Meeting of the Minds
The week-long journey was an arduous ordeal for a multitude of reasons; though Aries had heard that the former Samara cell had held their trial for Gregor, they had excluded many affected parties who likely had every right to be in attendance. They were made to wait with bated breath until those who had broken out early delivered the news. Calen, for one, was not a person who could sit idly with a guilty conscience. So, when Aries discovered that the bard had left their trial early, fidgeting uncomfortably in his seat whilst cradling his head, she sought to console him in her pursuit of answers.
Calen looked at her with a feeling of uncertainty, though he wasn’t sure if it was due to his own emotional fugue. He didn’t quite feel certain of anything really, if he was on the right side or not or who he could possibly trust. The man he knew longest of anyone in this motley crew of mercenaries, adventurers, soldiers, cutthroats – and now an Imperial ambassador – turned out to not just be a necromancer, but one of the vilest entities known among all legends and lore? He didn’t know what the others decided to do with him for he left too soon, but not so soon that he didn’t hear a few of the others advocating for Gregor’s life – if such an existence can even be called life anymore.
Yet as he sat himself down on a cold boulder to steady his wobbling knees and dizzy mind, he looked up at Aries’ face which was barely made visible by the orange glow of distant fire light – from what he could discern, it was mostly characterized by dire concern with notes of sympathy. A voice inside of him was screaming for relief, to be relieved of the burden of knowledge. For so long his voice had been the one to soothe others, and his ears open to the words that weighed on others. He wanted desperately to have his own worries and burdens be shared, though the expectation of being the strong, kind, and wise listener told him otherwise. If he showed vulnerability now, showed himself incapable of coping, who then would the others have to turn to? Then a hand was delicately placed upon his shoulder, and Calen looked back up at Aries, who stood backlit by starlight.
“We need to know.” Aries said with a comforting softness in her voice. “For everyone’s sake.”
Calen hesitated for a second, weighing his options in his head. If not an ambassador of the Empire… then who?
The week-long journey through the Alik’r desert and into the mountains to the north was physically arduous, made only harder with the information Calen had given her. To think that this group, even with all their flaws, would still permit a lich to exist within their company. It would take every ounce of her willpower to not act on her own accord to torch Gregor where he stood, and she would not have hesitated if she was certain that the others wouldn’t have turned on her if she had her will realized. Many sleepless nights were spent wondering when his betrayal would be at hand or weighing out the consequences if she saw to his end herself. Would her potential death be worth the slaying of a hideous monster, or would her survival be worth Gregor’s hour of reckoning? It was as they said: it’s not paranoia if they’re out to get you.
There were a few times when Sevari approached her out of concern for her health, though she pushed him away and assured him that she was fine. She was self-aware enough to know that the stress was beginning to weigh on her and wear her down. Sleep never came easily and food was hard to swallow, but she had to keep up appearances, thus came one of the consequences of outing herself as ambassador. She had to be a leader for these people even if they didn’t necessarily care for her. She had to put up a strong and certain front, to appear sure, even if she wasn’t right. Even if Sevari was the closest person she had to an advisor, she still found herself stuck in the mindset of treating him like an outsider to the inner circle that consisted of only herself. She couldn’t help but note that it was all too similar to how she found the bard a week ago after Gregor’s trial.
Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have considered entertaining such a person – though some bards like those of Daggerfall were typically well acquainted with officials of the highest order, Calen was of humble ranking; from the threads on his back to his mannerisms, he seemed to her as the type that found himself more at home in a tavern than a court, no matter how proper his manner of speak may be. Still, having watched him (as well as a few others) along the journey, he had a way with speaking to people, no matter who, to get them to like him. She wondered if he would retain the same charisma and sagacity to go toe to toe with her.
“Calen,” she said to him during a brief stop along the Jerall mountains, her face weary and braided hair frazzled and undone in comparison to it’s usual elegance, “How little have we talked? How impermissible it must be to have avoided one another for so long.”
The bard looked curiously up from the rock he has seated himself upon, finding himself a sight all too familiar to him since a week before: Aries standing over him. It barely took him a second to remember the proper etiquette, and he immediately stood upon noticing her approach. Upon doing so, he couldn’t help but notice he stood a few inches taller than her. It wasn’t something he expected given the poise Aries had. Even so, her appearance has been distinctly disheveled since the day Gregor’s truth broke out as the bags under her eyes had indicated, and he was sure that she, like everybody else, was deprived of the luxury of a proper bath for quite a few days. Still, she held herself with a certain admirable grace that was difficult to ignore – Calen has fallen for, well, not less for he did not measure beauty in such ways… but simpler. Aries’ intensity was distinctly arresting.
“I can only assume that such might be the burden of your duties, ambassador. All the better that I have not distracted you from them, no?” Calen respectfully quipped back, quickly changing tact while still finding the opening to insert a subtle flirt.
Aries found herself with a smirk on her face, apparently satisfied that her expectations of the bard had, somehow, both been subverted and yet fulfilled at the same time. Calen was unexpectedly quick to adopt the level of deference appropriate to her station, and yet he was ballsy enough to attempt a bit of banter with her.
“You think yourself capable of such a thing, do you?” Aries replied. “That better men haven’t tried?”
“Men of higher station, perhaps,” Calen fired back with a wide smile, “but not better. How may I be of service, ambassador?”
“By relaxing, for one.” Aries said, a genuine and entertained smile finding her face. “At ease, bard. Take a seat.”
“Very well,” he said, finding his seat upon a stone facing the green light in the center of the Jerall mountains. Aries found the spot next to him and joined him in the apprehensive appreciation of the view. Calen felt the urge to ask what warranted this honor, but he knew better than to look gift horses in the mouth. It was better, he thought, to watch and learn.
“Absolutely dreadful, isn’t it?” Aries said, appraising the view.
“I’m more inclined to call it poetic.” Calen answered. “Without the context, the light might be considered beautiful or a sign of the Divines… but I suppose this goes to show that beauty doesn’t beget beauty, given what the Dwemer have wrought. Singular and happenstance, never promised.”
“Appreciate it when it appears, then?” Aries proposed.
“Indeed.” Calen agreed.
A tangible, quiet wave of melancholy washed over them. Aries was right about something though, and that given the context that Sora had given the group, there was a sense of dread that emanated from that mountain. It was a small chance that he would’ve found the group that was responsible for unleashing the Dwemer upon the world, and Aries herself had found herself staring daggers at the khajiit responsible. Yet, too little has been shown from them to accept that responsibility to make it up to the rest of Tamriel. All they had done thus far was run away from the problem they created.
“Someone ought to teach Daro’Vasora how to give a proper speech.” Aries said idly, though her tone had laced humor into her words. “That was… melodramatic.”
“We can’t all be thespians.” Calen joked. “Though such is the curse of the lone wolf. Never wanted leadership, doesn’t accept help – that’s just Sora, but combine that with a guilty conscience, and it’s no wonder why she’s forcing herself into the position. Maybe you could lend your expertise?”
“I’ve tried to talk to her once.” Aries responded. “It was after I saved her life and tried to frame our discussion as for the good of her friends. Still, she wanted to argue. The problem with clever people is that they think they’re cleverer than they are.”
“Is that why you’re talking to me? Because everyone likes me, and have your words come out my mouth will work better?” Calen pried.
For a moment, Aries’ brows furrowed and looked sideways at Calen with narrow eyes, who slyly peered back at her with a wide and toothy smile.
“Checkmate, is it?” Calen jabbed playfully.
“So it would seem.” Aries said, her guarded voice sounding as though he returned behind her defenses. “How strange for you to play the fool and for me to not pick up on the deception.”
“Oh no,” Calen quickly inserted, “there’s nothing fake about me, don’t take it personally. I’m just smarter than I look.”
“If it’s any consolation, I don’t disagree with you. Frankly, it’s upsetting that my word would be taken over yours. These people aren’t soldiers though. They’re not looking for people to tell them what to do or how to fix the problem, they’re looking for ways to ignore or forget about it, and as a bard that’s where I come in… and if the bard is speaking hard truths, then you know you’re in a quagmire of a predicament.”
“You speak like a learned man, yet dress in the threads of a commoner. Why, when you could be so much more?” Aries asked.
“Acknowledgement of my humble origins.” Calen answered. “I studied at the Bard College in Solitude, but I’ve never forgotten where I came from – but the more poetic answer would be that I am but a man, and you are but a woman. How much more could either of us be?”
Aries smiled and replied, “We could be heroes. Station didn’t protect the Elder Council any more than it did the peasant-folk. St. Alessia’s legacy, however… isn’t that something worth aspiring to?”
“That’s a lofty aim.” Calen commented.
“What can I say other than I’m a lofty woman?”
“Fair enough.” Calen agreed. “But someone will have to chronicle these legacies, so for me, a man is enough.”
Despite the light-heartedness of the conversation, the circumstances of their prior meeting had not left their minds, nor the minds of anyone, Calen rightly figured. One shared look and it was obvious that there was a certain elephant in the room that was waiting to be addressed. None of what they were just discussing really addressed the more immediate and supernatural concern troubling the group.
“I still can’t believe it.” He continued. “I’ve known Gregor for a pretty long time, and yet… has he been hiding this secret this whole time and I was too foolish to see it? Or is this recent, and I was too blind to help him?”
Aries thought for a moment about what Calen was saying, measuring her words carefully, before finally saying, “There’s an old Breton back home who was once one of my teachers, Lord Picard. A chess maestro. He said it’s possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.”
“That phrase sounds stolen.” Calen remarked.
“Possibly,” Aries chuckled, “but is it any less valid? Divines can testify on my behalf that I’ve done the best with the cards I was dealt, and yet here I am… having spent a week in the desert and without a bath.”
Calen laughed at that, grateful for the counsel that Aries was able to provide. It was an interesting conversation to say the least, and believed he at least left a lasting impression on the ambassador with his own quick wit and social graces.
“Tell you what,” Calen said with an air of finality surrounding his words, “if we make it over these mountains and into Skyrim, I know that place like the back of my hand. I can find you a good, clean river to get you all washed up as soon as possible before we get to the next city or village. And if we make it to Solitude, and it’s still standing, allow me to treat you to a dance if my lady has the time.”
“A dance.” Aries echoed skeptically.
“Just like in the Breton courts. I know the music, the steps; even if for just a minute, I can take you back to Daggerfall.”
Aries smiled blankly back at the bard and clasped her hands together. What a shame, to think that she had enjoyed his honest and insightful conversation up until this point, only for it to be spoiled by what she assumed to be the bard’s true motives. While on one hand it was refreshing for motives to be so simple for a change, it felt shallow and cheapened whatever wisdom he had to share, and that the bard’s talents were wasted. She cut off their discussion there, only saying, “I appreciate the gesture; however, I am not interested in returning to Daggerfall, but to the Imperial City and restoring the Empire. Thank you for the conversation.”
With that, she stood up and walked away to the bard’s dismay. He shook his head and sighed. Well, this wouldn’t have been the first time. His intentions might have been misinterpreted by the ambassador – he was simply just an affectionate person who showed his affection is somewhat unorthodox ways – but that wouldn’t have been the first time either. Given time, he was sure, she would thaw. On the other hand…
He was probably being a little too casual with the ambassador. Ah, hell, she’ll get over rank and file soon enough once everything goes down the chamber pot like it usually does.