Nocturnal XIX

Clark travelled to Chorrol, expecting to find the sisters at Arborwatch, and ask them if they knew anything about the theft from the castle there. He was told that they were most likely out at Weatherleah with the Jemane twins.

So he went to Chorrol Castle, and spoke with the herald, Laythe Wavrick.

"The Countess has recently lost a painting, a portrait of her late husband. You'll have to speak to her about that."

Countess Arriana Valga told him that the only people who had access to the painting were her personal staff, i.e Laythe Wavrick, Orgnolf Hairy-legs the porter, Orok gro-Ghoth the steward, and Chanel the court mage. Bittneld the Curse-Bringer, captain of the guard, could answer any questions about the men he'd assigned duty that evening.

Laythe Wavrick hadn't been there. He'd been on duty in the main hall at the time. He suspected Orgnolf, as the man had a drinking problem. Orok gro-Ghoth confirmed that aspect, but told Clark that he'd confronted Orgnolf about it, and got him to quit. He himself had been in his room all the time, as the heavy rain had prevented him taking his usual walk in the town.

Orgnolf too, complained about the rain that evening. He'd been bringing in a shipment of wine, and the delivery boy had dropped some of it and broken the bottles. Clark asked about the drinking. "If you had my job, you'd drink too," was the reply. "Except I can't afford to, so I've quit."

Bittneld had done the inside duties himself that evening. "One of the privileges of being captain is that someone else patrols the town when it's raining." He'd seen the incident with Orgnolf and the wine being dropped. He wasn't surprised that it made Orgnolf angry. "He's fond of his wine, whether he's drinking it himself, or serving it to others." He hadn't seen either Orok or Chanel, and assumed that they'd stayed in their rooms.

Chanel claimed to have been observing the stars for her astrological charts. She didn't mention the rain that everyone else had told him about. Clark left her room, and went looking around the castle.

It was soon clear to him that someone on the staff was a painter, but they didn't want anyone to know. He found a half-completed canvas in one of the towers, and paint stains on a carpet.

He opened Chanel's door and cast invisibility. She wasn't there, and he was able to search the room undisturbed. A palette and paintbrushes were in a lecturn on her desk, suggesting that she was the secret artist.

Clark waited in her room until she returned. He let her know what he'd found, and waited for her to respond.

"Yes, I took the painting," she told him, "but you need to know the whole story."

"The Count knew I was a painter, and he encouraged me in my hobby, even sitting for that portrait. His wife was only interested in art as an investment. If a painting didn't have the right artist's signature, it was worthless in her estimation. When the Count died, I was able to arrange for my portrait to be hung in the main hall as a memorial to him. Anonymously, of course."

"The Countess didn't like having an unsigned painting on display. The quality of the work didn't matter to her, it was all about the artist's name. She couldn't have the work of an unknown on display like that."

"But she did like the picture. She had it moved into her private quarters, and made a kind of shrine of it. With candles lit in front of it, instead of proper daylight. Needless to say, it was soon sooty and grimy. I took it to clean it, but she noticed it was gone, and I had no choice but to keep it until I got a chance to put it back."

"Where is it now?" Clark asked. Chanel pointed at a painting hanging on her wall.

"I wrapped another painting around it, and put it back in the same frame. It's only the painting itself that anyone remembers."

It was obvious to Clark now that this "theft" had nothing to do with the Wayrest painting, but he asked Chanel anyway, if she knew anything about that.

"The theft, of course not, but I can tell you quite a bit about the painting itself. The mage who taught me Alchemy painted it."

"She often had me grind pigments for her paint; said it was good practice. You need the same fine grind, whether you're making potions or poisons, or pigments. And she'd discovered that mixing ingredients from the two schools sometimes produced very interesting results, like paints that glowed in the dark, or whenever anyone came near them. That had started her on an investigation into using alchemy deliberately as part of her art."

"You're probably aware that most spell effects are available through alchemy. Resistance potions and damage poisons for each of the elemental forces; increasing or draining skills and attributes; feather and burden and so on. She reasoned that some of the less obvious ones such as charm, frenzy and others of the illusion school would also have alchemical equivalents, and they'd most likely turn out to be paints."

"Some of her results were novelties, like a paint that turned invisible when you cast a certain spell." Clark knew about that one. There were a number of paintings at the Red Dragon Club, apparently of quite respectable ladies, whose clothing could be made to disappear in that way. Their innocent poses were quite the opposite when undressed.

"The Wayrest painting was the ultimate development of that idea. It was composed of many layers of the special paint, in tiny dots that might or might not be visible. There was no specific picture. It would form itself according to the influences of the caster's mind. At least, that was the idea. For her, it would never show anything but a very unflattering portrait of her ex-lover."

"She tried to get me involved in her work, but I didn't want anything to do with the Illusion magic. Redguards are never happy with magic, and Illusion is the perhaps the school we think is the worst. I learned Restoration, and Alchemy, which are what got me the job here, and of course I learned to paint. Some of her apprentices became painters, and others ended up as mages. A few did both."

"Do you know what happened to the painting?"

"It was stolen from her house at some point. She wasn't really paying it any attention, as she considered it a failed experiment. Whoever took it must have known the spell that went with it, or it wouldn't have been any good to them. Her conjecture was that one of her ex-apprentices took it, but she never suggested who that might be. That was all some time before I joined her school, so I wouldn't have known them anyway."

"Did she ever paint another?"

"No, it wasn't what she was trying to do. The images it showed weren't really artistic, so much as they were factual. Plain and boring, really, unless you had a particular interest in the subject. Or in the case of her ex-lover, the exact opposite. She wanted to to produce a painting that did what any artist strives for, to show the subject's personality, and not just their likeness. I think I achieved that with my portrait of the Count."

"Thanks for reminding me; we have to do something about that. How long would it take you to put it back the way it was?"

"Half an hour, at most. But then what? Where will you say you found it?"

"I'm going to find it hanging in the county hall where it should be. It will take a bit of chameleon, and maybe a distraction or two, but I think I can get it back in place unnoticed while the Countess is eating dinner tonight. Who will normally be there with her?"

"Her herald will wait at table, and Orok gro-Groth usually dines with her. Bittneld is usually patrolling the town at that time, so he'll post some other guard in the dining room. Where do you want me?"

"I think you should be in the dining room, too, so the Countess knows you're not involved."

At about eight that evening Clark walked into the dining room. "Lady Arriana, would you come and look. It appears the missing painting has been returned."

They all rushed into the hall to see the painting back on display where it had originally hung.

"Did you find anything out about who stole it?" the Countess wanted to know.

"The only theft I was able to track down was when it was taken from the people of Chorrol by the Countess," Clark replied.

Laythe Wavrick was horrified by this response, but Lady Arriana just raised an eyebrow. "Well, without a full explanation, I can't offer you the full reward. Besides, I need to give half to whoever restored it. It hasn't looked that good in years."

"The only reward I'd really want is any information you have about the so-called "Wayrest Painting". It's been stolen from Sentinel, and I was hoping you might have heard some rumors from the art market."

"I know the painting. I saw it myself once, before Akorithi decided it was broken. But nobody's heard of anyone trying to sell it. I'd mentioned it to Count Indarys the last time we were all in the Imperial City a couple of years ago, but he thinks only his precious Rythe Lythandas is capable of painting anything, so he didn't pay any attention. I forget what brought the subject up, we hadn't been talking about art in particular before that. Countess Umbranox was fascinated by the idea, but I always enjoy talking with her, because she agrees with me."

Not much of a lead, but Clark needed to go down to Anvil and talk to Count Corvus Umbranox anyway. He'd been the Gray Fox at the time the painting must been stolen, so if it had come to Cyrodiil, it was likely he knew about it.

"It certainly wasn't a Thieves Guild job. That much is certain. But there have always been freelance thieves, and the art market is one where a solo operative could make a successful carreer." Corvus pointed out. "The smugglers' caves below the castle here handled goods from Guild and non-guild sources alike, so it's possible it came through and I was completely unaware of it."

Clark hadn't known about the caves. "Here, let me show you," the Count offered.

They walked into the dining hall and met Millona on the way. "Where are you two off to?" she inquired.

"I'm just taking my friend here to see the old smuggler's passages below the castle. He didn't know they were there until I just mentioned them."

Millona came along with them as Corvus opened a secret door in the wall. Behind it was a dimly lit hallway. A set of stairs on the left lead down to the caves. "In the other direction," the Count pointed, "past that door that I don't remember, is the passage up to the Royal Quarters. Millona, what's behind that door? I don't think it was there before I became the Gray Fox."

"No it wasn't," she replied and took a key from her pocket. "I had it added a few years ago."

The three of them entered the small room. A painting hung on the wall, showing Corvus taking off the grey cowl and revealing himself to the Countess. A few chairs faced the painting, which was well-lit, and tables at either side of the room held drinks and refreshments. It was clear to Clark that the whole purpose of the room was viewing the painting, but he didn't understand why it wasn't on public display.

And then suddenly it made sense. This was the painting he was looking for. But it now showed the scene that was most important to the Umbranox's.

"Did you have this painted?" Corvus was asking her.

"No, she didn't , but that's not quite the right question." Clark told the Count what he'd just figured out. "You must have cast the spell again, since you were reunited, because this painting only shows the past." This was addressed to Countess Millona, who nodded.

"Yes, I got tired of looking at those two blank faces: the old man on his deathbed, and the younger one taking the package from him. I cast again, and this is what appeared."

"Those must have been myself, and the prior Gray Fox!" Corvus exclaimed. "I never knew who he was, of course, or else I forgot immediately I found out. That was the way the curse worked. Even this magical painting couldn't show our faces, because we were erased by Nocturnal's power."

"And I just realised - you had this stolen to try and find me! My straight-as-an-arrow Millona actually commissioned a theft!"

"I just wanted you back. I'd have done anything for that."