The Real Barenziah, Part IX

by Anonymous

As Symmachus had predicted, the theft of the Staff of Chaos had few short term consequences. The current emperor, Uriel Septim, sent some rather stiff messages expressing shock and displeasure at the staff's disappearance and urging that Symmachus make every effort to locate its whereabouts and communicate this to the newly appointed Imperial BattleMage, Jagar Tharn, in whose hands the matter had been placed. "Tharn!" Symmachus snarled in disgust and frustration, as he paced about the small chamber where Barenziah, now some months pregnant, was sitting serenely, knitting a baby blanket. "Jagar Tharn, indeed. I wouldn't give him directions for crossing the street." "What have you against this person, husband?" "I just don't trust that mongrel elf. Part wood elf, part dark elf and part only the gods know what. All the worst qualities of all his combined races. No one knows much about him. Claims he was born in Valenwood, of a wood elf mother. Seems to have been everywhere since--" Barenziah, sunk in the contentment of pregnancy had only been humoring Symmachus thus far, but this piqued her interest. "Nightingale? Could he have been this Jagar Tharn, disguised?" "Nay. Human blood seems to be the one missing component in Tharn's ancestry." To Symmachus, Barenziah knew, that was a flaw. Symmachus despised wood elves as lazy thieves and high elves as effete intellectuals, but he admired humans, especially Bretons, for their combination of pragmatism, intelligence and energy. "Nightingale's of Ebonheart, of the House of Mora, I'll be bound -- that house has had human blood since her time. Ebonheart was jealous that the Staff was laid here when Tiber Septim took the Horn from us." Barenziah sighed a little. The rivalry between Ebonheart and Mournhold reached back almost to the dawn of history. Once the two had been one, all the mines within held by Clan R'Aathim, whose royal house held the High Kingship of Morrowind. Ebonheart had split into two separate city states, Ebonheart and Mournhold, when Queen Lian's twin sons, Moraelyn's grandsons, had been left as the heirs. At the same time the office of High King had been vacated in favor of a temporary War Leader to be named by a council in times of provincial emergency. Still, Ebonheart remained jealous of her prerogatives as the eldest city state of Morrowind, still first among equals, and claimed that guardianship of the Horn should rightfully be entrusted to the elder. Mournhold responded that Moraelyn himself had placed the Horn in the keeping of the god Ephen, and Mournhold was unarguably the god's birthplace. "Why not tell Jagar Tharn of your suspicions then? Let him recover the thing. As long as it's safe, what does it matter where it lies?" Symmachus stared at her without comprehension. "It matters," he said softly, "but not that much," he added. "Certainly not enough for you to concern yourself further over it. You just tend to your -- knitting." In a few more months Barenziah produced a fine son, whom they named Helseth. Nothing more was heard of the Staff or "Nightingale." If Ebonheart held it, certainly they did not boast of it. The years passed swiftly and happily. Helseth grew tall and strong. He was much like his father, whom he worshipped. When Helseth was eight years old Barenziah bore a second child, a daughter, to Symmachus' great delight. Helseth was his pride, yet little Morgiah held his heart. Shortly after Morgiah's birth word came that a plot against the Emperor had been unmasked and that the chief co-conspirators Jagar Tharn and Ria Silmane were dead. Symmachus rejoiced at this news. "I told you so," he crowed. Yet thereafter relations with the Empire slowly deteriorated, for no apparent reason. Taxes were raised and quotas increased with each passing year. Symmachus felt that the Emperor suspected him of having had a hand in the plot and sought to prove his loyalty by making every effort to comply with the increasing demands. He lengthened working hours and raised taxes and even made up some of the difference from both crown funds and their own private holdings. Yet still the demands increased and commoners and nobles alike grew restless. "I want you to take the children and journey yourself to Imperial City," Symmachus at last said in desperation. "You must make the Emperor listen, else all Mournhold will be in revolt come spring. You have a way with men, you always did." He forced a smile. Barenziah forced a smile of her own. "Even you." "Yes, even me," he said dully. "Both children?" Barenziah looked over toward the corner windows where Helseth was strumming a lute and singing a duet with his little sister. Helseth was fifteen, Morgiah just eight. "Perhaps they'll soften his heart. Besides, it's time that Helseth was presented at the Imperial Court." "Perhaps, but that's not your true reason. You do not think you can keep them safe here. If that's the case, then you're not safe here either. Come with us," Barenziah urged. He took her hands in his. "Barenziah. Love. Heart of my heart, if I leave now, there'll be nothing for us to return to. I'll be all right. I can take care of myself, and I can do it better if I need not fear for you and our children." Barenziah laid her head against his chest. "Just remember that we need you. We can do without the rest if we have each other. Empty hands and empty bellies are easier to bear than an empty heart. My foolishness has brought us to this pass." "If so, 'tis not that so a place to be." His eyes rested fondly on their carefree children. "And none of us shall go without. I cost you everything once, Barenziah, I and Tiber Septim. Without my aid the Septim dynasty would never have begun. I helped its rise. I can bring about its fall. You may tell Uriel Septim that, and that my patience is bounded." Barenziah gasped. Symmachus was not given to empty threats. She'd no more imagined that he would ever turn against the Empire than that the old house wolf lying by the hearth would turn on her. "How?" she demanded, but he shook his head. "Better that you know not," he said. "Just tell him that, if he prove recalcitrant, and do not fear. He's Septim enough that he will not kill the messengers." The late winter journey to Imperial City was an easy one. One of the things the Septim Empire had accomplished was the building and maintenance of good highways throughout Tamriel.

* * * *

Barenziah stood before the Emperor's throne, explaining Mournhold's straits. She'd waited weeks for an audience with Uriel Septim, fobbed off on pretext or another. "His Excellency is indisposed." "An urgent matter demands his attention." "I am sorry, your Highness, there must be some mistake. Your appointment is for next week. No, see..." And now it was not going well. He did not even seem to be listening to her. He hadn't invited her to sit, nor had he dismissed the children. Helseth stood still as a carved statue, but little Morgiah had begun to fidget. He had first greeted the three of them with a too-bright smile of welcome that did not reach his eyes. Then, as she presented her children, he had gazed at them with a fixed attention that was real, yet inappropriate. Barenziah had been dealing with humans for nearly five hundred years now and had developed skill at reading their expressions and movement that was far beyond that any human ever learned. Try as the Emperor might to conceal it, there was a hunger in his eyes, and something more. Regret. Why? He had several fine children of his own. Why covet hers? And why look at her with an intense, though, brief yearning? Ah, well, perhaps he was tired of his Lady. Humans were fickle minded. But after that one long, burning glance, his gaze had shifted away as she began to speak of her mission, and he sat still as stone. Puzzled, Barenziah stared into the pale set face, looking for some trace of the Septims she'd known. She hadn't known Uriel Septim well, having met him only once when he was still a child and then at his coronation twenty years before. He'd been stern and dignified then, yet not icily remote as this man was. Despite the physical resemblance, he didn't seem to be the same man at all. Not the same, yet something about him was familiar to her, more familiar than it should be, some trick of posture or gesture ... Suddenly she felt very warm, as if lava had been poured over her. Illusion! She had studied well the arts of illusion since Nightingale had fooled her so badly. She had learned to detect it and she felt it now, as certainly as a blind man could feel the sun on his face. Illusion, but why? Her mind worked furiously even as her mouth went on reciting details about the Mournhold economy. Vanity? Humans were oft as ashamed of the signs of age as elves were proud of them. Yet the face Uriel Septim wore seemed consistent with his age. Barenziah dared use none of her magic arts. Even petty nobles had means of detecting, if not shielding themselves from these in their halls. The use of magic here would bring down his wrath as surely as drawing a knife would. Magic. Illusion. Suddenly she thought of Nightingale and briefly he sat before her, only saddened. Trapped. And then that vision faded and another man sat there, like Nightingale and yet unlike. Pale skin, red eyes and elven ears and about him a fierce glow of concentration, an aura of energy, a shrinking horror. This man was capable of anything! And then, once again she beheld the face of Uriel Septim. How could she be sure she wasn't imagining things? Perhaps her mind was playing tricks on her. She felt a sudden vast weariness, as if she'd been carrying a heavy burden too long and too far. "Do you remember, Excellency, Symmachus and I had dinner with your family shortly after your father's coronation. You were no older than little Morgiah here. We were greatly honored to be the only guests that evening, except for your best friend Justin, of course." "Ah, yes," the Emperor said. "I believe I do recall that." "You and Justin were such friends. I was told he died not long after. A great pity." "Indeed. I still do not like to speak of him." His eyes were wary. "Ah, as for your request, my lady, we shall take it under advisement and let you know." Barenziah bowed, as did her children. A nod dismissed them, and they backed away from the presence. Barenziah took a deep breath. "Justin" had been an imaginary friend, although Uriel had insisted that a place be set for Justin at every meal! Not only that, "Justin" had been a girl, despite the boy name. Symmachus had kept up the family joke long after "Justin" had gone wherever such childhood friends go, inquiring seriously after Justin's well-being whenever he and Uriel Septim met, and being responded to as seriously. The last Barenziah had heard "Justin", after an adventurous youth, had married a high elf and settled in Lilandril. The man occupying the Emperor's chair was not Uriel Septim! Nightingale! A chord of recognition rang through her and Barenziah knew that she was right. It was he, indeed! Symmachus had been wrong, so wrong ... What now, she wondered. What had become of Uriel Septim, and, more to the point, what did it mean for her and Symmachus and Mournhold? Thinking back, Barenziah guessed that their troubles were due to this false emperor, Nightingale, or whoever he really was. He must have taken Uriel Septim's place shortly before the unreasonable demands on Mournhold had begun. That would explain why relations had deteriorated so long (as humans judged time) after her offense. Nightingale knew of Symmachus' famed loyalty to, and knowledge of, the Septims and was making a pre-emptive strike. If that were indeed the case they were all in terrible danger. She and the children were under his hand here in Imperial City and Symmachus left alone to face the troubles of Nightingale's brewing. What must she do? Barenziah urged the children ahead of her, a hand on each shoulder, her womanservant and guards trailing behind. They had reached their waiting carriage -- even though their apartment was only a few blocks from the Palace, royal dignity forbade their walking, and for once, Barenziah was glad of that. Even the carriage seemed a kind of sanctuary now, false as she knew that feeling to be. A boy dashed up to one of the guards and handed him a letter, then pointed towards the carriage. The guard brought it to her. The boy waited, eyes wide. The letter was brief and complimentary and simply asked if King Eadwyre of Wayrest, High Rock, might be granted an audience with her, as he had heard much of her, and would be pleased to make her acquaintance. Barenziah's first impulse was to refuse. She wanted only to leave this city! Certainly she had no inclination for any dalliances with a dazzled human. She looked up frowning and one of the guard said, "The boy says his master awaits your reply yonder." She looked in the direction indicated and saw a handsome elderly man on horseback, surrounded by a half-dozen courtiers and guards. He caught her eye and bowed respectfully, removing his plumed hat. "Very well," Barenziah said to the boy, on impulse. "Tell your master he may call on me tonight, after the dinner hour." The man looked polite and grave, and rather worried, but not in the least lovesick.