Common Groundwith @Leidenschaft
Alik'r Camp, late night - 17th Midyear, before the trial
Aries had to spend a little time to herself after her chat with Sevari; a little time to decompress from the day’s events, from the news she had learned, from all of it. A little too much time, perhaps, as she did indeed have a plan in place to move forward with the information her agent had given her, but it was her woe to bear witness to the consequence of her late action. She had intended to speak to Latro herself; she knew Sevari had a relationship with him within some capacity, strained though it may be, but he was also lacking in delicacy. She knew how he spoke to his superiors, to his brother, his comrades, so she knew how he would speak to his friend. Their twilit silhouettes against the dusk horizon framed their gestures, so Aries retreated towards the center of camp where she knew they would ultimately return to. Where Latro would return to. Daro’Vasora’s tent was only a short distance away.
She found herself waiting by bonfire as the sun fell and the heat within the sand was sapped by the cool air. A curious feature of Hammerfell, she always thought, for the past two years she had to endure the blistering heat beating against her skin only to look for it again after sundown; but after a long day of wearing those stuffy robes in which she has disguised herself in, she finally peeled off the layers and exposed the skin of her arms and her collar, letting the sweat cool her skin like beads of ice against the breeze. The silks and cottons she wore, which has thus far remained hidden beneath her other layers, hugged her figure in a way that was more complimenting, even if they were still particularly modest, and likewise, protected her modesty.
The shuffling of the reachman’s feet through the sand eventually made its way through the center of the camp. Aries could tell by the weight of his footfalls alone that the conversation did not go the way Sevari had hoped, but Latro’s tightly clenched fists and the murder on his face sealed the deal. She didn’t have to be savvy to spot it. She did not stand from her seated position on the bench, nor did she seem hurried to stop his advance. She simply spoke softly, gently, from her seat around the fire, although loud enough for him to hear and pointed enough for Latro to know it was meant for him.
“I’m sorry, you know,” Aries said aloud, hearing him walk past, “for not being truthful with you when first we met.”
Latro froze for the second time that night, caught off guard by the voice of another. He still held the Dwemer box beneath the folds of his cloak and he only stared at Aries for a second before returning his eyes to the sand, “No one is.” He spoke quietly, shaking his head just the slightest, “Not really.”
He looked back up ahead of himself as if to be along on his business again but he stayed where he was. A few beats and he looked back at Aries and sat next to her. “Jaraleet. Sevari. Gregor. Raelynn.” Latro listed off the names like he grieved for them, though they still yet lived. Perhaps the tone was telling of his opinion of them now. He looked to Aries, “You.”
He sighed, lacing his fingers together and putting his hands in his lap, “Though I suppose you barely pretended to be anything but what you are. Gregor, though. He’s… he’s either not a monster or so good at hiding it that I can never trust or tolerate his presence again.”
He shook his head, putting his face in his hands, “Everyone, everyone lies in the end.” Latro whimpered, “Even me.”
“What are you? What are you and a spy doing in Hammerfell?” He asked. “Was it true, what Sevari said? Keeping the Thalmor out and trying to bring them back into the Empire? Or was that a lie too?”
Aries huffed a sigh. He asked a lot of questions in a short amount of time, and she had to figure out how to address all of them at once.
“I can’t speak for Sevari,” Aries began, “even as much as I’d like to. Ultimately, his decisions and actions are outside of my jurisdiction, even as much as I’d like them to be. I can only speak for myself.”
Aries finally turned to look at Latro directly. “My name is Aries Machella. I am an ambassador for the Septim Empire. I was originally in Hammerfell on a mission of diplomacy when the Dwemer invaded. I met Sevari when I arrived in Gilane after fleeing Sentinel, and I can confirm that we were working against the Thalmor.”
Aries paused for a moment and continued, “Fighting a war on two fronts… the fall of the Imperial City, the occupancy of Anvil and Skingrad… that is why I was so… cautious. I apologize we didn’t meet on the best of terms.”
Staring back into the fire, “As for Gregor…” She spat his name distastefully, “if it’s any consolation, I didn’t know for much longer than you did. I had meant to be the one to inform you, but Sevari had gone and done so soon after he informed me.”
“He likes being direct.” Latro chuckled, a humorless thing despite, “If you knew how we met, you’d know how true that is.”
“I don’t know if it would’ve been any better depending on who told me. I’m only angry because I trust the people around me to be truthful with Sora and I.” Latro shook his head. “And now no one is. I fear there’s only going to be more secrets and lies hidden under this latest one. I’m afraid even to dig any deeper.”
“I’m sure you can imagine that there is great emphasis on my safety and remaining inconspicuous, and yet I’ve laid myself bare for all to see and put one possible future for the Empire in jeopardy. You couldn’t possibly uncover anything more from me, and I’m afraid any further distrust from this point on would be self-indulgent pity.” Aries replied nonchalantly, followed by a sardonic and humorless smile. “You see? You can trust me to be absolutely forward with you. It’s because I understand I should be less afraid of offending someone’s sensibilities than the threat we are facing this time.”
Aries stared back into the flickering flames that made the centerpiece of the campsite.
“So,” she continued with an air of finality, “would you do so well as to lend me your ear?”
Latro sighed, nodding his head once and then a few more times, more open, “Mm,” he grunted, “Fine. Go on.”
“If it were up to me, I’d incinerate him and his ashes and we’d be well on our way.” Aries said. “But Sevari had a point. If either of us killed him and waited to explain the situation until after the fact, it would sound like a weak excuse… but we can’t recklessly spread the word either and cause undue panic, tip off Gregor, and cause more harm -- we make a controlled leak of information to trusted individuals, and make sure that those of us who know are prepared to handle the situation accordingly.”
Aries peered back at Latro, and gravely added, “Sevari never saw you at the palace. When we met, you seemed like such a helpless thing. I know now that isn’t true; I knew that if I wasn’t the one to tell you, you’d very well march into the lion’s den and possibly get yourself or someone else killed; or maybe you’d succeed, but who among your friends would trust you then? The only way this ends favorably for you and all of your friends is if we make a proper plan of attack before we quarantine Gregor. So, as much as even I hate it, we need to be patient.”
“I wasn’t going to.” Latro said, just louder than a whisper. He wrapped his arms around himself and sighed, his eyes closed and his head low until he looked back at Aries, “I’m very angry. But I’m not going to charge off and try to handle this on my own. I’m not who I was.”
“I wish to convene with Sora over this. Perhaps we should put this to a vote, have Gregor’s peers decide his fate.” He said, pausing and thinking, “I don’t want him killed. Does that make me horrible? To not want someone I held up as my friend dead?”
Aries sighed. There was once a time where she would’ve disregarded Latro as spineless, despite what she has seen from him in the Gilane palace. The answer was simple to her: condemn him to the executioner’s block as per Imperial law, it was a no brainer… but she also didn’t have any attachment to the man, Latro, being a reachman, likely had little respect for Imperial law, and this wasn’t Imperial land -- granted, it was Redguard land, and necromancy was especially taboo to them. What Latro wanted ultimately didn’t matter, but that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Then again, that also wasn’t the question he was asking.
“It’s a difficult truth to confront.” Aries replied somberly with a nod. If nothing else, she could join him in his melancholy. “I was engaged once, you know. Their family was ready to happily receive me into their family. We both belonged to noble families, and such affairs were considered quite important matters in Daggerfall. Then I learned that his father was the one who payed to have my father killed by pirates when I was just a girl. I found evidence too. I thought about burning their house down, but I didn’t. I knew them for too long. Maybe my fiancé was innocent. So, I brought the evidence to court instead.”
Aries knew she was lying a little bit by leaving some parts out of her story, but it would get the point across regardless. She continued, spitting out the next few words as if they were an insult still fresh in her mind, “Then, of course, my very own fiancé had the audacity to challenge me to a duel. My father was murdered, but he was more concerned about defending his family’s honor and was willing to kill or hurt me to do so.”
Her eyes then fell back on Latro.
“This isn’t so different. You’re not wrong to hold yourself back, but you should know that it takes a certain breed of desperate men to resort to necromancy. I’m willing to wager that he has had to hurt or even kill a lot of innocent people to even still be here today. Imperial law is harsh on necromancy for a reason. You might not want to hurt him, but I don’t know how much sleep he will lose over hurting you.”
Latro sighed at that, as if Gregor was already plunging a dagger into his ribs. The thought of Gregor disregarding every pleasant interaction they’ve had put an ache in his chest. He wondered if any of it was true, or if he was being strung along by a soulless monster. “You’re right. I know.” He said, nodding, “I’ve seen the Traitor’s Cross put to Grave-Singers before. I’ve done it myself, only once.”
“But if it comes to that… I’m not going to do it.” Latro shook his head, unflinching in that decision.
“That’s your prerogative.” Aries said with a nod. “I just wanted to be sure where your mind is at. I won’t discourage you from talking to Daro’Vasora, I think that might even be for the best -- but if you would, could you get her to see it our way? We just want to minimize the collateral damage.”
“Of course,” he nodded, “We’ve got enough of that already.”
Latro’s sigh signaled the start of the quiet spell between the two, sitting beside each other. He looked sidelong at the woman next to him, thinking on how he didn’t know her at all. He knew the spy better than her, which was still fuck all of an amount, but it may as well have been the man’s life story in comparison to how well he knew Aries. “Who are you?” He asked, “Really? A noble from Daggerfall ends up in Gilane with a spy.”
“I prefer to think that my role as Imperial ambassador has elevated my station even above nobility, but in short, yes.” Aries replied with a humored smile. “I was in Sentinel when the Dwemer first arrived and put the blade to the King of Hammerfell. They had undone many hard years of diplomacy with one swipe… so I was forced to retreat, fighting my way out until I reached Gilane where I found Sevari. I had hoped Gilane to be the place where I, representing the Empire, and the Redguards could have a foothold in Hammerfell. Perhaps the shared effort could not only force the Dwemer out, but reunite our people… you know how well that ended. It was nothing I could have prepared for, but it’s the first failure of my career all the same, and the cost was an entire nation...”
Latro nodded along, looking to Aries as she finished. When they had first met, he thought her a woman carved from stone, who could weather any storm and spit back its fury ten-fold. But a woman like any other human sat beside him. Maybe stronger than most, but not as strong as he thought. “I’m sorry.” Latro said, “A man named Francis once told me that not all things hinge on one failure.”
Latro paused, it seemed a dumb notion to be lecturing Aries of all people about anything. “That is to say, not all is lost.”
“Of course not.” Aries quickly agreed, as if the melancholy of the subject before was suddenly no longer there. “We’re heading north. Whether we head toward Skyrim or High Rock, we’ll have options. Solitude and Markarth are heavily fortified cities, I have pull in many of the Breton kingdoms, and even Orsinium can be a safe haven if I play my hand properly.”
As he tried to give her some console, however misplaced it might have been or so she felt, her mind, too, fell back on the time she had met Latro. There wasn’t much time for impressions, but the one she gave was ripping an arrow out of Sevari’s gut, searing the wound shut, and later threatening him in the tunnel after the Ohmes-raht started getting cold feet. It was slightly humorous in retrospect, but there was nothing funny about the circumstances they met under
“I am beholden to many responsibilities, Latro, and they yield much greater consequences. That’s what I meant.” Aries said, looking back at Latro. “About the burden of leadership. I am not a military commander, but it is my duty to see the Empire’s interests fulfilled. Would you not whet a fine blade with the same care if it made the difference between life and death?”
“Mm.” Latro nodded, “If given five hours to fell a tree, spend four sharpening the axe.”
He looked at Aries, seeing her differently, but in no way meek. He thought he’d like to have the same mindset as her, the strength to shoulder the burden of leadership. He was the son of a Chieftain and yet had never been a leader of men. He could learn something from her. Perhaps she’d be a good person to get council from. “We’ll be going through the Reach.” He said, “I’m the son of a Chieftain. I told Sora that if they will not accept me, I will change them. With words or my steel.”
“It might not be a Breton court or an Imperial senate, but we have politics of our own. Perhaps I’ll have need of your council if it comes to words.” He offered, cocking a brow.
“Perhaps,” Aries replied with a smirk, “I've never worked with the Reachmen before, admittedly they're somewhat of a mystery to me. They’ve been underneath the Empire’s notice for quite some time, given the lack of diplomatic or adversarial potential. I imagine we'll be working rather closely together from this point on -- to make up for the other’s shortcomings.
“I must warn you though,” said continued, mocking a feigned coyness with a gentle hand delicately placed against her chest as she rolled her eyes, “I’ve apparently developed a reputation of being difficult to work with. That’s even been said by politicians of the highest caliber.”
She simply shrugged, “Giving them hell is half of the fun. I’m sure the worst among them would challenge me to a duel if they thought there was a chance of winning.”
“That’s pretty much the extent of our politics. We’re not much different than the Orcs, the strong rule. We take what is owed, and strike down any who would disagree.” He nodded, “You’d probably do well.” He smiled.
“Think of it, though.” He shrugged, “You have a Chieftain friendly to an Imperial ambassador ruling. You’d perhaps be the first to have a chance to whip the unruly Reachmen tribes into shape. It’s about time my people have a home for themselves, and maybe you and I could be the strongest voices to call for that.”
He cleared his throat, too much dreaming, “If you’d have me.”
“I’m not left with many other options, am I?” She asked rhetorically. “Frankly, we could use as many allies as we can get our hands on. I’m in no position to be picky, and you’re the only one who could provide any sort of counsel.”
Then she smirked, and added, “By the way… trying to appeal to my sense of grandeur, plant the idea of a lasting legacy, and aspersing an entire demographic to promote their implied need for a savior? You’re beginning to speak like an actual politician. It needs polishing, though.”
“You think?” He chuckled, laying back and propping himself up on an elbow while he ran his fingers through the sand. “I never really thought I’d had a tongue for politics, but if you say so.”
He shrugged, “I’ve tried at a life of peace, but this war dashed it against the rocks.” He sighed, “My mentor told me that all good people abhor violence, and should abstain from it until all other options are exhausted. He wasn’t against a duel here or there, traveling and testing himself against the fencing masters all over.”
“You’ve won duels, I take it?” He asked, looking at Aries, “I learned everything I know from a famous duelist. Francis Martell, former Table Knight sworn to Prince Narcisse in Camlorn. Who taught you?”
“I’ve won a few; Bretons are quick learners though, so eventually I received fewer and fewer challenges.” Aries began thoughtfully. “First it was my father who taught me, before he passed. Then I was taught by a Direnni, an Altmer named Aurelia. They’re certainly an esteemed and talented bloodline, even if their name is no longer at the forefront of the minds of non-mages. I’m familiar with Sir Martell; you were lucky to have him. Many of the Glenumbra lords mistake famous names for being competent teachers, but I’ve come to appreciate what a few hundred years of elven neuroticism has done for my riposte.”
Latro laughed at that, “I’ve only heard of them by name, never met one.” His eyes grew wider at her mention of Francis, “Have you met him? Francis, or Sir Martell, as he was once?”
“I believe he once accompanied his prince during a summit in Daggerfall, and I, my mother, as she made her presence known within the court. I don’t recall speaking to him at length though, I was young and mostly listened and studied. I do recall, however, that he was one of the few young men who didn’t make any attempts in courting me. He’s a respectful and chivalrous sort devoted to his code, and I did hear a tale or two of his exploits, though he wasn’t boastful of them as many of the lords were fond of doing.” Aries explained, looking up thoughtfully as she recounted her memories. She slid over on the bench she was seated on and expectantly gestured to Latro to sit beside her.
“Does any of that sound familiar?” She asked.
“That does sound like him.” Latro chuckled, recalling Francis and how even if his oaths to Prince Narcisse had been broken, he still acted every bit the knight he once was, “He’s a good man. He taught me everything I know, perhaps a master of no weapon but my hands, but enough to fight well with any.”
“We should spar sometime. Nowadays especially, and with the company you’ve decided to keep, it’s a good thing to know how to be handy with some steel.” He shrugged, “How about it?”
“Are you suggesting I could learn a thing or two from you?” Aries scoffed, finding humor in the challenge. Truthfully, she didn’t care much for indulging him, but building rapport with the company didn’t work the classical way -- playing politics worked well with other politicians, but common folk responded better to acts of good faith. So instead of trying to manipulate him, Aries fired back and said with a confident smile, “Perhaps I might, if for nothing else than to provide you with a demonstration.”
“Indulging a commoner.” Latro chuckled good-naturedly, “Careful, they might not let you back into high society if they ever find out.”
“They can try!” Aries replied with haughty laughter, subconsciously placing a hand delicately in front of her mouth, masking it. “I’m a Machella; we know things the others do not. For instance, how to keep our manor the only one left untouched when the commoners had enough and burn the rest of them down.”
Leaning toward the flame, Aries let herself feel comfortable in Latro’s presence now that she was certain she had placated his emotions -- that he wasn’t about to become the same savage he was back in the palace -- and the cautionary thought of unleashing fiery magic was dispelled from the back of her mind.
“Truthfully,” she began, “this job of mine has given me perspective once I began travelling the world and immersing myself in their cultures. The politicians back home… they’re like rats, scurrying about for the slightest sliver of power, and have nothing to do once they have it except to defend it and build stagnant wealth. To be fair, it was how I earned enough power to become recognized by the Elder Council. It’s quite curious how power becomes the prerequisite for more power, but now I can do something with it. Affect nations, create change -- meaningful change. I’m out of high society’s reach now. Nobles cannot guarantee an audience with foreign leaders, but I can.”
She sighed and rubbed her forehead -- she was talking too much when she usually prided herself on keeping her cards close to her chest. Perhaps the recent events were beginning to wear on her.
“I suppose,” she continued with an air of finality, “this is my way of reconciling with recent events. There will continue to be opportunities ahead of us, despite the ones we’ve missed.”
Latro smiled and nodded, appreciating the rare display of her sense of humor before it vanished before him once again, but also appreciative of the insights Aries was able to provide.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. For Sora. For us.” Latro said. “I also appreciate our conversation. I’ll keep everything you said in mind when I talk to Sora.”
Aries watched him and his disposition carefully before reflecting his smile back at him. “Of course,” she said. As she watched him turn his back and walk away, she felt a flutter of satisfaction in her chest. It was a pain to pick up after Sevari, but in the end, she felt it was worth it. Breaking him down left him disorganized enough for Aries to find the pieces and reorganize them to her liking and let him get into Sora’s head. Which meant that she didn’t have to be the one to worry about convincing the prideful khajiit that made herself this motley group’s leader -- but there was more to all of this than just having it fit her narrative. She found herself looking forward to her next meeting with the young Reachman after a few minutes of meaningful connection. Not that it was a surprise to her by any means, but she welcomed the feeling she thought long lost since the days spent in Sentinel.
The ambassador looked into the fire once again and was felt renewed by a sense of ease. Whatever problems facing them now or what lies ahead were going to solve themselves.