On Treachery and Honor
"Grandmaster Andavel, your services are summarily requested for contract by our client. Enclosed is a portion of the advance fee and contract details in anticipation of your acceptance. Councilor Palmstead assures me you are more than capable of providing navigation to the location selected for survey. Please respond as soon as possible." And so, on the 4th day of Last Seed, a dragon and a Dunmer stood at the foot of a trail head, awash in golden sunlight and forest greens.
"All over, Mr. Varys. I assure you, the mosquitoes on the mainland are nothing compared to the gnats you deal with in Vvardenfell." Mertisi grinned where he stood, made lopsided by the mahogany and brass pipe between his teeth, eyes shielded by a pair of prescription tea-shades as the Dunmer before him grimaced and continued applying the oily gel to his exposed skin. The mixture was light tan and had the odor of vinegar, mint, and something else Varys couldn't quite place, but he was sure in the dragon's wisdom roughly as much as he was sure in his hatred for small, flying, biting insects. "Much better, I think. Now then, prepared to set off?" Varys sighed as if weary and tossed the phial that had previously contained the gel into the underbrush. "I suppose so."
Nels Varys was anything but an expeditionary. Standing six foot nine inches and thin as a saltrice stalk in the humid sunlight, his clothing was that of a noble, not what one would expect of someone about to embark on a three mile hike into the thickest portion of the Ranyon-Ruhn forest. The only item out of place amidst his grand linen outfit was a small courier's bag - within was a canteen, a pair of basic binoculars, and some dried fruits and jerky. All of this, presumably, was to survey land for a very specific bulbed plant - Haxton Root - with a rather temperamental flowering altitude and growing climate, but rumored to have a great potential in the creation of specific restorative draughts. Mertisi wasn't much better dressed, a tall hiking pack strapped to his back but otherwise adorned in his traditional robes; however the dragon seemed quite at home... It likely had something to do with the trail head being within five minutes of his garden gate. Mertisi had ensured Varys that there were to be no illusions over the trip - Chalamish Clearing, their destination, was one of Mertisi's favorite bathing spots for the river there, and he had never once so much as seen a hint of the sought bulbed flower in his time there. Regardless of the result, the fee was to be paid up front. Varys may not have been much of an expeditionary, but a businessman for sure, and after some hard negotiations, he parted with roughly eighty percent of the original contract price.
After nearly a half hour of walking, Mertisi paused to kneel at a very small and very bright purple flowering bush along the trail-side. "Fresca Moris, how fortuitous. I've been running low on them lately. They're indispensable in my more sought-after aromatics." he remarked, plucking a handful of the plant's violet buds. "The rangers aren't doing much good if it's been growing this long, this close to the trail." Varys stopped, palms on his knees as he caught his breath, the humid heat of the forest persistent despite the near omnipresent shade of the emerald and lime canopy. "Hm, what's that? I'm afraid I'm not familiar with local flora." Mertisi stood, holding one of the buds to the Dunmer's nose. "Here, smell. Very sweet, yes?" Varys nodded. "That's the trick. This plant is carnivorous. The odor attracts insects looking to pollinate it, and traps them in its flower, where its potently toxic nectar kills them in moments. As the bug decomposes, it nourishes the plant." Varys, having caught his breath, felt his curiosity pique. "How does it reproduce, then?" The dragon smiled coyly, dumping his handful of buds into a side pouch on his belt. "Only about two thirds of the flowers on a budding Fresca Moris are toxic. It takes a trained eye to spot and reject which ones have digestive organs along their stamens." Varys nodded again. Truly, what he had heard of the Dragon's intellect was proving true - either that or the dragon was an absolutely natural bullshit artist.
They continued along the trail, passing a ranger station after about 30 minutes. They stopped in and spoke with the ranger on duty - Bennian Mandus, an old friend of Mertisi's - for a short while, refilled their canteens, and rested their feet before moving on. Before leaving, however, Bennian called out to Mertisi to speak with him; something had bothered him about Varys. Mertisi had not heard, however, and he pulled the door closed without turning back.
Shortly after departing, the trail suddenly veered away from civilization, and took a climb, one side of the tan dirt bordered by a rich, rocky hillside, the other by thick temperate forest of oranges and greens. Calls of birds from the canopy increased in number, trills and tweets filling the silence between the pair's sparse conversation. Mertisi paused once or twice to observe the passing of some local wildlife or to examine a plant or two, commenting briefly before continuing.
At length, they came to a clearing in the forest where the afternoon sun warmed a small, rolling meadow and the trees formed a semicircle around it, the remainder bordered by a clear-running creek. Mertisi removed his pack and set it down, looking about. "Here we are, Chalamish Clearing. As I said in the letter, I've never once seen the particular strain of Haxton's Root growing in this clearing." He looked around twice, and in the absence of an answer, turned around. Before him stood Varys, his eyes narrowed, a confident, sinister grin on his lips. "Oh, fetch the Haxton Root. I have exactly what I need here." And then, a bright gleam caught the dragon's eye and made him aware of just what Varys meant: in his hand was a shimmering brass, long-barrelled, muzzle-break pistol.
Mertisi slowly lifted his hands. His eyebrows were raised, but the remainder of his visage held an air of calm; if anything, the expression he wore seemed to question the Dunmer, almost as if to say, 'is that so?' Varys sneered. "Don't think I don't know your tricks, dragon. I needn't remind you that a bullet travels much faster than spit, I'll have you between the eyes before you can so much as purse your lips." Mertisi shrugged. "Wouldn't dream of it." Mertisi, being a dragon of the Noble Spitfire breed, could of course spit fire thanks to the secretions of a sac in his generous belly, but Varys was unfortunately correct. For a long moment, neither spoke. Varys simply stood there, unsure of what to do. He was no assassin, and he wrestled with his own morality - the reward for killing a traitor to the Telvanni Great House would make him comfortable for the rest of his life, not to mention the writs following would entitle him to the dragon's entire estate, but both Men and Mer hesitate when it comes time for their first kill.
"I know of your treachery, dragon. Word travels. That sister of yours, she's Redoran, a defector of our house, even. Family or not, I'm sure you know the penalty for harboring a traitor." Mertisi nodded slowly, both arms still in the air. "Death, of course. You have me dead to rights, I am in fact harboring a Redoran defector. But will you end my life over it?" He felt no immediate fear - surely Varys was capable of what he threatened to do, but he was banking on the fellow noble's hesitation... had he made a miscalculation? Worry slowly crept into his thoughts, and he felt sweat forming on his forehead. The Dunmer spoke, nervously at first, but with growing confidence. "Your continued existence is an affront to the Great House, dragon. Your knowledge was bought with gold and can easily be replaced. Anyone can learn what you know now... perhaps after I kill you I'll take up the mantle myself." Vary's hand had stopped trembling, and the barrel's aim was true. "At least, after I finish off that wretched sister of yours. I much prefer to live without the company of traitors." Varys made some semblance of peace with himself, pulled the polished hammer back with his thumb, and began lightly squeezing the trigger, just as he'd practiced, when a sharp rustle from nearby made him snap his head to the left.
From the underbrush roughly 70 yards away, an arthropod the size of a large dog emerged. Its blood-red bug eyes protruded from its head, ominously sharp mandibles opening and closing idly as it panned its head left to right, seemingly looking - no, smelling, from the sound of it - for something. Varys turned his head back to the dragon, a look of anger and worry on his face, but Mertisi had not moved an inch. "Nix Hound," he remarked. "Looks hungry." Varys twisted his face into a sneer of contempt. "Don't press your luck, dragon. I'll shoot you and have time to reload before it crosses the clearing." Mertisi chuckled, the arthropod still where it was a moment ago, though now looking in the pair's direction scrutinizingly. Mertisi looked to his right, before turning his head back. "I don't doubt it. You have me right where you want me, surely. You may be able to kill me and reload before it gets too near, but can you kill three?" Varys stared at Mertisi. He dared not look back for fear of the dragon making a move, but... concern overwhelmed him and he glanced again. A brief look told him the dragon wasn't bluffing, two more were now poking their carapiced heads from the underbrush, and the first had begun slowly pacing in their direction, deep green mandibles shining in a sinister way with the sunlight.
At last, Varys contorted his face in rage, and looked back at Mertisi. "You planned this, dragon. Your infernal treachery rots you to the core!" Mertisi smiled coyly. "Oh, please, Varys. Save the wild accusations of wildlife husbandry for when we're both out of danger. You've got a gun, for heaven's sake, fire a shot at them and they'll scatter. Quickly now." Varys had the idea roughly the same time Mertisi mentioned it, and he moved the pistol in a sweeping motion toward the three Nix Hounds - now all out of the bushes and advancing on the pair with determination, heads fixed. With the Hounds scattered, he'd have plenty of time to reload and execute Mertisi, he wagered. Varys squeezed the pistol's trigger and the hammer struck with a snap, a thunderous report sounded from the barrel and a divot of grass exploded a foot or so from the leading hound. Aside from a brief pause to look from the leading insect, the pack continued to advance, the leader picking up speed and now a mere 50 or so yards from the Dunmer. With a cry of rage, he turned to the trail to flee, but froze to the spot. Two more Nix Hounds were standing, heads lowered, at the mouth of the trail. "Silly me," Mertisi remarked, letting his hands down. "You're from Vvardenfell and you don't know Nix Hounds can't hear?"
Consumed with panic, Varys cried out and bolted for the nearest tree, clambering up its trunk with minor difficulty as three of the arthropods descended upon him. He threw his pistol and struck the nearest one before surmounting the trunk, causing the arthropod to recoil irritably for a moment and buying him just enough time to get to the lowest branch - now safely several feet off the ground where the Nix Hounds waited. The other two - the pair that had emerged from the trail - were now closing in on Mertisi, mandibles spread wide. The dragon didn't budge, regarding them with cautious interest, arms now folded behind his back. "I should have mentioned that the insect repellent I had you apply earlier has a special ingredient," he remarked with a chuckle. "Nix Hounds normally stay away from men and mer, you know." It struck Varys moments after the dragon finished speaking. The odd odor he had detected earlier was Nix Hound urine. Varys had led them to the clearing himself. He swore out loud. "I knew it, you treacherous fetcher! You planned to murder me from the start! Your hatred for the Telvanni will be your end!" Varys watched with relish as the hounds continued to approach, but Mertisi made no move to run. In fact, he made an effort to remain perfectly still, seeming to know that the hounds would chase and mutilate him before he could get but three strides. Varys' relish quickly turned to malice, however, as both hounds stopped half a stride from Mertisi, lowering their heads and appearing to smell him, before both began backing away, tossing their heads as if offended, then proceeding towards the tree and joining the group below.
After taking a moment to ensure he wasn't in any imminent danger save for the occasional volley of flaming, incoherent vitriol sent his way by the bough-bound Varys, he took his pipe out of his robes, packed some fragrant herbs into the bowl, and as casually as striking a match, spat a small gob of oily fire into the awaiting aromatics. After a long draw, he spoke. "Varys, I must be frank with you. You are more correct than I'd initially stated, although I'm sure you can understand why I wasn't truthful while you were pointing a firearm at me." He paused, as if expecting a reply, but in truth he was more talking to himself rhetorically - he wasn't even sure if Varys was listening. "Every moment possible was planned since your arrival at my front door. I have to hand it to you, though, I wasn't expecting a pistol. I figured you more of a dagger Mer." He folded his arms back behind his back as Varys had another fit, pitching his binoculars in the Mertisi's direction, which missed and shattered into several wooden and glass pieces in the clearing at his feet. "Although I must say I'm disappointed. You act like murdering me is your exclusive commodity. You're sorely mistaken, people make attempts on my life with alarming frequency." He drew a long pull of his pipe, speaking lower now. "They've been trying since I was eight years old."
He tamped out his pipe, stowed it, and turned to leave. "Why you decided to toy with the Andavel lineage is beyond me, Nels, but do carry a lesson with you. No matter what treachery the Telvanni line celebrates and breeds, it shall never spoil the bond of this family." He glanced over his shoulder one last time for effect. The sun was now a rich orange, casting shrouded shafts of golden light through the tree where Nels appeared to have given up on being angry and was simply watching Mertisi and the Nix Hounds below contemptuously. "Felis is my sister, traitor to the House or not, and she has shown me more compassion in the year she has lodged in my home than this entire festering, debaucherous charade of a council has shown me in my entire life." He set off, slowly fading from view as he disappeared onto the trail. "If I remember, I'll send the Ranger for you. Better luck next time."
When he finally arrived home, it was dark. He lit the gas lamps in the foyer wearily and made his way into the kitchen, where rich aromas of a spiced roast hinted that Felis was cooking supper. Without so much as taking off his pack, he found her peeling carrots at the washbasin within. She turned to face him and before so much of a greeting could leave her lips, he embraced her so tightly that she felt it was perhaps better to simply not say anything. They stayed like that for a short while, Felis with one hand around Mertisi's back and the other gently patting his head, until Mertisi finally pulled away, gazed at her for a few moments more with the most pondering of looks, and then left the kitchen without so much as a word, trudging upstairs to presumably unpack. Felis looked on for a short while, lost in confusion and curiosity before the mechanical bell on the stove nearby chimed, and she was brought back from her thoughts to finish preparing dinner. Even as time wore on, she would never find out exactly what was on Mertisi's mind that evening. He did, however, let slip at dinner that it was the finest roast he'd ever tasted in his life.