The Menagrie

Author: Rascien Wickersly
Released In:

This text was first published on Douglas Goodall’s Substack from 1/8/24 to 1/29/24

The Menagrie, V. I

A Less Dubious Tale

“Maricent Sintieve,” said Mericent Sintieve, “Maricent the Great, Maricent Three-Faces, the only thespian who performed for the courts of Wayrest, Camlorn, Sentinel, Daggerfall, Northpoint, and Solitude, not to mention both Uriel the Seventh and the Usurper, am now starring in two-drake comedies in…where are we again?”

“The Slick Pig. The only tavern in Pigsgate Moors,” replied Uther as he applied a third or fourth layer of foundation. He was a local lad, untrained before Maricent took him under his wing as the most promising of a bad lot, and he thought the extra layers of makeup made him more of an actor.

“Pissgate has what, a hundred people?”

“More like thirty, sir, but farmers are coming in from miles to see you. Mister Taliham, the proprietor, said he’s never seen the tavern so packed day after day.”

“Still, Pissgate is a long way from courts of Wayrest. Jewel of the Bay. Did I tell you I got a standing ovation from the Emperor himself? I was starring as Beldruf Rock-Face in—”

Uther, fearing yet another repetition of the standing ovation story, and the drunkeness that inevitably followed, decided to intervene. “Cheer up, Maricent,” he said. “Think of all those farmers out there who left their crops and pigs untended just to see you. They’ll never see anything better in their life.”

Maricent straightened up a little. “Maybe. Maybe they won’t. I just wish they left the pig-stench on the farm.”

“That’s pigs for you,” said Uther. “Now, my family, we were smart and raised sheep instead. A little bath and you don’t smell at all. Come within ten feet of a pig and you’ll smell like a pig for a week, no matter what you do. And if you get good sheepdogs or a few leadersheep you don’t even have to–oh, that’s our cue.”

Maricent decided not to ask what a leadersheep was. He went downstairs to the loud, irregular beating of a cowbell. Uther was right about the crowd. The dingy inn was completely full. Maricent worried about the structural integrity of the floor, but he was pleased to see more than just local farmers: a few Redguards and Imperials, an Altmer, an Argonian, and a few Bretons who looked like they hadn’t just wrestled a pig two falls out of three. Maricent smoothed his costume, straightened his paste-and-foil crown, and gave the best performance he could, under the circumstances.

Long after the laughter and applause, Maricent heard a polite knock on the door of his room. He opened the door and saw the Altmer from the crowd. “Excuse me,” the Altmer said, “but are you Maricent Sintieve?”

“Well, yes, yes I am.”

The Altmer broke into a huge smile and shook Maricent’s hand vigorously. “Oh, I can’t believe my luck! To see Maricent Three-Faces again, even in such a place as this. It was one of the highlights of my life. But tell me, what are you doing here? Running from the law?”

“The law? Not exactly, it was just–but please come in, er–“

“Earintucar,” he said, walking into the cramped inn room full of costumes, makeup, large mirrors, and bright lanterns. “A minor dealer in pig products and pig-related merchandise. Particularly sauces. I was just negotiating a sale in Daggerfall and one of the merchants there suggested I go straight to the source, as it were, to get a better deal. He told me I absolutely must see this fantastic comedy act in some place called Pigsgate. I am so glad I took his advice or I’d have never seen you work again.”

“Oh? So where have you seen me before?” Maricent asked, settling into his chair with a beaming smile. Fans used to annoy him, but now meeting one was a moment to treasure.

“Oh, yes, I saw you in Arnand in Daggerfall maybe ten years ago, and in The Potentate in Camlorn, not to mention that contraversial and unfortunate production of The Dwynnen Lai where the waterworks spilled out into the street,” Earintucar said all in one breath. He paused a moment and continued. “I hope no one was drowned.”

“Well, I’m so glad to have entertained you a little,” Maricent said with a seated bow. “No, no one drowned during the disaster. There were a few bruises and broken bones. I heard Vinerva, the lead engineer, was drowned a few weeks later. Some say it was the Dark Brotherhood’s work, but who knows.”

“You were fantastic, just fantastic, as the Baron before the water spilled out and all the ships fell over. I was particularly impressed at how you stayed in character, demanding that the gods fix the sea while sliding along the deck. I wish I attended one of the previous nights and was able to see play properly. But you must tell me what you’re doing here! I stopped seeing you perform, and I assumed you must be in Aetherius. Or retired.”

“They’re much the same thing to an actor,” Maricent said. “Well, you know how it is. There’s always rumors and disagreements. Some rivals of mine, jealous really, made things out to be more than they were, and I was expelled from the Guild. And then from the College. So I had to take whatever roles I could find in small towns and under assumed names.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Earintucar said. He looked at the ground a moment, then perked up. “Have you considered Summerset? There’s always plenty of work for skilled actors on the Isle, and the continental guilds have little sway there.”

Maricent raised an eyebrow, professionally. “But isn’t is impossible for foreigners to even get to the Isle?”

“It’s difficult, to be sure, but there’s always Firsthold. There’s a foreign quarter there, and a theater. If you’re noticed, and I’m sure you would be, there are more lucrative roles performing for the nobility outside Firsthold.” Eartinrucar studied Maricent, as if he were trying to keep this memory forever. “Sadly, we’re not likely to run into each other again. There are ways to get to the Isles if you’re determined. It was wonderful, just wonderful, seeing you perform again.” Earintucar took Maricent hand and shook it vigorously.

Maricent kept thinking about what the Altmer said for the next few weeks. And then, inevitably, the innkeeper woke him up one day with a “what is this” and a “it says here the guild’ll shut me down” and “they’ll blacklist me inn from the Bards’ College” and “well I can’t keep you here can I.” He said goodbye to Uther, and tried to give him some advice and encouragement since he did have a little talent for the art. Maricent Sintieve gathered his meager earnings and walked to Daggerfall.

The Menagrie, V. II

There were bandits on the road. There always were in High Rock. Maricent didn’t worry. As soon as a bandit leaped into the road in front of him or he saw a warning arrow land in the dirt near his feet, Maricent stooped a bit, took off hit hat, stared at the ground, and started the beggar’s lines from The Murder of Katariah, Act II: “Excuse me, kind sirs, kindest sirs, but could you spare a few drakes? I haven’t eaten in three days and…” The bandits would roll their eyes, holster their weapons, and get back into their ambush spots. A few even handed him a drake out of pity.

Two weeks later he arrived at the city nearly broke and with a hole worn through his left shoe. As he didn’t have enough money left for even the cheapest room, he went immediately to the docks.

“Pardon me,” he said to the friendliest looking sailor, a man so gaunt, tan, and muscular he might have been half-dreugh. “Do you know if any ships here are headed to Summeset?”

“Aye, the Abecean Ambassador, that one right there. But she never takes passengers.”

Maricent walked to it and began heading up the gangplank when a short but extremely broad Nord ran to the plank and said, “What do you think you’re doing? Trying to stowaway?”

“No,” said Maricent, “I merely wanted to speak with the captain.”

“We’re fully loaded and can’t take on any more cargo.”

“I wasn’t going to ask about–”

“And we never take passengers. So blow away.”

Maricent tried arguing, but the Nord kept running over his cues, and wouldn’t let Maricent even complete a single line. He walked back down the plank, dejected, and sat down on a crate nearby.

“Hey, you want to get on that ship?”

Maricent looked up to see another sailor, a Redguard boy of fourteen or fifteen who only looked a bit dreugh around the face. “Yes, I can’t explain why, but–”

“The Captain don’t take passengers,” said the ugly boy, “but she sure needs sailors. I can tell you a way you might do it for a couple drakes.”

Why not? Maricent thought. He had few enough drakes left that the loss of two more wouldn’t make any difference. He took out a pair and tossed them to the boy.

“You’re too grey to be a recruit, but if you can buy a day’s illusion from the Mages’ Guild, you can look young or look like a real sailor. Don’t let Captain Stone-Fists’ reputation or surname scare you. She’ll make your life miserable when she finds out, but she won’t just toss you over. Best be quick about it, because we leave at dawn.”

Maricent’s heart rose in hope, but then crashed when he pondered the going rates for the Mages Guild. He couldn’t afford a Starlight. There was no way he could afford an illusion spell to—

He clenched his fists and shouted at the sky, “Am I Maricent the Great or not?”

The ugly boy gave him an odd look as Maricent left and started searching for things he could use as a disguise: a sailor’s shirt left on a crate, one of the scarves most sailors seemed to wear, a straw hat, and a few other odds and ends. He dressed, tried to get into the role of a common sailor, and went back to the Abesean Ambassador. “Wanna see Cap’n Stone-Fist,” he said. This time the overly broad Nord just pointed him towards the little room at the front of the ship. He knocked on the door and it opened at once. He looked up, realized what he was looking at, and looked up again at the tallest Nord he’d ever seen.

She looked him up and down and down and down. “A recruit, eh?”

Maricent nodded.

“Aren’t you going to salute your Captain?”

Maricent saluted, a maneuver he fortunately learned for The Dwynnen Lai.

“Are you three hundred years old? No one salutes like that anymore. Well, it made me feel special, anyway. Let’s see what you’re about. Grab a rope and show me a bowline, a clove hitch, and a crane hitch.”

Maricent had no idea what she was talking about, but he had what seemed like a brilliant inspiration at the time. He pointed at his ears and mouth and made a sort of groaning sound.

“A mute, eh? Well, come here.” The captain waved for him to follow and then handed him one end of a short rope and pointed to a ring on the edge of the ship, then made a motion like a rope tying to it and then coming off again. Maricent worked for years as a stagehand when he was a youth thought back. If this were a prop, I’d use the shakeaway knot. He rapidly tied one and tugged it, then shook it loose. The Captain nodded, then pointed to one of the horizontal poles sticking out of the forward mast and motioned going around the pole, then tugging hard at the rope. If this were a flat, I’d use one of those round-and-under knots. He tied one. “Five drakes a day,” she said, “and you get your pay when we get into a port. You understand?” Maricent nodded, and only his immense acting experience kept him from saying thank you.

That was easy, Maricent thought, as Rolath — the ugly Redguard boy who tipped him off — led him around. He saw such marvelous curiosities as the bunk he shared, where the mess was, an hourglass that was apparently important, and a small locker he could use to put all the things he didn’t own. That was really easy, he thought. Given his luck over the last few years, he began to feel a steadily building dread.

The Menagrie, V. III

Luckily, Maricent was not prone to seasickness. The other sailors saw through his act the first day, but Maricent kept working hard and always had a smile and a pat on the back for any sailor who showed him the right way to do something. He soon earned the respect of the crew and felt he was, in spite of his age and relative weakness, becoming a real sailor. He suspected Captain Stone-Fist also knew he wasn’t really a sailor, but after she called him out a couple times and another crewman pleaded his case, she let him be.

There were only a few little problems. One problem was Rolath, the boy who tipped him off on how to get on board. TEvery shift change as they passed each other on the stairs or the deck, Rolath would lean to his ear and say, “Give me your rum ration or I’ll tell the Captain.”

Rolath never said what, exactly, he’d tell the Captain. Maricent complied the first day, and after that it became a habit. He wasn’t much of a drinker in any case, but neither was Rolath. He never drank a drop, as far as Maricent could see. Every week when he got his little bottle of rum refilled, he’d take to to Rolath after his shift and Rolath would give it back empty. The missing rum didn’t bother Maricent, but he felt the indignity keenly. Maricent the Great was being taken advantage of by a mere boy.

The other problem was the cargo. The Abacean Ambassador was carrying several rare animals to Firsthold where, according to one of the other sailors, they’d become part of the Crystal Tower’s Great Menagerie. That they were transporting beasts wasn’t a problem, but as one of the less experienced sailors, it was often his duty to care for them.

First there was the dragonling. In addition to trying to burn his hair off, the little bugger pooped. Sure, most animals did, but not all animals had magical poo. There was no better way to say it. It didn’t behave like it should. It would explode if you handled it too roughly and sneak away if you weren’t looking. It could turn from liquid to solid to liquid at the worst moment. And you had to scoop the poop one-handed while holding a dragonscale shield between your head and the flying brute at all times.

Then there was the giant spider-like thing. It wasn’t a spider, whatever it was. It usually wasn’t hostile. It wasn’t usually even awake. But one time while taking the empty feeding tray out from the slot at the bottom of its cage and sliding the new tray in (with a live chicken strapped to it), the thing drooled on his arm and Maricent was sick and delirious for two days. “Close call, that,” said one of the sailors when he was able to work. “Those things are sure poisonous. Or is it venomous? You’re lucky it didn’t bite you.” Maricent wanted to ask what it was, but of course he was pretending to be mute.

The troll wasn’t too bad for a troll. It was a giant of its kind with completely black fur. It would take a swipe at you if you got too close, and it would sometimes roar and rattle the bars of its cage, but it seemed content enough with a few live chickens and a hand keg of ale every day. The smell, of course, was terrible. One of the worst parts of Maricent’s chores was carrying the bucket of troll dung up to the deck to be tossed overboard. He spilled a little on his shoes one day and Captain Stone-Fist had them confiscated and thrown overboard as well. Then she ordered him to be tied up and lowered into the cold water racing by until there was no trace of the scent left on him.

The wraith didn’t require any care. It just floated in its magic circle, occasionally making a sound like distance screaming or a sort of labored breathing. But its looming presence kept Maricent nervous and jittery the whole time he was trying to care for the other creatures.

The worst was the nymph. She was easy to care for, in theory. She wasn’t hostile, and she didn’t eat or make a mess as far as he could tell. But she was…distracting. Maricent would be trying to feed the dragonling, and he’d hear an inviting laugh and look over to see the nymph smiling at him, brushing her fine hair slowly over one ear and she’d turn her body towards him just enough that he could see…and then the dragonling would flame him and he’d barely duck back under the shield in time to keep his own hair. And twenty seconds later she’d do it again. He kept finding empty rum bottles in the Nymph’s cage, which puzzled him, but he had little time to ponder how they got there.

By the time the Isles were in sight, Maricent was no longer assigned to the animals quite so often. A couple of sailors had gotten drunk and somehow set the beakhead on fire. They were given more of the feeding and cleaning duties as punishment, so Maricent was up in the crow’s nest with a spyglass scanning the horizon. He looked mainly towards the Isles, not because he expected pirates or anything of the sort from that direction, but because every other direction was nothing but empty sea.

And then he saw…something. A glint, a bit of white. He looked again and again and decided there was, indeed, something there. He tried to moan and get someone’s attention, but it was no use. Why send a mute, even a fake mute, up to the crow’s nest? Should he yell out a warning and give the game away? He looked down and saw a few sailors near the base of the mainmast cleaning the deck. He had just gotten his rum ration this morning and hadn’t passed it on to Rolath today, so he reluctantly got it out, aimed it as carefully as he could to the swaying of the ship, and let it drop. Luckily, one of the sailors saw it fall and crack open. He looked up. Maricent pointed to the horizon, then back at his mouth, then back at the horizon and waved his arms frantically.

Slowly the sailor realized something was amiss and ran and got the Captain. She and Maricent tried to play a game of pantomime, but she gave up and climbed up to the crow’s nest herself. “Who ordered a mute to be a lookout?”

Maricent pointed to her and shrugged. “Out,” she said. They managed to trade places without either of them falling. The Captain took up the spyglass and Maricent pointed at the horizon.

“Shor’s withered foot,” she said, “it’s a skimmer.”

Maricent just looked at her blankly and she took pity on him, once again. “A elven naval ship. They’re headed right for us, which means they think they’ve got some business with us.” She climbed back down and began shouting orders at the men. They changed course a little to meet the ship sooner.

Maricent looked through the spyglass again and now he could make it out. It was a long, slender ship, riding high in the water, with three oddly shaped silver sails, all completely full against the wind. “Must be magic,” Maricent whispered to himself. The hull seemed to be made of glass with green and blue swirls underneath.

The ship drew nearer, turned, and came along beside them. Maricent watched from the crow’s nest as the sails of the elven ship sagged and they matched the Abacean Ambassador’s speed. They didn’t bother with a plank. A haughty Altmer floated from their ship and landed next to the Captain. The elf took out some papers and began pointing to them and to the ship, generally. After a brief conversation, the Captain went into her quarters and came out with a small chest. She opened it and the Altmer took it and began rifling through the papers inside. There was much argument between them and pointing at the papers.

At the end, the Captain was defeated. She called out for everyone to assemble on the deck. Maricent climbed down to join them. “The port of Firsthold is closed,” the Captain shouted so everyone could hear. “These…representatives are going to take our cargo. And we’ll get paid for it, don’t worry. They’re going to pay what they agreed. But they are demanding that anyone aboard,” the Captain paused and looked around, “anyone aboard under false pretenses will be arrested and held until the Empire sends for them.” The Captain muttered under her breath, “Which is likely never.”

Another pair of Altmer floated over the deck and cast a spell. A few of the sailors began glowing. Maricent looked down at his own glowing hands and arms. The Altmer began questioning everyone who glowed. Oddly, all of them confessed at once. The first sailor said, “Alright, you got me. I’m Esmoran of Wilderwold. I killed Lord Uthbert who took my girl. I killed him and got on the next ship out of port before his body was ever found. That was thirty years ago. Never had reason to kill again. It’s not right, what you’re doing. You have no cause to—” And he suddenly slumped as if asleep. The Altmer dragged him over to the skimmer.

The next one, one of the ones who set the beakhead on fire, said, “I…why, I was Andre Virraud, a bastard and the sixth Prince of Camlorn. My parents arranged a marriage for me with Clarisse of Tulune, and if you only met her, you’d understand why I chose to give up my titles and become a sailor. My oldest brother is the Duke now. He always hated me, so you’ll not get any ransom for me. You can’t just—” And he, too, slumped lifeless and was carried off.

The next one said, “I’m Yvane of Skeffington, and wanted from Glenumbra to Wayrest. I was almost ready to release the beasts below deck and take this ship to Evergloam for my reward. You’ll regret laying hands on me. No prison can hold Yvane, for I shall—”

The next was Rolath, who said, “I told the recruiter I was sixteen, but I was only twelve. He knew, too, but they were desperate for men. There was nothing back there for me but pigs. Pigs, pigs, pigs! But I’m sixteen now. It’s legal for me to sign up now. I can—”

And last, it was Maricent’s turn. When the gaze of the Altmer fell upon him, he said, much to his surprise, “I’m Marient Sintieve, Marient the Great, Marient Three-Faces, the greatest actor in all High Rock, indeed, in all of Tamriel! I was banned most unfairly by the guild, so I was trying to reach Firsthold in order to—”

And all went black.

The Menagrie, V. IV

Maricent did not know the Altmer language, but he hardly needed it to tell that the crew of this skimmer were up to no good. Whatever papers and explanations they gave the Captain, they were pirates or worse, political. It was odd that they paid for the cargo, and it wasn’t clear why they wanted anyone on board who was travelling under false pretenses, but the ways of elves were always mysterious.

As a Breton, he was raised with a healthy respect, admiration, fear, and disgust of Altmer, and all of those things were being exhibited around him at this very moment. Yvane did not make it far. Unlike the rest of them, she did not wake up. As soon as the Abacean Ambassador was out of sight, one of the Altmer took out a black soulgem and grasped her limp form by the neck. His hands glowed purple and then it was done. They cast some spells over her corpse and put it in a barrel.

Esmoran and Andre seemed resigned to their fates, and Maricent didn’t feel like talking, either. Rolath was the talkative one. “I had a good thing going with Lush and now it’s all ruined. Do you know what I did for all that extra rum? It would have been any day now, as soon as the cargo hold was empty for a few moments, and now it’s never going happen. What a waste of time. If I wasn’t tied up, I’d throw myself overboard. Who knows where they’re taking us. Prison? Slaves? Maybe they’ll just drain us all like that witch and be done with it. Ugly guy like me, there’s no way a chance like that will come again. I wonder what Lush is up to now? They’re all below deck now. Probably guarded by a dozen wizards. Lucky bastards. Get born in the right month and you don’t have a lift a finger, just read books all day and get all the gold you want. Wizards never need to be lonely, either. They can just summon a daedra or charm someone. I bet I’d have Lush weeks earlier with a little magical help.” And he just went on and on and on.

Eventually Maricent couldn’t take it anymore. “Who is this Lush you keep talking about?”

“The nymph, you idiot,” Rolath said. “I called her Lush because she’s so luscious. And because she’s a drunkard. Can’t get enough of the stuff. That’s why her people kicked her out and sold her to Captain Stone-Fist. For some little carvings and worthless rocks, even. Any day now she was going to, you know, let me, you know. I’d give her a bottle of rum and she’d toss her hair and make cute sort of cooing sounds at me and let me see—”

“She did that to me, too,” Maricent said, “everytime I was down there. It’s just what nymphs do. Very distracting.”

“She wasn’t gonna sleep with you, kid,” said Esmoran. “After Uthbert took my girl, I swore off women. Never been happier. The salty air, the roll of the ship, a job well done. A few coins to enjoy the best food, the best music, the best plays in every port. What a life. I thought I recognized you, Maricent. Figured I shouldn’t say anything.”

“It’s not our life anymore,” Maricent said. “I don’t know what’s next.”

“I don’t believe you,” Rolath continued, undaunted. “Lush and I had something. I was the only one who brought her rum, after all. She was just waiting for the right moment. If only…”

The next thing in Maricent’s life, as it happens, was an unexpected performance. The prisoners felt the ship slow and come to a halt. Alas, Rolath did not come to a halt, and continued to blather about the nymph. Several of the Altmer were looking over the port side of the deck and talking to something in the water. The talking grew more animated and then grew into a shouting match. Then, suddenly, a decision was reached and the elves on the deck spoke amongst themselves.

One of them came over to the prisoners. “You,” he said, pointing to Maricent, but keeping his distance as if the mere presence of the prisoners would tarnish him. “You’re the actor. The seafolk want a story.”

“I…er…what’s going on?” Maricent asked.

“The seafolk. The maormer. We’ve offended them. The details are of no concern of yours. They demand a story or a snack. You can jump overboard and offer your body to their teeth, or you can come to the edge of the deck and offer your…your wits, I suppose, to their ears.”

Maricent did not need much time to decide. “And, ah, how much time do I have to prepare?”

“However long it takes you to walk over there.” The Altmer pointed to the port side of the deck. “Swiftly.”

Maricent held up his hands. The Altmer stuck his nose up, but he got out a knife and cut Maricent’s bonds. Maricent rubbed his wrists, then started walking, as slowly as he dared, over to the deck. There were a few elven heads sticking up out of the water. It looked like there were more below the waves. The ones he could see turned their attention to him. Maricent was used to an audience, but he stumbled a little, and his heart skipped a beat. They were staring at him intently, as if expecting more than he could deliver.

He ran over the scenes he could do as just one man and decided to do Camaron’s soliloquy from The Waning of Secundas. When he finished, the maormer cheered in an eerie way and demanded another. Maricent sang a few of Arnand’s songs, and the maormer wanted still more. He then did the Baron’s speech before the big battle in The Dwynnen Lai, and the maormer all cheered again. The captain, at least what might be the captain, of the skimmer came over and told them that was all they were getting. The maormer seemed disappointed, but they let the ship continue on.

Maricent was tied up again and brought back to the other prisoners. His pay consisted of a few swallows of water. Firsthold gradually formed out of the blue-grey horizon and grew closer and closer. The port seemed open for business and there were ships, mostly of Redguard design, docked there. The skimmer slid smoothly alongside one of the docks and they were hustled off the ship.

A regal looking Altmer and her retinue were waiting for the ship. There was some discussions, and Maricent overheard the words “Abacean Ambassador” a few times. Money changed hands, and the prisoners were again hustled over to a carriage. It was quite a fancy carriage, the sort you might see in a production of Breton fairy tales, with huge spoked wheels, and dark wood exquisitely carved and painstakingly curved into shape. The various creatures on board were loaded into more ordinary carts, with special attention paid to the wisp, of course.

And without any explanation of who this new Altmer was or where they were going, the carts set off for the interior of Summerset Isle.

The Menagrie, V. V

At dusk the prisoners were let out and given a chance to walk around, stretch, and relieve themselves. They were given simple bread and soup, but it was delicious compared to the fare they had on the ship, which is to say, nothing. The regal Altmer came to view them. She stared at them an uncomfortably long time and then said, “Yes, you will do. Which one of you is the actor?”

“I am, my lady,” Maricent said with a little bow.

“Do not mock me,” the Altmer said. “I will not tolerate it. All four of you are to be the stars of a performance. A most unusual performance. You must make these other three as good at acting as you can by the time we arrive at the Crystal Tower. You have two weeks.”

With that she left and the prisoners were tied up and had to sleep, as comfortably as they could, on the ground. The next few days Maricent tried to explain acting to the other prisoners and had them practice a few simple scenes. It didn’t go well. Only Rolath had any real interest in it, and only when he wasn’t lamented Lush. Esmoran would half-heartedly say his lines when he wasn’t lost in thought. Andre seemed to think being a sailor was as low as he could sink. To become an actor was unthinkable, and he refused to participate at all.

The last few days they could see the Crystal Tower in the distance. It was immense, so tall and oddly constructed that it seemed impossible. And yet there it was, drawing closer and larger every day.

When they reached the base, the regal Altmer announced that her caravan contained donations to the menagerie. The prisoners and the creatures were all taken out and sent into the lower parts of the tower. After a maze of wide corridors, they came to a set of animals pens. Each of them was shoved into one of the pens and the door locked behind them. “Pick a costume,” said one of the Altmer, with a wicked smile, “and put it on. Choose carefully. You’ll be performing a long time.”

Maricent looked around his cell. It was large enough to move around in, and there was a pool of gently running water, for drinking or perhaps bathing, on one side. The floor was not flat, but of large stones. Adamantine bars covered one wall. The opposite wall had a set of pegs and on each peg hung what looked like a fur coat.

And yet each coat was different. Maricent walked over to them and inspected them. One seemed to be that of a snow bear. Another was the skin, the real skin as best Maricent could tell, of a forest troll. Another was of a wolf. The last was all wood and leaves and Maricent suspected it might be a spriggan.

Maricent thought about the Altmer’s words, that he would be playing this “role” for some time. Alas, none of these costumes were likely to be a speaking role. He held them all up again and decided on the wood and leaf one, as it seemed like it would be the most comfortable if it stretched a bit. He tried it on, and to his surprise, it fit perfectly. He tested walking a little and realized the costume must be enchanted as bees, firefies, leaves, and butterflies began to dance around his hands as he waved them around in vaguely magical gestures.

He was tired and tried to take the costume off to lie down and sleep, but with the costume’s gloves on, he couldn’t seem to get a grip on the ties and zippers. He gave up and lay down on the flattest rock.

When he awoke, the bare stone offended him. It was lifeless, barren. He stood in the pool and drank and drank, but it only made him crankier. The water, too, was lifeless and sterile. How dare they keep him here. His heart beat terribly slowly, but it began to grow faster, and the sluggish sap began to flow. Let these stones bear. Seed them, seed them, a thousand flowers bloom! Split the rocks, murk the pool, climb vines upon the walls, upon the bars of the prison!

Maricent felt the magic, ancient magics, flowing through him and here and there on the stones were new small patches of soil. A few sprouts grew. The pool was slightly discolored. He was elated, and looked upon the little sprouts with the joy of a new mother.

And then he wondered what was going on. He was Maricent the Great, not a spriggan! He struggled again, to take off the suit, but now the zippers and ties were missing, and trying to pull on the suit hurt as if it were stuck to his skin. He panicked and tried to rip the costume off, but he only managed to tear his bark…er, his skin. He watched as small drops of amber sap pooled around the wound.

Somehow this suit had turned him into a spriggan. He looked at the wall where the other suits hung, but the pegs were now empty. They must have taken them while he slept. What could he do? He felt the nature spirit taking over once more, and as much as he fought it, he was not himself again for some time. His last thought was, at least I didn’t pick the troll.

The Menagrie, V. VI

He was lifting his arms again and again, pulling the tree up and up, encouraging its growth, when he came back to himself. He let his arms lay at his side and looked around. He had an audience. Behind the adamantium bars, now covered with vines, were several Altmer and some very richly dressed guests. If he concentrated, he could almost remember what they were saying.

“A wisp! And now a spriggan! However do you keep so many unusual creatures?” a Redguard asked.

“I am pleased we have entertained you, Lord Lhano. Do you expect me to answer that? Are we here to discuss trade or our beast handlers secrets?” an Altmer responded.

“No, it’s not true at all,” one wood elf was saying. “That is merely a nasty rumor. If you come visit me in Anticlere, I personally assure you that you and your guests belongings will be safe.”

“Ah, well that is quite assuring Lady Flyte,” said a muscular and bearded Breton next to her. “I may take you up on that offer. It’s a shame your husband died while you were so young.”

“Yes, quite,” she responded, meeting the Breton’s eyes over a tall glass as she sipped from it. “It is the great tragedy of my life.”

“And next, over here, we have one of the less common trolls,” said one of the Altmer, pointing the way. Maricent tried to speak, to shout at them to let him go, but he just made some moaning, whispering sorts of noises, and the Altmer led the delegation out of sight.

Maricent’s cell was now full of life. How long had it been since he was himself? He had to get out of here, had to do something. He looked around and saw that the rear wall of his cell had vines and grass growing out of it. Deep cracks had formed in the wall, and Maricent thought it wouldn’t take much to break through it. He spent several hours trying to raise the ancient magics before figuring out the trick to it. The vines swelled as they grew and the cracks in the wall deepened. Dust and pebbles tumbled off the wall and with a thunderous crack, the vines opened a way big enough to see light on the other side. Maricent commanded the vines to withdraw and found he could, just barely in this new form, squeeze through the crack.

The cell he entered was larger and much, much colder. The floor was covered in snow and the pool of water here had a thin coat of ice on the top. There was an orb hanging from the ceiling with frost and icicles covering it. The orb was making the cell cold somehow. Spriggans didn’t shiver, but he trembled a bit. Three snow bears looked at him and stood up. One of them padded up to him. Spriggan’s don’t feel fear, either, or he’d have squeezed back through the wall to his own cell.

“Nnn ooo err ooo,” said the snow bear.

Maricent again tried to talk and managed to make a tiny noise.

“Hoo arr joo,” said the snow bear again, pointing a huge paw at him.

“Mmmrrr,” he managed. “Mmmrrreeesssnnnnd”

“Mmmrrrishent?” asked the bear.

Maricent nodded.

“Rrrallloff,” said the bear, pointing to himself. “Annnrrrrey, Esssmmurrrnnn,” said the bear, pointing to the other two bears. “Annn ooo gggeet ooos aaawt uuv eerrr?” asked the bear.

Maricent waved his arms, trying to show the passing of the sun, and to say it would take time. He wasn’t sure if he was understood or not, but he squeezed back into his own cell. He made the vines move to hide the hole in the wall, and it wasn’t a moment too soon. A pair of elves came to investigate the noise. Maricent stood in the center of his cell and lifted his arms again and again, as if encouraging the plants to grow tall and strong. The Altmer left.

Now that he had a purpose, he found he was conscious more often. He slowly worked the vines among the rocks until he was sure he could open a hole between his cell and the snow bears large enough for a bear. And he worked the plants around the bars of his cage as well. He could do nothing to the adamantium, but he could weaken the stone all around each bar. He also opened a small hole to the wisp in the room to his left, and his vines worked around the spell of containment.

It seemed as if months passed before he was ready. And then one night he squeezed through to the snow bears, tried to indicate to Rolath that it was time to escape, and he broke the wall open. One snow bear ran through the hole. The other two stayed. Maricent walked over to speak with them, but Rolath shook his head and said, “Noooo ooooze. Eeey onna sheeey.”

Maricent wasn’t quite sure what was said, but got the idea the other bears were staying there. Maricent then started pushing on the bars, but while they were loose, they wouldn’t quite come out. Rolath charged and rammed into one of them, and it popped out with a loud clang. The bear was stunned a moment, but ran back and charged again, knocking a second bar loose. Maricent ordered his vines to break the wisp’s containment runes, and then Maricent and Rolath squeezed through the gap and ran down the hall.

Maricent had no idea which way to go, but Rolath seemed to have a destination in mind. He charged into a wooden door and it shattered. Here there were rows and rows of furs. Maricent lifted one in his bee-coated glowing hands. It was another snow bear. He examined another and it was a dreugh skin. He began sorting through them, looking for some costume that might help them escape. And then he found one.

His hands slid under a smooth, pale, hairless skin. It was an Altmer. A young Altmer man, tall, and, to the extent it could be seen in its floppy state, a handsome and mischievous one. He began trying to get into the costume, as disturbing as it was. His hands couldn’t reach the back to tie it on, but as soon as he slipped his bark-encrusted hands into the costume’s hands, they were nimble once again. He reached back and pulled the suit tight. It fit him like a glove, only now he was sure he was a foot taller than he was as a spriggan.

“Well, that’s better,” he said in a clear, regal voice. He looked for Rolath and saw he was having trouble finding a suit. “We can’t tarry here,” he said, and began looking for another suitable costume. Rolath came up to him with the skin of a Breton woman in his mouth. Maricent took it and lifted it up. It was the skin of the witch, Yvane.

“Are you sure?” Maricent asked the bear. “I’ve known many women, and the grass isn’t greener.” The bear didn’t seem to understand. “We might not have the chance to pick another suit or reverse the spell,” he said. “Are you sure you want to be a woman the rest of the your life? One with a dire reputation?”

The bear shook his head and kept looking. They soon found another Altmer man, and Maricent helped Rolath put the skin on. Somehow it stretched to fit, and then Rolath was no longer a bear, but an Altmer. He stood there naturally as if he always had been an Altmer.

“How did you know this room was here?” Maricent asked.

“I saw the guards take the costumes away when they moved me to the other cage,” Rolath said. “I saw the whole row of suits and thought maybe we could become Dremora or something. Something that could fight our way out.”

“I doubt the two of us can fight out way out, but if we find some clothes, we can bluff.”

The Menagrie, V. VII

Their escape had been noticed. Guards patrolled the halls. Maricent and Rolath were lucky. They managed to hear the patrols and duck into a doorway or down another hall whenever one passed. Oddly, Maricent’s Altmer body seemed to come with a knowledge of the Altmer language, for Maricent found he could understand snippets of speech as the patrols passed by them. Releasing the wisp seemed to be working as a distraction.

They got even luckier when they saw a couple of Altmer messing about with some crystal on a pedestal. They were totally engrossed in whatever spells they were casting on it. “Let’s sneak up and knock them out,” Rolath said.

“Can you find us a stick or a rock?” Maricent whispered. “I don’t think I can knock them out with my hands.”

They looked around the room and found a pair of fancy scepters. They snuck up, not all that sneakily, and with a 1-2-3-nod to each other, bonked both the Altmer on their heads. Rolath’s went down at once. Maricent’s needed a couple more vigorous bonks. They took the Altmer’s robes and shoes.

“Now we have a good chance,” Maricent said. “We just need to find the way out. If we go back to my cage, I think I remember the general way we came in.”

They left together, walking briskly, as if in a hurry to get somewhere. A few patrols went by them, but didn’t give them more than a passing glance. A few bowed to them quickly, which struck Maricent as odd. When they got near their old cells, Maricent asked if they shouldn’t try and rescue the bears now.

“No, Andre’s too scared of his family and Clarisse. And Esmoran likes being a bear. ‘Lying in the snow, dancing for the dumb nobles, all the fish I can eat, what a life.'”

“He said all that? As a bear?”

“He was easier to understand the first few days.”

Maricent’s memory was mostly correct and they soon found themselves leaving the Crystal Tower. There were guards at the gate, but when they saw Maricent and Rolath coming out, the guards bowed low and made a sort of salute. Maricent wasn’t sure if there was a proper response, so he kept his head high and just walked on out into Summerset.

Now they needed to get back to Firsthold and find a ship home. Their luck held. Before sunset they came across a caravan camped for the night. The elf in charge of the caravan said, “Halt! State your bus—oh, I’m sorry good sirs.” The elf bowed low. “Voryon at your service. What can I do for you?”

Maricent, about to get ready to try and fight or steal some food and run, took the cue. “We must travel with your caravan. Are you heading to Firsthold?”

“Yes, yes, we are. Is this…is this Thalmor business?”

“It is,” Maricent said, daring the elf to question him further.

“Then my caravan is at your service,” Voryon said. “You may ride in the first carriage. No, I insist. Please. I can walk. It will do me good. We can head to Firsthold in the morning. Or we can travel all night if you need to get there right away. Do you need some refreshment? We have—”

“Yes, yes,” said Maricent with a wave. “Bring us some food and wine. We are not in such a hurry that we must ride day and night.”

Voryon bowed three times and soon returned with food and wine. Maricent had to warn Rolath a few times under his breath not to scarf the stuff down. “We’re elves now,” he said. “Some kind of bigwig elves, and we need to act the part. Just follow my lead. I’ll be Volarimon, after the famous actor. Why don’t you be, hm, Nandithil from now on. Tomorrow in the carriage, we can practice.”

Soon they were in Firsthold and acquiring passage on a ship was trivial, as Maricent just had to say, “Thalmor business” and everyone jumped to do what he asked. He was tempted to stay and bluff his way around Summerset, but realized he’d be discovered sooner rather than later.

The ship sailed for Daggerfall, which suited Maricent just fine. When they arrived, Maricent convinced Rolath to stick with him for awhile, and they both went to the local Mages Guild. Maricent introduced himself as Volarimon and made up a story about being raised in High Rock and always being curious if he had the Altmer talent for magic. As it turned out, he and Nandithil were now both gifted enough in their Altmer suits that they were both entered as apprentices that very day.

After a miserable year of apprenticeship, Nandithil was sick of it. He left the Guild, on somewhat mixed terms. He soon discovered that, due to an unfortunate flaw in their character, there were many Breton women that would open their doors to a handsome elf. Not to mention their arms and legs. Nandithil led an outwardly happy and inwardly empty life until a Duke with more septims than sagacity hired the Dark Brotherhood to remove him and win back his mistress. Nandithil was removed, but the mistress was unmoved.

Volarimon studied another two years until he learned everything he needed to continue his career. He left the Mages Guild on good terms and went to the best theater in Daggerfall. He tried out for the leading role in the brand new Ghost of Lysandus.

“Ah, I can see you studied the part well,” the director said after Volarimon read it blind, “but we already have someone to play Lysandus. An experienced and reliable actor. I’d offer you the part of Lord Bridwell, but we can’t afford the Guild fees to make a high elf look the part. Maybe you could try out for our next play.”

“Will this do?” Volarimon asked, casting a simple illusion on himself.

“Why…why yes,” the director said. “You look the very image of Lord Bridwell. Can you do that a few times a night?”

“I can disguise your entire troop if required,” said Volarimon haughtily.

“Why, that would save four hundred drakes a week on costume fees! If you can do Bridwell half as well as you read Lysandus, you’re hired!”

Three years later everyone knew Volarimon the Great, Volarimon Gold-Tongue, Volarimon the Master of Illusion. His minor study of magic helped him subtly remove the most jealous of his rivals, and he managed to stay in the good graces of the Actors Guild and the Bards College.

Publisher’s Note for the Second Edition: The Volarimon presented in this book is fictional and not based on any Volarimon currently performing in High Rock, nor are the totally fictional characters based on Volarimon the Great of the early Third Era or Maricent the Great of more recent times. Any resemblance to any real Volarimon or Maricent is purely coincidental and the author and publisher insist that no intent to defame should be inferred. The animals in the famous menagerie of the Crystal Tower are real animals, not actors in suits, magical or otherwise. As everyone knows, the kind of suits presented in this work of fiction are magically impossible and cannot exist. All animals in the menagerie were captured by the great bravery of Altmer hunters and kept happy and in secure captivity by the wondrous talents of Summerset’s beast keepers. Rascien Wickersly hereby swears this story is entirely fictitious and not a minor embellishment of a tale told by a certain actor (absolutely not Volarimon) when he was drunk in the Unsteady Crab in Northpoint.

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