The Real Barenziah, Part V
Barenziah felt the weight of sorrow for several days, but by the third day out her spirits had begun to rise a bit. She found that she enjoyed being on the road again, although she missed Straw's companionship more than she would have thought. They were escorted by a troop of Redguard knights, with whom she felt comfortable, although these were much more disciplined than the guards of the merchant caravans. They were cordial but respectful towards her despite her attempts to flirt with the men. Symmachus scolded her privately, saying a queen must maintain a royal dignity at all times. "You mean I'm never to have any fun?" "Not with such as these. They are beneath you. Graciousness is to be desired in those in authority. Familiarity is not. You will remain chaste and modest while you are in Imperial City." Barenziah screwed up her face. "I might as well be back in Black Moor. Elves are promiscuous by nature. Everyone says so." "'Everyone' is wrong, then. Some are, some aren't. The emperor -- and I -- expect you to show both discrimination and discretion. Let me remind you that you will hold the throne of Mournhold not by right of blood but solely at the pleasure of Tiber Septim. If he judges you unsuitable your reign will end ere it begins. He requires intelligence, obedience, discretion and total loyalty in all his appointees, and he favors chastity and modesty in women. I suggest you model your deportment after Drelliane." "I'd liefer be back in Black Moor," Barenziah said indignantly. "That is not an option. If you are of no use to Tiber Septim he will see to it that you are of no use to his enemies either," Symmachus said coldly. "If you would keep your head upon your shoulders take warning. Let me add that power offers pleasures other than those of carnality and low company." He spoke of art, literature, drama, music, and grand balls. Barenziah listened with interest spurred by his threats, but after asked if she might continue her study of spellcasting while in Imperial City. Symmachus seemed pleased and promised to arrange it. Pleased with this she then said that she noted that three of their knights were women, and asked if she might train a little in combat with them, just for the sake of exercise. Symmachus looked less than pleased, but agreed she might, although only with the women. The late winter weather held fair but cold for their journey, so that they travelled quickly over firm roads. On the last day, spring seemed to come at last for there was a thaw, and the road grew sloppy underfoot, and everywhere one could faintly hear the sound of water trickling and dripping. They came to the great bridge that crossed into Imperial City at sunset. The rosy glow turned all the stark white marble buildings a delicate pink. It all looked very new and grand and immaculate. A broad avenue led straight north to the Palace. There was a crowd of people of all sorts in the streets. Lights winked out in the shops and on in the inns as dusk fell and the stars came out one by one. Even the side streets were broad and brightly lit. Near the palace the towers of a grand Mage Guild reared to the east while westward the stained glass windows of a great temple glittered. Symmachus had an apartment in a great house two blocks from the palace, past the Temple, the Temple of the One, he said, as they passed it, an ancient Nordic cult which Tiber Septim had revived. He said that Barenziah would be expected to become a member, should she prove acceptable to the Emperor. Symmachus' apartment was very grand, although little to Barenziah's liking. The walls and furnishings were stark white, relieved only by touches of bright gold, the floors of gleaming black marble. Barenziah's eyes ached for color and shadow. In the morning Symmachus and Drelliane escorted her to the Imperial Palace. Barenziah noted that everyone they met greeted Symmachus with a deferential respect which in some cases bordered on obsequiousness. He took it quite for granted. She and Symmachus were ushered directly into the Imperial presence. Morning sun flooded the small room through a large window with tiny panes, washing over the breakfast table and the single man who sat there, dark against the light. He leapt to his feet as they entered and hurried toward them, "Ah, Symmachus, my friend, I welcome thy return most gladly." His hands touched Symmachus shoulders briefly, fondly, interrupting the deep bow the elf had begun. Barenziah curtsied as Tiber Septim turned to her. "Barenziah, my naughty little runaway, how do you, child? Here, let me have a look at you. Why, Symmachus, she's charming, absolutely charming. Why have you hidden her from us all these years? Is the light too much? Shall I draw the hangings? Yes, of course." He waved aside Symmachus protests and drew the curtains himself, not troubling to summon a servant. "You will pardon me for this discourtesy to my guests. I've much to think of, but that's scant excuse for inhospitality -- ah, pray join me. There's some excellent fruit from the Black Marsh." They settled themselves at the table. Barenziah was astonished. Tiber Septim was nothing like the grim grey giant warrior she'd pictured. He was only of middle height, half a head shorter than tall Symmachus, although he was well knit of figure and lithe in movement. He had a winning smile, bright, indeed piercing, blue eyes, and a full head of stark white hair above a lined and weathered face. He might have been of any age from forty to sixty. He pressed food and drink upon them, then repeated his question: why had she left her home? Had her guardians been unkind to her? "No, excellency," Barenziah replied, "in truth, no, although I fancied so at times." Symmachus had made up a lie for her and Barenziah told it, although with misgivings. The stableboy, Straw, had convinced her that her guardians, unable to find a suitable husband for her, meant to sell her as a concubine in Rihad, and when a Redguard had indeed come, she had panicked and fled with him. Tiber Septim seemed fascinated and listened raptly as she provided details of her life as a merchant caravan guard. "Why, 'tis like a ballad," he said. "By the One, I'll have the court bard set it to music. What a charming boy you must have made." "Symmachus said--" Barenziah stopped in some confusion, "he said, well, that I no longer look much like a boy. I have grown in the past few months." She lowered her gaze in what she hoped looked like maiden modesty. "He's a very discerning fellow, is my friend Symmachus." "I know I've been a very foolish girl. I must crave thy pardon, and that of my kind guardians. I -- I realized that some time ago, but I was too ashamed to go home. And I do long for Morrowind. My soul pines for my own country." "My dear. You shall go home, I promise you, but I pray you remain with us a little longer, that you may prepare yourself for the stern task with which I shall charge you." Barenziah gazed at him earnestly, heart beating hard. It was all working just as Symmachus had said it would. She felt a warm flush of gratitude toward him, but was careful to keep her attention focused on the Emperor. "I am honored, Excellency, and wish most earnestly to serve you and this great Empire you have forged in any way I can." It was the politic thing to say, but Barenziah really meant it. She was awed by the magnificence of the city and the discipline and order everywhere evident, and was excited at the prospect of being a part of it all. Plus she felt quite drawn to Tiber Septim. After a few days Symmachus left for Mournhold to take up his duties as governor until Barenziah was ready to assume the throne, after which he would become her Prime Minister. Barenziah, with Drelliane as chaperone, took up residence in a suite at the Palace. Several tutors were provided for her. During this time she became deeply interested in the magical arts, but she found the study of history and politics not at all to her taste. On occasion she met Tiber Septim in the Palace gardens and he would unfailingly inquire politely as to her progress, and chide her, although with a smile, over her disinterest in matters of state. However, he was always happy to instruct her on fine points of magic, and he could make even history and politics seem interesting after all. "They're people, child, not dry facts in a dusty book," he said. As her understanding broadened their discussions became longer, deeper and more frequent. He spoke to her of his vision of a united Tamriel, each race separate and distinct but with shared ideals and goals, all contributing to the common weal. "Some things are universal, shared by all sentient folk of good will," he said. "So the One teaches us. We must unite against the malicious and the brutish, the mis-created, the orcs, trolls, goblins and other worse creataures, not strive 'gainst one another." His blue eyes would light as he stared into his dream, and Barenziah was delighted just to sit and listen to him. If he drew close to her, the side of her body next to him would glow as if he were a fire. If their hands met she would tingle all over as if his body were charged with a small shock spell. One day, quite unexpectedly, he took her face in his hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She drew back after a few moments, astonished by the violence of her feelings, and he apologized instantly. "I didn't mean to do that. It's just -- you are so beautiful, my dear. So very beautiful." He was looking at her with a hopeless yearning in his face. She turned away, tears streaming down her face. "Are you angry with me? Talk to me." Barenziah shook her head. "I could never be angry with you. I love you. I know it's wrong, but I can't help it." "I have a wife," he said. "She is a good and virtuous woman, and the mother of my children. I could never put her aside, yet there is nothing between us, no sharing of the spirit. She would have had me be other than what I am. I am the most powerful man in all Tamriel, and, Barenziah, I think I am the most lonely as well. Power!" he said with contempt. "I'd trade a goodly share of it for youth and love if the gods allowed it." "But you are strong and vigorous and vital, more than any man I've ever known." He shook his head. "Today, perhaps. Yet I am less than I was yesterday, last year, ten years ago. I feel the sting of my mortality and it is painful." "If I can ease thy pain, let me do so." Barenziah moved towards him, hands outstretched. "I would not take thy innocence from thee." "I'm not that innocent." "How so?" Tiber Septim's voice grated harshly, his brow knitted. Barenziah's mouth went dry. What had she done? "There was Straw," she faltered. "I -- I was lonely, too. Am lonely. And not so strong as you." She cast her eyes down in embarassment. "I'm not worthy--" "No, no, not so. Barenziah, it cannot last for long. You have a duty in Mournhold. I must tend my Empire. Shall we share what we may and pray the One forgives us our frailty?" Tiber Septim held out his arms and, wordlessly, Barenziah stepped into his embrace.