"I ask that you treat this as you would any researching endeavor or lesson; calmly and practically. As I have discussed in previous lectures, death is merely a part of life, and I expect you to examine this corpse as precisely you would a living man or mer."
My eyes were fixed upon the man laid before us on a cold stone slab, Bolor's voice distant and strange to my ears as he lectured. The basement was awkwardly still - usually during lectures or experiments there would be hushed whispers, the shuffling of parchment and scratch of quills. In the silence, I dared to think I could hear the dead man breathe.
"I will give you one final chance - if you find examining the effects of poison after death immoral or are squeamish to the subject, leave now. After this warning, I expect all who remain to work diligently and without hesitation." I glanced up as Bolor gazed over us, the few students curious or brave enough to work at his side. He hemmed at the silence, lip curling. "Very well. Come, then - gather round."
A bitter chemical scent rose as I approached, as my gaze moved over the corpse - the subject. Bolor insisted we call them subjects, to distance ourselves. A Dunmer, sickly green skinned with a sunken chest, lines of fatigue carved into his brow and dark bruises down his stomach. A woman beside me made a face as Bolor lifted the subject's head, tilting open its mouth and rolling it side to side as though it were a not-quite ripe fruit.
"Can anyone tell me a sign of how the subject was poisoned?"
I bit my lip hard enough to hurt as an Imperial man coughed. "Ah, the bruising. Much like in cases of hemophilia, it is a sign of internal bleeding. Likely it was a rat poison."
"Good." Bolor smiled - how can he smile? - and turned to me, carefully laying the subject's head down. "And what effects would rat poison have?"
"I, um." I blushed, knowing he was expecting me to answer – this was my field of study, after all, potions and poisons alike. "Rat poison would thin the blood to a lethal point, causing hemorrhaging that would eventually lead to death. It seems like he - I mean, the subject - " I stumbled, words caught in my throat. "Seems like he - it, ah..."
"It wasn't accidental unless he was an idiot." The woman at my side finished, glancing at me coolly. "No one eats rat poison. So the subject was murdered, obviously."
"Quite right. Had to pull strings to get the body here, I tell you. The Imperial Guard only let it go because the subject was a prisoner, and apparently not popular with his hosts." Bolor smirked, reaching into his robe to pull out a thin, curved knife with a flick of his wrist. He would cut open different sections, show us the effects of both poison and death before the body would be taken away…
Nausea hit, hard. I clutched my stomach to keep from doubling over, trying to hide my deep breaths from the others. Papa came to mind just for an instant, a distant memory of my first home shrinking in the distance, leaving him behind. The Dunmer would get a burial - he wasn’t even given that much, was he? Probably burned away in a pyre with our old hovel, taking with it in smoke and ashes any traces of the disease that took him.
Seeing the Dunmer’s head limply moved back in place, those sallow cheeks and shrinking lips, I realized I couldn’t hold onto papa’s face. Blurred and indistinct, features never able to quite group up together.
Concentrate. Concentrate. I breathed in through my teeth, hanging to the back of the clustered group around the slab. Don’t think about that right now.
"Now, then. Move aside, you." Bolor nudged a student out of his way, moving around the prisone - the subject's body, turning it onto its stomach and pointing to a sickly wound in its back. "As you can see, the poison was administered through a weapon - an arrow. The entry wound should still - ah, hah." Bolor moved his gloved finger around the wound, a cringe shuddering through the room as it gave puss. "It has thickened slightly over time, but some of the poison remains around the wound. And if I'm right..."
Bolor slid the curved blade under the subject's flesh in the wound, tugging gently and prodding around it. "Yes, the arrowhead is still lodged in there. Guards couldn't be bothered to get rid of it, I suppose. Surprised they even ripped off the shaft." The Imperial jerked back as Bolor stood, raising a brow. "Now, what could have saved this subject from his death? What restorative techniques should have been administered in this case?"
The class moved slowly, our answers hesitant but precise, Bolor treating the body as I had the apple he gave me on my first day at the university. As time passed, I began to slip into his mindset - seeing this as a lesson, a subject, a simple form of teaching so I could better learn the exact nuances of Alchemy and Restoration. I became absorbed in identifying the exact components of the poison we extracted, the scent that wrenched at my gut seeming to fade the world focused on my tools, my work.
It was then I began to understand what Bolor did - how he did it. And somehow, without the painful tug I'd felt before, I thought of papa. Of the times I sat by his side and watched him work, there-not-there and wanting him to myself as he eased the suffering of those around him, smiling. Bolor is the same way – he wants to help. Yet, they were so different. I paused, pursing my lips and staring into the dark vat of oil and poison, the elements separating, spiraling.
I caught my breath as Bolor's hand landed on my shoulder, relaxing as he gave me a gentle squeeze. He met my eye with a frown. "Are you alright?"
"Y-yes. Just thinking."
"About what?" Bolor slid beside me, watching my extraction boil and swirl. "You did well, by the way. Very diligent, my dear."
"...Thank you." I barely heard him, staring into the vat, trying to concentrate, trying to hold those near-tears from before at bay. With work quieted now, it was harder not to let my mind drift, not to…
"So. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." The word fled my lips before I could stop it, an instinctive response from the days when Toltette wanted to care for me - when he thought he could be a father to me. When maman or Anya would pry and I’d clam up, convinced they couldn’t understand. I didn't shift as Bolor sidled closer, brow raised.
"You are and always will be a terrible liar, Dust.” I could hear the gentle smirk in his voice. "Usually, when I call you 'dear' or compliment your work you flush red a tomato. You hardly flinched. Come, now." I sighed as his arm snaked around me, as he caught my eye at last with a frown. "Was it the subject? The bastard deserved what he got, I tell you. And you can look around – everything’s cleaned up." He chuckled, tickling under my chin like he did when we would tease.
"I did look." I snapped without meaning to, standing, turning on my heel. "Didn't you see my notes, my work? I'm not some goddamn delicate princ - "I stopped short, wrapping my arms around myself and squeezing tight. The word came out in a whisper “… Princess.”
"…My apologies, Apprentice.” He spoke coolly, inclining his head. “Shall I leave you alone?"
I’d hurt him. "No. I, I'm sorry." I sighed, collapsing back onto the chair, still unable to look on the now clean slab. "Bolor, please. I didn't - "
"I know." He murmured, squeezing my shoulder again, then sliding his palm across my cheek so our gazes would meet. "The first is always the hardest. And you did work well. The subject was a murderer, you know." Another pause, long and thoughtful. "You needn't worry yourself over him."
I pursed my lips, letting myself relax onto his shoulder, blinking away the sting of tears. "It - it wasn't..."
It wasn't the subject. But I didn't dare tell him. I left High Rock to leave it all behind. The thought of bringing it up – no. It still hurt too much. I worried at my lip, breath held. “It’s just – hard. To speak of. I…” A sigh. I felt, suddenly, very relaxed. Why was I so frightened of telling him in the first place? He would understand, he -
I gasped, pulling from Bolor as I felt the sweet, alluring whisper of a charm spell sinking into me. "What the hell are you doing!?"
"Eh. A spell?" Bolor grinned sheepishly, letting the spell fade from his hands. "I think you should talk about it, Dust. No sense in keeping it all bottled up."
"No sense in using a damn charm spell on me, either." I frowned, staring hard at him. The taste of the spell's energy lingered in my throat, sweet and beguiling and why, exactly, was I angry? Bolor has such lovely eyes. Why did - I cursed, squeezing my eyes shut to try and push off the charm, rounding on him again. "Damn, that was strong. I thought you were Necromancer, not an Illusionist."
"A bit of both." Bolor smirked, waggling his fingers at me. "And that's a posthumous restorer to you, Apprentice. Now, then." He stood, slipping an arm around my waist, charming me again with just his smile. "As your superior, I order you to tell me what is on your mind. Let's go for a walk."
The moons were shadowed, leaving trails of dim silver light across the silent grounds. I took a deep, slow breath of fresh air, cool and sweet and moist from spring night chill. Bolor glanced up, eyes bright in the dark as he took me by the hand and lead me to the alchemical gardens.
"Here. Sit." He grinned as I winced at the feel of cold stone, and I couldn't resist smiling back as I felt his gentle spell of warmth cloak my shoulders. "And tell me everything."
"What if..." I trailed away, stalling, but his smile was near as potent as his spell. Over the last few weeks since my birthday we’d stolen rare moments of touch and whispers, in the stacks of the archives or the privacy of his laboratory, but out here…"What if someone sees us?"
Bolor waved his hand, brushing off my concern. "At this time of night? All sleeping. Trust me. I always roam the grounds in the evening." A slow, soft chuckle. "No more dodging. Talk."
Slowly, I did. My story came out in shards, little, jumbled fractures of memory like the time I spent at papa’s side, healing the ill. Learning my first spell from Falrung, how tapping that beat and seeing that little warm light still brought me comfort. Like waking up in his lap, like leaving them both behind. The sheep's cries, the smell of hide and wool, the rattle of carriage wheels and that no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t grasp the picture of my father’s face, alive or dead…
I swore I wouldn't cry.
I did anyway.
He held me as I did, murmured, stroked my back and soothed away my guilt, my tears. Told me his own story – of the revulsion in Morrowind for his craft, of fleeing his family in his search for acceptance, for freedom, something I knew the need for all too well.
And together we went not to the apprentice’s quarters, where we would usually part, but to his own room. Laying together entangled in each other’s arms, murmuring until sound turned to feeling, into heat, then into a deep, gentle sleep.
It was the first time I awoke with him. Meeting his bleary-eyed smile with one of my own, I knew it wouldn’t be the last.