of the Six Great Houses of Resdayn.”
Perhaps if Bthemetz was there in the flesh, her mouth would turn into the shape of an ‘O’, her eyes wide, and suddenly looking at Kagrenac also quite pointedly – and quite worriedly, maybe. But behind a mask of brass and gold, Kagrenac could only guess.
“So that's Nerevar. Oh--” She says, before she stops herself, because most likely, she has simply forgot he is standing in front of her, and she turns to him. “Yes, well, it's pleasant to meet you too, I guess.”
Nerevar laughs. “Dwarves never do think it is pleasant to meet one another.”
It is a joke he has told more than once. Bthemetz does not laugh in return. Instead, there is a cautious pause.
“Well, you are not “a dwarf”, as you say, so perhaps it will be pleasant, contrary to expectation. We will have to see.”
He smiles. “I take that cautious note of optimism in my stride. Still, I have to wonder, what you are doing here, during this momentous occasion, in this marvellous contraption you have, aloft amongst the clouds, Bthemetz.”
Kagrenac steps forward, lightly touching Bthemetz on the shoulder. A quick glance – a quick, desperate glance – and she says:
“Nerevar, this is Bthemetz, The Brass Architect, a chief architect amongst the Dwemer and a brilliant scholar in her own right, and also, my wife.”
Whatever scepticism disappears from his face in an instant, replaced by a curiosity bordering on unsettling.
“Oh, it really is a pleasure, then, to meet you, Bthmetz.”
Bthemetz snorts at this. It’s half-butchered, how he says her name. “You see, I already have a new supporter for my cause, Kagrena.”
Kagrenac tries not to roll her eyes too much.
“How remarkable,” Nerevar continues. “I really thought the Dwemer never married.”
“Perhaps there is much still for you to learn.”
A gentle touch on the shoulders, the trailing of fingers.
“No need to be so cryptic, Kagrena.”
“Did you not just say there is no joy in an easy answer?”
A laugh, another touch, a closer one.
“You are far too clever for your own good, you know.”
It is said playfully, rather than spitefully, and Kagrenac tries to smile, like might she once have done without effort. It is almost too easy, actually, to slip into old habits, for fondness to creep between glances, despite the fact that she wants to howl, and cry, and crumple under the weight of everything. Yet they are not creatures made for violence, but for warmth, and one still comes far more easily than the other.
So instead, a gentle smile reaches her lips, and Kagrenac takes her hand in her own.
“One cannot help where the heart wanders, I suppose,” says Nerevar, quietly.
“Perhaps,” mumbles Kagrenac, but she is not looking at him, she is only looking at the woman where, once there was simply tenderness, now there is the complicated tangles of tensions and half-burned bridges.
She wants, she wants, she wants so desperately to go back. She wants what she cannot have, as usual.
Instead, she turns to Nerevar:
“Forgive me, but may we have five minutes more? I need to speak with my wife in private.”
“That can certainly be arranged.”
When he leaves they are silent for some time.
“My wife,” says Bthemetz. “A clever lie, or…?”
“It matters not, it has sated his curiosity, and hopefully he will be so satisfied with that morsel that he’ll be in a perfectly pleasant mood for the next round of negotiations.”
“But it does matter, doesn’t it?”
“I would demolish you in front of the choir,” she says, eventually, in the Dwemer tongue now, while her fingers are still woven between hers. “I would not hesitate. My wife or not.”
"But you are hesitating now, aren’t you, my wife?"
Their hands are still entwined.
“Bthemetz. I am not afraid of you. I am afraid of what will happen to you. I will spare nothing to defeat you, you realise, once this begins in earnest.”
“That is all I ever asked for in the first place.”
I know, and it destroys me, to know that, are the words that Kagrenac cannot bring herself to say, because it would lead to another fruitless argument, another pointless charade.
Instead she frowns.
“We cannot turn back from this path once it begins, you realise.”
“You are still hesitating, Rena.”
“No, Bthemetz, you don’t understand.”
“What? What, plainly, don’t I understand? Because you have failed so far to explain it, so beyond my comprehension it is.”
Kagrenac closes her eyes.
I don’t want to hurt you.
“Are you truly so prepared to leave everything behind?” she asks, instead.
Bthemetz laughs. It is far too bitter, far too hoarse, and it quite frankly sounds like she is in pain.
“I am no stranger to misery, Rena, my dear, my darling, my wife. You can’t hurt me in any meaningful way, you know. You can’t hurt me in any way they haven’t hurt me before.”
Kagrenac shakes her head, her mouth opening to speak, but words cannot fall out of it, she does not know how else to say it .
So, Bthemetz tears her hand away.
“Face me,” she says. “Please. Don’t humiliate me any longer.”
Kagrenac is quiet, hand now bare, as she thinks about the weight of those brass fingers, as she thinks about how much wiring is threaded beneath them, how many cogs twist and turn, how many screws are fastened shut.
In a few moments she will turn to leave, to return the summit where strange elves draped in spider silks and painted crab shells will speak, voices thick with ash of the surface, Nerevar Mora’s lips cling to Voryn Dagoth’s ear, with spiced words about how intriguing it is, how amusing it is, that the Dwemer – the Dwemer, who lock themselves in workshops made of steam and mechanics, the Dwemer – have perhaps finally cracked the concept of love, so foreign to them it was until now, for the High Priest has made herself quite an extraordinarily realistic automaton to simulate the feeling, I don’t think I have ever seen her smile until just now-
But before that, she says:
“I have hesitated enough. I will face you.”
"The name amaranth comes from the Greek a (not) + marainean (to waste away), i.e., a flower believed to grow on Mount Olympus which never died."-- from wikipedia. ironic and also fitting I think here :^)
Nerevar shows up and makes things difficult, as he is sometimes prone to doing. I have had this chapter idea in my head for practically months now - since early September. Initially it was going to be a one-shot but it ended up becoming part of what was eventually to be Twelve Tones.
Next chapter might take a whole week to produce because it needs some major tweaking. We are close to the end now though :^)
Chapter 10: x: rust on her armour
Bthemetz remembers how she "died". She remembers the death of another, too.
Warnings for: discussion of sex, implied (but not explicit) sexual content, some mildly gory descriptions, and one scene with self-injury. Canon-compliant character death, as well, as much as Lorkhan is "dead".
Really, if she were being strictly logical about it, it was to be the most exciting night of her life.
She should have been thrilled - overjoyed, even, blissfully counting all her lucky stars - to get the opportunity. How often, in that inconvenient “other” life she’d had, had she tried to pry open the temple’s marble doors with her fingers, had she tried to tiptoe her way into the holy sanctum, wanting so desperately to shout over those sacred rites of the lost Morning, whispers mourning the Dawn that Never Was, to cut through, to speak, and to shout at the top of her lungs? How often, how often had she told anyone that would half-way listen to her, sworn on the unmarked pit that passed as the grave of her father, that all she needed was just one chance - once, just once chance - to speak to the High Priest himself, and she could cut him down, she could tear him to shreds, she could demolish him like the crumbling, decrepit ruin he was? How often had she simply begged to be part of the conversation? To be listened to, to be heard?
Thousands of years, thousands of arguments, thousands of torn-out pages of scripture, rewritten, rehashed, revised into texts indecipherable and oblique, silent mourning turned into a bright cacophony, a celebration of a godless, heretic pantheon of twelve tones - colourful notes burst forth from the dawn - all this time, all this progress, for all this , she had waited, she had worked diligently, with more patience than the stone itself. Thousands of years, and now her name was called, beckoned, she was to speak, at the Grand Debate.
She should have been simply ecstatic at the prospect of debating Kagrenac. Yet on the eve of the most important event of her life thus far she could barely move from her bed.
She was being selfish really - it was all she had ever done, be selfish, if she were honest with herself. Here she was, on the eve of this most momentous occasion, the moment where she would finally meet the most brilliant scholar that the Dwemer had ever known - if you were to believe the propaganda her doggedly loyal acolytes would churn out, at any rate - face to face, to speak on the same platform. Here she was, on the eve of the opportunity of several lifetimes, and she was curled up in a nest of bedsheets bawling her eyes out like… like… some kind of messy queasy gross shaky-hands shaky-breaths salty-eye-liquid machine.
(Scarred fingers brushing her cheek)
It was a hairbrush. It was a god damned hairbrush that had set her off.
(The sound of a distant drum)
It had been a ritual of theirs, before all this had gotten catastrophically large and huge and angry and painful, for one to help the other prepare before an important debate. Ritual, here, was meant in the sense of a habit, a tendency, something they were inclined to do, rather than that particularly Chimeri definition of “ritual” as something dark, illicit, a shocking taboo; something foreboding practised under an ill moon. It was a ritual in that their bodies knew all the motions without a word needing to be spoken. It was a ritual and more importantly a ritual of theirs, a quiet moment they shared, she and her, Bthemetz and Kagrenac.
(Scarred fingers and painted nails; scarred fingers and painted nails)
It was the simple things they would help each other with. Brushing hair. Braiding strands of violet, strands of rose-gold. Fastening the clasp of a brass necklace. Painting each others eyelids the colours of the northern night skies.
(“Why are you doing this?”
“Do they? I thought you lot were above such petty concerns.”
“The material isn’t a petty concern," she says, cradling her face with her hands. "It's all that matters.")
There was something almost sensual about Dwemer culture. Thick perfumes. Layers of rich silks. Brass ornamentation. Lips painted gold. Polished keys of a heavy pipe organ. Incense, burning, stuck in the air.
(Her name, whispered.)
Everything had a weight.
It made not having a body harder.
(Her hands, softly combing through her hair, were like an anchor).
Bthemetz, of course, had a physical form - or at least, something she could catch in a mirror and crumple her brows at. Was it a body, though? Did she breathe through it, work through it, live through it? Was it a body, something she embodied? Or was it just a sack of skin and bones? It was stuck in time - she was stuck in time, ageless - nothing healed, old scars couldn’t fade, nor had anything been able to change. She could not watch the way her skin might mottle and change with the passing seasons. She could not grow old. She could not even grow.
(Sometimes, on the best of days, as her scarred fingers weaved around strands of hair, painted nails gently coaxing them into braids, she would sing softly beneath her breath, low and gentle, and she felt her heart quicken at even the thought)
When others saw Bthemetz, they did not see a thousand-year old collection of raw marks and fresh scars, still cut, still sore. They saw a brass skeleton, a chassis that had been refined and chiselled and cut until perfection.
(She had kissed every birthmark, every scar, every wound that wouldn't heal; “I am kissing you, all of you--”)
What did those brass fingers feel like? Were her hands cold? Were they hot? Was it pleasant, or was it something rough, of a more uneven texture? When her fingers brushed the shoulder of another, did it give them comfort, or was it like yet another bruise?
("Why are you really doing this?"
"Nobody will see this, you know. It's all behind a mask. There's... no substance to this - no weight, nothing material. It's an abstraction."
Hands bury themselves in her wayward curls. She speaks with surety when she says:
"I am seeing this. I see you.")
She did not have a body, if she were being strictly logical about it.
(But she is clinging to her too.)
She existed in the abstract; in the spaces between the neatly-ruled lines. Her physical form? That was just part of the scenery. That was just as remarkable as a pretty mantlepiece ornament, or a patterned tableclotch; an object to be remarked upon. It was not something that lived. It was not something she could live through. It might as well have been dead meat. She might as well have been.
(Sometimes those work-scarred fingers, cut and bruised from crafting divinity itself, cling onto her a little too tightly.)
She was and she was not and she was the dangling thread between the dot of an i and its stem, she was the dead space between beats trying to cling to rhythm (for her heart had been between notes, between pages, between chapters for a thousand years or more), a speck of something in nothing trying to make it to more than something, more than the concept in the abstract.
(“Bthemetz, may I tell you something?"
"Of course." Always, my love.
"I am sometimes have nightmares where you fade from my arms.")
She did not have a body, and therefore she did not, was not, and did not exist at all, really, except in a body that wasn’t her body. Her, but not her. Here, but not here.
(Her hands lingered over her ribcage, a place where a beating heart once lived.)
There but here but there but here --
(Her hands brushed over her ribcage, where her fingers tapped the pattern of something she was still bleeding from.)
Once, now and again, under a dark moon, she could remember the night that they tore her form from Nirn, and made her into something shapeless, without a body, as heavy as a dream.
You - well, you were a right bastard when it came to it. Rogue, some of them said - rogue prince, some said, if they were feeling particularly fancy, perhaps if they fancied the thought of you, all those rough edges that hadn’t been chiselled into place. You fancied yourself something clever, something sharp - a bright spark, a keen knife, ‘twas little difference between the two then - whose proclivity for mischief belied as much as it beguiled. Belied, well, what exactly, the question not one thought to ask - you knew the matter of appearances as well as how appearances mattered, you dressed yourself with the shorn horns of a god once scorned like Sithis before, well enough, and well, enough flocked without thought enough to what you were---
But he, of all your lovers, he cut right to the heart of it, though.
“I think I know what you seek,” he said, undressing all your fine layers of nothing, unravelling you word by word, “In these strange old woods of yours, ‘neath the reach of the Dragon’s mist. But right here, right here --”
His hand crosses your heart, trembling. The slightest breath, hitched.
“In these strange old woods of yours, I see no sense in it.”
You’ve become so strangely well acquainted, in these wandering woods, where wills wander and want, and most are found wanting. More than a simple curiosity, he was - although you were curious, at first, that is how it normally unfolds - until you wanted more (into fascination, into desire, into partners of a dance you both know by heart, all the unfamiliar corners become secrets, between you and him, you and I).
You shouldn’t have met. You crossed swords. You ‘cross battlefields, ‘cross battered banners so bright and bold, ‘cross courtyards with flowering violets that sung the first tone, to see each other. A skirmish, in the dark. He was such a delightful sparring partner.
He is not like you. He is no rapscallion, no dashing rogue who wore a plume of dragon’s fire on his head like a mockery of a crown. He is the subject of poetry that would make one weep, with heavy tears, stained with meaning, with matter.
“Nonsense,” you say, so pleased with yourself.
He leans in. How determined, he seems, to kiss the cocky smile off your face. A fruitless endeavour, really. For you smile all the more, with every valiant attempt, even as his wandering hands tie your heart in knots.
“You seek to make something of yourself,” he says, eventually.
“Tell me something that might actually surprise me.”
His fingers circle your chest again.
“You seek to make something from nothing.”
He was not, as some claimed, the epitome of beauty. He was not, as pretty verses declared, a dainty being with butterfly wings, even if he scrubbed his armour so it gleamed, like the radiance of dawn. He himself never claimed to be divine; he was not like you, he would never be a beguiling prince. He saw himself only as the elegant sword Auri-el had shaped him to be.
What drew you closer, into his fierce kisses, was not the promise of valiance, of beauty, of grace, of honour -- these were as weightless and empty as a promise to love each other forever, to never hurt one another -- an impossible promise to make, when one keeps a blade held against your heart.
What drew you closer, was that you were cut from the same cloth.
What drew you closer, was that once upon a time, you were both, simply, nothing.
Nothing, covered in scars.
She dreams of lovers. She dreams of priests, a summoning circle, and being wrapped in chains. She dreams of lovers, of forbidden kisses. She dreams of trying not to scream as those delicately painted chains burn her skin. She dreams of lovers, holding each others' hearts. She dreams of a knife made of flame.
There was a sharp knock at the door.
Bthemetz tumbles - tumbled out of bed. Onto the floor. She was pulling - grasping for - a shape of something missing. And now she’s on the floor. Fantastic. She’s knocked over some antique 3rd century Metheric miniature tea set, knowing her luck. Maybe there’s shards of it, she wasn’t not awake enough to know. Half-awake, half-dreaming. Barely lucid. Barely anything there. A crackle of sparks and there’s light.
There was another sharp knock at the door.
Bthemetz opens it a crack.
Kagrenac is stood outside of her doorway. Odd. She motions to shut the door.
“Please! Please don't shut me out, Bthemetz.”
Bthemetz paused. Pauses. It was a rare thing to hear Kagrenac, of all people, beg.
“I know you have every reason to bar me from this place; if you decide to banish me from this place I will hold no ill will against you given what has transpired between us. Perhaps it might even be the sensible choice, but I would urge that you would at least hear me out.”
Bthemetz opens the door.
“Hello Rena,” she says.
She was finely dressed. Very finely dressed. Has she just come from a diplomatic meet? Silk layers, painted nails, gold embroidery on a black velvet, her voice like satin, gods, is she wearing cologne? And yet she still somehow seems more dishevelled than usual. Smudged around the edges.
“What time is it?” Bthemetz asks.
Kagrenac blinked. There is a look of confusion on her face, likely because she has no pre-prepared answer, and perhaps it is because Bthemetz is not quite in her right mind, but there was something quite charming about her when she was stumped by a simple question.
“It is quite late,” she said, eventually. “Past midnight.”
“Not a very sociable time, really, to go door-knocking in strange pocket dimensions in the furthest depths of the void. Why are you here, Kagrena?”
She put her hands together, very neatly.
“I… I would like to stay the night.”
Something twists. A smile reaches her lips, but not her eyes.
“Oh, Rena! But I did not invite you back. I never did invite you back, come to think of it.”
“I only seek a brief moment of solace from all the din back on Nirn. We needn’t even speak to each other.”
Bthemetz tsked, with a snort of laughter. As if that would ever happen.
“You know, I actually would prefer that we do speak to each other, if you must stay. I think we have plenty to talk about.”
“I do not know if that would be wise.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I do not have the patience for another argument right now.”
It was said not with anger, but as quietly as the softest tone: rust. The gentlest of words, according to tonal theory, could create the most dramatic of endings. Decay, ruin, a trailing echo: that was a tragedy, in the operatic tradition.
“Come in,” says Bthemetz.
The scholar-priests watch from behind painted ivory masks, by candlelight. White and silver. They are wearing white and silver.
Silver; the colour of austere splendour, of strained magnificence, of triumph and glory made to kneel.
They say nothing to her. They wear tight masks of feigned apathy. She is nothing to them. She is beneath them. Snarls constrained by white and silver. White and silver.
White; the absence of tone. The shade of death. Of powdered bone, of the purest ash, of bodies leeched of colour.
“Grotesque thing,” one of them says to another.
It contains the fiercest undertone of rage, restained.
You understood the dreamlike weight of possibility, of is-isn’t, was-wasn’t. Not because you were born in a spark of brilliant gold flames, showered by stars and adoring voices, or some such nonsense: if you were still inclined to be humorous, you might have said divinity wasn’t anything special, much, back in those days. Or perhaps it wasn’t divinity: it was more multiplicity. You were born from dreams, much like everyone else; you were made of many things, much like anything else. And then, you were assigned a corner was that old messy business of drawing lines of was and was not, shaping half-tones into full colours and cutting them into shapes that could be. You’d been shunted into sorting and tearing and trying to find end from beginning, trying to untangle all those bes from nots from knots of bees and all sorts of wild confusion that seemed to ripple around before time could straighten them out.
All those coulds from those shoulds, those were the hard ones.
“I think,” you told him once, between stolen glances, snuck behind a stolen curtain. “You should wear my colours underneath that shining armour of yours, for your next match.”
You could be so many things. You could be big or small or speckled or feathered or carry a shell of soft-coloured coral that lights in the gloom or shed scales that sparkled beneath the still-empty skies. You could wear the faces of men and mer yet to take shapes like a grotesque façade, a grim premonition: façade , that word, you learnt from him.
“You might need to decide on a colour first,” he replied, with a snort.
You could be the many colours that he sported beneath his chest, a favour most unfavourable; you could be the watchful eyes that espied his success with awe and many magnitudes from behind gilded curtains. You could be the stolen glances, snuck affections, the birth of secrets.
“Yes. Just one.”
You could have watched Auri-el’s star-crested knight cross the field in plates of silver that buckled under his own weight, ill-fitting, ill-favoured, with your twelve colours crumpled beneath, spilling out the sides, staining that polished silver. You could have watched him stride across the field, the finest tourney in this pastel-coloured pastiche of splendid lights and shimmering windows, with all those bright and unsightly colours staining every inch of him, but --- well, he hadn’t asked for twelve, had he?
Instead, you found yourself questioning: What weight did dreams have, really? Dreams. Light painted on clouds that fades with the slightest rain. What weight did mere possibility have? Oh, you could be, or you couldn’t, if you fancied it, there was nothing that lasts - nothing that remains.
“Fine,” you said to him. “Just one. But you will need to give me your sword.”
He drew his blade. It was an elegant yet, somehow, tasteless, over-wrought thing that Auri-el had had him make. You despised it. So you ran your hand along the edge of his blade, and smeared what fell from it onto a handkerchief, as he watched you open mouthed and open eyed.
“ Shor! ”
“Tell me to stop, if it so displeases you.”
But he said nothing, nothing at all - rendered speechless - and not after long, you had soaked the entire cloth in your colour: ebony.
“Why the look of surprise? Surely you know what a sword is for?”
You showed him your hand, your clear palm, without a mark, without even the slightest crease, as the ebony cloth dangled betwixt your fingertips.
“My colour,” you said, with a smile.
“That is grotesque.”
“Perhaps it is. Do you want it?”
His hand lingered near yours for a moment. He leaned in, closer to you.
“You are grotesque,” he whispered to you, as he took the cloth and slipped it beneath his breast.
“Perhaps I am.”
She makes her tea. Perhaps it is not wise to do so, to make tea for someone who has hurt you when that wound is still raw, still covered in scabs. Perhaps it is not wise to invite that someone into your living room when you have not yet had the heart to throw away all her favourite hanging mosaics and brass-minimalist sculptures and musical codex boxes that produce swelling tunes on a thousand hidden strings and her giant tonal modulator that takes up far too much space in the living area and all those diplomatic gifts, books, jewellery that is never worn, bottles of scotch, that bespoke emerald green Velothi war mask she was once given as a favour by a Chimer general (that looks rather handsome on their mantlepiece). Perhaps it was all rather unwise, but Bthemetz has always had little time for conventional wisdom (or conventional relationships) and so she does what she wants anyway.
Tea is not forgiveness, after all.
Bthemetz watches her idly stir her cup. She's overstewing it three times over, which is so typical for her - normally Bthemetz would say something - “Rena, my darling, my beloved, you are making dirty dishwater again, ” - but she says nothing. She is content to let it simmer quietly. Or perhaps not content, but she keeps quiet anyway. She's served a light brew, with a touch of honey, perfect for aiding one with sleep, and yet on second thought it does not seem suited for the occasion, incongruous compared to this magnificent figure draped in jewels who has neatly placed herself down on the sofa opposite her in a crumple of expensive fabric.
“You don't look very well,” says Kagrenac, deploying her highly selective lack of tact with flair.
“I thought you didn't want to talk.”
Kagrenac simply shrugs at this. “I am simply commenting.”
“Your unsolicited comments are being taken under consideration,” says Bthemetz. She takes a long sip of tea, and adds: “You look like shit too, by the way.”
A laugh. There's something bitter in it, something tired. The exact opposite of the reaction she was trying to provoke.
“I appreciate the honesty,” Kagrenac says, and a slight smile appears for half a moment.
It's not a lie. It is easier to see now, under the bright glow of electric light, that she has not slept at all in days. Perhaps weeks.
She takes a long sip. Then, after her shoulders begin to untense, she asks:
“Are you well, Bthemetz? Have you been busy?”
Bthemetz puts down her cup.
“You're really not taking this 'no talking' thing seriously.”
“Bthemetz... I would just like to know the answer to the question; that is all.”
“If I didn't know better, I'd assume you were mocking me.”
She places down her cup. Her brow furrows.
“That couldn't be further from the truth.”
“You surely haven't forgotten how our last civil conversation in this place ended unfolded, have you, Rena? You can't pretend what was said meant nothing .”
Kagrenac, then, looks up from her tea to meet Bthemetz in the eye. Beneath the bright pigment, there are deep, tired circles. Perhaps she has not slept in weeks.
“I am trying to be civil, Bthemetz.”
“Well, I am not interested in civility. Why are you really here Kagrena? I assume you're hardly going to apologise and beg for my forgiveness, so what is it?”
“Bthemetz, quite sincerely, I have no ulterior motive.”
“Oh, come off that bullshit. What is it really, Kagrena? Is this some elaborate type of sabotage? Are you plotting something behind my back?”
“I would do no such thing. I am frankly somewhat insulted at the insinuation I would do so, especially from you , of all people.”
“From me , of all people?”
She leans forward. Closer.
“From you, who knows well enough that there are those in the Choir who would refuse to accept any victory of mine if there was the slightest indication of foul play.”
Her hand moves to cross her own. Her voice lowers, and she says softly:
“From you, who knows well enough that I would refuse to accept any victory if there was the slightest indication of foul play.”
It is maddening how distracting a simple touch can be.
“This is all…” She stops. Takes a moment. A breath. “Fine. Ok. Right. I believe you. Now, are you sure this isn’t some kind of self-sabotage? You’re not hurting yourself, by being here, are you?”
She blinks. Her eyes glance away - but just for a moment, before moving back to hers.
“I fully intend to face you tomorrow, Bthemetz. That has not changed, and will not change.”
“Good. I’m glad. I respect the integrity of the debate.”
She looks at her as fiercely as she might any opponent and yet, her fingers, somehow, have entwined themselves with hers.
“I wouldn’t… It’s just… you don’t look well, either,” Bthemetz finds her mouth saying, without thinking too much, without saying the words, I am concerned , because that would be far too emotionally earnest, wouldn’t it?
Somehow, though Bthemetz does not know how, her other hand has found its way into her hair, and her fingers are now gently running through it.
Neither of them say anything for the longest while.
“Is it sex? Because if it's sex, you should have just say so--”
“Right. Right. That's the sort of reckless, self-destructive thing I would do, isn't it? Not you. You would know better, wouldn't you?”
She is so close.
“Wouldn't you, Rena?”
Kagrenac could just slowly, tentatively lean forward, and their lips could touch. That's something she could do. Her hands are cradling her face, and she is perfectly positioned, actually, come to think. It would be easy.
(Her hands lingered over her ribcage, a place where a beating heart once lived.)
Bthemetz wouldn’t let her do something so reckless and self-destructive, would she?
(Her hands brushed over her ribcage, where her fingers tapped the pattern of something she was still bleeding from.)
You crossed swords many a time, tangled your blades in something fierce, and you could say, without qualification: he was the better swordsman. You could be clever, quick, -- imaginative, even, and could pull off a skillful maneuver with only a breath between you, but what was that in the face of someone so drenched in their self-loathing that their persistence only increased with every cut, every bruise, every mark on their body?
Especially from something grotesque.
You could have knocked him down ten, a hundred, a thousand times over and he would still peel himself off the mud, body slashed with a thousand cuts, and he would fight again. He would fight again. He would fight again, until he was a perforated piece of metal, and still, he would keep rising -- so determined, he was, to become what he was not.
A piece of silver.
You think on this concept: becoming. You think how it might have been him that first planted the seed in your mind: becoming. To change, and to grow. To become, to break the bounds of what you are. You think of how tragic it is, that the both of you, spun from a weightless dream with only half-tones of colour, could never amount to anything beyond a simple facade. All that possibility: all it was, empty.
He charges at you. You are quick - quick enough, sharp enough, on the final occasion, to slice his dignified sword out of hands and fling it half-way across the newborn stars. You smile, even as he continues to charge, and pins you beneath his weight.
His hands are covered, you realise, in blood. You begin to laugh.
If he had to do this, you would not have him use any gilded tool of Auri-el’s. If he had to do this, you would have him do this yourself. If he had to do this, you would make it be something grotesque.
“Why are you laughing, Shor?”
His hands dig deep into your chest and claw out your heart as it still beats in his hands.
“Why are you laughing?”
You laugh, in the end, because his hands are stained in your colours.
You laugh, in the end, because you are thinking about the warmth of an old memory. It tastes like rust.
She forgets exactly what they say as they summon a supposedly “dead” divine to vanquish her from the face of Nirn. Something about her disrupting the natural order, the dignity of place, that she’d have them all be wild casteless heretics, playing games with gods, disrespecting the remains of the last dreaming divines, that death would be too good for the likes of her. It was long, particularly boring, and she’d heard all of this flack before -- it wasn’t even particularly original.
What she does vaguely recall, as she is being torn apart inside and outside and shredded and shattered into a thousand pieces and set alight before she is flung to another place altogether, is how, for the supposed Sword of Auri-el, his armour has not been polished for a very long time. The coating has chipped away. It is stained, still, with the black blood of Lorkhan.
She vaguely recalls being delirious, and smiling at the thought.
Sometimes when you know each other like old habits, your bodies become a comfort to each other, old, weathered paths, well-trodden that your hands wander down, you’ve done this before, you’ve seen how far this wild garden grows, the taste of its fruit has become a memory that has softened and frayed -- you’ve dreamed of it, before, in those dull, half-tones you hear of in dreams, and it is as comfortable as it is delicious.
That is often how one ends up in a situation where your former lover is lying in your arms, in your bed, and you will curse yourself for your stupidity much later in the morning, when it becomes clear that both of your actions - this was a decision that both of you took, after all - have tangled things into an even greater mess, but in the dark stretch of morning before dawn, you are enjoying the comforts of what is familiar.
“I can’t sleep,” says Kagrenac.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep, not once, not anywhere, on Vvardenfell, not without hearing things. I thought here…”
The words trail off.
“Can you hear it now?” Bthemetz asks.
Bthemetz turns, and faces her, taking her hands and pressing them to her own chest.
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Kagrenac closes her eyes. She takes a moment to rest, in the arms of an old lover, Bthemetz is sure she considers to have betrayed her. It is comfortable there, after all, and sometimes moving requires more effort than we have.
“Yes,” she says, after a few moments. “Yes I can.”
The soft beat of a drum.
Even here. Even here, in the farthest flung corner from Nirn.
The soft beat of a drum.
Thanks for your patience. I decided to re-write what I had originally put for chapter X - and I am glad for it, because I feel this piece works far better, and is far more emotionally resonant.
This hasn't been beta edited by another person, and usually I would give myself more time to self-edit, but I would prefer to put this online in its current state than wait any longer. I apologise in advance for any glaring errors.