Early morning, 15th of Midyear, 4E208
The Oasis, Alik'r Desert
A night in a desert cavern wasn’t particularly restful. Even if spare supplies had been fashioned into pillows or blankets, it couldn’t save Aries from the fact that she was more accustomed to fine linens and grand, plush beds in a cozy room. A blanket draped over sands was was hardly a fair comparison and her choices for head support was to roll a bundle of fabric and rest it against a rock or flat against the ground -- hardness or a lack of support? Then chilly drafts of wind that would also sometimes kick up the sand wasn’t so pleasant, and factor into that her own suspicion of someone slashing her throat as she slept, and she was in for a restless night where the Breton woman would sleep in half-hour intervals before waking again. She had slept in somewhat poor positions before since the Dwemer invaded Hammerfell, but she couldn’t say that she ever had to resort to sleeping in a cavern.
Sevari was a cause for concern, and his change of heart made her wonder if he actually intended to return or if he was simply trying to get on her good side. And if so, then for what? But there was one good thing that came out of their conversation: aside from their conclusions about Gregor, it was the argonian: Jaraleet. She had separate worries about her potential loyalties, but if Sevari was truly indebted to him like he suggested, then surely he wouldn’t try to endanger him. Sevari also wasn’t stupid, though -- he would’ve known that suggesting Jaraleet’s potentially ulterior loyalties to her also could’ve put his friend in danger. That meant at some point throughout their conversation, he must have felt that she forced his hand to reveal that information. One way or another, whether it was to drive home the fact that Jaraleet was innocent -- mostly -- or sacrificing that piece of the argonian’s privacy, knowing the risks involved, to set her on the right trail, the argonian likely ought not to be the subject of her worries. That meant she felt at least somewhat comfortable taking an eye off of him for now… as well as having him be the one to keep watch throughout the night.
While Sevari also could have simply said what he did to protect Jaraleet if he was
guilty, then letting slip his loyalties was a dangerous liability anyways. Being a Penitus Oculatus, that man would’ve been more… cautious. The lizard was safe for now, even if he did have to pay for his executive decision later.
As the morning sun rose above the sandy horizon, her eyes scanned over some of the still-sleeping figures and over a trio standing by the mouth of the caverns. Meg was still injured and the bard had finally awoken from his heat-induced stupor, and like Sevari suggested, he seemed like he was close to Gregor. From a distance, one would be forgiven for thinking the Imperial was like any other man. That was a pressing matter to be handled later, but first and foremost, there were the people like Calen and Meg who had to be taken care of. Travelling throughout the day was only going to slow the group as a whole down. It’d be better if they rested here some more and resumed their travels at sundown. But that meant she had to speak with Daro’Vasora.
Despite her conflicted feelings regarding that one’s rescue, she had a form of power over this group that Aries didn’t have, a certain level of respect. Aside from the matter of simply getting to know the woman she risked so much to rescue, it’d also be beneficial to cultivate a relationship with that one. Perhaps, in doing that, she might also be able to cultivate her ability to lead. This disorderly band of ignorant louts weren’t the type who would follow her lead if recent history was any lesson to be learned, but perhaps through Sora, she could actually help to direct them in an efficient manner; or at least help the khajiit learn how to direct them. Sora had a debt, after all, however small that thread was. All she had to do was tug at it.
That being considered, it was time that she settled into her disguise. There wasn’t an immediate threat anymore.
Aries pushed herself to her feet and stretched the sore muscles in her back and neck and brush off the sand from her clothes and body. The Hammerfell-styled robes she was wearing was thinner last night and this morning than it had been during their travels. The need for a protective veil was no longer necessary and so her figure now was less obscured by the baggy articles she had converted to a blanket last night. One more scan across the cavern had set Daro’Vasora in her sights, who seemed to have waken only a few minutes ago. Her fur was still slightly damp from whatever bath she had given herself in one of the ponds the night before, and she was up, even if she was still groggy and in the process of waking up.
Perhaps in a more domestic setting Aries would’ve been more considerate of this, but giving the situation, courtesy wasn’t much of a pressing issue. The assumed merchant slipped her feet into a pair of sandals and she didn’t hesitate to approach her.
Reaching her hand down as a gesture to help her to her feet, one courtesy she had not opted to abandon, she looked at her with a polite, if a bit serious expression.
“Good morning Daro’Vasora,” she said curtly, “we have much to discuss.”
The Khajiit blinked the sleep out of her eyes and regarded Janelle for a few lingering moments, feeling the sudden burden of responsibility after what was the most perfect night she could have hoped for. Daro'Vasora stretched and yawned, taking a few moments to shake the fog out of her mind before taking the offered hand and springing to her feet with grace.
“Janelle, if I recall?” she asked, hoping she wasn't mishearing the name in the chaos earlier. “I suppose we might, considering all I know about you is you helped rescue me without me even knowing your name, your illusion magic saved lives and got us out of Gilane without causing a scene, you're an associate of Sevari's if I read the two of you well, and you have the bearing of someone who frequents the upper rings of Imperial society. Politician, socialite?” the treasure hunter probed, more curious than prying.
Sharp, but Aries kept her wits about her. With a sheepish smile, she placed her hand against her chest and dipped her head to feign some modesty. “Merchant,” Aries lied, followed by some truth, “and I was raised Breton. Though I can see why you would think that; Breton politics are woefully more complicated by leagues, and I would’ve been poorer off by not learning it. Shall we walk?”
“Ah. Forgive my assumption; I've called Imperial City home for a few years, you have the bearing of a number of people I've been acquainted with.” Daro'Vasora bowed her head slightly in polite acknowledgment. “And my mother holds court in Leyawiin, so I've seen a number of people of all walks of life petitioning the count in my younger years. Please, lead the way.”
“Is that right?” Aries said with a tilt of her head. She made the first step, careful in its placement as she lead them away from the others so to set the pace. Their walk was more like pacing, like they were taking a relaxing walk through the Arboretum in the Imperial City. She did not want to cause undue stress by pressing the urgency of a situation, so instead she sought to make her comfortable first. Aries continued, “I’ve done quite a bit of business with the Imperial City during and after the Skyrim Civil War. Depending on which sector your family worked in, it’s possible I’ve done business with them. In fact, I suspect I might have even done business with a Sibassius at one point -- a relative of your acquaintance, I assume.”
Daro'Vasora's gait was much looser and informal, one acquainted with being limber and light on her feet as to not disturb anything. She shrugged, slipping the well-gnawed bit of bone between her teeth. “You have me at a loss. My father is a household name merchant in the Topal Bay region, even trades with the Dominion when the political climate allows. Only headed up to the big city once in a while, mostly following demand. Only business partner of his I knew about was my recently departed uncle, who I lived with on and off until the city fell.” she glanced at Janelle. “Never even heard of Gregor's family until I met him a couple months back. Jewelry crafters, if I recall.”
“That makes sense.” Aries replied, not failing to take notice of her unfamiliarity with Gregor’s family. “I took care of the logistical business in Daggerfall and hired third parties as intermediaries, but I suppose it's possible that I may have done business with him. It wasn't until contacts began going dark did I set out to Hammerfell myself only to find there were Dwemer. I can't say for certain what High Rock looks like now.”
After a brief pause, Aries continued.
“How are you finding the burden of leadership?”
Ah, there was the bread and butter. Daro’Vasora wasn’t sure how much she should divulge to Janelle, but it didn’t hurt to air out some of her thoughts, did it?
“This isn’t something I thought I’d ever be caught dead doing, but I suppose I’m making due. The others seem to look to me for direction, and I kind of loosely find a path to follow and say I’m taking it one way or another, and so far they’ve stayed with me.” Daro’Vasora replied with a careless shrug. “I can’t say I care much for being responsible for the wellbeing of others, because every time one of them gets hurt because of some decision I made, it eats away at me. I honestly try not to overthink things too much, or else I’d be paralyzed with uncertainty. I’m trying to do right by them, even if it doesn’t make me popular.” she said, slipping a well-gnawed bone between her teeth.
“That’s something I’m rather used to, after all.”
“It’s a difficult responsibility.” Aries agreed. Daro’Vasora’s admission seemed to have confirmed some of her earlier suspicions. Then she looked as if she caught herself, and feigning nervousness, she quickly added, “It’s not one that I’d so quickly take upon myself, of course! Now that we’ve rested for a night, though, do you have a plan for what happens next?”
“That’s guarshit, you carry yourself like you’re used to having retainers and people following your beck and call.” Daro’Vasora replied, glancing sidelong at the Breton. “Like I said, I’ve met a lot of people who you remind me of. You only get that way if you’re accustomed to some measure of influence and power. I don’t expect you to give me a story about who you are and what you’ve come from, but no need to try and be humble around me.” the Khajiit said evenly, turning her attention back to the camp.
Aries presented Sora with a forced smile, but her face otherwise didn’t betray her sense of annoyance at crassness of her conduct.
“The result of a lifetime of petitioning Breton and Imperial courts.” She replied simply, though she deliberately held herself in such a way that a more scrutinizing eye would discern she was holding back offense. She continued, “You are entitled to your beliefs and preconceptions. If in the future should you decide you’re interested in my truths, then I would happily share them with you. So then… your plan?”
“Agreed. Next time, then.” Daro’Vasora said with a nod, returning to the business at hand. “I’ve got the phantasm of a plan, but there’s no way to really make any of it concrete until we actually get there. Rest up for a while, regain our strength and morale, and then head out in the dark when we’re all more or less back to our usual selves. It’s going to be a hard journey, but I’ve seen some maps, and with our guides, I think we’ll make good time without missteps.” She explained, going over the rough form that was circulating in her mind like a fog.
“It’s actually getting into the ruins that’s troubling me, but I’ll work that out when we actually see what’s there.” Daro’Vasora admitted, grinding her teeth into the bone. “I’m usually one to plan out my expeditions carefully so I just have to follow the correct steps to mitigate risk, but we’re kind of going into this blind out of necessity. But don’t worry, Janelle; if there’s anything I’ve learned about this lot, it’s that improvising in the face of unspeakable odds is what we’re good at.”
“Good improvisational skills is important.” Aries agreed. “I hope we don’t need to use them, though. I agree it would be best to leave at sundown.”
She turned back to the group and craned her neck around. She found one by the mouth of the cave, though the other was found easily enough in the presence of the non-robed male argonian. She continued, “If I’m not mistaken, two of your friends are Nords, yes? Young as they are, I’m familiar enough with Bretons and Imperials to tell the difference. The boy wasn’t faring so well under the heat, horse or not, and the girl even worse so with her leg. Giving those two the extra day’s rest and leaving at dusk might allow us to move faster and further in the long run. It’ll be cooler, easier, and our water supply will last longer.”
She turned to face Sora again with a smile. “It’s not much different from charting a course for a caravan.”
The Khajiit scratched the back of her head thoughtfully. “Seems the only ones of us who aren’t suffering from the heat are us Khajiit or the Redguards; this is a bit different from the swampy coastal climate of Leyawiin, but at least my fur keeps me protected from Mundus.” Daro’Vasora said, looking towards where Jaraleet was tending to Megana, Calen not readily visible from where they were standing. “I’m inclined to agree, everyone needs rest. A few days to try and forget their troubles and heal… get used to sleeping during the day. That sort of thing.”
She decided to change tacts somewhat; it was refreshing to speak to a new set of ears that had a fresh perspective. “So, what do you think of the group so far? It still is hard to come to terms with what they did for me. Ever feel like that, that you don’t deserve something that’s way above you?” she asked suddenly, looking at the woman full on for the first time.
“They’ve done a lot for you.” Aries agreed, though she felt a little crestfallen as she remembered the loss of Gilane. “At the cost of a lot of people. I suppose if it were me, I wouldn’t feel like I deserved it either, no. If I had found myself in your position anyways, then I guess I would simply have to look past that do what I can to show that I was worthy of that price.”
She looked up at Sora and put her hands up, giving her an apologetic smile paired with an awkward laugh, “Of course, I’m not asking you to prove yourself or anything! Your friends helped you because they loved you. I suppose, being surrounded by the pragmatism of an insurgency, I was driven by a very different motivation. I didn’t know you.”
“Still don’t, truth be told. But there’s time to work on that.” Daro’Vasora said with a reassuring smile. “Thank you for what you did for us back there, by the way. It wasn’t your fight but you still came anyways, and that matters, I think. It’s when you start to lose sight of people being people that you end up with fanaticism like the other cell.
“It’s why they came for me, we have a history together, the past two months have probably been the most heavy and formative in our entire lives, and the things we’ve been through… it’s hard to see anything past just us and our mission. The difference is, we’re not beholden to causes or factions or what have you, just doing what we think is the right thing.” Daro’Vasora sighed. “Hopefully we know what that is when we see it.”
“I hope it’s not too out of place for me to say,” Aries began, tapping a finger against her head, “but an open mind, I like to think, is one of my strengths. For all of Irranhu cell’s flaws… and believe me, there were many… there’s always a reason driving every decision. The Poncy Man was very calculating and I don’t think he made the decision to target your friends lightly -- and understand, I say that as someone who held them off so that you all could escape safely.”
Aries sighed. “But it does disturb me. If I had to wager a guess, they feared that at least one of you was dangerous enough to risk everything… but they didn’t know who, so they felt that their hand was forced. I say this because it’s easy to forget that those insurgents were people too, not just fanatics. Gilane was their home, and you and your friends could just as easily become what you’re accusing Irranhu of. You might not believe in causes or factions, but at the root of every cause is a group of people believing they’re doing the right thing.”
The Khajiit thought on that for a moment before letting out a soft sigh. “Trust me, if I didn’t believe in that to some degree, I wouldn’t have accepted Sevari and Zaveed’s offer. I heard it said that we’re all the villain in someone else’s story, I cannot remember where. Despite everything, I still see the Dwemer as people, and I hold out that after this war is finally over with, there can be a chance at peace. No matter what we decide to do, someone’s going to get hurt, or it’s going to be us. I choose to look after the people who matter first, that’s all.”
“The dwemer?” She repeated, raising an eyebrow. “Please. Their society has developed within a vacuum, a literal realm apart from this one. They’ve forgotten how to live alongside the men and mer of Nirn, just like the Falmer. If their leaders wanted to integrate with the new Tamriel, then they’ve lost that chance.”
“It’s anti-intuitive and frustrating,” Aries preemptively explained, “but language is inherently subjective and receiver-oriented. The validity or truth behind an argument is determined by the audience, however ignorant the audience might be. If the majority of Tamriel sees the Dwemer as unfit to coexist with them, then that is simply the truth.”
“All societies went through that pain at some point. The Falmer thought the same about the Atmorans. The Ayleids looked down upon the humans in their domain until the slave revolts. The Argonians invading Morrowind. History is just a big wheel, just sometimes the actors change. If I believed that people couldn’t change, or individuals were responsible for the deeds of their government, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” Daro’Vasora explained. “Look, I know it sounds off and naive, but actually seeing Dwemer families in Gilane gave me hope that that’s what the future can be like, it was so normal. Even the Governor, I think, was a woman with honourable intentions, just a very misguided way of going about achieving them. The thing is, let’s say the Poncy Man won, the insurgencies triumphed, do you think it would have been better or worse?” the Khajiit asked, looking back towards Janelle. “More often than not, rebellions and insurgencies that form in a power vacuum don’t exactly restore what people hoped for.”
“St. Alessia didn’t obediently obey her masters.” Aries refuted. “And as a result, thousands of slaves were freed and they created the first Imperial Empire the world has ever seen. But this conversation misses the larger picture; you can not, and should not, invade someone’s home, kill their people, and expect them to become complacent under a tyrannical rule.”
“No, and in that, we are in agreement.” Daro’Vasora said, noticing the pointed shift in Janelle’s tone. “But it’s important not to lose sight of the people who are caught up in the same umbrellas as their leaders and armies. Why should a woman who is trying to care for her child be held to the same accountability as a soldier who puts another to the sword?” she asked.
“But we can say the same thing about the Empire we both call home, Janelle. It was forged in conquest and subjugation; my people never asked to be Imperial Citizens, and yet we stared down the Numidium and fell under Imperial law all the same. In 50, 100, 200 years someone like me is going to be scouring old historical records and trying to make sense of all of this.” Daro’Vasora shook her head, her expression grim.
“I think you need to know that the Dwemer killed my uncle and destroyed my home. That is why I am here, trying to find a way to stop this invasion permanently knowing it could kill thousands of people who are innocent of any crime other than being born under a different nation.” She said grimly.
Aries paused for a moment, catching herself in a heated moment and reminded herself to not forget her purpose here. She took this chance as an opportunity to recompose herself and decide to take a step back and remove herself from the situation. Perhaps in the future she would have time to address the facile pseudo-intellectualism, but now wasn’t the time.
“Pardon me,” Aries began after a brief breath, “losing my temper, however brief, was… unbecoming. I’m afraid you weren’t the only one to lose a lot recently, so forgive me if I am too close to the situation. It isn’t my place.”
As if to show that she was alright, she flashed a smile and said, “I mean I’m a businesswoman, after all, not a politician. What could I possibly know about international diplomacy?”
“Uh-huh. Perhaps I’m stereotyping, but you’re Breton; it’s in your blood. I say this as a glorified grave robber with a tail and fuzzy ears.” Daro’Vasora replied with a wry smile before rolling a kink of out her shoulders. “There’s nothing to apologize for, political discussion aside, it’s important to have checks and balances and a fresh new mind to pick. I’m not going to pretend I know everything, or even feel confident with what I’m doing, but at least it won’t be a dull journey.”
“Stereotypes indeed, Daro’Vasora. I suspected better of you!” Aries playfully admonished as she clicked her tongue. “Anyways, I just wanted to meet the woman I’ve worked so hard to help. I must admit, it feels gratifying to see someone so earnest. You may not feel worthy of the honor, but I suspect you’ll accomplish some great things before war’s end.”
Aries bowed her head and finished, “I’ve many more people to meet; good people, I imagine, if they were willing to risk their lives for you. Good friends. I’ve yet to make proper introductions with them since the chaos of planning an attack. I have much to catch up on.”
“For that, you have my gratitude and it’s an honour to have you at my side.” Daro’Vasora said, extending her hand. “Give them a chance; they’ll grow on you.”
“Likewise, and I’m sure they will. Like a rash, right?” Aries responded jokingly with a smile, taking Sora’s hand and giving it a firm shake. “I look forward to seeing a stronger future for Tamriel with you.”
With that, Aries turned around and began walking off towards the rest of the group. With her back turned to the khajiit, her smile dimmed as she repressed the urge to sigh or alter the pace of her gait. Setting her sights on the others, she couldn’t help but feel a tiring burden set on her shoulders.
Walking away from Sora, she thought to herself, ‘Finally.’