Chapter 1: Chapter One
1. Sotha Sil, Tribune, disappeared without explanation following the death of the Hortator.
Nerevar died as he always ought have, covered in blood and ravaged by war, and yet it was not at all as it should have been, and everything about it felt wrong. Almalexia had grown up on Boethiah’s scriptures and in girlhood she’d been told that glory took the form of blood. As she lay on the slopes of Red Mountain with her head on Nerevar’s chest, Nerevar’s glory clotting beneath her fingernails, she wondered whether it wasn’t time for the old scriptures to be retired.
After all, there was nothing particularly glorious about being slaughtered by one’s ex-lover over a religious dispute. Oh, it was romantic, of course, but it was not glorious. Almalexia had blessedly not witnessed the confrontation, but Vivec’s account of it was beautiful enough: Voryn Dagoth, passionately insane, dancing a lethal lovers' waltz with her poor sweet deluded now-very-dead husband. Vivec’s inclination towards the poetic was not what made it romantic. The situation was inherently romantic-- for the scandalous affair of the First Council to be brought down by the same scandal which lay low the Dwemeri alliance! That it was over the fate of the Heart of the World which Nerevar and Voryn had so irreparably broken was poignant in the utmost. There was even a lovely touch of irony in that, for all the times the Tribunal had played the wicked seducers to pure Nerevar, from whose loathsome grasp virtuous Voryn had longed to wrest him, it was to the Tribunal’s loving arms that dying Nerevar was delivered after Voryn had torn his chest asunder. No bard could concoct a more perfect tale, such was the romance of this fate.
But Nerevar’s death was not glorious. As Almalexia lay on the ruin of her husband’s body, listening to the stifled wet sounds of blood seeping into a fractured windpipe, she found it all terribly disappointing.
Their marriage had been one ruled by public appearance and oh, did Almalexia honour it that day. She lay on Nerevar’s body long after he expired, weeping against his glory-sodden flesh until pink streaks ran through the red sludge coating his broad arms. Even Azura, who’d appeared to take their oath, who’d watched without emotion as her most beloved champion choked to death on his own blood, must have been impressed by Almalexia’s performance; so moved was she by this feigned grief that she deserted like the rest of them. From their makeshift shrine on the slopes of Red Mountain Sotha Sil took his leave with Kagrenac’s tools, and Vivec had fled in fear of the glory which ran red from Nerevar’s flesh, and then Azura disappeared with nary a sigh for all the dead. With only the ash remaining as her spectator, Almalexia nonetheless lay atop Nerevar’s corpse, and wept, and wondered about obsolete scriptures, and tried to use the corners of his pauldrons to scrape the blood from beneath her fingernails.
Nerevar’s death was not glorious, but his wife weeping atop his body must have at least made it look tragic to the nonexistent onlookers.
Almalexia wept for a long time, and lay on him even longer, until her limbs were sore and her skin itched for the blood on it, and her ceremonial robes had grown uncomfortably stiff. She was very, very glad when the general of the Redoran approached her and roused her with a touch to her shoulder.
“My Queen,” said the general, apologetic.
Almalexia slowly lifted her head. Her appearance must have been appropriately frightful-- her loose hair soaked with blood and falling over a bloody, tear-streaked face-- for he balked at the sight of her. He began to ramble out conciliations, until Almalexia cut him off with a curt: “Your business.”
“We’re awaiting command,” said the general. “The Ashlanders are already departing, and with the Dwemer disappeared, we aren’t… we thought…” he quivered, his eyes fixed on Nerevar’s pale face, which was half-hidden by the mop of Almalexia’s bloody hair. “... What happens now?” he asked in a whisper.
Almalexia followed his gaze to Nerevar’s face. “I don’t know,” she confessed, her voice breaking as if she’d swallowed mouthfuls of ash.
A long pause. Then, “But, my Queen, what are your orders?”
She looked back up at him. “What orders.”
“We were given instructions to defer to the Tribunal in the case of… in the case of Hortator’s death.” He seemed as lost as she did at that moment.
Almalexia lay her head back down on Nerevar’s chest.
“My Queen, what does the Tribunal order…?”
Almalexia pressed a bloody hand to her forehead. Crying always gave her a terrible headache. “The Tribunal,” she began, wearily, “Declares that, with the Dwemer smote and the traitor of Dagoth dead, that the war is over. Send a courier to Indoril Llothis and tell him to tend the Hortator’s body. Send for the generals of each army and have them meet me at the central tent. Send couriers to find the rest of the Tribunal, have them meet me there as well.”
“At once, my Queen.”
Bowing to her as respectfully as if she weren’t lying on a corpse and weeping like a child, the general departed to carry out Almalexia’s orders.
She was left to lie there for a while longer, weeping. She stopped counting the passing hours long ago, but she could have told anyone precisely how long it took the general of House Redoran to locate Indoril Llothis and send him to tend the corpse of the Hortator: long enough for her limbs to grow stiff and the blood pooling in Nerevar’s chest to reach the consistency of scrib jelly. So long was she laying there that, when Llothis approached and she raised her head again, her loose hair was glued to Nerevar’s face, and when she prised herself off of him the act came with a sticky sucking sound.
“My Queen,” murmured Llothis, and she saw that he had not come alone; he was surrounded by healers and priests and many other great mer of House Indoril, all dutifully eager to tend to the fallen hero.
Almalexia rose unsteadily to her feet, but in her waiting she’d grown so weak and unsteady that she nearly collapsed. She saw immediately why the healers were here: they rushed to her, seizing her arms to help her stand.
“Do not touch me,” she rasped, shoving away the pitcher of water offered by some acolyte. Her dear Indorilia kin were as frightened of her as the Redoran had been, and they mulled about her fretfully, like priests around a soul-sick woman.
“My Queen,” said the miserable Llothis, “You should rest--”
“Rest?” Almalexia asked, standing straighter despite the terrible soreness of her body. Her hoarse voice rose in the imitation of something inspiring. “The father of our nation lies dead. How could the mother let our people languish in their time of need?” And she gave a short, tired speech to the Indorils, espousing self-sacrifice and the unbreakable bonds of family, as they began the arduous task of scraping up what remained of the Hortator.
Once the Indorils had been adequately reassured as to their Queen’s steadiness, Almalexia began the arduous trudge down the slopes of Red Mountain. Nerevar had them give their oath where they’d laid him, right on the ash in the open-- Vivec had only been able to carry him so far, while Sotha Sil and Almalexia had rushed up to meet them. Here on a flat expanse of tephra, where the sickly grey of the soil mingled with the sickly red of the skies, they’d erected their makeshift shrine and used their bodies to shelter feeble candle-flames from the howling wind, and the ceremonial-robes they’d donned had been dusty before they’d gotten their arms into the sleeves.
Five steps down the mountain, Almalexia turned and watched the Indorils kick away evidence as they gathered Nerevar from the ground. There had been no time to fetch the healers. That Sotha Sil ran up the mountain with robes and candles was a misunderstanding. That the ceremony was done here, with only the four of them, was fate’s whim. Almalexia bit her lip and tasted bloody ash.
The generals had long gathered by the time she shuffled into the war-tent. They, too, held the certain weakness common in all Great House mer, for they too were shocked at her gory appearance. By then she’d stopped crying, but a storm still blew outside and when she glanced down at her hands she saw the red on them had turned greyish-brown with ash.
“My Queen,” the unoriginal Hlaalu general began, “Are you al…” He had been meaning to say, are you alright , and had realized it was a foolish question that was and couldn’t finish it. “We await your instruction,” he said instead.
“My husband is dead,” said Almalexia. “The Hortator is dead.”
A hushed silence fell on the tent. Almalexia went to pull off the ceremonial robe she still wore, but blood had stuck it to her cuirass, and to peel it off would have made an utterly improper sound, so she let it stay.
“You must rest,” said the Redoran general, voice breaking in tears. “You have suffered so--”
“My people suffer more,” Almalexia interrupted him. “No longer. The war is won. The Dwemer have been smote by Azura for their blasphemy, as Sotha Sil decreed.”
“The Nords remain,” ventured the Dres general anxiously. “These outlanders--”
“Wulfharth died beneath the mountain. They will break. Send a contingent of mer to drive them back.”
“And the traitorous House Dagoth remains,” the Indoril general pointed out.
“House Dagoth’s fate will be decided by the coun--” Almalexia broke herself off.
“... By a council of House leaders?” the Indoril general suggested for her.
There was dried blood on her forehead, it tugged on her eyebrows when she frowned. “Yes,” Almalexia agreed, with a heavy wave of one hand. “Detain their leaders but do not let them be harmed.”
“House Dagoth has stolen territory from us,” the Telvanni general pointed out. “We should be able to reclaim it.”
Almalexia stared at him, mutely. She wiped a smudge of Nerevar’s blood from her cheek.
The Telvanni general averted his eyes and mumbled, “Surely they are no longer part of the Council--”
“The war is won,” Almalexia said again, slowly. “No more bloodshed. Let my children go home.”
A stifling silence fell over the tent.
This time Almalexia interrupted it by pulling off her bloody ceremonial robe, dropping the garment on the floor. “With Nerevar’s death, the Tribunal has authority.” She said it with a heavy weariness, as if listing her chores for the day. “So the Tribunal must confer. I sent for Sotha Sil and Vivec. Where are they?”
“The couriers are searching,” said the Redoran general gently. “My Queen, please, accept some water. Take some rest.”
“Where are the Ashkhans?”
“The Ashlanders won’t speak to us. They demand Nerevar’s presence.”
“Ah. The state of the armies?”
“Bloodied but happy. Celebrating the Dwemer’s miraculous demise…”
Bathed in his glory or no, Almalexia was but a pale shadow of Nerevar, and never was it more obvious than in that moment: when she stood there, covered in his blood, giving instructions to the generals about what armies could be dismissed and which House had jurisdiction over what necessary task. They listened to her meekly and offered little retort, cowed as they were by the gore she wore like a badge of office, but before long all present were painfully aware of the Emperor-Crab in the room: she was not their Hortator, and they were not obligated to listen to her. If House Telvanni decided to go in and raze Dagoth lands before the dust had even settled, she couldn’t do much to stop them.
At least they were polite enough to feign deference for her. They even looked away when she began to weep again, and with utmost respect, filed silently out of the tent to tend to their armies without so much as offering her a word of comfort.
For a span of time indiscernible Almalexia simply stood in the centre of a once-grand militia tent, facing a table strewn with maps, crying mutely again. Her head had begun to hurt and her skin itched beneath the blood smeared on it. She had always considered herself a practical woman, a woman of action, and so it vexed her greatly that she couldn’t think of anything better to do than stand there in an empty tent and sob. Indeed, she felt paralysed with indecisions: she couldn’t sit down, though her body ached for the weight of her cuirass and the abuses of the battle; she couldn’t stop crying, though she had no audience; she could not take water, for such an act felt too frivolous for the occasion; she could not wash the blood from her, for the thought of another loss after so much loss, the loss of Nerevar’s mortal remains from her skin, only made her cry a little harder.
So she could only stand there in her numbness and curse herself for thinking of nothing better. Because nobody came to comfort her, she stood there alone.
Almalexia did not count the hours, and she could not have said how long it took someone to find her there: by the time the tent’s door was pushed open to let in a gust of howling ashy wind she’d ran out of the strength to weep properly, and she’d been forced to resort to a sort of trembling, punctuated with hiccups.
She heard a sharp gasp, and a sort of strangled cry: “Ayem!”
“Vivec,” she replied, in a voice so hoarse it was barely more than a whisper. She turned to face hir.
Like her, Vivec wore a crimson stain on the front of hir armour, and hir arms blazed with red, but hir face bore only ash. Hir eyes were wide and hir whole body taught when ze froze in the tent entrance and took in the horrible sight before hir.
Vivec hated blood, Almalexia recalled, too late. Ze had fled because ze couldn’t stand the sight of Nerevar’s blood.
“Vivec,” Almalexia repeated herself, taking a tiny step towards hir, extending her arms. “Are you alrigh--”
Vivec swooped forwards, taking Almalexia in a tight embrace. One hand clasped the back of her head, guiding her face to a hot neck, while the other encircled her waist and found purchase along her side, in a patch of chainmail that had miraculously escaped the carnage of the day. “I’m here,” ze whispered, “I shouldn’t have left. I’m so sorry, Ayem, I shouldn’t have left you!”
Almalexia pressed her face into Vivec’s warm neck. “I’m fine,” she rasped, “I’m fine.”
“He’s dead, Vehk.”
“He’s gone. Everyone’s gone.”
Vivec rocked her side-to-side, stroking her loose hair and whispering shh, shh , as she pressed herself into hir and began to weep again: an impressive feat, she thought to herself, she’d thought she ran out of tear when the generals left.
Vivec pulled back, went to kiss her forehead-- only to notice the blood there, and instead ze pulled her back into a tight embrace. “I’m sorry I left,” ze said again.
“I thought you were gone too. I thought you left me too!”
“No! I’d never-- I went to see the Ashlanders. I had to see Alandro Sul.”
Beneath the stench of blood and sweat and ash there was a scent that purely belonged to Vivec. Almalexia peeked up at hir. “Alandro Sul? Why…?”
“He--” Vivec shuddered, and now it was hir turn to hide hir face in Almalexia’s neck. “The Ashlanders think we killed him. Alandro Sul blamed us for this. He called me--” ze drew in a quick breath, as Almalexia cupped the back of hir head and kissed hir cheek, “He called us murderers. They know we murdered him.”
“We didn’t murder him,” Almalexia said flatly.
Vivec pulled back and stared at her, wide-eyed. Blood had gotten smeared on hir cheek when ze’d embraced her.
“Well,” ze said shakily, after a moment, “The Ashlanders have left. They want nothing to do with us, not without Nerevar.” Ze shivered. “This is the end of the First Council, isn’t it?”
“I spoke with the generals,” Almalexia said, pressing a hand to hir cheek. “The Tribunal is in charge now. We’re going to convene a post-war council at Mournhold after his… after he…” She couldn’t finish that sentence. “He’s gone, Vivec. They’re all gone.”
“He had to die, Ayem, you yourself said he had to die--”
“But for him to leave us? How dare he?”
Mutely, Vivec shook hir head, and brought Almalexia’s bloody forehead to hir lips, rocking her slowly to-and-fro still. Almalexia was crying again, her hands aimlessly searching for something around Vivec’s waist, as if that indecision had paralysed her again, as if she couldn’t decide what she wanted to touch first, what she ought to hold.
“We should rest,” mumbled Vivec.
“There’s too much to do.”
“Others can do it.”
“What others, Vivec?”
“The Indorils, or--” Vivec shook hir head. “It’s already falling apart, it’s already over! Nothing will get worse if we rest. Even if it does, let the world fall apart while we sleep, we’ve endured too much already. This is the end, Almalexia, don’t you see?”
“He left the Tribunal in charge, Vivec--”
“Dead and he still piles so much on our shoulders! I thought murdering him would save us.”
“We didn’t murder him!”
“But we let him die!”
Almalexia pulled away from Vivec, turning away, head bowed. “There’s no purpose in arguing about this,” she said, wiping at her eyes and only succeeding in smearing more blood across her face. “There’s too much to do, there’s… I must… the Tribunal must…” Her shoulder slumped. “Where is Sotha Sil?”
Vivec stood hir ground and watched miserably from a distance. “He took the tools.”
“Where did he take them?”
“He took the tools, Almalexia, I don’t think…” A long pause, and Vivec began, with a thin, false optimism: “I’ll go search for him myself. Perhaps he’s in that makeshift laboratory of his. We’ll send couriers…”
When she’d tried to wipe the tears away, Almalexia had succeeded only in smearing blood from her dirty fingernails over her lids, and now she blinked the gore from her lashes, staring still at the ground. When they’d erected the tent they’d put an ornate rug down to protect valuable parchment maps from the ash, and the soul-gem shards they’d used as army markers were scattered on the floor. With the dim light of the tent’s interior scattered by rust-coloured tears in her eyes, the whole scene created a watery mosaic, with purple-and-crimson dapples swimming within a fringe fading to black.
“No,” she said, turning to look at Vivec, though ze was blurred as the rug was and her hands were too heavy to raise to her face, “I know him. You won’t find him, not any more.”
Vivec exhaled. “Then he’s gone, too.”
The Vivec-shapped blur came closer, and wiped the tears from Almalexia's face, so ze was crisp and clear in her vision when Almalexia replied, voice hoarse: "Everyone's gone."
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
TW: Descriptions of violence, descriptions of a corpse.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
- Dumac Dwarf-Orc, King of the Dwemer, slain by the Hortator in battle within the Heart Chamber.
When the Battle of Red Mountain ended, the foothills of Vvardenfell glittered.
As far as the eye could see, Dwemeri armour littered the land. The crests of helmets rose in irregular waves from between mounds of still-fastened cuirasses, with pauldrons rearing their spiked noses here and there like golden fish. Heavy boots sheltered beneath clam-shell fallen shields, while swords, axes, hammers, banners floated in the loose grasp of empty gauntlets. Though the air was thick with ash and the light was dull, the ground shone with polished metal, so many discarded adornments paving the path to Red Mountain with a gleaming copper sea.
The Chimeri plan had been based on trickery. The purpose of the battle was to lure the Dwemeri army out of their Red Mountain stronghold and then trap them in the field, leaving Nerevar and a small contingent of trusted friends to storm Red Mountain and root out whatever evil Kagrenac harboured therein.
Of course, it was called the Chimeri plan , which in the days of Resdaynia was shorthand for Nerevar’s plan , though in reality he probably didn’t deserve the credit. Nerevar was a hero and operated with a hero’s belief that the universe existed to cater to his whims. When Nerevar declared that the oceans should move, his allies would scramble to make it so, and then history would praise him alone for daring to part the waves. So, when Nerevar declared that the armies should be drawn out of Red Mountain, leaving it free for him and a small contingent to go by stealth-- a decision whose specifics were kept secret from even his allies, but which no doubt had to do with a surprise correspondence from the traitorous House Dagoth, with enigmatic contents but a profound effect on the Hortator-- well, it went without saying that the specifics of how were handled by his Tribunal, who had so faithfully enabled his heroism for so long.
In private, in the space between the three of them where no secrets were kept, the Tribunal’s opinion of Nerevar was not lofty. Vivec optimistically called him ‘our champion’, while Sotha Sil humorously referred to him as their ‘project’; Almalexia, when prodded, would simply call him ‘my husband’, which, when said with her tight grimace, was perhaps the most insulting nickname of the three. Regardless of what word they gave to Nerevar, the underlying sentiment was a mutual one: Nerevar was something they had created. He was the great hero of Resdayn, a century their elder and much more noticeable than any of them, but without his Tribunal, he would never have been much more than the shabby canvasari who had once found Vivec dying on the side of a road. For better or worse, the Tribunal had made him a hero. Whether or not Nerevar himself knew it, his great fortunes were no accident of fate or blessing of Azura’s; his success had been engineered by his counsellors tirelessly, and moreso than any prophecy his ascent was their work. From the very beginning they had counselled him, guided him, led him, and even, on occasion, gone behind his back to eradicate some threat, or smoothe his path-- Vivec, while drunk, had once confided in hir fellow Tribunes that the number of politicians ze’d seduced to afford Nerevar this opportunity or that information easily cleared the dozens.
That Nerevar alone received the credit for his heroics was a necessary evil of their arrangement, and when they’d first gone into it, still desperate and daunted beneath the Nordic thumb, it seemed a small price to pay. But the War with the Nords happened nearly three-hundred years ago, and none of them had been yet forty when that war began; they now had lived nearly their entire lives in Nerevar’s towering shadow, and their resentment had years to grow. Arrogant Almalexia had chafed at the insult since the day she wed him, but as the Battle of Red Mountain drew near, even Sotha Sil’s vanity was beginning to ache, and Vivec had developed in hir poetry a suspicious fondness for metaphors about gardens languishing for lack of light.
So, when Nerevar had declared they should pull the Dwemer forces into the field and pin them there, they had approached the task with a touch of poetic irony.
Almalexia did not come close to matching Nerevar in stature, but what she lost in physical height she made up for with her noble bearing. They had clad her in her husband’s ornate armour, polished until it shone with Azura’s light, and they surrounded her with his shield-bearers, and draped his banners over her pauldrons. On the gilded helmet she wore they even arrayed cliffracer-plumes in a mohawk, and though she was unaccustomed to fighting with a shield, they gave her his to wear on her left arm, so that she bore the moon-and-star before her like an announcement to the world: Nerevar rises!
When they had brought her before her husband, who was clad only in simple armour like a caravan’s guard, he laughed to see her so adorned, and he said, jokingly: ‘Almalexia, sometimes you are more myself than I am’. (It was, incidentally, the last affectionate thing he ever said to her.)
Nerevar wasn’t the only one who thought her disguise effective. When the Dwemer saw the Hortator’s gilded visage leading a vast army onto the battlefield, they assumed Nerevar intended to lay siege to Red Mountain, and they brought out their own armies to block all the vital positions. By the time they saw Hopesfire rather than Trueflame in the leader’s hand, it was too late, and the Chimeri right flank had already been brought up to cut them off from their own stronghold. The bulk of the Dwemeri armies were trapped on the battlefield with the bulk of the Chimeri forces, with the Dagoth-Outlander army approaching swiftly from the west.
So it was that the Battle of Red Mountain was staged: by a cunning design, to the frustration of all involved.
Almalexia would never know whether Nerevar intended that battle to be won in the field, or whether he expected some miracle within Red Mountain, or whether he hadn’t thought about how the main armies would fare at all. It was Sotha Sil who carried that day, his own trickery having forced Kagrenac’s robotic army into the Inner Sea before they reached the battlefield, and during the strife he’d rallied the battlemages into a magnificent defensive line, whose fire-spells seemed to ignite the very land even as the soldiers fought beneath them. Almalexia herself had stood with the House Generals, who were encouraged by Nerevar’s gilded armour even for the lack of the man within it; while they directed the flow of the battle, she rode to-and-fro on Nerevar’s guar, appearing wherever a line threatened to collapse or mer lost heart, and the very sight of the armour and shield were enough to renew their vigour and keep the forces together. Even while he was alive, the myth of Nerevar outgrew the mer himself.
The battle dragged on.
Nerevar’s armour was too heavy a weight to bear, and at some point between trying to convince their left flank to hold fast and watching a team of ashlanders bring down an entire Dwemeri airship, Almalexia chose to remove the helm. Her hair had flown loose like a banner of its own, then, and her people had revelled in the novel trick-- cunning Almalexia, deceptive Boethiah-in-flesh!-- and for a little while their moral had been restored anew, and they poured forth against the Dwemeri like lava from the mountain itself. For a moment it seemed as if their fortunes would turn.
Yet for all their lost blood, for all their wounds and their passions, the Dwemeri armies remained as stalwart as the automatons that bulked out their ranks. The morning wore on, and ground was neither gained nor lost. For the Chimer, this was ostensibly a victory-- all they had to do was repel the Dwemer from Red Mountain, keep the armies within the mountain from reaching the armies without. They accomplished this task nearly too well, for they held long enough for the battle to grow tedious: all acquired a predictable rhythm, and the tense fear of imminent death settled grotesquely into the realm of familiarity, and as monotony grew, morale began to wane. The line of the Dwemeri footsoldiers broke and reformed continuously behind their wall of spears as the front wriggled back and forth across the field, the automatons darted forwards in sporadic bursts only to be beaten back, and occasionally an airship would fly overhead, causing all to duck and hide beneath their shields.
Morning dragged into early afternoon and no sign of Nerevar’s miracle from Red Mountain came. An ash-storm kicked up, staining the already-murky air a heavy sepia, and there were brief lulls here and there as soldiers struggled to see where their spears were swinging through the ash, but no respite came with the poor weather. Some enterprising Dwemer corporal struck down Nerevar’s guar from beneath Almalexia moments before her sword ended his life, so she ended up among the rank and file. She cut the Dwemer down with dutiful regularity, until her growing dread gave way to exhaustion, and her ingenuity gave way to the apathetic routines instilled by so many years of training. Hopesfire in a neck. Dodge a blow. Kick someone aside. Face-to-face with a soldier, Hopesfire in a gut, kick him aside too. Her mer, a company of Indoril footsoldiers, had rallied around her when she dismounted, accompanying her as she hacked through the opposition.
Hacking was the right word for it. This was not fighting-- fighting was something glorious, for arenas and stories-- this was like cutting down understory. Gardening in a thick forest. A speartip flew towards her throat, but the mer beside her knocked it aside, and Hopesfire crackled brilliantly as it sank into the Dwemeri soldiers arm-- he looked a little like Dumac, this close, with a bushy beard-- he cried out, but a knife appeared in his hand, which he swung wildly towards Almalexia. Almalexia brought up Nerevar’s shield and loosed a fireball from behind it, which staggered him, and then she went to wrench Hopesfire from his arm--
Hopesfire jumped too-easily back into her grasp. The Dwemeri soldier’s armour crumpled to the ground.
Almalexia blinked the ash from her eyes. Where there had just been an enemy now lay a heap of shining brass metal, no longer even splattered in blood.
Her first thought was that she’d finally lost her mind (it wouldn’t have been the first time, after all.) But then a strange sound rippled across the battlefield, like a whole cascade of metal pouring onto the ground, Nirn’s noisiest rain; Almalexia turned her head to the side, and she saw that the Indoril who’d saved her looked just as confused, with a Dwemeri helmet dangling from the raised tip of his sword.
Before them, as far as the eye could see through the haze, the Dwemer lines collapsed-- not broke, but immediately collapsed, the soldiers disintegrating where they stood. As the Dwemer disappeared from within their suits, their armour fell to the ground like so many discarded tools, filling the air with a reverberating clash of metal.
In a moment, the endless battle had ended.
Then had come confusion, panic, until Sotha Sil gave a great speech, proclaiming in a prophet’s voice that Azura had smote the Dwemer for their atheism. This was followed by a raucous celebration, and while the westernmost companies waged a vicious attack against the oncoming Dagoth-Outlander army fueled by divine Chimeri righteousness, the eastern companies broke out the food and drink. Then came cheering, celebration, a rushed deploy of healers, blood-drunken singing, and then Vivec, covered in blood, appeared ghostlike from the storm before Almalexia and Sotha Sil, rambling about Kagrenac’s tools…
The Indoril soldier had kept that Dwemeri helmet. Now, several days after the battle, as they walked in the long military procession towards Necrom, Almalexia found herself walking alongside him and staring at it; it hung from his belt at his waist, clanking gently against his scabbard with every step.
The helmet was beautiful, as all Dwemeri craftsmanship was, with hard angular features and motifs representing a beard on the crests of its chin. Its eye-sockets were wide and dark, again reminding her, bizarrely, of Dumac, with his orcish face and his broad glittering eyes and a dazzling smile whose magnetic charisma was rivalled only by that of his dearest friend, her husband. Any mer who ever doubted the Dwemeri-Chimeri alliance could last needed only witness the races’ kings together to have all their fears allayed; when Dumac and Nerevar laughed together, it had been as if the very sun was contained in the room.
Almalexia had never much liked Dumac, but she had never been fond of any Dwemer. She mostly hated that they looked down on her. She was everything that they disdained in the Chimer: a career politician, a woman, a monarch, a Daedra-reverent, unlearned in machinery or magic, young for her station. She didn’t speak their language, she couldn’t understand their contraptions, she was frightened of their centurions; they had little patience for her. Kindhearted Dumac had tried to befriend her once, long ago, but that was soon after Nerevar had cornered her into their marriage-alliance and she was bitterly suspicious of anyone the new Hortator saw as a friend, so he’d quickly been discouraged from his well-meaning efforts. By no-one’s fault but her own, Almalexia spent most meetings with the Dwemer staring quietly at her hands and waiting in vain for them to begin speaking in Aldmeris again.
She fancied, as she slowly trudged alongside Nerevar’s funeral-cart, staring at the empty eyes of the Dwemeri helmet, that its vacant expression contained that same deep disdain she’d so often seen in the living. Its angular lips grimaced at her and she grimaced back.
The Indoril soldier noticed her scowl. “My Queen?” he said, nervous. “What’s wrong?”
Almalexia forced her expression to soften. “I was thinking about Dumac,” she explained gently. It wasn’t entirely a lie, and it sounded better than ‘that helmet is insulting me’.
The soldier, realizing what had upset her, self-consciously touched the trophy hanging at his waist. “You must have known him well,” he said. “He was a good friend of the Lord Hortator’s, we all heard. I wonder if the Lord Hortator knew that heathen would betray him so…?”
“He was a good friend of Nerevar’s, yes.” Almalexia glanced towards the funerary cart. “I wish someone had taken Dumac’s armour from within Red Mountain. Dumac cannot escort him to Necrom personally, but some symbol of his should.”
“But Dumac was a heathen, and a traitor!”
“Nonetheless, my husband loved him to the end. It is Chimeri tradition for one’s beloveds to escort them to the grave.”
Indeed, the whole nation had loved Nerevar, so the funeral procession looked more like a military rally, so many mer had come to grieve. As his wife and Queen, Almalexia marched near the head of it, bound by marriage and tradition to the funerary cart that bore his ravaged body.
The funerary cart wasn’t a real cart, for it had no wheels, being instead borne by six mer who took it in turns to carry their leader to the city of the dead. So beloved was Nerevar that there was no shortage of carriers, and they were changed out every hour, so that everyone might have a chance to lift high their leader, elevating him high above them as they’d done in life. Neither Vivec nor Almalexia carried him-- they’d done enough of that already, Almalexia cynically assumed-- but it was custom for the deceased to be escorted by their family with every step. Since Almalexia was his wife and thus his only living family, she was obliged to follow close behind the funeral-bearers, keeping constant vigil over her husband’s body.
It was not the Chimeri way to cover their dead in shrouds. The corpse was still the mortal incarnation of the soul it bore, and until its necromantic resurrection, it would be kept uncovered for all to see; Nerevar lay bare to the world. They’d clad him in his armour, the same armour Almalexia had worn into the field, cleaned and polished so it shone just as he’d shone in life, and the Indorils (neither remaining Tribune could bear the task) had washed his skin and pressed wax over his wounds, concealing the ruin his lover had wrought upon him.
The work was impeccable, and his distant admirers might have praised how lifelike he yet seemed, but for Almalexia it was sickening to look upon. They’d gotten it all wrong. Nerevar would never lie so still and peaceful in the bed of roses they’d placed him in; even in his deepest sleep he was active as a nix-hound, twitching and murmuring such that it woke her up too often. He didn’t ever sleep on his back, either. He preferred to sleep with his arms around something-- pillows, or Almalexia herself when they were on good terms, a habit she privately found stifling-- and if he were alive, he’d surely have stolen all the comforting roses from the left side of the cart, the side where she slept.
From the corner of her eye, Almalexia saw the Indoril soldier fidget with the helmet on his belt. “Should I…” he began uncertainly, “Place this one on the cart?”
His earnestness was endearing, but Almalexia could only sigh. “Keep it,” she said. “It’s your spoils of war.”
At dusk the caravan drew to a stop, and cooking fires appeared along the fringes of the road like so many stars. Almalexia herself, dutifully keeping the ceremonial vigil, took her seat on the edge of the funeral cart and waited. She was hungry from the march, and she debated going over to some cooking fire or another, but she was prevented from action by a childishly self-conscious hangup: who would she go over to?
The Indorils were her kin but not her family, and the idea of enduring snide comments about how her husband died childless was appetite-killing, so they were no option. As for friends outside her family, her social circle was somewhat limited by her own keen paranoia and the trappings of royalty, and severely depleted after the battle. Of course, she was the Queen, and she could have been welcomed graciously by any faction-- but then what? She could only imagine awkward stares. A cluster of mer around a fire, gawking at the grieving woman with pity, as if she were broken, or otherwise every hard gaze an accusation, full of resentment that she dared not be Nerevar. No-- it was better to go hungry, sitting here in the dark with the corpse, staring vacantly into the gloom.
Scarcely any light remained when Vivec came over, a wickwheat roll in one hand and a bowl of stew in the other. Ze paused a distance from the cart and called out: “Ayem, come eat.”
“I can’t,” Almalexia replied, waving to the corpse vaguely.
“You can take a break. Just ten minutes.”
“It’s tradition, Vehki.”
Vivec sighed and stepped forwards into view. “Aren’t you cold?”
“A little. These robes are thin.” Almalexia plucked at the sleeves of the silver ceremonial robes she’d been clad in. Widow’s robes, Vivec had called them darkly; in Velothi tradition, all the deceased’s family members should be dressed in such robes, but Nerevar had been an exile from his own clan and the only family he had he inherited in marriage. House Indoril, who dwelled primarily in subtropical Deshaan, favoured light silk garments with too many banners and too much lace, which offered little protection from the volcanic chill of Stonefalls.
Vivec hirself had escaped the gloomy claddings, being no official family of Nerevar’s, though all things considered ze was more Nerevar’s kin than Almalexia or the Indorils had ever been. Ze wore a plain tunic and trousers that befit hir nature but not hir status, and a dull moth-wool cloak that made Almalexia’s hand itch when ze came over and thrust into her arms the wickwheat and the soup.
“Thank you,” Almalexia murmured, taking the offering.
“It’s nix-hound again. I hope that’s okay.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, it smells…” she trailed off, sniffing.
“... Like a corpse?”
Darkness had fully descended on them, but Vivec’s eyes glinted in the moonlight when Almalexia caught them; the two burst into laughter. As Almalexia dug into her meal, Vivec climbed into the cart, draping hir sturdy legs over Almalexia’s thighs and burying hir bare feet into the warm nook between her lower back and the cart’s edge. Nerevar lay quiet and still beside them.
Vivec entertained Almalexia as she ate, regaling her with the day’s news; while she kept vigil over the hortator, ze served as her eyes and ears among the people. The nation was entering into a period of shock and mourning. For now, Nerevar’s legacy was enough to maintain unity among the Houses, and the Ashlanders had not made their reappearance since they fled Red Mountain in the disastrous aftermath. The two of them estimated over dinner that they had a grace period of a month or so in which they could trust the nation not to implode, a grace period they would use to inter Nerevar in Necrom with all the ceremony and pomp his greatness demanded, but already Almalexia could smell a diplomatic crisis on the winds, and she did not anticipate that their future in Mournhold would be in any form restful.
After she’d eaten, Almalexia told Vivec a few bits and pieces about her own day, including the conversation with the Indoril soldier who’d stolen the Dwemeri helmet.
“A lot of them did that,” Vivec said with a shrug. “Take the Dwemeri armour. There was so much of it, I don’t know what else we’d do with it.”
“We’ll have to keep an eye on the markets,” Almalexia replied. “An influx of Dwemeri armour will hurt the blacksmiths. Maybe we ought to tax Dwemeri armour. I’ll raise it with the council…”
“Mmm.” Vivec’s head was bowed, and the moonlight glinted off of hir shaved head. “It’s true what you said about Dumac. I should’ve grabbed his armour. I’m sure it’s still lying where… well… he was dead when Kagrenac disappeared. His corpse disappeared, too. I think all the corpses did.”
“Not just the corpses. The blood on our weapon disappeared in the field. Have you looked closely at the scavenged armour? The only blood on it is Chimeri, I promise you.” She adjusted herself beneath Vivec’s legs, trying to gain a little more warmth from them. “What did Nerevar say, when they disappeared?”
Vivec tilted hir head back towards the sky, and the moonlight caught hir sharp cheekbones and the arch of hir large nose, and hir thin lips curled into a frown. “He said... ‘ow’.”
“He said ow.”
“Dumac had hit him with a hammer a few times before that. I think he broke a rib.”
“Kagrenac struck the heart and disappeared in the blink of an eye, and all he said was ow ?”
“This is Nerevar, Ayem! Were you expecting something poignant, something lyrical? He was never a poet. He said, ‘ow’, then he said ‘I think I broke a rib’, and then he said, ‘Where did Kagrenac go?’” Vivec shifted again, scooting closer to Almalexia. “What did you say to the troops?”
Almalexia embraced Vivec’s shin as it came to rest against her chest. “I didn’t say anything,” she admitted, adjusting herself so that her knee wouldn’t poke Vivec’s rump. “Sotha Sil made the proclamation.”
“Sotha Sil did? Odd.”
“He grew up in an Azura-worshiping house. No matter how much he claims to hate Azura, you don’t just forget those habits. He told the mer that Azura had smote the Dwemer for their heresies, that it was she who made them vanish.”
“And they believed it?”
“We-- they-- were exhausted. We were just glad it was over. When you receive a horse as a gift, you don’t check its teeth.”
“That’s such a Skyrimisk saying. What would Nerevar think?”
Almalexia gave Vivec a gentle punch on the leg, and the two of them fell into comfortable silence for a little while, pointedly looking away from the corpse that lay so near them.
“Voryn killed him,” Vivec finally broke the silence, hir voice thin and strange.
“I know,” Almalexia murmured. “Poor Nerevar.”
“No, Voryn killed Dumac. He-- Nerevar struck him down, but he couldn’t make the final blow, so Voryn did it for him.” Ze spoke quickly, face averted, as ze did when recounting anything unpleasant.
Almalexia sat up straight, squinting at hir through the gloom. “Really? Voryn?”
“Voryn’s a sorcerer, but he had a small knife, and-- Nerevar had cracked that cuirass, so… a quick stab to the chest...” Vivec squeezed hir eyes shut. “I thought he would take Dumac’s heart. It would’ve had some sick poetic irony, wouldn’t it? But he was just sparing Nerevar the pain.”
“... Do you think Dumac truly knew about Lorkhan’s Heart? When Nerevar went to confront him that day.”
“You ask that now, Ayem? After we argued so strongly that he did?”
“Does it matter whether I believed it? It served our purpose. We had our war and my husband is dead, just like we planned.” Noticing Vivec’s pained expression in the moonlight, she herself bowed her head, looking towards one of Nerevar’s shining boots that lay atop the roses by her side. “Beside, it makes no difference, in the end. Voryn was the one who convinced him that Dumac knew. You and I both know that man had his ear more than we did. It wouldn’t matter what we said, Voryn would have had this war started even if we tried to stop it.”
“Do… Do you believe Dumac knew, though? Do you think he was innocent?”
“I could hardly understand the Dwemer when they were our allies. You tell me, Vehki, you knew them better.”
“But Nerevar knew them best.”
“But he’s dead.”
“And the Dwemer are gone, and none of this matters now.”
The two of them stared at the corpse for a while longer. Bathed in moonlight, Nerevar glowed like a thing ethereal, his expression uncannily serene as it never had been in life. For Nerevar, at least, the end was truly the end: there was nothing for him now but the blissful rest of the grave. They would perform the funeral rites of the Chimer, but Almalexia supposed that his soul would truly be taken to Moonshadow; even now, she could imagine that he wore the stupefied expression his corpse did while lying in a crystal pool, nibbling grapes from the petite hands of Azura Herself.
(Strangely enough she struggled to imagine Nerevar at peace for long; he would probably seduce Azura and then start a revolution among her Twilights. The thought made her smile, and she turned away her face so Vivec wouldn’t see it.)
Vivec murmured something indistinct, rousing Almalexia from her fantasy. She blinked, raising her head. “Hm?”
“I said, I’m glad he died.” Vivec’s head was bowed, hir eyes were fixed on Nerevar’s face. “When Dumac died, he didn’t weep, but I could see in his face that he broke at that moment. As if all the light went out of him. I don’t think he realized until that moment that this was the end, but when he realized… Ayem, I wept for him. Call me sentimental, but when he broke, we all did.” Vivec’s hand darted out, gripping the metallic cap of the dead man’s boot. “I’m glad he died. If we hadn’t killed him, he’d have died of a broken heart.”
Almalexia exhaled and reached out, pressing her hand over Vivec’s, over the boot.
“I know it’s evil of me.” mumbled Vivec.
“It’s not evil. You’re right, Nerevar died when Resdayn died.”
“It would’ve been cruel to let him survive this.”
“Yes. We’ve done him a great kindness, sparing him from what we’re now… sparing him from this.”
“From being leftovers, useless--” Vivec’s voice broke, and in the thin light Almalexia saw hir don a forced smile, shrugging hir shoulders. “You’re right, we did him a great kindness. He’d have hated to lie still for so long.”
Almalexia adopted her own forced smile, trying to make herself sound teasing. “And in a bed of roses, Vivec, can you imagine what he’d say? He always hated opulence. He’d…” She faltered, then broke off with a sigh. “I’m so tired.”
Vivec turned over hir hand, squeezing hers. “Go rest then.”
“The family needs to stand vigil, and I’m the only family he has.”
“Nobody would notice you gone for the night.”
“The Indorils would. They already think I’m a disappointment, I won’t give them more cause to vex me. Besides, it… it wouldn’t be right to leave him.” She squeezed Vivec’s hand in turn. “It’s not so bad,” she said reassuringly, her tone lightening again. “The bed of roses is a soft one. I think I sleep better beside his corpse than I ever did when he lived.”
She’d meant it as a joke, but Vivec only gave her a heartbreaking frown, and she couldn’t meet hir gaze. She hung her head.
But then Vivec shifted, using the legs still in her lap to draw her closer, and Almalexia found herself pulled into a warm, wooly embrace. Without explanation or unnecessary words, Vivec coaxed her down into the bed of roses, beside the corpse, and she found herself safe and secure in a cocoon of limb and wool cloak, with Vivec’s warm chest held tight to her own, and Nerevar’s cold arm pressed against her back.
No more words passed between them. Just as Nerevar’s corpse was unnaturally silent, the two could find nothing to say.
Thank you SO much to @Ascended_Sleepers for beta'ing this chapter! I have very little experience in writing battles so her expertise was greatly appreciated.
III. Voryn Dagoth, Lord High Councilor of House Dagoth, slain by the Hortator in battle within the Heart Chamber.
Almalexia had been deathly afraid that the melancholy which permeated everything after Nerevar’s death would have seeped into Mournhold too. She had been away for a month, when all was said and done; when they’d marched out to the final battle it had been the middle of Last Seed, and Hearthfire was drawing to a close when they approached the eleven gates of Ald Mourning. By then Nerevar’s death had flooded over the nation, grief choking the land, and on their long return journey all they’d passed had seemed black, gloomy, coated in lamenting grey malaise.
Her fears were unfounded. Despite its name-- Mournhold , the Mourning-Hold, Mourning, whose name spoke so much loss-- Almalexia’s city stayed pure.
City of light! City of magic! Mournhold was the crown jewel of Resdayn, a glittering diamond among ebony and obsidian, and as much as it belonged to its Queen, Almalexia belonged to Mournhold. Mournhold was a magnificent city, circular and partitioned into tidy sections, with eleven vast gates dotting its impenetrable silver walls. The city within was abundant with public gardens and deep cool freshwater canals, splendid temples and long rectangular kinhouses, expansive plazas with clean gleaming marble pavings, arenas and theatres and libraries; the days of Resdayn had been prosperous and this prosperity radiated out of the city’s very stones. At the northmost section of the city was the castle, the First Council’s worldly domain; shaped as a crown with its great triangular spires, looming over the city noble and proud as the monarchs it held, with its many attendant-buildings flocking around the fringes of its skirts: the barracks, the temple, the armoury, the Indoril Kinhouse, the food-gardens (Almalexia’s personal pride and joy). All the main streets of the city flowed to the main plaza at the castle’s foot, wide and pulsing with life, carrying nourishing decrees out of the royal complex, carrying the love of her people in.
Oh, of course they had lined the streets with memorial tapestries, and the air hung thick with the smoke of funeral pyres as soldiers were slowly returned to their families. Of course the faces of the citizens were respectfully solemn as they passed. But the wind was warm and humid, the sun clear and hot as it shone down upon them. When Almalexia’s small entourage entered the city through its cardinal eastern gate they were ushered through by anxious-looking guards, and the citizens, who had been so busily rushing to and fro, paused to line up along the street and welcome them in, and their faces were joyous and impatient, as if welcoming her in with selfish gratitude: the Queen is returned, let our business finally go on as usual.
Almalexia loved their selfishness and she loved them. Their selfishness was so very reassuring to her-- all relationships have motives, all relationships serve a purpose. The relationship between a Queen and her people was blessedly straightforwards, for their light hand and generous handouts of the castle made her popular. Other relationships were hardly ever so clear.
Walking by her side, Vivec waved to the people with one hand and held Almalexia’s arm with the other.
The castle, too, was ostensibly in mourning, but Almalexia knew it better and to her it was bright and clear as a sunrise. They crossed the great plaza and were met at the gate by the Mournhold garrison (no longer the Shouts as they had been in her youth), who greeted them with love and then hurried off to welcome the column of soldiers at their back. Almalexia led Vivec by the hand through the grand entrance, which lead straight into the Throne Room, a long triangular gallery with tall pointed spires lining each broad wall, sweeping inwards to the pointed back of the room behind a raised platform which served as throne. Before this platform, at the base of its wide stairs, a little clutch of nobles waited to meet them, what few hadn’t been at the battle itself.
Their ranks were first broken by a petite fair-haired woman in crimson mourning-robes. She swept forwards, taking Almalexia away from Vivec and into her own arms, and, unabashed by the many eyes on them, kissed her directly on the mouth. Almalexia didn’t reciprocate, but when the Duchess released her she laughed and took her face between both hands. Duchess Mora Ilinalta Ra’athim was pretty, with a round human-ish face and pale blue eyes that betrayed an ancestry that could be traced, it was said, to distant Atmora. They had met a long time ago, when they each were still cowering and wilted beneath the heavy yoke of the Nords, and now Ilinalta was one of the few mer the chronically mistrustful Almalexia would consider a friend.
“Welcome back, beautiful,” Ilinalta murmured, leaning into her.
“Ili, what would our husbands say?” Almalexia whispered in reply, smiling; an old joke of theirs.
Ilinalta gave her a peck on the cheek, then stepped away, raising her voice. “My Queen, on behalf of Mournhold we offer our sympathies. All of Morrowind grieves your lost husband. House Mora mourns our cousin Nerevar with you, and we are at your disposal in this difficult time.”
Almalexia nodded to her. “Thank you, Duchess. You’re a faithful friend to me.” Her eyes flickered over Ilinalta’s shoulder, to where the Duke of Mournhold stood, idle and embarrassed. If he had any strong opinions on his wife having kissed the Queen, he hid it behind a sympathetic smile.
“We’re glad that he didn’t die in vain,” continued Ilinalta, her smile returning to her small mouth and her eyes crinkling, “The miraculous defeat of the Dwemer was heard by everyone. Only Saint Nerevar could have achieved something so grand!”
“Azura blessed us,” Almalexia replied politely.
“A great blessing indeed!” Ilinalta stepped forwards again, taking Almalexia’s arm, and her voice lowered as she said: “You must be so tired. It’s going to take a great effort to clean up those captured strongholds. Lady Ayem, let me take care of them for you. The Ra’athim have extensive records of Dwemeri strongholds, from our ebony surveys, we’ll help you claim and audit them all, you need not worry, you can take your time and rest…”
All relationships had motives, and the Ra’athim ruled an empire of ebony. Almalexia touched Ilinalta’s shoulder and stepped away from her. “I would be thankful,” she replied, and that wasn’t entirely a lie; like the love of her citizens, she could purchase Ilinalta’s love with mining permits, straightforwards and easy.
If she could determine what someone wanted from a relationship, she could provide it to them, and then she could trust them, and they would not leave. She’d never been able to figure out what to buy Nerevar with, or Sotha Sil, and Vivec had caught onto the trick the moment she’d tried it with hir, because ze used it too.
When she glanced over her shoulder, Vivec was already gone, disappearing into the bowels of Mournhold as ze was so prone to do.
After the usual platitudes from the nobles, Almalexia was swarmed by her staff, the steward and the treasurer. The treasurer was directed to Ilinalta, while the steward took her instructions for the remaining army and then handed her off to the lead handmaiden, who guided her to her room, to do as the Duchess had bid and rest.
Truly, it was Almalexia’s room, and hers alone; she and Nerevar had stopped sharing a long time ago. To any who did not know them well, perhaps, the farce would seem convincing enough. The chambers were large, after all, large enough for the both of them and still filled with all the royal possessions. But in truth the chambers were all Almalexia’s, given to her, like all else in this city, by the right of birth and blood. They had first been her mother’s chambers, and some of Almalexia’s earliest memories involved tip-toeing across the floor, clambering into the massive bed; after her mother’s death, the Jarl had them converted to mere storage out of spite; once Mournhold was liberated Almalexia had the many crates hauled out and had redecorated the room to her own whims, and so it had remained ever since. Almalexia’s own childhood room, just down the hallway in what was diplomatically called ‘Mephala’s antechamber’ by the habitually-adulterous Chimer, remained as a guest-room for certain honoured visitors, though by the time the Nords were thrown out Almalexia was all-together rather soured on taking lovers. The ‘antechamber’ remained infrequently used until long after they’d wed, when Nerevar claimed it as his own.
Why Nerevar saw it fit to take his own room was as plain as the name given to it. Though adultery was a well-established custom in Chimeri politics, Nerevar was born a commoner, with a commoner’s idealistic notions about love and sex and marriage, so he remained frustratingly bashful about his multitude of affairs. Almalexia couldn’t work out why he’d been so secretive; she didn’t believe he was so fond of her to be worried about her feelings, so her best guess was that he was afraid of her potential wrath, her offense. In truth he need not have bothered. If he’d taken Voryn into his arms before her eyes and kissed him, she’d probably have watched the scene with a polite, embarrassed smile, the same sort of smile she’d seen on Ilinalta’s husband. Perhaps it was Nerevar’s view of himself that lead him to be so secretive-- he considered himself such a grand hero, and what sort of hero cheats on his wife? Perhaps he felt guilt for the fact the marriage had been his idea, that Almalexia had hurt and wept over it, that his lovers were an insult to the great sacrifice she made. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to give her leverage against him.
Almalexia’s chambers were, like most rooms in the castle, triangular, the sides sloping towards a dramatic point in the centre of the ceiling. One wall faced east and was filled with large triangular windows, like a row of interlocking daggers. The floor was tiled with marble and ivory, covered in thick rugs, the bed was tall and overly-soft with all its furs and pillows, and there were perhaps too many shelves with books, too many racks of fine clothing, too many tables with parchments or maps or dining-sets with honey-nut treats and clay jugs of sujamma, too many vivid paintings upon the walls. There was a tapestry depicting Boethiah’s devouring Trinimac, a set of mechanical dovahbo hanging in a chandelier with crystals before one window, and in front of another window, a flute on a chair beside a stand with a sheaf of music. An empty mannequin to match Nerevar’s stature, and a shrine of Azura by his side of the bed, were the only feeble testament that husband and wife had ever dwelled together.
Nerevar had hated Almalexia’s excess. His own room was bare, conservative, its only decorations tributes to Azura or himself. He preferred to let his clutter sprawl across the very castle, as public as he was and in no fear of loss, but he had never seen what sort of famines the Nords could cause. These indulgences made Almalexia feel secure.
Her handmaidens had already prepared the room for her, lighting incense and placing a fresh meal on the table. The castle had exquisite bathing facilities but, mindful of what hardship the Queen had already been through, they’d hauled in a bathtub and filled it with boiling water, sprinkled with rose petals. The rose-petals made Almalexia frown-- she hated roses, she’d have to remind Vrusa-- but the moment she was alone she stripped her travel-clothes off of her and sunk into the near-intolerably hot water. It seeped into the very core of her, after months on the road. They’d paused to bathe in rivers and taverns when the opportunity presented itself, but until this moment, bathing beneath Mournhold’s strong clear light, she hadn’t felt clean . She spread her fingers out just beneath the water’s skin and fancied she could see flecks of blood floating free from beneath her nais.
A long bath, an exquisite meal, a switch into the light billowy summer-dress someone had left out for her, and Almalexia felt thoroughly convinced that whatever death emanated from Nerevar’s corpse had not touched Mournhold. If she weren’t still playing the part of the grieving wife, she’d have sung; as it was, she had to settle with sinking into the chair by her window, staring out at the city and playing a few notes on the flute.
The flute had been a gift from Vivec. Almalexia was too impatient to be good at any musical instruments, but when Vivec had sat her down to teach her, she’d forced herself to sit and learn. The fact that her teacher was Vivec inspired a hitherto-unknown diligence in her. The joy of creating art had never persuaded her to do anything, but the notion of seeing Vivec smile and hearing Vivec praise her talent was a powerful motivator, for reasons Almalexia couldn’t quite place.
All relationships had a motive, even as cherished a one as hers with Vivec. Almalexia’s selfish motive was Vivec’s smile: seeing Vivec happy and safe was her private greedy delight.
(She had, incidentally, never worked out what Vivec wanted from her, and that worried her sometimes. If she had no leverage with which to convince hir to stay, what was to stop Vivec from leaving, too? With Nerevar gone, there was nothing to pin hir to Mournhold, no convenient debt.)
Where was Vivec, anyway? Almalexia, no longer content, placed down her flute.
Peace was her enemy; when her hands were idle, she had time to brood. Unfortunately, the First Council was in ruins, and until a meeting of House representatives could be convened over the next week her political ambitions were limited. The matters of the castle were up-to-date, so there was no sense in bothering the steward, and seeking out the treasurer ran an unfortunate risk of encountering sweet Ilinalta, who would no doubt use Almalexia’s sorry mood to extract more boons. A little frantic, Almalexia turned her mind to smaller tasks, eagerly seeking some errand or another that must be done now that Nerevar was gone: erect a shrine for him in the Temple, a place for him in the Indoril Ghostfence? Reclaim his armour from the soldiers? Check the state of her garden, perhaps commission a bust to stand alongside the Tears of Amun-Shae? That latter one she shook away at once-- if there was a more unsavoury place on Nirn than a shrine to her mother and her husband, Almalexia couldn’t think of it.
Finally, Almalexia settled on plucking the sujamma from the table and drifting, idly, to Mephala’s antechamber-- Nerevar’s room.
It was just as she’d expected it to be, all in disarray from those frantic few nights before they’d ridden off to war. The bed was unmade, the candles drowned in their own wax, a brazier near the door was still filled with far too much ash. Clothing lay in piles on the floor and a cupboard stood ajar. Nerevar was a disciplined man, with respect for his own surroundings, but the looming Battle at Red Mountain had shaken everyone and one could hardly fault him for being sloppy. She wondered, vaguely, why the servants hadn’t touched it-- they had never touched it in his life, for it was common knowledge that this was where Nerevar kept his secrets, but she wondered how, in death, they could resist the urge to snoop. Here she was, after all, succumbing to the urge to snoop.
Feeling somewhat like a child breaking into her mother’s cupboards, Almalexia tip-toed across the threshold. Tragic as Nerevar’s passing was, she had always wanted an excuse to look through his room.
It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for-- here, on the pillows, she found several strands of long black hair. Then in the crevice between headboard and wall she found a single golden bangle, inscribed with scarabs. She flung herself on her belly across the bed, then wriggled over so that her head hung over the side, peeking underneath it-- those certainly weren’t Nerevar’s undergarments left lying on the floor. She sat back up, pushing her damp hair back away from her face, and then she flitted over to Nerevar’s writing-desk; among tentative battle-plans and scraps of journal entries, crammed into the corner of one drawer, was a single letter, a love-poem.
Laughing to herself, Almalexia jumped back onto Nerevar’s bed and lay back, picking the long black hairs off the mattress and idly weaving them around her fingers as she scanned the letter. The workings of Voryn’s mind eluded her, and she could never decide whether he was a naive lovesick fool or a cunning manipulator to rival her own deceits. The love-letter was sincere enough, she supposed, if not cloyingly floral, its prose too purple, its descriptions ( Stalwart as the sun, every bit as shining; wellspring of warmth, my heart delighting! ) flattering at best. Still, Almalexia mercifully tried to see the Nerevar captured within the parchment, Nerevar as Voryn saw him: radiant, dangerous, warm. As she read on, she became more and more convinced that whatever the Lord High Councillor had felt for her husband was sincere-- even the most fastidious seducer couldn’t feign something like this. The give-away was in the little habits Voryn had singled out. To Voryn, Nerevar’s booming voice was heartening (Almalexia called it obnoxious); his hair was a towering banner of his nobility (Almalexia had complained that the resin made her pillows greasy); his laugh was like a playful brook in spring (Where did one even find playful brooks on Vvardenfell?); those observations borne only from intimacy, which Almalexia had come to hate, were proof of Voryn’s adoration. This love, such as it was, had been real.
So he loved Nerevar. It made sense-- being the Hortator’s concubine, for anyone other than Almalexia, was a profitable business indeed. If she were the leader of a remote Great House in the hostile wastes of Vvardenfell, would she have come to love him too? She couldn’t imagine what would ever compel her to call someone ‘Stalwart as the sun’. Vivec might, but that was Vivec, ze hirself was a poet and made of light incarnate besides, so ze would understand, but hir own poetry would no doubt be much more artful.
She threw the letter aside, then embraced the nearest pillow and buried her face in it. She’d thought it would smell like Nerevar, and she’d be able to pine over that, as all grieving lovers were meant to do, but it only smelt like sweat and dust and the remnant of unfamiliar perfume. She embraced it nonetheless; she wasn’t sure what to do with herself, so pretending to be a grieving lover seemed as good an option as any, even without an audience.
She rolled over then, and-- to her horror-- found she did, in fact have an audience. She sat up, blushing. “Vivec.”
Vivec remained in hir travel-clothes, hovering in the door and watching her with a strange expression. “Ayem.”
“I was just…” Almalexia tried to explain, sitting up, still hugging the pillow to her chest. She felt embarrassed, as if she were that child, and her mother had just walked in on her snooping about the ceremonial robes. “Voryn wrote him a letter,” she said, with a pale smile, pointing at the parchment she’d thrown on the floor. “I was taking inventory of this room. We’ll need to clean it out, now that… for… we’ll need to clean it.”
Almaelxia shrugged, and Vivec stepped inside, perching lightly on the edge of the bed. A profoundly awkward silence fell between them.
“You said we ,” Vivec finally said.
Almalexia frowned. “You don’t need to clean it if you don’t wish to. I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of everything.”
“Yes, everything.” Vivec looked away.
“If you wish. I’m still the Queen.”
Vivec shifted, eyes directed on the floor, hir small hands twisting together in hir lap.
Yet another awkward silence descended between them, until they spoke at the same time--
“I’ll have my handmaid--”
“I’m leaving, Ayem.”
“But--” Almalexia let out the single note of a laugh, caught off guard, “But why, Vivec? We’ve just got here. Aren’t you tired? I’ll run you a bath, you should rest, too.”
Vivec’s gaze remained directed on the floor. “That’s not what I mean. You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean? You belong here.”
“I belonged to Nerevar.”
“You belonged to the Tribunal!”
“What Tribunal? Sotha Sil’s gone, too.”
“But there’s so much to do--”
“So much for you to do! You’re the Queen. I was just Nerevar’s urchin, why should I stay?”
Almalexia gawked at hir, disbelieving. “So you’re just going to leave me? With all of this, alone? After everything we’ve been through!”
“Alone?” Vivec’s expression twisted. “You’re the Queen . You have the generals, you have the House leaders, you have your Duchess. What do you need with me? I was Nerevar’s counsellor, not yours.”
The pillow slipped from Almalexia’s grasp-- her arms had fallen to her side. “What’s this, Vivec?” she asked, her voice thin, “You’re jealous? Is that what this is? That kiss meant nothing, Ilinalta’s always tried to gain things from me with affection like that.”
“But it worked, didn’t it? All the Dwemeri ebony mines.”
“That’s not official! It won’t be official until the council convenes, and--” Almalexia rose to her feet. “It’s only politics, Vehki! I don’t love her. She doesn’t love me. It’s always been like this between us.”
“But that’s the closest anyone can come to love with you, isn’t it?” Vivec, too, rose to hir feet, turning hir head away so Almalexia wouldn’t see the grief there. “Buying things from you. Look how much you loved Nerevar. That’s why, isn’t it? He stole the most from you, didn’t he?”
“I didn’t love Nerevar. I didn’t.”
“So you were just lying on his bed for-- for what, fun?”
“I’m his wife, it’s just what I’m meant to...” Almalexia trailed off, confused as to her own argument, and, with her hands twisting into shapes anxiously before her chest, she approached Vivec. “I don’t know why this matters. Why does this matter? Just stay! Just stay for now. You’re upset, we all are, Nerevar’s death--”
“I can’t stay, Almalexia! Don’t you see? I don’t have anything to offer you.” Vivec held out hir arms, bitterly, gesturing to hirself. “I can’t sell you anything. I sold Nerevar myself, and what’s left of me? But that debt is gone now. I don’t have any titles, I’m no longer his-- they called me his concubine-- I’m not his any more. I have no right to sit on the council, or stay here. I’m nothing. I have no right to be anywhere else than the gutter.”
“I’m not his either. He bought me too, remember? We were married! But I’m not--”
“But you were born with this title. I’m-- by blood I’m nothing. I’m lower than waste. The council won’t give me a seat, they never liked me, I’m Houseless.”
“Vivec,” Almalexia said helplessly, walking forwards, taking one of hir hands. “Vivec,” she repeated, pressing it between both her own. “That’s not true, you’re not… Please don’t leave. Please.”
“I don’t have anything for you,” Vivec said, tearing hir hand away. “I’m worthless to you.”
“No! You’re-- you’re invaluable to me. I need you.”
“For what? I know nothing of politics, and you’re hardly in need of a Dwemeri translator now.”
“But you’re worth more. You know prophecy--”
“All the prophecies end here, Ayem. They end with his death.”
“You’re a wise counsellor. I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”
“That’s a lie. You’re the brilliant one and you always have been. You don’t need me to counsel you, not like Nerevar did.”
“But I-- I want you here. You don’t have to be useful, you need not give me anything.”
“Nerevar said that too, but I can’t live on someone’s mercy, on someone’s pity--”
“Please stay,” Almalexia grabbed for hir hand again, “It’s not mercy. I want you here, I want you to be here with me. I’ll take care of everything, and I’ll give you whatever you want, be it food or rooms--”
“You’re just like Nerevar!” Vivec cried, distressed, moving away from her. “You’re just like him. What will you offer next, the six dram he bought me with, like that’s love? I stopped being a whore a long time ago!”
Vivec must have realized ze overstepped the line, because that took the fight out of Almalexia immediately; she recoiled, pressing her hands tight over her mouth.
“I’m not him,” she replied, voice breaking. “Why does everyone want me to be him?”
“That’s not what I want, I-- but I can’t give you anything!”
“I just want you to be happy. I want you to be safe. That’s what I want from you, your happiness, your safety. Is that so selfish? Fine, I’m a selfish monster, I’ll be Nerevar if that’s what it takes, but please don’t leave!”
She heard Vivec exhale, but by then she was unable to bite back tears, and she hid her face firmly in her hands, such that she didn’t see Vivec approach-- only felt hir near her shoulder, like a pool of sunlight.
“I don’t know what you see in me,” Vivec said miserably.
“How can you not see it? You’re so… you’re so good, you’re so warm, you have a beautiful smile, you’re--” she sniffled. “I’m not Voryn. Read that damn love letter! If only I was Voryn, if only I could put into words how much I...”
“What has Nerevar done to us, that even this is about him?”
“I don’t know. Please don’t leave me.”
Vivec touched her shoulder, turning her around, and she embraced hir, weeping against hir shoulder. “You can have this room,” Almalexia said, incoherent, as Vivec stroked her damp hair back, “You can have a salary, as much money as you want. You won’t have to be involved with the council. You can retire, I’ll pay you for your poetry and your art. You won’t have to lift a finger. You won’t go hungry. I’ll give you anything, but don’t leave me…”
“Then I’ll be in your debt,” Vivec pointed out quietly. “Like I was to him.”
“Do you want me to be him? I’ll be him, if it means you’ll stay with me.”
“Then I’ll be him, too, if it means I get to hold you, if it means you pine after me too.”
“I never pined after him, Vivec,” Almalexia replied, and to her surprise, her tears turned into a hoarse little laugh, “Vivec, you’re a poet and a fool. I only ever pined after you .”
Vivec pulled back from her, and Almalexia worried that she’d gone too far, that she’d scared hir away. But ze coaxed her face up, meeting her eyes-- the tears blurred everything, but hir face was golden, hir dark eyes amber, radiant-- and despite her tears, despite her lack of decorum and the salty water on her cheeks, ze kissed her.
They had kissed before. In dark seconds stolen from parties, in drunken desperate moments, in brief fleeting occasions of celebration, in frantic hasty secretive criminal acts, they had kissed before. But they had never kissed quite like this, slow and unafraid of who might see it. One of Vivec’s hands was buried in Almalexia’s hair, both of Almalexia’s arms encircled Vivec tight, and they simply kissed, unashamed, unhurried. There was nobody left to see them.
They kissed for forever and not long enough; when Vivec pushed Almalexia back on Nerevar’s bed, she wanted to protest, wanted to keep kissing hir, but then Vivec’s clothes fell away from hir body, and her gown was peeled from hers, and those strands of Voryn’s hair were lost somewhere between Almalexia’s shoulder and Vivec’s hand. She had been wrong, she thought dimly, there was a whiff of Nerevar left on these sheets, but any trace of it was washed away in a tide of Vivec, a heady musky body-smell still rich from the roads, but with a hint of something like cloves, a warm scent, a warm mouth on her neck, moving downwards. She turned her head, inhaling the pillow, imagining vaguely what Nerevar would think, watching Vivec over her on his own bed-- Nerevar’s handsome face with that same polite smile that Ilinalta’s husband wore-- and then there was not much room for thought at all, only Vivec, only bliss.
Voryn’s love-letter, their sole witness, remained discarded on the floor.
The headcanon about House Mora comes from Cliffy (nehti.tumblr.com), the headcanon about Chimeri mourning colours is from Vivi (mistressdratha.tumblr.com). Almalexia's flute is a reference to The Fountain of Forgetfulness, which now exists on https://fountain-of-forgetfulness.com/.
Thanks for your patience!