It hadn’t taken much for Morane to wile her way on board the merchant’s carriage. Dressed as she was in a brown quilted cotton jerkin, with thin leather bracers and gloves, cotton breeches with leather knee padding, black riding boots, and a hood pulled over her black curls, she looked the part of a carriage guard. The one thing that might have stood out was her silver ring of alteration, but even that was unadorned by a jewel and scratched up enough to be a peasant family’s heirloom.
Of course, there wouldn’t have been a guard position available had she not furnished the former guard with drinks throughout the night before departure. It was a simple thing to find a merchant headed for Shornhelm, follow a carriage guard to a tavern, keep him drinking until he had no hope of waking before noon, and then Morane would just happen to be nearby when the merchant complained to the driver of the missing guard. So instead of paying for her own trip to Shornhelm with the gold the King provided, Morane was instead being paid to take the trip. The merchant, being desperate for another guard, had even agreed to her terms to give her leave to conduct her business while there. All in all she was thoroughly pleased with how she had managed to manipulate things to her liking, and while getting paid to do so.
They had travelled through the southern foothills of Kurallian Mountains, which reached to the coast north of Camlorn and were the western branch of the chain more commonly known as the Wrothgarians. The Kurallians marked the border between the lands of the Adrards’ and those of the Estermonts’. The carriage followed the eastern road and the Kurallians almost across the peninsula, until they arrived at the Three Corners Inn, at the junction of the roads that led to Camlorn, Shornhelm, and Wayrest.
The inn was not the primary thing of interest in the town, however. Situated at the corner of the lands of Camlorn, Shornhelm, and Wayrest, the town of Crosswych had been a place of border disputes and fighting since its founding centuries ago. It had gone by several names in that time, usually depending on who controlled it. Before Wayrest’s sacking and decline in power, it was Koegria, harkening back to the fiefdom whose seat was there in Queen Elysana’s days. Now, though, it swore fealty to the Adrards, and the Duchy of Eardwulf sat in the former Koegrian keep, guarding the important crossroads for Camlorn.
Crosswych and the Three Corners Inn also sat at the end a wide valley that split the Kurallians from the Wrothgarians, through which the road to Shornhelm ran. It was wide enough for travelers to not be in any added danger of ambushes, but thin enough that an army could be easily bottlenecked between the mountains, giving the town added defensive strength. Had The Pretender’s War gone differently, Crosswych might have been an important battlefield in staving off any armies hoping to attack Camlorn. Instead it sat safe in the shadows of the mountains, seeing to the needs of weary travellers and merchants.
From Crosswych and the inn the merchant’s carriage had turned north to Shornhelm. While the Wrothgarians continued to rise high to the east, the Kurallians gradually transformed into low rocky hills, and finally the dense Ykalon Forest. Since it was still early spring, the snowfall in the Wrothgarians had not yet melted, and so the rivers and streams running beneath the road’s stone bridges were low and languid. But the roads themselves were clear of snow and of dangers. The carriage went from village to village without incident, and as quickly as could be managed, they arrived in Shornhelm.
Like all major Breton cities, Shornhelm was surrounded by massive stone walls. Its main gate was guarded by four large drum towers, two at the front and two further back, between them a corridor that would subject any invaders to constant harassment from above once the first gate was breeched. Morane knew from some maps she had studied there was a second, smaller gate that handled traffic on the opposite side of the city, but that was mostly for peasants or for merchants who docked at the coastal town of Carn Prae many miles to the west. But the main gate, the Clan Gate as it was called, saw almost all the traffic from Camlorn and Northpoint, and it was this gate the carriage drove through.
They were given a cursory search and sent through in a train with other travelers. The towers and parapets high above flew the arrow-pierced black heart on red of the Estermont family. The guards and archers patrolling the walls wore red doublets with black ornamentation over their armor, while the knights had fluttering crimson capes with the sigil stitched in the center. They quickly were waved through the second gate without a stop, the guards eager to keep traffic flowing.
The city itself stretched out in a crescent shape, the points wrapping around a massive rock that thrust into the sky like a dagger pointed toward the heavens. Abutting that rock was Shornhelm’s castle, itself laid out in a crescent shape with two layers of crescent walls. One tower, taller than the rest, was build right up against the rock, giving the castle and the rock behind it a tiered look. Wooden switchback staircases climbed the rock as well, and at the very top a squat watchtower, only a story or two and no bigger than a house, gave views of the land for miles around.
The closer to the castle, the richer the houses, while the part of the city furthest from the castle, up against the southern walls of the city, was home to the poorer houses. Where the rich and lavish housed began to give way to more middle class accommodations in the center of town, a massive market square bustled with activity. Most of the incoming travellers made their way to the square, which was ringed with large inns and shops. In the center of the square was a stone statue of two people. It was only as the carriage drew closer that Morane could make it out.
Standing about fifteen feet tall were a lightly armored Breton man with a thick beard and a heavily armored Nordic woman with flowing hair. The Nord had a battleaxe in hand, a heart engraved on her chestplate, and was pointing toward the gates as she gave a war cry, while the Breton had an arrow notched and aimed at the new arrivals to the city, his face calm and eyes sharp. They were the first Estermonts to rule Shornhelm, Phillip Estermont and Okkhild Black-Heart.
Morane thought their statue less impressive than the fact they had stormed the gate and been able to take the castle. She made a note to find out how exactly they did it when she got back to Camlorn, since neither looked like the type to use subterfuge.
The carriage came to a stop near the statues’ pedestal, and Morane stepped down from the carriage and breathed in the cool, misty air that bore the smell of cooking meat, unclean stables, and sweaty citizens. In that regard, it smelled like every other city. The hint of pine, from the stout trees whose tops stretched above some of the shorter buildings, did set it apart from other cities. It was a fresh smell, one she wished was stronger to cover up the more unpleasant ones.
Morane turned around to see the other guard, a Breton man with a quiver on his back, helping the merchant from the confines of the carriage. She was a barely middle-aged woman with short curls of brown hair that bobbed just above her shoulders. She frowned as she looked at Morane and tossed her a small leather bag of coins.
“I don’t know what I’m paying you for. We hardly heard any howling, much less run into any bandits,” the merchantwoman said.
“I’ll try and see if I can find some unscrupulous types to make your return trip more eventful, then.” Morane flashed a smirk and left before the woman could say anything in response.
Even with the main market square so busy, it wasn’t hard to find mages from the School of Julianos amongst the crowd. There were a few of them out, shopping and visiting the merchant stalls, standing out plain as day in their rainbow robes and silver masks. Morane had read up on the School and its unique style of dress. Their robes were rainbow colored as those were the colors produced when a ray of light struck a perfect triangular prism, and since the triangle was the symbol of Julianos, Morane thought it made some sense to wear such robes.
The masks were another matter. Each rank, from the lowliest Initiate to the Arch Cleric herself, had a personalized mask crafted from silver. What that mask depicted was based on the wearers’ rank. For Initiates, it was a plain silver disc with holes for the eyes, nostrils, and mouth. As they advanced, the mask would be melted down and reforged. Acolytes had an actual face, though it was plain and nondescript. Disciples had a man’s face, Sages an older man’s face, and Clerics an older, bearded man’s face with a triangle on his forehead, meant to be Julianos. The Arch Cleric’s mask was highly detailed, and could be made by only the most skilled silversmiths in Tamriel.
The mages Morane saw strolling the market ranged from the disc wearing Initiates to a few Clerics, who also had plate armored guards trailing them. They were the Knights Mentor, the military branch of the School of Julianos, who took a more active approach to rooting out ignorance in the world. Morane wasn’t sure how they accomplished that, seeing as it would be difficult to force literacy on someone, but it ultimately didn’t concern her and she didn’t care enough to find out what they actually did. The knights wore masks as well, in the same fashion as the mages, though their masks were part of their helms. Their armor also changed as they progressed, having more intricate runes carved into it. All of them, though, wore a white cape with a black triangle in the middle.
Morane bought an apple, leaned against a wall, and watched the mages of the School go about their business. She thought it odd the Clerics had guards with them, and even noticed a few knights patrolling the crowd and not guarding anyone in particular. They were watching for threats in the market, specifically threats from King Adrard. He had seen fit to warn her of the School’s ill feelings towards him, and that he reciprocated them, though he told her through Winvale. She hadn’t seen the King since he confronted her in the garden. The Knight Mentor, though, weren’t looking for anyone in particular, and just kept their eyes on the crowd, so Morane was still anonymous.
Morane looked closely at the mask of every mage and knight to confirm what her reading had said. She saw the masks of the all mages and knights gave off a faint shimmer, as though enchanted. The masks were more than just a mark of pride amongst the Scholars. They were necessary to gain entrance to the School. Since masks were only given to those honored with joining the school, that meant even the plain silver discs of the Initiates were enchanted with a secret spell that would stop anyone not wearing a real mask from entering the School. And the more private areas of the School were closed off to all but the highest-ranking members. To gain access to the part of the library that held the two Shadow magic books, she’d need at least a Sage’s mask.
That was, unfortunately, the part of the plan she hadn’t exactly planned. If she needed it, she had a cover story worked out for once she was inside, but it was getting to that point she hadn’t exactly figured out. So as the morning turned to afternoon, she strolled the shops and used the crowds for cover, always keeping the mages in her sight, and when possible, listening in on their conversations. Several had come and gone by the time she formulated her plan and was ready to put it into action. First she went into an alchemy shop and bought the most powerful sleeping potion she could, and then went into bookstore and bought two pots of ink and before she went back into the square. She then identified her mark by getting close and listening to them speak, confirming they were a man, of the appropriate rank, and not unpleasantly old.
The Sage she had her eye on was walking away from an enchanting shop he’d been in. Morane walked quickly, keeping her pace just slow enough to not arouse suspicion, until she had worked herself in front of him and was heading towards him. She carefully moved through the crowd until she came within arm’s reach of him, then she tripped herself and sent the pots of ink flying, where they shattered against the stones and spattered ink all over the Sage’s robes.
To ensure the job was done, Morane pushed herself back to her feet, and in the process stuck her hand in the puddle of ink. When she went to check on the stunned Sage, she placed her hand on his shoulder, and then feigned shock when she saw the dark, inky handprint she’d left.
“I-I am so, so sorry!” she said, using a voice she hoped sounded more childlike and nervous than her usual voice. Deference could only help her, even if it wasn’t her usual demeanor.
The voice that came from behind the mask was not angry but exasperated. Perfect, she thought. The man said, “I-it. Hmm. It’s fine. Accidents happen.”
“You must allow me to fix this,” she said. “I will gladly pay to get this cleaned up at a washhouse.”
“No no, there’s no need for that. I can take care of it.”
Fixing her eyes to the dark holes in the man’s mask, Morane tucked a black curl behind her ear, smearing ink on her face, and then doing her best to blush when she realized what she’d done. “Please, sir, it’s the least I can do.”
She hated acting like this, all apologies and blushing, but she hated to fail even more, and that’s exactly what would happen if she let this Sage go somewhere alone to clean his clothes.
With a sigh that sounded slightly forced, the man said, “Oh alright, I suppose I’ll let you. Let’s go to Madame Souban’s.”
“I’m Marien, by the way,” she said, offering her right hand, remembering the ink, then pulling it back with a smile.
“Joncis,” he said, his tone a little lighter than before.
They set off, Morane taking care to walk beside him but half a step behind, so he would think she knew where she was going but she was actually letting him lead. They soon arrived at a two story building a block away from the market square. The first floor was built from dark stone, while the second story was dark wood. The sign hanging in front had a washbin full of bubbles and, above it carved in flowing letters, Madame Souban’s Washhouse.
Next came the hard part. Most anyone would agree to take a stranger’s money to fix a mess they had caused, but getting him to agree to drinks would be more difficult. Thankfully, the man tending the counter at the washhouse helped Morane out in that regard. When he looked at the Sage’s robes, he said, “Oh my, that’s quite a mess.”
“How long will it take?” the Joncis asked.
“A couple hours,” the washerman said.
Before Joncis could express any frustration, Morane stepped forward and sat down a bag of septims and counted out the payment, as well as a generous tip. The washerman reached beneath the counter and came up with a damp rag, which Morane used to clean off her face and hand. She then put the rest of her coins in her shoulder bag, where the two enchanted books were. Joncis had removed his robe and mask and gave over the former. He was a balding man in his late thirties with pale skin and a weak chin. He wore a simple tunic and pants, and looked upset but not angry, which was all Morane could hope for.
“I’m sorry about your robe. Since it’ll be a few hours, how about I buy you a bottle of wine? It’ll make the time pass faster,” she said.
She gave him her best apologetic smile, not a natural thing for her, but good enough since he smiled in return and said, “What could it hurt?”
“Do you know a good place?” she asked the washerman, who was tallying something in a book before sending the robe back. Morane wanted this third party to pick the destination, that way Joncis wouldn’t take them to a mage’s bar where he might have friends.
“Right across the street and down a bit, on the corner, is The Archer’s Alehouse. Can’t miss it,” the washerman said.
Morane gave Joncis a glance and he nodded, and then stored his mask in his own shoulder bag. This time she led the way. The bar was exactly where the man said, and had a moderate crowd, as it was a couple hours past midday. Morane found a table along the wall, near the stairs that led to the bedrooms on the second and third stories of the large, ornate stone building. She motioned to a barkeep and ordered a bottle of wine, Carn Prae Rezin, stout northwestern coast wine that would help the sleeping potion along.
The barkeep poured their glasses, and Morane raised a toast. “To less clumsy strangers.”
“Here here,” Joncis echoed. They both took a drink of their wine, and then Joncis asked, “So, what were you buying ink for?”
“Oh, nothing too exciting. I work as a courier, and our office inkwells needed replenishing.”
“A courier? Isn’t that dangerous, travelling the roads like that?”
“I actually know a few spells myself, Mister Mage.” Gods, she thought, I might kill myself if I have to keep this up much longer.
“Oh, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a fellow practitioner of the arcane. What’s your specialty, Marien?”
“Alteration. Burdened enemies aren’t much threat, and paralyzed ones even less so.”
He chuckled, and then took another drink to wet his throat. “Quite true, quite true.”
“And what’s your specialty, Joncis?”
“Conjuration and enchanting are my areas of study. I see you’ve got an enchanted ring.” He reached out and took her hand, a move that ordinarily would’ve gotten him paralyzed, or at least slapped, but Marien was less aggressive than Morane. He inspected the ring, twisting it in his fingers and staring intently at it. “Fortify Alteration, I believe.”
“You do know your stuff,” she said, withdrawing her hand only after taking a sip of her wine, which led Joncis to do so as well.
They continued on like this, Morane doing her best to banter and flirt under the guise of the Alteration skilled courier Marien. An hour and a bottle came and went, with Joncis drinking most of the latter. Morane was careful to make it look like she did drink, but her glass was never totally emptied like his. Finally, the opportunity came when his bladder became as full as the bottles had been, and he excused himself to use the bathroom. Morane produced the sleeping potion vial and poured it into his drink. He returned, and soon after he finished his glass, she could tell the potion was beginning to take affect.
Morane drank half of her own glass, then grabbed his hand and said, “Why don’t we take this upstairs.”
Before he could answer, she got up and led him to the counter, plucked a few coins from her pocket and paid for a room, and then led him by the hand upstairs. By the time she got the door unlocked, he was wobbling on his feet, and she barely had enough time to steer him to the bed before he was out cold. She knew he would be for a couple hours.
Sorting through his bag, she found his mask and placed it inside her own bag, then hid his bag under the bed. She was about to leave when an idea struck her that might buy her even more time, should she need it later. She went back over to the bed, used a feather spell to better manage it, and then commenced undressing Joncis and roughing up the bed. Once he woke up and saw the state of the room and himself, he’d be in less of a hurry to go pick up his laundry, and so it would take him longer to realize he’d been thoroughly duped.
Morane left The Archer’s Alehouse and went back down the street to Madame Souban’s. Though she walked steadily and had only the slightest buzz, when she entered she the washhouse and approached the counter, she was walking with a bit of an unsteady sway.
The same washerman was there, and he asked, “Where’s the Scholar.”
“He’s asleep,” she said in a quiet voice, as if afraid she might wake someone. “He wanted me to pick up the robe.”
The washerman frowned, knowing this was irregular, but just as Morane suspected, he didn’t want to argue with a possibly drunk woman, and he gave the robes over without protest. Adding the finishing touch, Morane reached into her pouch and pulled out another tip, this one of a few coins more than was normal, but entirely inline with a drunk woman not bothering to count.
She left and ducked into an alley as soon as she could, throwing both the robe and mask on and drawing up the hood. Her disguise now complete, she had only the actual thieving left to accomplish.
Her trip to the School of Julianos took her back to the market square and then along the curving crescent road from the square. On her left were the houses of the rich, and beyond that the castle, while the more middle class houses were on her right. She followed the road, which she could see ended at the main city walls. When she reached the end, she turned toward the middle class district, where instead of nice houses, there was a wall that stood shorter than height of the castle walls but higher than the city walls.
White banners with black triangles flew from the ramparts and towers within, while several plate armor clad Knights Mentor guarded the gate. Beyond them Morane could see lush gardens stretching out in the main courtyard, and many masked, rainbow robe clad mages walking about.
Hesitating not a moment, she walked through the gate and the guards didn’t give her a second look. The courtyard inside of the School’s walls was wide and open. At the far end was a cathedral, with stained glass windows depicting Julianos. In the center of the garden courtyard was a large black pyramid, and just behind it a statue of Julianos, holding a quill in one hand and a scroll in the other. Morane approached the pyramid shrine and drew a triangle in the air, touching her forehead, left shoulder, right shoulder, and then her forehead again. The book she’d read told her of several prayers the Scholars had, and the motions associated with them.
She said, “Blessed be my studies, God of Wisdom and Logic. May I seek wisdom from the wise and walk in the light of knowledge.”
Once she finished, she felt a tingling at her temples. She wasn’t sure if that was the god’s gift or simply her still being unused to wearing the mask, but she was riding high already from the perfect execution of her plan and the truth in this regard did not concern her. The prayer was mostly to sink deeper into the guise of a Scholar of Julianos, and she didn’t linger too long on this rare moment of piety.
She lifted her head and went through the motions of straightening her bag, while actually looking around the courtyard as she did. The School was hexagon shaped, with towers at each of the corners. The ones at the front, between which the gate passed, where the shortest, while the towers to her right and left, which formed the ‘corners’ of the School, were tall and wide. The ones at the back where tall but not so wide as the corner towers, and they sat across from the gate and flanked an elegant cathedral.
The only tower that concerned Morane was the leftmost tower attached to the back corner of the cathedral. It held the library in its upper levels, so she set off towards it. Rather than go through the cathedral itself, which she knew was as much a lecture hall as it was a place of worship, she went around it along the loggia that stretched between each of the towers and went along the School’s walls. She could have entered the nearest tower and used the passages within the walls, but walking outside meant she could keep more distance between herself and any other mages. Giving friendly nods to those she did pass, she made it to the tower. A lone Knight Mentor stood guarding the door, but he only greeted Morane as she entered.
Inside the staircase spiraled upwards in the middle, while stained glass windows depicting mages at study and practice painted the interior of the tower in all manner of colorful light. She climbed the stairs and reached the library, which occupied the upper third of the tower. Disguised as a Sage, she would have almost full access to all materials in the library, while the less experienced students had only partial access.
She would have liked to ask a librarian about the location of the books, but when they were inevitably discovered missing, someone would recall meeting a woman asking about them. The less the Scholars knew about their soon to be missing books, the better.
Thankfully, there was an index cabinet on the first floor of the library. The book titles were in alphabetical order, so she searched for On Shadow Realms first, and found it quickly among the other O books. It was on the third floor of the library, where only Sages and above were allowed. The then flipped to the R’s and looked for Ruminations on the Reflections of the Infinite. She found the card, but when she looked to see its location, she instead found a large red script that read MISSING. She thought it interesting that one of the books Winvale wanted happened to be gone. She felt that it could not be simply a coincidence, and wondered if someone else was interested in Shadow magic. Someone also willing to steal books related to it. Regardless, she wouldn’t be finding the book here, so she left the index behind and travelled to the third floor.
Finding the book was easy, since she had the row and shelf number. Once she pulled On Shadow Realms from the shelf, she placed it underneath the enchanted book she had. The enchanted book began to faintly glow and it shifted and twisted in her hands, until after a few moments it was an exact copy of On Shadow Realms, except if someone opened it, there would be nothing but blank pages inside. Winvale had explained it was much easier to copy the outside, being only two covers, than the entire contents of the book. Morane placed the replica in the book’s former place and put the stolen book in her bag.
Instead of leaving the library, Morane climbed the stairs to the fourth level. While she was here she figured it best to have a look at where Ruminations on the Reflections of the Infinite used to be, in case there were any clues as to its whereabouts. But as she neared the staircase’s landing on the fourth floor, she heard whispering amongst the rows of shelves. She crept up as close to the top of the stairs as she could, and from listening determined the whisperers must be in sight of the staircase.
Taking a deep breath, Morane peered sidewise and substituted herself across the fourth floor room, so that she was behind them. She then picked up her robe so it wouldn’t drag and walked lightly on the balls of her feet until she positioned herself one row over from the pair of Clerics who were clearly trying to have a private conversation. She could just make them out between a gap in the books.
One, a woman, said, “I don’t know. But she came back from Camlorn in a much different mood than when she left. She was furious about Adrard taking the College of Whispers’ library and artifacts for himself, but she completely dismissed the issue after she met with him. And I know for a fact he didn’t make some other deal. Her steward told me as much.”
The other Cleric, a man, said, “She might be losing her grip. We’re supposed to at the forefront of Breton magic, with the influence due such a position. But now Jolvanne has allowed a hedge mage to become Royal Wizard, she let Adrard raid the College, and The Institute is being openly defiant. They’ve refused to attend the next magical conclave, apparently.”
Morane smiled at that. It had been years since she studied at The Institute for Thaumaturgical Enlightenment in Farrun, and she didn’t usually think of that time as good, but it did make her happy to see her fellow students and their masters there weren’t as stodgy as the rest of High Rock’s formal mages.
“I did not think they were organized enough to pull off a boycott. We’ll see if it lasts once we embargo their supplies. No one will sell to them if Jolvanne leans on the merchants.”
“I don’t think she will. I’m telling you, the Arch Cleric has lost her grip on things. All she’s done is ruin the relationship between us and the royals and given us a new school to staff. You know as well as I that it will only dilute our standards to fill a new branch. I heard the Academy Arcana is pushing for their turn at the helm. They say our standards are too low to be truly representative of Breton magic. Think what they’ll say now!”
“What do you suggest, then? We cannot simply push her out, not while she has Corgine’s support. The Knights Mentor will do as he says, and no one has been chosen Arch Cleric who did not have their support.”
“He will have to be made to see how detrimental her weakness is. The Arch Paladin is a sensible man, and he will come around.”
“If you say so. He’s never struck me as a turncoat. They’ll either go down together or both need to be replaced.”
There was a mumble of assent and the mages went on their way. Morane hid herself at the far end of the row, and they left without noticing her. She didn’t find much of the conversation that interesting, though hearing something scandalous that was meant to be private was thrilling.
She moved down the row Ruminations had been on, and sure enough found its spot empty. There was nothing there of any help to her in locating the missing book, and nothing else she needed to do at the school. With the stolen book hidden safely in her bag, she descended the stairs and left the library.
When she passed back through the gate, Joncis was there in his underclothes, trying desperately to convince the Knights Mentor of his story. He looked groggy still, and from what Morane heard, he wasn’t exactly coherent. She guessed that before the day was over they’d figure out his story was true, although it might be another hour before the potion fully wore off. By then, though, Morane would be long gone.
She walked towards the main gate and found several carriages waiting there. Picking out a covered one under the banner of a nicer company, she paid for a private trip that cost her quite a bit. She’d been given enough for a few days stay in Shornhelm, though, so there was plenty with which to ride back in comfort. As soon as the carriage bounced along the road, heading south, she took off the robes and carefully folded them up and placed them in her bag, along with the mask. Excellent mementos of her successful theft. With one book down, and another missing, that meant only four left. She would be headed to Solitude, next.