The Real Barenziah, Part X
Barenziah stood at the open tower window, waiting. She could sense her familiar's nearness, but though the night sky was clear as day to her eyes she could not yet see him. Then suddenly he was there, a swift moving dot beneath the wispy night clouds. A few more minutes and the great nighthawk was there, wings folded, talons reaching for her thick leather armband. She carried the bird to its perch where it waited, panting, while her impatient fingers felt for the message secured in a capsule on one leg. It drank, then ruffled its feathers and began to preen, secure in her presence. A tiny part of her consciousness shared its satisfaction with a job well done, rest earned ... yet beneath that was an unease. Things were not right, even to its bird mind. Her fingers shook as she unfolded the thin sheet and pored over the sheet of cramped writing. Not Symmachus' bold hand! Barenziah sat, slowly, fingers smoothing the document while she prepared her mind and body to accept disaster calmly. The Imperial Guards had deserted Symmachus and joined the rebels. The loyal troops had suffered a decisive defeat. The rebel leader had been recognized as king of Morrowind by the Emperor. Symmachus was dead. Barenziah and the children had been declared traitors of the Empire and a price set on their heads. "My lady?" Barenziah jumped, startled at her servant's approach. "The Breton is here. King Eadwyre," the woman added helpfully, noting Barenziah's puzzlement. "Is there news, my lady?" she said, nodding at the nighthawk. "Nothing that will not wait," Barenziah said quickly. "See to the bird." King Eadwyre greeted her gravely and courteously, if rather fulsomely. He claimed to be a great admirer of Symmachus, who figured prominently in his family legends. Gradually he turned the conversation to her business with the Emperor. Finding her noncommittal, he suddenly blurted out, "My Lady Queen, you must believe me. The man posing as the Emperor is an impostor! I know it sounds mad, but I -- " "No," Barenziah said, with sudden decisiveness. "You are correct. I know." Eadwyre relaxed back into his seat for the first time, eyes shrewd. "You know? You're not just humoring a madman? My lady I -- we -- need your aid." Barenziah smiled grimly at the irony. "Of what assistance might I be, my lord?" Quickly he outlined a plot. The Imperial Sorceress Ria Silmane had been killed and declared a traitor by the false emperor, yet she retained a bit of her power and could yet contact a few of those she had known well on the mortal plane. She had chosen a Champion who would undertake to assemble the missing staff pieces and use the staff's power to destroy Jagar Tharn, who was otherwise invulnerable, and rescue the true Emperor, who was being held prisoner in another plane. However, the chosen Champion languished now in the Imperial Dungeons. Tharn's attention must be diverted while he freed himself with Ria's help. Barenziah had Tharn's ear and eye. Could she provide the necessary distraction? "I suppose I could obtain another audience with him. Would that be sufficient? What do you mean, his eye?" Eadwyre looked uncomfortable. "It was whispered among the servants that Jagar Tharn kept your likeness in a sort of shrine in his chambers. That surprises you?" "Yes. And no." "Our chosen one may need a few days to escape." "You trust me in this? Why?" "We are desperate, my lady. We have no choice. But yes, I do trust you. Symmachus -- " "Is dead." Barenziah explained quickly and coolly. "My Lady. What dreadful news!" For the first time Eadwyre's urbane poise was shaken. "Under the circumstances, we can hardly ask -- " "Nay, my lord king. Under the circumstances I must do what I may to avenge myself upon the murderer of my childrens' father. In return I ask only that you protect my orphaned children as you may." "Most willingly do I so pledge, most brave and noble lady!" Old fool, Barenziah thought. She did not sleep that night, but sat in a chair beside her bed, hands folded in her lap, thinking long deep thoughts. She would not tell the children, not yet, not until she must. She had no need to seek another audience with the "Emperor" for a summons came in the morning. She told the children she expected to be gone a few days, bade them give the servants no trouble and kissed them goodbye. Morgiah whimpered a bit, for she was bored and lonely in Imperial City. Helseth looked dour but said nothing. He was very like his father. At the palace, Barenziah was escorted not into the great hall, but to a small parlor where the Emperor sat at a solitary breakfast. He nodded a greeting, and waved his hand at the window. "Splendid view, isn't it?" Barenziah stared out over the towers of the great city. It dawned on her that this was the very chamber where she'd first met Tiber Septim and a strong wave of inchoate feeling swept over her. When she turned back at last Uriel Septim had vanished and Nightingale sat in his place, laughing. "You knew," he said accusingly, scanning her face. "I wanted to surprise you. You might at least pretend." Barenziah spread her arms, "I'm afraid my skills at pretense are no match for yours, my liege." "You're angry with me." He pretended to pout. "Just a little," she said icily. "I do find betrayal offensive." "How human of you." "What do you want of me?" He wiped his mouth and stood erect. "Now you are pretending. You know what I want of you, my love." "You want to tantalize and torment me. Go ahead. I'm in your power." "No, no, no. I don't want that at all, Barenziah." He came near, speaking low in the old caressing voice that sent shivers over her body. "Don't you see? This was the only way." His hands closed on her arms. "You could have taken me with you!" Tears gathered in her eyes. He shook his head. "I didn't have the power. Ah, but now, now I have it all. Mine to have, mine to share -- with you." He waved his hand toward the window and the city beyond. "All Tamriel to lay at your feet -- and that is only the beginning." "It's too late. Too late. You left me to him." "He's dead. A scant few years...what does it matter?" "The children -- " "I'll adopt them. We'll have others together, Barenziah. I have powers you do not dream of!" He moved to kiss her but she slipped his grasp and turned away. "I don't believe you." "You do, you know. You're still angry, that's all." His smile did not reach his eyes. "What do you want?" She shrugged. "A walk in the garden. A song or two." "Ah. You want to be courted." "Why not? You do it so well. It's been long since I've had the pleasure." And so they spent their days in courtship, walking, talking, singing and laughing together, while the Empire's business was left to underlings. "I'd like to see the staff," Barenziah said idly one day. "I only had a glimpse of it." "Nothing would give me greater pleasure, heart's delight, but that's impossible." "You don't trust me," Barenziah pouted, but she softened her lips for his kiss. "Nonsense, love. It isn't here. In fact, it isn't anywhere." He laughed and kissed her again, softly. "Now you're talking in riddles again. I want to see it. You can't have destroyed it." "Ah, you've gained in wisdom, since last we met." "You piqued my interest somewhat. The staff can't be destroyed and it can't be removed from Tamriel, not without the direst consequences to the land itself." "Ahhh. All true. And yet, as a I said, it isn't anywhere. Can you solve the riddle?" He pulled her to him and she leaned into his embrace. "Here's a greater riddle still," he whispered, "how to make one of two. That I can and will show you." Their bodies merged, limbs tangled together. Later, when they'd drawn a bit apart and dozed, she thought, sleepily. "One of two, two of one, three of two...what cannot be destroyed or banished might be split apart, perhaps..." Nightingale kept a diary. He scribbled entries in it each night after quick reports from his underlings. It was locked but the lock was a simple one, so Barenziah managed to sneak quick looks at it while he was occupied in toileting himself. She discovered that the first staff piece was hidden in an ancient dwarven mine called Fang Lair, although its location was given only in vague terms. The diary was crammed with jotted events in an odd shorthand, and was very hard to decipher. All Tamriel, she thought, in his hands and mine, and more perhaps, and yet ... For all his surface charm there was a cold emptiness where his heart should have been, an emptiness of which he was quite unaware, she thought. One could glimpse it now and then, when his eyes would go blank and hard. Peasant dreams, Barenziah thought, and Straw flashed before her eyes, looking sad, and then Therris, with a mocking smile and empty eye sockets. Symmachus, who did what must be done, quietly and efficiently. Nightingale. Nightingale, who would rule all, and more, and yet spread chaos in the name of control. Barenziah got reluctant leave from Nightingale to go to her children, who had to be told of their father's death and of the emperor's offer of his protection to them. Eadwyre called on them while she was there, and she told him what she had discovered so far, and explained that she must remain awhile yet and learn more as she could. Nightingale teased her about her elderly admirer. He was quite aware of Eadwyre's suspicion, although as he said, no one took the old fool seriously. Barenziah managed to arrange a reconciliation of sorts between them. Eadwyre publicly recanted his suspicions and his "old friend" forgave him. Thus he was invited to dine with them at least once a week. The children liked Eadwyre, even Helseth, who disapproved of his mother's liaison with the "Emperor" and consequently detested Nightingale. He had become surly and temperamental and frequently quarreled with both of them. Eadwyre was not happy either and Nightingale delighted in publicly displaying his affection for Barenziah. They could not marry, of course, for Uriel Septim was already married. He had exiled the true Empress shortly after taking Septim's place, but had not dared to harm her. She was held by the Temple of the One. It had been given out publicly that she was in ill health, and rumors had been circulated that she had mental problems. The Emperor's children had also been dispatched to various prisons disguised as "schools". "She'll grow worse in time," Nightingale said carelessly, eying Barenziah's swollen breasts and belly with satisfaction. "As for his children ... well, life is full of hazards, isn't it? We'll be married. Your child will be my true heir." He did want the child. Barenziah was sure of that. She was far less sure of his feelings for her. They quarrelled, often violently, usually about Helseth, whom he wanted to send away to school. Barenziah made no effort to avoid these quarrels. Nightingale had no interest in a peaceful life and he thoroughly enjoyed making up afterwards. Occasionally Barenziah would take the children and retreat to their old apartment, declaring she wanted no more to do with him. She was six months pregnant before she finally deciphered the location of the last staff piece -- an easy one, since every dark elf knew where Dagoth-Ur was. When next she quarrelled with Nightingale she simply left the city with Eadwyre and they rode hard for High Rock and Wayrest. Nightingale was furious, but there was little he could do. His assassins were rather inept, and he dared not leave his seat of power to pursue them in person, nor could he openly declare war on Wayrest. He had no legitimate claim on her on her unborn child. The nobility had disapproved of his liaison with Barenziah and were glad that she had gone. Wayrest was equally disapproving and distrustful of her, but Eadwyre was much beloved by his prosperous little city, and allowances were readily made for his eccentricities. Barenziah and Eadwyre were married a year after the birth of her son by Jagar Tharn. Eadwyre doted on her. She did not love him, but she was fond of him, and that was something. It was nice to have someone, and Wayrest was a very pleasant place, a good place for children to grow up, while they waited, and hoped, and prayed for their Champion's success in his long mission.