The Real Barenziah, Part VII

by Anonymous

"Everything I have ever loved I have lost," Barenziah thought, looking over the mounted knights behind and ahead, the tirewomen near her in a carriage, "yet have I gained a measure of wealth and power, and the promise of more to come. Dearly have I bought it. Now do I better understand Tiber Septim's love of it, if he has oft paid such prices, for surely worth is measured by the price one pays." Barenziah, by her wish, rode mounted on a shining black mare, clad as a warrior in shining chain mail of dark elf making. As the slow days slipped by and her train rode a winding road eastward into the setting sun, around her rose the steep-sided mountain slopes of Morrowind. The air was thin and a chill late autumn wind blew constantly, but it was also rich with the sweet spice smell of the late-blooming black rose, which grew in every shadowy nook and crevice, finding nourishment even in the stoniest slopes. In small villages and towns, ragged dark elf folk gathered along the road to cry her name or simply gape. Most of her knightly escort were Redguards with a few dark elves, Nords and Bretons scattered among them. As they wove their way into the heart of Morrowind, these grew increasingly uncomfortable and clung together. Even the dark elf knights seemed somewhat uneasy. Barenziah felt at home, felt the welcome extended to her by this land. Symmachus met her at the Mournhold borders with an escort of knights, about half of whom were dark elf in Imperial battle dress, she noted. There was a grand parade into the city and speeches of welcome from elders. "I've had the queen's suite refurbished for you," he said, "but you can change anything not to your taste, of course." He went on about details of the coronation ceremony which was to be held in a week. He was his old commanding self, but she sensed something else as well. He was eager for her approval of the arrangements. He asked her nothing about her stay in Imperial City or Tiber Septim, although Barenziah was certain that Drelliane had told him everything in detail. The ceremony itself, like so much else, was a mixture of old and new, parts of it dictated by Imperial format, as she was sworn to service of the Empire and Tiber Septim, as well as to the land of Mournhold and its people. She then accepted fealty from the people and the council. The council was composed of a mixture of Imperial representatives, advisors they were called, and native representatives of the people. These latter were mostly elders, in accordance with elven custom. Barenziah found that much of her time was occupied in attempting to reconcile these two forces. And the elders were expected to do most of the conciliating in the name of the reforms introduced by the Empire, such as land ownership and surface farming, which went clean against dark elven tradition, as laid down by their ancient gods and goddesses. Now, Tiber Septim, in the name of the One had decreed a new tradition, and the gods and goddesses themselves were expected to obey. Barenziah threw herself into work and study. She was through with love and men for a long, long time, if not forever. There were other pleasures, she discovered, as Symmachus had promised, those of the mind, of power. She developed a love for dark elf history and legend, a hunger to know the people from whom she sprang, proud warriors and craftsmen. Tiber Septim lived another half century, during which she saw him on a few occasions, as she was bidden to Imperial City for one reason or another. He greeted her with warmth on these occasions and they had long talks together about events. He seemed to have quite forgotten that there had ever been anything more between them. He changed little over the years. Rumor said that his mages had found spells to extend his vitality, and even that the One had granted him immortality. Then one day a messenger came with the news that he was dead, and his son was now Emperor in his place. They'd heard the news in private, she and Symmachus. He took it stoically, as he took everything. "It doesn't seem possible," Barenziah said. "I told you. It's the way of humans. They are a short-lived race. It doesn't really matter. His power lives on, and his son now wields it." "You called him your friend. Do you feel nothing?" He shrugged. "There was a time when you called him somewhat more. What do you feel, Barenziah?" "Emptiness. Loneliness," she said, then she too shrugged. "That's not new." "I know," he said, taking her hand. "Barenziah, let me try to fill that lonely place." He turned her face up and kissed her. It filled her with astonishment. She couldn't remember his ever touching her before. She'd never thought of him in that way, and yet, undeniably, an old familiar warmth spread through her. She'd forgotten how good it was, that warmth. Not the burning heat she'd felt with Tiber Septim, but the warmth she associated with, with Straw! Straw, poor Straw. She hadn't thought of him in so long. He'd be middle-aged now if he still lived. Probably married with a dozen children, she hoped, and a wife who could talk for two. "Marry me, Barenziah," he was saying, "I've worked and toiled and waited long enough, haven't I?" Marriage. "A peasant with peasant dreams." The words appeared in her mind, as if from long ago. And yet, why not? If not him, who? The great noble families had been destroyed in the war and its aftermath. Dark elf rule had been restored, but not the old nobility. Most of them were upstarts, like Symmachus and not as good as he was. He'd fought to keep Mournhold whole and healthy when their so-called advisors would have picked their bones, sucked them dry as Ebonheart had been sucked dry. He'd fought for Mournhold, fought for her, while she and it grew. She felt a sudden rush of gratitude, and, undeniably, affection. He was steady and reliable. He'd served her well. "Why not?" she said, smiling. The union was a good one, both in its political and personal aspects. While Tiber Septim's son viewed her with a jaundiced eye, his trust in his father's old friend was absolute. Symmachus, however, was still viewed with suspicion by Morrowind's stiff-necked folk, suspicious of his peasant ancestry, his close ties to the Empire, while she was quite popular. "The Lady's one of our own in her heart," it was whispered, "held captive as we are." Barenziah felt content. There was work and pleasure and what more could one ask of life? The years passed swiftly, with crises to be dealt with, storms and famines and failures and successes and plots to be foiled. Mournhold prospered well enough. Her people were secure and fed, her mines and farms productive. All was well save that the marriage produced no children. No heirs. Now elven children are slow to come, and most demanding of their welcome, noble children more so than others, thus many decades had passed before they grew concerned. "The fault lies with me, husband. I am damaged goods." Barenziah said bitterly. "If you want to take another..." "I want no other," Symmachus snapped, "nor do I know the fault to be thine. Perhaps it is mine. Whichever, we will seek a cure. If there is damage, surely it may be repaired?" "How so? When we dare not entrust anyone with my true story? Healer's oaths do not always hold." "It won't matter if we change the time and circumstances a bit. Whate'er we say or fail to say Jephre never rests. His inventive mind and quick tongue are ever busy spreading gossip and rumor." Priests and Healers came and went, but all their prayers, potions and other efforts produced not even a period of bloom, let alone a single fruit. Eventually, they put it from their minds and left it in the gods' hands. They were yet young, with centuries ahead of them. There was time. Elves always have time.