Chapter 1: Part I of IV
"And then he tripped and fell down the stairs." Razum-dar tipped up his flagon and caught the last drops of sweet Colovian brandy on his tongue. He shook his head and grinned, baring a row of pointed feline teeth. "In front of a hundred dignitaries and nobles, flat on his ridiculous gray face."
Evendel's laughter soared above the din of the merry party. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to have been there for that! Serves that pompous dark elf right for meddling."
"That old Telvanni will not forget any time soon. And if he tries, well...Raz will be around to refresh his memory, yes?" Razum-dar extended his empty flagon. A high elf bearing a gilded pitcher materialized at his elbow, deftly poured out more brandy, and faded into the crush of bodies and fine attire.
"You'd better slow down." Evendel pointed to Raz's mug. "That's your third one of those. I'd rather not pull you out of here on a hay cart at the end of the night."
"Pah." He waved a dismissive hand. "Raz is no fresh-faced kitten."
"You're no burly Nord blacksmith either."
"Even so, little elf. Don't you worry." He took a hearty swig. "Ah...so many parties in Alinor this time of year, each one grander than the last. Half the fun of New Life Festival is to watch these high elves scrambling to outdo one another."
Evendel swallowed a mouthful of spiced wine. It was heady and rich; she hoped it would do something to soothe her agitated nerves. "I feel so out of place here," she murmured.
"Raz knows how you are feeling. Believe me, Raz knows. In a place like this..." He smiled. "Even so, this one is glad you decided to come. And Raz must say, you look lovelier than any high kinlady here tonight."
"That brandy's gone to your eyes, then, but...thank you all the same." Evendel glanced down at her dress. It was a complicated beaded affair, green and ivory silk held up by a multitude of straps and a rather ominous-looking bird skull resting over the bosom. "The tailor called it a Treethane ceremonial dress, or some such thing." She shrugged. "I grew up in Skyrim. I wouldn't know a Treethane from a fishmonger if it weren't for the smell."
Razum-dar snorted into his flagon, sputtering and coughing with a mouthful of brandy. Evendel reached across the marble table to clap him across the back, but he waved her off.
"Well, you know what I mean." Evendel gestured around them. Tonight, the spacious great hall of the Alinor Royal Palace was brimming with life. Every room, every balcony and courtyard was full of guests; nobles and people of import from Summerset to the far corners of Tamriel, who'd been fortunate enough to garner a coveted invitation to Queen Ayrenn's New Life Festival gala, the first since her coronation.
Festive evergreen boughs hung from every cornice, a handsome wreath bedecked every gilded window. In the vaulted ceiling above, massive crystal chandeliers had been hoisted up to shower the crowd below in sparkles of candlelight. Bards played sweet melodies in every room, each trio perfectly in tune with the others, as if by magic. The celebration was beginning to wane now. A rich feast of immense proportions had been consumed, couples had danced upon the rose-tiled floor until their feet were weary. They stood now in clusters, sipping drinks from golden chalices and whiling away the time with warbling laughter and murmured gossip as they waited for the Queen to speak.
"All this," Evendel told Razum-dar. She smiled, but there was no mirth in it. "To a wood elf girl who grew up tending horses and growing wheat in the Rift, it's like some fantastic fairy tale you would read about in a book. This is someone else's world that I've wandered into. It can't be real. You know?"
"Raz knows, little one. This life, it is a lot to get used to, no? But you will, in time. And in those moments, when none of the ceremony and court intrigue and pretty high elven nonsense seems real, when even the Dominion itself seems a lofty, far-fetched dream..." Razum-dar inclined his head toward the throne. "Just look to her. She is real, my friend."
Evendel followed his gaze. On her royal seat of white marble and spun gold, Queen Ayrenn sat with studied ease, at this moment politely attending to the hearty effusions of a Nord ambassador named Rigurt. It was the first time Evendel had ever seen her in a dress; an ice blue confection shot through with silver, with strands of pearl draped over the shoulders and daringly low-cut bust. Juniper berries and gold-painted sprigs of ivy adorned the Queen's waist and perched in her fair braided hair. It was an unexpected vision of loveliness on a woman who preferred to dress for battle.
Queen Ayrenn caught Evendel's eye. A genuine smile warmed her face, transforming her noble features for a moment before she turned her attention back to Rigurt. And had she winked? Evendel was suddenly aware of her own heart as it leaped and thumped. A warm feeling...was it the wine? No, she'd barely sipped it.
"Our Queen...her bright mind, her strong will and steadfast heart, they will guide the Dominion to victory. And she depends upon you and Raz, in a way she can depend on no others. We are first among her Eyes, after all." Razum-dar paused. "Are you feeling alright, little elf? Your face is as red as summer berries."
"What?" Evendel pressed her hands to her cheeks. They were indeed warm, and most certainly crimson as well. "No, it's fine. I'm fine."
Razum-dar leaned forward in his chair, his bright feline eyes scrutinizing Evendel, then the Queen, and Evendel again. A peculiar smile appeared on his lips. Evendel assumed it was a smile; it was hard to tell with Khajiit, and especially with Raz.
"Ayrenn...she calls you her Rose, you know."
Evendel opened her mouth, but no words would come. Her limbs felt weak and weightless. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation. She stared helplessly at Razum-dar.
"Her Red Rose. Because of your fiery hair, this one thinks, and your delicate skin. Or perhaps there is some other meaning which only the Queen knows." Razum-dar grinned wickedly, but his gaze was full of meaning. "Who can say? You should ask her about it one day, yes? Tonight, even, if you get the chance."
"Now hush." He held up his hands, calling for silence. "The Queen, she is ready to speak."
Every guest turned toward the throne as flowers turn their heads to the sun, slowly and in unison, as Queen Ayrenn stood before them. Evendel could feel Ayrenn's blue gaze searching, seeking her out, but suddenly she couldn't bring herself to meet it. Her eyes rested instead upon the Queen's brother, Prince Naemon, who stood at Ayrenn's right hand. Naemon's eyes narrowed, bitter displeasure hardening his gentle features. He looked away.
"Esteemed guests, we are honored by your presence at the first of our many New Life Festival celebrations. May each of us find prosperity and abundance in the year to come." Ayrenn's voice, gentle and deep, rose above the whispering of silks and clinking of jewelry against glass. She raised a golden chalice, and every hand in the crowd raised theirs in turn. "To our beloved family and the friends we hold dear; Auri-El bless you and keep you safe. And to the Dominion; may it continue to grow ever stronger." Queen Ayrenn brought the chalice to her lips and drank the toast. "Stars guide each of you on your journey homeward; farewell."
A thunder of applause burst forth. Evendel joined in briefly with her own clapping, but she was already turning to Razum-dar. "Now what's all this about roses and-"
The space beside her was empty. Razum-dar had disappeared.
"Sneaky cat," she muttered.
As she stood alone in the midst of the departing crowd, a feeling of unease rose in her breast. The cacaphony of voices buzzed in her ears like a disturbed beehive. The abundance of lights, the press of tall, golden-skinned bodies and the overwhelming aroma of a dozen perfumes...in her mind, the vision of Ayrenn's warm secret smile, meant for Evendel alone, and her own blushing cheeks...it was too much. Evendel ducked into the throng that stood between her and the main courtyard. Bumping past elbows, bejeweled hands and folds of elegant fabric, she wove her way through the crowd until she found herself outside, staring upward into the cool dark velvet of the night sky. The pleasant breeze carried in a whiff of salt air from the sea and dried the dampness on her skin.
Evendel closed her eyes and willed herself to breathe slowly, deeply. The things Razum-dar had said to her...was it true, what they implied? Or had her own wild imagination taken his words and turned them in another direction, found a meaning in them that was never intended? Her heart ached; half agony, half hope. Y'ffre's bones, how had it come to this?
A part of Evendel yearned for a return to her early days as an Eye of the Queen; the pure-hearted devotion of a loyal subject to her monarch, the single-minded sense of purpose. Serving where she was needed, side by side with Raz in the shadow of the throne. Of one mind with him, for the good of the Aldmeri Dominion. But that was before Tanzelwil, where Evendel and Ayrenn ventured unguarded into a dusty Ayleid ruin full of unquiet dead to cut down the battlemage Norion, who was pulling the strings of his ancestors' spirits as if they were puppets. Where Ayrenn, alone in her tent with Evendel and more wearied by the battle than she would let her courtiers see, lay with her fair head in Evendel's lap and slept peacefully for the first time in months...a hand on a shoulder, lingering longer than was proper. A warm glance, a secret smile, a tender kiss on Evendel's forehead that she could feel for days afterward. Yes, it was too late to go back and pretend that none of this had happened. But going forward...how probable was that? Was it even possible?
"I can't," she murmured, but the night breeze carried her words away.
Chapter 2: Part II of IV
"I thought I might find you here."
Queen Ayrenn stood at the open gate of the stable, one slender ivory hand resting on the latch. "It's a beautiful night. Too beautiful to be trapped indoors, don't you think?"
Evendel crouched beside a yearling, carefully wrapping its fetlock in sturdy cloth. Her heart fluttered and that damnable rosy blush, the eternal plague of ginger-complected people the world over, suffused her freckled cheeks. "How did you know I'd be here?"
"Where else? This is where you feel most at home. With your horses. Especially when something troubles you." Queen Ayrenn studied her. "It was Naemon, wasn't it? I know he's difficult right now, but Naemon has the gentlest heart I've ever known. In spite of all her faults, he loved Estre, and I want to believe she returned that love, in her way. He's reeling from her loss, that's all."
"Yes, and it was me that took her away from him. It was my hand that cut her down."
"She left you no choice, Evie. I know that. Naemon knows it, too. Give him time." Ayrenn closed the gate behind her. "One day, I promise, you'll see my brother again as the kind, steady soul I know him to be."
Evendel pointed at the messy floor. "Mind your shoes, my queen."
"I'll mind nothing." Ayrenn smoothed the skirt of her ball gown. "I look like a startled peacock in this dress. The sooner I'm rid of it, the happier I'll be."
"But you look so beautiful!"
It had escaped Evendel's lips before she could think it over. She rose to her feet, the hem of her dress dusty now and flocked with bits of straw. Her face was burning, red as a comberry.
"I...why, thank you." Ayrenn cast her gaze over her own dress. She gathered a handful of the shimmery blue fabric and rubbed it between her fingers, as if to study its quality. Evendel had seen that gesture before, on those rare occasions when the Queen was truly at a loss for words.
A stab of fear, a feeling of having gambled too far, plucked at her heart. "I'm sorry, my Queen. That was probably improper of me to say."
"Improper! No, stars no." Ayrenn sighed. "How rude you must think me. Please forgive my astonishment, it's only...I haven't been called beautiful in a very long time. If ever."
Prince Naemon's horse, Ilandor, stretched out his neck to thrust a curious nose at the Queen's hand. Ayrenn detached a sprig of juniper berries from the garland at her waist and held it out. Ilandor's nostrils puffed hot breath into her hand as he probed the twig and, finding it satisfactory, chomped down on it.
"Noble," Ayrenn murmured, stroking the blaze of white on Ilandor's chestnut forehead. "I have noble features, I'm told, whatever that means. Or handsome, once in a great while, but what woman ever wants to be thought of as handsome? Horses are handsome. Men too, I suppose. And there's intimidating; that's what they usually say about me. But never beautiful. Hmm...perhaps I should hang onto this dress after all."
Evendel felt it; an abrupt but subtle shift, as though an invisible curtain between herself and the Queen was being lifted, suspended in the air, briefly leaving open the way to an uncharted realm. It was up to her, now, to tear away this veil or to let it fall back into place; never, perhaps, to be raised again. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry as paper. "It's not the dress, my Queen."
Ayrenn lips parted in astonishment. It was her turn now, for a blush to tinge her pale golden cheeks with a rosy glow.
"Truly?" Her voice was nearly a whisper. She ventured a step closer to Evendel, heedless of the dirt and straw that clung to her slippers.
A charged feeling hung in the air, as though a spell lingered there, an approaching storm. It was Evendel's turn to step forward now, close enough to feel the warmth of Ayrenn's body. The smell of jasmine perfume rose from her skin, and some other undefined fragrance, a delicate womanly scent that stirred up something in Evendel's blood. Just below her gaze, the Queen's half-bared bosom gleamed with a soft sheen of perspiration in the lantern light. Their fingertips touched, intertwined.
A sudden jarring bird call broke through their reverie; the close and persistent who-OO of a Skyrim barn owl.
They swiftly drew apart, like thieves with a lockpick who heard the footsteps of a guard. Ayrenn closed her eyes and sighed. "Your timing is impeccable, Razum-dar. Unfortunate, but impeccable."
The Khajiit appeared at the stable door. The finely embroidered tunic and suede pants he'd worn to the party were gone, exchanged for his usual black garb. Once again, he looked the part of an Eye of the Queen. In his arms he held an open burlap sack that was trying to wiggle free. A muffled yip of protest rose from inside it.
"Promptly at midnight, you told this one." He glanced from Ayrenn to Evendel, barely able to conceal his amusement. "Ordinarily Raz is only too happy to deliver gifts to his friends. Only this particular gift has chewed through two bags already."
Evendel gave Ayrenn a puzzled look. "A gift with teeth? Interesting choice. Wait...is that for me?"
"You're not the easiest person to choose a gift for, you know." Ayrenn reached into the squirming bag. "As a rule I disapprove of giving pets as gifts. A Redguard merchant I've known for years, though, he found this one in his travels on the way back to Summerset and...well, you were all I could think of. That story you told me, about the one you'd had in Skyrim when you were a child. All of the adventures the two of you shared. I thought perhaps you'd like to make a few new memories, with this little friend at your side."
In her arms, Ayrenn held a small, tawny fennec fox. It cocked its head slightly, gazing at Evendel with shiny black eyes.
"Y'ffre's heart..." Evendel reached for the little fox. A sweet joy welled up in her chest and caught in her throat. Warm tears glistened in her hazel eyes and one spilled onto her cheek; the fox nosed at the wet droplet and licked it away. "I can't believe you...she's so...she's lovely, Ayrenn!"
The Queen's face softened.
"At last," she murmured.
Evendel stroked the fox's head, scratching gently between its large ears. It yipped and nudged at her hand until she put it down to sniff around in the hay. "At last?"
Queen Ayrenn's smile was serene, but her blue eyes glistened with a light Evendel had never seen before. "You called me Ayrenn. Not Your Majesty, or Your Highness, or my Queen, or any of that nonsense, just...Ayrenn."
Evendel glanced around them; Razum-dar had disappeared. They were alone once more.
"Is that what you want?" she asked quietly. "Just to be Ayrenn with me?"
"If you only knew." Ayrenn sighed. "I want it more than words can say, little rose."
They drew together, arms enfolding each other's slender, corseted waists. Ayrenn's fingers trembled slightly as she caressed Evendel's cheek and tilted her chin up, toward her own. Their lips met, soft and supple, melting together. Ayrenn moaned as their lips parted and the tip of Evendel's tongue teased her own. She arched her body into the curve of Evendel's, sending a ripple of pleasure through them both.
At last they parted, breathless and flushed, their arms still entangled. The woven tiara of golden ivy and juniper had slipped from Ayrenn's head; with one hand she pulled it free and cast it away, shaking her fair hair free of its confinement. The fox caught it up in its mouth and begin pulling it apart.
"Such a wonderful gift." Evendel bit her lip, still tasting Ayrenn's kiss. She wasn't sure whether or not she was still talking about the fox. "I had no idea what to get you. I mean, what does one give to a Queen?" She shrugged. "I asked Razum-dar, but he wasn't very helpful. Said I would know what to give you when the time came."
"Of course he did." Ayrenn chuckled, but then her smile faded. "Truly, though, do you know what I would like most of all?"
Ayrenn looked longingly at her own white mare, happily eating oats in the stall beside Naemon's mount.
"To get out of here," she replied.
"I'm not sure I understand." Evendel reached down and wrested Ayrenn's mangled tiara from the fox's mouth. It growled, tail wagging like a dog's. "You don't want to be here anymore?"
"I don't mean that I want to leave for good, Evie. I returned to take my place as Queen, and I wouldn't turn back now, even if I could. Just briefly...a day or two, or three. Perhaps four. I want to see an open road, breath new air. I want to see something, anything, that isn't polished to perfection." Ayrenn stepped out of her now-dirty slippers and pushed them away with one bare foot. She gave Evendel a pleading look. "I know you understand. If anyone in this world could understand me, Evie, it's you." Their hands met, clasped warmly together in the cool night air. "And if none of this is real, you and I, in this moment...if it's all a dream, don't wake me. Not yet."
Evendel reached up and tucked a stray wisp of hair behind Ayrenn's ear. "It's not a dream. And if what you want is to leave this place, I'll take you away. Right now."
Ayrenn's eyes widened. "Right this very moment...do you mean that? Where would we go?"
"You'll see. Go on inside, pack a bag. And for Y'ffre's sake, tell Naemon you're leaving, so he doesn't think I kidnapped you. I'll see to the horses." Evendel caught up the fox in her arms before it could disappear between Ilandor's hooves. "Trust me. It'll be worth it, my Qu...my Ayrenn."
"A secret. Very well, little rose." The queen bent down to retrieve her discarded slippers. Her face was positively radiant. "Your Ayrenn...you know, I could get used to hearing that."
Evendel watched Ayrenn disappear through the gate and into the dark. Her Ayrenn.
Yes, she thought to herself as she laid a saddle over Senna, her brown mare. I could get used to that too. I really could.