His nerves were high, but so was his excitement. Shizzal stayed up much of the night reading every Sermon he could get his hands on, and when it was morning, he rushed to the Temple to watch the morning devotions. He got there too early however, and the door warden wouldn’t admit him. He instead spent a few hours walking the dock, lost in thought. When he returned to the Temple, he was informed the morning devotions had come and gone while he had been away.
“You can make up your prayer time in the library,” said the door warden coldly. “Or you can stick your head in a bucket of ice water three times and pray for forgiveness. Either way, stop bothering me.”
Shizzal was pretty sure the door warden had just been joking, but he washed his face anyway before walking up to the library. He found he couldn’t keep his mind on religious scripture however, and moved towards the balcony that bordered the library on one side.
Shizzal folded his hands on the rail with a sigh, and promptly got his fingers caught on the voluminous sleeves of his robe. He swore, then glanced quickly around to see if anyone had heard him. In Hammerfell, clergy had been particular about not making oaths to the gods lightly, and he had a feeling the Tribunal Temple would be just as harsh about the policy, if not more so.
By chance, another of the priests was looking at him as if she had heard, but to Shizzal’s relief, she just frowned at him and kept walking, book in hand.
“Nice earrings,” he offered. The priestess glared at him, and strode the more quickly until she was out of sight.
Shizzal groaned, rubbing his forehead with a knuckle. “Gods, what am I doing?” he muttered to himself. “Temple! Religious nonsense! I have about as much chance of getting accepted here as I would in Julianos’ chapel!”
No one answered, of course. Shizzal sighed, propping elbow on rail and face on hand. The three-faced shrine loomed up from the floor below, and Shizzal found his eyes drawn to it unconsciously.
“I was here to learn about my people, and somehow got involved in all this,” he muttered to it. “They said I would receive a sign from my patron god on that first pilgrimage, and I guess that was you, Vivec. But honestly, I’m not sure what it is you saw in me. If that was you.”
He hadn’t had a vision like the other priests who had been on the pilgrimage with him. One had even collapsed in a swoon, crying out to her goddess. She spoke of visions, and her face had glowed in religious rapture.
Shizzal had never had much use for spirituality himself, relying on luck and wit to keep one step ahead of his enemies. But he admitted to himself now, he was a tad jealous of those who seemed to have their lives so well laid out for them. He tilted his head to watch the priests down below go about their daily tasks. Faces solemn, footsteps in measured strides. They looked like they belonged.
In contrast, Shizzal looked down at his robes, now stained with salt from waves off the dock. Shabby, and completely out of place.
“I was once an outcast too, you know.”
The sudden voice startled him out of his wits. Shizzal swung around. He groped at his belt for his swords, but remembered–with another curse–that he had left them with the door warden, as was proper for the priests of the Temple.
The Dunmer across from him watched him with amusement. He was robed like the other priests, but also had a hood that obscured a good deal of his face. Firelight gleamed golden off his nose and chin, and glittered in his one visible eye. “Be at ease!” he said with a laugh. “I’m not going to harm you.”
“You startled me,” said Shizzal.
“I understand. You are uncomfortable,” said the Dunmer. Stating the obvious, Shizzal thought. Something about the Dunmer set him at ease though, and he slowly relaxed back against the balcony.
“I don’t know what to think about all this,” Shizzal admitted.
“Not many do,” said the other, coming to lean on the rail beside Shizzal. “They’ve only had more practice hiding it than you.”
“Oh, I’ve had plenty experience with hiding things!” Shizzal said with a snort. “More than I’d care to admit, really. It’s something else. The others believe this stuff with all their hearts. And while the Temple is impressive and all, I’m not sure I…belong.”
“You were initiated, were you not?”
“Well, yes,” said Shizzal, nonplussed.
“Then what is there to doubt?”
Shizzal turned to stare at the other priest, but the mer was looking away, and Shizzal could only see the back of his hood. He decided to change the subject. “You said you were an outcast once?”
“I grew up on the streets. I did many things I should not have.”
“Hm!” said Shizzal and smiled. “I know what that’s like. So what made you join the priesthood?”
“I lived in a rough part of the country, and was often in trouble. As a young mer, I was to be sold to an evil man who made his living off of prostituting others. But another mer, only a few years older than I, took a liking to me and bought me instead. He introduced me to faith.”
“Wow,” said Shizzal. “That’s quite the chance.”
“I don’t believe in chance anymore,” the priest remarked lightly, and Shizzal fell silent.
A priestess down below lit a trio of candles on the altar, and like a low thrumming purr, clergy members all around paused and began to sing devotions. It was nearing midday, Shizzal realized. The priest at Shizzal’s side straightened, but he didn’t join in the singing. Shizzal found his thoughts winding a million miles away, drawn suddenly back to Drai and wondering at his well-being. Irritated with himself, Shizzal forcefully banished the thought from his head.
The priest was looking at him. Shizzal couldn’t be sure, but he had the feeling the priest had been watching him a long time.
“Can I ask you something?” he asked once the hymn had died away.
“Well, you see…when I did my initiation pilgrimage, I didn’t see anything. But the other initiate had a full-on vision of her patron god.”
“Yet you claimed Vivec to be your patron when the Archcanon asked.”
“Yes — Yes! How did you know that? — but that’s just the thing. I thought I felt something when we came up to his shrine. Like someone was standing besides me and put a hand on my shoulder, and then a glow right in my middle. But when I turned, I didn’t see anyone there.”
“And you wonder if you imagined it?”
“Yes,” said Shizzal quietly. “Hells, I’ve lied plenty to get in places I shouldn’t. Maybe this time, my lies decided to play a joke on me in return.”
The priest regarded him thoughtfully. “You will find life is rarely easily defined into true and untrue, Shizzal. A certain fact of mortality is that nothing is moral or factual at all.”
The priest went on as if he hadn’t heard him, though his eyes flashed with sudden sternness. “But this certainty I will tell you: if Vivec had not wished for you to be here, you would have been unmade as soon as you spoke the oath.”
The hairs on the back of Shizzal’s neck pricked. “Erm. Thanks for the reassurance. I guess.”
The priest smiled, and all hints of menace faded from his face. “Now then, I have much to do, and so do you. Stop worrying, Novice. The Triune path will guide you.”
“Uh, yes of course!” Shizzal turned away in a flustered flurry of robes, but a sudden thought occurred to him. He began to turn back around. “By the way, how is it you know my name –“
But the priest had disappeared.
Shizzal walked out of the library a few hours later, thinking hard about all the things he’d read. He didn’t notice he was walking towards a priestess until he bumped right into her.
“Oh, hells! I’m sorry. I wasn’t watching–“
“Obviously,” came the cold reply.
Shizzal straightened his robes and looked up. “Say, you’re that same priest who walked by me this morning.”
“Yes, ‘nice earrings’. I remember. You should know, Novice, that normally I would–“
But Shizzal wasn’t listening. “I’m sorry. That sounds really rough. That other priest in there, though. What was his name?”
The woman frowned, caught off guard by the change in subject. “What other priest?”
Shizzal grinned. Worked every time. Sometimes you just had to take the conversation and run with it. “Just inside there. We talked a while after the hymnal.”
The woman stared at him a long time, hostility mixed with real fright. “There was no other. No one’s entered the library but you all afternoon.” She sneered. “For good reason.”
Shizzal was too astounded to be insulted, or to even come up with a witty return. The woman took the opportunity to glide off like an angry bat.
“No one but me…” Shizzal turned around to stare back at the library. He swore later that he imagined it this time, but quite clearly, he felt again someone put a hand to his shoulder and squeeze it gently before moving away. A soft glow also suffused the space around his heart, that had nothing to do with warm feelings.
“Oh gods,” breathed Shizzal.