Cicero has not had such fun in ages, not since the gift of his dear mother’s charge took the blade from his hand, but now he can hunt again, can kill and sneak and stab again, and it is another gift from the Night Mother, better than the last. No, not better— being the Keeper is an honour, his honour, his dear mother— but yes better, because it is the Listener who tells him where to sneak and who to stab and when to kill. It is the Listener, because there is a Listener, his Listener, and she is the greatest gift Cicero could have ever wanted, save hearing Mother’s sweet voice himself.
Yes, it is such fun, and the Listener is beautiful to watch, beautiful and deadly, and Cicero is permitted to watch because he is always with her, always her blade, always at her call. She takes him from Dawnstar whenever she goes, takes him on the contracts the Mother whispers in her mind, in her brain, in her long, knife-sharp ears, and Cicero cannot listen but he can follow when the Listener beckons. She beckons him so sweetly with sun-bronzed fingers, long and delicately knuckled, nimble and freckled. Cicero has seen those same hands curled snugly around dagger hilts, moving quick and wicked, when blade becomes hand becomes arm becomes self and back again. He has seen them wield razor-sharp wrath, tearing through flesh and sinew, through throats and guts, leaving ragged, raw, red, red, red.
His Listener beckons and Cicero obeys, always, forever. The Listener speaks the Night Mother’s words, of course, but also her own, quiet and warm. If he can never hear his mother’s voice, he will be content with hers, with the Listener’s; Cicero hangs on every murmur, every soft and lilting word. She fills the silence, slipping between all the cracks in his thoughts, creeping through and settling like mist over a swamp.
She smells of leather and copper, of blood and steel, but also of deathbell, burnt sugar, and the rich, mossy rot of a forest after spring rain. Cicero knows he smells of death as well, but it is fresher now— when he first met the Listener, before she was the Listener and was simply the kind Bosmer who helped the pitiful jester, he smelled only of old bones and preserving oils, devotion steeped down into his skin. Now he smells of the kill, a different devotion.
Foul smoke is all he smells at the moment, stone and metal and hate: Markarth. The mouthy man by the bridge had spoken of blood and silver, and Cicero had yearned to show him blood (perhaps with a silver bar to the face again and again and again, until face and brains and sneering mouth were all lovely crimson jam), but the Listener did not wish it. They are being discreet, and if it was not the Night Mother who had sent them here, it would be a misery.
There had been bandits on the road (squishy and slow), and even a dragon (less squishy, and so much flying was simply unfair), and his Listener cannot bear a dull blade. The turning of the grindstone is like shrieking, a chorus of tiny screams, and Cicero adds a cheery whistle to the symphony as his Listener does her boring work. Markarth stretches out below and above, and it is a challenge not to shove a passing guard off a walkway, just to watch the flailing arms and hear the delicious crunch of bone.
He should be paying attention to the Listener, even if the sparks from the grindstone make him giggly and stabby, and the Listener has told him no stabbing, made him promise even after she took his blades. He should, because for once, for discretion, the pesky spectre has gone back to the Void. The gabby spirit, annoyingly fitting for a Speaker, a former Speaker.
We are bonded now, you and I.
“Bonded, bah.” Sitting on the edge of the walkway, kicking his legs, Cicero almost misses the gilded glimmer of his old boots. The Listener gave him armour, shrouded and silent, and it would be unaccountably boring if not for the memory of his Listener's hands fitting Cicero inside it, tugging and adjusting until the leather hugged him like a second blood-red skin. The grindstone is still shrieking, loud over the sound of his Listener humming counterpoint, continuing the tune Cicero had abandoned. It is a much better song now.
Best friends forever.
“Cicero?” The sky has gone from blue to pink, the day passed by in but a blink. Poor Cicero has marked it naught, lost in tune and lost in thought.
There is a clamour of vendors shouting and smelters groaning, but no chorus of screams. Shaking his head sharply, Cicero glances up to find keen golden-brown eyes peering down at him, shining like twin septims. Coins on corpses' eyes, but the Dread Lord has no care for gold; Cicero likes the glitter.
“Yes, my Listener?” He has been sitting too long, too idle, but there is hardly a twinge in his hips as he scrambles to gain his feet. “Are we off to make merry for Mother?”
“We are.” Her hood is down, revealing the lengths of her sable hair, and her pointed ears twitch in the noisy evening air— those ears hear the words of the Matron, and Cicero wants nothing more than to shrink down small and crawl inside, to live where his mother's unholy voice has taken root. Cicero is staring, distracted, enthralled, but he does not startle at the press of the Listener's hand against his chest. She is his Listener, favoured by the Night Mother and very best friend of the Matron's Keeper, and even her cruelest touch could never be unwelcome. She could tear him, break him, rend him limb from limb, and the Fool of Hearts would smile, but his Listener is always oh so kind to poor Cicero.
“Where is dear Cicero,” she says so softly, scarcely a sound at all, but before Cicero can say with you, my Listener, always with you, she is speaking again, louder. She is smiling too, a strange and savage flash of her teeth; he has never seen her rip at flesh with her mouth, as he knows the wild Bosmer do, but Cicero imagines it would be beautiful. The thought of blood darkening the plush bow of her mouth makes him bite his own lip, not quite tasting copper. “I have a gift for you.”
“A gift? For Cicero?” The Listener is a generous soul, forever doling out gifts of every sort. Cicero wears a shiny golden token around his neck, a smooth disc of metal tucked close beneath his armour; it had been a present, buzzing with enchantment and warm against his skin. She gives plants and strange bits of creatures to the vampire child, baubles and books to the Redguard, and thrashings to the initiates when they train hand-to-hand. To others, she often grants the gift of quick, clean death.
When his Listener holds up a gleaming dagger, Cicero is unsure which sort of present she has chosen to give to him this time. Cicero will indeed take any gift from his Listener, take it gladly, but he does enjoy living an awful lot. Service to the Night Mother in life has bred the Fool of Hearts, and such a jolly jester is in no hurry to trade in his bells and giggles for the dour shroud of one of Sithis’ spectres. Not yet, anyway.
It’s not as though it would kill Lachance the sombre spirit to crack a smile, now and then. If Cicero was not so certain his Listener would object, he would happily try to carve the ghost a grin.
“Here.” The blade spins, not to lay his throat open but to present him the spiny pommel, and Cicero hesitates but a moment before he takes it, feeling the balance and the weight with wonder. It is a marvellous thing, with its serrated edge shimmering like lamp oil, and for an instant, Cicero can almost feel a heartbeat thrumming against his palm. A daedric dagger, like the one at her right hip.
Feet are tapping and the world is bouncing before Cicero realizes he is dancing, overcome with the joy of this. He is her blade, his Listener, and now he will wield her blade, a blade she made for him, balanced and honed and razor sharp just for him, and this is the most wonderful present—
“I am glad you like it,” his Listener says, smiling wide, and Cicero may have said that last bit aloud, but he has definitely taken the Listener’s hand in his own, and she is allowing his swinging, his dancing, to move her slender body in time. Her feet do not skip across the stone as his do, but she is dancing all the same— they are dancing, together, and the laughter bubbles free in a frenzy, tickling up from his toes. “Yes, yes Cicero... but it is criminal to leave such a blade virginal, my jester. I have tempered it, and now you shall quench it.”
There is no sweeter creature in all creation than his Listener, Cicero is certain of it. When he tells her so, loud and mirthful, nearly shouting his adoration to the whole of Markarth, she takes his jaw in her free hand, reeling him in by the tether of her touch.
“Hush,” she whispers, and he does. There are guards loitering nearer now, as evening descends and all manner of beasties and dark things skitter from their warrens, and the thud-thud, thud-thudding in his blade skips a beat. “Come, dear Cicero. We must find our prey.”
Another soul gone to Sithis, and Mother will be pleased with Cicero, the Listener has promised. The Listener is pleased, and Cicero is jubilant still— his shiny new blade sliced and slit through flesh with ease, with eagerness. Yes, Cicero was quick and nimble, his dagger thirsty for blood, and the pretty little shopkeep never even saw him creeping near.
They are on the road again before dawn, for the Listener dislikes the stink, the stone, the stain of Markarth, and Cicero agrees wholeheartedly. The countryside is better, or would be, if not for the gabby ghost poofing in and snatching his Listener’s attention like a bear trap might snatch a foot.
They are walking, which will make the trip a longer one, but Cicero’s horse had been so rudely eaten by that foul dragon, and pickings had been dreadfully slim at the Markarth stables. Trotting along beside the horse his Listener leads by the bridle, Cicero is only half-listening to the deep drone of the spectre’s tales; stories of Cyrodiil, of Bravil and Cheydinhall, make Cicero’s neck itch and his pulse throb behind his eyes, pressing and pressing, skull full as a boiled egg before the shell cracks. It is better not to remember the man, before there was laughter and light and loneliness. Remembering the time before the Fool knew silence is painful, a hot knife sliding in and skinning him alive, peeling him raw and leaving him small.
Cicero is humming, singing to himself about the moths that flutter around the spectre’s glowing form, a tune of plucking wings and squishing tiny bodies, when the warm voice of his Listener makes him choke on a note.
“Cicero,” she says, her wide eyes catch the moonlight eerily in the deep dark of Skyrim’s night, flashing like wisps. Cicero wonders, swallowing back giggles, if her corpse lights might draw him in just the same. “Be still a moment, please. I hear something on the wind.”
He nods mutely, of course, of course, my Listener listens and faithful Cicero obeys, because Cicero knows his skilful Listener will see him clearly with her lovely, lethal eyes.
Cicero quiets and the Listener listens, and in the stillness all ears can hear Thalmor stomping through the wilderness, gilded armour clanking and clattering. There are four unfriendly elves, two guards and two wizards, but the guards have sparking spells as well, and the mages have dremora and other nasty creatures, and it is a thrill until it is a mess. Cicero is panting before they are through, huffing and puffing streams of white in the cold air, but his chest is too small for his lungs, and the dark of the night is closing tight as well.
Very nearby— Cicero is on the ground, cold and damp, though he hardly remembers lying down— there is a pitiful sort of groan. His Listener’s horse whinnies, snorting fiercely, and Cicero finds his head lolling just in time to watch a golden elven face stomped into mushy elven pulp under a flinty black hoof. It is enough to cheer him, to find his smile, even if his chest is on fire.
Then his Listener is there, skin painted delightfully dark crimson, but the ragged slice oozing blood above her brow sours his stomach. Red has never been so ugly.
“Keep still,” she hisses, and Cicero scarcely dares to breathe what little wind he can inhale. On the hunt his Listener is quiet, quick, and calm, even when hot guts spill out over her wrists, or a target tries to defy the Night Mother’s order, struggling and squirming against the inevitable. Now, leaning over Cicero with a snarl, his Listener is fury made flesh. “Sithis curse you, jester. You will stay with me.”
What has wretched Cicero done to anger the Listener, he tries to ask, but the words pop and smack, like bubbles in a stream. That is... that is not good.
His Listener’s hand glows, a star plucked from the sky, brightening and brightening until it burns with flame and agony, and Cicero cannot bear the scorching heat of it, blackening his bones to charcoal. Even closing his eyes does not banish the glare, and his skin is doused with the gritty, tender feeling of too long in summer sun. The sun in Cyrodiil can be so warm in Last Seed, when the air is thick and fetid in Bravil, the heat settling as heavy and moist as a man's last rattling breath. As Cicero's last, wet breath.
Then the pressure in his chest eases, and Cicero gasps another breath, deep and bloody, and chokes on the shock. The coughing hurts worse than the pressure, worse than the thick club of the atronach he now remembers bashing in his ribs shortly before, and Cicero can feel how soothing the darkness would be in comparison, if he were to slip into its embrace.
Cicero curls onto his side, when a moment before he could hardly move his neck, and wraps his arms tightly around the anchor he finds, knowing in the depths of his soul that it is to his Listener he clings. There is blackness unending and impossible brightness, but between there is her, and she has hold of poor, broken Cicero. She has him, and he is not afraid.
Darkness washes over him again, but what had been frigid Void is now grey and warm, hedged in the vivid colours of his dreams.
When Cicero wakes, the sky is moving.
Miles above his head, what few clouds dot the blue expanse are fluffy, white puffs, and there is a hawk wheeling and banking, chasing frightened sparrows. Just beyond his toes, the road kicks up dust as he is dragged along, laid out on a litter made from branches and blankets. Cicero feels as though he could sleep for a year.
“Our brother wakes.” The spirit sounds... relieved, but such a thing must exist only in Cicero's mind. Only in his throbbing, delirious brain, because the startled grunt and the pile of ectoplasm that always heralds the spectre's violent return to the Void never fails to make Cicero giggle.
Behind his eyelids it is dark and red, quiet, and Cicero retreats there. The shifting, rolling feeling of movement slows, then stops, and it is hardly a surprise to feel a small, bare palm lay across his brow.
“I am terrible at healing magic,” the Listener lies, her words thick like caramel, but Cicero knows better. Agony and breath had been knotted together, tied forever, but his Listener picked them apart with nimble fingers. “Dearest Cicero, you... you were very nearly gone from me.”
“Never.” Gone is Cicero's cheery voice, and in its place a hoarse and rasping thing. When he opens his eyes again, his Listener has blocked out the endless sky with her copper face, freckles hidden under rusty swathes of dried blood. “Listener bade Cicero stay.”
“So loyal, my jester.” Cicero’s skin is tacky and cool, but his Listener’s hand is cooler, soothing, suddenly pressed against his cheek. It is enough to make him shiver, an instant before the touch of her lips on his forehead makes him gasp.
“Listener,” he squeaks, as heat rushes through muscle and sinew, making him squirm. The Listener’s hands, cupping his jaw and resting on his chest, scorch like twin brands, but it is a new agony, and Cicero feels more and more like a skeever roasting on a spit. Surely he cannot grow hotter without bursting into flame, and if her magic did not immolate him, why would her lips on his brow?
“You will rest, Cicero,” she answers— a whisper, a secret— and her mouth brushes against his forehead. It has been... ages and ages, time unending, since Cicero has felt a kiss. He has never ever felt his Listener's kiss, whose mouth brims abundant with the words of his beloved Mother.
To feel it now is wondrous and terrible, glorious and fearsome, and Cicero surges upward before it can be taken from him. His Listener’s skin is smooth and yielding, and beneath the tang of blood, its earthy scent tickles his nose as he presses his face against her throat, feeling the vitality of her pulse flutter.
“Thank you, my Listener.” Her hands close around his shoulders, gripping, and for an instant Cicero imagines her nails drawing intricate lacework across his skin, dragging and pulling until there is sting and crimson, and the lap of her wet, pink tongue. The thought burrows deep, plunging through flesh and bone until it settles low in his belly, strangling his giggles into breathless, shuddering things. “He he he, oh Cicero thanks you so. He he he he...”
How he aches to thank her, to please her. Thank yous and pleases and pardons— a jester must always have courtly manners— but Cicero is so very dizzy. The litter is uncomfortable under his back when his muscles turn to water, as he sinks back down, and oh how he misses the fragrant pillow of her collarbone. The world is wobbly, and his eyelids are impossibly heavy.
“Sleep, Cicero,” his Listener whispers again, so very far away now, and Cicero cannot help but obey.
The night child is a beastly creature, Cicero decides, with her foul tonics and tinctures. A week in the Sanctuary, a week of bitter draughts (the very worst tasted of rotted mushroom and burnt skeever, and Cicero had threatened to snip off teeny vampire fingers if she could not brew something less awful), and Cicero feels fine, healthy and hale, except for the itch in his feet to go go go.
But his Listener bade him stay, bade him rest, and loyal Cicero obeys. Loyal, languishing, lonesome Cicero, who tends to their Mother and drinks in her silence, as bitter as blisterwort and charred skeever. He tends, and waits, and pines for his Listener, who has left him behind on some foolish contract from Nazir.
Gone, his Listener is gone into the wilds, and Cicero dreams of skinning the simpering Initiate she snapped to her heel instead of her faithful jester. A foolish contract without the Fool of Hearts, and Cicero is going mad with the waiting. He dreams of yanking the Redguard's damnable tongue out by the very roots, thinks of the wet tearing noise it would make while he sits across from the man and eats spoon after spoon of watery soup, and feels a small curl of satisfaction in his chest when Nazir finally calls him a crazy clown and retreats up the stairs.
Cicero should not think such things about his brothers, his Brotherhood— he is leashed by the Tenets of course, but his Listener would be terribly disappointed— and the satisfaction is brief and hollow.
If the others think it strange that Cicero sleeps in his Listener's room while she is away, they say nothing to him. When he woke in the Sanctuary, he was nestled in the wide, soft bed, under a thick pile of furs that smelled of deathbell and moss, of warmth and of home, and his Listener had bidden him stay. And who is he, obedient Cicero, dutiful Keeper, to refuse his Listener's wishes?
It is there she finds him when she returns, and because she moves like smoke and shadow, silent and slick, it is his name whispered from her lips that wakes him.
“Cicero?” His muscles know better than to move, but his eyes do snap open, blind in the shadowed room and face half-buried in a pillow. For an instant he is as still as death, but then truth spurs him, wakes him properly, and Cicero lets the joy spreading fast and buoyant in his chest lift him up to sitting.
“The Listener has returned!” The announcement is joyous, but hushed and slightly rough with sleep. Cicero will not shriek and caper as he wishes; the warmth of her bed and the scent slowly fading keeps him tethered. Hope, vain and stupid and slicing sharp as a razor, keeps him still. “Cicero is healed, my Listener, healed and whole and rosy-cheeked— may I leave now? May I come with you? Oh please, say Cicero may hunt with the Listener once more!”
The Listener is motionless, silent in the darkness, and after a moment of pitiless silence, Cicero is unsure if he had simply dreamed her voice. Is he alone, poor Cicero? “Listener?”
“We'll go nowhere tonight,” she says, and it is no cursed, taunting dream, but his Listener, flesh and bone and blood, and now with the rustle of leather and cloth he can find her in the gloom. Darkness shifts like black velvet, and Cicero watches his Listener raptly, eyes tracing the blurred outline of her form. She has not ordered him out. She has not ordered him gone from her bed, and that silence is the sweetest he has ever known.
When the blankets shift, lifting, and the mattress dips ever so slightly, Cicero fails to swallow back his squeak, and the eager noise is too too loud in the dark. The answering laugh is much quieter, a murmur of sound from his Listener, and it is not unkind.
“For now, we sleep, my jester.” And we is such a glorious word, skittering over his skin and making him shudder with the pleasure of it. Cicero is pliant, bending like a reed when his Listener’s delicate hand presses his chest, leeching his heat through the thin linen of his nightshirt. His Listener’s hands seem eternally corpse cool, but her body burns so very hot against his side as she draws him near, pulls him close and oh so slowly brings him into the cradle of her slender, tightly muscled arms.
If this is his gift for being such a fine and dutiful Keeper, his boon from dear, sweet Mother, then Cicero will take it gladly.
His Listener’s hands trail the musk of leather and death, and they card through Cicero’s hair, scraping lightning across his scalp. Her heart is louder here, riotous with his ear pressed against her breast, and he struggles against the urge to nose beneath the collar of her own fresh nightshirt, to seek skin beneath the clinging scent of cupboard. His palm flattens against her ribs, daring to stroke, to feel the slide linen over skin, and his Listener hums a tuneless sound, tugging the cocoon of blankets and furs up higher.
Breathing, drinking in her presence and the feel of her tiny, supple body, Cicero’s giggles are warbling, broken things. His Listener’s hands hold him together, as always, forever, mending all the shards and cracks until the threat of crumbling fades to memory. Cicero will never be a smooth vase, never free of splintering, jagged and sharp, but nor will he grind down to dust and blow away. “I did... I did so miss the Listener.”
“Sweet jester.” Her thumb finds his ear, stroking callus against the rounded shell. “My darling Cicero.”
And she knows, he knows she knows, that without her touch, without her voice and her command, without her he would shatter to motes and powder. Such power his Listener wields, such power over Cicero, but the deep, burnished amber of her eyes has never gone cold for him, never pitiless and flat. She warms for him, smiles quick and knife-sharp at his capers, speaks slow and soft to the maddest parts of him.
The others call her Cicero’s keeper, in tones hushed and vaguely mocking, as though to keep a thing is to lessen it. They do not understand, though they see the Night Mother now, and feel reverence for their Dark Lady once more. They do not understand, not as Cicero does.
“Sleep, Cicero,” his Listener whispers, and this time when her lips brush his brow, Cicero cranes his neck up, catching her chin with the edge of his own mouth. It is clumsy, how Cicero begs, but it is glorious when his Listener indulges him. Her breath fills him up, rolling warm over his tongue and down into his lungs as her lips press his, caressing, dampening. He whines, high and desperate like a beaten dog, and his Listener both soothes and riles him with more kisses, damnably slow.
He will sleep, after.
For now, though, for now he writhes and wriggles, fighting for closeness, for comfort, for company. For now, he grips her hip and imagines the rich, plum-dark bruises he might bring blossoming upon her flesh, hating and hardening in equal measure. His Listener should not bruise, should not ache except sweetly, deep between her legs as he sinks into the scalding heat of her, and Cicero's mind should not be straying in such lewd directions when his Listener has simply kissed him. Not yet, not until he is certain, but oh, he is burning already.
“Come back, my Cicero,” she says against his cheek, and her fingers squeeze his wrist, tugging. Not away, no, but down and up again, leading him under the hem of cloth and straight to the core of her, damp and torrid.
Can the Listener read Cicero's mind? Does she know his thoughts?
If she can, oh, that is wonderful news!
Later he will test it, he will think so hard and his Listener will answer, but for now his knuckles brush the slick seam hidden beneath her curls, and Cicero has no other thoughts to spare.
Before the Fool, Cicero the man had been skilled enough at this. Some part of him is inordinately pleased to find he still remembers the proper way, especially when a press of his fingers and a twirl of his thumb has his Listener gasping, gripping his shoulder so very hard with the hand not scrabbling at his forearm, and Cicero strains to make out the details of her face in the shadows. He wants to see her, to watch her flush and sweat, looking ruined for him.
Oh. Oh yes, Cicero wants that very much.
But he will not stop, cannot stop, when his Listener is crooning so sweetly for him. When she is arching into his touch, and whispering his name on every stuttered breath. Cicero cannot stop now, not when his Listener pulls his nightshirt hurriedly over his head, losing it somewhere among the furs, and rakes her blunt nails down his chest.
She is teeth and tongue against his throat, danger and delight, pinching fingers on his ribs, and a firm hand around the needy hardness of his cock. She is trembling, she is wet breaths and sharp, broken cries, and she is strong legs around his back, welcoming him. She is tight and small, and perfect perfect perfect, his Listener, and Cicero can feel his cracks begin to strain, a spiderweb of fractured thought and weak human flesh, but he does not fear breaking in the circle of her arms.
Cicero... Cicero is unmade. A tattered fool.
And it is beautiful. It is home.
Cicero has not had such fun in ages.